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.

Houston reaches No. 1 in AP poll for first time since 1983

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Make some room, Phi Slama Jama. Another Houston team has reached the top of men’s college basketball.

Nearly four decades after Clyde Drexler and Akeem Olajuwon took the Cougars to No. 1, the latest bunch led by Marcus Sasser and star freshman Jarace Walker took over the top spot in the AP Top 25. They received 45 of 63 first-place votes from the national media panel, easily outdistancing second-place Texas and third-place Virginia.

“It’s not like we went online and applied for it and waited for a response back. We’ve been working for this,” said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, whose team is coming off a Final Four and Elite Eight trip the past two seasons. “But remember, it’s a rental. You don’t own it. You’re just renting it because someday somebody else is going to be No. 1.”

North Carolina had been No. 1 all season, but the Tar Heels lost to Iowa State and in a four-overtime thriller to Alabama at the Phil Knight Invitational to cede the top spot to Houston, which beat Kent State in its only game last week.

The last time the Cougars ascended to No. 1 was the final poll of the 1982-83 season, when “The Glide” and “The Dream” along with coach Guy Lewis were the favorites to win it all. They rolled through the NCAA Tournament before falling to Jim Valvano and North Carolina State in an iconic championship game in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“I’ve never been ranked No. 1,” said Sampson, now in his 34th season as a college basketball coach. “We were ranked all 12 years at Oklahoma. I’m sure we were ranked at Indiana. Then we’ve been ranked five or six straight years. We’re used to having a high level of success.”

Texas received eight first-place votes and Virginia received two. Arizona climbed from 14th to fourth after emerging from a stacked field to win the Maui Invitational. Purdue jumped from 24th all the way to fifth and scooped up eight first-place votes after beating West Virginia, Gonzaga and Duke at the Phil Knight Legacy tourney.

“Our guys are competitive. They’re fun to coach. They get along. They’re out there playing with purpose and that’s what you have to have,” said Boilermakers coach Matt Painter, whose team was briefly No. 1 about this time last season.

“Early in the season, very few teams play with the purpose collectively,” he said. “I thought our guys played with a purpose.”

Baylor was sixth, Creighton seventh and U Conn climbed from 20th to eighth after beating Oregon, Alabama and Iowa State to win the Phil Knight Invitational. Kansas fell from third to ninth after losing to Tennessee in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis, while Indiana rounded out the top 10.

There was a tie for 11th between SEC rivals Alabama and Arkansas with the Volunteers, another conference foe, right behind them. Gonzaga dropped from sixth to 14th, its first time outside the top 10 since Feb. 5, 2018, and Auburn was 15th.

Illinois was next followed by Duke and North Carolina in a tough week for Tobacco Road. The Blue Devils fell from eighth after their 75-56 loss to the Boilermakers.

Kentucky and Michigan State joined UCLA, Maryland, Iowa State, San Diego State and Ohio State in rounding out the poll.

RISING AND FALLING

Purdue made a rare 19-spot jump as the poll underwent a massive shakeup. UConn climbed 12 spots, Arizona moved up 10, Tennessee climbed nine and Alabama seven. On the flip side, the Tar Heels tumbled 17 spots, Duke dropped nine, Gonzaga fell eight and San Diego State fell seven.

IN AND OUT

Despite all the movement, Iowa State was the only newcomer this week, checking in at No. 23 after beating Villanova and North Carolina before falling to UConn. The Cyclones replaced Iowa, which dropped out after a one-week stay following its loss to TCU in the title game of the Emerald Coast Classic.

CONFERENCE WATCH

There are six difference conferences represented in the first seven teams in the poll. The Big Ten leads the way with six in the Top 25 while the SEC has five and the Big 12 has four, though three of them are in the top 10.

South Carolina tops women’s AP Top 25; Stanford, UConn next

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South Carolina remained the unanimous No. 1 choice in The Associated Press women’s poll, as the Gamecocks keep close watch on the foot injury of reigning Player of the Year Aliyah Boston.

The Gamecocks received all 29 first-place votes in the poll, a day after Boston left a game with her injury. Coach Dawn Staley said Boston was “questionable” going forward but added that the “team doctor wasn’t too, too concerned.”

South Carolina’s next game is at home against No. 15 UCLA.

Stanford remained No. 2 after cruising through a tournament in Hawaii. It’s the 618th appearance for Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer, tying the late Pat Summitt for most all-time. Summitt’s teams only missed being in the poll 14 times during her Hall of Fame career at Tennessee.

UConn, Ohio State and Indiana rounded out the top five.

The Huskies are one of four Big East teams to be ranked this week as Marquette entered the poll at No. 24. It’s the first time the Big East has four ranked teams since the conference realigned in 2014. The league is 56-14 so far this season, including going 8-2 against ranked teams.

“We’ve been trying to earn a little more respect,” Marquette coach Megan Duffy said of the Big East. “Tried to schedule tougher non-conference (games). ‘Nova’s playing people. Us going to the Bahamas was great. Creighton’s doing what they’ve been doing since last season. Getting some of those quality wins is everything.”

North Carolina moved up two spots to No. 6 after rallying to beat then-No. 5 Iowa State in the Phil Knight tournament. The Cyclones fell to eighth.

The Tar Heels visit the Hoosiers on Tuesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Indiana returns home after winning two games in Las Vegas at a subpar venue that lacked basic necessities.

Notre Dame remained No. 7 while Virginia Tech and Iowa finished off the top 10. At No. 9, Virginia Tech has matched its best ranking ever and is in the top 10 for the first time since 1999.

Tennessee fell out of the poll this week marking the 56th time in the 827-week history of the poll that the Lady Vols weren’t ranked. Kansas State also fell out with Gonzaga moving in at No. 23.

FALLING CARDINALS

Louisville dropped to 18th in the poll this week after falling to South Dakota State in the fifth place game at the Battle 4 Atlantis last week. It’s the Cardinals lowest ranking since Jan. 11, 2016.

Louisville entered the top 10 in the preseason poll in 2017 and hadn’t been out since, a span of 98 consecutive weeks. It was the longest active streak.

“It’s a compliment to the consistency that we built here,” Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of being ranked in the top 10 for so long. “Obviously are goal would have been to stay in the top 10, but it’s a new team and growing.”

Edey scores 21 as No. 24 Purdue beats No. 8 Duke 75-56

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Zach Edey and No. 24 Purdue shook off a slow start. When No. 8 Duke tried to rally in the second half, the Boilermakers finished strong.

Edey had 21 points and 12 rebounds, and Purdue beat Duke 75-56 on Sunday in the championship game of the Phil Knight Legacy men’s tournament.

Fletcher Loyer scored 18 points for Purdue (6-0), and reserve Caleb Furst finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds.

“I feel like we weren’t getting the looks we wanted early. As we settled into the game, we kept our poise and kept getting the shots that we wanted,” Edey said. “They were making some tough twos at the beginning of the game, shots we’re OK with all season.”

The 7-foot-4 Edey was 7 for 13 from the field and 7 for 8 at the line. He was named tournament MVP.

“They have the most unique player in the country,” Duke coach Jon Scheyer said of Edey. “He’s a hard guy to prepare for because there’s nobody else like him.”

Duke (6-2) shot 36.2% (21 for 58) from the field. Tyres Proctor scored 16 points for the Blue Devils. Kyle Filipowski and Jeremy Roach each had 14.

Ethan Morton had a steal and a dunk to help Purdue open a 58-41 lead with 15:37 left in the second half.

Duke countered with an 8-0 run, capped by two foul shots by Dariq Whitehead. But Furst made a layup and a jumper to help hold off the Blue Devils.

A hook by Edey and a 3-pointer by Loyer made it 68-56 with 5:03 remaining.

Duke got off to a 14-7 start before Purdue worked its way back into the game.

“I don’t feel like we came out bad today, but they matched our energy,” Edey said.

A 3-pointer by Brandon Newman pushed the Purdue lead to 46-28. A late run by Duke cut the Boilermakers’ lead to 46-35 at halftime.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: It looked as if Roach had an issue with his left foot at one point, but he went back into the game. Scheyer said Roach had hurt his toe.

Purdue: Although neither team had great offensive games, Purdue was the better team from range. Purdue made seven 3-pointers to just two for Duke.

UP NEXT

Duke: Hosts Ohio State on Wednesday.

Purdue: Visits Florida State on Wednesday.

No. 18 Alabama beats No. 1 North Carolina 103-101 in 4 OTs

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PORTLAND, Ore. – Mark Sears had 24 points, five rebounds and five assists, and No. 18 Alabama sent top-ranked North Carolina to a second straight loss with a 103-101 victory in a quadruple-overtime thriller on Sunday in the third-place game of the Phil Knight Invitational tournament.

Jahvon Quinerly added 21 points off the bench for the Crimson Tide (6-1), who knocked off the top-ranked team for the first time since upsetting Stanford in the 2004 NCAA Tournament.

“I was losing track of how many overtimes we were in there at the end,” Crimson Tide coach Nate Oats said. “A lot of credit to our guys. I thought they showed a lot of character when we could have folded.”

Charles Bediako had 14 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks, while Brandon Miller also scored 14 points.

Caleb Love led the Tar Heels (5-2) with 34 points, nine rebounds, four assists and three steals. Armando Bacot contributed 20 points and 10 rebounds, and R.J. Davis had 19 points and nine rebounds in the second four-overtime game in North Carolina history. The other was a victory over Tulane in 1976.

“At the end of the day, Alabama made one more play than we did,” North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said. “I walked in the locker room and a number of the guys had their head down and I told them to pick their head up. I’m just as disappointed (as the players) in terms of the final outcome, but I couldn’t be any more proud about the way they competed.”

Bediako gave the Crimson Tide the lead for good on a layup with 26 seconds remaining in the fourth overtime.

The Tar Heels, who lost to Iowa State in the semifinals, led by as much as eight in the second half before Alabama came back to tie it. The Crimson Tide retook the lead on a pair of free throws from Gurley with 2 minutes remaining, and later tied with another free throw from Sears with 51 seconds remaining in regulation.

Alabama starting forward Noah Clowney took a hard fall on a dunk attempt four minutes into the first half and had to be helped off the court. He did not return.

The Crimson Tide were 16 for 38 (42.1%) from 3-point range, with Sears making seven.

BIG PICTURE

North Carolina: The Tar Heels figure to take a deep drop in the Top 25 poll.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide bounced back nicely following their loss to No. 20 UConn in the semifinals, beating a top-ranked team in the regular season for the first time since a 66-64 victory over eventual national champion Arkansas on Jan. 8, 1994.

UP NEXT:

North Carolina: The Tar Heels travel to Bloomington to face No. 11 Indiana on Wednesday.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide return home to face South Dakota State on Saturday.

Clingan lifts UConn past Iowa State for Phil Knight title

Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports
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PORTLAND, Ore. – Donovan Clingan had 15 points and 10 rebounds to power No. 20 UConn to a 71-53 win over Iowa State in the championship game of the Phil Knight Invitational on Sunday night.

Tristen Newton scored 13 points for the Huskies (8-0), who went 20 for 25 at the free-throw line. Alex Karaban and Andre Jackson, Jr. each had 10 points.

Osun Osunniyi led Iowa State (5-1) with 14 points. Tamin Lipsey had 12 points and Jaren Holmes finished with 11.

“They were the more aggressive team,” Iowa State coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “We wanted a physical game. We didn’t want a physical game with them getting the rebounds and then also us putting them on the foul line. Lesson that we’ve got to learn is we need to embrace being the aggressor at both ends of the floor at all times.”

The Huskies had more offensive rebounds (20) than the Cyclones had total rebounds (19), and capitalized on that disparity with 20 second-chance points.

“Those guys are tough,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “T.J.`s an excellent coach. They grind people up. To outrebound them, it just speaks to how tough we were.”

Clingan, who was named tournament MVP, scored eight points to help UConn to a 38-28 lead at the break.

Iowa State closed to 53-48 on Holmes’ 3-pointer midway through the second half. But Karaban made a 3 and a dunk, and Newton’s jumper made it 60-48 with 7:13 remaining.

BIG PICTURE

UConn: The Huskies couldn’t have asked for a better showing in Portland, winning all three of their games.

Iowa State: The Cyclones picked up nice wins over Villanova and top-ranked North Carolina in the earlier rounds but ended with their first loss of the season.

UP NEXT

UConn: The Huskies return home to face Oklahoma State on Thursday.

Iowa State: The Cyclones return home to face North Dakota on Tuesday.