Pitt proves what we have all been saying — UConn was not a top five team

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UConn needed this loss. UConn needed an experienced Pitt team to beat them up, execute to precision, and win going away. And the Panthers did it, knocking off the Huskies 78-63 on Monday night at the Peterson Events Center.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now, but this is not the No. 4 team in the country.

Sure, they won the Maui Invitational. Yes, they came into this game undefeated. And you’re right, they have Kemba Walker. But anyone that has actually watched this team play will tell you that these Huskies are closer to the edge of the top 25 than the top five.

After that terrific performance in Maui, UConn jumped way up in the rankings. With nothing but cupcakes between their return from Maui and their jaunt to Pittsburgh, UConn continued to win games. And with the teams ranked in front of them losing game after game, UConn slowly climbed in the polls.

All the way up to fourth.

That ranking led to unnecessary and unfair expectations for a team that has four freshman, two sophomores, and a Kemba as their top seven scorers.

UConn never led against Pitt. They never got closer than six after the 15:38 mark, when Brad Wanamaker found Gilbert Brown for a thunderous alley-oop to make the score 14-7. They never got any closer than seven in the second half, and that seven-point deficit lasted for all of one possession. The Huskies shot 31.9% from the game, and the non-Kembas shot a dismal 9-33. While Walker went off for 31 points, he did it on an inefficient 10-27 shooting performance while also getting to the line 11 times.

Nothing defined UConn’s game more than the two minute stretch after Walker had cut a 15 point Pitt lead to seven with 5:31 remaining. On the ensuing Pitt possession, Wanamaker drove the lane and scored on a layup over an out-of-position Alex Oriakhi. At the other end, Niels Giffey missed an open three in the corner. After getting a stop, both Walker and Oriakhi missed layups. UConn got another offensive rebound, but Jeremy Lamb bricked an open look from the top of the key. Walker stole the outlet and found himself wide open for a three from the corner that wasn’t even close. Following a Pitt timeout, the Panthers ran Ashton Gibbs off of two screens which freed him for a wide open three with 3:24 left.

Buckets.

Dagger.

Despite playing this poorly, its too early to fully sound the alarm on this UConn team.

This is a young group. There are six freshmen in their 11 man rotation. They opened Big East play two days after Christmas on the road against a very good Pitt team that is damn near unbeatable at home. This win moved the Panther’s record to 142-11 and 8-0 against top five teams at the Peterson Events Center.

Give Pitt the credit they deserve. Walker had very few driving lanes tonight. The Panthers collapsed every time he put the ball on the floor, daring him to kick the ball out to UConn’s shooters. The Pitt offense was a thing of beauty. Gibbs runs a clinic every time he comes off of a screen. Wanamaker may not be the best decision maker in the country, but he played like it tonight. UConn’s bigs could not handle Gary McGhee’s brute strength or Nasir Robinson’s versatility.

Combine that with a physical and intelligent brand of defense, and what shone through tonight more than anything was Pitt’s experience and ability to execute.

Its tough to imagine Oriakhi playing as poorly as he did tonight all season long. Shabazz Napier, Roscoe Smith, and Lamb will get better as they become accustomed to Big East play. They will beat the teams at the bottom of the Big East, get some wins against the other middle-of-the-pack squads, and maybe even land a win or two against one of the Big East heavyweights.

UConn should get to 10-8 or 9-9 in the Big East. They should have enough on their non-conference resume with their wins in Maui to get into the tournament.

Its not what you would expect from a top five team in the country, but UConn is not one of the top five teams in the country.

And tonight should be enough to prove that to the voters.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

Sweet 16 Preview: Thursday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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The Sweet 16 kicks off on Thursday night, and the games are going to be terrific.

Oregon-Michigan should be thrilling, Gonzaga-West Virginia is a fascinating contrast of styles and Kansas-Purdue features arguably the two best players in college basketball.

Oh, and then there’s Arizona-Xavier, with Sean Miller and Chris Mack doing battle.

For an in-depth look at each region, check these out:

SWEET 16 PREVIEW: Midwest | West | South | East

No. 3 Oregon vs. No. 7 Michigan (-1.5), 7:09 p.m. (CBS): So this run that Michigan on, is it a fluke?

Frankly, I don’t think that it is. Derrick Walton has been awesome for the better part of two months while Michigan’s perimeter shooters have always been shooters and the duo of D.J. Wilson and Mo Wagner are legit. I honestly do not believe that the Wolverines are a team of destiny after the plane crash. They are just really good and a perfect roster for John Beilein to tinker with.

That’s why they’re favored on Thursday night. But here’s the thing … Oregon is pretty good themselves. Dillon Brooks is going to be guarded by a big man, which should be a matchup that Brooks can take advantage of, and Tyler Dorsey has been playing terrific basketball since the start of the Pac-12 tournament.

If you like small-ball, spread-the-court basketball, you’ll love this game.

PREDICTION: Michigan (-1.5)

No. 1 Gonzaga (-3) vs. No. 4 West Virginia, 7:39 p.m. (TBS): On paper, I think Gonzaga should win this game. They have a good back court in Nigel Williams-Goss and Josh Perkins, a pair of talented point guards that have won a lot of games in their career. Gonzaga is also the best defensive team in the country. So if they don’t turn the ball over against West Virginia’s press and they make it difficult for West Virginia to score in the half court and get into their press, they should be able to win this thing, right?

Well, maybe not.

My concern with Gonzaga is game-pressure. They didn’t handle it well down the stretch against BYU in their one loss of the season, and I’m not convinced that they win that second round game against Northwestern if the officials don’t blow the goaltending call. How are they going to handle an endless wave of Mountaineers in their face?

PREDICTION: Gonzaga (-3)

No. 1 Kansas (-5) vs. No. 4 Purdue, 9:39 p.m. (CBS): More than any other game this weekend, I’m fascinated to see how these two teams decide to try and play each other. Kansas has, essentially, one big man that Bill Self can trust, and he’s going up against a Player of the Year candidate in Caleb Swanigan and one of the best big men in the country at drawing fouls in Isaac Haas. Will Self double-team Swanigan knowing that Purdue may be more effective offensively when Swanigan can find shooters out of the double-team, or will he risk Lucas getting in foul trouble by trying to guard Swanigan one-on-one?

Then, at the other end of the floor, how will Purdue deal with the Kansas back court? Frank Mason III, the NBC Sports National Player of the Year, and Devonte’ Graham are a nightmare for anyone to deal with, let alone a team that struggles against penetrating guards and that lacks rim protection. It should be a fascinating coaching battle.

PREDICTION: Kansas (-5)

No. 2 Arizona (-7.5) vs. No. 11 Xavier, 10:09 p.m. (TBS): On paper, Arizona should be able to handle a Xavier team that doesn’t have Edmond Sumner or Myles Davis. That said, as we all know, Chris Mack and Sean Miller are very close and used to work together. Mack knows everything that Miller is going to do and vice versa. I think this game will be a low-scoring, grind-it-out affair that comes down to the final minutes.

PREDICTION: Xavier (+7.5)

Shayok and Reuter transferring from Virginia

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Virginia announced the departure of two players Wednesday.

Marial Shayok and Jerred Shayok will both transfer out of the program, the school said.

“Marial and Jarred informed me today that they are leaving the Virginia basketball program and are looking to transfer to other schools,” Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said in a statement released by the school. “I thank Marial and Jarred for their hard work and contributions to our program, and wish them success in the future.”

Shayok, a a 6-foot-5 junior, played 20.9 minutes per game last season for the Cavaliers, averaging 8.9 points and 2.4 rebounds per game while shooting 44.5 percent from the floor. The Ottawa native started 23 games in three seasons with Virginia.

Reuter played a minimal role for the Cavaliers, averaging just 10.8 minutes and 3.8 rebounds per game.

Wake’s Collins declares for NBA draft without hiring agent

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) Wake Forest’s John Collins is entering the NBA draft but will not hire an agent and is keeping open the option of returning to school for his junior season.

In a statement Wednesday announcing the decision, Collins said he wants “to make an informed decision about what is best for my future.”

Collins is a 6-foot-10 forward who as a sophomore blossomed into one of the best big men in the Atlantic Coast Conference and was voted to the Associated Press all-ACC team.

He averaged 19.2 points and 9.8 rebounds, putting together a string of 12 consecutive 20-point games late in the season.

His progression was a big reason why the Demon Deacons earned their first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010. Kansas State beat Wake Forest in the First Four.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org

Porter, Jr. will ask for Washington release

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There may be an overwhelming assumption on where Michael Porter, Jr. – and his father – will ultimately end up, but the five-star recruit is said publicly that he see his re-recruitment process through.

Porter, Jr. said in a teleconference Wednesday that he will ask for his release from Washington, and his father, a former Huskies assistant, has been offered a job at Missouri by new Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin.

“Right now I’m just trying to take it slow with my family and weigh my options,” Porter Jr. said, according to the Kansas City Star. “I plan to get my (national letter of intent) from Washington back and just go from there, not saying that I’m not going to Washington anymore, but I just want to get it back and weigh my options.”

The prevailing thought has been that the Porters will ultimately land in Columbia, where they have significant history.

Still, it would appear at least publicly that Porter, Jr., a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, will weigh his options in at least the short-term.

Calipari signs two-year extension with Kentucky

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Kentucky continues to take care of John Calipari.

The Wildcats coach has received a two-year extension, keeping him under contract in Lexington through the 2024 season, the school announced Wednesday.

The contract will pay Calipari $7.75 million next season and increase to $8 million per season thereafter.

“John has achieved consistent championship-level performance at Kentucky,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “No one in America is better suited for everything that comes with being the coach here. Not only has he attained incredible success on the court, he is also a leader in our community and in college basketball.

“We have been blessed to have him and Ellen here for the last eight years and we are blessed they will continue to call Kentucky home.”

Not only does the deal extend Calipari, but it continues to keep Kentucky competitive with the NBA, which would seem to be the only outlet that would even potentially tempt Calipari away from Kentucky. An NBA franchise would have to make him among the highest-paid coaches in the league to even match Kentucky financially.

Of course, given that Calipari has spurned interest from the league since returning to college in 2000, it seems unlikely that financial considerations would be the lone or heaviest variable in making a decision to move on.

Certainly, Calipari has an excellent thing going at Kentucky as the premier recruiting program in the country that has enjoyed serious success on the court, culminating in a 2012 national title and a 38-0 start to the 2015 season before a loss in the Final Four.

“The last eight years at the University of Kentucky have been a terrific ride,” Calipari said in a statement. “This extension shows our full commitment to each other. I believe this school is the gold standard and I’m so thankful and blessed that this university has given me this opportunity at this point in my career.”

The Wildcats face UCLA in the Sweet 16 on Friday.