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Big Ten tournament preview and postseason awards

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POSTSEASON AWARDS

BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Cassius Winston, Michigan State

The top three for Player of the Year in the Big Ten is a tight race, but the way the season ended solidified Winston as the recipient in my mind. Michigan State lost two of their three best players to injury this year, which meant that the entire load of the offense was thrust upon Winston’s shoulders. Not only did he deliver, but he did so while winning a share of the Big Ten regular season title and sweeping in-state rival Michigan in the process. Should I mention that he won a pair of duels against his nemesis Zavier Simpson, too?

BIG TEN COACH OF THE YEAR: Matt Painter, Purdue

Purdue was a borderline top 25 team heading into the season, but in hindsight, that was probably a poor choice. The Boilermakers rolled through the Big Ten and shook off a slow start to the season en route to a share of the Big Ten regular season title. Carsen Edwards put up numbers all season long, but it was the emergence of players like Grady Eifert, Ryan Cline and Trevion Williams that made all the difference in the world for this team.

FIRST TEAM ALL-BIG TEN

  • CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State
  • CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue
  • ZAVIER SIMPSON, Michigan
  • BRUNO FERNANDO, Maryland
  • ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin

SECOND TEAM ALL-BIG TEN

  • ANTHONY COWAN, Maryland
  • ROMEO LANGFORD, Indiana
  • IGNAS BRAZDEIKIS, Michigan
  • JORDAN MURPHY, Minnesota
  • LAMAR STEVENS, Penn State

BIG TEN TOURNAMENT PREVIEW

WHEN: March 13-17
WHERE: Chicago
FINAL: March 17, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS

FAVORITE: Michigan State (+175)

For my money, Michigan State is probably the most likely team to win this tournament. I say that because I trust them on both sides of the ball more than I trust just about anyone else in the conference. Regardless of who has been on the floor for them this season, the Spartans have been elite defensively. They are the ninth-best defense in college hoops, according to KenPom, and they are actually better offensively than they are defensively — that is the Cassius Winston factor.

That said, the concern for me here would be Winston’s legs. At what point does he get tired having to carry such a massive load game in and game out? Maybe it’s not the second game in two days, but three games in three days against good basketball teams is enough to tire anyone, let alone a player that gets the usage Winston gets.

But … I mean, is there anyone else you think you can trust fully in this conference? WISCONSIN (+500) has a superstar that gets Hack-a-Happed late in games. MICHIGAN (+250) can go weeks without scoring. PURDUE (+350) has been great, but I’ll always have a tough time trusting a team where the best player is a streaky, inefficient volume scorer.

So it’s the Spartans, I guess.

SLEEPER: Maryland (+900)

The Terps ended up as the No. 5 seed in this tournament, but they actually have a pretty good draw here. If they can get out of the first round they draw the Badgers in the quarterfinals where they can put two different NBA big men on Ethan Happ. I think they can beat Michigan State, assuming Michigan State gets past Indiana, and there is nothing about Purdue or Michigan that truly scares me if I’m Mark Turgeon … other than Zavier Simpson’s sky-hooks.

BEST VALUE: Indiana (+2500)

The two hottest teams in the Big Ten right now were both dumpster fires in January. Indiana lost 12 of 13 games at one point this season while PENN STATE (+1500) opened league play with 10 straight losses.

Indiana is the better value here. They have won four in a row heading into the Big Ten tournament — including wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin — and look like they are finally playing with some confidence. Not only are they getting much better odds, but the way the bracket shakes out works for them. OHIO STATE (+6000) really shouldn’t scare anyone even with Kaleb Wesson back in the mix, and if the Hoosiers get to the quarterfinals, they will play a Michigan State team they swept this season.

The Nittany Lions don’t have quite as good of a draw. They get Minnesota in the first round and Purdue in the quarterfinals. They lost to the Golden Gophers and got swept by the Boilermakers. That said, this is a different Penn State team now. They’ve won five of their last six and seven of their last ten, giving Pat Chambers a puncher’s chance at keeping his job. I like Indiana significantly more in this spot, but that’s mostly because of what they payout with a win.

BUBBLE DWELLERS

MINNESOTA (NET: 56, SOS: 37): Minnesota is probably going to be in the tournament regardless of what happens in Chicago. Penn State, at this point, is a Q1 opponent on a neutral court, so a loss to the Nittany Lions would only drop Minnesota to 3-10 against Q1 opponents. That said, I do think they could stand to win one more game. As of today, they are 3-9 against Q1 and 10-12 against Q1 and Q2 with three sub-100 road losses that all qualify as Q2. The win at Wisconsin (15) is going to look very good on Selection Sunday.

INDIANA (NET: 51, SOS: 45)
OHIO STATE (NET: 55, SOS: 53): Another play-out game to kick off a conference tournament!!! Indiana and Ohio State face-off in the 4-5 game of the Big Ten tournament at noon on Thursday, and it will be for the right to still be on the bubble come Selection Sunday. At this point, I think Indiana is in a much better spot. The Buckeyes had a good non-conference season, but they’ve fallen off a cliff in the last month. They lost their last three games without Kaleb Wesson and have lost six of their last eight in total. Indiana, on the other hand, has won four in a row — including Michigan State and Wisconsin — to put themselves in a spot where one win here could end up being enough.

WHAT ELSE IS ON THE LINE?

Can anyone in the Big Ten climb up to the No. 1 seed line? I’m not sure that they can. Michigan State will likely be the closest if they can find a way to win the Big Ten tournament, and the Wolverines will also have a shot if things break their way, but I have a hard time seeing either of them leapfrog enough teams to get there. Part of the reason for that is I think Gonzaga and Virginia both have No. 1 seeds just about locked up, and Kentucky will likely play Tennessee and Duke will likely play North Carolina before the finals of their conference tournaments.

There are also some jobs on the line. Is this going to be the end of the Tim Miles era in Lincoln? Will this be the last that we see of Pat Chambers?

PREDICTION

I think that it gets wild in this event. I think Indiana gets to the finals. I think that Illinois wins two games. I think that Penn State can win two games. I would love to see Michigan-Michigan State part three or Indiana-Purdue for the tournament title, but I have a feeling we are going to be watching Maryland play Penn State, or something else totally off the board, before the Selection Show commences.

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.