Evansville Purple Aces

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Evansville stuns No. 1 Kentucky

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Evansville pulled off a stunning upset of No. 1 Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Tuesday night as the Purple Aces came away with a 67-64 non-conference win.

Picked to finish eighth in the Missouri Valley Conference’s preseason poll, Evansville and head coach Walter McCarty rolled into Rupp and scored one of the most surprising early-season college hoops upsets in recent memory. It’s incredibly rare to see a No. 1 team lose at home to an unranked opponent — particularly this early in the season.

Playing with a shocking lack of energy for loose balls and allowing 11 offensive rebounds, this loss is perhaps the most surprising upset of the John Calipari era at Kentucky. Despite a 25-point spread in some places, the Purple Aces soundly outplayed the Wildcats in multiple facets of the game. A team with almost zero preseason expectations showed minimal fear despite Kentucky’s No. 1 ranking and numerous McDonald’s All-Americans.

K.J. Riley paced Evansville with 18 points while former top-100 prospect Sam Cunliffe surged out of the gate with a strong first half to finish with 17 points. The Purple Aces ran balanced offense and did a good job of establishing the shots they were looking for. In only his second season of coaching, this win could go down as McCarty’s signature win in his coaching career. How many coaches beat the No. 1 team on the road with a mid-major team — particularly when that team is your alma mater? And at 4-3 against the No. 1 team in the country over the last 20 years, the Missouri Valley Conference continues to show why bigger conferences hate to play them at any point during the regular season.

Most importantly for the national college hoops landscape, however, is this very concerning overall effort from Kentucky.

A week after taking down No. 1 Michigan State in a season-opening win at the Champions Classic, this looked like a completely different Wildcats team than we saw in Madison Square Garden. We’re used to seeing Calipari coach freshmen-laden groups still trying to figure each other out. But we rarely see a Kentucky team still searching for its true go-to player.

Tyrese Maxey (15 points) is still trying to establish himself as that go-to offensive presence. But it didn’t always come naturally for both Maxey, or Kentucky’s offense, when he tried to take over on Tuesday. It didn’t help Maxey that the Wildcats had almost zero inside scoring presence against an underwhelming mid-major frontcourt. Even without E.J. Montgomery, this is the type of game where Nick Richards and Nate Sestina should be counted on for production but Evansville limited them to a combined 15 points on only 10 shots.

The outside shooting for Kentucky (4-for-17 from three) was dreadful. And point guard play was also a problem. Ashton Hagans finished with three points and four turnovers on 1-for-8 shooting as this might go down as the worst game of his college career.

This loss shows that Kentucky still has to figure out where its best looks will come from late in close games on offense. And a young team is also trying to adapt to playing with each other amid huge national expectations. Past Kentucky teams have featured dominant interior scorers, shot-creating wings and downhill guards who can get to the rim. This Wildcats team still has the talent to live up to the No. 1 status by the end of the season. We just don’t know if they have the true No. 1 guy to get there if they don’t play perfect in every other facet.

Kentucky has a month until they face another power-conference opponent when they battle Georgia Tech on Dec. 14. That gives them time to figure out some glaring issues before conference play begins but it also shows that college basketball is lacking a dominant team at this point in the season.

Missouri, Evansville engage in public battle over Dru Smith transfer waiver

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Missouri and Evansville are engaging in an increasingly public battle over the offseason transfer of junior guard Dru Smith.

After a promising sophomore season in which Smith averaged 13.7 points and 4.6 assists per game for the Purple Aces, he opted to transfer to the Tigers when Evansville fired head coach Marty Simmons and replaced him with Walter McCarty.

Smith’s transfer to Missouri didn’t come as any sort of surprise. He was also expected to miss the 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules. But when Missouri was granted an NCAA waiver that allowed another offseason transfer, guard Mark Smith from Illinois, to play right away, questions started to arise if Dru Smith (unrelated to Mark) might also be receiving a waiver to play this season.

On Monday, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Ben Frederickson wrote a scratching column that directly accused Evansville of preventing Smith from receiving a waiver to play right away — citing a source close to Smith.

From Frederickson’s column:

Don’t blame the NCAA for this one.

The answer is Evansville.

The NCAA denied Mizzou’s initial attempt to secure a waiver for Dru Smith. A source close to the player confirmed Monday that Evansville did not cooperate with the waiver request. An Evansville spokesman declined to comment on the program’s stance. It was unclear Monday if Mizzou can challenge the NCCA ruling.

There is a lot of he-said, he-said going on between Mizzou and Evansville. That’s common in these situations. But the big picture seems clear. Evansville changed coaches because it wanted a fresh start, but it does not think Dru Smith deserves the same. The Purple Aces have planted a petty flag.

On Wednesday, Evansville responded to those accusations with a long public statement from athletics director Mark Spencer. Spencer and the Purple Aces are claiming that they’ve cooperated with Missouri’s waiver request, but they also refuse to support inaccurate statements about Smith’s transfer.

Evansville is claiming that Missouri wanted the Purple Aces to admit in the waiver claim that they had “run off” Smith so that he didn’t have a place on the team thanks to the coaching change. Spencer denied the “run off” claims, stating that Smith, and all Evansville players, were properly notified about everything involving the coaching change while being given the opportunity to sign financial aid agreements for the future.

In the statement, Evansville also said that Smith emailed Spencer informing him of his decision to transfer on March 29th — six days after McCarty was hired. In the transfer email, Smith told Spencer his reason for leaving was, “mainly because the opportunities that I have are too hard to pass up.” Evansville also said that Smith was publicly supportive of the McCarty hiring when it happened.

Based on Evansville’s thorough response to Frederickson’s claims, it appears that they’ve been willing to help Missouri’s waiver process — but only if that process was truthful in their eyes. While Missouri is likely frustrated that they can’t get Smith eligible right away when they could use another point guard option, you also can’t fault Evansville for wanting to protect the integrity of their program.

It’ll be interesting to see if Missouri, or any Missouri-based columnists, respond to Evansville’s side of things.

For now, Smith is still scheduled to sit out the 2018-19 season based on NCAA transfer rules.

Evansville lands former Kansas guard Sam Cunliffe

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Tuesday afternoon guard Sam Cunliffe announced that he will be transferring from Kansas to Evansville, where he’ll play for first-year head coach Walter McCarty.

Cunliffe, a Top 100 recruit who began his collegiate career at Arizona State, appeared in 15 games last season for Kansas and averaged 1.9 points in just under five minutes per game. Playing time was tough to come by for Cunliffe once he became eligible to compete at Kansas, and that was likely to be the case again in 2018-19 given how loaded the Jayhawks are on the perimeter.

Three of Kansas’ four incoming freshmen are perimeter players, and Memphis transfers Dedric and K.J. Lawson can play on the wing as well. Add in senior LaGerald Vick, who originally had no plans of returning to school after entering his name into the 2018 NBA Draft, and guards Marcus Garrett and Charlie Moore (a transfer from Cal), and Bill Self will have a lot of options from which to choose this season.

Cunliffe joins an Evansville program that will have to account for the loss of its top three scorers from a season ago, including a guard in Ryan Taylor who averaged 21.3 points per game. Cunliffe won’t be able to help the Purple Aces in game action this season, but he’s a talented option McCarty can use as a feature option as he looks to build a program that can consistently contend in the Missouri Valley.