LSU, Mississippi State blending star freshmen with veterans

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — While addressing Mississippi State’s scoring woes from last season, senior guard Craig Sword confidently said the Bulldogs wouldn’t again be second to last in the Southeastern Conference in scoring.

What made him so sure?

“We’ve got Malik Newman,” Sword said.

He didn’t start off so sure. Newman, a freshman guard ranked No. 10 in the ESPN 100 for 2015, had to be tested by the veteran players when he arrived on campus. LSU freshmen Ben Simmons, ranked No. 1 overall in the ESPN 100, went through the same thing.

Both rookies were preceded by considerable hype for how they could potentially transform their programs. Little did they know a healthy dose of skepticism followed too.

“When you got a guy like that coming in, you’re an experienced college player, your first instinct is ‘Shoot, he ain’t ready for this quite yet,’” said LSU guard Keith Hornsby of Simmons. “You can’t just bow down, but at the same time he’s demanded that we respect him because he’s proven to be such an amazing player so far.”

Hornsby and Sword admitted being returning players were tougher on the rookies during pickup games and practices to test their mettle. And in both cases Simmons and Newman emerged having earned the respect of their peers.

“[Newman] lived up to his hype,” Sword said. “People were talking about him a lot last year like we’re going to see what he does when he gets to college, and he’s been proving it ever since he got here.”

Initially, LSU players tried to outmuscle Simmons in the paint and it worked early on in the summer before his weight training regimen kicked in and made him stronger. Now, there’s no backing him down and no sense fighting the inevitable. He’s already earned his way among the team.

“As soon as I got there, I tried to establish my place there as being a leader,” Simmons said. “That’s what I know and that’s what I’m good at… They realize I’m here to win, that’s always been my goal.”

–C.L. Brown

Coaches not big fans of strict liability

Men’s basketball coaches have watched Hall of Famers Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and Larry Brown at SMU get suspended for nine games due to the NCAA policy of strict liability. North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Louisville’s Rick Pitino could also be disciplined under the rule that holds coaches accountable for violations that occurred on their watch regardless of if they knew what happened or not.

Kentucky coach John Calipari doesn’t know if anything will change with the rule, but he said it’s a discussion that coaches need to have.

“We’re responsible for everything, it’s just hard to be held accountable for everything,” Calipari said.

He gave a hypothetical example of what happens when the violation occurred in the city of a player or recruit that’s miles away from campus. How could a coach have control over that situation?

“I don’t know how many presidents or CEOs or managers of companies can know everything that goes on in a program and in their business,” Auburn’s Bruce Pearl said. “You have to try to hire people who understand what our culture is but I definitely think that is a standard that doesn’t exist in most other places so it’s a pretty tough standard to live up to.”

–C.L. Brown

UK’s Poythress on the mend

During an otherwise routine day in Kentucky basketball practice, Alex Poythress did something ordinary and yet extraordinary. He went up to block a shot, skying above the square on the backboard to reject the ball.

John Calipari stopped practice. Not to congratulate Poythress. Not to embarrass him. Simply to remind him that “you can do this,” the coach told his player.

It’s a message Poythress needs to believe more than he needs to hear. Ask any athlete who has suffered a significant injury and they will agree that as difficult as the disappointment and the rehab are, the final hurdle is often the toughest. It’s trust — trust that the injury is truly healed.

For Poythress, that would be the torn ACL in his left knee, perhaps one of the most devastating injuries to overcome. He is healed, cleared to play and basically assume life as a senior college basketball player. All of the doctors agree. Now Poythress just has to believe.

Calipari said during a visit to ESPNU as part of SEC media days on Wednesday that is at 75 to 80 percent, not recovered but confident in his knee.

“He has to get through it,’’ Calipari said. “He has to trust his body, trust his leg otherwise he jumps different and when you jump different, you shoot differently. Everything changes. It’s normal what he’s going through but he has to get through it.’’

–Dana O’Neil

Can Vanderbilt defend?

Kevin Stallings doesn’t necessarily see a lot of value in a favorite sports cliché. To the Vanderbilt coach, the old adage that ‘defense wins championships’ is simply not true.

“To me, the best players win championships,’’ he said.

But it helps, he admits, if those best players can defend.

Can the Commodores? That’s the big question.

With 82 percent of its scoring, four starters and Damian Jones back there is plenty of reason to believe Vanderbilt is poised for its best season in years and likely its first NCAA bid since 2012. Every single guy on the roster can shoot – Vandy ranked 87th nationally in scoring last season and – and more, likes to shoot. This is not a shy bunch.

But Stallings, now the dean of SEC coaches, isn’t foolish enough to think his team can just outshoot everyone.

“Generally our guys have a lot of confidence and with that confidence comes, if I’m open I’ll shoot,’’ he said. ‘But we can’t completely be a jump-shooting team and we have to find a way to live that’s not just through our offense.’’

Stallings looks at defense on a sort of spectrum, a progression from players who are simply interested in playing defense to ones who are truly committed to it.

Right now he puts his players somewhere between interested and on their way to invested. The trick is to get them to committed by the season opener. He thinks it can happen. The good news? So do his players.

“I’d say we’re invested but we know we need to be committed,’’ Jones said.

–Dana O’Neil

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