Duke’s Influencer: Tre Jones will be the most influential player in college hoops, if he has learned to shoot

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The third edition of our memorable moments series has to do with Duke and Tre Jones.

The most embarrassing moment from last year’s season was when UCF almost beat Duke because opted to use 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall to guard Jones. On why that worked and what makes Jones the most influential player on this year’s Duke roster.

MORE: Virginia’s title runThe evolution of Matt Painter

UCF came so close, agonizingly close, to pulling off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history last season.

Literal millimeters.

That’s how far the Knights were from knocking off Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett’s Duke team. If either B.J. Taylor’s runner or Aubrey Dawkins follow up tip roll through the hoop instead of off the rim, then Tacko Fall takes down Zion, Johnny Dawkins upsets his mentor Coach K and, for the second time in three years, a Duke team that entered the season as the consensus No. 1 team in the country goes down with a whimper in the second round of the NCAA tournament:

That clip is the moment that most will remember about UCF’s brush with glory. Others will remember this blown alley-oop, a missed dunk that turned a would-be six point UCF lead into a one point game after Cam Reddish buried a three not 10 seconds later. Still others will think back to a pair of non-calls on what turned out to be Duke’s winning possession. Zion wasn’t called for that charge. R.J. wasn’t called for that push-off. I think most would agree that UCF had a legitimate beef after the game.

But I’m not all that interested in re-litigating either of those calls.

Because that’s not the moment that stood out to me during that game.

For my money, the most memorable part of Duke’s near-miss against UCF – and perhaps the only part of Duke’s 2018-19 season that will have a significant impact on this upcoming season – was the fact that Johnny Dawkins felt totally comfortable using the immobile, 7-foot-5 Tacko Fall to “guard” Tre Jones for much of the second half.


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If Duke had lost that game to UCF, the narratives about their season, the hot takes about how the Blue Devils are always overrated and never live up to the hype they have in the preseason, would have been unbearable.

The combination of Zion’s presence, the Duke brand and an early exit from the tournament would have made this the biggest story in American sports for a full two-day news cycle. That might have been enough to permanently drive me off the internet for eternity, because the truth is that UCF came a bad bounce away from picking off the Blue Devils because they just so happened to be the nut matchup.

As the saying goes, styles make fights, and there was no team in college basketball that played a style better-suited to beating last year’s Duke team than UCF did.

The secret was out before the season started. I wrote about it last July. Duke did not have nearly enough shooting on their roster, and by the time ACC play rolled around, everyone knew that the way to hang with all that talent Duke had was to pack bodies into the paint, dare Zion and R.J. to drive into a crowd and live with whatever happens when Jones and company shot from the perimeter. As a team, the Blue Devils shot just 30.8 percent from three last season, the lowest number in Coach K’s Duke tenure. It was so bad that Zion was actually the second-best three-point shooter on the roster.

UCF took that scouting report to the extreme for long stretches of the second half. They had Fall “guard” Jones, but instead of actually playing defense on the point guard, Fall was parked in front of the rim to act as Zion repellent. He completely ignored Jones defensively. They dared him to shoot. I’m sure at some point the UCF defense was screaming, “that’s the shot we want,” as Jones was teeing up a three-ball. Dawkins gets criticized for his coaching acumen from time to time, but there’s not doubting that this was a brilliant move that took some cajones to run and, frankly, probably should have earned him the win:

I bring all of this up because I firmly believe that Jones’ is going to end up being the key to Duke’s season.

“If we’re going to be really good,” Coach K told reporters at Duke’s media day, “he has to be really good.”

There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that Jones was just named captain as a sophomore who is really the only guy that is a clear-cut starter at a specific position. He’s going to play 35-40 minutes per night at the point guard spot. That’s a given.

And at this point, I think it’s the only given on Duke’s roster.

But it also plays into some of the many question marks surrounding the rest of the Duke roster.

I don’t mean to say that as a negative, either. Those question marks aren’t necessarily bad things. They’re just … question marks.

Like, for example, what is going to happen with Duke’s frontcourt?

For my money, Vernon Carey is going to be the most productive player on Duke’s roster and quite possibly the best big man in the ACC when it is all said and done. I don’t think it’s out of the question that he’ll average somewhere around 15 points and 10 boards. He’s a burly, 6-foot-10 post presence with a soft touch, a knack for getting on the glass and the physicality that you would expect out of the son of an NFL offensive lineman.

The ideal pairing for him would probably be fellow freshman Matthew Hurt, a 6-foot-9 forward that is supremely skilled and a lights-out shooter from the perimeter but stuck somewhere between too slow and stiff to play the three and too slender to play the four. His shooting would create all kinds of space for Carey to operate inside, but the problem would be that Duke may not be capable of getting a stop when Carey is paired with Hurt.

Enter Javin DeLaurier, who, like Jones, was recently named a captain. He is the best defender in Duke’s frontcourt this season, the only guy that combines the ability to defend ball-screens with the ability to protect the rim, but he is exactly 1-for-10 from three in three seasons. Getting shooting on the floor any chance they can is going to be a priority for Duke this year.

There are similar question marks on the wing. Freshman Wendell Moore is probably the most talented of the group. He checks in at 6-foot-5 with a wingspan over 7-feet and the strength, athleticism and versatility to defend multiple positions. He’ll very likely be Duke’s best wing defender this season, but he’s also a guy that is known for being a slasher and a finisher more than a shooter and a scorer. Put another way, he’s not stretching out defenses. Neither is Cassius Stanley, a freak athlete that recently broke Zion Williamson’s school record in the vertical.

But then there is Alex O’Connell, who was very clearly the best shooter on the Duke roster last season, and Joey Baker, who might actually be the best shooter in the Duke program, but these are guys that struggled to get minutes on a team that was in desperate need of perimeter shooting last year. Let’s just say they aren’t exactly renowned for their defensive capabilities. Jordan Goldwire is, but he also shot 3-for-25 from three last year. Then there is Jack White who, in theory, is the kind of player that can make a lot of these pieces fit together. He’s a guy that can space the floor, can guard wings and bigs and protects the rim despite standing just 6-foot-7. But he shot 27.8 percent from beyond the arc last season. He went 0-for-10 in the loss to Syracuse. He missed 28 straight threes during a six-week stretch of ACC play. I’m not ready to trust him to have the confidence to be a consistent perimeter threat.

And that kind of sums up Duke this year.

They have a lot of guys that can go out and do a job in a specific role, but they don’t have a lot of guys that can do more than what they’re best at.

Put another way, Duke doesn’t have a lot of guys that thrive playing both sides of the ball.

Some of this is manageable through matchup-based lineup changes – for example, O’Connell’s defense can be hidden when he’s playing next to Jones and Moore; Duke’s spacing issues can be somewhat mitigated when their four, Hurt, is the best shooter and the most skilled offensive weapon on the roster – but for the most part, Coach K is going to have his work cut out for him figuring out how he can put a team on the floor that is going to be able to simultaneously be good offensively and defensively.

Which brings me all the way back to Jones.

I really do think we’re going to see him take a step forward this season. I believe that we are going to see so much more of what he can do to create, to lead. He deferred as a freshman. That’s what happens when the two best players in the sport are on your team and both of them happen to be at their best with the ball in their hands.

That’s not going to be the case this year.

This is going to be his team even if he ends up being the third- or fourth-leading scorer on “his team.”

But how much – and, perhaps more importantly, where, specifically – Jones improves as a sophomore will end up being what determines if Duke is a legitimate national title contender or simply one of those teams that finds themselves in that 3-5 seed range on Selection Sunday.

So where does he need to improve?

The obvious answer is in his perimeter shooting. I can roll through the numbers if you’d like. They aren’t pretty. Jones shot just 26.2 percent from three, and that was after hitting five threes against Virginia Tech in the Sweet 16. He shot 29.8 percent on all jumpshots. He shot just 27.4 percent on all catch-and-shoot jumpers and that number dropped to 16.6 percent when those catch-and-shoot jumpers were classified as guarded by Synergy’s logs. He actually shot 31.2 percent on off-the-dribble jumpers, but only two of the 24 that he mades last season came from beyond the arc. Making less than a third of your mid-range pull-ups is not exactly what analytics tells us is the most efficient way to play basketball.

You’re starting to see why defenses opted not to guard him last year.

Assuming Jones does become the shooter we want him to be, what does that change?

Again, there’s an obvious answer: Spacing:

It takes an extra body out of the paint. It makes it that much more difficult to figure out who to double off of if Carey goes into Marvin Bagley III mode. It makes playing a gapping defense more difficult. It strains a defense that gets put into rotation – if defenses need to run Jones off of the three-point line, it will create just that many more open looks off of ball reversals for Duke’s best shooters. Duke had one of the most efficient offenses in the country last season because of the fact that they had Zion and R.J. Those two can cover up a lot of flaws. They could go 1-on-2 or 1-on-3 and win because they’re awesome. As good as Carey and Hurt and Moore are, they are not the kind of players that will beat defenses that can pretend Tre Jones is Trey Wingo.

But what may be just as important is that it will open up more chances for Jones in ball-screen actions. If he can’t shoot then there is no reason for a defender to ever trail him over a screen, which more or less renders him useless in those actions. Going under a screen takes away chances to penetrate, it takes away the roll man and it limits the chances to play against a switch. It eliminates all the offensive advantages that ball-screens are designed to create. Defenses cannot go under screens against point guards that can shoot because … well, it’s pretty obvious – you just give up wide-open rhythm threes.

That’s sub-optimal.

And in theory, Jones should thrive in ball-screen actions. He’s a really good finisher in the paint. His in-between game – floaters and the like – is elite, and he finished last season averaging 1.157 points-per-possession finishing around the rim, and Coach K told reporters at media day that Jones has improved in this area in the offseason. Finally getting healthy has probably helped in that regard as well. He’s a good passer, a very good decision-maker and a guy who, in his high school days, was known for being someone that made good things happen with the ball in his hands.

We know how good Jones is defensively. His ball pressure at the point of attack is to Duke’s defense what photo editing apps are to Instagram models. We know that he’s a leader. We know that he’s a winner. I doubt you’ll find anyone that will argue against this statement: Jones does a lot of really good things on a basketball court.

And if he can find a way to be something other than a liability on the offensive end, we’ll start talking about them instead of laughing at the fact that teams decided not to defend him outside the paint.

Kansas transfer Grimes receives waiver, eligible immediately at Houston

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Maybe we now know why Houston was picked to win the AAC over Memphis.

On Tuesday, news broke that Quentin Grimes had won his appeal and received a waiver to gain immediate eligibility this season. Grimes was a top ten prospect in the Class of 2018, but after going for 21 points in the season opening Champions Classic, he struggled. In 36 games, Grimes averaged just 8.4 points and 2.0 assists while failing to prove himself a lead guard and struggling with consistency as a shooter.

Part of the reason why Grimes eventually was ruled eligible for this season was that Kansas did not have a scholarship available for him. The Jayhawks supported his eligibility throughout the process.

Grimes will get a chance at starting over with Houston, where Kelvin Sampson has proven to be exceptional at getting the most out of his backcourt. He’ll join DeJon Jarreau, one of this year’s breakout stars, and Nate Hinton in Houston’s perimeter.

With Grimes in the mix, Houston has the making of a top 20 team.

Grimes released the following statement on twitter:

Michigan State’s Langford out until January with ankle injury

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The joy of being named the No. 1 team in the AP preseason poll lasted for a matter of hours for Michigan State.

Because that’s when the Spartans found out that Joshua Langford, who missed the second half of last season, would be out for another three months after suffering a setback in his attempt to return from that ankle injury.

“It breaks my heart,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told reporters on Tuesday. “I love Josh Langford. He’s given me everything on the court, off the court, in the classroom.”

Langford started the first 13 games last season before the ankle injury kept him out, but he was cleared to practice in full in September. But Izzo said on Tuesday that Langford’s ankle had limited him of late and that he did not play when the Spartans scrimmaged Gonzaga in Denver on Saturday.

College Basketball’s Breakout Stars: Who will be this year’s most improved players?

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One of my favorite things to do heading into a season is to put together a list of the season’s Breakout Stars. 

Sometimes, the picks are just too obvious – think De’Andre Hunter, or P.J. Washington, or Nickeil Alexander-Walker. 

Sometimes, those obvious picks just don’t pan out – like Herb Jones, or M.J. Walker, or Cane Broome.

Sometimes, a guy needs to be on the list for a couple years before he actually reaches said breakout – hi Jermaine Samuels!

Some people have strictly-defined parameters for putting together a list like this. I do not, beyond the basic principle that the player will be going from playing a role to being a star, whether that means he was a starter that will become an all-american or a bit-player slated to be a key cog on a potential Final Four team matters not.

Anyway, here are the 17 players that will be household names by the end of the year:



JERMAINE SAMUELS, Villanova

There’s an argument to make that Samuels’ breakout already happened.

It happened on February 28th of last season. Samuels popped off for a career-high 29 points, hitting five threes, as Villanova snapped a three-game losing streak by knocking off Marquette at home. During that three-game losing streak, Samuels had gone scoreless while attempting just two shots. Over the final seven games of the season, he averaged 11.0 points, cracked double-figures five times and helped lead the Wildcats to their fifth Big East regular season title and fourth Big East tournament title in the last six years.

And now the Wildcats are entering a season without Phil Booth and Eric Paschall to carry the offense while Bryan Antoine, their five-star freshman guard, is out with a shoulder injury. Someone needs to provide Villanova with some scoring. Samuels is a former top 40 recruit that picked Villanova over Duke and Kansas, that has proven the ability to put up big numbers and is a perfect fit for what Villanova’s offense has been over the course of the last half-decade. He’s a junior now. This is the year that players make the leap on the Main Line, and I’ll be ready for it.

ANDREW NEMBHARD, Florida

Everyone wants to talk about Kerry Blackshear and what his arrival will mean for Florida. What people seem to be forgetting is that Andrew Nembhard is a former five-star recruits that averaged 8.0 points and 5.4 assists as a freshman for the Gators and will be helping to fill the “role” vacated by uber-inefficient gunners Jalen Hudson and Kevaughn Allen. I think Blackshear ends up being the best player on the Gators this season, but Nembhard may end up being their MVP and their leader. On a team that projects to finish in the top ten and contend for SEC titles and the Final Four, that’s going to put him in the All-American conversation. That, to me, counts as a breakout star.

TRE JONES, Duke

This all hinges on what Jones becomes as a shooter this season. We’ve talked about this ad nauseum. I put together an entire video about it. Jones may just be the most influential player in all of college basketball this season.

TYRESE HALIBURTON, Iowa State

I’m torn about having Haliburton on this list because I’m not exactly sure how much better he can play than he did over the first three months of last season. That said, Iowa State is going to be one of the better teams in the Big 12 this season, and after a terrific performance playing for Team USA in the U-19 World Cup, Haliburton returns to Ames to play for an Iowa State team that lost pretty much everyone in front of him in the offensive pecking order.

The thing to note here is that I am not expecting Haliburton to suddenly become a guy that averages 18 points. That’s not who he is or how he plays. But I do think that there is a chance that he puts up a stat line that is somewhere around 12 points, six boards, six assists and two steals while shooting better than 40 percent from three. Put another way, we’re going to know that he is a star without having to look at the counting numbers to confirm it.

JAY HUFF, Virginia

We have talked plenty about Jay Huff and Virginia’s big guys in this space, but I think that he is in line for a massive jump this season. On the one hand, he’s actually going to be playing. Huff was in the same recruiting class as Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy. He redshirted his first year in Charlottesville, he played just twelve games as a freshman and managed to see the floor for roughly 10 minutes a night last year. With so much of Virginia’s frontcourt depth gone, he is going to be getting 30-35 minutes a night this year.

But as we talked about in the video below, it’s not just the added minutes that changes things. It’s how good Huff is as the big guy in ball-screen actions and the fact that Virginia ran a more ball-screen heavy offense last season. Huff is a 7-foot-1 rim-running, lob-catching, shot-blocking menace that also shoots threes at a 45 percent clip while being able to put the ball on the floor. He’s going to have a massive year.

ISAIAH LIVERS, Michigan

With Iggy Brazdeikis gone after his one-and-done season, Livers is going to be the guy that steps up for the Wolverines. A hyper-athletic, 6-foot-7 combo-forward, Livers is a good, versatile defensive weapon that shot 42.6 percent from three last year. Someone is going to have to step up and fill the scoring void that has been vacated by the departures, and Livers seems to be the obvious fit. I would not be shocked to see Livers showing up in NBA mock drafts at some point during this season.

DEJON JARREAU, Houston

This one is simple, really. Jarreau played just 18 minutes per game last season and still managed to put up 8.7 points and 3.3 assists despite sharing the backcourt with the likes of Corey Davis, Armoni Brooks and Galen Robinson. This year, those three are gone, which means that Jarreau is going to be the guy that the offense runs through. I think that he is up for the task, and considering Kelvin Sampson’s track record of finding a way to figure things out with his lead guards, all the dots connect.

NOJEL EASTERN, Purdue

Matt Painter has been as good as anyone in the country at finding ways to get his best players into positions where they can succeed, and I think that this year is the year that he figures out how to take advantage of the things that Eastern does well. He’s a skilled passer that has terrific size at the point and has proven the ability to take smaller guards into the post. I think that Aaron Wheeler and Trevion Williams are candidates for this list as well, but I tend to lean towards the veterans when it comes to Painter working his magic.

OCHAI AGBAJI, Kansas

This pick is not actually as easy as it may seem, and that’s because Agbaji’s emergence last season came after Udoka Azubuike went down with his wrist injury. So while Kansas is losing Dedric Lawson, among other, Azubuike is coming back and is going to demand a very large market share of the Jayhawks offense. Throw in Devon Dotson’s continued development, and the added opportunities for Agbaji may not be there. That said, I think that he is clearly the most talented perimeter player on the Jayhawks roster this season, and given his size, athleticism and ability from the perimeter, I think there is a real chance that he ends up playing major minutes as the four in this Kansas system.

Put another way, he’s definitely going to be better than he was when his redshirt was pulled midway through his first season in Lawrence, and he is definitely going to be a useful weapon for Bill Self, I just don’t see him emerging as a guy that scores 15 points per game.

COREY KISPERT and FILIP PETRUSEV, Gonzaga

These decisions somewhat hinge on whether or not Killian Tillie is back and fully healthy this season. If he is, then I think that Kispert is the guy that takes the biggest step forward for the Zags. He’s an underrated talent that has been hidden by the likes of Zach Norvell and Rui Hachimura, but he’s a guy that has the potential to be an all-WCC performer if given the opportunity. If Tillie ends up being banged up all season long, than Petrusev is the obvious pick. He’s a really talented big that will carry even more of the load without Tillie’s presence.

REGGIE PERRY, Mississippi State

After getting off to a relatively slow start to his freshman season, Perry was absolutely dominant for long stretches of SEC play. He averaged 11.2 points and 8.2 boards during conference play, posting eight double-doubles. After an offseason to develop, he should end up being the focal point of Ben Howland’s offense as a sophomore.

KIRA LEWIS, Alabama

The way that Nate Oats played at Buffalo, he gave his lead guards quite a bit of responsibility. Lewis is going to be his lead guard this season. As a 17-year old in the SEC, he averaged 13.5 points and 2.9 assists. He’s heading into his sophomore season at the same age as the kids in the Class of 2019 heading into their freshmen year.

JOE WIESKAMP, Iowa

As a freshman, Wieskamp was one of the best shooters in the Big Ten, averaging 11.1 points and shooting 42.4 percent from three. Then Iowa lost Tyler Cook to the draft and lost Isaiah Moss to transfer and look like they may have lost Jordan Bohannon for the season. Someone is going to have to score, and Wieskamp is certainly capable of that.

OSUN OSUNNIYI, St. Bonaventure

Osunniyi was one of the best defensive players in all of college basketball last season, averaging 2.7 blocks to go along with his 7.5 points and 7.6 boards. With three of the Bonnies’ top four scorers graduating, he is going to be asked to play a much bigger role this season.

NATE REUVERS, Wisconsin

There is always someone waiting in the wings in Wisconsin’s frontcourt, and this year it is Nate Reuvers. As a sophomore, playing on a team that ran their offense through Ethan Happ, Reuvers averaged 7.9 points, 3.9 boards and 1.8 blocks while shooting 38.1 percent from three. If the Badgers are going to get back to the NCAA tournament, they are going to need Reuvers to have a monster junior season.

JALEN HILL, UCLA

Hill is a bit of a reach, but someone is going to have to step up and be Mick Cronin’s frontcourt anchor, and Hill makes sense. He’s long and athletic, he can rebound and he can block shots, he can do all of the things that Cronin got out of his big men for the last 13 years in Cincinnati. There is more talent in Westwood than people realize. Hill is the perfect example of that.

Michigan’s Franz Wagner out 4-6 weeks with fractured wrist

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan freshman Franz Wagner is expected to miss four to six weeks with a fractured right wrist.

The school said Monday a full recovery is anticipated. The 6-foot-8 Wagner is the younger brother of former Michigan standout Moe Wagner. He’s expected to be a key newcomer in the basketball team’s first season under new coach Juwan Howard.

The Wolverines open Nov. 5 against Appalachian State. They face Creighton on Nov. 12 and Louisville on Dec. 3, and play in a tournament in the Bahamas in late November. Those are all games Wagner could conceivably miss if he ends up on the long end of his recovery timeline.

Michigan opens Big Ten play Dec. 6 against Iowa.

Kansas-Missouri hoops series to resume next season in KC

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — The Border War is returning to college basketball.

The acrimonious rivalry between Kansas and Missouri, once the longest continually played series west of the Mississippi River, will resume next season in Kansas City. The schools have agreed to play six times, with four of those matchups taking place on their respective campuses.

“Having coached a lot of games versus Missouri in my time in Kansas, I could not be more excited to start this series up again,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self, who had been among the biggest reasons the teams never played, said in a statement announcing the series Monday night.

The series began in 1907 with a pair of wins by Missouri in Lawrence. The schools went on to play 269 times over 105 years. The last meeting was on Feb. 25, 2012, when the No. 4 Jayhawks rallied from a 19-point second-half deficit to beat the No. 3 Tigers in overtime at Allen Fieldhouse.

The reason the series ended can be traced to Missouri’s decision to depart its longtime home in the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. During a period of chaotic conference realignment, the Tigers moved to what they considered a more lucrative league — even though it made far less geographic sense — and in doing so left the Big 12 scrambling for its very survival.

Many coaches and administrators at Kansas not only took umbrage with their decision but held a grudge for years. Among them was Self, who was asked periodically over the years if he could envision playing the Tigers again, and was usually steadfast in his refusal to schedule them.

Tensions finally cooled enough that on Oct. 22, 2017, the schools agreed to play an exhibition game in Kansas City dubbed “The Showdown for Relief” to raise money for hurricane relief efforts.

Kansas won 93-87 in their first meeting in five years.

The thousands of fans who turned up for the game, coupled with the buzz it generated on both sides of the Kansas-Missouri border, piqued the interest of new Kansas athletic director Jeff Long. He was not part of the conference realignment mess and harbored no ill will toward Missouri, making him the ideal figure to help patch up relationships and ultimately resume the rivalry.

“One of the best aspects of college athletics is rivalries,” Long said. “We have quietly sought input from fans and supporters on the renewal of this series and we believe the overriding sentiments are that this historic rivalry should resume.”

After the initial game scheduled for Dec. 12, 2020, at the Sprint Center in downtown Kansas City, the schools will alternate between Allen Fieldhouse and Mizzou Arena for the next four games. The final scheduled matchup will return to Sprint Center, though it’s possible the series continues.

It’s also possible that the basketball matchups are just the beginning.

“Hopefully, this renewal on the hardwood will lead to more opportunities down the road in other sports,” Tigers athletic director Jim Sterk said. “Rivalries make college sports great, and there is no question that when Missouri and Kansas face off in any sport, it’s important to a lot of people.”