DeMarcus Cousins’ Inclusion on Team USA Proves He’s Grown from Past Struggles

DeMarcus Cousins made huge strides during the 2013-14 season. The center set new career highs in scoring average, rebounds per game, field-goal percentage, player efficiency rating, offensive rating, defensive rating and win shares. 

However, anyone who watched Cousins during his first three years in the league knew that type of production was well within his grasp. The real questions surrounding the 24-year-old related to his maturity on and off the court. 

Yet his inclusion on Team USA for the 2014 FIBA World Cup shows that he’s also overcoming many of the issues with his attitude. 

 

The 2012 USA Select Team Debacle

Cousins’ inclusion on Team USA for the FIBA World Cup would be an accomplishment in any scenario. Only the league’s elite players make the squad, and getting the recognition shows people have taken notice of how good he’s become.

Yet it’s even more noteworthy when looking back at the center’s first introduction to USA Basketball and the embarrassment he caused during workouts with the 2012 USA Select team. 

Cousins was invited to participate with the team in an effort to help prepare the senior squad prior to the 2012 Olympics. Needless to say, it did not go smoothly. 

Cousins was a disruption during practices, incessantly fouling the other players. 

That spurred USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo to question Cousins’ maturity while speaking with reporters:

Show respect to players, and you get respect back. He needs to mature as a person, as a player if he’s going to have an outstanding NBA career. So before there’s discussion about him being part of our program, he has a lot of building to do…

He has a lot of growing up to do.

Even though Colangelo‘s words were disappointing to hear, what he said wasn’t all that shocking. That was the prevailing wisdom surrounding Cousins.

He was just another gifted player who wasn’t doing the things he needed to do to maximize his potential.

 

Making Strides During the 2013-14 Season

The story with Cousins began to hit an upswing during the 2013-14 season.

Of course, a big component to it was his improvement on the court. Instead of being a talented player who had yet to tap into his potential, Cousins’ production started to match that of a player with his talents.

Among centers, Cousins was first in scoring, second in field-goal attempts per game, fourth in rebounds, third in assists, first in steals and second in double-doubles. In short, he became potentially the league’s best center and certainly one of its top two or three. 

But he also improved upon his maturity and started to become more of a leader for the Kings

As head coach Michael Malone told Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee, he was happy with the growth Cousins showed during the season, especially following an ejection in February:

We’ve talked about DeMarcus Cousins the player, but let’s talk about DeMarcus Cousins the person, the leader on and off the court. People have to remember he’s still a young kid. He’s 23 years old. He’s growing into his leadership role. It’s not something where he’s “Boom, I’ve arrived, I’m your leader” and know he’ll be able to excel in that role right away. What I saw was a young man making a very concerted effort to become a better leader, a better teammate, bring positive energy. After he got thrown out of the Houston game (in February) and served that one-game suspension, that’s when I really noticed it – leaving the referees alone, being supportive and patting his teammates on the backside, leading this team to wins.

As the coach noted, Cousins is evolving as a leader. And while that evolution is a constant process, it’s also not something that occurs with the snap of a finger. 

 

Carrying It into the Offseason

Cousins has carried that maturation process into the offseason. He’s putting in the work to become a better leader for the Kings. Part of that was evident in the time leading up to the Las Vegas Summer League, when the Kings held a voluntary minicamp.

Since attending the camp was optional, Cousins could have continued to work on his own. Yet the 24-year-old made the decision to work out with the Kings and provide an example to the younger players who were slated to participate in the summer league.

As Malone told Jones, he was pleased with this development:

I give DeMarcus a ton of credit. We had a voluntary minicamp in the middle of June, and as the leader of the team, he was there every day. So I’ve never had a problem with getting DeMarcus in the gym, working hard, setting the tone, leading by example.

And the fact that he went through practice last night, came in today and will be here again tonight just shows his commitment, his willingness to set the tone and establish a relationship with our new player in Nik (Stauskas) and continue to work with Ben (McLemore) and Ray (McCallum). He is constantly developing as a person, as a player, and I love the direction he’s headed in.

The center has also kept it going during his time trying out for the national team leading up to the World Cup. He showed up at the practices with a much better attitude than the one he displayed in 2012, and people with USA Basketball have taken notice.

One person in particular who’s been impressed is Mike Krzyzewski, who’s coaching the U.S. squad in the World Cup and was around when things went awry with the Select team a couple years ago.

“All the coaches were really pleased with DeMarcus and how he played,” said Krzyzewski during a media teleconference. “His attitude [has been] tremendous. He wouldn’t keep coming back to be a part of this and be on a U.S. Team if it didn’t mean something to him. We recognized that even before he started practice – the fact he was there, committed and ready to go in good shape.” (per NBA.com)

Now the right people are taking notice of Cousins’ development. He’s still not a finished product, but he’s headed in the right direction.

 

Going Forward

Cousins needs to keep this going, both the improvements he’s made on the court and the adjustments he’s made to his attitude. 

But it wouldn‘t be wise to bet against him doing just that. As The Sacramento Bee’s Ailene Voisin points out, few would’ve thought we’d be sitting here today with Cousins a member of the USA team.

Talk about a miraculous recovery. Two years ago, when Cousins was among the invitees who scrimmaged against the 2012 Olympians at the training camp in Las Vegas, USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo practically chased him out of the gym. The gambling crowd would have gone broke betting on the guy. The young center was characterized as too aggressive, too physical, too generous with the elbows, too chatty with the referees.

Yet if Cousins flunked his original audition, he stubbornly returned for a refresher course in 2013. He re-enrolled again these past several weeks, and finally, for the first time in his pro career, he aced the test. If he were still in school, everyone would be looking up to the 6-foot-11, 270-pound kid with the gold star pasted on his forehead.

The next step in that evolution is helping the Kings get back to the postseason. It’s good that he’s become of the league’s best centers. It’s great that he’s making strides as the leader Sacramento needs. But he won’t get the full recognition he deserves until it leads to better results on the court.

“The only way he’s going to get what he wants is for this team to win and to win consistently,” Malone said. “When we can become a team that can win and be a playoff contender, then he’ll be an All-Star, because he has that type of talent.”

Like everything else, that also won’t happen overnight, especially in a stacked Western Conference. But he’s already come this far. Who’s to say he won’t continue the maturation process?

If Cousins has shown anything over the past couple years, it’s that we shouldn’t bet against him.

 

What do you think about Cousins’ development? Let me know on Twitter @SimRisso

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Thunder’s struggles continue on West Coast road trip

Hard to be hopeful when you lose to the last-place Lakers.
Hard to feel good about anything from an Oklahoma City Thunder perspective after giving up 114 to the Lakers and 128 to Phoenix on this two-game road trip.
Coach Scott Brooks said his team is in a “Defensive Valley,” but that actually sort of sounds peaceful. The Thunder are in a defensive rut, a situation so bad Jodie Meeks scored a career-high 42 on Sunday after allowing a career-high 41 points on Thursday.
That’s not a valley. That’s a hole.
A top-five defensive team the past three seasons, Oklahoma City has lost its way and is 3-5 since the All-Star break.
But there’s more than one way. The Thunder can certainly get out of this situation. They have the players, experience and enough recent success.
They also have the knowledge that …
1. Houston is on deck
Yeah, sounds weird, considering the Rockets are 8-2 in their last 10 games, they have won four in a row, have James Harden and Dwight Howard, who is playing his best ba

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Miami Heat Back in San Antonio, with Finals Struggles Seeming ‘A Long Time Ago’

SAN ANTONIO—The honking wasn’t heard Wednesday night.

These days, that’s merely a memory in the city known for its lasting recollections—a memory nearly nine months old, of vehicles circling the streets surrounding the Alamo, passengers waving flags, drivers honking horns.

There was certainly reason to celebrate on June 16, 2013.

The Spurs had just handled the Miami Heat in Game 5 to take a 3-2 lead in the NBA Finals. They had done so by baiting LeBron James into missing 14 of 22 shots. They had done so with balanced offense, five starters scoring at least 16 points, three with at least 24. They had done so in convincing enough style that it appeared Danny Green would be the Finals MVP and they would cement themselves as the team of this era, with a fifth championship since Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan came together.

They seemed likely to close it out in Miami, and start planning a parade on these very same streets.

The parade would occur elsewhere.

Thursday, the Miami Heat return to San Antonio for the first time since they stole Game 6, and seized Game 7 to win their second straight NBA championship. They return as contenders for another crown, but so do the hosts, with each team sitting in second place in their respective conferences.

“It was a long time ago, man,” Chris Bosh said of the Finals. “It seems like a long time ago, a lot’s happened. I think it’s still fresh in everybody’s mind. But you know what, that’s what elite level basketball’s about, facing situations that you don’t want to be in, and having to capitalize, come through, and do whatever you have to do to make it happen.”

Both teams are still making things happen.

Miami is 43-15, even with Dwyane Wade sitting for 15 games, and even with the rest of the team generally pulling back into second gear against the NBA’s second tier.

San Antonio, even more remarkably, is 44-16, in spite of being shorter on wings than a sports bar after Monday Night Football, due to a spate of injuries.

And so, here we are again.

With so much less at stake…for now.

And while the Pacers, Thunder, Clippers and perhaps even the Rockets could stake a claim to supremacy in the spring, it should surprise no one if these two squads square off again for rings. And that would be a rather appropriate encore, after they played one of the odder, and closer, series in NBA Finals history, with three tight games, four blowouts, and the Spurs actually outscoring the Heat overall, if only by a 97.7 to 97.0 average.

All that ultimately mattered, of course, was 4-3 in Miami’s favor.

And yet, after Game 5, that outcome seemed unlikely.

“That series was out of control,”  Bosh said. “Nobody had an upper hand on that series until the last minute of Game 7. It was very stressful. It was very, very stressful. I was glad it was over as soon as it was.”

After Game 5, however, the Heat weren’t ready for anything to end. The series’ middle three games, all in San Antonio, had defied logic: San Antonio won by 36, Miami won by 16, and San Antonio won by 10, though that last margin was misleading—the Spurs led by 13 after one, and never looked back.

After it was over, the Heat tried not to look back either.

The flight?

Udonis Haslem said, while “we never felt we had it under control,” the Heat “liked our chances going home. No matter what the series is, a chance to finish out any series at home, we love our chances. Obviously our backs were against the wall, but if we could pick any situation, that’s the one we’d pick.”

As Bosh put it, “You’re at a point where you know what has to happen.”

Even so, there was so much that needed to happen in Miami for the Heat to successfully defend their title. That included the Bosh rebound, and Ray Allen 3-pointer, to tie Game 6. That included the Mario Chalmers 3-pointer to close the third quarter, and then the strong finish, to secure the championship in Game 7.

If Miami hadn’t pulled it off, much likely would be different today. Pat Riley has acknowledged that, if the team had come up short, he might have tinkered with the roster significantly more than he did, which might have even meant trading Bosh elsewhere. The Spurs? Well, there would have been more dynasty talk, considering this would have been a fifth championship since 1999.

What happened after the Heat left San Antonio will remain part of NBA lore, so long as the league exists. Allen, for instance, always would have had a place in history, due to his career record for 3-pointers. But, even for all his late-game heroics, he didn’t have a signature moment until he sank that shot from the corner in Game 6. He has spoken of using that moment as a touchstone to talk about his career, an example of his preparation paying off.

Over the summer, Allen received congratulations from all corners of the country.

But did he hear from anyone in San Antonio?

“Why would you ask that?” Allen said, smiling. “No. No. I would think I would have expected to either.”

What does he expect Thursday night, when he enters the game as a sub, the shooter that broke a city’s heart?

“I mean, I don’t know,” Allen said. “It will be interesting. I know we are the villain obviously in any building we go to. But I do have to say that the time we spent in San Antonio, the people there, as much as they wanted their team to win, they were real gracious hosts. There wasn’t a lot of hatred and violence spewed when we were walking the streets. They were very kind-hearted and good and they appreciated the competition. So I always appreciated playing there.”

Even if Game 5 didn’t feel so good.

Allen scored 21 that night, to lead a rally that fell well short. The Heat loss led to all that honking, before the team headed into the sky, to the East, out of state, into the prospect of two elimination games.

“I actually didn’t look ahead and worry about it,” Allen said. “It was my third Finals, so I really didn’t place any worry and nervousness on the situation. Because it was like, you got to get to a point where a team has to really beat you on (your) floor. I just said, ‘You get home and you take care of business. This is a situation not to panic.’ “

He did everything but—and especially when it mattered most, legacies on the line, his feet just behind it.

In the end, he and the Heat narrowly avoided the heartache he experienced in 2010 as a member of the Celtics.

“That situation, when you lose Game 7, that was probably one of the most gut-wrenching feelings that I’ve ever had in my career,” Allen said. “I was in a hotel in L.A. We left the next morning. I think I watched five movies that night. I went to bed at like eight in the morning. Couldn’t sleep. That’s why I started wearing this elbow pad. I probably should have had my elbow checked out but it split, and I hit the ground and I was bleeding, and my bed was bloody. I was just in misery. Even throughout the summer, you don’t forget it. So I wouldn’t imagine they felt any different.”

No, the Spurs didn’t.

Neither did their fans.

Which is why a win tonight over Miami would mean more than most.

Even if you still may not hear any honking.

 

Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.

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Illinois Basketball: Why the Future Looks Bright Despite Current Struggles

It’s been a tough year for fans of Illinois Fighting Illini basketball as they have watched their team plummet to the bottom of the Big Ten standings after a promising start.

With only one returning senior, five freshmen and two transfers on the roster, not much was expected out of the Illini this year. However, after a start that saw them go 11-2 in non-conference and 2-0 in the Big Ten, it appeared that maybe this team could prove everyone wrong.

People were starting to believe that despite the lack of superior talent and depth, they could grind out wins purely on heart and desire.

Instead the team proceeded to lose 10 of their next 12 games, which includes an eight game losing streak, the longest in 40 years for the Illinois program.

Now the hot start seems like a distant memory and the idea of reaching the NCAA tournament seems like a cruel joke.

And it hasn’t just been the losing that’s frustrating to fans, but how they’re losingthey simply can’t score.

It’s been downright painful to watch as the team goes long stretches without scoring and no matter how well they play defensively, they just can’t seem to score enough. 

The Illini are currently 11th in the Big Ten in scoring (65.7), field goal percentage (.407) and three-point percentage (.316), ahead of only Northwestern in all three categories.

Conversely, they have been pretty strong defensively allowing only 63 points per game, which is second in the league behind only Ohio State.

The problem is that they just don’t have enough guys that can put the ball in the hoop. Unfortunately, that’s a fairly important part of the game of basketball.

Illinois does have one of the top scorers (16.2) in the conference in Rayvonte Rice, but even he has slowed down after a hot start and hasn’t gotten any consistent help all season long. At times, Rice has even seemed to be trying to do too much offensively to carry the team, which has actually led to an already stagnant offense becoming more stagnant.

Bottom line—there just haven’t been enough guys doing their part to carry the load offensively.

Seniors Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey have been disappointing as they struggle with consistency throughout the season along with juniors Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu. These were the guys that were expected to carry this otherwise young Illinois team, but it just hasn’t happened.

Typically a team will only go as far as their upperclassmen take them and in the case of Illinois it appears that won’t be very far.

Now, some good news.

Amid all of the losing, a few of the freshmen have begun to develop and look like they may be solid contributors over the next few years.

Kendrick Nunn seems to be making the biggest strides as he has recently entered the starting lineup. Since becoming a starter, Nunn is averaging 13 points per game and his confidence seems to be growing. In the recent victory over Minnesota, Nunn knocked down five of seven three-point attempts and played his usual tough defense. It appears that he is quickly becoming the second scoring option that the Illini have been searching for all season.

Malcolm Hill is another freshman who has recently been inserted in the starting lineup and has also shown flashes of big-time potential. He still needs to improve defensively, but has begun to look more comfortable on the offensive end.

The play of Nunn and Hill along with the potential of big man Maverick Morgan should give the Illini faithful hope for the future. Rice, Abrams and Egwu will return as seniors next season and there is more help on the way. Transfers Ahmad Starks, Aaron Cosby and Darius Paul will be eligible next season and they will add both talent and depth. Lastly, the Illini will add a two-man recruiting class for 2014-15 that includes Leron Black and Michael Finke. Black is a big talent who could possibly crack the starting lineup as a freshman and should bring some toughness in the paint to an Illinois team that could use it.

For those that don’t know much about Black, you will soon.

And though the 2015 recruiting class is not complete, John Groce is off to a good start landing two Top-100 players, both from the state of Illinois, in DJ Williams (Simeon HS) and Aaron Jordan (Plainfield East HS). So the once bare cupboard is beginning to fill up for Groce and the Illini.

But first, this year’s team will try to finish up the current season on a positive note and that task certainly won’t be easy.

They will face a recently surging Nebraska team on Wednesday and then finish the season with a brutal three-game stretch against the top three teams in the conference. They will play Michigan State on the road, come home to take on Michigan and then finish up at Iowa.

After that it’s on to the Big Ten tournament where the Illini will try to make some noise as a heavy underdog, a position they are not really familiar with when it comes to the Big Ten tournament. In the 16-year history of the tournament, the Illini have only been seeded lower than fifth five times, which includes 1999 when they finished dead last.

That season, the 11th-seeded Illini won three games to reach the tournament final where they eventually lost to Michigan State, but it was a heck of a run from a team that had only won a total of three conference games all season.

If this season were to end right now, the Illini would again be an 11-seed and would have to win four games to reach the NCAA tournament. It can happen, but there’s not much to indicate that this team is capable of winning four games in four days against Big Ten competition.

So it would seem likely that this team is on its way to the very prestigious NIT tournament (maybe), which isn’t really something that any Illini fan cares about. The only thing that is important to Illini fans is that their team becomes relevant again, not only in the Big Ten, but nationally. They long for the days when reaching the NCAA tournament was an automatic and the only question was what seed the team would get.

The hope (and there is reason for hope) is that this season is just a bump in the road for a program that is seemingly on the rise and should be on their way to the point where making the NCAA tournament is a given and competing for a Big Ten championship is once again a legitimate goal.

See the light Illini fans, see the light.

 

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Michigan State Basketball: How Concerning Are Gary Harris’ Shooting Struggles?

Gary Harris‘ recent shooting struggles are just another part of Michigan State’s recent team-wide frustrations.

He shot a dreadful 3-of-20 from the floor against Wisconsin on Sunday. The talented sophomore certainly wasn’t shy about expressing his feelings regarding his recent slump.

Harris recorded the worst shooting game of his impressive two-year career. That contest only compounded his ongoing issues in the wake of Keith Appling‘s injury, as Harris is shooting just 23.1 percent through those two games.

But actually, he’s been up-and-down all year.

Harris’ overall numbers are gaudy, but he’s had an inconsistent shooting season, which explains his relatively low shooting percentages. The Indiana native leads the Big Ten with 17.6 points per game, but he is doing so on only 41 percent shooting (32.7 percent from three-point range.)

Those outputs are lower than his freshman year’s. However, after being named Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, being handed an enhanced role and having to compensate for key players’ absences from the lineup, Harris’ inevitable shooting struggles come as no surprise.

Before his recent two-game hiccup, Harris was dominating.

In the prior five games, he shot nearly 54 percent from the floor and was averaging 20.6 points per game. He recorded 20-plus points in four of those contests, including a 27-point eruption against a sound Michigan defense.

Clearly, Harris is capable of lighting it up on any given night. He can dissect a defense in a variety of ways. Harris has also displayed a willingness and competency at shouldering the offensive load with limited help.

But recently, he has found it much more difficult to generate easy scoring opportunities.

Per Gillian Van Stratt of mlive.com, Harris attributed his lack of production against Wisconsin to starting the game with poor shot selections. Harris noted that he needs to find some easy looks to get himself in a rhythm.

And he was right. The sophomore shooting guard consistently attempted difficult, guarded perimeter shots and was never able to find a groove.

In that contest, Harris missed all seven of his three-point attempts. More alarmingly, he didn’t shoot a free throw, which evidences his recent reliance on his jumper.

However, it seems that Harris has identified that issue. Although he’s a young player, there is a unique maturity to his temperament, and his ability to honestly reflect on his woes goes far beyond his years.

We see it on the court. We see it in the press conferences.

As he’s done so frequently this season, Harris will respond. For every series of games that he has struggled in, the sophomore has rebounded with an impressive string of subsequent performances. He has not recorded two straight games of single-digit point totals.

For Michigan State, there’s no reason to worry.

Harris is too resilient, mature and downright talented for his shooting skid to last. Additionally, Michigan State will face three consecutive opponents that are below .500 in the Big Ten.

That will equate to big scoring games for Harris. While he will continue to attract constant attention from opposing defenses as Appling and Branden Dawson continue to sit, Harris will improve on his recent shortcomings.

He’s targeted the reasons for his struggles. Now it’s just time for Harris to apply them.

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Kentucky Basketball: How Worrisome Are Julius Randle’s Recent Struggles?

Julius Randle is nowhere near losing his status as Kentucky basketball’s MVP, but he’s also nowhere close to being the player he was to start his freshman season. The man who opened the year with seven consecutive double-doubles has just two in the first nine games of SEC action.

If the Wildcats are going to make any noise in the Big Dance, Randle will have to be the linchpin of that effort. However, the drop in his performance isn’t a reason for panic in Lexington.

In the first place, the rest of the ‘Cats are expanding their roles in response to the hints of Randle’s mortality. James Young and Aaron Harrison are becoming more consistent as scorers. Even the two-headed center combo of Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson is contributing in the points column.

Secondly, Randle was so extraordinary early on that his numbers are capable of weathering a mild downturn. Even the subpar performances he’s turned in against conference opponents have seen him average 12.9 points and 9.0 rebounds per game, an effort that’s up there with the SEC’s best.

Perhaps most importantly for John Calipari’s team, the timing of Randle’s return to earth couldn’t be better.

One of the major reasons SEC foes have had an easier time limiting the freshman’s production is that they adjusted to the strengths and weaknesses he showed during his breakout early games. Now, it’s Randle’s turn to make the adjustment, and he has nearly five full weeks to do it before postseason play begins.

Randle’s array of post moves—not to mention his remarkable court vision—provide good reason to believe that he has the brains to back up his immense physical talent. As he sees the way teams such as Ole Miss have defended him, he’ll learn from that 12-point, five-rebound disappointment and come out with a new plan of attack for the rematch in two weeks.

It’s also worth noting that the high level of competition Randle is facing doesn’t really deserve credit for his reduced numbers. After all, he played well against towering Baylor and turned in one of his best games of the year against the loaded Michigan State front line.

Even if Randle doesn‘t bounce back, he has enough production left to be a valuable contributor on a Kentucky team that’s playing noticeably better overall than it did to start the year. If and when the 6’9″ star does resume playing like a national Freshman of the Year front-runner, he’s got a chance to put Kentucky right back in the mix for a deep NCAA tournament run.

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Brad Stevens is a perfect fit for Celtics’ struggles

Brad Stevens (Photo credit: Sports Illustrated)
In the midst of change this offseason, Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers, who had won a championship in Boston, decided that he would not endure the next rebuilding phase of the franchise. Rivers left Boston for a chance at major success with the Los Angeles Clippers. With this move, there was a coaching vacancy left in the storied franchise. The Boston Celtics needed a new head coach to lead a team of young players.
The Celtics decided to go the college route and opt for Brad Stevens from Butler University as their new head coach. In his time at Butler, Stevens became accustomed to coaching and maturing young players. Brad Stevens is also not withdrawn from big stage experience. Stevens took his Butler team to two NCAA National Championships. Stevens was thrilled and honored to be named the new head coach of the Boston Celtics.
After being named coach, Stevens started up shop quickly. He reached out to every player on the team righ…

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Jabari Parker’s Quiet Struggles Continue to Cloud Duke’s Recent Run of Success

The breaths are coming a bit more easier now in Durham. The energy is more jovial. The Cameron Crazies have, indeed, had reason to go crazy. (Folks, go crazy.)

A historic celebration enveloped the rafters Saturday, as coach Mike Krzyzewski recorded his 900th career victory in the Blue Devils’ 78-56 victory against Florida State.

Rodney Hood led the way with 18 points off the bench, as Duke dominated despite a frankly dreadful performance at points.

Florida State shot 50 percent. The Blue Devils were happy to register just over half that at a 30.5 percent clip. There were points, especially in the second half, where you could imagine an alternate universe where the Seminoles pulled off the upset.

And yet…a 22-point win.

You didn’t even need to watch the game to see where the deficit came: on the boards and at the line. Duke attempted 43 free throws to Florida State’s 18 and outrebounded the Seminoles, 47-24. Hood’s 18 points came as a result of a 9-of-11 performance at the line. Jabari Parker grabbed an astounding 10 of Duke’s 27 offensive rebounds en route to a 14-point, 14-board evening—his second straight double-double.

“Rebounding is something we’ve really tried to make a focal point these last few weeks,” Marshall Plumlee said, via the Associated Press (h/t ESPN). “Alongside our defense, I feel like it’s something that’s starting to show in recent games so no matter who we play we’re hoping to come up with the W on the boards and defensive stops.”

It was the fourth straight for Duke, a streak that comes just after the season hit a bit of a crossroads. The Blue Devils opened up 1-2 in the ACC and dropped outside the Associated Press Top 10, both of which were firsts since 2007. They were arguably ranked more out of name value than performance when this streak began.

And now the ship is righted at the perfect time. Duke hits the road for a two-game jaunt from Pittsburgh to Syracuse, otherwise known as the only other ranked ACC teams. Winning a three-game stretch by 78 points will do wonders for the confidence of your team.

Except not everything is as kosher as the final scores make it seem. And by “not as kosher,” I mean Jabari Parker is still mightily struggling from the field.

After the nonconference slate saw Parker receive rightful Carmelo Anthony comparisons, the freshman forward has floundered since entering intraconference play. Parker is averaging just 13.7 points on 34.1 percent shooting in conference play, down nearly 10 points and 20 percent from his nonconference averages.

His 14-14 on Saturday came on a 3-of-13 evening from the field, the sixth time in his past eight games he’s shot below 40 percent. While we all can play the sample size game and note that only the most historically great college freshmen don’t go through these slumps—a totally fair point, by the way—seven games is pretty dang significant when you’ve only played 20. The understandable fawning over Parker’s instant translation to the college game came after exactly 12 games.

This is all stupid and overreactionary and what have you (as all this stuff is), but it’s at least fair to wonder why Parker is given leeway while his contemporaries are not.

Julius Randle’s numbers go on a slight downtick in SEC play, and suddenly ESPN’s Chad Ford and Kevin Pelton are wondering whether Indiana’s Noah Vonleh is a better pro prospect. (Verdict: el-oh-el.) Or hands are being wrung about Randle’s wingspan or his below-average athleticism. 

Andrew Wiggins isn’t literally God reincarnated in a basketball uniform, and everyone who rode the “overhyped” bandwagon is dislocating their shoulders patting themselves on the back. Joel Embiid is the new in-vogue Jayhawk. Wiggins is the dude who couldn’t hack the hype and has gone from virtual No. 1 lock to merely among the best young players, even though anyone who actually studied Wiggins’ game could have told you he was a year or two away.

I’m not saying these criticisms are fair. Just noting that, in comparison, Parker is skating through without a similar level of scrutiny. The reason for that is unclear. Perhaps it’s merely a case of a first impression being the best and therefore clouding the perception. Parker’s struggles are just that—short-term struggles. Wiggins disappearing for a game or two is indicative of him being unable to handle the hype given to him. 

It’s all incredibly reductive and inane. Parker, Wiggins, Randle and Embiid are all great prospects, potential multi-time NBA All-Stars and seemingly pretty good locker room guys. The need to incessantly analyze every stroke from their wrists is more a product of our culture than anything. It’s not productive analysis to update your “big board” and “mock draft” on a weekly basis like these kids are penny stocks.

But Duke? Yeah, Duke hopes Parker’s shooting slump takes a long walk off a short cliff. The Blue Devils will probably march back into the Top 15 after a two-win week, and they have a chance to make a real statement in the next seven days.

The calendar hasn’t struck March, so Pitt is a tough out, a better-than-expected unit led by Lamar Patterson, owner of the most beautiful jumper in college basketball. Syracuse is Syracuse. Jim Boeheim’s squad plays such an aesthetically displeasing form of basketball it makes you want to cry Knowshon Moreno tears, right until the Orange run off their latest 20-game winning streak.

No matter the four-game winning streak, Duke can’t beat either of those teams by hitting less than a third of its shots. Or by allowing a 50 percent conversion rate on the other end. Or by having their best player’s only form of effectiveness be taking advantage of the opposition’s inability to box out. 

Jabari Parker needs to be better. Not for NBA scouts or his draft stock. Not even to prove he can handle the rigors of ACC play. Not for any other reason other than the Blue Devils can’t survive against elite opponents without him being at the top of their game.

Coach K won his 900th game. Duke has won four straight games. Cameron Indoor Stadium was rocking with good times. Only Parker can determine whether the mood will be the same the next time the Blue Devils arrive in Durham.

 

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Danny Granger on Struggles Since Return: ‘There’s a Big Mental Road Block’

For as much as the Indiana Pacers changed over the last two seasons, Danny Granger‘s transformation has been equally dramatic.

Granger, once the face of this franchise, now sits as a complementary piece of the Pacers’ puzzle. After losing all but five games last season to a knee injury and two months of the 2013-14 campaign to a calf problem, he’s searching for a seat inside the same car he used to drive.

Some might see it as an unfortunate demotion, but the 30-year-old has taken it as a challenge. Really, he has no other choice. The stat sheet won’t allow him to see himself as the player he was before the injuries.

It’s not just his production that’s different. His body and, more importantly, his comfort with it have also changed. He told USA Today‘s Sam Amick:

The left knee, the one I had problems with, it’s continually getting better. But right now, there’s a big mental road block, honestly, because I hadn’t pushed off the thing the way I wanted to in the last year and a half. So coming back from that — even though it is stronger and it is healed — I’ve got to get over some mental hurdles.

It’s almost a broken record at this point, yet hardly a cliche. The mental aspect can be the most grueling portion of the rehab process.

Derrick Rose continually spoke of a confidence that apparently never returned during his failed attempt to return to the floor last season. Rajon Rondo said his mind, not his body, would determine when he could come back from the torn ACL that delayed the start of his 2013-14 season.

There’s another layer to Granger’s test, though. Not only is he trying to rediscover a comfort with his body, but he’s also trying to settle into a new role on a different team than the one he left behind.

It’s been a while since anyone wondered if he could bump Lance Stephenson out of the starting lineup:

He’s searching for his rhythm but doing it in the midst of a championship pursuit.

“How far am I below that (ceiling)? I don’t know,” he said, via Amick. “Because right now it’s a matter of working my way back into where I’ve been without hurting my team.”

Granger used to be the king of this castle; now, he’s trying to navigate the new layout without stepping on any toes in the process. And he’s making those rounds on a knee he still isn’t sure will hold up.

There’s a physical grind in what he’s trying to do, but it’s nowhere near as daunting as the medical hurdles he clearly hasn’t cleared yet.

 

 

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Ohio State Basketball: Breaking Down the Buckeyes’ Backcourt Struggles

Wasn’t it just two weeks ago that Ohio State was undefeated, among the top five teams in college basketball and boasting a backcourt that was impossible to score against?

Fast forward to today, and the Buckeyes are on the ropes. The fanbase has gone to Code Redor perhaps Code Scarlet in this case. The rest of the Big Ten is prepared to pounce.

And that backcourt? The veteran trio of junior Shannon Scott and seniors Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr. has skidded through OSU‘s four-game losing streak as if the various courts they’ve lost on were coated with Crisco.

Where did the issues arise? Why is this Ohio State team in the throes of the school’s first four-game losing streak since March of 2008?

Not all of it is on the backcourt, but enough to make one wonder if the Buckeyes were overrated before Big Ten play arrived.

 

Great Expectations

Craft drew All-American praise at the beginning of the season. Smith was expected to pick up his scoring, and he has been efficient if not prolific. Scott was to provide the Robin to Craft’s Batman, striking fear into the hearts of opposing guards everywhere.

During this four-game losing streak, nothing has gone to plan on either end. Examine the per-game averages of the Buckeyes guards over the last four games compared to what they gave up to the trios they’ve opposed.

Which is more alarming: four opponents combining for 140 points in the paint or four backcourts posting a cumulative .573 field-goal percentage? Your answer says a lot about who you blame for the losing streak.

Even defensively, the fearsome Craft/Scott duo has struggled to make its intended impact. Despite forcing Nebraska’s Terran Petteway into eight turnovers, OSU still couldn’t keep him from getting his buckets. Petteway drained six of his nine shots en route to 18 points.

Lengthy scoring droughts plagued OSU in three of the four games. The Buckeyes scored two points in 8:49 against Michigan State. Separate second-half spans of one point in 4:50 and three points in 4:42 sealed their fate against Minnesota. Finally, three points in 4:06 doomed OSU down the stretch at Nebraska.

By now, we know what Craft and Scott areand more importantly, aren’toffensively. Neither is a reliable shooter from distance, but both can be menaces if they choose to attack the rim. Smith has shown signs that he can create mid-range and pull-up opportunities for himself, and he’s a good foul shooter. However, he negates those strengths by taking the majority of his shots from outside the arc.

Even more disturbing is that Craft and Scott are struggling with what should be their strengthsball-handling and defense. The two have combined for 32 fouls and 31 turnovers during the streak. The latter figure is odd, considering that none of the Buckeyes’ four conquerors rank in Ken Pomeroy’s top 100 in defensive turnover percentage (subscription required).

Now for the good news: OSU is the only Big Ten school in the top 100 of that particular category. So, the potential exists for the Buckeyes to turn results around if they can get to the bottom of the issues currently plaguing their ball-handlers.

 

Speaking of Turnarounds…

Last season, Ohio State hit a rough patch in February, dropping three of four games, including a 22-point stomping by Wisconsin. It rebounded with an 11-game winning streak that only ended when it ran into a pumped-up Wichita State club in the Elite Eight.

As has been frequently discussed, however, last season’s club had a dominant go-to scorer in forward Deshaun Thomas. This season’s biggest gun, forward LaQuinton Ross, has struggled with his consistency and hasn’t seen a lot of support from his guards.

It sounds ludicrous to mention the possibility of a national title for a team on a four-game losing streak, but consider where we were just one year ago this week.

Louisville was skidding from 4-0 in Big East play to 4-3, a string of defeats that had writers like Yahoo!’s Jeff Eisenberg wondering if it was time to start drafting the eulogies. Eisenberg detailed all the ways that offense was the problem during that streak:

“They shot 40.9 percent from the floor against Syracuse and got nobody in double figures besides (Russ) Smith. They shot 39.7 percent against Villanova, dragged down by Smith’s anemic 2 of 13 shooting. And they saved their worst for last against Georgetown, sinking just 34.8 percent of their shots.”

Sound familiar? Ohio State has only shot 39 percent during its losing streak.

What about where Connecticut stood in March of 2011? Stumbling into the Big East tournament at 9-9 in the league, seeded ninth and forced to play five games in five days if it wanted to secure any kind of decent NCAA tournament seed. The Huskies came, saw and conquered 11 straight times en route to a national title on the back of now-iconic guard Kemba Walker.

Of course, these are extreme examples. There is no Russ Smith or Kemba Walker on this roster that we know of. But is this backcourt at all championship caliber?

Here’s a brief comparison of the Buckeyes’ trio with the top three guards on each of the last eight national champions:

(For an explanation of Win Shares, click here.)

Effective field-goal percentage tells us how efficient each team’s backcourt was with its collective shot selection. Win Shares per 40 minutes take into account a player’s effectiveness on both ends of the court.

Guard play is considered a vital facet of winning in the NCAA tournament, and most of these groups do nothing to refute that. Kentucky’s and Florida’s guards contributed less than most, but they were also balanced with multiple NBA lottery picks in their frontcourts. UConn, of course, had Kemba. There’s no Joakim Noah or Anthony Davis in Columbus right now.

For the entire season so far, the Craft-Scott-Smith triumvirate is actually more or as effective as any of the last four championship guard trios. The problem is that OSU‘s not likely to play a North Florida or Louisiana-Monroe in the NCAA tournament.

Whatever’s going on, even the Buckeyes’ veterans admit that it’s getting in their heads. Craft said as much to the Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s Ari Wasserman:

“I think we’re not playing with very much confidence right now. That shows when we get into games and we miss a shot or two and then you don’t want to shoot the next one or you look at one guy and say, ‘alright, he’s going to shoot the next (one).’ That’s definitely not when we’re at our best.” 

That’s an ominous pronouncement coming from the rosy-cheeked face of the program. With a deeply flawed backcourt and a group of forwards who may project as NBA second-round picks, this looked like a solid team, but not top-five good.

If Craft, Scott and Smith can’t channel their collective 11 years of college experience and reverse their personal downward spirals, the Buckeyes may only turn out to be NIT good.

 

For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.

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