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.

Kentucky lands commitments from two more elite prospects

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John Calipari is getting his work done early in the 2020 recruiting class, as he added two more commitments over the weekend.

On Thursday, it was Lance Ware, a 6-foot-10 post player from Camden, New Jersey, that announced his commitment. Ware is a top 50 recruit that held offers from the likes of Michigan, Ohio State and Miami. The bigger news, however, came on Saturday afternoon, when Terrance Clarke announced that he will be enrolling at Kentucky whenever he ends his high school tenure. Clarke is currently a member of the Class of 2021, but the plan is for him to reclassify and graduate high school this year.

Clarke is a consensus top three player in 2021 – and he may be the No. 1 player in that class, depending on who you ask – and should immediately vault into the top five of the 2020 recruiting class. An athletic, versatile wing that stands 6-foot-6, Clarke is a potential lottery pick given his physical tools and the way that he projects as multi-positional defender with the ability to create off of the dribble. Ware, like Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery before him, projects as the kind of player that will spend 2-3 years in Lexington.

Clarke and Ware join top ten prospect B.J. Boston and another top 50 recruit, Cam’Ron Fletcher, in Kentucky’s 2020 class. That’s three wings in the class with Johnny Juzang, Kahlil Whitney, Dontaie Allen and Keion Brooks currently on campus. Throw Montgomery into the mix, and that’s eight players that fit somewhere into a lineup as a wing or a face-up big man, and it seems rather unlikely that all five of the guys currently at Kentucky will leave the school this offseason. Put another way, this looks like the end of Kentucky’s pursuit of the likes of Jalen Green and Josh Christopher.

Calipari is still recruiting Cade Cunningham despite the fact that many expect Cunningham to end up at Oklahoma State, where Mike Boynton hired his brother Cannen, but Cade has skyrocketed up the recruiting rankings as he has transitioned to playing the point. Kentucky is still in the mix for a handful of other forwards, including Scottie Barnes, Isaiah Todd and Greg Brown.

Tony Bennett turns down raise, signs contract extension

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Virginia announced that they have signed head coach Tony Bennett to a contract extension, keeping him under contract through the 2025-26 season.

This is not unexpected. He just won the national title. I think he earned a new deal.

What is unique here, however, is that Bennett turned down a raise. He asked for more money for his assistants and for some cash to be put towards improvements in both his program and the other Virginia sports teams, but he passed on getting more money put into his own bank account.

“[My wife] Laurel and I are in a great spot, and in the past I’ve had increases in my contract,” Bennett said in the news release. “We just feel a great peace about where we’re at, all that’s taken place, and how we feel about this athletic department and this community and this school. I love being at UVA.

“… I have more than enough, and if there are ways that this can help out the athletic department, the other programs and coaches, by not tying up so much [in men’s basketball], that’s my desire.”

That’s the dream scenario right there, being rich enough to turn down more money.

NCAA urges California governor not to sign ‘fair pay’ bill

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The NCAA Board of Governors wants California Gov. Gavin Newsom to reject a new attempt to pay college athletes.

And it is prepared to take the fight to court if necessary.

In a six-paragraph letter released Wednesday, the board urged Newsom not to sign the legislation known as the Fair Pay to Play Act, which would allow college athletes to be paid for the use of their names, likenesses and images. The move comes two days after approval of the measure by the California Assembly, with the state Senate expected to consider the measure later this week.

The board warned that California schools may be declared ineligible for NCAA competition if the bill becomes law because they would have an unfair recruiting advantage.

“We’ve explored how it might impact the association and what it might do. We believe it would inappropriately affect interstate commerce,” Donald Remy, the NCAA’s chief operating officer and chief legal officer, told The Associated Press. “It is not intended to be a threat at all. It’s a reflection about the way California is going about this.

“I’m not saying there will never be a day we would consider that (legal action), but it is not meant to be a threat,” Remy said.

The NCAA said the measure would affect more than 24,000 athletes in the nation’s most populous state.

Should the bill pass, Newsom would have 30 days to sign or veto it. If he does nothing, the bill would become law. It would be the first measure of its kind and the outcome is being closely watched as one of the biggest challenges in years to the NCAA’s longstanding and far-reaching model of amateur sports. Over the past decade, that model has come under increasing pressure – and attacks in court – as critics push for big-time college athletics to clear the way for the athletes themselves to benefit financially.

NCAA rules prohibit athletes from profiting off their athletic skills. The organization, however, has recently begun considering rules changes to loosen those restrictions, though NCAA President Mark Emmert – and the board again on Wednesday – insist that players cannot be paid or become the equivalent of a university employee. Formal recommendations are expected to be made at the board’s October meeting.

It appears there is an appetite for significant changes.

Board members met with the working group studying these issues in August but neither Remy nor board member Denis McDonough would discuss specific proposals.

“The rules that we operate under, many of which date to 1975, may not be suitable for us in 2021 with the challenges and opportunities student-athletes face,” said McDonough, the White House chief of staff under President Barack Obama. “So we are and have been taking a very close look at how we can modernize those rules. We’re hoping the state of California would recognize that modernizing those rules for student-athletes across the country is the best way to do that.”

Supporters think those changes are already overdue and believe California’s elected officials should act now.

“The NCAA’s assertions are purposefully misleading,” said Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association. “The 9th Circuit upheld a ruling concluding that the NCAA’s ban on player name, image, and likeness compensation does not bring forth a level playing field. The Big 12 commissioner stated competitive equity is `largely an illusion.’

“NCAA amateurism is a fraud. It’s a $14 billion a year industry with millionaire coaches. An NCAA ban on California colleges would amount to an illegal group boycott that would violate federal and California antitrust laws.”

The NCAA believes the California measure would violate the federal Commerce Clause and may not withstand a legal challenge; Remy cited a previous case in California in which the state tried to inhibit the NCAA from enforcing its rules. The NCAA won that case.

Should the measure pass, Remy said, the NCAA would penalize the schools, not individual athletes.

“There are two parts to this and part of this is the membership and that includes the California schools,” Remy said. “Schools and universities agree to comply with the rules of (NCAA) membership and there are a set of eligibility criteria that go along with being member institution. The California schools have consented to that criterion. So in that context it would be the schools that would directly impacted.”

Road To Redemption: How Virginia went from losing to 16 seed to winning title

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Over the course of the next month, we will be taking a look at some of the most memorable and important things that happened during the 2018-19 season and what kind of impact those moments are going to have on the 2019-20 season.

We’ll start with the obvious: Those Virginia Cavaliers.

Without question, the single best and most memorable moment from the 2018-19 college basketball season was The Redemption.

Less than 13 months removed from suffering what will go down as the most humiliating and demoralizing defeat in the history of college basketball – if not sports, period – Virginia went out and won the Whole. Damn. Thing.

And oh buddy, was it a roller coaster ride.

In the opening round, in their first game against a No. 16 seed since they became the first team to lose to a No. 16 seed, Virginia dug themselves a 14 point first half hole against Gardner-Webb before pulling their collective heads out of their, ahem, keisters and rolling to a win. The ‘Hoos handled Oklahoma with relative ease in the second round to advance to the second weekend, where that postseason roller coaster ride got an injection of Dominic Toretto’s NoS.

In the Sweet 16 against Oregon, Kihei Clark ended an 18-5 Duck run by burying a three and, two possessions later, finding Ty Jerome for another triple, giving UVA a lead that they would never surrender after they blew a lead they shouldn’t have lost. Virginia’s Elite Eight win will go down as one of the best NCAA tournament games of the decade. UVA survived Carsen Edwards going Super Saiyan while lighting up college basketball’s best defender in De’Andre Hunter for 42 points, and they did so thanks in very large part to one of the best and most instinctual plays you’ll ever see a college kid make:

Again, it was Clark coming to the rescue, as Virginia found a way to not only beat Purdue, but cover a 4.5 point spread in the overtime period.

Not that I’m still bitter or anything.

That brings us to the Final Four, the first of Tony Bennett’s illustrious career, where those Wahoos did their very best to make everyone believe they had not left their inner choke artist behind. Thanks to a couple of bone-headed fouls by Ty Jerome followed Auburn’s Bryce Brown making a pair of critical three-balls, Virginia blew a 57-47 lead in all of 3:16. In the blink of an eye, they found themselves down 61-57 with 17 seconds left after a pair of Anfernee McLemore free throws.

This time, it was Kyle Guy coming to the rescue. He buried a three with nine seconds left to cut the lead to one, and after Jared Harper missed one of two free throws, Guy was – controversially, but correctly – fouled while shooting a three with just 0.6 seconds on the clock. He would step to the line and swish not one, not two, but all three free throws, sending Virginia to the national title game, where they would face off with Texas Tech, a matchup that was billed as the worst national title game of all-time.

And that prediction turned out very, very wrong.

It took a while to get going, but by the time the final ten minutes rolled around, the battle between the two best defenses in all of college basketball was as intense and as physical as any game this year. We knew that was coming. What we didn’t know was that it would be the offenses for both those programs that would take over, as the shot-making and execution in the second half reached a level we rarely see in the college game. That said, Virginia again blew a double-digit second half lead, getting to overtime when Jerome found Hunter in the corner for a game-tying three with 12 seconds left:

Virginia would take the lead in the extra frame on another Hunter three with 2:10 remaining, pulling away to win 85-77 and cut down the nets for the first time in program history.

It was a wild ride, one that ended the opportunity for the dummies out there to criticize Tony Bennett’s coaching acumen because of a couple of fluky, unlucky tournament results.

But for my money, what made the turnaround so memorable – and what truly cemented Bennett’s standing as arguably the best in the game today – has everything to do with how Virginia changed the way they play after UMBC.


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Before we get into the changes that Virginia actually made, I think it is important to put into context what actually happened in that loss to UMBC.

As Hunter has been quick to remind his teammates – over and over again – he did not play in Virginia’s loss to UMBC. He fractured his wrist before the start of the tournament, and the hole that he left in the lineup was drastically bigger than his 6-foot-7 frame. You see, Hunter was the guy that made Virginia matchup proof. He was the best, most versatile defender in all of college basketball as a sophomore. When Virginia won at North Carolina earlier this year, Hunter was, at different points throughout the game, matched up on lottery pick point guard Coby White, lottery pick wing Cameron Johnson and All-American power forward Luke Maye.

That’s who Hunter was as a freshman, too.

He was and is a monster defensively. 

Back to UMBC, the America East champs had a team that, in 2018, played a lineup with four guards and often had five players on the perimeter. It would not have been an issue to throw Hunter on any of them, especially since he was good enough offensively to be able to take complete advantage of that matchup on the other end of the floor. He was, after all, the No. 4 pick in June’s draft. He would have been a mid-first round pick had he left a year earlier.

But without Hunter on the floor, Bennett ran into a problem: He needed to play two bigs because of the offense that he ran, but none of Jack Salt, Isaiah Wilkins or Mamadi Diakite were going to be able to duplicate what Hunter could do. They couldn’t stay with those little UMBC guards, and they weren’t good enough offensively to take advantage of the mismatch on the offensive end. When UVA went small, it just meant that Nigel Johnson had to play more and, well, that was not ideal.

Now, look. Hunter’s absence is not a valid excuse for this loss. Virginia was still a much, much better team even without their best player. They played their worst game on a night where UMBC absolutely caught lightning in a bottle. It got into their heads. Jairus Lyles played the game of his life. UMBC ran away with the win. Weird things happen when college kids play sports. What can I say.

But Hunter’s absence and the slight matchup advantage that gave UMBC over UVA certainly played a major role in how this game played out, and I think it is fair to say that this game would have been much closer, and, in all likelihood, had a different result, with Hunter on the floor.

Here’s the proof.

These two clips are the same play. In the first example, Jerome finds Hunter for a game-tying three in the national title game. In the second example, Jerome finds Wilkins, who is not a shooter and the play results in yet another missed three in Virginia’s loss to UMBC:

“That situation made me take a look at a lot of things,” Bennett told me during last year’s Final Four. “From a basketball standpoint, that was such a pivotal moment.”

As I reported then, what Bennett did was reach out to former Wisconsin Badger Kirk Penney, a man he calls “a little brother to me.” Penney had played in the NBA and all over Europe before finishing out his career in New Zealand, so Bennett asked him, “In all your experiences, did you run any stuff that opens up the court more?”

Turns out, Penney had.

He knew exactly what Bennett needed.

You see, Bennett had spent the majority of his time in Charlottesville running the Blocker-Mover offense that his father created. That offense is fairly simple – there are three perimeter players on the floor, the “movers”, that continuously run off of screens that are set by the two bigs, the “blockers”:

But as effective as Virginia has been running Blocker-Mover in the past, running that offense with his 2018-19 roster makeup didn’t make sense. And again, this was because of De’Andre Hunter.

Hunter was the prototype college four. At 6-foot-7 and a strong 225 pounds, he’s big enough to guards fours while simultaneously taking advantage of them with his ability to shoot and beat slower defenders with straight-line drives. But he was also far and away the most talented player on the Virginia roster, and running Blocker-Mover would put Bennett in a position where he was forced to either play Hunter in a role where he was predominantly a screener or put him in a position where he was going to be defended by college threes doing something – specifically, running off of pindowns and flare screens – that is not his forte.

Enter Penney, who helped Virginia install a Ball-Screen Continuity offense, what Virginia called their “Flow Continuity.”

Again, the concept of this offense is fairly simple. The goal is to get open-side ball-screens, which just means having a big screening for a guard on one side of the floor with three players – preferably shooters – spacing on the opposite side. If nothing comes of the first ball-screen, the offense is designed for the ball to end up in a second ball-screen with the sides of the floor reversed. It’s run until a they get a shot, hence “continuity.”

It’s easier to show it than to explain it:

This is not something that Virginia has ever really run before this season.

Which brings me back to that game-tying three in the national title game.

While it’s not exactly the continuity ball-screen, it is a high-ball screen for Jerome. He did what he does so well: He got into the paint, he drew defenders and he found the guy everyone forgot about.

Now, one of the reasons that this worked so well for Virginia is that they had the players to execute it. Hunter was the best basketball player not named Zion Williamson in college basketball last season. Jerome was as good as anyone as the handler in a ball-screen, and he also happens to be an elite shooter that can run off of screens just as effectively. Guy was one of the very best shooters in the country. Clark is a defensive menace that allowed Jerome to move off the ball when necessary.

That changes next year.

Hunter, Jerome and Guy are all on NBA rosters. They will be replaced by Braxton Key, Tomas Woldetensae, Kody Stattman and Clark. Clark proved himself to be much better than I ever gave him credit for last season, but being effective in last year’s role and taking over full-time point guard duties for an All-American like Jerome are two very different things. Woldetensae and Stattman can both shoot, but they are not the shooters that Guy was. And most important, Key is a good player and can play the same position that Hunter played, but he’s not the player that Hunter was. If Hunter is Kraft Mac and Cheese, Key is whatever brand they carry at Aldi.

That puts Bennett in a tough position this season.

Because he doesn’t really have the guards to run his flow continuity offense as effectively as he did last year, but the guys that project as his starting bigs – Jay Huff and Diakite – fit a ball-screen heavy offense better than they do the Blocker-Mover. Huff is 7-foot-1 with ridiculous length, and he shot 14-for-31 from three this past season. He’s more or less the perfect five for ball-screen actions because he can catch a lob as a roll-man as effectively as he can bury a three when he picks-and-pops. Diakite can make threes as well, and he’s even more effective as a roll-man.

So I really don’t know what Virginia is going to look like next season.

Like Villanova last year, they are not exactly built to withstand that many critical pieces leaving with eligibility remaining.

My best guess? We see a lot of lineups with Key, Diakite and Huff on the floor at the same time as Bennett figures out exactly how he is going to be able to work in a guy like Woldetensae, who has never been asked to defend near the level he will have to defend with Virginia, and how he can effectively use Clark.

But I certainly expect Bennett to figure something out.

That’s just what he does.

The ‘Hoos will have some growing pains, and asking them to compete with Duke, Louisville and even North Carolina in what appears to be a three-horse race for the ACC title is tough, but I’d be shocked if they enter the NCAA tournament as anything other than a top four seed.

Boston College guard Wynston Tabbs to miss season due to knee surgery

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Boston College sophomore guard Wynston Tabbs will miss the entirety of the 2019-20 as he will undergo surgery on his left knee, the school announced on Wednesday.

This is an injury that has been plaguing Tabbs since last season, when he averaged 13.9 points but played in just 15 games.

“While I won’t be able to play this season,  I know that it is a temporary setback and I will be back stronger than ever before,” Tabbs said in a press release from the school.  “I want to thank my family, the Boston College Basketball program, and all our fans for their continued support. I’ve overcome obstacles before in my life and will work tirelessly to overcome this one. I am built for this.”

Tabbs has all-ACC potential and was going to be counted on to help fill the void left by Ky Bowman.