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Matt Jones could be the unsung presence for Duke Blue Devils

Mike Krzyzewski’s squad is the unanimous favorite in college basketball circles heading into the 2016-17 campaign and has all the requisites to have a season comparable to Kentucky Wildcats ‘s 38-1 run which occurred two years ago.

Duke returns a first-team All-American in Grayson Allen , an all-star caliber glue guy in Amile Jefferson and a terrific offensive player in crafty lefty Luke Kennard while adding arguably the best recruiting class in school history. The Blue Devils’ incoming core is highlighted by four five-star prospects — Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles, Frank Jackson and Marques Bolden — who all have a legitimate chance to be high picks in the 2017 NBA Draft.

But lost in the hype surrounding those seven players is a proud veteran that could ultimately wind up being a critical piece for this team — Jones.

Duke was 15-4 last season when Jones scored in double-figures and the 6-foot-5 senior guard has also proven to be a reliable perimeter defender throughout his college career.

There’s no questioning the Blue Devils’ overall talent base, but championship teams in any sport needs guys who are willing to do less in order for the team to do more and Jones fits that bill.

Seasoned, mature and confident, many people forget that Jones had 16 points two years ago when Duke beat Gonzaga Bulldogs in the Elite Eight prior to winning the 2015 national title.

There may be better scorers or potential pro prospects on the Blue Devils’ roster next season, but Jones’ selflessness, defensive attributes and having the knack to make timely 3-point shots could ultimately allow him to earn a key role on a team that will be appointment television in every game it plays next season.

Thomas gives Western Kentucky a puncher’s chance in C-USA

Pancake Thomas, a graduate transfer from Hartford Hawks became the third fifth-year player to commit to Rick Stansbury since the former Mississippi State Bulldogs head coach took the post in Bowling Green and his presence should give the Hilltoppers a chance to compete for a bid next season.

Thomas — a 6-4 guard — averaged 18.9 points and made 81 3-point shots last season at Hartford, giving Stansbury a seasoned perimeter anchor to go with fellow graduate transfers Junior Lomomba ( Providence Friars ) and Que Johnson ( Washington State Cougars ).

Western Kentucky only has only player returning — Justin Johnson — that averaged over 3.5 points last season, but that shouldn’t preclude this team from being a presence in Conference USA next season.

Stansbury has sent a message by landing commitments from Lamonte Bearden ( Buffalo Bulls ), Mitchell Robinson and former Syracuse Orange pledge Moustapha Diagne in the class of 2017, but the presence of Thomas should make things awfully interesting in Bowling Green next season.

Don’t discount this team from competing for a berth to the field of 68 next spring.

090516jimlarranaga.jpgMiami’s Jim Larranaga has a favorable early schedule. USATSI

Miami’s non-conference schedule is a potential confidence booster

The Hurricanes are one of many teams in the ACC next season that could finish anywhere from 5-12 in the league standings, but their early season schedule could allow them to enter conference play with serious air in their tires.

Why?

Because Jim Larranaga’s team won’t play a single game outside the state of Florida prior to ACC play.

Not many coaches are as meticulous with scheduling as Larranaga, but Miami has combined a few quality RPI games along with a non-conference slate that seems just about right for a program that lost three terrific seniors in Angel Rodriguez , Sheldon McClellan and Tonye Jekiri .

This team’s only true road game prior to league play is at North Florida Ospreys on Nov. 16 with a quality home matchup set against George Washington Colonials for Dec. 22. The Hurricanes will also play Wofford Terriers on Dec. 3 at American Eagles Airlines Arena and open with Stanford Cardinal in the first round of the Advocare Invitational in Orlando over Thanksgiving weekend.

There’s no telling how Miami will respond with new players in new roles, but this much is for certain: Larranaga has put a non-conference schedule in place for this team to enter ACC play with potentially 11 or 12 wins.

If the Hurricanes can combine that with 10 league victories, then this program should make the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season.

This and That

  • My first takeaway from the release of the Big 12 conference schedule this past week? The league is again trying to accommodate West Virginia Mountaineers with travel. The Mountaineers will begin the Big 12 slate with back-to-back road games for the fourth consecutive year, starting at Oklahoma State Cowboys and Texas Tech Red Raiders .
  • Memphis Tigers sophomore K.J. Lawson (Achilles) has been cleared for all basketball related activities, Tubby Smith told CBS Sports. A former top-50 recruit, the 6-7 Lawson averaged 8.8 points last season, but only appeared in 10 games due to injury.
  • Kansas State Wildcats was 0-3 last season in Big 12 games that went into overtime and also lost two league games by one possession or less. The Wildcats will return four starters from a squad that went 17-16 overall and 5-13 in conference play.
  • Indiana Hoosiers , Providence, Virginia Tech Hokies and Washington Huskies will headline the 2017 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden, sources told CBS Sports. Matchups for the event have yet to be determined. Marquette Golden Eagles will play Michigan Wolverines and SMU Mustangs will face Pitt in the first-round of this year’s event.
  • UCLA Bruins , Wisconsin Badgers , Creighton Bluejays and Baylor Bears will headline the 2017 CBE Classic in Kansas City, sources told CBS Sports. Matchups for the event have yet to be determined. Kansas will play UAB Blazers and George Washington will face Georgia Bulldogs in the first-round of this year’s event.


Source: CBS Sports / Observations: Duke’s unsung hero could be key for Blue Devils’ success this season