Depth a Growing Concern for Duke as Blue Devils Survive Scrappy UConn

Nothing came easily for either team on Thursday night in New Jersey as No. 2 Duke escaped with a 66-56 win over a Connecticut team that now has four losses on the season.

At the half, this was anyone’s game. Moreover, several times late in the second half, Connecticut fought back to within six points, but Duke was able to keep the Huskies at arm’s length.

Considering the external factors, though, it’s not much of a surprise that this game was this close.

From December 3-29, this was one of just two games on the Blue Devils’ schedule. As Jay Bilas and Dan Shulman noted on ESPN’s broadcast of the game, several players were going straight from this game to an 11-day holiday break with family. The Blue Devils looked very lethargic until early in the second half, apparently struggling to care about this last hurdle before a vacation.

Per Tom Canavan of The Associated Press, after the game head coach Mike Krzyzewski commented on his team’s lackadaisical effort, “We were out to lunch. I mean, we were in La-La land. I had to take the timeout (early in the second half) to get us back into it.”

Connecticut, on the other hand, desperately needed this win and played as such. Duke was sloppy, but Connecticut was scrappy, forcing 21 Duke turnovers. Had Amida Brimah been able to get any playing time without committing fouls, this likely would have been a different outcome.

But the end result was almost exactly as the odds makers expected. According to OddsShark.com, Duke was favored by 10.5 points.

However, it’s a fair assumption that nobody was expecting Duke’s bench to go scoreless in this one, and that could become a serious issue in due time.

Duke looks like a pretty deep team if you focus solely on the season averages, but a lot of that scoring came in “garbage time” against the likes of Presbyterian, Fairfield and Furman. Take a look at the games Duke has played against quality opponents, though, and it’s a different story.

Against Wisconsin, Jahlil Okafor dealt with foul trouble and Justise Winslow couldn’t get anything going, but fortunately for Duke, Rasheed Sulaimon stepped up to the plate in a big way that night. Even with that game included, though, Duke’s bench is scoring just 14.8 percent of its points in key gamesand that scoring has been contained almost entirely to Sulaimon and Matt Jones (40 of the 44 points).

Duke might have the most talented starting five in the country, but what happens when someone gets into foul trouble—especially if it’s Okafor or Amile Jefferson?

There are quite a few people out there who think that Duke is one of the teams best suited to beat Kentucky this year.

In an exchange between ESPN’s Jay Bilas and Jeff Goodman (Insider subscription required) from a little over a week ago, Goodman said, “I think it’s fairly cleareven though we’re less than a month into the seasonthat Kentucky and Duke are a notch above everyone else. The easy answer to which team can beat Kentucky is obviously Duke, and vice versa.”

Bilas responded, “Duke would give the Wildcats a hard time, because the Blue Devils can shoot it and spread the floor, and they have a very good passing team. Duke is vastly improved on the defensive end, as well.”

But can you even imagine what would happen if one of Duke’s bigs got into foul trouble and Marshall Plumlee had to play 15-20 minutes against Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl-Anthony Towns and Dakari Johnson?

(And that’s foolishly assuming Plumlee could play that many minutes against a quality opponent without fouling himself out.)

It’s either that or go with a four-guard lineup against the biggest, baddest lineup in the country, because the Blue Devils only have those three players on the roster taller than 6’6″ now that they lost Semi Ojeleye to the transfer market.

Heck, forget about Kentucky. How does Duke plan on dealing with Louisville or North Carolina if the referees are quick with the whistles on those nights? Even if Okafor and Jefferson are permitted by the refs to play 35 minutes per game, what could those guys possibly have left in the tank for the NCAA tournament after logging that much playing time against a grueling ACC slate?

Maybe the better question, though, is where in the world is Grayson Allen?

Allen played quite well in the first two games of the season, scoring 27 points in just 21 minutes. But in the four games mentioned above, Allen has played a total of three minutes.

In a week in which Duke already lost Ojeleye because of a lack of playing time, how is Mike Krzyzewski not giving any minutes to the guy who won the McDonald’s All-American slam dunk contest?

Andre Dawkins and Tyler Thornton played a combined 35.0 minutes per game last season alongside Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, but Allen can’t even get on the court on most nights?

Really?

To be fair, Duke has never been one to rely heavily on its bench. For the past several years, Krzyzewski’s formula has more or less been to have four starters who can score, a starting power forward who defends well and grabs rebounds and a change-of-pace sixth man off the benchusually a stretch 4.

Two years ago, five Blue Devils averaged at least 11.6 points per game, but the sixth-best scorer topped out at 4.0. Last year, only seven Duke players averaged better than 9.5 minutes per game, and only five of them were in there to score.

But this yearwith charges being called at an outrageous ratedepth is more crucial than ever. You never know when you’ll need to lean heavily on a bench player because of a few egregious flops.

The thing is, though, Duke should be the primary team relying on its depth. 

We’re talking about a team with nine McDonald’s All-Americansthe most in the country, now that Alex Poythress is out for the year at Kentucky. Guys like Plumlee, Allen and Matt Jones would be playing 34 minutes per night at most schools.

There’s no shortage of talent on the bench. It’s basically a gold mine that isn’t being excavated.

Really, if anyone should be employing the platoon system these days, it’s Duke.

Obviously, Nick Pagliuca would be the weak link in there, but Coach K could cut him out of the mix with a modified platoon approach where he aims to get 30 minutes each for Okafor and Tyus Jones and then 20 minutes for the other seven guys.

It’s an extreme suggestion for sure, but Duke needs to do something to get those bench guys more involved.

And if you’ll recall, Coach K started employing a platoon approach in mid-January last season. After losses to Notre Dame and Clemson in a span of three games, Duke came out against Virginia and was subbing five-for-five early and often. In the following game against NC State, 10 guys played at least 12 minutes.

Plumlee was averaging 4.4 minutes per game through the first 16 games, but his playing time more than doubled to 9.7 MPG over the final 19 gamesand that’s hardly because he was suddenly an unstoppable force.

Mixing things up didn’t do much to help Duke out in the NCAA tournament, but the Blue Devils clearly improved from where they were in the first two months of the season.

It’s hard to argue that the No. 2 team in the country needs to do anything to improve, but a little more point distribution wouldn’t be a bad thing.

 

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.

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Houston Rockets Can Only Survive for so Long Without Dwight Howard

The Houston Rockets have quickly established themselves as one of this young season’s most pleasant surprises, lifting off to a 13-4 record despite injuries to starters Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverley and Terrence Jones.

They’re 4-3 without Howard, who’s missed seven games this season, including the last six in a row on account of a knee injury. Though the team’s overall record hasn’t suffered dramatically as a result just yet, things may well get worse before they get better.

And that’s because we really don’t know when they’ll get better.

“I want to get back out there now if I could, but I don’t think it’s smart, uh for me to try to rush anything,” Howard told reporters on Tuesday. “You know, when I’m 100 percent or when I’m close to it, that’s when I’ll play. I don’t wanna give my teammates or this city nothing but the best, so I’m not gonna go out there until I’m ready to do everything I can do.”

Thus the question marks about said return’s time frame and just how much longer this club can remain afloat in the interim. The good news is that there’s been some progress.

“It’s basically the second day I was able to get out and do some sprints on the floor,” Howard added. “Other than that, it’s just been on the treadmill and doing some court work. So, today was a lot better than the past couple of days.

“A lot of the stuff is going away. We have to keep doing what I’ve been doing. The trainer (Jason Biles) has been doing a great job trying to get rid of the pain that I’m having around my knee, and we’ll go from there.”

The eight-time All-Star center remains doubtful for Wednesday’s meeting with the 15-2 Memphis Grizzlies, a perennial dark-horse contender that currently holds the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. The Grizzlies decimated Houston by a 119-93 margin during their first faceoff this season, and that was with Howard in the lineup.

Without him, the Rockets have dropped games to the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers. One might be able to dismiss the Lakers affair as something of an outlier, but defeats at the hands of the Clippers and Warriors highlight the enduring importance of this team’s 28-year-old big man.

Regardless of what the standings might indicate for the moment, the Rockets aren’t going anywhere without their anchor on the inside.

That’s no slight to star shooting guard James Harden, who’s been nothing short of brilliant amidst the various injuries.

Through 17 appearances, he’s averaging 25.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.7 assists per contest. He’s tallied at least 32 points in three of his past six games (all sans Howard), including a revealing 95-92 victory against the much healthier 13-5 Dallas Mavericks.

But games against teams like Memphis remind us of the painfully obvious. Without an elite presence in the paint, opposing bigs like Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are poised to exploit the most significant of Houston’s admittedly few vulnerabilities. 

Those two combined for just 23 points and made eight of their 21 field-goal attempts when Memphis blew out Howard and Co. in November. Without Howard around on Wednesday, they’re likely to do a bit more damage.

Thrice named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, Howard can make a pivotal impact even without scoring at a particularly high rate. The 18.8 points he’s averaged through 10 contests has certainly helped Houston’s cause, but it’s his 2.3 blocks per game that may be even more critical at a time like this.

Per NBA.com, Houston’s opponents have only scored 90 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor.

He’s simultaneously responsible for containing the Gasol and Randolphs of the world while also serving as the last line of defense against slashers and cutters. Even when he doesn’t officially record a block, his above-the-rim activity and 265-pound frame are credible deterrents against would-be scorers.

The Rockets’ defensive pedigree certainly benefited from the addition of swingman Trevor Ariza via free agency this summer, but there’s no substitute for imposing rim protection.

Houston’s success may seem to suggest otherwise, but it’s a small sample size and hardly indicative of the challenges that await. The West is absolutely stacked with title hopefuls and otherwise formidable foes. At the moment, seven teams have no more than five losses. 

Good as the Rockets have had it so far, they certainly haven’t been the only ones.

Setting themselves apart from the rest of a very deep pack will require a healthy Howard. Last week’s 102-85 loss to the Clippers was Exhibit A. Blake Griffin went to work against Houston’s porous interior, tallying 30 points and 10 rebounds in just 31 minutes of action. With talented bigs like LaMarcus Aldridge, Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins lurking out West, Houston can ill afford to rely on guys like Tarik Black to man the middle for much longer.

The 23-year-old Kansas product has surpassed expectations, but he’s no rim protector.

And while it’s become fashionable to bemoan Howard’s relatively one-dimensional scoring ability, he still gets the job done well enough to serve as Houston’s second option on the offensive end. His post game may leave something to be desired aesthetically, but a 57.5 percent success rate from the field doesn’t lie.

So there’s at least some urgency to his recovery. No, the Rockets haven’t imploded, and they probably won’t anytime soon. But the race for seeding will be as competitive as ever, and the importance of each win and loss is magnified accordingly.

“I’m trying to get my leg right,” Howard told the Root Sports television broadcast on Saturday, via The Houston Chronicle‘s Jonathan Feigen. “It’s fine when I jump off or do anything with two feet, but once I try off the one foot, there’s still a lot of pain. I’m trying to make sure I can play where I won’t have that much pain.”

Unfortunately, pain isn’t bound by a particular timetable in this case.

According to Feigen, Howard, ”underwent platelet-rich plasma therapy, an increasingly common procedure, to help relieve the pain and inflammation in his knee” a day after missing the Nov. 19 contest against the Lakers.

“It’s basically a blood draw from yourself that you would take just like you were taking blood to send to a lab, but instead of sending it off, you basically centrifuge it in a spinning machine to separate red blood cells, white blood cells and the plasma layer,” team physician Dr. Steven Flores told Feigen. 

Flores explained that while the procedure won’t regrow cartilage, it should help address pain and inflammation.

Even if Howard’s pain recedes, however, there’s still some concern his knee troubles will reappear. They’ve become something of a nuisance since training camp, which may explain in part why the organization appears to be taking his return to the floor so cautiously.

Indeed, patience may pay off in the long term. Much as the Rockets miss Howard now, they would miss him far more come April or May. 

 

Around the Association

Mavs Use Double OT To Win Fourth Straight

Monta Ellis’ 38 points led the Dallas Mavericks to a 132-129 win against the Chicago Bulls, but it took two overtimes to get there. Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons and Devin Harris all scored at least 20 points, reminding us why the Mavs led the league in offensive efficiency with 115.8 points per 100 possessions through their first 18 games, per Basketball-Reference.com.

But Ellis’ heroics were the story this time. He hit a go-ahead trey in double OT to finally end the game, and he hit three free throws to tie it with 1.2 seconds remaining in regulation. Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich inexplicably fouled him several feet beyond the three-point arc, and Ellis got enough of a shot up to earn all three attempts at the line.

And one of the more costly fouls, as well.

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As Injuries Steal Thunder’s Heart, OKC Looking for Ways to Survive Season Ahead

It’s hard to see hope through the thicket of walking boots, casts, Ace bandages and gauze littering the Oklahoma City Thunder locker room. Kevin Durant (broken foot) can’t walk. Russell Westbrook (broken hand) can’t catch. An injury plague of biblical proportions has left the Thunder depleted, dumbfounded.

But Nick Collison is an optimistic sort, and he is insists the silver lining is there, if you squint hard enough.

“We still got five good defenders out there,” the 11-year veteran assures a reporter. “We got all our bigs. Andre’s probably one of our best perimeter defenders. Perry’s one of our best defenders.”

This was Monday morning, and Collison was bravely charting the ways in which the Thunder would remain competitive without Durant and Westbrook, their two electrifying stars.

That night, Andre Roberson sprained his left foot in Brooklyn and left the game.

The next night, Perry Jones bruised his right knee in Toronto and left the game.   

The Thunder lost both games, leaving them with a 1-4 record and two fewer reasons to be optimistic.

In this cruel November, even the Thunder’s silver linings are fractured.

“I don’t really know what to say, other than it’s unfortunate we had another injury,” coach Scott Brooks said late Monday. “That’s just how things are going right now. But we’re not throwing the white flag. We’re going to keep battling.”

It’s hard to overstate just how dire the situation in Oklahoma has become, with Durant and Westbrook out for the foreseeable future and the roster gutted by a dizzying array of fractures, strains and sprains.

Jeremy Lamb is out with a sprained back. Mitch McGary is out with a broken foot. Anthony Morrow is out with a sprained knee. Grant Jerrett is recovering from ankle surgery.

Jones, however, who suffered what the team called a knee contusion and hasn’t practiced, could return as early as Friday night against Memphis, the Thunder believe. 

Circumstances have dictated a complete overhaul of the Thunder’s agenda: from title contention to mere survival. Even a postseason berth is not assured.

It could take 50 wins to make the Western Conference playoffs. Westbrook is out for at least four weeks. Durant could miss 25 games or more. The Thunder’s entire season now boils down to simple math, and two figures in particular: How far out of eighth place will they be when Durant and Westbrook return? And can they win at a high enough rate to make up the distance?

The answer to those questions may be linked to one more: How good is Perry Jones?

Of the remaining Thunder players, Serge Ibaka is the most accomplished and Jackson, the young point guard, is the most offensively skilled. But the 23-year-old Jones is easily the most intriguing, and perhaps the key to the team’s survival.

On the night Westbrook broke his hand, Jones scored 32 points in a narrow loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. Two nights later, he scored 23 points in a victory over the Denver Nuggets. On Monday, Jones scored a relatively quiet 16 points against Brooklyn.

Still, that was three straight games of beating his previous career high (14 points), all while displaying the rare combination of size, skill and athleticism that made Jones such a tantalizing prospect in college.

At 6’11″, with a 7’2″ wingspan, Jones has the size to play in the paint, the speed to play on the perimeter, with ball-handling skills and shooting range.

“At certain moments, he looks like a young Magic Johnson, only a little bigger and a lot faster,” a New York Times Magazine story raved in 2011, during Jones’ freshman season at Baylor.

At the time, Jones was pegged as a top-five draft pick. But he chose to return to Baylor for his sophomore season, to continue growing and maturing. He was still viewed as a high lottery pick in 2012, until concerns about his knees and his motor caused him to freefall on draft night.

The Thunder snatched Jones with the 28th pick.

Some teams were scared off by whispers of a degenerative knee condition. Some viewed his laid-back demeanor with suspicion – an indication that, despite his admirable skill set, Jones would never become a star.

But the star-studded Thunder didn’t need another alpha male. In Jones, they saw an ideal complement to Durant and Westbrook: a player who could do it all, but didn’t need to. An elite talent, without the ego.

“He fit the profile of the types of players that we’re generally attracted to,” general manager Sam Presti said, listing Jones’ size, length, quickness and positional versatility.

“And he’s also a guy that is a tremendously diligent worker and he wants to fit in and find ways to blend with the players that are generally carrying the bulk of the weight,” Presti said. “I think that’s a tremendous quality for someone as talented as him.”

The Thunder also had the luxury of letting Jones develop. He spent his rookie season shuttling frequently between the Thunder and their D-League affiliate in Tulsa. He played in just 38 NBA games, averaging 7.4 minutes.

“I think it’d be frustrating for any player,” Jones said. “But also it was a learning experience for me. The last two years have been nothing but learning experiences. What these guys do every day, following in their footsteps, working hard every day….Patience is the key.”

Last season, Jones became more of a fixture, appearing in 62 games for the Thunder but averaging just 12.3 minutes. Along the way, he has polished his three-point stroke and his ball-handling skills.

Jones shot 36 percent on three-pointers last season, on 61 attempts, after taking just two shots from behind the arc as a rookie. Through four games this season, he was shooting 38 percent (8 for 21). He’s also improved his post game.

In athletic testing, Jones outscores the entire Thunder roster, Westbrook and Durant included. He has proven most valuable as the stretch-four in a small-ball lineup, according to the team’s internal analytics.

“We knew he obviously has the talent,” Brooks said of Jones. “It’s hard to get minutes when you’re behind KD. But he’s always been a worker….I’m not going to sit here and say we knew that he was going to score 23 and 32 in two games. But I knew he had the ability to score.”

Although Jones is not a lockdown defender, his versatility is an asset, especially against the pick and roll, allowing him to switch at will. Over the course of Monday’s game, Jones guarded Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Alan Anderson and Bojan Bogdanovic.

But it’s Jones’ offensive potential that matters most right now, with the Thunder missing about 54 points a game between Durant and Westbrook. Ibaka has improved as a scorer, and Jackson showed some flashes last season. Yet in lieu of a single, dominant scoring threat, the Thunder will need multiple options to stay afloat in the coming weeks.

After two years of playing behind Durant, and battling him daily in practice, Jones may need to emulate him.

“I think his assertiveness is maybe that light bulb that’s gone off,” Collison said. “He’s had the ability. If you watch him in a workout, he’s capable of doing anything on the court. He’s as talented as anybody in the league. It’s just that comfort level and always just being assertive out there, not questioning, not second-guessing, and it’s great to see. Hopefully, he can keep going.”

The coming weeks will be a test, not only of Jones, but of the Thunder’s entire roster-building strategy during the Durant-Westbrook era. Their fate rests for now on lower first-round picks like Jones, Jackson (24th in 2013) and Roberson (26th in 2013, by Minnesota). It rests, as well, on the players and picks acquired in the James Harden trade: Steven Adams, Lamb and McGary (once healthy).

Thunder officials believe they have assembled a sturdy, versatile and talented second group behind their stars, despite the low picks and salary-cap constraints. That faith, too, will be tested in the weeks ahead.

Westbrook and Durant could lead the Thunder to the championship next June. But that can’t happen unless Jones, Jackson and Adams can get them through December.

 

 Howard Beck is a senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

 

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Roy Hibbert Must Silence Critics for Indiana Pacers to Survive Paul George Loss

The Indiana Pacers and their fans had a nightmare offseason.

They saw young burgeoning star, Lance Stephenson, leave for the Charlotte Hornets, bona fide star Paul George horrifically break his leg during the FIBA World Championships and watched as division rivals Cleveland added the planet’s best all-around player in LeBron James. And all of that was after watching a historically bad collapse by their team following the All-Star break. This collapse corresponded with the surprisingly bad play of All-Star center Roy Hibbert, who will be called upon to return to form if the Pacers want a return trip to the postseason.

Roy Hibbert’s struggles following the All-Star break were well-chronicled, with some even calling for his benching. Hibbert, who averaged three points less, three rebounds less and .75 blocks less following the break, was lost on offense and abused on defense. This obviously corresponded with the success of his team as his pre-All-Star-break +/- was +12.7 whereas his post-break +/- was -3.1.

Hibbert was bad, we get it, but what does that mean for the future?

The Pacers lost 36 percent of their scoring from last season (George and Stephenson), as well as 49 percent of their three-pointers. This is a devastating amount of offensive production to lose, but the real loss may be on the defensive end.

In George, Stephenson, forward David West and Hibbert, the Pacers sported four players in the top six as far as defensive win shares contributed are concerned. Not to say that Hibbert is offensively incompetent, but this is the area he can most help the Pacers succeed. They are a team that prides itself on defense. This is a team that won 56 games last season despite being the sixth-lowest scoring team in the league.

The Pacers know how to win without offense, so it will fall upon Hibbert to help them succeed through their defense. He will make players like West and Luis Scola better on the defensive and offensive ends if he can return to his All-Star form. A return would require him to hide defensive incompetency and draw the occasional double-team on offense.

The Pacers will have less talent than last season and, as a result, will need to be a better TEAM. This begins with good defense, but will also require smart offensive play.  According to Candice Buckner of the Indianapolis Star, Hibbert texted his long-time friend Tim Duncan for advice on ball movement:

 

This is the exact type of play that will make the Pacers a better team despite their obvious losses.

The Pacers will likely live and die by the play of their frontcourt, but specifically Roy Hibbert, who will have to lead them defensively in order to make the playoffs. Hibbert may have regressed some last season, but can prove his skeptics wrong with strong leadership and a higher level of play. Pacers’ fans certainly hope this is the case, as it is likely the only way they can return to the postseason.

 


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Can Cleveland Cavaliers Survive with Smoke and Mirrors at Center?

Size and shooting are two things every basketball team can’t get enough of.

While the Cleveland Cavaliers helped shore up their outside marksmanship this offseason, another big man (or two) would be a welcome addition.

While power forward is locked down with Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and Shawn Marion (at times), center remains a glaring weakness on the roster.

With so much talent stacked at other positions, can the Cavs really begin the season with their center situation as is, or is adding another player necessary for Cleveland to be a legitimate title contender?

 

What the Cavaliers Have

Anderson Varejao headlines an underwhelming group at the 5 spot.

Varejao is a very capable starter—when healthy, that is. Even without his injury concerns, depth would be an issue.

Brendan Haywood and Alex Kirk are the only other centers on the Cavaliers roster. Haywood missed all of last season with a fractured foot and isn’t expected to be ready for the start of training camp says Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal. Kirk went undrafted this summer before joining the Cavs‘ summer league team.

Starting with the positive, Varejao is an excellent fit next to ball-dominant players like LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Dion Waiters. Varejao‘s strengths have always been rebounding the ball, doing the dirty work and playing defense. After sticking with the Cavaliers the past four years, he should be just fine with whatever role Cleveland chooses, so long as the team ends their recent losing ways.

While he’s been great on the floor, Varejao has spent even more time on the trainer’s table the last four seasons. He’s missed a total of 166 games with various injuries while playing in just 146. With no strong backup behind him, Varejao would be forced into heavy minutes yet again. Cleveland needs to preserve the soon-to-be 32 year old as much as possible.

Haywood was brought on board because of his $10 million non-guaranteed contract for next season. Anything he gives them on the court is strictly a bonus.

Now 34 and coming off a missed season, what can Haywood realistically contribute? The last time he played consistently in 2012-13 with the Charlotte Bobcats, Haywood averaged just 3.5 points and 4.8 rebounds in 19 minutes of play. If there’s one bright spot, it’s that Haywood has been a strong rim protector when healthy. He owns a lifetime average of 1.4 blocks per game.

Kirk is a big unknown.

An undrafted rookie from New Mexico, Kirk averaged 10.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in three years with the Lobos. Cleveland liked his size and defensive ability enough to invite Kirk to the summer league. Through inconsistent playing time and with just one start, Kirk put up 5.2 points, 3.4 rebounds and 0.4 blocks per 15.4 minutes in his five games.

At 7’0″ and nearly 250 pounds, Kirk does give the Cavs some much-needed size inside. He was a shot-blocking extraordinaire while in college, collecting 2.7 rejections a game this past season.

Kirk is a fine young player and all, but the thought of him as the primary backup to Varejao should Haywood miss time is a bit terrifying. While he would have fit in perfectly the last four years with a rebuilding squad, this is a team with serious championship aspirations.

Heaven forbid should something happen to Varejao, could Cleveland still claim a title giving big minutes to an undrafted rookie? Love and Thompson could fill in for stretches, but they should primarily be entrenched at their natural position of power forward.

The Cavaliers need some better insurance behind Varejao, bad.

 

Available Help

Cleveland can either look to the free-agent pool or trade block to acquire some additional help.

One early rumor from ESPN’s Brian Windhorst states that the Cavs have been pursuing Denver Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov.

The move makes a lot of sense, as Mozgov already knows coach David Blatt from Blatt‘s time coaching the Russian national team.

He has excellent size at 7’1″ and is coming off a career year for the Nuggets. Per 36 minutes of play, Mozgov put up 15.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. Denver has some depth in the frontcourt with Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee, J.J. Hickson and 2014 first-round pick Jusuf Nurkic.

Cleveland could certainly offer some of their non-guaranteed contracts (John Lucas III, Erik Murphy) and a draft pick to entice Denver into making a deal.

When looking at the list of free agents, some veteran names are available.

The best big is probably Emeka Okafor, although he’s still recovering from a herniated disk that caused him to miss the 2013-14 season.

Marc Stein of ESPN had this to say about the nine-year vet:

Roughly half of the league, I’m told, has registered interest this summer in Okafor, despite the fact that the 31-year-old free agent missed all of the 2013-14 season while recovering from a serious neck ailment.

The list of pursuers for the defensive-minded center, according to NBA front office sources, includes LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers as well as LeBron’s old friends in Miami.

But I’m likewise told that Okafor is unlikely to sign anywhere until midseason as he continues to recover from his herniated disk.

Okafor would be a great signing, but he brings a variety of risks.

What kind of player will he be coming off so much missed time? Can Cleveland afford to wait months into the season without a reliable backup to Varejao?

Some lower-risk yet lower-reward players include Kenyon Martin, Elton Brand and Andray Blatche. Andrew Bynum is also a free age…wait, what? That didn’t go so well last time? Never mind then.

Whatever route they choose to go, GM David Griffin needs to acquire another big through whatever means necessary.

 

Importance of the Center Position

The Cavs have James, Love and Irving. They could bring Brad Daugherty out of retirement and still be OK, right?

Despite all of their star power, Cleveland shouldn’t overlook what’s a crucial position in the NBA.

Teams need to be able to control the paint, whether it be rebounding, scoring high-percentage baskets or protecting the rim.

Defense is especially important.

Consider this: 11 of the top 12 defensive frontcourts last season came from teams that made the playoffs, via Hoopstats.com. Of the bottom seven teams, only one (the Los Angles Clippers) reached the postseason.

The same trend holds true for defensive rebounding. Those who kept their opponents off the glass were typically the most successful, with six of the top seven squads reaching the playoffs. The three teams at the bottom of the list (Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks) were a combined 61-185 in 2013-14.

There’s something to be said for having big men that can do some scoring as well.

The two Finals teams last season, the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat, both ranked in the top five of frontcourt field-goal percentage. All of the top eight teams in this category advanced to the postseason. Eight of the bottom 10 did not.

Even with their dominance of the Eastern Conference the past four years, the Miami Heat had a major weakness at center. They struggled in the playoffs when facing teams with strong, talented frontcourts.

The Dallas Mavericks beat up on the Heat and claimed the 2011 title by using Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler. Roy Hibbert and David West forced Miami to seven games in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw bullied the Heat’s bigs to win this year’s Finals in just five games.

Miami was so desperate for help inside that they experimented with a revolving door of players like Joel Anthony, Juwan Howard, Erick Dampier, Jamaal Magloire, Dexter Pittman, Ronny Turiaf, Eddy Curry and Greg Oden. Finally, the Heat had to raise the white flag and move Chris Bosh to center instead.

For all of Miami’s star power, they failed to balance their roster and were stuck with an Achilles’ heel at center.

The Cavaliers should learn from this mistake.

Varejao is great. His backups, not so much.

Cleveland doesn’t necessarily need another star player at center, but they definitely can’t stand pat with the roster as is.

The Cavs are in for a special year. They shouldn’t let one position drag them down.

 

Greg Swartz has covered the Cleveland Cavaliers for Bleacher Report since 2010. Connect with him on Twitter for more basketball news and conversation.

All stats provided by Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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Can Dallas Mavericks Survive with Aging Point Guard Platoon?

The Dallas Mavericks may lack star power at point guard, but they make up for it with depth.

After trading away one of the more reliable game-managers and shooters in the game in Jose Calderon in order to acquire Tyson Chandler from the New York Knicks, the Mavericks are betting that a veteran platoon of guards will be able to share the load and keep one of the league’s very best offenses chugging along.

Who will be the man primarily tasked with that job? It certainly isn‘t easy to handicap.

Raymond Felton, who was acquired alongside Chandler in the trade, is coming off the worst season of his 9-year career, where he averaged just 9.7 points a game and shot 39.5 percent from the field. Felton appeared to lose a step offensively, as he could no longer reliably get in the paint or threaten opponents with his three-point jumper (31.8 percent last year). 

There is hope that Felton will return to the mean this season for the Mavericks, however, as the 2012-13 season was one of his very best. Felton proved to be a capable distributor out of the pick-and-roll with Chandler during that season, and he was part of a team that shot a ton of threes, which is something Dallas should do this season.

Felton will be suspended the first four games of the season, but he’ll get his chance to prove he’s worthy of holding down the starting job.

Counting on Felton to be in shape and return to form is always a dicey proposition, and so it makes sense that the Mavericks addressed their point guard situation with other signings this offseason as well.

Former Orland Magic point guard Jameer Nelson was a late offseason addition, but his shooting and distributing ability should help alleviate some of the sting from losing Calderon.

Here’s what Nelson told Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel about joining the Mavs:

I just think with the makeup of the team and the organization it’s similar to what we had in Orlando when we were winning. And I wanted to get back to that. I’ve dealt with the process of rebuilding, and it’s tough. I want to win. I don’t want to sit back and develop anymore.

Nelson may be on his last legs at 32 years old, but he did average 7 assists a game last year with minimal talent around him. Now with guys like Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons and Monta Ellis next to him, Nelson could have a bit of a revival.

It’s important to note that Nelson only played around 29 minutes a night even in his prime, so sharing the load with the other point guards shouldn’t be much of an issue. He’s used to playing in shorter stints.

In addition to Felton and Nelson, the Mavs also re-signed Devin Harris, who brings a change of pace and a little more size off the bench. Harris should spend a good deal of his time backing up Ellis at shooting guard, but he’s easily capable of getting substantial minutes at point as well.

Here’s Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News with his take on the Harris signing:

Devin Harris got a good deal.

And by the way, so did the Mavericks.

Harris showed in the second half of last season that he is still a very solid option at point guard and at shooting guard in smaller lineups. He also re-proved that during the playoff series against San Antonio, when he was still a pest to Tony Parker.

Harris is the best defensive option of the bunch, which could mean he’ll see an uptick in minutes when the matchups call for that. Harris can also help the Mavericks play a little faster when he’s at the point.

Here’s what Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle told Tim MacMahon of ESPN Dallas:

The Mavs ranked in the middle of the pack in pace last season, averaging 95.7 possessions per game, almost six fewer than the team that played at the fastest tempo. Carlisle hopes the remodeled Mavs, a team he believes is built to run, will be among the leaders next season.

“We want to play faster,” Carlisle said. “We’re going to have to do it by playing with our depth and playing with intelligence. We should be able to do that because we’ve got a lot of high-IQ players.” 

That includes three point guards with significant starting experience in Jameer NelsonRaymond Felton and Devin Harris. Of that trio, only Harris could be considered fast by NBA point guard standards. However, the Mavs’ hope is that their three-man rotation at the position gives their point guards the luxury of playing at maximum speed without concern for conserving energy. 

The idea isn’t necessarily for the point guards to run the transition offense on a regular basis anyway. The best way for them to push the pace is often via the pass, something Jason Kidd was a master of as an old man during his second tenure in Dallas. 

The reference to Jason Kidd and that 2011 title team is important. The Mavericks have shown before that they can get by with creative defensive schemes to make up for a lack of foot speed and athleticism, which Kidd was short on at that point.

With Felton, Nelson, Harris and maybe even a little bit of Gal Mekel, the Mavs will largely need to get by with intelligence instead of athleticism at the point this season. Egos will need to be cast aside, as playing time should be based on matchups and who has the hot hand. 

That could cause some serious issues, but the presence of a leader and teammate like Nowitzki and an excellent coach in Carlisle provides a pretty strong foundation for this point guard experiment to flourish. 

That being said, there’s no mistaking that point guard is the one weak link for the Mavericks right now. Monta Ellis had some great moments at the 2 last year, Chandler Parsons should be a huge offensive upgrade at the 3, and Nowitzki and Chandler have proven in the past that they are a perfect fit for one another. There’s just one hole in this starting lineup.

Relying on this veteran group beyond this season probably isn‘t ideal. The Mavericks could potentially get involved in a big way in free agency next year, particularly if Chandler re-signed on a friendly deal similar to Nowtizki’s. Thanks to the contract that will pay Nowitzki $8.3 million next season, the Mavs can address their long-term point guard situation sooner rather than later.

The free agent market for point guards in 2015 should be a strong one. Eric Bledsoe could very well be an unrestricted free agent, should he take the qualifying offer for this year. Rajon Rondo is set to hit free agency. Goran Dragic will likely decline his player option and become a free agent. Ricky Rubio could be a restricted free agent.

A lot can change between now and then, but Dallas is in a good spot having point guard as the only real position of need. That’s the deepest positional talent pool the league has to offer.

While it’s possible the Mavericks get involved in trade talks if the veteran platoon doesn’t work out, building chemistry and letting this roster jell is probably the preferred way to go.

There are a lot of new pieces and old faces in Dallas this season, but having multiple experienced players at the point should go a long way for a team that once again has legitimate title aspirations. 

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Can Portland Trail Blazers Survive LaMarcus Aldridge Injury and Team-Wide Slide?

Months after charming the NBA with their bewitching offense and volume winning, the Portland Trail Blazers‘ star is fading, reducing itself to a flickering twinkle.

Portland is still a darling no doubt, treading water in a hyper-competitive Western Conference awash with powerhouses, exceeding even the most ideal expectations. But the surprising flair and genius are gone, replaced instead with crashing waves of reality the Blazers cannot surf and could now be forced to traverse without LaMarcus Aldridge.

Early in the third quarter of Wednesday’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Aldridge put in a shot over Tim Duncan, colliding with Aron Baynes in the process. He hit the floor back first—hard—and had to be escorted off the court. He would not return.

Initial X-rays didn’t reveal any extensive damage, according to Blazers.com’s Casey Holdahl, but, per CSNNW, Aldridge didn’t look good after the game:

No timetable has been set for Aldridge’s return, nor is it known if he will miss any time at all. Yet as he was being ushered off the court, tacit thinking rang true. 

Not him. Not now.

With only 17 games left to play, the Blazers cannot afford to lose Aldridge. They can barely withstand their most recent fall from grace.

The team’s demise, it’s most recent slide, has been a steady one, gradually amounting to what it is now. The Blazers are no longer contending for a top-two spot in the Western Conference or the NBA’s best record—they’re struggling to survive, a task that’s becoming harder to complete with each passing foible.

 

Demise in the Making

There is no confidence to be found in Portland’s recent performance. The last six games have been mostly disastrous. 

Currently navigating a four-game losing streak, the Blazers have dropped five of six and are just 2-5 overall in the month of March. Their jaunt into oblivion has left them clinging to fifth place in the Western Conference, merely 1.5 games ahead of the surging Golden State Warriors.

This isn’t the same team that began 2013-14 an unbelievable 31-9. The defense remains iffy, prone to permeable sets, but the offense, of late, is broken beyond recognition.

Where the Blazers were once able to overpower their opponents with calculated efficiency, they are now jagged and incidental, having failed to eclipse 100 points in three of their last four games—all losses. And with the defense still mediocre at best, the Blazers cannot fail to break 100.

In games they fail to hit 100 points, the Blazers are 6-10 and winless in their last four tries. Their defense, however much improved, isn’t going to win them basketball games.

Being forced to play without Aldridge isn’t going to win them basketball games.

Alridge has missed only five games this season. During that time, the Blazers are a convincing 4-1. But that’s a small sample size and potential anomaly. Ask them to play five, 10 or 15 games without their leading scorer and rebounder, and they won’t come out the other side winning 80 percent of the time. 

Just look at the team splits. They tell you everything:

Maybe the Blazers steal a game here or there without Aldridge. Maybe they nab upcoming games against the New Orleans Pelicans and Milwaukee Bucks, but what about playoff teams? What about the Warriors? And Miami Heat? And—can’t believe I’m writing this—Charlotte Bobcats?

If there was ever a time for Aldridge to be absent again, it’s now, as Portland prepares to play seven of the next nine against Eastern Conference teams. Back issues are fickle, though, especially with regard to big men. If Aldridge is out, he could be out for a while.

And if he’s not, the Blazers can only hope he has a speedy recovery or isn’t forced to play in a diminished capacity at all. Even a limited Aldridge is crippling for this team.

When he scores 22 or fewer points—below his season average—the Blazers are 16-11. Know where winning 59.3 percent of games gets you in the Western Conference? Seventh place.

When he brings down 10 or fewer rebounds, the Blazers are 16-12. Know where winning 57.1 percent of games gets you in the West? Outside the playoff picture.

Aldridge is Portland’s ultimate bellwether. Without him, the team doesn’t stand a chance of securing a top-five playoff spot.

The Blazers barely have a chance with him the way they’re playing. 

 

Position Is Everything; Momentum Is More

Easy matchups don’t exist in the Western Conference.

It won’t matter what team the Blazers face in the playoffs. Their opponent will be a tough out no matter what.

But the more they slide, the more they dip in the standings, the more difficult their already shaky playoff endeavor becomes.

Right now, the Blazers are tracking toward a first-round matchup with the Houston Rockets, whom they are 1-3 against this season. Houston could easily become the Los Angeles Clippers, a team the Blazers are 1-1 against. Barring a complete meltdown through these final 17 games, Portland should be able to avoid both the Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, each of whom it’s 2-2 against this season.

Here’s the thing: It, again, doesn’t matter.

Portland has put itself in a near unmanageable scenario.

More likely than not, it’s going to face one of the West’s top four teams, which is problematic given they’re a combined 6-8 against the Clippers, Spurs, Thunder and Rockets this season. But it’s even more of an issue now.

The Blazers haven’t defeated any of those four teams since Jan. 17. They’re a combined 0-7 against those four squads since then.

Worse still, the Blazers haven’t taken down one of the other current postseason contingents since Jan. 18, when they beat the Dallas Mavericks. Since then, they’re a combined 0-11 when facing Western Conference playoff teams.

In their current state, Aldridge or no Aldridge, there’s not a single playoff matchup that favors them. And urgency is at an all-time high. 

According to CSNNW’s Chris Haynes, the team held a players-only meeting following its loss to San Antonio.

“I just felt like it was something that needed to be said,” Damian Lillard explained when asked why he initiated the powwow, via Haynes. “At some point, it’s up to the players.”

Lots of things needed to be said. Questions needed to be asked.

Urgency needed to set in.

The Blazers are playing that bad. Their offense is that disjointed, their postseason ambitions that infirm.

Their once shimmering star is fading, dying.

 

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.


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UCLA Basketball: Why Bruins’ Defense Must Slow Opponents’ Shooting to Survive

On a lot of nights this season the shots have splashed softly through the nylon for UCLA like sweet summer rain into a warm pool of points.

But when the shooting goes arid and the fair weather drifts over to the opponents, the Bruins are as vulnerable to death as a turtle tipped onto its shell under a hot sun.

The loss against the Cardinal in Palo Alto—an 83-74 scorching—was the shooting cyclops coming to life and devouring the crew.

“Our lack of a defensive presence and/or combined with Stanford’s shooting game—it was one of those games they shot the ball extremely well—I think it was their best shooting game of the year,” said Coach Steve Alford Tuesday on the Pac-12 conference call.

“So playing on the road and and overall when a team’s shooting extremely well and we had a few more breakdowns than we had in the previous games, it probably adds up to the kind of offense they showed.”

It was not just Stanford’s best shooting game this season, it was the Cardinal’s best Pac-12 shooting effort in 11 seasons, going back to another game against UCLA in 2003. Last week, the Cardinal shot 62 percent on the game and 74 percent in the second half. It was a 74 percent effective field goal percentage for the game.

That is an almost impossible percentage to overcome, no matter how well you shoot it yourself, and UCLA does shoot it well. The Bruins’ 55 percent effective field goal percentage is 11th best, and their 40.5 percent from beyond the arc is fifth.

The dead-eye gunning gets them 83 points per game on average (seventh), with a scoring margin of plus-12.4, which is eighth-best. When those averages hold true UCLA almost never loses, but the faultless through line in each of their six losses is misfiring on offense and allowing the opponent to incinerate the nets on defense.

In road and neutral-site losses to Mizzou, Duke, Arizona, Utah, Oregon State and Stanford, the Bruins shot a combined 40.6 percent from the floor and 32.5 percent from the three-point line. They scored, on average, 69.8 points. 

That is fully 9 percent under the team’s season average percentage from the floor and 8 percent under the average from three-point range. It is 14 points less than its average scoring output.

On the other side, rather than stifling opponents with angry, aggressive defense that generally shows the rough-neck grit of a championship team, the Bruins have watched opponents pour in points. 

The six teams to set-down the Bruins shot a combined 50.2 percent from the floor and 41 percent from deep. They averaged 78 points per game. On the season UCLA holds opponents to 42.7 percent from the floor, 34 percent from three and surrenders 70 points per game.

An unusual, uneasy trend from the three-point line has emerged not only from the losses, but on the season, generally. The Bruins allow 8.1 three-point buckets per game, which ranks them 341st of 351 Division I basketball teams. 

In the six losses, three teams—Mizzou, Duke and Stanford—made more than 10 three-pointers on the game. In two other losses, Utah made nine and Oregon State made eight. Arizona made the fewest, at six on 13 attempts.

A reporter asked coach Alford about the strange three-point vulnerability before Tuesday’s practice.

“I’ve hammered at our defense a lot, but I think four of our last five games—we weren’t very good at Stanford, but they made a lot of shots,” said the coach.

“I like our position regardless of what percentage we’re giving up of three-point shots—I like overall defensively that we’ve shown a lot of improvement. To be honest we give up too many easy ones. If we could make teams shoot more threes and take away more of the inside I’d be much more in favor of that because the percentages are going to go in our favor. It helps our rebounding and our ability to get out and run.”

The long rebounds that often come after missed three-point shots are a great way to get out and run, but in their losses that opportunity has been taken away from them. NCAA tournament games have become infamous for allowing teams who get hot shooting the long ball over a 40-minute span to go on deep runs and vanquish teams otherwise out of their league because of the shot’s great floor-leveling power.

The Sword of Damocles has been hung tenuously over the Bruins because of this curious chink in their armor. Whether it is a technique deficiency with players failing to close out on shooters or put their defending hand in the right place—or if fate has decried it should be their ominous vulnerability—is difficult to say.

Their losses this season have shown that it is real, and the vaporizing at Stanford late in the season revealed that it has not gone away. Though in the four games leading up to Stanford, the Bruins had chipped away steadily at opponents’ shooting percentage and used that success to run out a four game winning streak.

At this late hour, is it the team that appeared to have learned how to redirect the slings and arrows of the enemy, or the squad that chose for most of the year to eat them while attempting to return fire more of its own?

“We thought we were doing the same things [against Stanford],” coach Alford said during the conference call. “We’re obviously hoping it’s only a one-game deal.”

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Oklahoma State Basketball: Will Cowboys Survive Marcus Smart Suspension?

In case you haven’t heard by now, things are really bad right now for the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

Travis Ford’s team are in the midst of a season-crippling four-game losing streak, but that is the least of their concerns after the Marcus Smart incident on Saturday. 

As has been well-documented by everyone in sports media, Smart was provoked by a Texas Tech fan and shoved him towards the end of the Cowboys’ upset loss to the Red Raiders on Saturday night.

While the Smart story stole the headlines, the real newsmaker from Saturday night in Lubbock was the fact the Cowboys are on the verge of missing the NCAA men’s basketball tournament because of their lowly February. 

Oklahoma State has lost four straight and five of its last six games, and the team currently sits at 4-6 in the Big 12, a streak and record no tournament hopeful wants to have at this time of the season. 

Now, with Smart suspended for three crucial games against Texas, Oklahoma and Baylor, the Cowboys have reached crisis mode and may not be able to salvage their season. 

Before Smart was ruled ineligible for the next three contests, the Cowboys were already suffering depth problems because of Michael Cobbinsseason-ending injury and Stevie Clark’s removal from the team for disciplinary reasons. 

Five days before they lost to Texas Tech, Ford and company fell in three overtimes at home to Iowa State, a game that saw just six players see significant playing time. 

Add to that problem the departure of a player who produces 17.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game for three contests and you could easily declare the Cowboys as being royally screwed. 

In all honesty, Oklahoma State is in a very deep hole they dug themselves, and the only way to start climbing out of it is to win a game against a ranked opponent, a designation Texas happens to have heading into Tuesday’s clash in Austin. 

Ford is going to have to piece together his bench behind a starting five of Phil Forte, Markel Brown, LeBryan Nash, Brian Williams and Kamari Murphy, which will be no easy task. 

No player outside the five starters for Tuesday’s game has averaged more than 6.3 minutes per game this season. 

The player with the most minutes out of that mix of players that in a normal season would not see the court at all is Leyton Hammonds, who has contributed one point and 1.2 rebounds per game in 20 appearances. 

If Ford cannot get any production out of his reserves on Tuesday, he may have to pick volunteers from the student section to earn playing time against rival Oklahoma on Saturday, a task every fan in the Bedlam rivalry would love to take on.

The reliance on the remaining five key contributors will be a massive one, and while those players are fully capable of delivering an improbable win against either Texas or Oklahoma, the chances of that happening are slim.

Too many variables, whether it be foul trouble, fatigue or some other unknown, are at play in this type of situation and we may see Oklahoma State in the midst of a seven-game losing streak when Smart returns against Texas Tech, the same team that may have stuck the final dagger in the Cowboys’ coffin. 

Oklahoma State is at a major disadvantage with Smart gone, and with its season already on a downward spiral, it will be hard for the Cowboys to recover from this latest massive blow to a season that started with plenty of expectations, none of which the team has lived up to as of now. 

 

Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.

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Georgetown Basketball: Will Hoyas Survive without Josh Smith?

As the Georgetown Hoyas enter the most difficult stretch of their schedule to date, they will be without one of their key players, Josh Smith, who was suspended for the rest of the season on Friday due to academic troubles.

The Hoyas will kick their week off with a home game against Villanova on Monday and then they will have to travel to New York to face Michigan State on Saturday. 

If that brutal week wasn’t bad enough for John Thompson III and company, they are also in the middle of a four-game losing streak and have won just one of their last six games. 

With their dreams of qualifying for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament thrown out the window, unless the Hoyas pull off a miracle run at the Big East tournament, Thompson and his remaining players must attempt to salvage their disappointing season. 

Heading into the season, the Hoyas were not expected to win the Big East, but they were expected to be one of the top four teams in the conference alongside Creighton, Marquette and Villanova. 

Instead, Georgetown has fallen flat in big games against Oregon and Kansas along with losing to Seton Hall on its home floor on January 18. 

Literally nothing is going right for the Hoyas, but now with Smith gone, they will have to somehow pick up the pieces and move on to avoid sharing the basement of the conference standings with longtime rival St. John’s, a team that is also having a terrible 2013-14 campaign. 

With Smith out of the picture, the Hoyas do not have a strong presence in the paint, as Mikael Hopkins and Nate Lubick are now Thompson’s best options. 

Both Hopkins and Lubick have the height to play down low, but they are nowhere close to Smith in the weight department, and both could get battered around in the paint if they try to emulate the UCLA transfer’s play. 

Up until now, the Hoyas did not have to worry about their perimeter shooting, but now that Smith is gone for the season, opponents will begin to put more pressure on D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and Markel Starks in the backcourt.

Smith-Rivera (17.5 points per game) and Starks (16.2 ppg) have been two bright spots on an incomplete Georgetown team, and they will have to step up even more in the upcoming weeks as their team begins to play for pride instead of a berth in the postseason.

There is some good news on the horizon, if there is such a thing this season, for the Hoyas as they face a fairly easy stretch of five games after they face off against Michigan State. 

With DePaul, Butler, Providence, St. John’s and Seton Hall on the docket in February, Georgetown has a chance to regain some pride by beating up on the lesser teams in the conference. 

However, that will not be as easy as it seems, because Providence is proving to be a surprise team in the conference at 5-2 and Seton Hall already took down the Hoyas this season. Butler also pushed the Hoyas to overtime on January 11 at Hinkle Fieldhouse

If Georgetown can pull it all together during that five-game span in the heart of February, it could be able to pull off an upset against the big guns of the conference, but that will be a difficult task without a major paint presence like Smith. 

All four of the Hoyas‘ final opponents (Xavier, Marquette, Villanova and Creighton) have big men that can take over a game in an instant, and they will all be licking their chops when the Hoyas line up against them because of their lack of depth and girth in the paint. 

Simply put, Georgetown could enjoy some success during February, but when it comes down to crunch time, it will fall short because it lacks a big man in Smith. 

 

Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90. 

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