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No. 5 Duke’s defense turns up again as Blue Devils look like title favorite

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Duke is back!

After drubbing Louisville 82-56 in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday night, the Blue Devils have now won four straight games despite the fact that they have been playing without Marvin Bagley III during this stretch.

Grayson Allen is back, too. He finished with 28 points on Wednesday night, making six threes and handing out threes assists. He entered Wednesday night averaging 22.3 points and 5.3 assists in his last three games, the first time all season long that he has scored more than 19 points in three consecutive games. He’s shooting the ball with confidence. He’s been moved into more of a playmaking, lead guard role in the half court offense as Coach K has transitioned back to being the focal point on that end, the first time he’s been in that role since his sophomore season.

Wendell Carter’s been on fire, too. He missed his fourth-straight double-double by a single rebound on Wednesday, but he did finish with 18 points, six assists and three blocks. In four games without Bagley, he’s now averaging 16.3 points, 10.5 boards, 3.0 blocks and 3.0 assists.

But that’s not why Duke is winning these games.

It’s not why I’m sitting here saying that Duke is back.

The reason why I’m warming up to the idea of Duke finding a way to be a Final Four team again is because they’ve figured out a way not only to just get stops, but to be damn good on the defensive end of the floor.

During this four-game stretch, Duke has not allowed a team to break 1.0 points-per-possession against while holding three of their four opponents to 57 points or less. In those four games, they’ve allowed 0.883 PPP. If they did that over the course of an entire season, the Blue Devils would be third-nationally defensive efficiency* behind only Virginia and Cincinnati. This is the first time they’ve held three straight ACC opponents under 60 points since 1981.

In the process, they’ve managed to climb from 79th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric to 27th, which is precisely the kind of drastic defensive improvement that the 2015 team made. They were in the 60s and 70s in adjusted defensive efficiency for much of the season. They were 37th before the tournament started. They were 11th when they cut down the nets.

And it begs the question: Is Duke better without Marvin Bagley III?

Lol.

No.

Don’t be stupid.

Marvin Bagley III is an alien. He makes every single team that he is on a better one.

What will be interesting to see is how Duke integrates him back into the team when he finally does return to the floor. There are two things that have allowed Duke to improve the way that they’ve improved over the course of the last two weeks, and both of them involve Bagley in a pretty significant way:

  1. The ball doesn’t stick as much offensively as it did when he was on the court. That’s why Allen’s been able to play the way that he’s played of late. The middle of the floor has also opened up because Duke’s gone away from trying to run high-low actions as much as they did before. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better to run offense this way, but you cannot convince that it’s a bad thing that Allen is back into a rhythm.
  2. Much more importantly, however, is that Duke has turned into a very good defensive team in this zone, and the biggest reason for that is the activity of Javin DeLaurier. Bagley is a terrific athlete, but he’s more of a five at this level than a four and he’s also a guy that is not an instinctual or, frankly, energetic defender. DeLaurier is more mobile and, since he’s not really a threat offensively, he can burn off of his energy on that end.

Bagley wasn’t the lone culprit for Duke’s defensive problems.

The bigger issue may have been simply that the Blue Devils vacillated between playing man and zone until these last four games, and Coach K fully embracing being a zone team has allowed them to figure it out. As one high-major coach put it to me, it’s better to be great at one defense than it is to be good at seven of them. Duke is doing that now.

But there is valid reason to be concerned about playing Bagley and Carter together simply because playing them together has been an issue defensively before.

Maybe that means that, instead of seeming them on the court together for 30 minutes a night, they’ll each play 10 minutes with DeLaurier at the four and play together for 20 minutes. Maybe it means that instead of being awesome defensively Duke is simply good enough, and maybe good enough is all they need to make a run in March this season.

And maybe the answer is that Bagley returns and is ready to defend the way that he needs to defend.

We’ve seen that happen, too. Remember the Miami game?

Whatever the case may be will play out over the course of the next six weeks. The one thing that is clear, however, is that these Blue Devils are suddenly a whole lot more intriguing than they were two weeks ago when they lost at North Carolina.

*(For those looking at KenPom, raw points-per-possession and KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric are two different numbers. The latter is the former adjusted for strength of opponent.)

Annual doubleheader featuring state of Iowa’s four schools ending after 2018

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One of college basketball’s distinctive events is coming to a close after this season.

The Hy-Vee Classic, formerly the Big Four Classic, which has put the state of Iowa’s four Division I programs under one roof for a doubleheader each season since 2012 will have its last edition this December with the University of Iowa electing to exercise its option to pull out of the event with the Big Ten’s move to 20 conference games.

“The addition of two conference games is good for our fans, the Big Ten Conference and our strength of schedule,” Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said in a statement, “but unfortunately it created some scheduling challenges that impacts this event.”

The event was unique as it pit the state’s two Power 5 institutions – Iowa and Iowa State – against its two Missouri Valley Conference programs – Northern Iowa and Drake – on a rotating basis each season in the state capital of Des Moines. One year Iowa State would play Drake while Iowa would face Northern Iowa with the following year featuring Iowa State vs. Northern Iowa and Iowa vs. Drake. And so on and so forth for the last six years and ending after one last go-round this December.

The event was a sort of compromise to keep the intrastate series alive after years of both the Hawkeyes and Cyclones playing home-and-homes with Drake and Northern Iowa most years, putting them on the road in hostile MVC arenas.

That went away in 2012 and doesn’t appear to be likely to return with the dissolution of the yearly doubleheader.

“Although we would certainly welcome continuing to play games against UNI or Drake in the future,” Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard said in a statement, “our ability to do that will most likely depend on each of their institution’s willingness to play games in Hilton Coliseum.”

Needless to say, Drake and UNI were not pleased with Iowa’s decision to force the end of the event.

“What has made our state unique on the college basketball landscape was the willingness and cooperation between the state’s four Division I universities to play each other on a regular basis,” Drake athletic director Brian Hardin said in a statement. “I understand the position that Iowa and Iowa State believe they are in. However, it is a sad day for passionate basketball fans of all four programs who have enjoyed nearly a century of history and rivalries between these four schools that were played in various great venues in our state.”

When the event was initially announced, it always felt like it was intended to act as a wind-down for Iowa and Iowa State – who will continue to face each other in on-campus games every year –  of the mid-major games that were popular with fans but not always with Hawkeyes and Cyclones coaches. Given the option, few Power 5 coaches are going to be excited about facing a lower-tier in-state rival every year anywhere other than its home floor.

Still, it’s a major loss for a unique situation in a small-population state that is not home to professional sports, but four Division I men’s hoops programs. College athletics is the passion in Iowa, and depriving the state’s fans of what were – if not national marquee – fun and interesting matchups that carry with them pride and bragging rights is a step in the wrong direction.

Ultimately, these games are likely going to be replaced on the schedules for the Cyclones and Hawkeyes with low-major opponents that won’t move the needle either at the gate or on their NCAA tournament resumes. Instead of an innovative event that against a co-worker’s or neighbor’s alma mater, Iowa and Iowa State fans can say hello to a steady diet of games against Bryant, Campbell and Maryland Eastern Shore while Drake and UNI get relegated to even more pronounced second-class status.

The move isn’t surprising, but it is disappointing.

High-scoring White ready for shot at UNC point guard role

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WILSON, N.C. (AP) — No one questions whether Coby White is good enough to help North Carolina immediately as a freshman.

Rather, the pressing question as White heads to campus this week is this: can the instate McDonald’s All-American who scored more points than any high school player in state history help the Tar Heels replace departed point guard Joel Berry II?

“I want to play. Who doesn’t want to play?” White said in an interview with The Associated Press. “But I know it’s going to take a lot to learn the offense and defense of North Carolina. … I feel like I’m a quick learner and I have a high IQ for the game. Basketball is just reads to me. I think I always make the correct read.

“It’s going to be hard but I feel like it’s going to be a quick adjustment for me.”

The 6-foot-4 White is ranked as the nation’s No. 23 recruit by 247sports, joining McDonald’s game MVP Nassir White (a 6-7 small forward ranked third nationally) and four-star 6-8 guard Rechon “Leaky” Black.

The trio joins a team that returns three starters — including AP third-team All-American Luke Maye — but must replace Berry and swingman Theo Pinson, fixtures from a 2017 NCAA title run.

Berry’s absence could be the biggest void. He was a Final Four most outstanding player, floor leader and won’t-back-down competitor.

Rising junior Seventh Woods has struggled with injuries and inconsistency as Berry’s possible successor, while freshman Jalek Felton withdrew from school after being suspended at midseason by the university for an unspecified reason.

That leaves an opening for White, a scoring point guard with more than 3,500 career points for Greenfield School in Wilson before the school retired his jersey.

“Will he have to score 31 at Carolina next year? Absolutely not,” Greenfield coach Rob Salter said. “But when the opportunity is there for him to score, he can do it, and he can do it pretty naturally.”

UNC coach Roy Williams began recruiting White as a point guard and an “instinctive passer.” Of course, he’s not overlooking White’s scoring punch, either.

“If you’re the leading scorer in North Carolina history, it means you shot a hell of a lot,” Williams quipped. “He did, but he makes a bunch of them, too. … The one thing that will have to become more important to him is his field-goal percentage.

“But if he didn’t get 30 or 40 or whatever, they had a difficult time beating a good team. So if I was coaching him (in high school), I’d say, ‘If it feels like leather, shoot it.'”

To prepare for college basketball, White said he has worked to get stronger and is up to about 190 pounds. He’s honing off-ball skills to play on the wing, too.

His mother, Bonita, said it’s merely the latest example of how her son has always been “wired to work.” She pointed to his freshman year when he’d return from basketball workouts at Greenfield and then head to the YMCA near their Goldsboro home.

“I was like, ‘You just got home, why do you want to go to the Y?'” she said. “He said, ‘The ball never stops.’ That’s where I saw it became very, very serious for him. It became a goal, even as a kid at that age who in his mind knew that the only way he would get better is to continue to work. And that’s what he did.”

White is fresh off helping the United States claim the FIBA Americas under-18 championship Saturday night in Canada. By week’s end, he’ll be in Chapel Hill to begin summer classes and start prepping for an oncourt opportunity.

“I’m probably going to be more nervous about just going to school because I’ve always been (at Greenfield) and it’s a little school,” White said.

“But basketball, I’ve been playing basketball since I was 5. I’m not really nervous because it’s what I do. I practice it every day. I put 100 percent into it so I don’t see why I should be nervous about it.”

South Carolina’s Martin understands Bowen’s choice to leave

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina’s Frank Martin understood all along he might never get to coach Brian Bowen in a game and is just happy the 6-foot-7 forward whose name is part of the federal corruption case in college basketball had the chance to spend a few months with the Gamecocks.

Bowen gave up his college career to turn pro last month when the NCAA informed South Carolina he would miss at least all of next season — his second full year on the bench — because of his alleged involvement in the scandal.

“Am I surprised? No. I’m realistic enough to understand when we took him that this was a possibility,” Martin said. “Was I disappointed? Yes.”

Bowen, from Saginaw, Michigan, transferred to South Carolina following his suspension from Louisville amid the federal probe after news of an alleged payment involving the Cardinals and his father to get him to join that school. Bowen could not play for the Gamecocks until at least the middle of December next season because of NCAA transfer rules.

The governing body told the school the penalty for Bowen would at least include the rest of the next year, something Martin knew meant Bowen had little option other than to turn pro.

“The NCAA kind of pigeon-holed him into only one choice,” Martin said.

Martin said did not want to dissect the NCAA’s decision, saying he accepted it and worked with Bowen and his family on his future. Bowen has since withdrawn from this month’s NBA draft. Martin said he’ll play in a developmental league or play outside the country to preserve his eligibility for next year’s draft.

South Carolina brought in Bowen last January despite his involvement with the college corruption scandal. It was not the coaches only ties to the ongoing investigation. One of Martin’s former staff members, ex-Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans, was arrested by federal authorities. Documents from the investigation showed former Gamecocks point guard PJ Dozier received $6,115 from the ASM Sports Agency while in school.

Martin has said he knew nothing about Dozier or his family dealing with agents and that he has always run a clean program.

Bowen has insisted he’s had no involvement with Christian Dawkins, the would-be agent who federal prosecutors say brokered and facilitated payments to players during their recruitments in exchange for them hiring him when they turned pro.

Martin is grateful for the time he’s had with Bowen, who had a 3.5 GPA this semester and was a model teammate who’d spend hours by himself in the gym shooting jumpers. He was also committed to South Carolina’s future, the coach said, which he proved after his time at the NBA draft combine last month.

Martin said Bowen spent six days working out at the combine and another five after that visiting NBA teams for workouts. When Bowen finally returned to Columbia, he drove to a restaurant where Gamecocks coaches were entertaining a recruit.

“He’s a real good kid,” Martin said.

The coach also believes he is a future NBA player, though obviously Bowen needs to improve areas of his game. Martin recalled an informal workout with past South Carolina stars including Los Angeles Clippers guard Sindarius Thornwell and Dozier, who spent much of this season in the G-League with the Oklahoma City Blue.

“I wasn’t sure Brian wasn’t the best player on the court when I walked out of there,” Martin said.

Bowen also made other South Carolina players better at practices. Martin cited an early January slump — the so-called “freshman wall” many newcomers hit — by first-year forward Justin Minaya. When Bowen arrived for practices, he was matched up most of the time against the 6-5 Minaya.

“Justin had no choice but to engage in that matchup with Brian because Brian’s such a talented kid,” Martin said.

As a result, Martin said Minaya recovered his form and was among the Gamecocks most consistent players in February and March.

“I know what I walked into. I knew the situation,” Martin said. “Do I regret it? Not one bit because of the person he is.”

North Carolina gets commitment from four-star 2020 forward

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North Carolina has its first piece in its 2020 recruiting class.

Day’Ron Sharpe, a 6-foot-9 forward, committed to the Tar Heels on Sunday, according to multiple reports.

The Winterville, N.C. native picked Roy Williams’ in-state program over offers from Florida, Georgetown and Virginia, among others, after a second visit to Chapel Hill recently.

“We weren’t expecting it, and it kind of came out of the blue,” his father, Derrick Sharpe, told 247 Sports about the commitment. “He told coach Williams and coach was just really excited about it.”

Sharpe averaged 14.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game during his sophomore season.

“He’s a very multi-talented player,” Dwayne West, executive director of the Garner Road Bulldogs told the Raleigh News & Observer. “He does several things very well at a high rate. He can obviously score the ball around the basket, has a solid shot and is actually a very good playmaker. Handles the ball very well.”

Sharpe is a four-star, consensus top-75 player in the 2020 class. Williams also has one commit in the 2019 class, top-50 point guard Jeremiah Francis, who, like Sharpe, committed to the Tar Heels the summer before his junior season.

Former Western Michigan basketball player cleared of murder

Kalamazoo Courthouse
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KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) — A jury has acquitted a former Western Michigan basketball player of murder in the shooting death of a fellow student but convicted him of armed robbery and a weapons charge.

The Kalamazoo County jury deliberated two days before returning the verdict for Joeviair Kennedy. He faces a possible life sentence when he’s sentenced July 16.

Nineteen-year-old Jacob Jones was killed near the campus on Dec. 8, 2016.

Co-defendant Jordan Waire of Muskegon was convicted last month of felony murder, armed robbery and weapons charges.

Prosecutors said it was Waire who shot Jones. Kennedy has said they took marijuana and about $25.

Kennedy’s attorney, Eusebio Solis, said his client agreed to the robbery but not the killing.

Kennedy was arrested in 2016 at the start of his second basketball season.

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