Court Report: Duke’s Vernon Carey still not getting enough credit; story behind BYU mascot’s epic flying dunk

We are nearly 80% through college basketball’s regular season slate. And if the season ended today, Duke big man Vernon Carey Jr. would have the stats (see below) to validate First Team All-America status.

I’m not convinced Carey would make top billing. On the heels of Tre Jones saving Duke against North Carolina in the Dean Dome Double Buzzer-Beater, the sophomore point guard is solidified as the face of the 2019-20 Blue Devils. Jones and Carey are not Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett. Neither in talent nor in Batman-and-Robin superstar appeal. So Carey is being a bit taken for granted. 

But if you’ve watched most of Duke’s games, this rings true: Carey has been Duke’s best player. He’s also the best freshman in college basketball. Yet Carey is receiving less hullabaloo than any standout Blue Devils freshman I can recall. Has there ever been a Duke player so good statistically yet less heralded? Brandon Ingram is the closest, but even he was a universally projected top-five draft pick by this point in his 2015-16 freshman season and was taken No. 2 that year. 

Carey conversely is not considered lottery pick-worthy. 

“I don’t know why,” Duke assistant coach Nate James told CBS Sports. “Maybe it’s his personality, maybe because he’s a big and he’s a quiet kid and he’s not beating his chest every two seconds, saying look at me. He’s not the charismatic showman, like Zion and those guys were last year for us. A totally different personality. The times have changed, because big guys aren’t in the running a lot of time (for national player of the year), even though they could be or should it be. It’s guard-dominated, 3-point-shooting, flash, look-at-me type of game now and he gets hurt by that.”

Even Wendell Carter playing alongside Marvin Bagley III brought about no shortage of attention. He wasn’t an elite freshman, but he was very good and would go on to become the No. 7 (Bagley going No. 2) in the 2018 NBA Draft. Another Duke big man with big college fame: Jahlil Okafor. He, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow won the 2014-15 national title. Okafor was a consensus First Team All-American — like Williamson and Bagley — before going No. 3 in the 2015 NBA Draft. 

Carey’s 6-foot-10, 270-pound frame, fledgling post ability, decent jump shot and inability to switch and play reliable defense beyond 10 feet from the hoop have him pegged by many scouts between 20th and 30th at this point. Lack of draft buzz seems to be part of why he’s not quite as talked about as previous Duke big men. 

But his development is overlooked. 

“I wasn’t a post player,” Carey told CBS Sports. “I’d show flashes in high school a little bit, but I wouldn’t be a main post player in high school. But [James] saw how dominant I could be in the post. The first two games, I didn’t play as well — it was my first two college games, Kansas and Colorado State — but after that I started to pick up things, be more effective and had more poise, patience and find the little space I have in the post to make quick moves. After practice me and Nate put in a little bit of extra work and that is paying off.”

In the past six seasons, here’s how Carey stacks up to the best freshmen who were labeled power forwards or centers — and this does not even account for the talented-but-hampered Harry Giles, who might have been the best non-Zion Duke frosh had he avoided injury. 

Duke Player PPG RPG BPG 2-pt% 3-pt% ORtg PER MPG
Zion Williamson 22.6 8.9 1.8 74.7 33.8 129.2 40.8 30.0
Marvin Bagley III 21.0 11.1 0.9 64.7 39.7 123.8 30.6 33.9
Vernon Carey Jr. 17.5 8.9 1.5 59.3 38.5 115.4 33.5 24.8
Jahlil Okafor 17.3 8.5 1.4 66.4 N/A 116.4 30.7 30.1
Wendell Carter 13.5 9.1 2.1 58.6 41.3 121.5 28.2 26.9

Check that minutes-per-game column. Carey’s numbers are strong despite less burn than the other four.

“We saw him as the No. 1 big man for us,” James said. “You had James Wiseman and other guys, but we didn’t recruit those guys because we believed in Vernon. … I envisioned him doing what he’s doing now. He’s a big guy who can run, he has great feet, has touch. The fact he was willing to be coached, and say, hey, look, I can face up a little bit. I can put the ball on the floor and shoot it, I will embrace with my back to the basket.”

James has been the big man whisperer for years. Duke’s ability to recruit talented tall ones and turn them into successful drafts picks is in large part because of James’ work ethic, respectability and optimism. He is also as encouraging as he is challenging. 

“Each year is a different team and we never quite know how we’re going to play, but it’s my job to make sure whatever coach draws up, they can do it and also give them the freedom to be who they are,” James said. “Our level of expectations for him are a little higher at times for him than the rest of the country or even Vernon himself. Because a lot of times we’ll leave the game he’ll have 17 and 10, or 26 and 17, and we’re like, ‘Look, you should have 30 and 20.'”

Carey is different from the guys listed above because he’s had to change his game as a freshman in more ways than any of those players. To understand that, see how he’s been able to be this good with a new kind of skillset and produce every game despite a shortage of minutes is even more impressive.

Duke’s had more than 10 different starting lineups this season; Carey is the only player to start every game. He is the focal point of the defense, and James said he’s handled it with grace and maturity as he’s tried to figure it out against double and triple teams. 

“He’s probably been the toughest guard of any big we’ve had because sometimes it’s the pieces, the older guys, we’ve had more experienced shooters and from top to bottom you couldn’t double the guys we had in the past because they were all very good. Now we have some guys trying to figure out some things,” James said.  “In my mind, there’s no better big and there’s no better player in the country.”

21-3 UNI roaring thanks to assist from Raptors’ Nick Nurse

Whether or not San Diego State and Dayton are truly mid-majors is up for debate, but there is no disputing that Northern Iowa is emblematic of the generalized term. So: UNI is the most overlooked great mid-major team this season. 

The Panthers are 21-3 and could have their second-best team in the 14-year tenure of Ben Jacobson. UNI is 35th at KenPom, 37th in the NET and sits atop the Missouri Valley standings. It owns wins over Colorado and South Carolina. Its three losses have come by an average of 4.3 points, including a five-point defeat against West Virginia, which is seventh at KenPom. 

“A very physical game and we handled ourselves and that told me that we were going to have a chance,” Jacobson told me. “I didn’t know going into that game if we’d be able to handle ourselves with the physicality.”

NCAA Basketball: Northern Iowa at Colorado

A.J. Green (11), Spencer Haldeman (30), Trae Berhow (11) and Isaiah Brown (24) have UNI flaring onto the national radar.

UNI’s ascension this season has come with the help of some advice from afar from an alumnus who’s become high-profile in the past nine months: Nick Nurse, coach of the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors. Nurse and UNI coach Ben Jacobson have known each other since 1993, when Nurse was an assistant at South Dakota and Jacobson was cutting his teeth at North Dakota, back when both schools weren’t even in Division I. Last summer in during Summer League in Las Vegas, Jacobson and Nurse spent an afternoon talking shop. 

“He’s absolutely awesome, in terms of coming off a world championship, obviously busy and everybody want a piece of his time,” Jacobson told me. “He was just great, we talked for quite a while and I kept asking questions and taking notes.”

UNI was in a three-year slump, having won 14, 16 and 16 games the past three seasons. He expected to have an improved team for 2019-20, but he was looking for ways to get the best out of both ends of the floor. For most of Jacobson’s career UNI has ranked among the slowest-tempo teams in college basketball. He wanted to grease his team’s tempo but not sacrifice his defensive principles. 

“How can we increase the possessions in the game and still maintain our identity as a defensive team?” Jacobson said. “And he talked a lot about that. He said you can do both. You’ve got to practice it and continue to commit your practice time to the defensive end of the floor, the drills you do, rebounding, rotations, diving on the floor. You can do both. Hearing that from him was important for me.” 

Northern Iowa’s other trademark: high-volume 3-point attempts. That hasn’t changed, but accuracy has. The Panthers rank fifth in the country in 3-point shooting (39.8%), making this maybe Jacobson’s best long-range squad ever. Five players shoot between 39 and 44% from deep. That combined with the return of 6-9 center Austin Phyfe, who missed last season because of a medical redshirt, has turned Northern Iowa into a blazing offensive team with outside-in dynamics. Phyfe (66.4% shooter) could well become a top MVC player two years from now — if it’s not UNI’s A.J. Green, a sophomore who’s averaging 23.3 points in Missouri Valley play and is the favorite for league player of the year. 

“You look at A.J., Spencer (Haldeman) and Trae (Barlow), they’re three of the better shooters in the country,” Jacobson said.

If the offense remains top-15 (as it is now), Northern Iowa can be a terrific Sweet 16 Cinderella candidate. Won’t be seeded high enough to have a lot of people talking, but will for sure have the shooters to stockpile for an upset bid on any team in the bracket. 

Story behind BYU mascot’s 3-point dunk, then and now

The most impressive dunk of the 2019-20 college basketball season belongs to no scholarship player, but instead an unidentified young man who wears a Cougar costume in Provo, Utah. 

His name is Cosmo. The mascot, not the young man. 

I went searching for him. 

Unfortunately, Cosmo is not available for interviews. 

“There’s a certain degree of secrecy and that’s part of the whole mystery,” BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe told me.

There’s a fun backstory to one of the biggest viral moments of the season. On Saturday night during BYU’s home win vs. San Francisco, Cosmo and his team of beefy-armed vaulters — the “Yeet Squad” — pulled off one of the most spectacular stunt dunks you’ll ever see. Big cat’s big head might have been 20 feet in the air at the apex. The clip has brought a lot of attention to BYU, whose hoops team, oh by the way, is 19-7 and crazily under the radar despite being No. 17 in KenPom.

“I think I’ve seen things that have rivaled it,” Holmoe said.

Cosmo’s been around since 1953. What you might be surprised to learn: Saturday’s dunk was not the first of its kind. The stunt is brought out only every few years; it debuted in 1998, when the 3-point line was a couple feet closer. Here are both dunks 22 years apart. Same arena, same side of the court. 

The costume weighs almost 12 pounds, approximately five of which are in the head. I’m told the student in the costume is about 170 pounds. 

“We do it maybe once every four years,” BYU’s David Eberhard, who is Cosmo’s coach, said.

Cosmo has a coach? Oh, not just that: the 47-year-old is a former full-time mascot. Eberhard has been Burnie (Miami Heat) and Bango (Milwaukee Bucks). He refers to the Phoenix Suns Gorilla as “a friend of mine” and he’s the brains behind the Cosmo operation. Eberhard has traveled the world putting on acrobatic dunking shows. 

“I think the average weight of those guys is about 250, and one of the guys is pushing 300,” Eberhard said. “They’re just strong. The difference is they stepped back an additional three feet and then flung him so hard during the show, they could have flung him another three feet.” 

Eberhard said there is something even more difficult potentially on tap for the home finale vs. Gonzaga on Feb. 22. All stunts have to be reviewed first, in a dress rehearsal, by BYU’s risk management team. Holmoe told me some do not get cleared. But the flinging dunk is a classic. The rehearsal for it came in the days before, in BYU’s gymnastics center, with the benefit of a foam pit.  

“We took every precaution we could,” Eberhard said. “He was pretty close to touching the 30-foot ceiling in practice. The performer started getting a little nervous.”

Try to imagine yourself in the same position: trusting five other humans to catapult you two, three times your standing height into the air. It was one of the most radical visuals of the season. 

“It’s not just the acrobatics,” Holmoe said. “He can do other things mascots can’t do. I think it’s ironic, some of these mascots just turn and spin and get attention — but this dude can do anything. Like all mascots, the things he does behind the scenes with kids is off the charts. He’s out in the community and schools all the time. The work that he does, he’s beloved to BYU.” 

Final shots

  • Marquette’s Markus Howard needs 22 points Wednesday night against Villanova to have the most points in Big East history. Boston College’s Troy Bell (1,388) and Syracuse’s Lawrence Moten (1,405) are about to be bumped down the list.
  • The Big East has five teams ranked in the AP Top 25, which last happened on March 18, 2013. The teams ranked now: Seton Hall, Villanova, Marquette, Butler, Creighton. The teams then: Louisville, Georgetown, Marquette, Syracuse, Pittsburgh. 
  • Baylor is in its 11th 20-win season in the past 13 years under Scott Drew. The program had three 20-win seasons total before Drew took over. More insane: Baylor has been ranked for 234 out of a possible 413 games since 2008-09. Before Drew, it was ranked for two out of a possible 2,197 games in school history.  
  • A good read in the midst of the February conference races: CBS Sports’ David Cobb examines the truths and myths about how college basketball has changed with the extended 3-point line.
  • Last week’s Court Report led with OVC power Austin Peay and the best player in that league, Terry Taylor. With one more OVC Player of the Week award this season, he will break Kenneth Faried and Ja Morant’s record of eight in a season. He’s that dominant. Taylor had 26 points and 23 rebounds vs. Belmont on Saturday
  • Steve Politi is a great columnist out of New Jersey, and this week he addressed something I’ve long wondered about: why is the RAC at Rutgers shaped/built the way it is?
  • Gonzaga does not hang jersey numbers so easily. So while the news of Adam Morrison being honored on Feb. 27 may come as little surprise — if not a little late — his No. 3 going into the McCarthey Athletic Center rafters will mark just the third one up there. (John Stockton and Frank Burgess the others.) 
  • This is an incredible factoid, courtesy of CBS Sports researcher Andy Tulin: Penn State is No. 13 in the latest AP Top 25. This week is the first time Penn State has ever been the highest-ranked team in men’s basketball in the state of Pennsylvania. The AP poll has existed since the 1940s. 
  • On the heels of a teeth-clenching road win at Illinois on Tuesday, Michigan State doing its part to try and bring some positive direction back into its season. On Saturday, Sparty will wear its 2000-era uniforms vs. Maryland. The Spartans have not worn these threads in almost 20 years. The nostalgia!

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