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A waaaay too early 2011-12 preseason Top 25

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Until teams know who’s off to the NBA and who’s staying in school, a preseason Top 25 is merely fodder for discussion.

With that, here’s the fodder.  

1. Kentucky

Record: 29-9 (Final Four)
Key returnees
: SF DeAndre Liggins, SG Doron Lamb, SF Darius Miller, C Eloy Vargas, SF Jon Hood.
Departing seniors: C Josh Harrellson
May lose: PG Brandon Knight, PF Terrence Jones
Incoming recruits: PG Marquis Teague, SF Michael Gilchrist, PF Anthony Davis, PF Kyle Wiltjer

Provided the John Calipari-NBA rumors don’t come true next season, the Wildcats enter 2011-12 as the team to beat. Even if Knight and Jones both enter the NBA draft, Kentucky has more than enough talent arriving to offset those losses. Davis, Teague and Gilchrist are the top-rated recruits at their respective positions and Wiltjer’s also a 5-star prospect. That makes this the best class Calipari’s reeled in while at Kentucky. They’ll be young, but we’ve seen Kentucky thrive with freshman-laden teams in the last two years. Plus, the Wildcats wil have solid seniors in Liggins and Miller. They won’t be overwhelming favorites, but there’s more than enough talent to make them No. 1.

2. North Carolina

Record: 29-8 (Elite Eight)
Key returnees
: PG Kendall Marshall, SG Leslie McDonald, SG Dexter Strickland, SF Reggie Bullock
Departing seniors: PF Justin Knox
May lose: SF Harrison Barnes, PF John Henson, C Tyler Zeller
Incoming recruits: PF James McAdoo, SG P.J. Hairston

The skinny: This one comes with a caveat that at least two of the Heels’ likely early entrants – Barnes, Zeller and Henson – return to school. Call me crazy (there’s a comments section below), but it seems like a year when guys are more likely to stick it out another year because of the impending NBA lockout. That happens, UNC will be stocked at every position with five-star talent. (And if all three return? Heels could make an argument for No. 1) Still, there are concerns about frontcourt depth and if McAdoo and Hairston can contribute right away. This could be another UNC team that struggles at the start, but thrives at season’s end.

3. Duke

Record: 32-5 (Sweet 16)
Key returnees
: PF Mason Plumlee, SG Seth Curry, PF Miles Plumlee, G Andre Dawkins, SF Ryan Kelly
Departing seniors: SG Nolan Smith, SF Kyle Singler
May lose: PG Kyrie Irving
Incoming recruits: SG Austin Rivers, PG Quinn Cook, C Mason Plumlee, SF Michael Gbinije

The skinny: Even if Irving – the likely No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft – bolts, the Devils are primed to replace him and Smith with Rivers and Cook, both of whom are 5-star talents. Rivers is the top scorer of the ’11 class, while Cook thrives as a creator and floor leader. The bigger questions might be if Duke can fill Singler’s role as a versatile scorer and defender. That means more time for the Plumlees and Kelly, and perhaps incoming Gbinije. Irving says he’ll make a draft decision soon, which would affect their ranking here. He returns, they’re right behind Kentucky as the team to beat.

4. Syracuse

Record: 27-8 (Third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: PG Scoop Jardine, SF Kris Joseph, SG Brandon Triche, SG Dion Waiters, SF C.J. Fair, C Fab Melo, PF Baye Moussa Keita
Departing seniors: PF Rick Jackson
Incoming recruits: C Rakeem Christmas, SG Trevor Cooney, SG Michael Carter-Williams

Jim Boeheim loses just one starter (Jackson) from a 27-win team that adds two impact recruits in Christmas and Carter-Williams, and another who can provide offense off the bench. The Orange will miss Jackson’s reliable rebounding and post defense, but he’s hardly irreplaceable. They’ll need Jardine to be more consistent and for Joseph and Melo to finally deliver on their tantalizing skills, but all the pieces are there for Syracuse to post yet another outstanding season. Maybe this is too high, but so be it. Given the other uncertainties surrounding other teams, ‘Cuse gets a bump for its known qualities.

5. Connecticut

Record: 32-9 (Won national championship)
Key returnees
: PF Alex Oriakhi, SG Jeremy Lamb, PG Shabazz Napier, SF Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, PF Roscoe Smith, C Tyler Olander
Departing seniors: SG Donnell Beverly, C Chuck Akwandu
May lose: PG Kemba Walker
Incoming recruits: PG Ryan Boatright

The skinny: UConn’s a tempting team. There’s no lack of talent in Storrs, and 5-star prospect Boatright only adds to that mix. More impressive was that the Huskies didn’t play like a young team in 2010-11. But … that was with Kemba running the show and making plays when needed. When he struggled, the Huskies struggled, thus their 9th place finish in the Big East. There’s enough here to make a Top 5 team, but there are going to be nights when they dearly miss Walker.

6. Arizona

Record: 30-8 (Elite Eight)
Key returnees
: PG Momo Jones, SG Kyle Fogg, SF Solomon Hill, SF Kevin Parrom, SF Jesse Perry, PG Jordin Mayes
Departing senior: PF Jamelle Horne
May lose: PF Derrick Williams
Incoming recruits: PG Josiah Turner, SG Nick Johnson, PF Angelo Chol, PF Sidiki Johnson

The skinny: Williams is good as gone, but that’s no reason to write off the Wildcats, who return every other starter and bring in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. That’s more than enough to offset the loss of one player, no matter how good he may be (Read: Evan Turner/Ohio State). Arizona didn’t get much respect nationally until it handled Duke in the NCAA tournament, and that wasn’t all because of Williams. It was the mark of a team that finally started to play defense and live up to an enormous amount of talent on the roster. Don’t expect the team to make 40 percent of its 3-pointers again, but do expect Sean Miller’s club to win the Pac-10 and vie for a No. 1 seed out West.

7. Louisville

Record: 25-10 (Second round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: PG Peyton Siva, PF Terrence Jennings, SG Chris Smith, PF Jared Swopshire, SF Kyle Kuric, SF Rakeem Buckles, PF Gorgui Dieng
Departing seniors: SG Preston Knowles
Incoming recruits: SG Wayne Blackshear, PF Chane Behanan, C Zach Price

The skinny: The Cards overachieved in 2010-11, winning 25 games and finishing tied for third in the Big East. Expect more next season. Siva’s primed for a breakout season, Kuric and Smith developed into key players and Buckles and Swopshire will both be healthy. Given that their only roster loss (Knowles) will be offset by Blackshear’s addition, Louisville’s ready to push Syracuse and UConn for the Big East title.

8. Texas

Record: 28-8 (Third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: SG J’Covan Brown, PG Cory Joseph, PF Alexis Wangmere
Departing seniors: PF Gary Johnson, PG Jai Lucas, PG Dogus Balbay
May lose: SF Jordan Hamilton, C Tristan Thompson
Incoming recruits: PG Myck Kabongo, PF Jonathan Holmes, SG Julien Jones, SG Sheldon McClellan, PF Kevin Thomas

The skinny: It wouldn’t be Texas if Rick Barnes didn’t have to deal with serious roster attrition. He loses two reliable seniors, but not having Hamilton and Thompson would be far more crucial. After the ‘Horns’ NCAA tournament loss, both said they’d return to school, but UT seems likely to lose at least one, maybe both. The incoming talent will offset most of that, but the eternal Texas questions will remain – just how good will the Longhorns be and will they put it together when it matters? This ranking may ultimately be too optimistic.

9. Michigan

Record: 21-14 (Third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: PG Darius Morris, SG Tim Hardaway, C Jordan Morgan, SF Zack Novak, SG Stu Douglass, PF Evan Smotrycz, PF Jon Horford
Departing seniors: None
Incoming recruits: SG Carlton Brundidge, PG Trey Burke

The skinny: Best team in the Big Ten? I’ll make that leap. Every starter returns from a team that posted a negative efficiency margin during conference play, but has the talent to do more than make small improvements. Michigan’s good enough to be next year’s breakthrough team, much like UConn was in 2010-11. Morris, Hardaway and Morgan are a solid young trio who will be reason why. Morris and Hardaway can create their own shots, while Morgan’s a beats on the boards. The wild card? John Beilein’s offense relies on 3-pointers more than just about any other team. The Wolverines were about average (35.3 percent) this season; a slight uptick next year would be the difference between 20 wins and 27.

10. Ohio State

Record: 34-3 (Sweet 16)
Key returnees
: PG Aaron Craft, SG William Buford, SF Deshaun Thomas, SG Jordan Sibert
Departing seniors: SG Jon Diebler, SF David Lighty, C Dallas Lauderdale
May lose: C Jared Sullinger
Incoming recruits: C Amir Williams, C Trey McDonald, SF Sam Thompson, SF LaQuinton Ross, PG Shannon Scott, transfer Evan Ravenel.

The skinny: Thad Matta has another solid class of recruits, but the Buckeyes’ status as an elite team depends on Sullinger’s NBA draft decision. He says he’ll be back, but until then, things are in flux in Columbus. Well, a little anyway.  Buford and Thomas should have more prominent roles, but with the addition of solid freshmen such as Williams and Ross, expect Ohio State to remain a balanced, inside-outside team that flirts with the Top 10 throughout the season. If Sullinger’s back, it’ll be a Top 10 mainstay.

11. UCLA

Record: 23-11 (Third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: C Josh Smith, PF Reeves Nelson, PG Lazeric Jones, SG Jerime Anderson, PF Anthony Stover, PF Brendan Lane, SG Tyler Lamb
Departing seniors: None
May lose: SG Malcolm Lee, SF Tyler Honeycutt
Incoming recruits: SG Norman Powell, SG De’End Parker, PFs David and Travis Wear (transfers), PG Larry Drew II (transfer)

The skinny: Not sure why I have the Bruins this high. Maybe it felt like I should. They’ll only lose Honeycutt (Lee’s probably coming back) from a team that clicked at season’s end and added even more talent to the roster in Powell and the Wear twins. It should be a good team. My issue? I’m not sure it’s a Top 10 team. No one on the roster is an elite player, which could prove to be the Bruins’ undoing. Still, it wouldn’t be the first team to thrive without having a go-to guy.

12. Vanderbilt

Record: 23-11 (Second round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: C Festus Ezeli, PG Brad Tinsley, PF Lance Goulbourne, PF Steve Tchiengang
Departing seniors: None
May lose: SG John Jenkins, SF Jeff Taylor
Incoming recruits: SG Dai-Jon Parker, PG Kedren Johnson, PF Shelby Morris

The skinny: Jenkins and Taylor are the key. Feels like both will be back, which would give Vandy everyone from a team that’s due for a big year. The talent is there for big things. Question is if the Commodores can play enough defense to get it done.

13. Wisconsin

Record: 25-9 (Sweet 16)
Key returnees
: PG Jordan Taylor, SG Josh Gasser, SF Mike Bruesewitz, SF Ryan Evans, PF Jared Berggren
Departing seniors: PF Jon Leuer, SF Keaton Nankivil, SF Tim Jarmusz
Incoming recruits: PF Jarrod Uthoff, SG Traevon Jackson, C Frank Kaminsky

The skinny: Write off the Badgers if you like. But with a solid core returning, a 4-star prospect in Uthoff coming in and Taylor – a national player of the year candidate – running the show, Wisconsin’s going to be what it always is under coach Bo Ryan: Fantastic at home, solid on the road and brutally efficient on offense. Question is, can Taylor turn them into a Top 10 team?

14. Cincinnati

Record: 26-9 (Third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: C Yancy Gates, SG Sean Kilpatrick, SG Dion Dixon, PG Cashmere Wright, G Jaquon Parker, SF Justin Jackson
Departing seniors: SF Rashad Bishop, C Ibrahima Thomas
Incoming recruits: SF Shaquille Thomas, SF Jermaine Sanders, SG Jeremiah Davis, SG Ge-Lawn Guyn

The skinny: This might be too low given who the Bearcats return and with the addition of Thomas, but I’m rolling with it. When Cincinnati’s offense finally matches its defense – and when Gates plays consistently — it could be a Top 10 team.

15. Kansas

Record: 35-3 (Elite Eight)
Key returnees
: PG Tyshawn Taylor, PF Thomas Robinson, PG Elijah Johnson
Departing seniors: SG Brady Morningstar, SG Tyrel Reed, SF Mario Little
May lose: SF Marcus Morris, PF Markieff Morris, SG Josh Selby
Incoming recruits: PG Nadir Thorpe, SG Ben McLemore

The skinny: The Jayhawks will be dealing with serious attrition yet again. The Morris twins are all but gone and could be joined by Selby. That’s yet another talent drain coach Bill Self has to address in recent years – this one might be a little rougher transition than in 2009. Kansas added one late recruit in McLemore, but brining in PF DeAndre Daniels would be a welcome addition. Still, if the Jayhawks are to stay atop the Big 12, they’ll need Robinson and Johnson to boost their games as starters.

16. Temple

Record: 26-8 (Third round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: SG Ramone Moore, PG Juan Fernandez, SG Khalif Wyatt, PF Michael Eric, SF Rahlier Jefferson, SF Scootie Randall
Departing seniors: PF Lavoy Allen
Incoming recruits: PG Will Cummings, SF Jimmy McDonnell

The skinny: The Owls will miss Allen inside, but he’s the only guy gone from a team that thrived at the end of the year. They won’t turn the ball over, they’ll hit 3-pointers and they’ll win games. That gets you in the Top 25.

17. Memphis

Record: 25-10 (Second round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: PG Joe Jackson, PF Tarik Black, SF Drew Barnham, SG Antonio Barton, SG Charles Carmouche, SF Wesley Witherspoon.
Departing seniors: PF Will Coleman
May lose: SG Will Barton
Incoming recruits: SF Adonis Thomas

The skinny: Will Barton says he’ll return, but that could change. If he does stay, the Tigers will have as much talent as any team in the nation when you include Thomas, one of the elite 2011 recruits. The question isn’t talent, though. It’s whether Memphis’ awful offense improves and if they expand enough effort on defense.

18. Texas A&M

Record: 24-9 (Second round of NCAA tournament
Key returnees
: SF Khris Middleton, PF David Loubeau, PF Kourtney Roberson, SG Dash Harris, SF Naji Hibbert, SF Ray Turner
Departing seniors: PG B.J. Holmes, SF Nathan Walkup
Incoming recruits: PG Jamal Branch, SG Jordan Green, SF Elston Turner (transfer)

The skinny: The Aggies don’t win any beauty contests, but that’s by design. They’r here because of their defense. Simple as that. It also helps to return four of five starters and to plug in a recruit like Branch. If Middleton’s offense continues to develop, A&M will be more than defensive show.

19. Pitt

Key returnees: SF Nasir Robinson, PG Travon Woodall, PF Dante Taylor, SG J.J. Moore, SF Lamar Patterson, PF Talib Zanna
Departing seniors: SG Brad Wanamaker, SF Gilbert Brown, C Gary McGhee
May lose: SG Ashton Gibbs
Incoming recruits: PF Khem Birch, SG Durand Johnson, C Malcolm Gilbert, PF Jaylen Byrd, SG John Johnson.

The skinny: If Gibbs stays in the NBA draft, the Big East champs will be out four starters. That also happened in 2009 as Pitt set out rebuilding with a roster filled with good, not great players. Well, the Panthers won 25 games the next year. Given that Robinson, Woodall and Taylor were all significant parts of this year’s team and Moore seems poised for a breakout season, that win total seems doable. If Gibbs returns, even better.

20. Purdue

Key returnees: SF Robbie Hummel, PG Lewis Jackson, SF D.J. Byrd, SG Ryne Smith, SF John Hart, SG Terone Johnson, SF Kelsey Barlow, PF Patrick Bade, PF Travis Carroll
Departing seniors: SG E’Twaun Moore, C JaJaun JOhnson
Incoming recruits: PF Jacob Lawson, PF Donnie Hale

The skinny: Johnson and Moore are gone, but the Boilermakers have three key pieces returning: Hummel – who sat out the entire 2010-11 season – Jackson and coach Matt Painter. Painter, who spurned Missouri’s efforts to lure him away from West Lafayette, may be the most crucial piece, too. His teams are routinely boast one of the nation’s most efficient defenses (though last year’s offense was none too shabby), which will be key to competing for another Big Ten title.

21. Butler

Record: 28-10 (Lost in national championship)
Key returnees
: SG Shelvin Mack, PF Khyle Marshall, PG Ronald Nored, C Andrew Smith, SF Chase Stigall
Departing seniors: PF Matt Howard, PG Shawn Vanzant, SG Zach Hahn
Incoming recruits: PF Kameron Woods, SF Roosevelt Jones, SF Andrew Smeathers

The skinny: Howard, Vanzant and Hahn are gone, but nobody’s gonna write off Butler, right? Mack and Nored are still running the show and the Bulldogs welcome two recruits in Woods and Jones who can contribute right away. The Bulldogs will guard, they’ll score efficiently and they’ll win. But it might not always be pretty.

22. George Mason

Record: 27-7 (Third round of tournament)
Key returnees
: SF Ryan Pearson, SG Luke Hancock, PG Andre Cornelius, PF Mike Morrison, SG Vertrail Vaughns
Departing seniors: SG Cam Long, SF Isaiah Tate
Incoming recruits: SF Vaughn Gray, PG Corey Edwards

The skinny: Too high? Nah. The Patriots played well enough to be ranked this season and they return more than enough talent and experienced players to get some early props. Maybe Mason has less room for error than say, Kansas, and might not shoot 39.5 percent from beyond the arc again, but there’s enough here for a spot in the Top 25.

23. Marquette

Record: 22-15 (Sweet 16)
Key returnees
: SG Darius Johnson-Odum, PF Jae Crowder, PG Junior Cadougan, SG Vander Blue, C Davante Gardner
Departing seniors: SF Jimmy Butler, SG Dwight Buycks
Incoming recruits: SF Juan Anderson, SG Todd Mayo, PG Derrick Wilson, SF Jamil Wilson (Transfer)

The skinny: Coach Buzz Williams is back and he’s got his roster of solid, underrated players with him. That Sweet 16 berth wasn’t a fluke because the Golden Eagles were always a team that was far better than its record indicated. That’ll be true again in 2011-12 when Johnson-Odom, Crowder and Cadougan get a boost from Anderson.

24. Belmont

Record: 30-5 (Second round of NCAA tournament)
Key returnees
: SG Ian Clark, PF Mick Hedgepeth, PG Kerron Johnson, PF Scott Saunders, PG Drew Hanlen, SF J.J. Mann
Departing seniors: SG Jordan Campbell, SF Jon House

The skinny: The A-Sun champs lose two starters, but that’s just a technicality. The Bruins used so many guys last season, everyone logged significant minutes during their 30-win season. Besides, their top players – Clark, Hedgepeth and Saunders – are all back, along with that full-court pressing defense.

25. Florida

Record: 29-8 (Elite Eight)
Key returnees
: SG Kenny Boynton, PG Erving Walker, PF Erick Murphy, PF Patric Young, SF Casey Prather, SG Scottie Wilbekin
Departing seniors: PF Vernon Macklin, SF Chandler Parsons, PF Alex Tyus
Incoming recruits: SG Brad Beal, SG Mike Rosario (transfer)

The skinny: The Gators are loaded – with shooters. Boynton and Walker can hoist their share of shots, but how will it work with the additions of Beal and Rosario? Someone’s gonna have to pass and defend. They’ll certainly miss the steady play of Macklin, Parsons and Tyus, though. So why are they ranked? There’s too much talent to ignore.

Best of the rest: Wichita State, Clemson, Michigan State, Alabama, New Mexico, Arkansas, Villanova, Xavier, Gonzaga, Florida State, West Virginia.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

No. 6 Oregon wins another nail-biter, 75-73 over Stanford

EUGENE, OR - FEBRUARY 18: Jordan Bell #1 of the Oregon Ducks celebrates after making a dunk during the first half of the game against the Colorado Buffaloes at Matthew Knight Arena on February 18, 2017 in Eugene, Oregon.  (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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STANFORD, Calif. — Jordan Bell scored on a putback with 14 seconds left to give No. 6 Oregon its second straight nail-biting victory in a rare Bay Area sweep as the Ducks beat Stanford 75-73 on Saturday.

Bell’s game-winner followed Dillon Brooks’ last-second, tiebreaking 3-pointer three nights earlier at California to give Oregon (26-4, 15-2 Pac-12) its second sweep of its conference Bay Area rivals since 1976. The other came two years ago.

Tyler Dorsey scored 15 points to lead Oregon, while Brooks added 14.

Reid Travis had 27 points and 14 rebounds to lead the way for the Cardinal (14-14, 6-10), but committed a turnover on the final possession to end any comeback hopes.

Stanford trailed by as many as 12 points in the first half but battled back to tie the game five times in the second half. But it took until that fifth equalizer for the Cardinal to take their first lead since being up 9-8 early in the first half.

Travis’ jumper in the lane made it 71-69 with less than 3 minutes left but the lead was short-lived as Brooks hit a jumper at the other end to tie it.

The game was tied at 73 when the Ducks managed four offensive rebounds on one possession before finally converting on Bell’s shot with 14 seconds left. It capped a wild sequence that started when Dylan Ennis missed an off-balance 3-pointer as the shot clock ran down. Payton Pritchard missed on the putback attempt before Bell converted his.

Travis lost the ball in the paint at the other end to seal the victory for Oregon.

BIG PICTURE

Oregon: The Ducks capped a 7-1 February with just their second road sweep of the conference season as they peaking at the right time of year. Their only loss in that span came on a late 3-pointer by Lonzo Ball in an 82-79 loss at UCLA. Oregon has one more road game left to finish the regular season at last-place Oregon State, and remains in contention for a Pac-12 title and a top two seeding in the NCAA Tournament.

Stanford: The Cardinal were unable to follow up home wins against California and Oregon State when faced by tougher competition from the Ducks. That has been an issue all season for Stanford, which fell to 0-8 against ranked opponents.

UP NEXT

Oregon: Visits Oregon State on Saturday.

Stanford: Visits Colorado on Thursday.

Shamet’s 23 points leads Wichita State to share of MVC title

WICHITA, KS - NOVEMBER 13:  Guard Landry Shamet #11 of the Wichita State Shockers dribbles the ball up court against the Charleston Southern Buccaneers during the first half on November 13, 2015 at Charles Koch Arena in Wichita, Kansas.  (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) Landry Shamet scored a career-best 23 points as No. 25 Wichita State clinched at least a share of the Missouri Valley Conference title for a fourth straight season with an 86-67 victory over Missouri State on Saturday.

The title is the fifth in six seasons for the Shockers (27-4, 17-1), who have won 12 straight games and appear well on their way to a sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

Shamet finished 9-of-12 shooting, 5 of 8 from 3-point range, while topping his previous best of 20 points – set against South Dakota State in December. Shaq Morris added 20 points for Wichita State, which has won 14 straight games over the Bears (16-15, 7-11), while Conner Frankamp had 14 points.

Dequon Miller led Missouri State with 19 points, while Alize Johnson had 18 points and 12 rebounds.

The Shockers led by as many as 10 points in the first half before Missouri State cut the lead to 50-46 early in the second half. However, Wichita State followed by hitting five of its 11 3-pointers for the game during a 20-8 run that pushed the lead to 70-54 and put the game out of reach.

Shamet hit four of his 3-pointers in the second half for the Shockers, who added to the school record for 3-pointers in a season (274) they set in a win earlier in the week against Evansville.

BIG PICTURE

Wichita State: The Shockers entered The Associated Press poll for the first time in a year this week, and they aren’t going anywhere yet after wins over Evansville on Tuesday and Saturday’s win over Missouri State. The real question for Wichita State is whether its late-season surge is enough for the school – rated 44th in the NCAA’s RPI ratings – to have already secured an NCAA Tournament berth, if it doesn’t win the MVC Tournament next week.

Missouri State: Johnson’s double-double was the 16th of the season for the 6-foot-9 junior. Despite outrebounding Wichita State 33-31, though, the Bears were able to improve on an 80-62 loss to the Shockers in Kansas on Feb. 9, allowing Wichita State to shoot 54.1 percent (33 of 61) in the win.

UP NEXT

Both teams next play at the MVC Tournament in St. Louis from March 2-5.

For more college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

No. 11 Kentucky rallies past No. 13 Florida 76-66

LEXINGTON, KY - JANUARY 31:  Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Georgia Bulldogs at Rupp Arena on January 31, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Not satisfied with making perimeter jumpers, Malik Monk drove to the basket to create numerous opportunities at the free throw line and found openings to feed his Kentucky teammates.

The freshman guard wasn’t aware until afterward of how many points he had piled up, but he knew that they helped the 11th-ranked Wildcats earn their most important victory this season.

Monk scored 30 of his 33 points in the second half, Bam Adebayo added 18 points with 15 rebounds and Kentucky rallied past No. 13 Florida for a 76-66 victory Saturday to take over the Southeastern Conference lead.

“I didn’t know about that until after the game,” said Monk, who made 10 of 11 free throws and five 3-pointers along with a team-high five assists. That contribution definitely came in handy as point guard De’Aaron Fox missed the game with a knee contusion.

“I was just playing, but it was crazy,” Monk added. “I was way more patient in the second half than I was in the first half.”

While another week remains in SEC play for both teams, the Wildcats (24-5, 14-2) took an important step toward clinching the regular season title by twice rallying from eight points down to win the pivotal matchup. And they can thank Monk for making it happen as he scored 14 points during an 18-10 run that tied the game at 55 with 9:54 remaining.

The high-scoring Monk ended up with the most points in one half by a player under coach John Calipari, who was also taken aback by the outburst.

“Oh, he got 30 in a half?” Calipari said. “No wonder when I got on him about a couple of bad shots, he looked at me like I was crazy.”

Adebayo also overcame a slow start with 12 second-half points after grabbing 11 boards to rally Kentucky.

The 6-foot-10 freshman followed Monk’s key stretch with six straight points before Monk added seven more in between lobbing a pass to Adebayo for a 70-60 lead with 4:04 left. Monk sandwiched two free throws around layups by Isaiah Briscoe and Adebayo, points that proved critical in thwarting rally attempts by the Gators (23-6, 13-3).

Kentucky shot 64 percent in the second half to avenge a 22-point loss to Florida earlier this month. The Wildcats also outrebounded the Gators 48-30 with Adebayo grabbing 15 for the second straight game.

KeVaughn Allen had 24 points and Justin Leon added 13 for Florida, which had won nine straight. Devin Robinson had nine points and 11 rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Florida: The Gators had several chances to make things hard on Kentucky away but didn’t succeed, letting a 12-point lead slip away in the first half before letting a couple of second-half edges slip away. Several cold stretches didn’t help but rebounding was telling in this rematch as they were beaten on the glass after owning the boards 54-29 in the first meeting in Gainesville three weeks ago.

Most difficult was stopping Monk, who seemed to have answer for every defense they tried to contain him.

“We had a couple of options that did a good job on him in Gainesville,” coach Mike White said. “We just didn’t do quite as good of a job (in Lexington), especially down the stretch.”

Kentucky: The Wildcats started raggedly without Fox but clawed back throughout thanks to Monk’s scoring. Others chipped in big on the glass, as Derek Willis had nine rebounds, Briscoe eight and Dominique Hawkins six. They succeeded despite committing 16 turnovers, but only four after halftime.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Kentucky’s gutty win could move the Wildcats back into the Top 10.

ON A ROLL

Adebayo posted his second straight double-double and has 40 points and 30 rebounds the past two games. He’s the first with consecutive double-doubles since Tyler Ulis did so last March.

“My confidence just keeps building,” said Adebayo, who also had a career-best 15 rebounds at Missouri.

FOUL TROUBLE

Four Gators had four fouls, including guards Kasey Hill and Allen.

UP NEXT

Florida: The Gators host Arkansas on Wednesday night.

Kentucky: Hosts Vanderbilt on Tuesday night in its home finale.

More AP college basketball at http://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Malik Monk scores 30 in second half to lead No. 11 Kentucky past No. 13 Florida

LEXINGTON, KY - FEBRUARY 25:  Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates during the game against the  Florida Gators at Rupp Arena on February 25, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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The reason why No. 11 Kentucky is still a national title contender, the reason why no one will ever be able to say that this team cannot get to a Final Four regardless of how much they have struggled over the course of the last month of the season, is Malik Monk.

He’s also the reason why that run isn’t all that likely.

Simply put, he’s college basketball’s single-most unstoppable force, and, once again, he showed us all why on Saturday. Monk scored 30 of his 33 points after halftime and added six assists as the Wildcats outscored No. 13 Florida 32-14 in the final 13 minutes of a 76-66 win that put them in the driver’s seat for the SEC regular season title.

The Gators and the Wildcats entered Saturday tied for first in the league at 13-2. Florida was able to jump out to early leads in both halves, but it was Kentucky that took control down the stretch. Much of that credit goes to Monk, whose shooting brought an energy to Rupp Arena that we haven’t seen in a while and brought on an effort defensively that doesn’t always show up when Kentucky takes the floor.

For a while during the second half, Kentucky looked like the team that we saw early in the season despite the fact that De’Aaron Fox wasn’t playing due to a knee bruise. Their athletes were flying around defensively, they were getting out and running in transition, they were throwing down crazy dunks. That’s the way they played in November and December, when they were scoring in the 90s on a nightly basis and beating teams like Arizona State by 46 points.

That coincided with the time that Monk caught fire.

It’s not just energy that he brings. It’s not just the confidence you see Kentucky’s players get when he’s draining 30-footers like they’re free throws. When he’s scoring, it opens everything up for them on the offensive end of the floor. He’s a shooter with gravity, dragging defenders with him, and he’s a willing and capable enough passer to be able to find open teammates when he puts the ball on the floor. That Kentucky was able to put this kind of a run on a very good Florida team tells you all you need to know about how dangerous they can be.

But here’s the issue: to get to a Final Four, Kentucky, who seems likely to end up around a No. 3 or No. 4 seed, is going to have to beat three really good teams in a row. To win a national title, they’re going to have to do it five straight times. Can Monk catch fire for three straight weeks?

Since the start of the new year, Monk has scored at least 20 points in consecutive games just once — one of those games was a lost at Tennessee — and it’s probably worth noting that the best win Kentucky has in a game where Monk finished below his season scoring average is probably Arkansas at home.

There are a couple of x-factors here, the most obvious of which is De’Aaron Fox getting back to full strength. Between rolled ankles, bruised knees and illnesses, Fox just hasn’t looked like himself for a month. When he’s right, he can be a difference-maker, as can Bam Adebayo, who went for 18 points and 15 boards against a Florida team playing without John Egbunu. He had 22 points and 15 boards against Missouri on Wednesday, and has been playing his best basketball of the season the last couple of weeks.

It should go without saying that Kentucky is better when those two are better. It reduces their reliance on one player doing something that, statistically, is not all that likely.

But they aren’t what makes Kentucky dangerous.

That’s Monk.

He’s good enough that he can literally carry Kentucky to a win over anyone.

But unless Kentucky can find a way to be consistently good on the nights where the inconsistently great Monk isn’t, it’s hard to imagine them making a run to Phoenix.

No. 10 Duke falls at Miami behind Bruce Brown’s 23 points

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - FEBRUARY 15: Luke Kennard #5 of the Duke Blue Devils gets off the ground during Duke's game against the Virginia Cavaliers at John Paul Jones Arena on February 15, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Chet Strange/Getty Images)
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No. 10 Duke is back to not being back again, right?

The Blue Devils went down to Coral Gables on Saturday afternoon and lost 55-50 to Miami. It’s their second consecutive loss, coming just three days and 1,500 miles after the Blue Devils lost at Syracuse.

That’s the kind of week that will probably convince people that the Blue Devils were, in fact, fraudulent all along.

And frankly, that’s a pretty dumb way to view what’s happened to Duke over the course of the last four days.

Because here’s the truth: Duke lost by five points on the road in league play to a team that’s currently sitting as a No. 8 seed in the most recent NBC Sports bracket projection and in a game where they were only favored by one. They lost on the same floor that North Carolina lost on by 15 points earlier this month to a team that is now tied with them in the ACC standings. They lost that game playing without their starting point guard, Grayson Allen, who sat out with an ankle injury. And playing without their starting point guard, the Blue Devils scored just .794 points-per-possession in a game where Luke Kennard and Jayson Tatum combined to shoot just 10-for-36 from the floor.

That’s not a bad loss.

Neither is losing on the road to a Syracuse team that is just a game behind them in the ACC standings on a banked-in, buzzer-beating 23-footer in a game where Allen shot like he was shaving points in a game where he tried to battle through the ankle injury that kept him out of the lineup on Saturday. For what it’s worth, the spread in that game was Duke winning by three.

The point here isn’t to makes excuses for Duke.

The point is that taking a pair of close road losses in conference play while battling through some injuries does not a bad team make.

The ACC is a bear this year. North Carolina is the only team in the conference that doesn’t have at least five league losses with more than a week left in the regular season, and they might be the best team in college basketball. We knew this heading into the season, and it’s proven to be true. Everyone took their lumps in league play, and Duke was no different.

I’m not here to tell you what you should think of Duke. Personally, I think that a team with Allen, Kennard and Tatum that defended the way they defended today can win a national title. If you think their lack of depth, post presence and interior defense cannot win six games in March, there’s some validity to that.

What I am here to tell you is that these last four days should not change your opinion of them.

Winning on the road in league play is hard, and Duke learned that the hard way this week.