Freeze Frame: Kentucky’s Dynamic Guard Play

Posted by Brian Joyce on November 18th, 2015

Prior to the Champions Classic game between Duke and Kentucky on Tuesday night, Kentucky coach John Calipari said he needed to learn more about his team. Knowing how critical Calipari can be about his team’s performances, he probably nitpicked a few of those less positive moments. He saw that his team could get outmuscled at times in the post, and he certainly wasn’t pleased with a lack of physical play near the basket during a long stretch of the first half. He watched as Marcus Lee (even though he otherwise had a standout performance) and Skal Labissiere, two of his starting big men, committed needless fouls on their way to fouling out with over five minutes remaining. But where his big men came up lacking, we also learned that Calipari’s backcourt is already one of the best in the nation, and it stepped up big time to solidify a 74-63 statement win over defending national champion Duke.

Tyler Ulis may well be the most important point guard in the nation this season (AP Photo).

Tyler Ulis may well be the most important point guard in the nation this season. (AP Photo)

Tyler Ulis is only a sophomore, but the 5’9” point guard played like a seasoned veteran and proved he is the undisputed leader for this year’s young and talented Kentucky squad. The energetic floor general provided a spark on both ends of the floor on his way to 18 points, six assists, four rebounds, two steals, and most importantly, zero turnovers in 40 minutes. Freshman Jamal Murray dazzled on his way to 16 points, five assists, five rebounds, and four steals, while Isaiah Briscoe added 12 points, three boards, and two steals. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we review the impact of Kentucky’s backcourt when Calipari needed them most.

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The Champions Classic Lesson

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 18th, 2015

Let’s get it out there: Kentucky and Michigan State collected MAJOR wins at the Champions Classic on Tuesday night. If Kansas and Duke turn out to be anything close to the top five teams that they are expected to be, these are the type of victories that can separate #1 seeds from #2 seeds come March. For teams closer to peril (not that either Kentucky or Michigan State is likely to fall into this category), wins like these can redirect NIT-bound seasons into the field of 68. Nevermind that it’s only November, or that all four of these teams will evolve dramatically over the course of the season: These results will still matter in March. But with that note out of the way, we can also admit something that all four coaches seemed to know last night: These games don’t matter all THAT much. There’s no realistic way that last night’s results will define any of these team’s seasons, and all four coaches, given a chance to improve over the next five months, trust their own ability to mold a team — no matter how dysfunctional they may appear in November.    

Denzel Valentine Was Tuesday Night's Show-Stopper (Photo: The Sporting News)

Denzel Valentine Was Tuesday Night’s Show-Stopper (Photo: The Sporting News)

But that isn’t to say that any of these four teams looked especially bad last night. Duke’s leading scorer, sophomore Grayson Allen, did look bad, but expectations should have been restrained in his first take in a starring role against elite competition. Allen and the other young Blue Devils — Brandon Ingram (1-of-6 from the field, four turnovers, four fouls), Derryck Thornton (3-of-7 FG, four turnovers) and Luke Kennard (0-of-5 FG) — are all good bets to steadily improve in the months to come. Kansas was the other team that left the United Center a loser last night, but Bill Self’s team displayed no signs of panic in the aftermath of Michigan State’s victory. Jayhawks junior Wayne Selden admitted that early season struggles had worried him in years past, but he said the more experienced composition of his current team quelled any such concerns this time around. Kansas handed away a game they held complete control of for 33 minutes — Bill Self admitted as much afterward — and the ball screen defense (or lack thereof) that enabled Denzel Valentine (29 points, 12 rebounds, 12 assists) to repeatedly break Kansas down will need significant revisions. However, the Jayhawks have the talent, experience and coaching to cure their November ills, not to mention plenty of time in which to do so.

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Evaluating the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon: 29 Takeaways From 29 Hours of Action

Posted by Andy Gripshover on November 18th, 2015

My name is Andy Gripshover (@apgripsh) and I watched the entire ESPN Tip-Off Marathon. All 29 hours of it, from start to finish. Here are 29 takeaways from the proceedings.

Denzel Valentine Was the Star of Stars to Finish Off the Marathon (USAT Sports)

Denzel Valentine Was the Star of Stars to Finish Off the Marathon (USAT Sports)

  1. I actually like the Oregon court. I really do. It’s unique; it’s fitting for the area; and everyone wastes too much time hating on the brightness in the middle when it’s actually a perfect contrast to the shade of brown used inside a three-point arc that doesn’t get NEARLY enough love. But that court plus the Ducks’ all-neon yellows PLUS Baylor’s forest greens with the neon green lettering? Yeah, that was a little much. Or perhaps a secretly evil way of starting off the Marathon.
  2. As for the game itself, Baylor was flat most of the way, trailing by double figures for the first 10 minutes of the second half before making a push late. Oregon put four starters in double figures plus Dwayne Benjamin doing his thing off the bench, and Chris Boucher and Elgin Cook thoroughly outplayed Rico Gathers and Taurean Prince.
  3. Now the Walter Pyramid at Long Beach State is a court that I think we can ALL agree is beautiful. Very light and easy on the eyes, and those palm trees….
  4. The offenses in that game between the Beach and BYU were anything but beautiful, though. The Cougars were 26-of-62 from the field, including 5-of-21 from three and an utterly ghastly 8-of-21 from the free throw line. Was that bad? Because Long Beach was worse: 22-of-71 (!!!) from the floor, including 7-of-24 from three. The 49ers had a 22-2 run midway through the first half and held on for dear life in the second to knock off an NCAA Tournament team before heading to Charleston this weekend.
  5. As for the Cougars, Kyle Collinsworth looked at less than 100 percent in going 4-of-9 from the field…. and also 4-of-9 from the foul line. Chase Fischer took five threes and made none of them. It was a nightmarish offensive performance for BYU, and yet, the Cougars almost stole a win at the end anyway.
  6. There’s a certain feeling you get when you see the Stan Sheriff Center court at Hawaii for the first time and realize you’ve made it that far in the Marathon.
  7. Nevada made its first 17 free throws before missing and losing on a Roderick Bobbitt layup with 1.4 to go on the island despite an inspired 34 (!) for Marqueze Coleman. Quality Hawaii game. Read the rest of this entry »
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Michigan State vs. Kansas: Four Things to Know

Posted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on November 17th, 2015

Tonight the fifth annual Champions Classic will tip off at the United Center in Chicago where Michigan State will face Kansas in the late game. The Spartans and Jayhawks — both ranked in the top 15 — bring the usual lofty season expectations each program is accustomed to. Bill Self and Tom Izzo have built the type of rosters that seem to be the recipe for success in today’s college game: a healthy mix of experienced upperclassmen along with some talented freshmen. In order to prepare you for tonight’s game and get you familiar with some of the new faces, here are four things you need to know before you tune in to watch.

Deyonta Davis will need to keep dominating inside against Kansas. (Rey De Rio/Getty Images)

Deyonta Davis faces his first major challenge in the paint against Kansas. (Rey De Rio/Getty Images)

  1. Deyonta Down Low. Michigan State lost a lot of its muscle in the post when Branden Dawson graduated but Izzo seems to have found a more-than-suitable replacement in four-star freshman Deyonta Davis. The Muskegon, Michigan, native didn’t let his youth and inexperience make him reticent in his inaugural outing on Friday, as evidenced by his stat line of 13 points on 14 shots (team-high), 11 rebounds, and five blocks against Florida Atlantic. But his head coach might have to calm his budding star down a bit tonight because Davis won’t be able to physically bully the Jayhawks in the paint like he did against the Owls. Read the rest of this entry »
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Kansas Seeking Redemption at the Champions Classic

Posted by Chris Stone on November 17th, 2015

Kansas hasn’t had much luck in the Champions Classic. Since the event began in 2011, the Jayhawks have won just once in four tries — a 94-83 victory against Duke at the United Center in 2013. This year, Bill Self‘s squad returns to Chicago looking for redemption after last season’s embarrassing 72-40 defeat to Kentucky. Kansas isn’t looking to fall so hard again. “We have no plans of having anything like that happen again,” junior Landen Lucas recently said. “That was not something that is OK with us. For the people that were here last year, that is not acceptable, no matter how early in the season it is.”

The last time Kansas won in the Champions Classic, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were on the floor. (Getty Images)

The last time Kansas won in the Champions Classic, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were on the floor. (Getty Images)

To avoid another loss, the Jayhawks will look to take advantage of a depleted Michigan State frontcourt. For the second straight game, the Spartans will be without 6’9″ forward Gavin Schillingwho will miss the contest with turf toe. Schilling is one of only three players that size on Tom Izzo‘s roster so Kansas should have plenty of opportunities to challenge the Spartans inside with senior forward Perry Ellis. Although Ellis made only 47 percent of his two-point field goals last season, his ability to draw fouls (5.1 per 40 minutes a year ago) makes him a dangerous matchup against an already thin frontline. Kansas, meanwhile, has one of the deepest groups of big men in the country. Ellis is flanked by a talented corps of bigs that includes Carlton BraggJamari Traylor, Landen Lucas and Hunter Mickelson. The burden will be on Michigan State’s Matt Costello and Deyonta Davis to defend the Jayhawks’ plethora of post options without fouling them. Limited minutes for either could expose that thin Spartans’ front line. Read the rest of this entry »

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Three Keys to Kentucky’s Success Against Duke

Posted by David Changas on November 17th, 2015

The college basketball season may only be a few days old but that doesn’t mean we have to wait long for a matchup of true heavyweights. Unlike its gridiron counterpart, teams don’t risk a shot at a national championship with an early-season loss, which is why fans will be treated to a clash of the titans when Kentucky battles Duke in Chicago at the Champions Classic. It’s a matchup of schools — wearing the same jerseys but with many different faces — that appeared destined to play each other for last year’s national title, a fate that was ultimately derailed by the undefeated Wildcats’ stunning loss to Wisconsin in the national semifinals. In the absence of Calipari’s crew on the floor during championship Monday in Indianapolis, the Blue Devils captured a crown that for so many months appeared Kentucky’s to lose. The Wildcats will get a shot at some measure of redemption tonight, despite the fact that this game will include only a few of the players who participated in last year’s Final Four.

Kentucky will have to control Duke's Grayson Allen, who is off to a hot start. (Getty).

Kentucky will have to control Duke’s Grayson Allen, who is off to a hot start. (Getty)

Let’s take a quick look at three keys to Kentucky’s chances of earning a mid-November win that will ultimately look very good come March:

  1. Control Grayson Allen. The bouncy sophomore guard enjoyed his coming-out party at last season’s Final Four, making the all-tournament team after being little more than a bit player for most of the season. Now, acting as one of the new leaders of Mike Krzyzewski‘s squad, Allen has started the season with a bang, averaging 27 points per game in wins over Siena and Bryant. Clearly the confidence that he gained last April has carried over to this season. Kentucky will have to neutralize his slashing and shooting game — the Wildcats can use a combination of athletic players, including Jamal Murray, Derek Willis, and Alex Poythress to slow him down. With many of the other Blue Devils still learning their offensive roles, Duke could be in for a long night if Kentucky can limit his production. Read the rest of this entry »
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A Column of Enchantment: Not Even Barely About Basketball

Posted by Joseph Nardone on November 17th, 2015

I’ve mentioned this many times before to the point of nausea, but I am about to do so again. The St. John’s Red Storm are my favorite team. Not only in college basketball. In all of sports. There’s a few reasons why — mostly Bootsy to blame — yet it is the reality of my life. So few people roaming this planet were as excited as I was when their season was about to open on Friday night against Wagner.

Sometimes, sports just takes a backseat to news around the world. Friday was one of that instances. (AP)

Sometimes sports just takes a backseat to news around the world. Friday was one of those instances. (AP)

Before the game, however, some really horrific news broke. Everyone knows the story by now. At the time, though, the events unfolding in France were simply mind-boggling. Like many other people, I struggled with trying to separate my emotions from attempting to enjoy the basketball games. Some people, ones smarter than I at least, decided to not venture on Twitter or discuss the matter at all. It was their right. So, too, were those who tried to find comfort in the sports being played. To each their own, really. There’s definitely no right or wrong way to handle tragedy.

Judging others who decided to continue to watch basketball and — how dare they — comment on it, are infuriating. Parts of me get it. We’re all a little bit selfish. We need to make things about us. When something as tragic as the terror that was taking place in France is happening far from home, people have to localize their outrage. Still, the anger was misplaced, misguided and mostly founded out of ignorance. Some people HAD to tweet about the basketball games because it was their jobs. Read the rest of this entry »

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Evaluating Duke’s First Two Games

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 17th, 2015

It’s always premature to form ironclad opinions based on a team’s first two games of the regular season, especially when the team in question is as young as Duke‘s 2015-16 squad. Throw in the fact that the competition the Blue Devils faced over the weekend was far from stellar, and we still have most of the same questions about Mike Krzyzewski’s current edition that we had before the season began. Nevertheless, here are some observations from Duke’s two home wins over the weekend, a 92-74 victory over Siena on Friday and a 113-75 demolition of Bryant on Saturday night.

Grayson Allen has picked up right where he left off in the 2015 Final Four, averaging 27 points in Duke's opening two games. (Streeter Lecka, Getty Images)

Grayson Allen has picked up right where he left off in the 2015 Final Four, averaging 27 points in Duke’s opening two games. (Streeter Lecka, Getty Images)

There were two major questions for Duke coming into this season. First, could this year’s highly-touted freshmen class approach the spectacular success achieved by last year’s rookies? And secondly, were Duke’s four returnees capable of elevating their games after mostly exclusive use in the past as role players? To the first question, the newcomers played much better collectively against Bryant than they did in Friday’s opener. Krzyzewski spoke about the differences in their performances between the two games:

“I didn’t think they talked well last night. Part of that, I think it’s your first game at Duke, your first real game. For Brandon [Ingram], it’s his first start. I reminded them that it’s Grayson [Allen]’s first start last night too. It was Marshall [Plumlee]’s first start in two years. We have a lot of young guys. Grayson and Marshall [Plumlee] weren’t into themselves last night, they were trying to help everybody. When you’re young, sometimes your thoughts are just with you instead of talking. Tonight, they talked well. They were consumed with Duke. We saw that they played better. That’s just a learning process that they have to go through.”

Individually, Brandon Ingram scored 15 and 21 points, respectively, in the two games, and exhibited much better shot selection in his second college start on the way to making 4-of-6 threes (he was just 1-of-9 from deep in the opener). He also used his length well to act as a disruptive defensive force, with a combined four steals and three blocks over the two outings. Ingram was also often employed by Krzyzewski as a ball-handler from the top of the arc, a set that will make him even more of a match-up problem for most collegiate forwards. Read the rest of this entry »

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The RTC Podblast: Opening Weekend Edition

Posted by rtmsf on November 17th, 2015

Well, it certainly was an interesting opening weekend of college basketball. A number of upsets from coast to coast came across the news wires on Friday night, and a handful of others followed in the ensuing days. In this, the first RTC Podcast of the regular season, host Shane Connolly (@sconnolly114) and Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) run down their thoughts on all the upsets, look ahead to tonight’s Champions Classic battles and revisit their preseason Final Four picks. It’s a quick-hit, podblast version of the show, but it’ll keep you busy for 20 minutes as you wait on tonight’s games to begin. Make sure to add us to your iTunes subscription list so it will automatically download to your listening device each week. The full rundown is below!

  • 0:00-8:54 – Virginia & Other Opening Weekend Upsets
  • 8:54-13:26 – Final Four/Championship Picks
  • 13:26-19:23 – Champions Classic Look Ahead
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Baylor at Oregon: Keys to Tonight’s Game

Posted by Andrew Murawa & Brian Goodman on November 16th, 2015

It’s been a fun opening weekend, not necessarily because there have been any great games, but just because there have been actual games. But today the season kicks into high gear as the ESPN Hoops Marathon gets underway this evening, early season exempt tournaments tip off later this week, and, if you’re anything like us, you probably won’t dig out from under the pile of college hoops that are about to smother us until the student-athletes take a breather for finals next month. Not that anybody’s complaining. Of the five or so very good games today, Ken Pomeroy’s FanMatch calls the tilt in Eugene between Baylor and Oregon the best of the night; and after watching what both of these teams did to their opponents in their openers, you can see why. In order to prepare for this battle of Top 25 teams, Big 12 microsite writer Brian Goodman and Pac-12 microsite writerAndrew Murawa list their keys to this game.

For Oregon

Five-star freshman Tyler Dorsey faces his first major challenge as the Ducks host Baylor. (Samuel Marshall/Daily Emerald)

Five-star freshman Tyler Dorsey faces his first major challenge as the Ducks host Baylor tonight. (Samuel Marshall/Daily Emerald)

  • Poise. Knight Arena is going to be electric tonight and not just because of the expected barrage of neon on both of these teams’ uniforms. The floor is going to be loaded with elite athletes ready to show off what they can do on national television. Oregon senior point guard Dylan Ennis will be watching from the bench with a foot injury, so the Ducks will have to rely on sophomore Casey Benson and freshman Tyler Dorsey to handle that position. The two youngsters will need to play under control and not let the moment get too big for them, especially early in the game. But the fact that there are no fewer than five different players on this team who can handle the rock and initiate the offense means that head coach Dana Altman has several options in the case of a disaster.

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SEC Quotable and Notable, Volume II: Opening Weekend Overreactions

Posted by Greg Mitchell on November 16th, 2015

The opening weekend is in the books and with the exception of Georgia’s surprising home loss to Chattanooga, the SEC emerged unscathed. Nothing is more fun than analyzing microscopic sample sizes, so this edition of Quotable and Notable is chock full of overreactions. Let’s jump right in.

Horace Spencer preserved Auburn's win over UAB with a block in the final seconds (

Horace Spencer preserved Auburn’s win over UAB with a block in the final seconds (

  • “And I’m not comparing him to them two, as far as he’s as good as them, he’s different.” – John Calipari on comparing Skal Labissiere to Karl-Anthony Towns. And oh boy, could you ever see against NJIT on Saturday why the Haitian big man has drawn rave reviews on the recruiting circuit. Labissiere went off for 22 second half points and scored from seemingly everywhere on the floor. This came after a lackluster opening night effort against Albany, but the freshman’s offensive versatility and touch suggests that Calipari has a player on this year’s roster unlike any he has coached in the past. It’ll be interesting to see how Calipari uses Labissiere and whether his veteran big men, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress, can be utilized to shore up any rebounding or defensive issues. Many people are going to harp tirelessly on whether Labissiere’s defense can catch up to his offense, but for now it might be best to sit back and appreciate what he can do. That said, Labissiere becoming an effective player on both ends of the floor would make Kentucky an even tougher team to beat in March.

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A First Look at Monte Morris’ Role Under Steve Prohm

Posted by Chris Stone on November 16th, 2015

In the lead up to this season, you may have heard a bit about new Iowa State coach Steve Prohm‘s history with point guards. In each of Prohm’s four seasons at Murray State, his point guard led the team in usage rate, a statistic that essentially measures the role of an individual player in the offense. Because point guards are often acting as a facilitator who keeps everyone involved but doesn’t dominate the scoring, this is a bit unusual. For example, Georges Niang led the Cyclones in usage rate last season, and it was a similar story at Kansas with Perry Ellis as the most frequently used player for Bill Self. Prohm, though, has historically found success with point guards that act as dual threats — both scorers and facilitators — within his offensive scheme.

Monte Morris could be poised for an expanded role at Iowa State. (Jay Pickthorn/AP)

Monte Morris could be poised for an expanded role at Iowa State. (Jay Pickthorn/AP)

There were at least one notable offseason hint that suggested junior point guard Monte Morris would get an expanded role this year under his new head coach. In an interview with CBS Sports, Prohm told Jon Rothstein that he had asked both of his now-professional point guards, Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne, to discuss his coaching style with Morris. Iowa State’s 68-62 victory over Colorado on Friday night gave us the first opportunity to dissect the role that Morris will potentially play in his new coach’s system, and so far, the returns look promising. Read the rest of this entry »

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