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.


(Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

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.

N.C. State forward Jericole Hellems released from hospital

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RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State says sophomore forward Jericole Hellems has been released from a hospital and is in “good spirits” after an injury in Saturday’s win at Wake Forest.

The team announced the news Sunday on Twitter. Hellems had fallen on a rebound attempt and banged the back of his head on the court with 28 seconds left. He was alert but had to be carried from the court on a stretcher. Then he was taken to a hospital for precautionary reasons to rule out a possible lower back injury as well as to be evaluated for a possible concussion.

The team says Hellems will meet with NC State doctors in the coming days, while coach Kevin Keatts will address his status later in the week.

NC State travels to UNC Greensboro next Sunday.

AP Poll: Louisville remains No. 1, Ohio State jumps to No. 3

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Louisville and Kansas finally provided some consistency to what has been a volatile Top 25 poll this season, while perennial bluebloods Michigan State and North Carolina continued to tumble after another wave of defeats.

The Cardinals solidified thier place at No. 1 in the AP Top 25 released Monday by routing then-No. 4 Michigan in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and breezing past Pittsburgh over the past week. The Jayhawks stayed at No. 2 after returning from their Maui Invitaitonal title to thump former Big 12 member Colorado.

“I think it’s two games in a row, where we got stops,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “We didn’t allow second shots. We ran the clock on offense. We got great looks. We got layups, and that’s a killer.”

Ohio State jumped from sixth to third following its 74-49 rout of then-No. 7 North Carolina and a Big Ten blowout of Penn State. Maryland dropped one spot to fourth despite continuing to pile up wins, while Michigan slid one spot to round out the top five after Juwan Howard’s bunch ran into the Louisville buzzsaw for their first loss of the season.

The Spartans continued their fall from preseason No. 1 after losing to Duke, this time dropping from 11th to No. 16. The Tar Heels tumbled 10 spots to No. 17 after getting crushed by Ohio State and losing to No. 9 Virginia.

San Diego State joined the rankings at No. 25.

1. Louisville (55)

2. Kansas (4)

3. Ohio St. (5)

4. Maryland

5. Michigan

6. Gonzaga

7. Duke

8. Kentucky

9. Virginia

10. Oregon

11. Baylor

12. Auburn

13. Memphis

14. Dayton

15. Arizona

16. Michigan St.

17. North Carolina

18. Butler

19. Tennessee

20. Villanova

21. Florida St.

22. Seton Hall

23. Xavier

24. Colorado

25. San Diego St.

Others receiving votes: Utah St. 160, Washington 144, Purdue 130, Indiana 13, Marquette 11, Liberty 9, Saint Mary’s (Cal) 8, Texas 6, Florida 5, Penn St. 5, Georgetown 4, West Virginia 3, Richmond 3, LSU 2, Duquesne 1, DePaul 1, VCU 1.

Monday’s Overreactions: Naji Marshall owns Cincinnati, Ohio State is No. 1, Joel Ayayi

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Naji Marshall, Xavier

Marshall has lived up to the hype through the first month of the season, but the biggest and best game that he has played in 2019 happened on Saturday. Squaring off with archrival Cincinnati, Marshall went off for 31 points, eight boards, five steals and three assists, hitting four threes and totally outplaying his Bearcat counterpart, Jarron Cumberland.

As a team, Xavier has been a little bit up and down this season. Their issues shooting the ball have been prevalent all season long, and as good as the likes of Tyrique Jones, Quentin Goodin and Paul Scruggs – hell, and Marshall himself – can be, there has been some inconsistency to date.

There was not any on Saturday.

Marshall took over and led Xavier to their biggest win of the season.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Ohio State Buckeyes

Can we even consider anyone else?

On Wednesday, the Buckeyes went into Chapel Hill and ran North Carolina out of their own gym, leaving with a 74-49 win. On Saturday, Chris Holtmann’s club hosted Penn State, and that did not go well for the Nittany Lions, who lost by 32 points while giving up 106.

This team is starting to look scary, and there’s a valid argument to make that they should be sitting at No. 1 in the AP poll this morning.

Speaking of which …

OVERREACTIONS

1. OHIO STATE HAS THE MOST IMPRESSIVE RESUME IN THE COUNTRY

If we ranked teams solely based on resume at this point in the season, I don’t think there is any way to leave the Buckeyes out of the top spot.

They are undefeated. They have beaten Villanova by 25 at home. They have beaten North Carolina by 25 on the road. They have beaten Penn State by 32 at home. Those are three of the top 24 teams in the country, according to KenPom. No one else can match that. Hell, the Buckeyes are currently sitting at No. 1 in KenPom’s rankings.

To put those wins into context, consider this, via Jordan Sperber of Hoop Vision: There have been six instances this season of a top 50 KenPom team losing by 20 or more points. Ohio State is responsible for three of them.

To be honest, I’m not ready to actually call Ohio State the best team in college basketball – I explain why in the podcast below at the 11:20 mark – but they are certainly playing like it.

2. WE FINALLY SAW THE ANTHONY COWAN WE NEED TO SEE FOR MARYLAND TO REACH THEIR POTENTIAL

Look, I know how ridiculous this is going to sound.

Coming off of a performance where Anthony Cowan shot 6-for-14 from the floor in a game where Maryland needed something bordering on a miracle to erase a 15 point second half deficit at home against unranked Illinois, I’m finally convinced?

Well, kinda?

Here’s my logic: I am not sold on Mark Turgeon being the best coach in college basketball, and I am hardly alone in that sentiment. But he does have a roster with some talent, and it is always a good sign when a team’s talent takes over and wins a game where, frankly, they played like crap. That’s exactly what happened on Saturday. In the past, Cowan would not have taken over. In the past, he would not have put the team on his back, scored 20 points in the final 23 minutes and finished with seven boards, six assists and the game-tying and winning points in the final 20 seconds.

All-Americans bail their team out in games they are not supposed to win. Final Four teams win games where they don’t show up until they are getting thoroughly embarrassed. The Terps did both of those things.

Now, would I like to see them finally figure out how to win without sleepwalking through the first half of games?

Absolutely!

But it’s hardly a bad sign to be sitting at 10-0 as you’re still figuring things out.

3. BUTLER IS THE MOST UNDERRATED TEAM IN THE COUNTRY

After taking down Florida in Indianapolis on Saturday afternoon, Butler has a surprisingly impressive crop of wins this season. They beat Minnesota at home. They beat Missouri in Kansas City. They beat Stanford on a neutral. They won at Ole Miss. And now they have that win over the Gators, who we just can’t quite seem to quit.

Either way, the Bulldogs play at Baylor on Tuesday night and then take on Purdue in the Crossroads Classic next Saturday.

We’ll know more about them then, but for now, this is a team that we have to talk about.

That said …

4. … NO ONE HAS MADE US A BELIEVER IN MORE TEAMS THAN FLORIDA

Florida State beat Florida in Gainesville?

The Seminoles must be awesome!

UConn beat Florida in Storrs?

The Huskies are back, baby!

Butler knocks off the Gators in Hinkle?

The Bulldogs are the most underrated team in the country?

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5. JOEL AYAYI IS THE X-FACTOR THAT WILL MAKE GONZAGA A TITLE CONTENDER

Listen, I’m not saying that Ayayi is the best player on this Gonzaga roster.

I think that he’s probably their third-best player, and even that might be generous.

What he is, however, is a guy that fills a role that the Zags didn’t have anyone to fill. The issue with this Gonzaga team heading into the season was in their backcourt. We wondered if they had enough point guard play, perimeter shooting and playmaking to be able to compete with the best teams in the country. It’s one thing to have a great frontline with guards that can get them the rock where they need it. It’s another thing to have a great frontline and no one that an initiate offense or keep defenses honest.

Ayayi has done those things to date this season. He’s averaging 10.1 points, 6.6 boards and 3.8 assists, which is second on the team to Ryan Woolridge, who is quietly having a solid start to the season as well. He provides length, athleticism, floor-spacing, a second ball-handler and creator. He takes the pressure off of Woolridge to carry the lead guard load.

He is more or less everything that Gonzaga fans were hoping Admon Gilder would turn into.

We’ll see if this lasts, but his performance against Washington on Saturday was really promising. Ayayi didn’t play or shoot particularly well, but he stepped up with 20 seconds left and buried the biggest shot of the game, a three to give the Zags a 82-76 lead and bury U-Dub.

Mamukelashvili breaks wrist as No. 16 Seton Hall loses to Iowa State

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AMES, Iowa — No. 16 Seton Hall lost much more than a game in Ames, as starter Sandro Mamukelashvili broke his right wrist in the first half of a loss at Iowa State.

Tyrese Haliburton scored 17 points, George Conditt had a season-high 17 off the bench and the Cyclones knocked off Seton Hall 76-66 on Sunday for its second straight victory.

Rasir Bolton scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half to help the Cyclones avenge an 84-76 loss on Nov. 29 to the Pirates (6-3) in the Bahamas. The rematch was part of the Big East/Big 12 Alliance series.

Mamukelashvili, a 6-foot-11 forward and a facilitator who averaged 12.3 points and 5.3 rebounds a game entering play, went down hard with 15:14 to go in the first half and didn’t return.

Coach Kevin Willard said after the game that it was too soon to know how long Mamukelashvili might be out.

“I don’t know for sure. It’s definitely broken. But we … have to go get an MRI tomorrow and let our doctors and radiologists read it,” Willard said. “There’s definitely a break in there, it’s just that we don’t know where it is.”

Conditt’s free throws pushed Iowa State’s lead to 59-53 with 2:56 left. Haliburton then drew an offensive foul and freed himself for a wide-open 3 at the top of the key. Haliburton drilled it, making it a nine-point game at the 2:23 mark.

Seton Hall fouled Prentiss Nixon from beyond the arc with 1:27 left. Nixon hit all three from the line to push Iowa State back up by nine, and Conditt’s transition dunk sealed the win.

Iowa State won despite shooting just 4 of 19 on 3s.

“Every good team needs a signature win and this was the first one for us,” Iowa State coach Steve Prohm said. “It felt really good beat a ranked team, but also a team that beat us before.”

Myles Powell scored 19 points with eight rebounds for Seton Hall. But Powell was 7 of 20 shooting, had five turnovers and fouled out with 54.4 seconds to go on an offensive foul. The Pirates’ previous defeats came against Michigan State and Oregon by just five combined points.

Seton Hall committed 20 turnovers and was outrebounded 43-40 despite having a major size advantage. The Pirates also gave Iowa State 33 tries from the line, and Cyclones made 26 of them.

“We turned the ball over too much and we fouled,” Willard said. “You can’t go on the road against a good team and turn the basketball over and foul.”

THE BIG PICTURE

Seton Hall: On losing Mamukelashvili, Willard said that “it changes things a lot. But the good thing is, we have some guys that need to get comfortable in that role and step up in that role…we’re going to need everyone to step up.”

Iowa State: The Cyclones have been strangely awful at times this season shooting jump shots — even though they supposedly have enough shooters. It’s a problem that Iowa State will need to get sorted out before it threatens to sink their season. On the plus side, the Cyclones were active with their hands in forcing Seton Hall’s bigs to turn it over, and Haliburton delivered yet another signature performance.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Losing on the road to a Big 12 team that had the opportunity to play them 10 days ago shouldn’t cost the Pirates too much. Iowa State’s Hilton Coliseum can be a brutal place for opponents — especially one that didn’t necessarily know what it was walking into.

HE SAID IT

“It’s a hell of a win for us.” —- Prohm said.

UP NEXT

Seton Hall: At Rutgers on Saturday.

Iowa State: Hosts Iowa on Thursday night.

Monday Overreactions Podcast: Ohio State’s the best, Travis Steele’s the GOAT, is Anthony Cowan good?

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Rob Dauster and Bobby Reagan are back to walk through everything that happened in college basketball this weekend. Is Ohio State the best team in college basketball? Is it actually Maryland? Just how good is Anthony Cowan? Just how bad is Florida? And did Travis Steele do the greatest thing in the history of coaching on Saturday night? He might have.