Michigan State basketball 2017-18: same team, more experience

The preseason rankings have Michigan State sitting firmly at number two. A second place rank is tied for the highest rank they have received in school history. The common theme for the 2017-18 Michigan State Spartans is experience.

The Spartans two top scorers returning this season for their sophomore seasons. Miles Bridges and Nick Ward combined to average 30.8 points per game last season and are looking to take the next step for their sophomore seasons.

The Spartans add a few highly touted recruits and return nearly their entire rotation from the 2016-17 season. Experience tends to win come March, and the Michigan State Spartans are loaded with talent and experience across the board.

The sophomore class

Michigan State basketball 2017-18

Michigan States Sophomores, (MLlive.com).

One of the best freshman classes we have seen in a while has stayed together for their sophomore seasons.

Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and Miles Bridges were four of the top five scorers for the Spartans in 2016-17. The four added 44.6 points a game which was good for 62 percent of the Spartans’ scoring last season.

Miles Bridges is one of the best returning players in college basketball this season and if he can take the next step forward he will lead a group of sophomores that could take over college basketball.

The freshmen

Lots of freshmen in big time conferences are looking to start and make an immediate impact. Although there is no doubt that Michigan States freshmen could do that, there are lots of other players that can protect the freshmen until they are ready to produce for the Spartans.

Jaren Jackson Jr. is the number nine recruit in this year’s class (via ESPN) and joins a starting lineup that is already loaded. The new freshman guards will learn from Tum Tum Nairn who is a senior.

Xavier Tillman (SF, 6-foot-8) is ranked as the 74th prospect on ESPN’s top 100 and is an excellent post player with tremendous passing skills and a high basketball IQ.

Brock Washington (SG, 6-foot-3) adds a shooting stroke from the guard position. He can help Matt Mcquaid open up a defense for guys like Ward, Bridges and Jackson inside. Washington made 148 threes in his high school career and looks to knock the top off of defenses.

Tom Izzo

This is a very impressive team that Tom Izzo has put together in just two years. He will have a chance to coach a lot of the same guys from last season and gets to work with the talented Miles Bridges again.

The three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year has been coaching Michigan State for 22 years and has had a lot of good teams. I don’t think he has had a team that has been this similar to a year prior however.

Izzo is currently studying tape just like players are, learning the tendencies of his young big men and experienced guards and looking to put them in the best position to succeed. One of the best things to have as a coach is three guys that can go out and get you buckets consistently.

With the addition of Jackson, Michigan State could have struck that this season. With Ward, Bridges and possibly Jackson, the Michigan State Spartans are loaded.

Season prediction

Due to the tremendous freshman class in college basketball there are lots of very good teams this season. Michigan State has experience to balance with great young talent. I think come March the Spartans find a way to be a one seed.

I think they win the Big 10 and end up cutting down the nets come April. Tom Izzo and Miles Bridges will be two key reasons to this Michigan State Spartans team winning the 2018 NCAA National Title. Izzo will finally get himself another National Title.

 

Featured Image from MSUtoday.com.

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College basketball preseason top 25: 5-1

It is the end of October so that means college basketball is right around the corner. What teams should be looked at as the best of the best? This is the final installment in the top 25 rundown. For teams 10-6, click here.

5. Kentucky Wildcats

College basketball preseason top 25

Hamidou Diallo (Photo by bostonherald.com)

The Wildcats lost a heart-breaker to UNC in the Elite Eight last season. Like most years they have to replace most of their team. They don’t return much at all and will be led by freshman, but they have a very talented freshmen class yet again that should be able to be successful.

Versatility is going to be the name of the game for the Kentucky bigs. Kevin Knox, P.J. Washington, Jarred Vanderbilt are all capable of playing on the perimeter and in the paint. How they fit in together is a big question. Vanderbilt is currently dealing with injuries and will not be ready for the start of the season. Nick Richards is the tallest on the team and will fight for minutes. The returnees Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Kileya-Jones and Tai Wynyard will fight for minutes. Gabriel started 23 games last season and can be valuable if he knocks down outside shots. Wynyard is a very physical player who can step in if the other players aren’t rebounding. While there are a lot of talented players, Calipari will play the most talented.

Quade Green ad Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are both highly touted recruits who will handle the point guard duties. Whoever does not start will be able to play off of the ball. Hamidou Diallo got to campus last year in the midseason and John Calipari decided to redshirt him. His half-season with Kentucky last year will pay dividends, as well as his summer trip representing Team USA in the U19 World Cup. Diallo is an athletic freak, who needs to shoot the ball better to be a dynamic player. Jemarl Baker was supposed to provide some outside shooting for this team, but Baker had his knee scoped and will likely be out for three months.

As always if the young talent can mesh together, the sky is the limit for Kentucky. They may start off slow, but come March, Kentucky will be a factor once again.

4. Kansas Jayhawks

College basketball preseason top 25

Devonte’ Graham (Photo by draftexpress.com)

Kansas made their second straight Elite 8 last season and can do so again this season. They will have to deal with the losses of Carlton Bragg, Josh Jackson, Landen Lucas and, most importantly, Frank Mason. That is a lot to replace, but there is some significant talent returning.

Udoka Azubuike returns after getting injured last season. He will be asked to play way more than his 12.9 minutes per game that he averaged last season. In those minutes though, he showed flashes of being a great player. His per 40 minutes stats are great, as he would’ve averaged 15.5 points and 13.5 rebounds. Billy Preston, no relation to Bill S. Preston Esquire, is a great incoming freshman that is going to be thrust into any minutes Azubuike can’t be on the floor. He is very athletic, but needs to work on his inside game. The only other big on the roster is Mitch Lightfoot, who will see an increased role as the third big. There is not much depth in the frontcourt, so the Jayhawks will have to stay healthy and out of foul trouble.

The backcourt is loaded with talent. Devonte’ Graham returns and will take over at point after the loss of Frank Mason. He is a great defender that showed he could score too last season. He will need to set up teammates and find his own shot this season. Lagerald Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk return on the wing. Both can knock down the three point shot, while Vick has more athletic ability. Mykhailiuk may need to step more inside to cover up for the lack of bigs on the roster, seeing as he is 6’8″. Two transfers will have to step up for Kansas as well. Malik Newman was a big recruit going into Mississippi State and is hoping his career has new life at Kansas. Sam Cunliffe is an Arizona State transfer who will be eligible in December.

The guards and wings will be hard to match up with, but if Kansas’ frontcourt doesn’t step up it will be hard to reach a third consecutive Elite 8. Luckily they have talent so the sky is the limit.

3. Arizona Wildcats

College basketball preseason top 25

Allonzo Trier (Photo by draftexpress.com)

The Wildcats got upset by Xavier in the Sweet 16 last season, but have a lot of returning talent and incoming recruits to help them get to a Final Four. They lose Kadeem Allen, Chance Comanche, Lauri Markkanen and Kobi Simmons, but this team is actually better. Can Sean Miller reach his first Final Four of his career?

The frontcourt is going to be led by superstar recruit DeAndre Ayton. He can protect the rim and stretch the floor, making him unique. Dustan Ristic started 34 games last season and can play alongside Ayton or back him up. Rustic has a refined inside game that can compliment Ayton. Keanu Pinder is a good role player who will rebound and defend. Behind these three there isn’t much, but the guards on the roster should be able to play big if they need to.

Allonzo Trier is back after leading the team in scoring last season with 17.2 points per game. He could’ve gone pro, but elected to come back for another season. He can do a little bit of everything offensively, as a solid shooter and driver. Rawle Alkins also choose to come back to Tucson after considering the NBA. Alkins will improve in his second season with the Wildcats. Parker Jackson-Cartwright is back at point guard and will likely start every game. Backing these three up will be frehsmen and transfers, but they are talented. Emmanuel Akot, Brandon Randolph, Dylan Smith and Alex Barcello will all be expected to fight for minutes.

Sean Miller needs to get to a Final Four and this season offers his best chance to do so. If Ayton is as good as advertised, the Final Four should be an expectation for Arizona.

2. Michigan State Spartans

College basketball preseason top 25

Miles Bridges (Photo by draftexpress.com)

Tom Izzo gets a chance to make his first Final Four since 2015 with this squad. He has a lot of talent and depth, which is something he didn’t have last season due to injuries. If the Spartans can stay healthy, the team is going to be tough to beat.

Miles Bridges returns on the wing. He is going to be the best player in all of college basketball this season. As a freshman he averaged 16.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists. He didn’t have a lot of help last season, but will this year. Nick Ward was thrust into playing a lot last year as a freshman and was a physical force on the inside. Jaren Jackson is a very good recruit who will be hard to keep off the floor. Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter and Kenny Goins return to give them some of the best frontcourt depth in the country. They can ride the hot hand this season.

Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairns Jr. is a senior leader now who is a great defender and can set up his teammates. He needs to hit more perimeter shots to be more effective in the offense. Cassius Winston has turned heads with his passing and playmaking ability and will provide Michigan State with a chance to have two point guards on the floor at once. He can also shoot the ball and spread the floor. Mike McQuaid will add a three point specialist to the backcourt. Joshua Langford will also play a bit and is a good wing that can drive and shoot.

With so much talent and perhaps the best player in college basketball, this team can win the National Championship.

1. Duke Blue Devils

College basketball preseason top 25

Marvin Bagley (Photo by accsports.com)

Coach K has had one and dones before, but Coach K has fully embraced recruiting one and dones. He has a roster chalk full of them. A few key players return from a team that lost in the second round, but the freshman are what make this Blue Devils’ squad the best in the country.

Marques Bolden returns at center after a disappointing freshman season. He only played 6.5 minutes a game and needs to improve. He is the only returning player that will see significant minutes. Marvin Bagley Jr. is a dynamic player that is in contention to be the number one overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. He reclassified to play at Duke this season and added to their great recruiting class. Wendell Carter is another freshman who can add to the depth on the inside. He is more of a stretch four and should get a lot of minutes, even if he is overshadowed by Bagley.

Grayson Allen is back for his senior season. Love him or hate him, he is a good scorer that has a lot of experience, which is something this team desperately needed. He saw his scoring decline last season as Luke Kennard stepped up, but may be asked to score a lot until the freshmen get into their groove. Trevon Duval is one of the best point guards of the class and will be the best point guard that Duke has had since their National Championship in 2015. If for some reason he fails, or gets injured, Allen can play point guard once again and run the offense decently well. Gary Trent Jr. is a great wing that will play on the wing with Allen, giving Duke a very talented starting lineup. Depth could be a problem, so role players will need to step up.

The only thing that can derail Duke this season is Grayson Allen’s attitude or a lack of depth. If Coach K can get the most out of this team, he may be cutting down the nets in April.

 

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Miles Bridges Declines Draft

Why Miles Bridges Declining the Draft is a Good Thing

Last week, Miles Bridges said he would return to Michigan State for his sophomore year of college basketball. Spartan fans couldn’t be happier that their star freshman will be coming back.

He told fans at his press conference last week, “I have personal goals here. I want to win a national championship.” ESPN has had a few mock drafts which put him in the top 20 but the NBA will not see Bridges for another year. Here is why Bridges made the right decision to return to college:

1. Another Year with Coach Izzo

Coach Tom Izzo is unarguably a legendary coach, and his awards are mere evidence of his success. Izzo won a national championship in 2000, appeared in the Final Four seven times and has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year three times. In 2016 he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame with a .712 winning percentage in his career.

Miles Bridges Declines Draft

Tom Izzo speaks with guard Miles Bridges (22) during the first half against the Wichita State Shockers. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

This is all to say that the guy knows his stuff. Bridges will continue to learn a lot about Izzo’s motto: “players play, but tough players win.”

Coach Izzo is also well known for scheduling a very tough non-conference schedule in preparation for March, which will only benefit Bridges and the rest of the Spartans.

Along with Coach Izzo, think about Draymond Green. He stayed at Michigan State for four years and is now having one heck of a career in the NBA.

Green has had a lot of success with the Golden State Warriors over the course of five seasons. He won a championship in 2015 and has the perk of a 15.3 million dollar salary for 2017.

Miles Bridges is a lot like Green with a 6’7” stature and strong explosive moves. Bridges looks more like a guard than Green did in his Michigan State days, however there are lots of similarities.

2. The College Experience Will Help Miles Bridges and his Draft Stock

Miles Bridges Declines Draft

Miles Bridges of Michigan State Spartans. Mandatory Credit to spartanavanue.com

This statement rides on a lot of “ifs” because it won’t be true unless Bridges really improves his sophomore season. The experience will help if he can produce better statistics, take his team further in the tournament and have more success. However, if all of these ifs become reality, his draft stock will increase.

Bridges had the potential to make millions but he turned it down for the opportunity to go to school and win a national title. That says a lot about him as a player and a person.

He also averaged 16.9 points per game, which is the highest for a freshman since Magic Johnson who averaged 17 points per game his freshman season.

A lot of people are worried about his draft stock declining if he stays another year. However, the risk of staying another year could put him in the top 5 for overall picks. Another year with Coach Izzo and more growth, could be the key to even greater success in the NBA.

3. NEXT YEar is looking even better

The Spartans will have a lot of returners for the 2017-2018 season. Cassius Winston and Nick Ward will be coming back, along with Joshua Langford and Tum Tum Nair Jr. for his senior season. Eight of the top ten players will be returning for next year. They will have something special if Coach Izzo can keep everyone healthy and working hard.

Just last week Jack Hoiberg, son of Fred Hoiberg (Chicago Bulls head coach), said he would be walking onto Michigan State’s basketball team for the 2017-2018 season. Hoiberg will be joined by Jaren Jackson and Xavier Tillman, two power forwards who have signed with the Spartans. Jackson stands at 6’11, ranked 16th in the nation and will play good minutes for the Spartans next year. Tillman is 6’9 and 250 pounds, a little bit thicker than Jackson but will also add size to the Spartan roster for next year.

Bridges made the right decision to stay, despite the NBA being a very enticing choice. Teammates and fans of Spartan Basketball will get to watch him at the college level for one more year and next year could be big for the Spartans because of his decision.

 

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Michigan State Poised For A Late Run Next Season

Don’t be fooled by Michigan State’s past season struggles. They’re not going anywhere.

The Spartans somewhat fell off the wagon this year after they went 20-15 in a rather shaky Big Ten. Not to say the Spartans had a bad season, but it just wasn’t the Michigan State we are used to seeing.

The Spartans finished 10-8 in the Big Ten with a loss in the second round of the Big Ten tournament to Minnesota. Many thought the Spartans might miss out on a trip to the big dance. However, the Spartans were rewarded with a nine seed and a matchup against eighth-seeded Miami.

Michigan State defeated Miami rather handily. However, in the round of 32, the Spartans were faced with the one seed and tournament favorite, Kansas. Despite keeping it close for much of the game, Michigan State lost 90-70.

After Tom Izzo’s young, injured and often overwhelmed team lost, he said the group “gave me everything they could give me.”

Michigan State

Bridges told fans he has “unfinished business” after declaring he would come back for his sophomore season (Photo/ Al Goldis)

The Spartans are looking forward, starting with returning star forward Miles Bridges.

Bridges, who was considered by many to be a lottery pick in next year’s upcoming NBA draft, officially decided to come back for his sophomore season a few days ago. He averaged 16.9 points per game, which are the highest points per game for a freshman at Michigan State since Magic Johnson. Bridges also averaged 8.3 rebounds, which is the most by a Michigan State freshmen since Greg Kelser in 1975-76.

“I got some unfinished business here,” Bridges said. “I want to stay.”

Even though Bridges could have left for the NBA and made millions of dollars, he decided to work on his game while enjoying the college life both on and off the court.

“I’d rather stay here and get better,” he said.

Many still had Michigan State as a highly ranked team going into next year even before Bridges decided to return. Much of that has to do with a core group of young guys, who showed towards the end of the season that they can be really good.

They have an elite low-post scorer with Nick Ward, a potential future quarterback of the offense with Cassius Winston and a dangerous off-ball wing with Joshua Langford. Those players, along with Bridges, were all freshmen and are all returning for their sophomore seasons.

There is a lot that this group has to improve upon, like reducing turnovers and improving on the glass. They will have to get a good contribution from additional players like Matt McQuaid and their incoming class. The new class consists of two really good top recruits.

Michigan State

Top recruit Jaren Jackson will join the Spartans next season in their hunt for another championship (Photo/ Mike Dinovo).

First, there is 6-foot-11, 225 pound forward Jaren Jackson, who was one of the top recruits in the country. The big man has not only been praised for being a big presence down low, but he can also step out and hit the mid or long range jumper, making him a matchup nightmare.

The Spartans also signed 6-foot-9, 250 pound forward Xavier Tillman, who was voted first team all state in Michigan. They are also trying to land highly recruited high school seniors Brandon McCoy, a 7-foot center from California and Mark Smith, an elite point guard from Illinois.

Regardless of if they end up signing McCoy and Smith or not, the Spartans will have a high-powered team on both ends of the floor. They will be more experienced, formulated and ready to make a serious run late in March.

 

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The Big Ten is No Longer “Big”

Week after week there is talk about the No. 1 team in the nation (Villanova this week), the Big East, the ACC, and Grayson Allen. No one is talking about the Big Ten. There is a reason for that.

Maryland leads the conference with a 4-1 record, ranked No. 25 in the country. The Terrapins might be 16-2 overall, but they haven’t played one ranked team this year. They also have yet to play Wisconsin, Purdue or Minnesota. One might remember that Maryland is relatively new to the Big Ten Conference along with Rutgers, who is 0-6 in conference play. Minnesota has recently dropped out of the top 25 ranking after losing to Michigan State this past week. Wisconsin is sitting at No. 17 and Purdue is ranked No. 21. Neither team holds the top spot in the conference.

(Photo courtesy of impact89fm.org)

The Big Ten simply is not the hard-hitting, nitty-gritty conference that it used to be. There is not a single team that dominates. Any team could lose on any given day, which sounds like March Madness. However, it isn’t the exhilarating type of March Madness where teams are upsetting high-ranked ball clubs. It is a lot of average teams beating and losing to mediocre teams, with respect to the rest of the nation.

For a girl who grew up watching Drew Neitzel shoot threes consistently with both hands, and heard about Isiah Thomas and his two years at Indiana, it is obvious that the Big Ten isn’t what it used to be. All of the teams have at least one loss in conference play and teams are struggling to get wins on the road.

The only true press that the Big Ten is receiving currently is from select standout players in the Midseason top 25 ranking for the Wooden Award this year. Those few are Melo Trimble (Maryland), Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin), and Caleb Swanigan (Purdue). Now this article is not to denounce the Big Ten but rather to breakdown the conference and its struggles this year.

What happened to the hoosiers?

Indiana is one of those teams that could make a great tournament run, but will the Hoosiers even make it to the tournament?

The Hoosiers started off the season with a four-point victory over Kansas. Then the team proceeded to lay an egg at IPFW in its fourth game of the season. They also beat North Carolina, but lost to Butler.

If their season continues at this pace, it will be the season that “missed it by that much.” Losing has been more of a theme this year than Tom Crean ever thought possible. The Hoosiers lost to Butler by five, Nebraska by four, Wisconsin by seven and Maryland by three. They are that close.

Indiana is typically a team that gets by. The past two years they have made it to the tournament and last year they made it to the Sweet 16. They have scorers and they have a great coach. They just need to finish.

Sparty on or Sparty off?

The Spartans are sitting near the top of the conference despite losing key players Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Deyonta Davis to the draft last year.

Freshman Miles Bridges (ncaabasketball.com)

The freshmen are clicking at the perfect time. Miles Bridges is coming off an ankle injury that sidelined him for the end of the preseason and beginning of conference play. Nick Ward is contributing 6.5 rebounds per game and has been named Big Ten freshman of the week twice. Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston are maturing into great role players for the Spartans, which will be key in March.

This might sound like a lot of positive conversation, but let’s not forget some key losses this season. The Spartans lost to Northeastern, Baylor, Duke, Penn State, Kentucky and Arizona. More recently, Michigan State got the job done against No. 24 ranked Minnesota, but lost to Ohio State on Sunday. This puts them at 4-2 in conference play with a tough week ahead.

Wisconsin is now the consistent leader

Wisconsin is just about the only team that has been consistently competing over the last few years. This year itself has not been stellar, yet the Badgers find themselves on a 16-game home winning streak.

The Badgers are similar to West Virginia in the way that they have multiple players averaging good numbers and are balanced in their scoring. Sophomore Ethan Happ is a 6’10” forward pulling down 9.2 rebounds per game and shooting 62.3 percent from the field. Everyone else on the team is shooting good percentages, but nothing stellar for Division I basketball.

They also only allow 60.2 points per game (ninth in the country). It is the Badgers’ defense that keeps them in games. The seniors also demand an intensity from each other and their standout sophomore Happ. Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Zak Showalter know what it means to get wins and make a run in the tournament. They made it to the Sweet 16 last year before losing to Notre Dame and the National Championship in 2015 (but lost to Duke). They are a good ball club, but to compare them to UCLA, Oregon, or Villanova is another story.

Purdue

The Boilermakers got a win over Wisconsin, but have losses to Iowa and Minnesota. Sophomore Caleb Swanigan is ranked first in the country in rebounds per game, pulling down 12.6 on average. This was key against Wisconsin when Swanigan had 18 points and 13 rebounds to secure the win. The let down is they turned around and took a five point loss to Iowa soon after, despite being ahead by nine at the half.

Caleb Swanigan of Purdue (News-Sentential.com)

This has been the trend for all of conference play thus far in the Big Ten. A team might come out and get a key win, but then come out flat the next game. There is no domination and as a fan, it’s been a tough year to watch so far.

The Boilermakers do have a couple things going for them. They start mostly juniors with the exception of Swanigan. Next year they will be a year smarter and more experienced, which can’t hurt. Purdue also lost to Villanova by only three points at the beginning of the season. They have hope.

 

What does this mean?

Some people might chalk it up to rebuilding years. Others might say some coaches need to make an exit. As someone who has grown up respecting Thad Matta, Matt Painter, Tom Izzo and Tom Crean, I hope the latter is not the truth.

The Big Ten will bounce back. For all my fellow Big Ten fans, there is hope and March isn’t here quite yet. The tournament will see fewer Big Ten teams this year, but no one can predict what they might do.

 

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2016 Champions Classic: A Tale of Two Games

There were two completely different narratives for our top two teams in the nation on Tuesday. One team showed its prowess and already looks ready to compete at late-season form.  The other battered, bruised and war torn team showed some gutsy revival skills, but ultimately fell short.  What did we learn through the progression of these two games that we can take into the context of the whole season?

#2 Kentucky 69, #13 Michigan State 48

The Wildcats moved to 3-0, while Michigan State fell to 0-2 on the season with their first loss coming against Arizona on a last second shot in Hawaii.  The Spartans traveled a lot of miles this weekend to arrive at Madison Square Garden for the clash of titans and were slightly gassed.

The game went through a very frenetic pace through the first few minutes. There were a lot of looks in transition and fast break plays. The overall snapshot of the game really comes from when it was tied at 12 with 14:17 to go in the first half. That was the last tie of the game.

Malik Monk then hit his first of several threes. Monk shot with precision, hitting seven of 11 looks from behind the arc and finishing with 23 points. He hit four in the first half that helped the Wildcats establish and keep the lead. Bam Adebayo, one of the players to watch in this game, was also huge in helping the Cats control the glass and thus the game as a whole.

Wenyen Gabriel (left) with one of Kentucky's eight blocks. (Photo courtesy of kentucky.com)

Wenyen Gabriel (left) with one of Kentucky’s eight blocks. (Photo courtesy of kentucky.com)

The real story of this lead, however, was the suffocating defense of Kentucky. Kentucky showed amazing quickness on defense no matter the personnel on the floor. The Wildcats were beat a few times, but recovered very well. Their quickness will make them able to run with the best on defense. As a team, they had eight steals and forced 20 turnovers. They also had eight blocks. Some of these came in a one on one setting. Others came from players coming over to help. They utilized several defensive strategies including double teams and switches. This was definitely the biggest take-away for this team as it is the reason for the huge scoring gap.

The first half did end with the Spartans making up some ground. Tom Izzo’s team went on a 9-2 run and the lead was cut to four. However the half ended with momentum sputtering. Kentucky’s Isaiah Briscoe hit a last second layup in traffic for two of his 21. This late half inbound play was indicative of how the whole game had gone and would go.

The second half was full of more of the same which led to the anti-climactic ending. Michigan State really never put any pressure on Kentucky in the second chapter. This game was completely different from the other Champions Classic match-up.

One bright spot that Spartan fans can take away is Cassius Winston. He had only 2 assists in the game, but passed the ball effectively. There were several times where he found open players that were unable to convert. Also, Mile Bridges quietly had 12 rebounds. He had an underwhelming performance with nine turnovers and only six points, but it was his athleticism that scouts will be drooling over. He had a missed dunk in the game that he skied to the rim for. Bridges had a very freshman night but does not have freshman athleticism. Even thought the Spartans are 0-2 there is plenty to be hopeful about after a bit of roster overhaul.

Kentucky can take away from this game that they are the team to beat. Isaiah Briscoe improved his shooting tremendously. Through three games he is shooting 54.8% from the field and 75% from the charity stripe. He finished 2015-16 at a 46% clip from the free throw line. Even though it is early, this is great for the Wildcat offense. Still, it is the defense that should be the thing exciting fans.

#7 Kansas 77, #1 Duke 75

Duke came into the game leading the AP poll in votes, but were without their top three recruits from the 2016 class (Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden). Despite that they still expected to compete and win this contest. Kansas brought top player and freak athlete Josh Jackson to showcase his talent at the Champions Classic, and did he ever.

Grayson Allen (3) had a strange landing and left the game before returning to start the second half (photo courtesy of newsday.com)

Grayson Allen (3) had a strange landing and left the game before returning to start the second half (photo courtesy of newsday.com)

The game started with a weak offensive showing from Kansas.  They made only three of their first 11 field goals. After Duke took advantage of this and gained an early lead, Kansas went on a 10-1 run despite the heavy amount of fouling early in the game. Momentum shifted in Kansas’ direction especially after a scary landing that sent Duke guard Grayson Allen to the locker room for evaluation. Already having a quiet night, this did not do him nor Duke any favors.

The second half opened with more of the same for Kansas. Josh Jackson showed both the ability to get to the rim as well as shoot from mid range during a 19-6 run for the Jayhawks.  The game was noticeably in the control of Bill Self’s squad as Jackson scored seven straight points for his team.

Grayson Allen remained noticeably quiet during this time as he was during the whole game.  It was an off night for him only hitting on one of his seven attempts from deep, four of 15 overall. The tide began to turn as foul trouble set in late in the game. There were 48 total team fouls in this game and one very important one came in the first half when Josh Jackson was given a technical for slapping the ball out of Amile Jefferson’s hands. That cost Jackson a personal foul and was a big reason why he was disqualified from the game with 5:08 remaining. Kasnas was up 65-55 at the time but Duke had one last run in them.  They could have used his athleticism on both ends of the floor during the end of the game. Despite that Jackson still finished the game with 15 points.

Frank Mason III rises up to hit the eventual game winning shot. (Photo courtesy of kansascity.com)

Frank Mason III rises up to hit the eventual game winning shot. (Photo courtesy of kansascity.com)

Duke’s Luke Kennard and Frank Jackson each hit key shots down the stretch to bring Duke back within reach and eventually tie the game at 75 with under 20 seconds to go. Frank Mason III gave the blue Devils nightmares in the second half scoring 17 of his 21 in this second chapter. The 17 points after the break included yet another basket plus a foul, converting through contact which is something that he has shown a knack for so far this year. He has also been the unquestionable team leader, even in the loss to Indiana this past weekend. He had one final trick up his sleeve, hitting a pull up jumper to break the tie over Matt Jones with 1.8 seconds to go.  The Blue Devils had no timeouts left and a half-court heave fell short.

Both teams have plenty to take away from this game: Kansas found out that Frank Mason III is their go-to late-game guy. They got to see that Josh Jackson’s athletic ability sets him apart from the rest of the competition. They also got to see the type of domination they as a team can bring, especially with Udoka Azibuke in the game who grabbed 12 rebounds in just 15 minutes on the floor. The Jayhawks do need to improve from deep range and at the charity stripe. They hit only two of their 17 looks from downtown. the Jayhawks were 9/19 from the free throw line.

Duke saw what they have aside from Grayson Allen and their top recruits. Frank Jackson showed excellent poise late in the game and hit a huge three for the Blue Devils. Second year players Luke Kennard and Chase Jeter each displayed the progressions that they have made. Kennard made his own plays to put up 22 points as well as drove to open up the floor for others, nabbing five assists with five boards to boot. Jeter had quite a few hustle plays and finished with three blocks. The Blue Devils were drastically outplayed on the offensive boards 14-6. This will undoubtedly be a point of emphasis as second chance points and resets aided the Kansas offense in controlling the game.

Defensively each team has plenty of time and reason to improve.  Both teams switched to zone from time to time to shake things up. Each team had the athletes to shake the man-to-man defense from time to time. Dribble penetration was effective for both teams in creating open looks as defenders over-committed to help. Kansas was the winner on this level from a statistical base.  They forced 16 turnovers from Duke and controlled the glass.

 

Coach Cal’s Crazy Idea: So Crazy It Just Might Work

Kentucky Coach John Calipari was blasted by several outlets last week for his ideas on changes to conference championship tournaments. Coach Cal proposed holding a pre-season or early season event in which each team was guaranteed a certain number of games in place of the end of season tournament.

Kentucky coach John Calipari thinks that the Conference Tournaments could use some major reworking. (Photo courtesy of hoopshabit.com)

Many columnists made this out to be that Calipari wanted the NCAA bid to be determined at the beginning of the season. Calipari was egregiously misrepresented in what he was proposing on several occasions. Therefore, before exploring the details and logistics of the idea, it is important to quickly hash out exactly what Cal’s idea entailed: a gathering in which each team was guaranteed three games.  This figure was not set in stone, just an example to get the ball rolling. The meeting would not determine the automatic bid, but rather each conference would follow the Ivy League structure in which the regular season champ won the trip to the dance.

Now, before everyone’s heads spin, it is important to note what Coach Cal was generating: an idea.  This was not a formal proposal to the SEC, nor was it something that the NCAA cabinet members will have on their desk next week in a 700-page document. It is an idea that Calipari put out there that is worth exploring as to whether or not it could actually work, or would be beneficial for college basketball, even though a proposal like this could help the Selection Committee become more consistent in choosing post season teams. But, before a subcommittee is put together to explore whether or not it is good for the NCAA, there needs to be discussion about whether or not it could even work.

When considering a change this major, the logistics should be the first thing that comes to mind. Can the schools commit to this? Can the venues be reserved? With the power that college basketball has, this should not be very difficult.  Changing the date should not eliminate the school’s ability to make the trip. Having a few guaranteed early regular season games in one place would in all likelihood cut the cost of travel for many programs.

There are other things to consider, though, such as the additional early season events that are already in place. There is nothing preventing a team from doing the preseason conference tournament and then going out to the Maui Invitational in late November.

Another detail would be the deciding of the automatic bid to the Big Dance.  The NCAA Currently gives one automatic bid to each conference.  For most smaller conferences, this is the only chance to get in. Two things could be done: the regular season champion could get the bid or there could be a Conference Championship game between the top two. These are each outcomes that could be put together with relative ease.  For the sake of argument, it could even be a conference by conference decision. At current point, the NCAA seems to fluctuate as to what it values in the selection process, so the elimination of the tournament could possibly eliminate some grey area of the criteria they use.

Now, the question becomes, would this be beneficial for the NCAA? Is this something that would elevate college basketball to a new plane as far as viewership and integrity of the game and season? It is an extremely complex discussion to have that contains a wealth of issues both large and small. The biggest obstacles are the ones that would need to be discussed first and as with anything, money talks.

These changes have the power to greatly help or hinder the constant revenue stream that is College Basketball. Corporate Sponsorships come in wide varieties for the conference tournaments as they currently stand and are a great impetus to continuing the status quo. Changing the time of year would put these preseason tournaments in competition with the Goliath that is the NFL and its understudy in College football. This would affect corporate money being poured into the sport, but how much is lost would take a significant amount of research.

However, scheduling could eliminate this problem by keeping games to days that football is not on. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday nights have no NFL games and a few NCAA games here and there. These games could get ratings with not many other sports on. Big Monday and Super Tuesday could turn into early season conference encounters. With reasonable certainty it could be concluded, if done right, that the sponsorship money would be down in comparison to end of year tournaments. The other side to this thought is that it would be up form typical early season money, which could mean that the loss is counteracted in a way.

Right now, there is not much significance put on the beginning of the season in college basketball.  Teams face lesser opponents in hopes of being ready for the bigger fish in the sea.  However, wouldn’t a better warm up for young players be to see the competition at its highest level first? If the season were opened this way, teams could have a good gauge of where they are at within their conference and know how they need to prepare, further intensifying regular conference play a month or two down the road. Old rivalries at the beginning of the season could make the beginning of the season much more watchable as well.

In fact, packing healthier competition into the beginning of the season would be excellent for college basketball and team’s attempting to strengthen their schedule. The team’s strength off schedule would rise and with the additional games against conference opponents there would be more separation between teams and less grey area. Currently the NCAA is not consistent in what they value. This change would force them to value the same thing for the whole field: the regular season. And some teams would have drastically different looks to their schedule.

Let’s take a bubble team like Florida.  Their first ten games include “stellar” opponents such as North Carolina A&T, Vermont, Richmond, and Jacksonville among others. Replace one of those games with an extra game against Kentucky, LSU, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and throw in some other SEC competition and we may be talking a different story about their tournament bid.

The same is true for Final Four participant and bubble team Syracuse. Many thought that this team should not have gotten into the tournament. Had they replaced games against Montana State, Colgate, Cornell, and Elon with something like Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Virginia, Miami or even Louisville perhaps they would have been more than a shoe end into March Madness. This team would have greatly benefited from some changes in the early season format. These are just the possible benefits as scheduling relates to the beginning of the season.

In addition, when we begin to discuss the end of season issues, there are many coaches that complain about what the current structure says about the significance of the season as well as what the conference tournaments do to their teams. With the current structure, this undoes a whole body of work for those teams in smaller, one bid conferences. Teams in the MEAC, OVC and MVC could go undefeated or have great conference records and not reach the tournament.

Monmouth was a great case study for this. They went 17-3 in conference, 28-8 overall but they come from a conference that is typically one bid.  After Iona won the MAAC tournament there was significant discussion about Monmouth as an at large contender. They didn’t get in. They did not get in because they did not win the last game. They even scheduled and beat Power 5 opponents, such as Notre Dame.

Now, there is something to be said about the spirit of March Madness that exists in Conference Championship week. A team like Holy Cross never could have made it into the tournament. That is a true showing of what the spirit of March Madness is, but is that what is best for the players, coaches and the sport as a whole? Coaches like Tom Izzo, Roy Williams, and Calipari himself hate the conference tournaments because they are extremely stressful and draining right before the road to the Final Four begins. As insult to injury, sometimes the NCAA Selection Committee decided that the tournament doesn’t even matter. This was exemplified when a few hours after a decisive win over Texas A&M, Kentucky was seeded below the conference runner-up.

So right now it seems that the regular season is quite meaningless at times and the conference tournament doesn’t always help you either. So what’s the point? If money is the only thing keeping the current structure in place then it cannot be what’s best for the sport.  Sometimes changes have to be made that will negatively affect the bottom line if it is the right thing to do for the players and coaches.

So, there is some depth and reality to the crazy idea that Cal proposed. This could actually happen and big conference coaches would be on board with it.  But let us keep some drama at what would be conference tournament week. Let’s keep a Conference Championship game, much like college football. Send the top two teams in and reward them for their season of work but keep the integrity of the month of March. Heck, it could even be a conference by conference decision as opposed to an overall NCAA regulation.

Coach Calipari may not have solved the ongoing debate in college basketball that is conference post-season play. However, he has definitely created some much-needed attention to the idea and given college basketball fans as well as NCAA officials a realistic proposal to ponder.