EAST LANSING, Mich. — Cassius Winston gave his offensively challenged team a needed boost.
Winston scored 14 of his 23 points in the opening minutes of the second half, bouncing back from a rough start to help No. 11 Michigan State beat Louisiana-Monroe 80-59 on Wednesday night.
The point guard said he had to be aggressive because “we were struggling to get points on the board.” Michigan State made just 28 percent of its shots overall in the first half and was even worse on 3-pointers, connecting on 2 of 19.
“I could make 2 of 19,” coach Tom Izzo said.
Winston’s surge helped Michigan State lead 51-35 at the 16:52 mark after it was ahead by six points at halftime.
“Cassius is capable of that a lot,” Izzo.
Winston was 9 of 22 from the field, including 3 of 10 on 3-pointers, after going 2 of 9 overall and 0 for 5 beyond the arc in the first half.
“I didn’t let the first half affect my confidence,” he said.
The Spartans (2-1) lost Nick Ward midway through the first half with a sprained right ankle. Ward went down and pounded the court with both fists. He got up on his own and hobbled off the court, trying to keep weight off his right leg. Ward did not return after scoring four points and grabbing three rebounds in five minutes.
“I don’t think it’s anything serious,” Izzo said.
Joshua Langford scored 16 points while Xavier Tillman had 11 points and 13 rebounds for the Spartans.
Louisiana-Monroe’s Javien Williams had 25 points.
“Many times on the floor, his quickness bothered Michigan State, no matter who was guarding him,” coach Keith Richard said.
Michael Ertel added 20 points for the Warhawks (2-2).
Louisiana-Monroe was without Daishon Smith, who averages 17 points, for the second straight game because of a hamstring injury.
“We played without one of our better guards,” Richard said.
Louisiana-Monroe: Leading the 11th-ranked team on its home court — as the Warhawks did in the first half for 1:27 — will be something they can look back on with pride.
“Our team played good in the first half,” Richard said. “Really competed well. To hang with them for 20 minutes is a really good feather in our cap.”
Michigan State: The Spartans hope Ward’s injury proves to be little more than a scare.
“They need him,” Richard said. “With him inside and the 3-point shooting and the push, they’ve got a chance to be an elite team this year.”
The 6-foot-9 forward is averaging 17 points, ranking second, and a team-high 7.5 rebounds. He returned to school for his junior season after initially putting his name in the NBA draft.
Louisiana-Monroe lost forward Tyree White midway through the second half due to an ejection that followed a flagrant foul for an aggressive box out.
Richard said the rule is, and Izzo agreed.
“I don’t know how little guys are going to box out big guys,” Izzo said. “I’m just worried that’s going to happen to someone in a big game when it’s unintentional.
“We need to get more basketball people on the rules committee.”
White will have to sit out the team’s next game.
Michigan State freshman Foster Loyer made two shots and missed two attempts, sailing them over the rim.
“I have never missed two like that,” he said.
Louisiana-Monroe gets some time to prepare for its next game on Nov. 23 at Tennessee Tech.
Michigan State hosts Tennessee Tech on Sunday night.
After winning the Big Ten regular season title a season ago, No. 10 Michigan State bid farewell to two of its top three scorers in Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. While Cassius Winston and Nick Ward are back, and will be expected to once again be major contributors, the Spartans do need to find players capable to help account for the production lost.
Michigan State’s 92-87 loss to top-ranked Kansas Tuesday night in Indianapolis was a mixed bag of sorts. While the first half exposed the Spartans a bit offensively, as they were unable to withstand the Jayhawk onslaught, there were positives to be taken from the second half.
Joshua Langford and Matt McQuaid, who combined to score just six points in the first half, accounted for 24 in the second as Michigan State mounted its charge. Both were run off of screens away from the ball, either to receive the ball immediately or via a second pass, on multiple occasions and this approach benefitted the Michigan State offense. After shooting just 34.6 percent from the field in the first half, Michigan State made 51.5 percent of its shots in the second half.
And this wasn’t solely about the in-game improvements of Langford and McQuaid, either. Senior forward Kenny Goins was solid throughout, scoring 17 points on 5-for-11 shooting (3-for-8 3PT) while also grabbing a team-best 11 rebounds. With Winston and Ward struggling with their shots, going a combined 5-for-18 from the field, the production of Goins kept the door open ever so slightly for a comeback.
The Spartans fell short in this regard, with Kansas sealing the outcome with two free throws in the final seconds, but the fact that Tom Izzo’s team was able to get back into the game after a poor first half is something to build on.
Given their track records, Winston and Ward shouldn’t shoot as poorly as they did Tuesday night in future games. But even if that is the case, Michigan State will need others to step up offensively if they’re to retain the Big Ten title and potentially play deep into the NCAA tournament. The second half performance of Langford and McQuaid is something that Michigan State can build upon moving forward.
But that will only happen if the production is consistent over the course of a full game, which was not the case against Kansas.
Top-ranked Kansas takes care of No. 10 Michigan State
The opening game of the Champions Classic between No. 1 Kansas and No. 10 Michigan State offered up more drama than expected late, but the Jayhawks managed to hang on for the 92-87 victory in the regular season opener for both teams.
While Kansas’ improved depth has been one reason why they’ve been viewed as an early favorite to cut down the nets in April, the Jayhawks’ stars were the difference makers against Michigan State. Freshman guards Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson performed well on the perimeter, combining to score 37 points (21 for Grimes), with Dedric Lawson adding 20 points and 14 rebounds and Udoka Azubuike scoring 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting from the field.
The Champions Classic tends to be a good early season litmus test for newcomers, as they are being tested against high-level talent in a big-game environment. But while there’s still plenty of work to be done, neither Dotson nor Grimes looked to be bothered by the big stage Tuesday night. Grimes’ smooth shooting stroke produced six three-pointers, four coming in the first stanza, giving Kansas perimeter production during a half in which it managed to score 26 points in the paint.
Michigan State didn’t have much of an answer for Kansas in the first half, and that includes the dynamic between Lawson and Azubuike.
The addition of Lawson, who averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game at Memphis in 2016-17, gives Kansas a player who can not only score on multiple levels but can also be used as another creator off of the dribble. On multiple occasions Kansas was able to run the two-man game with Lawson and Azubuike, a dynamic that last year’s Final Four team lacked.
Lawson didn’t shoot particularly well Tuesday night, finishing 5-for-18 from the field, but he was able to get to the foul line (8-for-10), control the glass and dish out a game-high six assists. Lawson isn’t going to make a habit of shooting that poorly this season, and his entire set of skills make the redshirt junior an incredibly tough matchup to deal with. And his presence opens things up for a 7-footer in Azubuike outplayed Michigan State’s big men Tuesday night.
Azubuike, who led the nation in field goal percentage last season, had little trouble getting to his spots within the Kansas offense. While there were some instances of the junior center having both feet planted in the paint, there were others where he had to do some work after receiving the entry pass. And his strength was too much for Michigan State to deal with, regardless of which big they sent Azubuike’s way.
There may be occasions when he shares the court with a David McCormack or Silvio De Sousa (if he’s cleared), but those pairings may not happen very often given how well Azubuike and Lawson appear to work together. And as the freshman guards continue to mature, Kansas should be an even tougher team to deal with than they were for much of Tuesday’s season opener.
The most important thing that a college basketball team can have is good guard play.
Look at who has won national titles in recent seasons.
In 2013, Louisville started Peyton Siva and Russ Smith. In 2014, UConn’s backcourt consisted of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Quinn Cook joined Tyus Jones for Duke’s 2015 national title while Jalen Brunson teamed with Ryan Arcidiacono in 2016 and Donte DiVincenzo, Mikal Bridges and Phil Booth to win the title in 2018.
Hell, even in 2017, when North Carolina won the title on the strength of an imposing frontcourt, they had an All-American in Joel Berry running the show.
I say all that to say this: Elite guards and perimeter players can erase a lot of mistakes.
These are the teams that will have the most talent in those roles this season.
Who did we miss?
1. DUKE BLUE DEVILS
Players: Tre Jones, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Alex O’Connell, Jordan Goldwire, Joey Baker*
While the Blue Devils did lose a considerable amount of backcourt production from last season’s Elite Eight team, with Grayson Allen having graduated and both Trevon Duval and Gary Trent Jr. turning pro, they’ve managed to reload. The nation’s top recruiting class includes three elite perimeter players in point guard Tre Jones and wings R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, with Barrett considered by some to be the best player in college basketball despite having not played an official game.
While Jones is the lead guard, both Barrett and Reddish have been used in playmaking roles during portions of Duke’s two preseason games. That trio will see plenty of playing time, with sophomores Alex O’Connell and Jordan Goldwire supplying the depth. The status of freshman Joey Baker also bears watching, as the 6-foot-7 wing is a good shooter who can potentially give Duke even more depth on the perimeter. The original plan was for Baker, who reclassified to 2018 when he committed to Duke, to redshirt.
2. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Players: Quade Green, Jemarl Baker, Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson
The Wildcats are young on the perimeter, with just one returnee who played valuable minutes in 2017-18. That would be sophomore Quade Green, who made 13 starts and averaged 9.3 points and 2.7 assists per game last season. Redshirt freshman Jemarl Baker, who was sidelined by a knee injury for all of 2017-18, was considered to be one of the top perimeter shooters in the 2018 class and can be a contributor this season in that area. And as Kentucky has done throughout John Calipari’s tenure, they’ve got a crop of outstanding freshmen who are ready to make an impact.
Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley will compete for minutes at the lead guard position, and the same can be said of Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson on the wings. With all four freshmen being at least 6-foot-3, they’ve got the size to fill a variety of roles on the perimeter for Kentucky. Herro and Johnson both shot better than 44 percent from three during Kentucky’s summer trip to The Bahamas, while Quickley’s 18-to-2 assist-to-turnover ratio during that trip was the team’s best. The competition will be better once the regular season begins, but there’s no doubt that this group is capable of doing some special things.
3. KANSAS JAYHAWKS
Players: LaGerald Vick, Charlie Moore, Marcus Garrett, Devon Dotson, Quentin Grimes, Ochai Agbaji
Kansas lost its leader, Devonte’ Graham, and their best three-point shooter in Svi Mhykhailiuk from the perimeter rotation that led the team to the Final Four last season. But even with that being the case, the Jayhawks can boast one of the nation’s top perimeter rotations. Freshmen Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes are ready to be immediate contributors at the point and the two, respectively, and they’ll be competing for minutes with some solid returnees.
LaGerald Vick, who made the decision to enter the NBA draft after averaging 12.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game last season, had a change of heart and returned to Lawrence for his senior season. Sophomore point guard Marcus Garrett, who averaged 4.1 points and 3.1 rebounds in 19.6 minutes per game last season, also returns and Cal transfer Charlie Moore is eligible after sitting out last season. Moore was one of the Pac-12’s best freshmen during his lone season in Berkeley, averaging 12.2 points and 3.5 assists per game in 34 starts, and he’ll give Kansas valuable experience and production at the point.
Players: Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline, Lindsey Drew, Corey Henson, Jazz Johnson, Nisre Zouzoua, Tre’Shawn Thurman
Eric Musselman’s perimeter rotation is absolutely loaded, with the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline being the headliners. All three are redshirt seniors who had starring roles on last year’s Sweet 16 squad, with Caleb Martin having won Mountain West Player of the Year after averaging 18.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game and Cody being the conference’s best defender. As for Caroline, all he did in 2017-18 was average 17.7 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. With Nevada’s loaded front court, Caroline may see more time at the three this season than he did in 2017-18.
Those three aren’t the only seniors either, as Lindsey Drew makes his return after going down with a ruptured Achilles tendon in February and Omaha transfer Tre’Shawn Thurman is eligible after sitting out last season. Thurman averaged 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per game as a junior at Omaha, earning honorable mention All-Summit League honors. Also eligible to play after sitting out last season are transfers Nisre Zouzoua (20.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg at Bryant in 2016-17), Corey Henson (two-time second team All-NEC selection at Wagner) and Jazz Johnson (15.8 ppg as a sophomore at Portland). The Wolf Pack won’t lack for talented options on the perimeter, one reason why the expectations for this team are so high.
Players: Franklin Howard, Tyus Battle, Howard Washington, Elijah Hughes, Oshae Brissett, Jalen Carey, Buddy Boeheim
Despite not having much in the way of depth, Syracuse still managed to reach the Sweet 16 last season thanks in large part to the triumvirate of Battle, Brissett and Howard. While it was Howard who served as Syracuse’s starting point guard, and will once again in his senior season, Battle doesn’t lack for opportunities to make plays within the Syracuse offense himself. As a sophomore the 6-foot-6 Battle averaged 19.2 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game, earning second team All-ACC honors.
Brissett, who led the team in rebounding with an average of 8.8 caroms per game, and Howard were also double-digit scorers for the Orange last season. What will help this trio is the addition of some talented newcomers, most notably jet-quick freshman point guard Jalen Carey and off-guard Buddy Boeheim, the head coach’s son who was one of the leaders on a Brewster Academy team that won 26 games last season. And while Elijah Hughes may not have put up great numbers at East Carolina, the season in residency after his transfer to Syracuse should help in that regard. Rounding out the rotation is Howard Washington, who missed all of last season due to a torn ACL. Health is a bit of a concern early on with Howard, Washington and Carey all banged up at present time, but when whole Syracuse has one of the best backcourt rotations in the country.
6. MICHIGAN STATE
Players: Matt McQuaid, Cassius Winston, Joshua Langford, Kyle Ahrens, Foster Loyer, Gabe Brown, Aaron Henry
Michigan State does have to account for the departures of leading scorer Miles Bridges and team leader Tum Tum Nairn, but there’s no shortage of perimeter talent at Tom Izzo’s disposal. Junior point guard Cassius Winston, who averaged 12.6 points and 6.9 assists per game last season, returns as do senior Matt McQuaid and junior Joshua Langford. Langford was Michigan State’s fourth-leading scorer in 2017-18, starting all 35 games, averaging 11.7 points per game and shooting 40.4 percent from three.
As for McQuaid, he’ll be asked to contribute a bit more after averaging 6.0 points in just over 20 minutes per game. Freshmen will supply much of the additional depth on the perimeter, with four-star wings Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry and three-star point guard Foster Loyer joining the program. Also looking to compete for minutes will be redshirt junior Kyle Ahrens, who missed all of the 2017-18 season due to a foot injury.
Players: Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Braxton Key, Marco Anthony, Kihei Clark, Kody Stattmann, Francesco Badocchi
Despite the loss of Devon Hall, the team’s second-leading scorer, Virginia projects to have a very good perimeter rotation to work with in 2018-19. The tandem of Jerome and Guy will lead the way, with the former being the Cavaliers’ assist leader and the latter back after averaging a team-high 14.1 points per game. And Virginia’s perimeter corps received a significant boost earlier this month when the NCAA granted an immediate eligibility waiver to Alabama transfer Braxton Key.
The 6-foot-8 Key, who averaged 7.0 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in an injury-shortened 2017-18 campaign, has the ability to serve as a supplementary playmaker on the wing. In theory that could open things up for Virginia’s other offensive options, making the Cavaliers that much tougher to defend. Freshmen Kihei Clark, Kody Stattmann and Francesco Badocchi will all look to work their way into the rotation, and with regard to Badocchi it’s important to note that Tony Bennett and his staff have had success with redshirts during their time in Charlottesville. Sophomore Marco Anthony will also look to earn minutes after appearing in only 13 games last season.
Players: Markus Howard, Joseph Chartouny, Sam Houser, Sacar Anim, Greg Elliott, Jamal Cain, Brendan Bailey
Can a backcourt lose its leading scorer, who averaged 20.5 points and 4.8 assists per game, and be better the following season? That could very well be the case for Marquette, which will look to account for the loss of Andrew Rowsey. Markus Howard, who averaged 20.4 points per game and is one of the nation’s best perimeter shooters, returns for his junior season and the versatile Sam Houser (14.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.9 apg) is back as well. Add in Sacar Anim, Greg Elliott and Jamal Cain, and the Golden Eagles don’t lack for experience on the perimeter.
So why can this group potentially be even better in 2018-19? The newcomers, most notably Fordham grad transfer Joseph Chartouny. Last season the 6-foot-3 Chartouny, who led the Rams in rebounds and assists while also averaging 12.2 points per game, led the nation with an average of 3.3 steals per game. Marquette struggled on the defensive end of the floor last season, and Chartouny has the size and skill needed to make an impact in that area immediately. Add in 6-foot-8 freshman Brendan Bailey, a versatile wing who will also factor into the fight for minutes, and this perimeter rotation is a big reason while Marquette is considered by some to be the team most likely to challenge Villanova in the Big East.
9. ST. JOHN’S
Players: Shamorie Ponds, Justin Simon, Marvin Clark II, Mustapha Heron, Mikey Dixon, L.J. Figueroa, Bryan Trimble, Greg Williams Jr.
The Chris Mullin era has yet to produce an NCAA tournament bid, but that could very well change in 2018-19 if his backcourt lives up to the preseason hype. In Shamorie Ponds the Red Storm possess a high-scoring guard who averaged 21.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game, and the preseason Big East Player of the Year is one of three double-digit scoring guards back on campus. Seniors Justin Simon (12.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 5.1 apg), who led the Red Storm in rebounding and assists, and Marvin Clark II (12.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg) both return as well. While that trio is definitely a good starting point, St. John’s also boasts a really good crop of perimeter newcomers.
Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron received a waiver that makes him eligible to play immediately, and in the 6-foot-5 junior the Red Storm add a player who averaged 16.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game on a team that won a share of the SEC regular season title. Also eligible to play — after sitting out last season — is Quinnipiac transfer Mikey Dixon, who averaged 16.5 points and 3.7 rebounds per game as a freshman. Junior college transfer L.J. Figueroa was a NJCAA All-American at Odessa College who’s already received rave reviews for his work in preseason practices. Freshman Greg Williams Jr., a four-star recruit out of high school, and sophomore Bryan Trimble will also look to earn playing time in what is a stacked backcourt.
Players: Carsen Edwards, Ryan Cline, Nojel Eastern, Sasha Stefanovic, Aaron Wheeler, Eric Hunter Jr.
It all starts with Edwards, who in the eyes of many is considered to be the preseason favorite for national Player of the Year honors. As a sophomore, Edwards led Purdue in points with an average of 18.5 points per game while also dishing out 2.8 assists per game. The question heading into 2018-19 for Edwards is how he’ll balance being that attack-minded scoring guard with the need to put his younger teammates in positions where they can be at their best. That wasn’t as much of a concern last season due to the presence of four seniors in the starting lineup. Also back from last season’s perimeter rotation are senior Ryan Cline and sophomore Nojel Eastern, with the latter viewed as a player who could be in line for a breakout season.
Eastern only averaged 2.9 points in 12.6 minutes per game as a freshman, but he has both the size and athleticism needed to join the list of off guards who have experienced success playing for Matt Painter. As for Cline, he was also a reserve and shot nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc in 2017-18. Redshirt freshmen Sasha Stefanovic and Aaron Weaver will look to turn the lessons learned from last year’s seniors into production in their first season of game action, and true freshman Eric Hunter Jr. is a four-star prospect who averaged 29 points per game as a high school senior. Edwards will be the leader for this group, but Purdue’s perimeter boasts talent beyond the Player of the Year candidate.
Honorable Mention: Clemson, Florida State, Gonzaga, Kansas State, Michigan, Mississippi State, N.C. State, Villanova, Virginia Tech, Washington
Losing Graham is a major, major blow for this program, but they had as much talent sitting out this season as any program in college basketball. Cal transfer Moore should be able to step in and handle the point guard duties – if that role isn’t taken over by Dotson – while Dedric Lawson and K.J. Lawson will give Bill Self actual power forwards, something he has been yearning for the last two years. This team is talented, they are old, they are well coached and they have a functional point guard on their roster. There is a lot to like about the Jayhawks heading into the year.
As always, there is quite a bit of turnover on the Kentucky roster. Six key pieces from last year are gone, while the Wildcats bring in yet another loaded recruiting class. I think the combination of incoming backcourt talent and the remaining front court veterans is going to be a fun combination for Kentucky fans to watch, especially when Stanford grad transfer Travis is factored into the mix. The big question for Kentucky is going to be how they can put a team on the floor that can both shoot and play the kind of elite-level defense we all are expecting. Cal has plenty of weapons, and it will be fascinating to see how he decides to deploy them.
3. GONZAGA BULLDOGS
Who’s gone: Silas Melson, Johnathan Williams III
Who do they add: Geno Crandall, Brandon Clarke, Joel Ayayi, Filip Petrušev, Greg Foster Jr.
I’m not fully convinced that I love Perkins as a point guard, but with Norvell and Kispert a year older and Hachimura and Tillie on the front line, the Zags have a chance to be really, really good once again. Throw in the transfer additions of Clarke and Crandall as well as a couple more talented foreigners — Ayayi and Petrušev — and this is just about what you would expect for Gonzaga.
4. DUKE BLUE DEVILS
Who’s gone: Grayson Allen, Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr.
Who do they add: Tre Jones, Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Joey Baker
Projected starting lineup: Tre Jones, Cam Reddish, R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Javin DeLaurier
The Blue Devils are a team that has a lot left to figure out. Bagley, Trent, Duval and Carter are all following Allen out the door to make way for another loaded recruiting class. I’m still torn on how this Duke team — which will likely end up starting four freshmen — will play. That has not always been the path to success, but the talent here is impossible to ignore. There’s a non-zero chance that Barrett, Williamson and Reddish could end up going 1-2-3 in the 2019 NBA Draft. The big question with this group is going to be how well the pieces gel together and whether or not there is enough shooting (and willing defenders) to allow this group to play the way teams like Villanova, Golden State and Boston play. I explain that line of thinking more here.
Who do they add: Jahvon Quinerly, Cole Swider, Brandon Slater, Joe Cremo
Projected starting lineup: Jahvon Quinerly, Phil Booth, Jermaine Samuels, Eric Paschall, Cole Swider
Villanova did not fair well at the NBA early entry deadline, losing four of the top 33 picks in the draft. I’m still willing to ride with the Wildcats, as I think they are more experienced than they will get credit for — Paschall and Booth are fifth-year seniors after all — and because Jay Wright’s teams always have people ready to step in and contribute immediately. Expect a breakout year from Jermaine Samuels, and don’t be surprised when Paschall is an All-American and a first round pick come the end of the season.
6. NEVADA WOLF PACK
Who’s gone: Kendell Stephens, Hallice Cooke, Josh Hall
Who do they add: Tre’Shawn Thurman, Corey Henson, Jazz Johnson, Nisre Zouzoua, Kwame Hymes, Vince Lee, Trey Porter, Jordan Brown
Projected starting lineup: Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Jordan Caroline, Trey Porter, Jordan Brown
Getting the Martin twins back is massive. Drew’s recovery from a torn achilles is also something that could be a problem, but this was a wildly talented team that came a point away from the Elite Eight despite losing their starting point guard and having their best player (Caleb Martin) deal with a foot injury the last two months of the season, and they basically bring everyone back. This is the best Mountain West team since Kawhi and Jimmer were running roughshod over the league.
7. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
Who’s gone: James Daniel III
Who do they add: No one
Projected starting lineup: Lamonte’ Turner, Jordan Bone, Jordan Bowden, Admiral Schofield, Grant Williams
Tennessee won the SEC last season and returns literally everyone from that team outside of Daniel, who came off the bench. Williams was the SEC Player of the Year last year, and Rick Barnes has plenty of perimeter talent and switchable players at his disposal. There are also some young, talented pieces on this roster — Bone, Bowden, Yves Pons, Kyle Alexander — that still have room to develop. I don’t think it’s crazy to think Tennessee could end up making a run at a No. 1 seed.
8. VIRGINIA CAVALIERS
Who’s gone: Devon Hall, Isaiah Wilkins, Nigel Johnson
Who do they add: Kody Stattmann, Kihei Clark, Francisco Caffaro
Projected starting lineup: Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, Deandre Hunter, Mamadi Diakite, Jack Salt
I’ll never doubt Virginia again (unless they are a No. 1 seed … kidding!), even when they are losing their best guard and their best defender. Hunter is ready to step up and be the star for this team, and I think Mamadi Diakite will have a chance to be an elite defensive presence. If there is a real concern here, it’s depth, but I trust Tony Bennett will be able to figure something out. Always trust in Tony.
9. NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
Who’s gone: Joel Berry III, Theo Pinson, Jalek Felton
Who do they add: Coby White, Nassir Little, Rechon Black
Projected starting lineup: Coby White, Kenny Williams, Nassir Little, Cam Johnson, Luke Maye
Where you rank UNC in the preseason is going to depend entirely on two things: How good you think their freshmen — White and Little — are going to be, and what kind of development you expect out of Brandon Huffman, Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks. Will there be a returning player in college basketball this season that is better than Maye?
Auburn will lose Heron, who might have been their best player last season, but return everyone else from a team that won the SEC. Their guards are just so talented, and that was without Purifoy and Doughty. The health of McLemore, who suffered a dreadful ankle injury in February, will be critical, as well as the development of Chuma Okeke. But we saw what Pearl could do with these pieces last season, and that was with the FBI investigation hanging over their head.
11. KANSAS STATE WILDCATS
Who’s gone: No one
Who do they add: Shaun Williams
Projected starting lineup: Kamau Stokes, Barry Brown, Carter Diarra, Xavier Sneed, Dean Wade
This will probably be the highest that you see the Wildcats ranked heading into the season, but I really like this group. They have a crop of tough-minded, playmaking guards that can really get out and defend, and their best player might actually be a guy that the public at-large hasn’t really seen play in Wade. Bruce Weber is going to silence the haters!
12. VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES
Who’s gone: Devin Wilson, Justin Bibbs
Who do they add: Jon Kabongo, Landers Nolley II, Jarren McAllister
Projected starting lineup: Justin Robinson, Ahmed Hill, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Chris Clarke, Kerry Blackshear
The Hokies bring back seven of their top eight players, but the key for this team is going to be the development of their rising sophomore class: Alexander-Walker, Wabissa Bede, P.J. Horne. We know how good Clarke, Robinson and Blackshear are, but if those three take a step forward we could be looking at a top ten team.
13. MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS
Who’s gone: Miles Bridges, Jaren Jackson, Ben Carter, Gavin Schilling, Tum Tum Nairn
Who do they add: Foster Loyer, Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, Marcus Bingham Jr., Thomas Kithier
Projected starting lineup: Cassius Winston, Matt McQuaid, Josh Langford, Nick Ward, Xavier Tillman
I can’t help but look at this roster and see all the same issues that they had this past season, only without their two most talented players. Turnovers. Lack of star power. Some defensive issues. Winston has a chance to be a first-team all-Big Ten player, but Langford and Ward are going to have to live up to their potential. It feels like this group has nice pieces, but that those pieces doesn’t necessarily fit together. That said, who is better? What team is without warts?
14. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES
Who’s gone: Braian Angola, C.J. Walker, Brandon Allen
I really like this group in theory. They have a whole bunch of athletic, switchable wings that can score. Mann, Walker and Kabengele returning was key, as is finding a way to get point guard depth now that C.J. Walker left the program. Getting Cofer back for a fifth-year is enormous.
15. TCU HORNED FROGS
Who’s gone: Kenrich Williams, Vlad Brodziansky, Ahmed Hamdy
Who do they add: Kendric Davis, Kaden Archie, Angus McWilliam, Yuat Alok, Russel Barlow Jr.
Projected starting lineup: Alex Robinson, Jaylen Fisher, Desmond Bane, Kouat Noi, Kevin Samuel
Losing Williams and Brodziansky is going to be a blow, but there are still plenty of pieces. Bane and Noi should be in line for breakout seasons, and Jamie Dixon going small-ball with a two-point guard look should be fun to watch. Will Fisher ever be healthy?
16. UCLA BRUINS
Who’s gone: Aaron Holiday, Thomas Welsh, G.G. Goloman, LiAngelo Ball
Who do they add: Tyger Campbell, Shareef O’Neal, Moses Brown, Kenny Nwuba, David Singleton III, Jules Bernard, Cody Riley, Jalen Hill
Projected starting lineup: Jaylen Hands, Prince Ali, Kris Wilkes, Cody Riley, Moses Brown
This is a make or break year for Steve Alford. With every underclassmen except Aaron Holiday back, meaning that back-to-back top five-ish recruiting classes are on campus. It’s time for the Bruins to put up or shut up, and I think they’ll be right there as a favorite to win the Pac-12 … if they decide they want to play defense.
West Virginia has survived losing program guys in past seasons, but Carter and Miles were responsible for turning West Virginia into Press Virginia. Calling them program guys is a disservice. So we’ll see how this plays out. At this point, we have to trust that Bob Huggins will figure out a way to make it work.
18. OREGON DUCKS
Who’s gone: Elijah Brown, MiKyle McIntosh, Troy Brown
Who do they add: Bol Bol, Louis King, Miles Norris, Will Richardson
Projected starting lineup: Payton Pritchard, Louis King, Paul White, Kenny Wooten, Bol Bol
For my money, Oregon’s season hung on whether or not Brown returned to school, and he’s gone. Bol and King are both potential one-and-done players, and Wooten is an elite defensive prospect, but I’m in a wait and see mode with them. Personally, I’m not on the Bol Bol bandwagon, but I understand why he is, in theory, a high-level prospect. They’re here because of the talent and Dana Altman, and we bought into that.
19. SYRACUSE ORANGE
Who’s gone: Matthew Moyer
Who do they add: Buddy Boeheim, Jalen Carey, Eli Hughes, Robert Braswell
Projected starting lineup: Tyus Battle, Franklin Howard, Oshae Brissett, Marek Dolezaj, Paschal Chukwu
The Orange had no depth and very little perimeter shooting last season, but it looks like that was addressed in the offseason. With Battle and Brissett back in the fold, this Syracuse team has a chance to match watchable offense with one of college basketball’s very best defenses.
20. LSU Tigers
Who’s gone: Duop Reath, Randy Onwuasor, Aaron Epps, Jeremy Combs, Mayan Kiir, Galen Alexander
Who do they add: Naz Reid, Emmitt Williams, Javonte Smart, Darius Days, Kavell Bigby-Williams
LSU is really young. They are also really talented. Waters is so entertaining, and the incoming trio of Smart, Reid and Williams is very good. Effort will be a key, as will their ability to play together, but they have a chance to be really good.
21. MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
Who’s gone: No one
Who do they add: Reggie Perry, Robert Woodard, Jethro Tshisumpa Mbiya, D.J. Stewart
Projected starting lineup: Lamar Peters, Nick Weatherspoon, Quinndary Weatherspoon, Aric Holman, Abdul Ado
I am not totally sold on Ben Howland getting this thing going at Mississippi State, but this will be his most talented team. The Weatherspoon brothers are both going to be good players, Peters still intrigues some NBA teams and Holman should fill a role. Reggie Perry should be a nice addition and an impact player as well.
22. CLEMSON TIGERS
Who’s gone: Gabe DeVoe, Donte Grantham, Mark Donnal
Who do they add: John Newman III, Hunter Tyson, Trey Jamison, Javan White
Projected starting lineup: Shelton Mitchell, Marcquise Reed, David Skara, Aamir Simms, Elijah Thomas
With Mitchell and Reed back in the fold, plus Elijah Thomas in the paint, this has the makings of another team that will push for a top five seed.
Who do they add: Ignas Brazdeikis, David DeJulius, Brandon Johns, Adrian Nunez, Colin Castleton
Projected starting lineup: Zavier Simpson, Charles Matthews, Jordan Poole, Isaiah Livers, Jon Teske
Losing Wagner and Abdur-Rahkman, the program’s two best offensive weapons, are major blows for a team that struggled to score a season ago. Matthews’ decision to return is key and they will really be able to guard again, but one of their three big wings is going to need to take a major step forward for them offensively.
24. N.C. STATE WOLFPACK
Who’s gone: Omer Yurtseven, Al Freeman, Abdul-Malik Abu, Lennard Freeman, Sam Hunt
Who do they add: C.J. Bryce, Devon Daniels, Blake Harris, Saddiq Bey, Jericole Hellems, Derek Funderburk, Ian Steere, Immanuel Bates
Kevin Keatts is going to miss Yurtseven, because he doesn’t have any size on his roster anymore. He does, however, have half-a-million guards on his roster, and all of them can play. That’s enough for me to bet on Keatts getting it done.
25. MARQUETTE GOLDEN EAGLES
Who’s gone: Andrew Rowsey, Haanif Cheatam, Harry Froling
Who do they add: Ed Morrow, Joseph Chartouny, Joey Hauser, Brendan Bailey
Projected starting lineup: Markus Howard, Joseph Chartouny, Sacar Anim, Sam Hauser, Matt Heldt
Marquette will be the second-best team in the Big East if they figure out how to defense. Howard is an all-american, while the Hauser brothers will provide plenty of offensive firepower. Chartouny’s addition is key, as is Morrow’s. Both are tough, veteran defensive presences.
We all too often think and talk about small ball completely wrong.
The strategy that has revolutionized basketball over the last decade — shoutout to the 7 Seconds or Less Suns — is unfortunately named. It conjures up images of a guard-heavy lineup with wings sliding down the positional scale to man the frontcourt. When we talk about small ball, we think of pint-size (by NBA standards, at least) shooters around a 6-foot-7 Draymond Green at center.
Play small, go fast, get buckets.
The problem with that line of thinking, though, is that small ball really has little to do with size. It’s a name that labels the byproduct of the aim of a style of play. Small ball isn’t about size. It’s about skill.
Small ball is about putting as much skill on the floor as possible. It’s about maximizing shooting, playmaking and versatility of both the offensive and defensive variety. Small ball is a means to an end, with the goal being having as technical proficiency and adaptability in the lineup as possible.
Now, what do players who can shoot, switch and sprint the floor usually look like? They’re guards or 6-foot-7 wings repurposed as frontcourt players.
If you want to play with shooting, skill and versatility on the court, you go small not out of philosophy, but out of necessity.
But maybe not any more.
As the 2018 NBA draft looms next week, it’s increasingly clear that small ball is increasingly becoming supersized with as many as six of the top seven selections potentially being centers, the heavy majority of which project as so-called modern bigs.
The “unicorns” we’ve celebrated in the last half-decade — Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo — are becoming decidedly less rare. Or at least the archetype they helped create is ushering in a new generation of players who will try to replicate their success while having the size and skill combinations that make such long-term projections not entirely unreasonable.
A 7-footer who handles the rock, blocks shots, switches one-through-five and makes threes is no longer a guaranteed generational player, but rather a piece that unlocks the rest of the roster to maximum versatility and skill.
Those types of players don’t populate every roster and they are in the highest demand by NBA franchises, but no longer does a team need to be drafting in the top spot to have a shot at such a big.
Just look at this year’s mock drafts.
Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Marvin Bagley III, Mo Bamba and Michael Porter Jr. all project to be among the first players selected next Thursday and are all 6-foot-10 or taller with the skill sets and physical frames that allow them to anchor small ball lineups, or at least that’s what NBA franchises are hoping and banking on.
And that doesn’t even include Wendell Carter Jr.
Look at the presumptive top pick, Ayton. At 7-feet and 243 pounds with arms that look like they’ve been photoshopped to appear on the cover of a bodybuilding magazine, he’s got one of the most imposing frames that college basketball has seen in recent years. Ayton’s strength is phenomenal, but it’s his feet that make him so tantalizing.
He moves with the agility, quickness and effortlessness that belies a player that is, quite simply, a massive human being. Ayton has the size and physicality of a traditional big man. He’s a high-level rebounder, finishes at the rim and has the physical tools that allow NBA scouts to tell themselves he’ll be a better rim-protector than his block rate would indicate. His real appeal, though, is the prospect he can switch a one-five pick-and-roll, is potentially a devastating rim-runner and projects as pick-and-roll big who can pop or dive to wondrous results.
Ayton is at the top of draft boards because scouts believe that he can competently do everything Draymond Green can while inhabiting David Robinson’s body.
That’s much the same thing that has Jackson and Bagley projected in the top-five, slotted behind Ayton because they’re not quite as physically intimidating but still possess some combination of the athleticism, wingspan, agility and level of skill that has front offices dreaming of them fitting well into small ball lineups. Porter is a mystery after essentially missing all of last season, but he fits that same mold.
The outlier here is Carter. The 6-foot-10, 260-pounder is by no means a plodder, but he’s much more in the mold of a traditional big. He rebounds, protects the rim and is comfortable with his back to the basket. The question, though, is can he defend the pick-and-roll or will he be susceptible to switches that will play him off the floor? Post play is probably become somewhat underrated as it’s possible to stress defenses from the inside to create opportunities for the outside, but it’s increasingly de-emphasized.
If teams are looking to zig while the rest of the league zags, Carter would seem to be an option. If he can improve his footwork and extend his range, he could well fit into modern NBA offenses. The fact that he’s further behind in those areas, though, is why he’s generally considered the least of the best available big men.
Which brings us to Bamba.
While Ayton continues to be the conventional wisdom at 1 and Jackson’s combination of frame and skill entices front offices, the former Texas big may be the most intriguing prospect with the highest ceiling in this draft.
The 7-footer has a wingspan of 7-feet-10 inches and a standing reach of 9-feet-7.5 inches, which eclipse The Stifle Tower himself, Rudy Gobert. That height and length didn’t go unutilized in Austin as Bamba showed himself to be an elite rim protector (13.2 block percentage) and excellent rebounder (28.2 defensive rebounding percentage). Shot-blocking and rebounding translates, and Bamba measurements suggest he’ll be able to do both at the next level.
Then there’s his agility. He moves extremely well both as a rim-runner and laterally against guards. Given his length, he doesn’t have to be perfect when he’s switched on to small guards, but just stay within shouting — well, swatting — distance. Given what we saw from him last year, he seems entirely possible he’ll be capable of that going forward.
Bamba slightness and 3-point shooting percentage (27.5) along with questions about his physicality have depressed his draft stock, but those hurdles seem clearable. Bamba has what no other prospect in this class – or maybe any other – doesn’t with his size and length. Even among unicorns, Bamba stands out.
The 2018 NBA draft is revealing what we mean when we talk about small ball. To make it work, you need players that can switch and shoot. You need speed, athleticism and length. For years, those combinations came in smaller packages, but increasingly it’s becoming supersized as small ball becomes the preeminent way to play and the skills that are prized and necessary to employ it are now being taught to and honed by bigger and bigger players.
Small ball has become the bible for NBA franchises, but the label describes the book’s cover, not its substance.