USA Basketball

Four Storylines: USA Basketball U18 Team at FIBA Americas

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The USA Basketball U18 team begins play this week as FIBA Americas tips off in Canada.

The heavy favorites to capture a gold medal in the age group, the Americans started training camp in Colorado Springs last week as I watched some of the early sessions of practice to get a feel for how the group might look in the event.

Here’s some takeaways, and storylines, to follow over the next week at FIBA Americas as the Bill Self-coached outfit features a combination of incoming college freshmen and rising high school seniors.

1. Who becomes the team’s leader and go-to player?

One of the fascinating things to watch about this U18 tryout was the lack of a clear go-to player. Two years ago for the U18 team, this was no such issue. That group featured Michael Porter Jr., Markelle Fultz and Trae Young (to name a few off of a loaded team).

But this current U18 group is a byproduct of two down years in a row when it comes to national recruiting classes. The Class of 2018 and 2019 are two of the worst back-to-back years we’ve seen in quite some time when it comes to actual star power.

So finding a leader and a go-to guy is going to be one of this team’s main goals in the early going. It might not come down to one player. The perimeter trio of Cole Anthony, Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White all had strong stretches playing together during tryouts and all three showed leadership capabilities and strong abilities to score.

Kentucky commit Tyrese Maxey also falls into this category. He’s a charismatic lead guard who can really score, which means he might also take on the role of a go-to player.

It’s not as if the USA team has to have one go-to guy like this to win the gold medal. But it would certainly help in close-game situations if they knew they could turn to one particular player (or group of players) that can produce.

2. The team’s perimeter shooting — particularly Ayo Dosunmu and Quentin Grimes

Perimeter shooting will also be a significant development with this team, most notably with a couple of college-bound guards who have been inconsistent from the three-point line in the past. Also, keep in mind that FIBA rules are in play here, which means a different ball and an expanded three-point line from the college level — yet another reason why college hoops needs to expand the three-point line closer further from the basketball.

One of the intriguing storylines will involve Illinois commit Ayo Dosunmu and his re-worked perimeter jumper. A known scorer who was always streaky with his jumper in the past, Dosunmu has completely overhauled his shot since the end of March and the high school season. Now sporting a full follow through and a higher release, Dosunmu’s jumper looked way better than before as it’s a skill that has given him added confidence as a scorer. With Illinois counting on its highest-rated recruit so much for the upcoming 2018-19 season, if Dosunmu has a decent perimeter jumper, it could make him one the Big Ten’s most dangerous threats.

Future Kansas Jayhawk Quentin Grimes is another perimeter player to watch when it comes to shooting. The U18 team is a fascinating parallel to how Grimes could be used next season as Bill Self will be coaching both teams. Grimes is probably best suited to have the ball in his hands as an attacking guard, but with other steady floor generals like Anthony and Maxey on the U18 team, he could be relegated to playing mostly off the ball. Since Kansas has Charlie Moore and Devon Dotson on the smaller side of Grimes in next year’s guard rotation, Grimes might also be forced more off the ball at Kansas next season. So how will Grimes look as a catch-and-shoot option? Like Dosunmu, Grimes has been streaky with his jumper in the past.

The USA doesn’t need Dosunmu and Grimes to make perimeter jumpers in order to win. Anthony, Maxey and fellow Class of 2019 guard Mark “Rocket” Watts Jr. were three of the most prolific perimeter shooters in the Nike EYBL this spring. But Dosunmu and Grimes knocking down open shots could go a long way towards the team’s ultimate success.

3. The role of Coby White

One of the better and more consistent players during training camp was North Carolina commit and guard Coby White. An advanced scorer from multiple levels, White had it going with the perimeter jumper at times during camp as he nailed catch-and-shoot jumpers and jumpers off the bounce.

As noted earlier, there are plenty of really talented guards already playing with the U18 team, so White likely doesn’t need to play on the ball and be a facilitator. But that’s the thing North Carolina fans should probably be watching for during FIBA Americas. Somebody has to replace Joel Berry’s massive presence in the Tar Heel backcourt for next season. White looks like a prime candidate to potentially do so.

The problem lies in White’s DNA as a natural scorer. Since he’s never asked to be a true facilitator, White is learning the nuances of the point guard spot while still trying to keep his offensive aggression as a shooter.

There were some promising signs of lead guard development from White at USA. White showed a strong ability to read ball screens, changing paces and navigating into the paint whenever he felt like it. Also making basic reads and some solid one-handed passes to corner shooters, White appears to be improving at the basic functions of being a facilitator.

Finding that balance between running a team and hunting his own offense will be something to track with the U18 team because White will likely have to do the same at North Carolina. The Tar Heels will have a strong frontcourt featuring Luke Maye and fellow five-star freshman Nassir Little. Upperclass perimeter options like Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams are back as well. White will be asked to score next season, but more importantly, he’ll also need to set the table for those others to get involved as well.

4. Which big men will step up and see heavy minutes?

It should come as no surprise that this USA U18 team is a guard-driven outfit. But that doesn’t mean the big men should be ignored in this equation. While small-ball and floor-spacing lineups are the popular thing coming into American basketball at all levels, there is still a need for true big men and a rotation of frontcourt players.

Among the group’s frontcourt players, Texas commit Kamaka Hepa could be perhaps the team’s best interior defender for this event because of his advanced feel, communication skills and versatility. Others in the group could eventually be better than Hepa, but his enthusiasm for smothering ball screens and recovering back to the post was unmatched at the camp.

The Class of 2019 duo of Armando Bacot and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl was also really good during camp as the duo compliments each other pretty well. Bacot is more of an old-school, ground-game big man who isn’t an elite athlete, but he has great hands and feel as he’s a natural double-double threat at the college level. Although a tad undersized as a combo forward, the 6-foot-8 Robinson-Earl makes up for it with great first and secondary leaping ability that enables him to be a demon on the glass.

Tracye Jackson-Davis was also active on the glass and defending on the interior as he’s continuing to blossom this spring. And Matthew Hurt provides a skill element the frontcourt is lacking with his floor-spacing and passing abilities.

Again, this team’s success will be driven by guard play, as Self will likely incorporate two, three or even four-guard lineups with the amount of perimeter talent he has at his disposal. But the big men will need to play a part in capturing a gold medal as well. Seeing how Self uses his lineups will be a huge part in determining which big men will shine.

Three Things To Know: Iowa comes back, Christian Braun arrives, three-bid ACC?

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It was a very slow night in the college basketball world, but there were three games that are relevant enough to talk about.

So let’s talk about them.

Here are the three things that you need to know about Monday’s college basketball action:

1. THE ACC GOT THAT MUCH CLOSER TO BEING A THREE-BID LEAGUE

On Monday morning, our Dave Ommen published his updated NCAA tournament bracket projection, and he had just four ACC teams in the field. One of those four teams was N.C. State, who was sitting in the play-in game prior to Monday night’s action.

So what did they do on Monday night?

They just lost at home to a North Carolina team that ranks outside the top 100 in the NET. Suddenly, the Wolfpack, who looked like they could be as high as a 9 or 10 seed last week, would likely be out of the NCAA tournament if it started today. They are 14-7 overall, which isn’t terrible, but they have just one win against a top 50 opponent to go along with a pair of Quad 3 losses. They do have three Quad 1 wins, but two of those — Wisconsin (30) at home and UNCG (75) on the road — are the bottom of the cutoff for Quad 1 wins. Put another way, they are the worst possible Quad 1 wins, and that is something that will be discussed by the committee.

Ironically enough, I think this win was a sign that North Carolina might actually be the most likely CC team to give the league a fourth bid. Hear me out. The Tar Heels have ten losses on the season, but seven of those ten — including all of their bad losses — came without Cole Anthony on the roster. If he comes back healthy, that’s something that will be taken into consideration by the selection committee.

But more importantly, it feels like the Tar Heels are starting to play much better. Garrison Brooks has turned into a dominant force on the block, and he and Armando Bacot can do the things that Roy Williams wants his frontline to do. Brandon Robinson is playing much better despite being injured, while Leaky Black, Christian Keeling, Justin Pierce and Andrew Platek have all seemed to figure out a role that they can be effective in. It reminds me a bit of what happened to Seton Hall when they were without Myles Powell. The supporting cast had to put on their big boy pants and find a way to win. It took UNC longer than it took Seton Hall, but I think they’re getting there now.

The problem that the Tar Heels faced early in the season was that defenses could throw everything at Cole Anthony because no one else on UNC was really a threat, and Anthony couldn’t give the ball up because, well, no one else was really a threat. If he has a supporting cast now, and he comes back as the player he was before he hurt his knee, then the Tar Heels will have a chance.

2. NO. 18 IOWA LANDS A COME FROM BEHIND WIN TO BEAT WISCONSIN

For 33 minutes, this looked like Wisconsin’s night, like the Badgers were going to go into Carver-Hawkeye Arena and make a statement with a road win against a ranked team in a league where those are few and far between.

That’s not what happened.

Iowa used a 21-2 run late in the second half to turn a 57-45 deficit into a 66-59 lead, holding on for a 68-62 home win that few saw coming. And to me, this is the kind of win that speaks to the change in what we have seen in the Iowa program this season. Fair or not, the reputation the Hawkeyes have had in the past is to start the year out well before collapsing late in the season. This is precisely the kind of game that they would lose in past seasons.

That’s not the way it worked out on Monday night.

With the win, Iowa moves to 15-5 on the season and remains a game out of first place in the Big Ten regular season standings. Luka Garza finished with 21 points, 18 boards and three blocks, continuing what has been a first-team All-American caliber season.

3. WHO SAW CHRISTIAN BRAUN COMING?

Christian Braun scored 16 points, hitting four threes on Monday night, and added nine boards as No. 3 Kansas routed Oklahoma State in Stillwater.

Braun was moved into the starting lineup for the first time this season, and it paid off for Bill Self, who was forced to work around a roster that only had seven scholarship players available and lacked any kind of interior presence behind Udoka Azubuike. He’s earned the chance, too. This performance came just six days after he scored a career-high 20 points in a win over Kansas State in the Phog. For a team that has desperately been searching for consistent three-point shooting and a defensive presence on the perimeter, Braun checks a lot of boxes.

Sometimes you just need a guy that can go out and do a job for you, and that’s precisely what Braun has done. What will be interesting is to see where Self goes from here. When David McCormack gets back from his suspension on Saturday, will he return to the starting lineup?

Or did he cost himself his spot in the starting five when he decided to go into the stands during a fight?

UConn honors GiGi Bryant with jersey at Team USA scrimmage

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GiGi Bryant, the daughter of Kobe Bryant, already dreamed of playing for the UConn women’s basketball team.

She tragically passed away on Sunday, dying alongside her father in a helicopter crash that claimed the lives of nine people in Southern California.

On Monday night, the UConn women scrimmaged Team USA, and to honor GiGi, the team left a jersey for her on their bench:

(AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

AP Poll: Baylor remains No. 1 in week with few changes at the top

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Here is the latest college basketball AP Poll.

For those interested, here is the NBC Sports Top 25.

Baylor is No. 1 for a second straight week in a college basketball AP poll that had no major changes at the top, a rare bit of stability in a wildly unpredictable season.

The Bears stayed well ahead of No. 2 Gonzaga in Monday’s poll, part of an unchanged top seven for the first time this season. In fact, the only change in the top 10 came with Villanova moving up a spot to No. 8 to swap positions with No. 9 Duke. That comes in a season that has seen seven different teams reach No. 1 this season, matching a record set during the 1982-83 season.

Baylor (17-1) hopped over Gonzaga last week to reach No. 1 for the second time in program history, then earned 44 of 64 first-place votes to keep a firm hold on the top spot after beating Oklahoma and Florida last week.

The Zags earned 19 first-place votes to remain either No. 1 or No. 2 in the poll since the middle of December, followed by Kansas, San Diego State — the last unbeaten team in Division I — and Florida State.

Louisville, Dayton, Villanova, Duke and Seton Hall rounded out the top 10.

No. 22 LSU, No. 23 Wichita State and No. 24 Penn State were the week’s new additions, re-entering the poll after appearances earlier this season. Texas Tech, Memphis and Arizona fell out of the rankings.

Here is the full college basketball AP Poll:

1. Baylor (44 first-place votes)
2. Gonzaga (19)
3. Kansas (1)
4. San Diego State
5. Florida State
6. Louisville
7. Dayton
8. Villanova
9. Duke
10. Seton Hall
11. Oregon
12. West Virginia
13. Kentucky
14. Michigan State
15. Maryland
16. Butler
17. Auburn
18. Iowa
19. Illinois
20. Colorado
21. Houston
22. LSU
23. Wichita State
24. Penn State
25. Rutgers

ACC fines Mike Brey for his officiating comments

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — The Atlantic Coast Conference has fined Notre Dame $20,000 and publicly reprimanded Fighting Irish basketball coach Mike Brey for his comments about officiating after Saturday’s loss at Florida State.

The league announced the penalties Monday, saying Brey’s comments “were in direct violation” of the league’s sportsmanship policy that states that public criticism of officiating “is not in the best interest of intercollegiate athletics.”

Brey referenced several issues after the 85-84 loss to the Seminoles, including a technical foul called on the Irish bench with 2:31 left. He also mentioned game official John Gaffney by name as he left the news conference in Tallahassee.

“We’re treated by the officials like we haven’t brought football as a full member (to the league), but yet we get a full share of the ACC Network TV, are you kidding me?” Brey said, a reference to Notre Dame’s independence in football even as it remains a member of all other league sports.

Moments later, a frustrated Brey waved both hands as he got up to leave and continued his comments as he left the room.

“You’ve got to be kidding me, man,” Brey said, raising his voice. “Come on, man. We’re in the league, too.”

The league said in a news release that the matter is closed and declined to make additional comment. The fine will go toward an ACC scholarship fund that assists athletes with pursuing graduate degrees after completing undergraduate requirements.

Monday Overreactions: Ayo Dosunmu, Maryland, and Nick Richards’ takeover

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois

Ayo Dosunmu did it again.

Illinois’ sophomore star and leading scorer finished with 27 points, none of which were bigger than the final shot of the game as Dosunmu hit a foul line jumper over Zavier Simpson with 0.5 seconds left on the clock to beat Michigan in Ann Arbor:

It’s the sixth straight win for the Illini, who have climbed all the way up to No. 21 in the AP poll, and no one has been more influential in that run than Dosunmu. He’s averaging 19.0 points and 5.4 assists over the last five games, and in a conference where winning road games is notoriously difficult, the Illini have won at Wisconsin, at Purdue and at Michigan during that stretch.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Maryland Terrapins

No team in the country has elicited a louder chorus of doubters throughout the course of the season than Maryland.

The Terps were a top ten team in the preseason, and spent the entire season ranked inside the top 20 of the AP poll and currently sit at No. 10 in KenPom’s rankings. But because of some uninspiring performances early in the season, combined with the fact that the Terps had entered the week with an 0-4 record on the road, it was easy to overlook this group as nothing more than another fraudulent Mark Turgeon roster.

This week, the narrative changed. The Terps erased a 14 point deficit on the road to knock off Northwester, 77-66, in Chicago and then followed that up by going on a 7-0 run in the final two minutes to land a 77-76 win at Indiana.

Suddenly, the Terps are on a three game winning streak with back-to-back home games coming up next.

MONDAY’S OVERREACTIONS

1. NICK RICHARDS IS THE SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Richards has been one of the most improved players in the country this season, but Saturday was really the first time that we saw him completely take over a game.

He finished with 25 points, 14 boards and four blocks in the 76-74 overtime win at Texas Tech, scoring the game-winning points with 10 seconds left.

This is notable, because if you look at Kentucky’s biggest wins of the season to date, they all happened to be a result of one of Hagans or Maxey going absolutely nuts. Maxey had 27 in the win over Michigan State. He had 26  against Louisville. Hagans went for 21 points, seven boards and seven assists against Georgia Tech. He had 13 points, six boards and six assists at Arkansas and 15 points, nine boards and nine assists against Alabama.

Point being, this is the first time that Richards has definitively been the best player on the floor while carrying Kentucky to a win like this on the road.

I also get it: He completely overwhelmed Texas Tech’s frontline — which, frankly, is not a new occurrence, if you have seen the Red Raiders play this season. But we’ve seen Richards play against frontlines he should dominate and, well, not dominate.

As it stands, he’s now the leading scorer and rebounder for the Wildcats. He’s probably the leader in the clubhouse for SEC Player of the Year, and very much in the mix for an all-american team.

2. TEXAS TECH HAS A SIGNIFICANT AMOUNT OF WORK TO DO TO GET TO THE TOURNAMENT

I’m not sure people realize just how little there is on Texas Tech’s resume right now. They beat Louisville (11) on a neutral court. They beat Iowa State (70) at home. They beat Oklahoma State (83) at home. They won at Kansas State (89). Combined, that’s one Quad 1, two Quad 2 and a Quad 3 win. They have eight wins against sub-200 teams and have lost to seven Quad 1 opponents, including Kentucky (23) at home on Saturday. The Red Raiders will have plenty of chances to build on their profile — they get West Virginia (7) at home and play at Kansas (3) next week alone — but there is no doubt that this team has to start winning some games against teams that are not horrific.

As it stands, the Red Raiders are the very last team in the most recent NBC Sports bracket projection.

3. THE BIG TEN IS GOING TO DISAPPOINT IN MARCH

The biggest reason that I believe this is the lack of elite point guard play. I’ve made this point roughly 18,000 times by now, but in the last decade, the only team that won the national title without having two lead guards playing together was the 2012 Kentucky team that had the top two picks playing together.

And the thing about this year’s Big Ten is that the lead guard play is not great. Cassius Winston, when he’s right, is the best in the country. Ayo Dosunmu, the way he’s been playing for the last month, is right there with him. Anthony Cowan is, in theory, on that list. Zavier Simpson? Maybe. Marcus Carr? At times.

I think that’s it.

So that’s a concern.

As is the fact that every team in the Big Ten is built around their frontcourt play.

I was struck over the weekend as I watch Michigan and Illinois down the stretch play with four centers on the floor — Kofi Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili for the Illini and Jon Teske and Austin Davis for the Wolverines. Iowa is at their best when they play with Luka Garza and Ryan Kriener. Tom Izzo loves to play Xavier Tillman with another big man. I could keep going if I had the time.

That is the only league in the country where that happens, and I think it is fair to wonder how well that will hold up in March.

4. ARIZONA IS NOT FAR AWAY FROM BEING REALLY DANGEROUS

More than anyone else in college basketball, the Wildcats are the team that appear to be the darling of the predictive metrics this season.

(I would say Ohio State, but they spent the first half of the season absolutely bludgeoning really good teams and still don’t have a loss to a team outside the top 40.)

They have one win against a top 30 team and just two wins against top 55 opponents. Their best win away from home is against Wake Forest, yet the Wildcats, at 13-6 overall, find themselves sitting at 10th in KenPom and 12th in the NET. This is what happens when you find a way to lose games close. Five fo their six losses came by five points or less, and it hasn’t always been the same formula. Arizona erased leads to land backdoor covers against Baylor, Gonzaga and Saint John’s. They blew leads on the road in league play in losses to Oregon and Arizona State. They completely collapsed in the second half against Oregon State.

So I’m not sure there is a clear-cut answer to what ails the Wildcats right now.

But I do know that with the talent on their roster, they are not as far away from being an actual top ten team as the average Arizona fan on twitter will have you believe.

5. IS SYRACUSE THE FOURTH-BEST TEAM IN THE ACC?

Someone has to be the fourth-best team in the ACC, and as far as league standings go, the Orange currently qualify. They are 6-3 in the conference, having won their last five games, and they have fully embraced the idea that this roster needs to fire up as many threes as possible to have a chance to win.

That said, they still haven’t beaten anyone. Their best win came at Virginia in overtime, but Virginia may not be a tournament team this season. The trouble is that the Orange only get the other top teams in the conference — Duke, N.C. State, Florida State and Louisville — once each.

They probably need to win at least two of those games to have a real shot at a tournament bid.