Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

2018-19 Big 12 Preview: Kansas and everybody else, once again

Leave a comment

Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big 12 Conference.


Ah, the Big 12. It’s the league that has spent the last five years as the top-rated conference by KenPom, and usually by a wide margin. Seventy percent of its membership made the NCAA tournament last season, with a total of 90 percent playing in the postseason. Its teams won 60 percent of its games against other power conferences. Six players were selected in the NBA draft for the third consecutive year. The league is a running, dribbling, dunking, winning monster.

It also has been singularly, completely and, I’d argue, embarrassingly dominated by a single team for 14 consecutive years.

It’s not Kansas and the Little Nine, but to say the Jayhawks aren’t in a class of their own is sort of like arguing the sun is just another piece of our solar system.

The separation this looks to be significant enough that the annual head-meet-wall exercise of “Who will dethrone Kansas?” seems to be more of a futile exercise than typical.

Kansas is going to win the conference. It’ll be the 15th-consecutive time. They’re going to better than the numerous storied, proud and accomplished programs in the league.

Again.

We’re not far off from an enrolling a freshman class literally not knowing a world without the Jayhawks winning the Big 12. No matter how good the rest of the nine teams in the conference all may be any year, that’s a tough reality to swallow every single year.

Udoka Azubuike (John Weast/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Kansas reaches a singularity

The last half-decade or so of college basketball has produced essentially three paths to competing at the highest levels of the sport. You can accumulate five-star, one-and-done freshmen. Another way is to round up high-level transfers. Then there’s this other way of having players contribute and play for, and hear me out on this, multiple years on the same team and stepping into bigger and bigger roles.

Kansas just said eff it and did all three.

The Jayhawks have a top-five recruiting class featuring five-stars Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson while putting together maybe one of the more fearsome transfer groups ever with Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson and Charlie Moore. Then there’s Udoka Azubuike and Lagerald Vick, both Final Four starters, plus Mitch Lightfoot, back for more. The Jayhawks may not be Duke, they may not be Nevada and they may not be Villanova, but they basically are a mashup of all the best talent-acquisition and roster-building strategies.

It’s easy to see why the rest of the league ends up on its back seeing stars while the Jayhawks pull away the Big 12 trophy every season. Kansas just does it better.

2. Kansas State runs it back

It took something like 500 words to get here, but I’m actually going to discuss – actually even just name – a Big 12 team other than Kansas now.

Let’s head west to Manhattan, where Bruce Weber has his entire team back after a surprise Elite Eight run. It’s a rather astounding turnaround for a coaching tenure that looked cooked in February 2017 when Kansas State had lost eight of 10, looked primed to miss the NCAA tournament for the third-straight year and Weber was under intense pressure.

Dean Wade is a legitimate All-American candidate, Barry Brown isn’t far behind and Xavier Sneed, Carter Diarra and Kamau Stokes are all proven Big 12 difference-makers. The Wildcats are going to have a level of continuity that is exceedingly – maybe entirely – rare in college hoops today. If that stability can keep them strong defensively – they make opponents grind out possessions when they’re not turning them over – and make strides offensively – they ranked outside the top-100 in eFG% last year – then Weber and the Wildcats might have a busy March once again.

Dean Wade (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

3. Is the honeymoon over in Austin?

It took four seasons after an earth-shaking Final Four appearance for a school to pull Shaka Smart away from VCU. Texas fans have to be hoping that’s exactly how long it takes for him to live up to expectations in Austin.

Smart has gotten the Longhorns to two NCAA tournaments in three years, but both resulted in first-round exits. In between those Big Dances in 2016 and 2018, Texas finished dead-last in the Big 12. It’s basically undeniable that Smart’s best season with Texas was on the strength of a roster compiled by a guy run out of town for not winning enough (that guy won an SEC title last year, by the way).

It’s probably not wholly accurate to say Smart is on the hot seat – most Texas fans probably won’t remember they have a basketball team until Tom Herman’s squad stops playing – but given his contract and Texas’ resources, it’s more than fair to expect something better than what he’s delivered in three years. The Longhorns have talent this season despite losing Mo Bamba with Jericho Sims, Matt Coleman, Kerwin Roach and Dylan Osetkowski all back while Andrew Jones continues his valiant battle with leukemia and holds out hope to be back on the floor. There’s also a top-10 recruiting class and Mount. St. Mary’s transfer Elijah Mitrou-Long. That’s probably not a roster that’ll wreak havoc on the Big 12, but it should be good enough to keep fans from fixating on spring football in February.

4. Mountaineer Machine

After two lackluster years to start its Big 12 tenure, West Virginia morphed into Press Virginia and Bob Huggins’ team hasn’t looked back. There have been standout players like Juwan Staten, Jaysean Paige, and Jevon Carter, but the strength has been the system for the Mountaineers. That’ll be put to the test this year again with the loss of Carter, a national defensive player of the year and All-American, but Huggins should once again have the bodies to throw weight around the Big 12.

Sagaba Konate may be the most entertaining defensive player in the whole country. The 6-foot-8 forward has wingspan and vert for days, plus a panache for the dramatic. The guy just seems to love blocking dunks and snatching shots out of mid-air. Esa Ahmad had a breakout sophomore campaign before academic issues upended his season last year, but a return to form is in order and would be a huge boon for the Mountaineers on both ends of the floor. Those are the headliners, but Huggs will again be able to roll out waves of talented and tough dudes that’ll be a menace in the Big 12.

5. Will there be any federal fallout?

Three Big 12 programs have become embroiled to varying degrees in the federal investigation into corruption in college basketball that rocked the sport more than a year ago, reverberated throughout last season and continues to send aftershocks with testimony ongoing in the Southern District of New York.

Brian Bowen Sr. alleged under oath that agent/runner Christian Dawkins told him Texas was willing to “help” with housing if his son, top-30 recruit Brian Jr., joined the Longhorns while Oklahoma State was offering $150,000 in cash, $8,000 for a car and more to buy a house. Cowboys associate head coach Lamont Evans was one of 10 arrested last fall, and was fired by the school.

The potential involvement and rule-breaking by Texas and Oklahoma State is certainly noteworthy and interesting, but the question that hangs over the conference is just how exposed Kansas may be. The Jayhawks are one of adidas’ flagship programs, and the three-stripes are knee-deep in federal investigators. There’s already been testimony that former Jayhawk Billy Preston got money, and there’s also under-oath statements saying that not only did current KU sophomore Silvio De Sousa as well, but that the Angola native previously had signed a pro deal with a Spanish club as well. De Sousa played in the Final Four last season, which would seem to imperil that banner at Allen Fieldhouse, at minimum.

So far, there have been no bombshells of alleged wrongdoing by coach Bill Self and the Jayhawks – especially when judged against a backdrop of fans increasingly caring less about players getting paid – but that possibility seems to be the biggest what-if still out there in a federal case that we’ve learned has spanned more than three years now.

Dedric Lawson (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

PRESEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

There are two fan bases that are indebted to the Lawson family. Really, the entire season of 2018-19 owes them thanks. If it wasn’t for Keelon Lawson getting demoted from assistant by Tubby Smith, Memphis might not have its electrifying alum, Penny Hardaway, at the helm of the program and Kansas might not be a popular preseason No. 1 pick. Those are two of the most interesting storylines this season and a testament to how good Dedric Lawson is.

The 6-foot-9 transfer averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.1 blocks per game as a sophomore for the Tigers, but left his hometown for Lawrence, along with his talented brother K.J., after Smith dumped their dad before getting dumped by Memphis. He now gives Bill Self one of the most productive and versatile players in the country to headline one of the most talented rosters in the country. Must be nice.

THE REST OF THE BIG 12 FIRST TEAM

  • SAGABA KONATE, West Virginia: The rare player who is it is actually exciting to watch play defense, Konate changes games with his work at the rim.
  • DEAN WADE, Kansas State: The 6-foot-10 senior is effective inside and out, which helps keep the Wildcats’ offense from bogging down.
  • QUENTIN GRIMES, Kansas: This is a bet Kansas leans on the Team USA’s MVP at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship at guard.
  • BARRY BROWN, Kansas State: The 6-foot-3 guard averaged 15.9 points per game last season and will be critical in the Wildcats’ quest to backup last year’s Elite Eight season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • LINDELL WIGGINTON, Iowa State
  • UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas
  • JAYLEN FISHER, TCU
  • MAKAI MASON, Baylor
  • KERWIN ROACH, Texas
Jarrett Culver (Elsa/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith stole the show for Texas Tech’s resurgent season and Elite Eight showing under Chris Beard, but Jarrett Culver was no slouch and figures to step into the void created by those two stars’ departures. He averaged 11.2 points per game and shot 38.2 percent from 3-point range. With a bigger role, he could put up major numbers in Lubbock.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

Aside from Smart for the aforementioned reasons, the Big 12 doesn’t have any coach who is explicitly feeling the heat. So if we dig below the surface (and, yes, stretch some), there are a few things to talk about.

It’s probably worth watching to see what happens with Kansas and the government’s corruption case, but the list of more bulletproof coaches than Bill Self probably isn’t longer than Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams. Mike Boynton was on staff when Oklahoma State was allegedly offering the Bowen family money, and his contract (and short, if surprisingly strong, track record) would make him easily expendable if the Cowboys had to. Steve Prohm went to back-to-back NCAA tournaments, won a Big 12 tournament and got to the Sweet 16 in his first two years with Iowa State but that was exclusively with players Fred Hoiberg brought to Ames, and when the roster turned over last year, the Cyclones sunk to last place. Prohm’s talent pool is much improved and he’s got plenty of goodwill with administration, but if the Cyclones aren’t back to relevance after missing the tournament for the first time since 2011, some impatience could bubble up.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

Kansas is once again the Big 12’s best – and maybe only – hope for winning its first national title since 2008, but the league’s depth is once again one of – and maybe the – best in the country.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

The inevitable collision between the Super Slam Swatter Sagaba Konate and Soul-Snatching Slammer Lindell Wigginton.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Dec. 15, Kansas vs. Villanova
  • Jan. 26, Kansas vs. Kentucky
  • Nov. 9, West Virginia vs. Buffalo
  • Nov. 22, Texas vs. North Carolina
  • Dec. 20, Texas Tech vs. Duke
Sagaba Konate (Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. KANSAS: Because there simply has been enough written about the Jayhawks in this space, here’s some more to consider about Kansas’ streak.

The last time the Jayhawks shared the Big 12 title: It was 2013, with Kansas State in Bruce Weber’s first season leading the Wildcats and playing the Jayhawks to a draw. Back then, Perry Ellis was a freshman, twerking was a thing people talked about a lot, Ben McLemore looked like a future NBA star, the power went out at the Super Bowl and Jeff Withey shot 100 percent (1-1) from 3-point range.

The last time there was a non-Kansas outright Big 12 winner: It was 2004. Eddie Sutton led Oklahoma State to a a 14-2 mark in the Big 12 and the Final Four. Those were the days when Kansas rolled with a Wayne Simien and Keith Langford 1-2 punch, everyone was quoting ‘Anchorman,’ Jameer Nelson was the national player of the year and MySpace and Facebook began their battle for friends. Which reminds me that ‘Friends’ was still on TV then, too.

2. KANSAS STATE: So I think Kansas State is going to be quite good. I think it’s clear going into the season that they have to be slotted as the second-best team in the Big 12. They’ve got continuity and talent. Stability and skill. Let’s indulge, for a moment, though, that maybe we’ve got them overrated some.

Would everyone be so high on the Wildcats if UMBC accomplish the 16-1 miracle and they instead had to face No. 1 overall seed Virginia? What if Arizona had actually played up to its talent level and gotten by Buffalo and Kentucky, to face Kansas State instead of a good-but-not-great John Calipari team? Kansas State, after all, was ultimately beat by a team that had losses to Milwaukee and Indiana State, although admittedly it was a team was from Chicago that had the backing of a nun, so Loyola could have been on a mission from God.

I dunno. Something to think about.

3. WEST VIRGINIA: The Mountaineers’ offense was actually ranked higher than its defense last season on KenPom for the first time of the Press Virginia era. West Virginia really didn’t make a ton of shots but they took care of the ball and hit the offensive glass. Losing Jevon Carter is a blow, no doubt, but the Mountaineers should be able to recreate that success on offense without him. It’s also probably a safe assumption that Bob Huggins won’t let the defense fall off a cliff.

Jaylen Fisher (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

4. TCU: It was pretty obvious in 2016 that the Horned Frogs had pulled off quite the coup when it took Jamie Dixon off Pitt’s hands, but the 1987 TCU graduate has outperformed expectations in a hurry. The Horned Frogs made their first NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years last year, and look to have staying power under Dixon.

Vlad Brodziansky made a lot of what TCU did work with his presence in the middle and his loss, along with Kenrich Williams’, will be felt, but Dixon has plenty to work with. Point guard Jaylen Fisher is back after being sidelined with a knee injury to team with Alex Robinson in the backcourt while sharpshooters Desmond Bane and Kouat Noi return to give the Horned Frogs deadly shooters on the outside. The frontcourt could be a question, but TCU is a Big 12 contender.

5. TEXAS: Texas may not have a Jarrett Allen- or Mo Bamba-caliber NBA prospect on its roster this season, but the Longhorns are plenty talented. It wouldn’t shock anyone to see any of Matt Coleman, Dylan Osetkowski, Kerwin Roach and Jericho Sims on all-conference teams come season’s end while Texas also welcomes a top-10 recruiting class and Elijah Mitrou-Long, a Mount St. Mary’s transfer who averaged 15 points per game as a sophomore. Andrew Jones’ long-term health is obviously the chief concern, but if he is able to play, that gives Shaka Smart another highly talented player to deploy.

Smart has gotten Texas to play defense in his three years in Austin, but they’ll need to make strides on the offensive end to finally start competing at the upper echelon of the Big 12, much less the country, which was the expectation when the Longhorns became the team to finally pull Smart from VCU after a long list of schools failed to.

6. IOWA STATE: The Cyclones are going to be much more talented this season as they come off a 13-18 campaign that saw them finish four games behind ninth-place Oklahoma State in the standings, but getting all the pieces to fit could be the trick for coach Steve Prohm.

Lindell Wigginton is a proven scorer and his return after an NBA flirtation was paramount for the Cyclones, but if he wants to play point guard, his likely pro position, what’s that mean for Nick Weiler-Babb, who became a nightly triple-double threat at PG before injuries ended his season? Cameron Lard is a hugely talented big man, but found himself in trouble off the court and spent the summer off-campus at a wellness center. Iowa State will also have to figure out how to integrate transfers Marial Shayok (Virginia) and Michael Jacobson (Nebraska) along with one of the program’s best recruiting classes, headlined by top-50 recruit Talen Horton-Tucker, who the Cyclones think could be a star. There’s also the matter of Iowa State having no proven shooters outside of Wigginton.

If Iowa State can make it all fit together, they could be this year’s rags to riches story, but if things go wobbly, is there enough leadership to keep things steady?

Lindell Wigginton (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

7. TEXAS TECH: It’s going to be difficult for Chris Beard to replace Keenan Evans and Zhaire Smith, but if he’s able to do it, it’ll probably be on the strength of graduate transfers. The Red Raiders welcome South Dakota’s Matt Mooney, who averaged 18 points per game in back-to-back seasons for the Coyotes, and St. John’s Tariq Owens, who averaged 8.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game for the Red Storm.

Beard isn’t without returners to lean on, however, with Jarrett Culver expected to take a major role and Norense Odiase back after starting 29 games. An Elite Eight repeat is probably a tall task, but Beard seems to have a formula figured out to keep things rolling in Lubbock.

8. BAYLOR: It’s going to be a rebuilding season in Waco for coach Scott Drew, who narrowly missed guiding the Bears to their fifth-straight NCAA tournament appearance last year with a 19-15 overall record and 8-10 Big 12 mark. Drew is experiencing heavy losses from that team, namely Manu Lecomte, Jo Lual-Acuil and T.J. Maston.

There will still be experience at Drew’s disposal, though, with Jake Lindsey, Tristan Clark, King McClure and Mark Vital all back after starting at least 14 games each, though none were huge contributors. The most fascinating pieces for Drew are transfers Mario Kegler (Mississippi State) and Makai Mason (Yale), who hasn’t played in essentially two years due to injury.

9. OKLAHOMA: Lon Kruger is one of the best coaches to do it, but he could be in for a long season with the Trae Young Show moving on after one year. Sure, it turned out to be a bumpy ride with Young, a lottery pick to Atlanta, last season, but you could never count the Sooners out with him on the floor.

It’s not going to be as difficult to bet against the Sooners this year as they return the bulk of the supporting cast from last year that seemed incapable of supporting Young. Maybe that singular style of play was just too hard to adapt to, but it’s difficult to see how Oklahoma is better this season than last.

10. OKLAHOMA STATE: Mike Boynton’s team was the surprise of the Big 12 last year as they won 21 games with a roster few in the Big 12 would have envied. That roster, though, lost basically all its best pieces and there aren’t much in the way of immediate reinforcements on their way. The Cowboys will try to hang their hats on defense, and if they’re able to parlay that into a season similar to last, it’ll be perhaps as big a surprise as their two wins against Kansas last year.

Kentucky lands commitments from two more elite prospects

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Leave a comment

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

Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images
4 Comments

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

AP Photo
4 Comments

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

Getty Images
2 Comments

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.


(Getty Images)

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

Getty Images
Leave a comment

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.