Washington State Preview: Battling Irrelevance

Posted by Michael Lemaire on November 12th, 2015

In the next three weeks leading up to season tipoff, the Pac-12 microsite will be evaluating each of the league’s 12 teams. Our last stop is Pullman.

Washington State Cougars

Thanks in large part to one of the most prolific scorers in the country (DaVonte Lacy) and the surprising breakout season from double-double machine Josh Hawkinson, the Cougars were actually pretty competitive in their first year under head coach Ernie Kent. They finished just 13-18 overall and 7-11 in the Pac-12, but managed to pull off a few upsets along the way. More generally, they almost always found a way to hang tough. Now, with Lacy, three-point specialist Dexter Kernich-Drew and seven-footer Jordan Railey all graduated, things get trickier for Kent in year two. He gets both Hawkinson and steady point guard Ike Iroegbu back, so if the Cougars can find contributions from a few other returnees and what may be a very underrated recruiting class, Washington State may be able to tread water in a deep Pac-12.

New Head Coach Ernie Kent Brings New Hope To The Paloose (Geoff Crimmins, AP Photo)

Head Coach Ernie Kent Has A Lot Of Work Ahead Of Him. (Geoff Crimmins, AP Photo)

Strengths: Kent took over a team ranked dead last in the conference in offensive efficiency and in just one year, had that mark among the upper half of the Pac-12. The former Oregon head man definitely deserves a lot of the credit for that turnaround, but the unexpected emergence of Hawkinson didn’t hurt. At 6’10”, 245 pounds, Hawkinson is fully capable of tussling in the paint yet also possesses a gentle touch around the rim. But there’s more to the skill set: He also proved to be a truly elite rebounder (third nationally in defensive rebounding percentage) while also making 85 percent of his free throws. He is undoubtedly his team’s biggest strength. There’s little doubt that Hawkinson will see a lot more double-teams with Lacy gone, but he is still a good bet to improve upon last season’s averages of 14.7 PPG and 10.8 RPG. Another Cougars’ strength: This is a team that also doesn’t turn the ball over very much. Hawkinson protected the ball better last season than every player in the Pac-12 other than Josh Scott, and Iroegbu may be able to cut down on his turnovers with increased comfort in his role. The offense will take a step back without Lacy and Kernich-Drew, but this should still be a capable offensive unit. Read the rest of this entry »

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Ranking the Pac-12’s Top 20 Non-Conference Games: Part I

Posted by Andrew Murawa on October 22nd, 2015

Part I contains games #20 – #11. Check back later today for the top 10 non-conference games featuring Pac-12 teams.

Last season, according to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, UCLA had the toughest non-conference strength of schedule among Pac-12 teams, good for 91st in the nation. Beyond the Bruins, only Stanford (136th), Utah (155th) and Arizona (180th) finished among the top 200. As a conference, those are obscene numbers. We talked a lot last year about the state of the game and watchability and the like, and yet, when a major conference like the Pac-12 can’t be bothered to play halfway decent opponents in their elective games, that is a sure sign that something is wrong in the game. This year, things should be somewhat better but it is still a mixed bag. Big ups to teams like Utah, UCLA and Arizona State for scheduling well outside of league play, but several other teams still missed the mark. Arizona, for instance, a program never known for ducking quality competition, has a decent-ish schedule, but one that is missing its typical oomph. Oregon State, a team seemingly on the rise with good returning talent coupled with a big recruiting class, has a schedule where, arguably, a home game against Valparaiso is the second-toughest game on the slate. You’ve got to do better, Beavs.

Larry Krystkowiak, Utah

Larry Krystkowiak and Utah, In Particular, Have Done An Excellent Job Scheduling

With all this in mind, we’re going to check in on the 20 best games we’ll see before the conference slate kicks in around the turn of the calendar year. A couple caveats: First, we’re doing this using MLB All-Star game rules, so every team gets an appearance here; and second, games that are the first game in a multi-game tournament get bonus points. Without further ado, let’s count one man’s picks for the Pac-12 non-conference games to watch.

20. 11/26 USC vs Wichita State in Orlando, FL (Advocare Invitational) – In the Thanksgiving weekend tournament formerly known as the Old Spice Classic (among other things), the Trojans get to swing for the fences against the Shockers. While it would indeed be a shock if Andy Enfield’s bunch advances to the semifinals, this game will serve as a great barometer for USC’s improvement. Read the rest of this entry »

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Wrapping Up the Pac-12 and Looking Ahead to 2015-16

Posted by Andrew Murawa on April 16th, 2015

The National Championship game is now more than a week behind us and the Final Four is almost two weeks back. Stanford’s “magical” NIT run ended 14 days ago and Arizona’s loss to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight, capping off the last meaningful Pac-12 action of the season, is nearly three weeks ago. With Arizona State’s coaching vacancy filled and early-entry and transfer season fully in swing, that means it is well past time to put a bow on the season and begin to think about what comes next. Below, we’ll review each Pac-12 team and offer up grades on each team’s season. We’ll also take a look at what could be around the bend the next time college basketball rolls around.

Sean Miller, Arizona

Despite Regular Season and Conference Tournament Titles, The 2014-15 Wildcats Came Up Shy Of Their Grandest Goals. (AP)

Arizona (A-)

The goal all year long was a Final Four. Wrapping up some unfinished business and all. Well, that goal was left incomplete. Business is still pending. Still, you’re not going to see me come down too hard on the Wildcats. While their three regular seasons losses were all suspicious in nature, their Elite Eight loss to national runner-up Wisconsin was just one of those things that happens between great teams. Sean Miller’s postgame press conference after the Badgers shot a 105.0 percent eFG in the second half was one long extended verbal shrug, a “what can you do?”, a “sh– happens.” Arizona ended its season playing its best basketball, some of the best basketball being played by any team in the nation. The Wildcats just happened to lose to one of maybe two or three other teams that were capable of playing better. We have to tack a “minus” onto that well-deserved “A” simply because I would guess Miller and T.J. McConnell and Stanley Johnson and all the rest would agree that the overall result of the season was tinged with some disappointment. Without a doubt, though, the Wildcats were the best team in the Pac-12. And were it not for Buzzsaw Badger, they might still be celebrating in Tucson.

What’s next: McConnell is out of eligibility. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley have said they’re forgoing their remaining eligibility to pursue NBA careers, a decision Johnson is likely to make as well. But this is Arizona. And this is Sean Miller. The ‘Cats will be fine. Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York will return and take on bigger roles. Sophomores Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic will be relied upon to take big steps forward. Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson and junior college transfer (and 2014-15 redshirt Kadeem Allen) will jump right in. And then there’s a recruiting class featuring Allonzo Trier, Ray Smith, Justin Simon and Chance Comanche (ESPN top-100 recruits, all) that may not even be finished yet. Yeah, don’t cry for Miller and his Wildcats; they’ll be back. Read the rest of this entry »

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A Swing Around the Pac-12 After Five Games

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 21st, 2015

Just a collection of thoughts, compiled over the course of the past two weekends of Pac-12 play.

Arizona – This Utah game actually set up really nicely for the Wildcats. Utah was on a roll and feeling invincible despite the fact that it hadn’t beaten a good team since early December. Arizona, meanwhile, had plenty to prove amid accusations of selfishness and overratedness. The ‘Cats weathered the storm early, rode T.J. McConnell while settling in, and then turned on the juice in the second half. But, really, there are two big takeaways from this game. First, my impression all year long was that this vintage of the Wildcats does not have the high-end defensive ceiling that last year’s team had. And then, I look up on January 17 and they’ve got basically the same defensive efficiency numbers as they had last season and just finished a game where they completely shut down everything Utah wanted to do. This squad still needs to prove an ability to bring that intensity on a regular basis, but they absolutely have the ability to be just about as good defensively as last year’s team (although I still have a concern that they don’t have the type of individual stoppers that they had in Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon). Offensively, my eyes tell me this team has some problems in the half-court and that, while Stanley Johnson is clearly the team’s most talented player, Sean Miller has yet to figure out a good way to find shots for him. Then I look at the stats and I see that this team is pretty much the same offensively as last year’s group, getting similar percentages of shots from all three ranges on offense. And the best part? They’re still feeling their way around. Make no mistake, Arizona in mid-January is still a top 10 team — maybe top five — and the exciting part is that the Wildcats have enough upside that they could be significantly better by March.

With Stanley Johnson Just Beginning To Reach His Potential, Arizona's Upside Is Staggering (Rick Scuteri, AP Photo)

With Stanley Johnson Just Beginning To Reach His Potential, Arizona’s Upside Is Staggering. (Rick Scuteri, AP Photo)

Utah – The Utes lost. Bury ‘em, right? Not so fast, but we do need to have a talk about a couple of players in particular. First Jordan Loveridge, the team’s junior power small forward. What’s to complain about? In the five Pac-12 games since he returned from injury, he’s averaging better than 10 points per game and shooting at a 54.2% eFG rate, knocking in 11-of-24 shots from deep. In that same time frame, he’s taken twice as many shots from behind the arc as he has from inside; he’s attempting free throws at about a third of the rate of his field goal attempts; and he’s grabbing a rebound about every five minutes. In short, Loveridge has gone from being one of the more promising interior players in the conference to a three-point shooting specialist. That’s about all he does anymore. I understand that at 6’6” his upside at the four is limited, and if he is ever going to play in the NBA, it will be at the three. But this is college ball. And while his ability to hit the three and pull bigs away from the hoop is a useful skill, it’s only a fraction of what Loveridge could be doing for this team. For what it’s worth, I promise that this is the last time I will rip a guy with an offensive rating of 115.0 and a three-point percentage of 47.5 percent. The other guy I want to touch on briefly is Jakob Poeltl. We still like him as a player: like his skills; like his effort; like his upside. And sure, NBA scouts love him. But he really needs a lot of work, especially in the weight room. He got pushed around by the Wildcats all night long on Saturday. And if you go back and look at the results, anytime he has gone up against long interior players (San Diego State, Kansas, UNLV, Colorado, Arizona, even BYU), he has struggled. You can’t really throw the ball into him in the post because he doesn’t know what to do with it yet, so you have to rely on him to get his own miss off the glass if he’s going to have any offensive impact, and he’s not strong enough to do that on a regular basis. He’s still an important part of this Utah team, but his major leap forward probably won’t come until next year, at which time he should hopefully still be in college. Read the rest of this entry »

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Pac-12 Notebook: Josh Hawkinson, UCLA Offensive Woes, Utah…

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 6th, 2015

Here are some news and notes from the Pac-12’s opening conference weekend.

  • We’re, what, two months into the college basketball season, and I’m not sure I’ve written the name Josh Hawkinson yet this year. Consider this blurb my official apology for such an egregious oversight. Last year, he played in all but three of Washington State’s games, but never more than 13 minutes, never scoring more than six points, never grabbing more than six boards. This year, he’s averaging 31 minutes per game and has only once had an outing where he failed to score at least six points or grab at least six boards. Over the weekend against the Bay Area schools, he was the best big man on the floor, and that came against frontcourts featuring senior bigs like Stefan Nastic and David Kravish. (By the way, the fact that Jordan Railey had his best pair of games in his career does not bode well for Cal and Stanford’s frontcourt defenses). Hawkinson is not going to amaze you with his athleticism. He’s not what you would call a visionary passer. He’s a decent face-up shooter, but by no means the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki either. He just gets it done. He’s got a great motor; he understands the game; he’s tough on the boards; and he has completely bought in to Ernie Kent’s philosophy. He’s on the short list of players in this conference who have made the biggest jump in production from last year to this one.
Josh Hawkinson May Be The Pac-12's Most Improved Player

Josh Hawkinson May Be The Pac-12’s Most Improved Player

  • To say that it was not a good weekend for UCLA basketball is to engage in annoyingly obvious understatement. The Bruins went to Colorado on Friday night to face a struggling Buffaloes team without its best player, and despite Colorado’s best efforts to fluff up UCLA’s offensive confidence early in the game via a series of turnovers leading to breakaway layups, the Bruins offensive woes continued. Against Utah on Sunday, it was even worse. The gold standard for UCLA offensive ineptitude was their 44 points against Kentucky on national TV. In that game, the Bruins scored those points on 68 possessions, good for 0.647 points per possession. Their 39 points on 60 possessions in Boulder works out to 0.65 points per possession. So, um, progress? In all seriousness, UCLA just has absolutely no offensive confidence right now. Norman Powell is a mess. Kevon Looney can only get so far on effort alone. And Tony Parker can’t seem to get out of his own way, earning only 20 minutes per game this weekend in part due to his continuing problems with dumb fouls. And then there is Bryce Alford. Yikes. For the weekend he was 2-of-26 from the field, 0-of-13 from deep, with five turnovers against nine assists. And let me tell you, those Rocky Mountain scorekeepers were generous in only giving him five turnovers. Now, that’s only one bad weekend, and we’re not going to write off all the other good things he’s done to this point — but with UCLA’s offensive struggles, you’ve got to start with the quarterback, right? The shooting thing? That’s mostly an aberration. Still, Alford is definitely earning a reputation as a guy willing to take bad shots. And on a team with a fragile personality right now, launching wild early-shot-clock bombs while the rest of the team stands around and watches is not going to build much cohesion. Alford is plenty capable of shooting his team into games, but as the point guard, he’s also in part responsible for how the guys around him perform. There were numerous times this weekend where he delivered a beautiful dime on the run that bounced off the hands of a guy like Thomas Welsh, Noah Allen or Tony Parker. But you know what? Alford’s got to know that those guys aren’t really capable of making those kinds of catches and play to his personnel accordingly. This 0-of-13 shooting from deep is not going to continue, but for the Bruins to regain their confidence, Alford’s got to find ways to get Powell, Looney, Parker and Isaac Hamilton good looks on a regular basis, especially early in games. He’s got to be the facilitator, first and foremost.

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Pac-12 Weekly Honors: Week Seven

Posted by Andrew Murawa on January 5th, 2015

Each week the Pac-12 microsite will run down our weekly superlatives, which typically will include a Team, Player and Newcomer of the Week, along with our weekly Power Rankings.

Team of the Week: Washington State

Ernie Kent's First Conference Win At Washington State Earns The Cougs Our Choice as Team of the Week (Rick Bowmer, AP)

Ernie Kent’s First Conference Win At Washington State Earns The Cougs Our Choice as Team of the Week (Rick Bowmer, AP)

We had four voters each pick a different team this week, but you know what? I’m the one tallying the votes, so tie goes to the writer. And in this case, Washington State. Why does Ernie Kent’s squad get the nod over other candidates like Utah, Stanford and Colorado – all of which will likely finish further up the rankings than the Cougars? Why pick a team that opened conference play with a 15-point loss? Here’s a couple of reasons. First, to steal a phrase, in conference play, all wins are created equally, but road wins are a little more equal than others. And in the opening week of Pac-12 play, the Cougars were the only team to go on the road and come back with a W – a surprising win over Cal on Sunday afternoon. Secondly, given that Kent’s team has been consistently polling as the worst team in our conference this season; and further given that the Cougs got off on such a bad foot against Stanford; it is fun to recognize an underdog that is still playing hard and beginning to put some things together. We don’t expect Washington State to be in the mix atop the conference standings this season, but at least for the time being they are alone among the competition in one positive accomplishment.

(Also receiving votes: Colorado; Stanford; Utah)

Player of the Week: Jordan Mathews, California

Much like our Team of the Week section, this award could have gone any number of ways, but we’ll give the nod to Mathews for his highly-efficient scoring outburst in a home split against the Washington schools. With Jabari Bird still out with an injury and with Tyrone Wallace earning a second glance from every opponent, Mathews stepped up this week and kept his team alive, shooting a 68.3% eFG on his way to a 27.5 per night scoring average, leading all scorers in conference play.

(Also receiving votes: Josh Hawkinson, Washington State; Chasson Randle, Stanford; Joseph Young, Oregon)

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Marching to Vegas: On Washington State and Patience

Posted by Adam Butler on December 5th, 2014

Adam Butler (@pachoopsab) of Pachoops again will be joining us all year, providing us with his weekly take on our favorite conference, as we begin the March to Las Vegas.

This is a column about Washington State. It’s an odd premise and one we don’t usually delve in to. The Cougar program has won thirteen of their previous thirty eight contests, just 34% of their games. It’s a great batting average; a terrible win percentage. They’ve been outscored by 202 points. A great bowling score; a terrible scoring differential. By almost all basketball metrics, the Cougars have been trending downward since 2011: fewer points, lesser efficiencies, fewer fans, and fewer wins. It’s not looking good for a team – a program – just a handful of seasons removed from a top-10 ranking. Alas, their heyday came amidst UCLAs and that program is on to another coach as well.

Ernie Kent Took On Quite A Challenge When He Accepted The Washington State Job (Rick Bowmer, AP)

Ernie Kent Took On Quite A Challenge When He Accepted The Washington State Job (Rick Bowmer, AP)

So when Ernie Kent was hired, it seemed to be a shot in the arm. Albeit a surprising and interesting one, Kent won’t soon be accused of being “low energy.” He might be exactly what Washington State needed. He knocked on doors pretending to be lost, engaging with the Palouse, embracing his new home and reminding people that basketball, Cougar basketball, could be fun. That the downward trends of yesteryear could soon be over. He took the stage at media day and dropped names like Roy Williams and John Calipari. As soon as he was Mr. Cougar (or is that Butch?), he got on stage and told us about all his famous friends. He’d consulted the brightest minds about being a great coach. Tom Izzo was noted at Pac-12 media day. Marketing sometimes isn’t about product recognition as much as market expansion. Maybe you won’t be a WSU fan, but you sure could be a basketball fan. The room swooned at Ernie’s words.

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Surveying Feast Week Carnage Around the Pac-12

Posted by AMurawa on December 1st, 2014

Feast Week around the Pac-12 didn’t bring a whole lot of comfort to the conference. Seven teams around the league played in tournament-style events and only two even made it out of their first game and into the championship side of the bracket, with four of the remaining five teams taking two losses on the week. There was good news, however, as Arizona won the Maui Invitational with a workmanlike win over San Diego State and Washington earned the Wooden Legacy title with solid wins over an underwhelming field. And the teams that did not participate in tournaments this week (including Utah, who hosted a round robin event against overmatched opponents) combined to post a 10-1 record. Of course, that “1” on the right side of the record was an inexplicable Stanford loss to DePaul. Below, we’ll take a quick spin around the conference and get you caught up.

Stanley Johnson Is Turning Into A Disruptive Defensive Force (Casey Sapio, USA Today)

Stanley Johnson Is Turning Into A Disruptive Defensive Force (Casey Sapio, USA Today)

Arizona – The Wildcats have not yet looked spectacular this season, in racing out to a 6-0 start. But as they showed against the Aztecs on Wednesday, this is a team with chemistry and toughness, traits that should help them weather the storm as they work towards living up to their incredible upside. Things are coming along slowly but surely, Stanley Johnson is getting comfortable offensively and turning showing his ability to disrupt things defensively and everybody is feeling each other out. It will come all in due time; they’ve still got three months to dial things in before March rolls around. But in the meantime, even as we can pick apart little faults, the ‘Cats have confirmed what we already thought: Sean Miller’s team is the class of the conference. Read the rest of this entry »

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Pac-12 M5: 11.20.14 Edition

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 20th, 2014

pac12_morning5

  1. Arizona just keeps on rolling, and not just because the Wildcats knocked off Big West favorite UC Irvine in Tucson on Wednesday night, but because Sean Miller keeps dialing in elite recruiting classes. He’s already got four signees locked up and is working on adding more to next year’s class , and he’s already gotten a head start on a strong 2016 class with a verbal commitment from San Diego-area power forward T.J. Leaf. Leaf is a 6’9” combo forward with the size to play the four and the skill set to play the three. In fact, he cited Miller’s history of allowing his forwards to display a wide variety of skill sets as a big reason why he chose Arizona over other big-time schools like UCLA and Florida.
  2. Tad Boyle is getting to ready to welcome some young talent into his rotation, as freshman point guard Dominique Collier may see his first action in a Colorado uniform against Wyoming this weekend. Collier was suspended for the Buffaloes’ first two games of the season and has been dealing with a nagging ankle injury on top of that, but he’s finally practicing at full speed and ready to contribute. With Xavier Talton acquitting himself nicely in the early going, don’t expect Collier to jump into a huge role in the rotation right away. But the two-time Colorado Mr. Basketball is another talent who should make Boyle’s already deep bench even stronger.
  3. UCLA freshman Kevon Looney is another youngster that you’ll get to know a lot about this season. Through two games of his college career, the former McDonald’s All-American from Milwaukee is averaging 19.5 points and 11.5 boards per game for the Bruins, albeit against overmatched competition. Looney’s 7’5” wingspan certainly accounts for some of his naturally-gifted rebounding ability, and the fact that he’s so athletic factors in there too. According to his teammates, thought, what makes Looney so good on the glass are his simple instincts.
  4. Oregon State is off to its first 2-0 start since 2000-01, but with wins over the likes of Rice and Corban, it is not advisable to get too excited about this young team. Still, as Gary Horowitz of the Statesman Journal notes, this Beavers program is at least worth watching. With a bevy of athletic wings who can handle the ball, versatile legacy Gary Payton II and a few surprisingly skilled bigs, Wayne Tinkle has his team playing an entertaining brand of ball while laying the foundation for future success. Sure, there are plenty of losses on the team’s immediate horizon, but with a strong recruiting class due next season, this is at the very least a basketball program with a chance at a fairly bright future. One word of warning, however: It is going to get worse before it gets better.
  5. There’s another new head coach in the conference who is also in the midst of trying to turn a program around with very little talent. Ernie Kent has sweet-talked all the locals around the Washington State program, but an 0-2 start to the season with losses by an average of 20 points in a mini-tour of middle-of-the-road (at best) Texas schools quickly put a damper on any buzz around this year’s squad. Just watch how the tenor of tweets from the CougCenter contributors went downhill quickly as the Cougars’ 27-point loss to TCU progressed.
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Pac-12 Opening Weekend: What To Watch For

Posted by Andrew Murawa on November 14th, 2014

We waited all these many months for opening weekend of the college basketball season and we’re rewarded with… Mount St. Mary’s at Arizona, Montana State at UCLA, and South Dakota at Stanford? Well, no matter, I’m still excited. Below we’ll take a look at some things to keep an eye on as all of the Pac-12 teams tip off their seasons this weekend.

  • Arizona: vs. Mount Saint Mary’s on Friday, vs. Cal State Northridge on Sunday (both on Pac-12 Networks): The Wildcats shouldn’t be challenged in either contest (although CSUN at least has some interesting athletes, including Landon Drew, brother of former UCLA point guard Larry Drew II), but that’s no reason not to tune in to see just how Sean Miller intends to pour all of his talent on to the court at the same time. Plus, the over/under on thunderous dunks from the duo of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson is set at 10 for the weekend.

    Rondae Hollis-Jefferson And Company Could Feel Some Rim Rash After This Weekend (Getty)

    Rondae Hollis-Jefferson And Company Could Feel Some Rim Rash After This Weekend. (Getty)

  • Arizona State: vs. Chicago State on Friday (Pac-12 Networks): Do you have the scouting report on Tra Holder, Willie Atwood and Roosevelt Scott down pat? No? Me neither, which is why I’ll be making sure to get a peak at the Sun Devils this weekend to see how Herb Sendek folds in the new talent with veterans like Shaquielle McKissic and Jonathan Gilling.
  • California: vs. Alcorn State on Friday, vs. Kennesaw State on Sunday (both on Pac-12 Networks): The Golden Bears should get through this weekend just fine and be undefeated when they face Syracuse in the 2K Classic next Thursday. Tune in this weekend to check out Cal’s high-flying wings in Cuonzo Martin‘s system and learn how Sam Singer is coming along at the point.

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