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Monday Overreactions: Michigan’s the best, Pac-12’s the worst, Nevada’s going undefeated?

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Markus Howard, Marquette

In a game that Marquette badly needed to win, Markus Howard put on one of the better performances of his career in an 83-71 win over No. 12 Kansas State.

45 points. 11-for-17 shooting. 21 free throws attempted.

It wasn’t quite as impressive as the 52 point outburst that he had at Providence last year, and he has a habit of doing things like this from time-to-time — I steadfastly refuse to bet on Marquette on a game-to-game basis strictly because Howard can do something like this at literally any moment during a season.

This is a massive win for the Golden Eagles. It is not exactly a secret, but the Big East is in a bit of a down year. There is only one team in the league that is currently in the top 25, and that is a Villanova team that is not as good as Villanova of the last five years. Put another way, there are not going to be many marquee wins available once conference play starts, so getting this one on the board now was critical.

I also think that it is important to note how this explosion came about. Kansas State has one of the best on-ball defenders in the country on their roster in Barry Brown. With 9:00 left in the first half, Howard had just six points and was struggling to find a rhythm offensively. At the 8:31 mark, Brown picked up his second foul and was then given a technical foul for his reaction to the call. He went to the bench for the rest of the half, and while he was sitting, Howard scored 18 points in a 27-13 Marquette surge to close the half with a 44-33 lead.

One of the takes that I’ve seen floating around twitter is that Howard only got going because Brown was sent to the bench because of his third personal (the tech), and that he would have continued to be stymied had Brown remained on the floor. But that ignores the simple fact that one of the reasons Howard is so good and so dangerous is that he draws a ton of fouls. He averaged 6.5 fouls drawn per 40 minutes. Against Kansas State, I counted 13 fouls drawn. He went to the free throw line 21 times.

Put another way, drawing fouls and getting an opponent’s best defender off of him is part of why he is so good.

Because when the door is left cracked open, he’ll push his way through with a 40-burger.

D’Mitrik Trice (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Wisconsin Badgers

The Badgers bounced back from a loss to Virginia in the title game of the Battle 4 Atlantis with a pair of quality wins over NCAA tournament teams.

It started with a come-from-behind win over N.C. State — who is currently ranked 18th in the NBC Sports top 25 — in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, and then on Friday night, the Badgers went into Iowa City and landed a solid win over the Hawkeyes.

Ethan Happ is the man that has been getting all the praise, and deservedly so. He’s playing at an all-american level, and he has been the anchor for this group on both sides of the ball. I can’t say enough about what he’s been able to do this year.

But it’s time that we start fawning over the improvement that D’Mitrik Trice has made this offseason. Trice is actually Wisconsin’s co-leading scorer this season, and he is far and away their best perimeter shooter. He’s shooting 58.3 percent from three. He’s made 28 threes on the year. No one else on Wisconsin has made more than 10 or attempted more than 30.

The Badgers finished last season ranked in the 250s nationally in three-point shooting. This year they are 15th, and that is almost solely due to the improvement of Trice. I’m not sure there is a better 1-2 punch in the Big Ten right now than the two Badger stars.

MONDAY OVERREACTIONS

1. MICHIGAN MIGHT BE THE BEST TEAM IN THE COUNTRY

No, I’m not kidding.

By now, even my dog knows how good Michigan is on the defensive end of the floor. They still haven’t allowed better than 1.0 points-per-possession in a game this season, and that came against North Carolina, who was a top five team in offensive efficiency entering that game.

We expected that.

Maybe not quite to this level — I, for one, did not think that Jon Teske was going to develop into one of the best defensive big men in college basketball — but any team with Zavier Simpson, Charles Matthews and Ignas Brazdeikis was always going to be tough as nails and a nightmare to score on.

Where Michigan is changing the narrative here is on the offensive side of the ball, which sounds weird since this is a team that is coached by John Beilein but is 100 percent accurate. The concern for this group was whether or not they would be able to score enough. Even during their run to the national title game last season, the Wolverines went through long stretches where they were completely unable to get an easy shot, and that was with Mo Wagner, Duncan Robinson and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman on the roster.

This year, despite losing the three-best offensive weapons from a team that finished 35th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric last season, the Wolverines are better on that end of the floor.

Part of it has been Brazdeikis, who is the team’s leading scorer and has provided the program with a set of tools they haven’t had in prior years. He’s shooting 42.9 percent from three, he’s terrific at putting the ball on the floor and getting to the rim, he’s dangerous in transition and he can do all of those things while being able to guard fours at the college level.

Part of it has been Poole’s recent emergence. He’s made 12-of-16 threes in the last three games after starting the season 1-for-10 from deep. He’ll run hot and cold all year long, but the threat of him popping off for five or six threes will be enough to force defenses to defend him. You cannot let him get going.

Part of it is Simpson’s growth operating in ball-screens, and Teske’s development in every aspect of the game.

Put it all together, and Michigan is top 20 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency — which still factors in data from last season, so they are probably better in reality — and in the top 80 in three-point shooting. If that holds up all season, there is no reason the Wolverines can’t play with and beat anyone in college hoops.

Caleb Martin (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

2. NEVADA, RIGHT NOW, IS MORE LIKELY TO GO UNDEFEATED THAT DUKE EVER WAS

Nevada passed two of their toughest tests of the non-conference this week, as they went into Chicago and knocked off Loyola in the MVC-MWC Challenge before heading to LA to take out USC.

On Friday, the Wolf Pack will face their toughest test of the non-conference, playing Arizona State on a neutral floor. If Eric Musselman can get his team back to Reno with a win, then all of a sudden we are looking at a situation like the one teams like Gonzaga and Wichita State have faced in recent seasons: There is a very real chance that they’ll get to March with an unblemished record.

After ASU, Nevada will play Grand Canyon, South Dakota State, Akron and Utah before starting Mountain West play. There isn’t another team in the league that currently ranks in the top 50 on KenPom, and as things stand today, he is projected Nevada as a heavy favorite in every game they play the rest of the season. As of today, there is a 9.4 percent chance the Wolf Pack end the regular season undefeated.

At some point, Nevada is probably going to get picked off. Maybe they lose to the Sun Devils. Maybe they get picked off on a road trip to Utah State or San Diego State, both of whom are good and have really tough home-court environments. Hell, maybe they overlook their trip to Utah.

But this is something to be cognizant of because it will very likely be a storyline.

And if Gonzaga can get through Tennessee and a trip to North Carolina with wins, they’ll be right there with Nevada.

3. LAGERALD VICK IS THIS YEAR’S EARLY MVP

Vick is not the best player on Kansas. He is not the guy that Kansas runs their offense through. He is not the guy NBA teams are interested in seeing when they come to Lawrence. He’s not even someone you can call an x-factor for this team moving forward.

But he has been Kansas’ MVP through the first month of the season, and he might be the single most valuable player in all of college basketball to date.

That’s because he has repeatedly rescued this Kansas team this year. He had 32 points and his all eight of his threes when Kansas struggled to beat Vermont, trailing in the second half. He had 33 points and his seven threes in a win over Louisiana where the Jayhawks trailed by 12. He scored eight straight second half points to give Kansas their first lead against Tennessee. And on Saturday, he hit a three to force overtime and then scored the first eight points of overtime — 27 in total — to help KU avoid an upset at the hands of Stanford.

Put another way, if Vick isn’t playing the way that he’s been playing, Kansas might have three or four losses to their name.

Sounds like an MVP to me.

4. LOUISVILLE WILL BE A TOP 25 TEAM THIS SEASON

Credit where credit is due: Louisville has put together one of the more unexpected early season runs. This past week, they won at Seton Hall and knocked off Michigan State in overtime at home. That came on the heels of a trip to NYC for the Preseason NIT where the Cards lost in overtime to Marquette and hung with Tennessee for 38 minutes before losing by 11.

Chris Mack is starting to figure this group out. He’s not quite there yet — Jordan Nwora is shooting 27 percent from three, Steve Enoch is not yet dominating the paint like he should be, V.J. King has no confidence — but you can see the Cards getting better every time they play.

5. THE PAC-12 WILL MAX OUT AT THREE NCAA TOURNAMENT BIDS

It’s hard to overstate just how bad the conference has been this season.

Throughout the first month of the season, the conference has registered five wins that will register as quality wins come Selection Sunday. They are, in order:

  1. Oregon over Syracuse in MSG when Syracuse was missing Franklin Howard.
  2. Arizona at UConn.
  3. Arizona over Iowa State in Maui when Iowa State was missing four players, including two starters.
  4. Arizona State over Mississippi State in Las Vegas.
  5. Arizona State over Utah State in Las Vegas.

Their sixth-best win is … UCLA beating Loyola Marymount in Westwood?

That doesn’t include the bad losses that they’re taken. Oregon may have that win over the Orange, but they lost at home to Texas Southern and just took an L at Houston. Oregon State lost to Missouri. Washington State lost to Seattle and New Mexico State. Colorado fell at San Diego. Utah lost to Hawaii and took a 22-point beating against Northwestern. Cal is 2-4 on the season. Stanford is 4-4. USC and UCLA have a combined five losses, and while none of them are bad losses — Vandy’s win at USC will look worse than it was as the Commodores play out their season without Darius Garland — they are 0-5 against relevant competition.

All told, the conference is 6-19 against the top seven leagues, and I didn’t even factor in include games against Nevada, Utah State and Saint Mary’s.

No matter how you slice it, the conference has arguably been worse than expected this year.

And that’s saying something.

Pac-12 loosens intra-conference transfer rule

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The Pac-12 approved a measure Monday that will lighten restrictions on players that want to transfer to schools within the conference.

Players who now make an intra-conference transfer will no longer be subject to an immediate loss of a season of eligibility, the conference announced.

“This rule change removes one of the last remaining penalties associated with transferring between Conference schools,” the league said in a press release, “and is designed to provide student-athletes with a similar experience to any other student who decides to transfer.”

The league also has passed rules to beef up its non-conference schedule as programs will be required to a non-conference five-year trailing average of opponents’ NET ranking must be 175 or less, no participation in road buy games, no regular season games against non-Division I opponents and no road games versus a non-conference opponent with a five-year trailing average of 200 NET. Those requirements, along with the move to a 20-game conference schedule, come in response to continued struggles by the league in basketball, with last season seeing the league flirt with being a one-bid NCAA tournament conference. Ultimately, its league champion, Washington, received a No. 9 seed with Oregon getting a 12 and Arizona State an 11 and a First Four invitation.

 

Kenny Wooten writes he won’t return to Oregon

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Kenny Wooten took to Instagram on Monday to discuss his future.

“I know I’ve waited a very long time to answer this question,” Wooten wrote in response to a question from a fan, “but I will not be coming back for year 3.”

Presumably that means that Wooten means to continue to pursue a professional career after declaring for the NBA draft after his sophomore season. He competed at the G-Leage Elite minicamp last week in Chicago along with a host of other draft hopefuls.

The 6-foot-9 California native averaged 6.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game while shooting 58.9 percent from the field. At the moment, it’s likely that Wooten would have to pursue a path to the NBA that includes the G-League.

Wooten makes it a loss of seven players from last year’s Sweet 16 squad for coach Dana Altman, who also saw Bol Bol and Louis King go to the draft. Payton Pritchard Jr., who averaged nearly 13 points per game as a junior, has also declared, but has not indicated if he plans to stay in or return to school.

Five-star forward Trendon Watford commits to LSU

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Whatever issues have dogged LSU coach Will Wade over the last few months, they aren’t enough to keep him from landing another five-star recruit.

Trendon Watford, a top-25 forward in 2019, committed to Wade and the Tigers in an Monday afternoon announcement.

“It’s the trust,” he said of his pick of the Tigers, according to AL.com, “the trust I have with those coaches and them helping me reach my potential.”

Watford said he had been leaning towards heading to Baton Rouge, but retreated from that stance when Wade was suspended by LSU after reports surfaced about federal wiretaps featuring Wade discussing making a “strong-ass offer” for a recruit. Former Arizona assistant Book Richardson was also on wiretap discussing Wade, recruit Naz Reid and $300,000. Ultimately, though, LSU has stood by him as it reinstated him from suspension.

“When all that was going on it was definitely a pause in my recruitment,” Watford told 247Sports. “Before that I was going to commit to LSU during the McDonald’s game and that happened so we postponed. He still contacted me throughout that time and would tell me what was up. When he got reinstated they got pushed back to the top.”

Ultimately, the Tigers are landing one of the top players that were left on the board this spring, a 6-foot-9 forward that was also considering Alabama, Memphis and Indiana, where his brother Christian played. He joins James Bishop, a top-150 guard from Maryland, and junior college transfer guard Charles Manning in Wade’s 2019 class. It would also seem there is little immediate concern, at least by Watford, that the NCAA might soon find wrongdoing that was suggested by the evidence and testimony to come out the federal investigation into college hoops.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with what Nassir Little said about North Carolina at the combine

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One of the storylines that has popped up since the NBA draft combine came to an end last week has centered around a couple of things that potential top ten pick and former North Carolina Tar Heel Nassir Little said.

Before we dive into it, here is what the actual quote was, courtesy of our own Scott Phillips:

“Hesitancy. Not being sure of what I wanted to do at UNC,” Little said when he was asked why he thinks he struggled more in college than he did in the high school ranks. “The coaching staff didn’t really understand exactly what my role was early on, especially in the offense, (which) created a lot of hesitancy which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

Then we he was asked to elaborate on whether or not being unsure of his role contributed to his hesitancy, Little said, “Just kind of being unsure, playing out of position, created some confusion on the court which caused me to be hesitant.”

Little has taken some criticism for this, and, to be frank, this can be read as something of a criticism of the coaching staff. Without context, one can infer that Little is passing the buck and pinning the blame for his struggles on his coaches.

But the context here matters, and it changes the tone of what he is trying to say.

Let me start with this: Little says that he would not jump straight from high school to the NBA even if he had the chance to do it all over again.

“It was a struggle statistically,” he said, “but on the court I developed, my body developed and became more mature in the weight room there, learning about the game, playing against actual defense – in high school there is no help, you beat your guy, you’re going to get a dunk. Going to college exposes you to what’s helpful for the NBA.”

That doesn’t sound like someone who is bitter that an inability to crack the starting lineup at North Carolina cost him some draft spots.

To me, it sounds like a guy who realized that he didn’t know what he didn’t know before he arrived in Chapel Hill.

The thing about Little is that he was always just a weird fit for North Carolina’s system and the way that Roy Williams wants to play.

In this day and age, basketball is becoming more and more about versatility and your ability to play multiple positions. Think about Giannis Antetokounmpo bringing the ball up the floor for the Bucks or the job that Draymond Green does for Golden State. Little is such an attractive prospect because he has the size, strength and athleticism to be able to guard multiple different positions — which you cannot teach — while having the upside of still needing to learn how to do pretty much everything better offensively.

North Carolina’s offense is not one that preaches versatility. The positions are quite rigid. Williams wants two bigs on the floor that are true bigs. He wants two wings on the floor that are going to be able to get out in transition and make threes on the wing. He wants a point guard that can lead the break. Where Little’s versatility makes him an intriguing prospect at the highest level, he’s relegated to being something of a tweener for a coach that is just two years removed from his third national title.

So when Little says “the coaching staff didn’t really understand exactly what my role was,” he’s not blaming them.

He’s just speaking the truth.

When he says that created a “hesitancy” in him, of course it did. If you walked into a new job tomorrow, and your boss never really gives you clear and concise instructions on what he expects you to do, are you going to be at your very best right away, or will it take you some time to adjust?

Roy Williams is one of the best to ever coach college basketball, and one of his biggest strengths is the ability to find and recruit players that fit into his system. Coby White is the perfect example. Don’t be surprised when Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot have us saying the same thing next season.

Little is not one of those players that fit perfectly into what Williams wanted to do, but as far as I can tell, this was the closest that we came to hearing Little complain about it. He accepted his role, he got better throughout the year and he had some of his best games in big moments — the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, the Florida State game at home, the Virginia Tech game in January.

Maybe I’m reading this entirely wrong, but to me, Little doesn’t come off as bitter or angry, he sounds like a mature, self-aware kid that was honestly answering questions about his one season in college.

Javonte Smart’s decision to return to LSU could complicate things next season

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Javonte Smart announced over the weekend that he will be withdrawing from the NBA draft and returning to LSU for his sophomore season.

Smart is a 6-foot-4 point guard and a former four-star recruit that averaged 11.1 points, 3.3 boards and 2.4 assists as a freshman. He was one of six Tigers — along with Naz Reid, Tremont Waters, Skylar Mays, Marlon Taylor and Emmitt Williams — to declare for the draft. None of the other five have announced a decision yet.

In a vacuum, this is obviously a good thing for an LSU program that has quite a bit up in the air right now.

But there is more to this story than a solid freshman returning to school for his sophomore season, because Smart found himself smack in the middle of the controversy involving the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball. In March, Yahoo Sports reported that LSU head coach Will Wade was caught on a wire tap discussing with Christian Dawkins, an ex-runner for a former NBA agent that has been convicted of fraud and sentenced to prison as a result of this scandal, a “strong-ass” offer that he made to one of Smart’s handlers.

“I was thinking last night on this Smart thing,” Wade reportedly said in the conversation on wiretap with Dawkins. “I’ll be honest with you, I’m [expletive] tired of dealing with the thing. Like I’m just [expletive] sick of dealing with the [expletive]. Like, this should not be that [expletive] complicated.”

“Dude,” Wade continued to Dawkins, referring to the third party involved in the recruitment. “I went to him with a [expletive] strong-ass offer about a month ago. [Expletive] strong.

“The problem was, I know why he didn’t take it now, it was [expletive] tilted toward the family a little bit. It was tilted toward taking care of the mom, taking care of the kid. Like it was tilted towards that. Now I know for a fact he didn’t explain everything to the mom. I know now, he didn’t get enough of the piece of the pie in the deal.”

Smart was suspended for the final game of the regular season, but he was reinstated prior to the start of the SEC tournament. Will Wade was suspended at the same time, but he was not reinstated until last month.

This might end up being problematic, for Wade, for Smart and, potentially, for LSU. Smart returning to school means that the NCAA can now exert influence over him. They will be investigating everything that has popped up as a result of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption, from what was discussed at trial to the things that were reported separately in the media. I have very little doubt that LSU is going to be one of the programs that gets investigated, and since he is back in college, the NCAA will once again be able to hold power over him.

They can call him in to be interviewed. If he does not tell the truth in that interview, he can be suspended. If he does tell the truth, just how much of a headache is that going to be for the coaching staff and the program as a whole?

I don’t have the answer to that question, and based on LSU’s decision to reinstate Smart in March, they must either believe that the player did not know anything about that “strong-ass offer” or that the story is inaccurate in some way.

Either way, Smart’s decision to come back to school is going to complicate things, even if it makes the team better.