Syracuse still unbeaten, but far from perfect

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Just like last season, Syracuse started the New Year with an unblemished record. (I hesitate to say “perfect” because so many of the Orange’s games have been less than perfect, particularly in early November when the offense needed some serious kinks worked out. Still, unbeaten’s unbeaten. Moving on.)

But, unlike last season when Syracuse dropped its first game in January – at home to Pitt – it handled No. 15 Notre Dame on Saturday thanks to an impressive second half when its defense made life miserable for the Irish in a 70-58 win. (No easy task given N.D. can fill it up.)

No Wes Johnson. No Andy Rautins. No Arinze Onuaku. No problem. That defense remains the same.

“We brought the defense in from last year,” Kris Joseph told the Syracuse Post-Standard. “Defense is what we want to do to win games. Defense was the key for us. That’s what it’s been. That’s what it’s always going to be around here.”

Through 15 games, No. 5 Syracuse has sported some impressive defense indeed. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey lauded their aggressiveness in the passing lanes and their ability to force turnovers and turn those turnovers into points. So the defense is good.

But offense has been the real story. ‘Cuse is scoring 1.18 points per possession, ninth best in D-I and almost exactly the same as last year’s 30-5 squad.  And that’s with shooting an average 33.8 percent beyond the arc (it made nearly 40 percent last season) and a shoddy 66.3 from the line. The difference? Far fewer turnovers.

So is this team as good as last year? Point guard Scoop Jardine won’t tough that.

“I can’t,” he told the Post-Standard. “I can’t. I can’t. I won’t. I won’t compare. It doesn’t matter. I was on a great team last season and we’re trying to be a great team this season.”

OK then. I’ll say it. They’re not as good as last year. The defense is close, but the offense is bound to slack off. Three-point shooting with be an issue (still no replacement for Rautins’ range) and they don’t have anyone on Johnson’s level who can create matchup issues. Rick Jackson’s a complementary player, not someone to rely on for post points. Dion Waiters is there yet and Kris Joseph is inconsistent.

The Orange will still win games, but it’ll be a little uglier and little more workmanlike as Jardine and Brandon Triche continue to wring points out of the offense. As Big East play continues, those points are going to be harder and harder to come by.

But this isn’t a team that’s going to play outside its comfort zone. That’ll be worth watching as the season wears on.

“I don’t know how good we are,” Scoop declared, “but we’re good. We’ve still got some improving to do, so I don’t know. But what I do know is that we have a lot of good young guys and we’re working hard. And we’re all listening to what the coach wants us to do and that’s the bottom line.”

Want more? I’m also on Twitter @BeyndArcMMiller.

Walker struggles in return home, No. 11 Miami beats La Salle

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READING, Pa. (AP) — Prized freshman Lonnie Walker IV struggled in his return home, but Dewan Huell scored 16 points and No. 11 Miami did just enough to get by La Salle 57-46 on Wednesday night and remain unbeaten.

Part of Miami’s recruiting pitch for the projected NBA lottery pick was a game in his hometown. Walker was held to five points and 2-of-8 shooting, and his woes were contagious. Miami (4-0) shot 37 percent from the field and the Explorers were 0 of 15 from 3-point range.

B.J. Johnson scored 16 points on 6-of-20 shooting and Pookie Powell added 15 on 5-of-15 from the field for La Salle (3-3) in its third straight loss.

La Salle traveled about 60 miles from campus, but it was a Miami home game and the crowd was solidly behind their local hero’s team. Walker has provided a needed boost to a struggling city northwest of Philadelphia.

Once a bustling railroad and mill town of 120,000, Reading has been in a steady decline for decades. It ranked as the poorest city in the nation in the 2010 Census based on median household income. Population has plummeted to under 88,000.

Walker and his Reading High School team had given the city something to be proud of in March, winning its first state title.

Many in the crowd wore red Reading High state champion T-shirts and sweatshirts, with sprinkles of Miami orange and La Salle blue and gold sprinkled in.

Walker didn’t start — he hasn’t yet this season — but the crowd roared as he got off the bench and walked to the scorer’s table 4 minutes in.

While Walker didn’t appear to have any issue with the left ankle he turned in a win over Florida A&M last week, it was a struggle. He missed his first three shots before finally bringing the crowd to its feet with a nifty crossover dribble and bank shot in the lane in the final seconds of an ugly first half that made it 19-19.

Walker couldn’t get it going in the second half, either. But he fed Bruce Brown Jr. for a 3-pointer with 3:23 left to put Miami up 49-39 during an 8-0 run.

Huell hit 8 of10 shots and added seven rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

La Salle: The Explorers dropped their third straight game to a Power 5 team (Northwestern, Boston College), but this was one they could have won with a decent shooting performance. They shot 29 percent from the field.

Miami: It was tough to tell if Walker was 100 percent with his ankle. He likely had some nerves. It was far from the performance he would have liked. Walker has been held to single digits in three straight games.

UP NEXT

La Salle hosts Big 5 rival Temple on Sunday before departing for a two-game tournament in Northern Ireland next week.

Miami returns home to face North Florida on Saturday before traveling to No. 14 Minnesota next Wednesday.

No. 5 Villanova beats Western Kentucky 66-58 in the Bahamas

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 16: Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats drives against Elijah Long #55 of the Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers in the first half during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KeyBank Center on March 16, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Fifth-ranked Villanova failed to speed up Western Kentucky’s controlled tempo and struggled to make shots through the first half of its Battle 4 Atlantis debut.

In the second half, the Wildcats looked far more like the high-scoring bunch that had cracked 100 points in each of their past two games.

Jalen Brunson scored 18 points while Villanova finally got loose in transition after halftime, helping the Wildcats beat the Hilltoppers 66-58 in Wednesday’s opening round.

The Wildcats (4-0) found themselves in a close game until early in the second half. That’s when they ran off a 13-2 burst to push ahead by double figures, part of a hot-shooting stretch that had them picking up the pace and scoring off turnovers.

“They usually play a little faster than that, but I think they were smart knowing they’ve got three days here,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They controlled the tempo. … Offensively they had us out of whack, and I think that had a lot to do with our poor shooting in the first half.”

Villanova didn’t get many easy scores in the first half and had just two fast-break points by the break, but had 14 in the second half while also scoring 16 of their 23 points off turnovers.

Villanova made 15 of 24 shots (63 percent) after halftime after shooting just 33 percent to lead 27-24 at the break. The Wildcats ultimately led by 18 points late.

“They find ways to have spurts and make runs,” Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury said. “And they were able to find a way to spurt out the second half a little bit on some turnovers.”

Darius Thompson scored 16 points for the Hilltoppers (2-2), who shot 44 percent but struggled to maintain control with Villanova converting easy baskets off turnovers in the second half.

“I think our turnovers were kind of self-inflicted,” Thompson said. “Just trying to do a little too much in the wrong times.”

BIG PICTURE

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers kept Villanova close through the first half and trailed just 34-33 early in the second. Still, the Hilltoppers fell to 1-13 in their last 14 games against ranked opponents.

“I’m really proud of our team’s effort,” Stansbury said, “but I think it’s the way we kind of let the game get away from us in the second half that I’m most disappointed with.”

Villanova: The Wildcats came in putting up big offensive numbers, including 113 points against Nicholls State and 104 more against Lafayette in their last two games. They didn’t find that same roll here, though they ultimately built a big lead and cruised to the final horn.

“We still have to get a lot better,” Brunson said. “We’re still a work in progress.”

BRIDGES’ ROLL

Brunson is a preseason Associated Press All-American, but Mikal Bridges is leading Villanova in scoring. The junior guard had set career scoring highs with 23 points against Nicholls and then 24 against Lafayette, and he followed with 17 points and eight rebounds in this one.

BENCH SPARK

Sophomore Donte DiVincenzo scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half for Villanova off the bench. He finished a tough layup through contact for a three-point play at the 5:11 mark.

DiVincenzo has scored in double figures in three of four games this season.

“He’s really an unselfish guy,” Wright said. “We really have six starters, you can tell by the minutes. And he’s a guy that just said, ‘I don’t care, I’ll do whatever you need me to do.’

“And he comes in off the bench and he’s incredible, and brings great energy. He was awesome in the second half.”

UP NEXT

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers will face No. 18 Purdue in Thursday’s consolation bracket.

Villanova: The Wildcats advanced to play Tennessee on Thursday.

Tennessee tops No. 18 Purdue 78-75 (OT) in Battle 4 Atlantis

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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Tennessee kept attacking the glass and playing aggressive defense on No. 18 Purdue’s shooters.

Once Grant Williams got going, the Volunteers had enough scoring punch, too.

Williams scored all 22 of his points after halftime and hit the go-ahead shot with 14.5 seconds left in overtime to lift Tennessee past No. 18 Purdue 78-75 in Wednesday’s opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis.

The Volunteers (3-0) trailed by 11 points in the first half, needed to make a late 3-pointer to force overtime and fell behind by five in the extra period before rallying for the win.

“I thought we really showed the toughness we’ve been looking for from them,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said, adding: “I thought our guys just kept finding ways to fight back.”

After P.J. Thompson missed a jumper for the lead, James Daniel hit two free throws with 2.0 seconds left to push the margin to three. The Boilermakers had one more chance to tie, but Kyle Alexander intercepted Dakota Mathias’ long inbounds heave to end it.

Williams, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, missed both of his first-half shots and had one rebound while playing eight scoreless minutes with two fouls. But he made 8 of 16 shots with seven rebounds from there while the Volunteers kept running their offense through him at the top of the key and in the post.

“Just keep playing, because when you’re in foul trouble you tend to get out of your mind a little bit,” Williams said. “You’ve just got to stick to it and be yourself, because I knew guys were going to hit shots.”

Tennessee shot just 36 percent but dominated the boards (50-41), finished with 21 second-chance points and scored 20 points off turnovers.

The Volunteers also got a huge lift when Lamonte Turner buried a tying 3-pointer from near his bench with 5.1 seconds left in regulation. Purdue called a timeout, but Carsen Edwards’ 3 for the win hit the front rim as the horn sounded.

Edwards scored 21 points to lead the Boilermakers (4-1), who never got their high-scoring offense rolling.

“We have a skilled team, but we’ve got to win the possession wars,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “We’ve got to outrebound our opponent. We have to have fewer turnovers. When you do, now that skill is really going to help you. I thought tonight we gave Tennessee a lot of help.”

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers were trying for their first 3-0 start since the 2010-11 season, along with earning their fourth win against a ranked opponent under their third-year coach. They certainly found a thrilling way to do it, from Turner’s 3 to Williams’ huge effort after a scoreless first half.

Purdue: Offense sure didn’t come easily for a team that entered as one of the nation’s best offenses. The Boilermakers were averaging 102 points per game and shooting nearly 57 percent from the field. They also were shooting roughly 49 percent from 3-point range after making a school-record 19 3s against Fairfield on Saturday. But Purdue shot just 37 percent and had 18 turnovers.

“We’ve got to do a better job with decision-making,” Painter said. “We’re a good offensive team, we’ve got to allow ourselves to be a good offensive team. When we go too quick or we force things and we turn it over, now we’re not rewarding ourselves.”

BIG SHOTS

Tennessee came up with two huge 3s late, the first from Turner to force overtime.

“Up until that point, I felt like I was losing the game for us,” Turner said.

Then Alexander hit one after Purdue had raced out to a 70-65 OT lead. The 6-11 junior was 1 for 6 from behind the arc in his career before that shot.

LATE REVIEW

There was a bit of end-game confusion and a review with Alexander’s steal and whether he traveled just before the horn. Ultimately, it stood as the final play.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: The Volunteers will play the Western Kentucky-Villanova winner Thursday.

Purdue: The Boilermakers will play the Western Kentucky-Villanova loser Thursday.

Vanderbilt lands five-star forward Simi Shittu

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Vanderbilt continues to build a monster recruiting class under head coach Bryce Drew as five-star 2018 forward Simi Shittu pledged to the Commodores on Wednesday.

The second five-star commitment for Vanderbilt in the Class of 2018, Shittu joins top point guard prospect Darius Garland to form one of the best freshman combinations in the country for next season. The Commodores also have a top-150 forward in Aaron Nesmith.

The 6-foot-9, 220-pound Shittu is coming off of a monster summer in which he became a major problem and top-ten recruit. The No. 8 overall prospect in the Rivals national Class of 2018 recruiting rankings, Shittu is a huge get and an instant starter for Vanderbilt next season.

By landing prospects like Garland and Shittu, Drew is also becoming a major player in a short amount of time as a high-major coach. Always a noted recruiter at the mid-major level at Valparaiso, now Vanderbilt is seeing Drew’s hiring workout as he’s bringing top talent to the program.

If Drew can continue to recruit like this then Vanderbilt could be in position to be in the top half of the SEC as the league has seen some of its rebuilds go poorly over the last few years.

Kansas still without freshman Billy Preston

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Kansas freshman Billy Preston has yet to make his debut for the Jayhawks and it appears he’ll have to wait a bit longer before that happens.

Head coach Bill Self met with media earlier this week to discuss the Preston situation, saying that nothing has changed about his status quite yet. Preston was previously suspended for violating a team rule when he missed the game against Tennessee State. Before Preston was set to debut against Kentucky in the Champions Classic he was also withheld from the contest after the revelation that Preston had been in a single-vehicle accident the previous weekend.

“I have actually been out, until I just pulled back in, so as of this morning, there was no movement. The last time you guys asked me was Friday and so you don’t work on Saturday or Sunday, so there is nothing new on that situation,” Self said.

“Sure, I’m worried,” Self also added. “I’m concerned and I do think that it can work itself, based on what I’ve been told. I also think that it obviously hadn’t happened yet.”

It’s uncertain when the next step in any of this will play out but Self doesn’t appear to be too concerned over it. Kansas has won without Preston so far but they could definitely use his size, scoring punch and overall depth to a team that isn’t very deep right now.

A matchup nightmare, Preston could help the Jayhawk offense while also giving Udoka Azubuike additional help on the glass and protecting the rim.

(H/t: Jesse Newell, Kansas City Star)