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Iowa’s Cy-Hawk win evidence that Hawkeye collapse may not be in the cards

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IOWA CITY, Iowa — The Big Ten’s new 20-game league schedule has moved up the timeline on everything. Conference games come sooner, which means teams are tested earlier. You can’t hide in a weak non-conference schedule when you’ve got a pair of B1G opponents the first week in December.

For a moment, it looked like No. 18 Iowa’s schedule of events had changed because of it as well. Rather than waiting until February to see a promising season hit the skids, as it repeatedly has under coach Fran McCaffery, the Hawkeyes looked in danger of dashing hopes before Christmas this season after a so-so performance against Pitt, a home loss to Wisconsin and an absolute dismantling by No. 10 Michigan State at the Breslin Center.

It’s just the first week in December, but the Hawkeyes looked rattled. As much as a season can split in two directions before the calendar flips to the new year, Iowa looked in peril of finding itself in a slide that would be difficult to reverse with rival Iowa State, a burgeoning national darling thanks to a 7-1 start without a number of its best players, coming to Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

As Iowa walked off the floor Thursday a 98-84 winner over the Cyclones that featured all the nastiness that makes rivalries so contentious and entertaining, it looked as though Hawkeyes weren’t about to surrender to such a fate just yet.

It was the type of response that was sorely needed for an Iowa team that fell behind by as many as 33 to the Spartans just days earlier.

“Exactly,” McCaffery said Thursday. “You know, we really deviated from the game plan on Monday night.”

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There didn’t seem to be any deviations Thursday, other than from the course Iowa looked like it may have been charting after back-to-back disappointing showings.

Iowa’s offense was humming. The Hawkeyes shot 57.4 percent from the floor and were 9 of 18 from 3-point range. They nabbed 17 offensive rebounds and scored 23 second-chance points. Tyler Cook looked like the All-American Iowa believes he can be in scoring 26 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. The Hawks got production off the bench, a necessity McCaffery teams that often lean on a large rotation, and while they gave up 1.2 points per possession, played good enough defense in stretches to keep the Cyclones off-kilter.

Perhaps most notably, Iowa was a team determined to exert its will on the game. Against the Spartans, the Hawkeyes limped to the final buzzer without much objection. They brought the fight – literally – to Iowa State.

There were two scuffles Thursday, the first coming before halftime when Iowa State’s Michael Jacobson and Iowa’s Connor McCaffery getting into it some and then Iowa’s Cordell Pemsl rushing in to start a shoving match. Then as the game wound down the Cyclones’ Marial Shayok and Jacobson poked at the ball in McCaffery’s hands as the game’s final seconds ticked off, drew McCaffery’s offense and then started yet another fracas.

In a state where apologizing when someone bumps into you is the norm, two shoving matches counts for high drama.

While it’s debatable how much toughness it takes to get into a couple of relatively petty squabbles on the basketball court, Iowa at least showed it wasn’t ready to go quietly into that good NIT.

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Pemsl wasn’t even supposed to be playing. He’d been ruled out for the season with a knee injury. Pemsl often seems to find himself in the center of tensions on the court, so it’s probably no surprise his return coincided with Iowa showing some edge.

His decision to get back on the court might also underscore the stakes Iowa was looking at. This is a program that has played its way into big expectations only to disappoint before. In 2014, the Hawkeyes were 19-6 and 8-4 in the B1G before they lost five of six to end the regular season, dropped its first conference tournament game and then bowed out in the First Four. In 2016, they were ranked as high as third in the AP poll before losing five of their last seven to finish the regular season, dropped their first B1G tournament game and got destroyed by eventual national champ Villanova in the second round of the NCAA tournament. A three-game skid in February and another one-and-done conference tournament in 2017 spelled NIT.

Then there was last season when Iowa went 14-19 and it was revealed that Iowa signed McCaffery to a new contract with a massive new buyout number. They also didn’t tell anyone about it, and it took an open records request by media to bring it public that the cost of firing him ballooned from $4.6 million to $10.2 million last year and $9 million this year. It’s hard to imagine Iowa was doing anything other than negotiating against itself there for a coach who ended last year with a 68-76 B1G record.

So things weren’t all touchy feely in Iowa City – I haven’t even mentioned the bizarre public feud involving the radio play-by-play guy that erupted last month – and a three-game losing streak would have only exacerbated tensions and made the wins against Oregon and UConn in November that raised expectations quickly forgotten.

Instead, it’s easy to see the Hawkeyes reignited after last night. Not only did they beat Iowa State, they played well in doing so and showed an attitude that will prove useful in a Big Ten that looks formidable. Cook being a monster would go a long way, too. The defense needs to improve, but if the offense can operate the level it did against the Cyclones, it doesn’t have to be great for Iowa to rack up wins this winter.

Thursday’s win against a rival didn’t solve all Iowa’s issues, but, at minimum, it showed that they’re willing to fight to fix them.

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.