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Players to Watch in the 2019-20 College Basketball Season

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There are roughly 4,000 players in Division I men’s college basketball every season, but only a select few who can truly affect the game every time they are on the floor.

This season begins after a year in which many of the top players — Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett, to name two — left college for professional opportunities. That has created an opening for many new names to emerge.

Here are a few you should get to know long before March Madness arrives.

Quentin Grimes, Houston Coach Kelvin Sampson led the Cougars to the N.C.A.A. tournament’s round of 16 last season and with Grimes, the former Kansas guard, now eligible after receiving a waiver that allows him to play immediately, they could get back there again. A silky smooth guard, the 6-5 Grimes averaged 8.4 points for the Jayhawks last season and his presence should make Houston — not Memphis — the team to beat in the American Athletic Conference.

Kerry Blackshear, Florida This 6-10 graduate transfer from Virginia Tech is a major reason many observers believe the Gators can unseat Kentucky at the top of the Southeastern Conference. “He’s an interior scorer who can also stretch the defense. He’s stronger than he looks and guys bounce off of him all the time,” said Florida Coach Mike White. Blackshear was the Hokies’ best player against Duke in the round of 16 last season (18 points, 16 rebounds) and should immediately help Florida with his overall feel for the game.

Nate Sestina, Kentucky Sestina made 41 3-point shots and shot 38.0 percent from behind the 3-point line last season at Bucknell before graduating and heading to Lexington. A 6-9 forward, he is leaner and quicker than he was as an undergraduate, and will add some needed shooting and experience to Kentucky’s frontcourt, which lost Reid Travis and P.J. Washington to the N.B.A.

Chris Clarke, Texas Tech Clarke did not play for Virginia Tech after he was suspended for the season for reasons the university never revealed, but he is back and returns as one of the best small-ball big men in the country. He might be a perfect fit in Lubbock with Coach Chris Beard.

Quade Green, Washington A former five-star recruit, Green could have transferred anywhere when he left Kentucky last December. He opted to head to Seattle, where he will become Washington’s primary point guard. Green’s play will go a long way in determining if the Huskies can challenge for another Pac-12 regular season title.



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Why Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum stay loyal to Portland Trail Blazers

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The Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum have no interest in joining the NBA’s player movement — even as the stars have seen their competitors demand trades and forge new allegiances.

“I don’t care what the trend is,” Lillard told USA TODAY Sports. “Players are taking control of the power and influence they have. I don’t have an issue with it because there’s been times in the league that players didn’t have that and players were taken advantage of and put in tough situations. So I understand it. But I play for a great organization. I play for a great coach. I love where I live. I have a great situation.”

LeBron James and Anthony Davis have teamed up with the Los Angeles Lakers. So did Paul George and Kawhi Leonard with the Los Angeles Clippers. After winning two NBA titles in Golden State with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, Kevin Durant bolted this summer so he could play with Kyrie Irving on the Brooklyn Nets. After Chris Paul became decimated with injuries, the Houston Rockets traded him to Oklahoma City for Russell Westbrook to pair with James Harden.

As for Lillard and McCollum? They represent the rare stars who have resisted forging new alliances in different uniforms. Why do that when they have each other?

“Everybody has the right to make the decision that they feel is best for themselves, That’s the way the league has gone,” McCollum told USA TODAY Sports. “But I’m indifferent. I really just work on myself and work on how I can get better for our team.”

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Some needed context: Lillard and McCollum have yet to win an NBA championship, let alone appear in the NBA Finals. Yet, these two stars have not labored on a rebuilding team. As Portland coach Terry Stotts said, “There is that commitment, but I wouldn’t oversell it; they’ve been part of success.”

Ever since Portland drafted Lillard (No. 6 in 2012) and McCollum (No. 10 in 2013), the Trail Blazers have become one of five NBA teams to make the playoffs for the past six seasons. They won two Pacific Divisions. They advanced last year to the Western Conference Finals. Lillard and McCollum have talked openly with teammates about their confidence that Portland can win an NBA title this season.

As Portland’s 4-6 start indicates, though, Lillard and McCollum have encountered challenges. They sniffed three first-round exits. Despite holding double-digit leads in three of the four games, the Warriors swept Portland last year in the Western Conference Finals without a healthy Durant. The Western Conference remains loaded partly because of fluid player movement. Portland currently has a spate of injuries to Jusuf Norkic, Zach Collins and Pau Gasol. Even when Lillard scored a season-high 60 points last week against Brooklyn, the Blazers still lost.

And yet….

“They’d rather be a really important player on a very successful franchise than to go team up with other players just for the sake of making their lives easier,” Portland general manager Neil Olshey told USA TODAY Sports. “They know the challenges we face as a small market with player acquisition and retention. But they take the responsibility to help build an environment.”

Embracing Portland’s culture

Sure, Portland has become appealing partly because of how Lillard and McCollum play basketball.

They have both averaged at least 20 points in the last four seasons. Lillard delivered playoff daggers to eliminate Houston (2014) and Oklahoma City (2019) in the playoffs. McCollum set a franchise record for most points scored in a Game 7 when he had 37 points in a decisive win over Denver last season in the second round.

Those on the Trail Blazers do not just marvel on how Lillard and McCollum play, though. They also admire them for how they act.

“The culture often times in the NBA is often defined by your best player,” Stotts said. “Dame and CJ are very professional in their approach. We cater to being on time, being professional and being respectful of your teammates and co-workers. They are all about that.”

Lillard and McCollum have shown those qualities in different ways.

They empower teammates to arrive early and stay late by doing that themselves. They ensure that everyone keeps the practice facility and locker room areas clean without leaning on their equipment managers. They host team dinners. They embrace Stotts for critiquing them in film session in front of their teammates. As Lillard observed, “if you were a fly on the wall, you would see it’s real.”

“When you work hard and do things the right way and you’re one of the higher paid players on the team, I think it’s easier for other guys to follow in line and understand,” McCollum said. “It sets the tone for how everything goes. How we play, how we mentor and how we lead – it rubs off on everybody.”

It has rubbed off on the dynamic between Lillard and McCollum, who represent the rare star duo  who  do not seem threatened with each other’s greatness. They do not fight over touches. They do not fight over shots. They do not resent the other’s success, even if it overshadows their own.

“We’re in the era that teams like to put stars against each other. With us being the two best players on our team, it’s never been a competition,” Lillard said. “It’s always been a partnership and a friendship. I always appreciate that from him. Our friendship is always first.”

It has rubbed off on the coaching staff.  Stotts has often solicited feedback from Lillard and McCollum on the team’s playcalls, defensive schemes and spacing. No wonder Lillard called Stotts “an easy-going coach that gives guys a lot of opportunity.”

“They know the game and they’re out there on the floor. I think it’s important to involve them in things and I respect their opinion,” Stotts said. “When you got guys that know the game and are committed to it and care about it, how can you not take what they have to say into account?”

It has rubbed off on the front office. The Trail Blazers might face limitations that most small-market teams face. They have not been part of the major free-agency sweepstakes, and they lost All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge four years ago. Yet, the Blazers have remained competitive partly by acquiring complementary players in recent year, which includes Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Rodney Hood, Mario Hezonia, Anthony Tolliver and Gasol this season.  Olshey has made several moves and resisted others often after consulting with Lillard and McCollum.

 “That doesn’t mean they’re sitting in a room telling us ‘yay’ or ‘no’ to certain guys,” Olshey said. “What I try to do is shift the conversation to positional need, fit and skillset. These guys are on the floor and know what elements we’re strong in and lacking in. I take that feedback. They’re the ones out there playing the game.”

Showing loyalty

Lillard and McCollum did not need to spend as much time with Olshey to discuss their own futures. Shortly after the Blazers’ playoff-run ended last year, Lillard signed a four-year, $196 million extension that keeps him under contract through 2025. McCollum then agreed to a three-year, $100 million extension, and has an additional two years left on his deal.

“I just feel like there’s always a reward at the end. When you do things the right way and you do the work, you’re going to get the results,” Lillard said. “I really believe that. We’ve gotten the results. Even after failures, we come back and answer to it. We’re staying the course. That’s worth it to me.”

That has left the Blazers feeling grateful for keeping their All-Star point guards. Yet, they never sensed any sign that they were on the verge of ever losing them.

“I don’t think there was ever a seminal moment,” Olshey said. “It’s never gotten to the point with Dame and CJ where they were impending free agents and they played it out to maximize their leverage over the organization. Obviously, our goal was always to retain them for the extent of their careers and we did everything in our power to do it. But there were never hints or any fractures where we felt vulnerable with any one of them. That’s why it was so much easier to reward them with contracts at the first possible opportunity.”

Unlike some of their contemporaries, Lillard and McCollum signed at that first possible opportunity. When that does not happen, a star player could demand a trade. That has left NBA teams feeling pressure to make a deal so their star does not eventually leave for nothing.

“A lot of the people that are forcing things or using that power to do what they want regardless of who they might cross, put on the backburner or leave in a bad spot, I think that lines you up,” Lillard said. “At the end of your career and that power is gone and you’re no longer at the top of the top and you lose that power, how are you going to go out? What’s going to happen when they remember when you were pulling all of these (moves)? They might not (do anything), but that’s the stuff I think about when I’m looking at all of this stuff. It’s going to come back”

Lillard and McCollum both stressed they do not resent their contemporaries for either forming or joining super teams. Still, McCollum teased Durant on his podcast in the 2018 offseason for joining the Warriors, while Durant predicted McCollum would never win an NBA title if he stayed in Portland. McCollum considered the exchange to be “playful banter” and expressed support for Durant’s move last summer to Brooklyn. Still, the episode offered a window into both how McCollum and Lillard think through both success and failure.  

“You’re not going to succeed in everything that you do. There’s only one winner every year,” McCollum said. “Regardless of how much success I’m having or how much turmoil I’m having, you just figure out ways to continue to work. Your process stays the same and you just build on that.”

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 



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How to Watch: Cowboys Host Vikings on Sunday Night Football

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The Dallas Cowboys host the Minnesota Vikings on NBC’s Sunday Night Football in a game with playoff implications for each team.

The Cowboys enter the matchup in first place in the NFC East at 5-3, half a game in front of the Philadelphia Eagles, while the Vikings, at 6-3, are 1 1/2 games back of the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North.

The matchup will highlight two of the NFL’s top rushers, in Dallas running back Ezekiel Elliott and Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook. Cook leads the league with 894 rushing yards, while Elliott is seventh with 741 yards.

Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch and wide receiver Amari Cooper will be on the field for Dallas, while Minnesota wide receiver Adam Thielen will miss the game with a hamstring injury.

NBC Sports will have live coverage of the Minnesota Vikings vs. Dallas Cowboys beginning at 6:00pm CT on Sunday, November 10. Fans can catch all the action in spectacular high definition via NBC Sports online at NBCSports.com/Live, or through the NBC Sports app which is available on the Apple App Store, Google Play, Windows Store, Roku Channel Store, Apple TV and Amazon Fire.





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Giants coach Pat Shurmur says Saquon Barkley is fine, will absolutely not be shut down

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The New York Giants’ season is spiraling out of control. After losing to the cross-building rival New York Jets on Sunday afternoon, the Giants are now 2-8. Given the current state of the roster, it does not look like things will be turning around anytime soon. This is a team with a bad offense and a bad defense, and those types of teams don’t suddenly start winning games late in the year. 

To make matters worse, star running back Saquon Barkley was banged up once again during the loss. Barkley had the worst game of his career with 13 carries for just one yard, and he was seen be several reporters entering the X-ray room following the game. Giants coach Pat Shurmur would say only that Barkley “got banged up a little bit today” when asked about it at his postgame press conference. 

Shurmur didn’t give much more information on Monday. All he would allow is that Barkley is “fine,” and that the Giants would “absolutely not” be shutting him down despite his injury issues in the midst of what looks like a lost season. 

“He is feeling much better,” Shurmur said before ruling out the idea of shutting him down for the remainder of the 2019 season, via Ryan Dunleavy of The Post. “He’s fine.” 

Barkley missed three games earlier this season after suffering a high ankle sprain, and he has not looked quite the same since returning to the field. After averaging 127.8 yards from scrimmage and 5.3 yards per carry over his first 18 career NFL games prior to the injury, Barkley has averaged just 87.3 yards from scrimmage and 2.6 yards per carry since returning form the injury (four games). The Giants have lost all four of their games since Barkley’s return to action, though they do get a bit of respite this week as they have a Week 11 bye. 

Given two weeks to heal, it’s possible Barkley could feel much better by the time they take the field against the Bears in Week 12, but it also seems like the Giants should be playing it safe with their star back. They’re not going anywhere special this season, and if Barkley isn’t fully healthy, it’s fine to sit him down until he is. 





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