Six scores from Saturday that shook up league races

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source: AP

Some league leaders didn’t fare so well Saturday.

Three suffered their first losses of the season, while three more fell in crucial road games that either dropped them from the top of the standings or created opening for others. Just another packed weekend day in college basketball. You NFL fans just tuning in are gonna love it. (But more on that later.)

How crucial were the defeats? Let’s take stock.

Big 12: Missouri 74, Kansas 71
The day’s biggest game also had one if its most dramatic finishes and clutch performances (Marcus Denmon, take a bow) that gave the Big 12 race some added kick. Denmon scored 29 points, including three 3-pointers in the final 2:05 to rally the Tigers (21-2, 8-2) against their longtime rivals. More impressive? He wanted everyone to act like a win over the Jayhawks (18-5, 8-2) was a normal occurrence and didn’t warrant a court-rush.

Impact: Significant. Missouri, Kansas and Baylor (21-2, 8-2) are packed atop the Big 12 standings. The Jayhawks and Bears both seem bound for another two losses apiece (nasty road games coming up), while the Tigers get Baylor, K-State and Iowa State at home. Only a road game at Kansas looms as a likely loss. This may be the day where Missouri finally got within sight of a Big 12 title.

Atlantic 10: St. Joe’s 70, La Salle 66
Figures a Big 5 game would shake things up a bit. The Explorers (17-7, 6-3) couldn’t must a second-half comeback and lost sole possession of the A-10 lead in the process. Temple’s victory vs. Rhode Island makes it the league’s only two-loss team.

Impact: Crucial. The odds of La Salle running away with the A-10 were zero. But the chances of them staying in the hunt with a win Saturday were pretty good. Now the Explorers face a three-game stretch (at Richmond, vs. St. Louis, at UMasss) that easily could leave them at .500 in conference play. The Owls (17-5, 6-2) aren’t going to cruise to the regular-season crown, but they have a slightly easier path and one less loss.

Missouri Valley: Northern Iowa 65, Creighton 62
It seemed logical that the Blue Jays (21-3, 11-2) would lose another Valley game at some point, but most would’ve bet on Wichita State exacting revenge next weekend. Instead, the Panthers (16-9, 6-7) pulled out a thrilling win thanks to Anthony James’ 3-pointer at the buzzer (after Antoine Young’s 3 4.6 seconds earlier had tied the game). But hey, this kind of thing happens in the Valley.

Impact: Significant. Next week’s Creighton-WSU game takes on added importance now. The league’s two best teams (no other school is within four games) matchup in Omaha with the winner likely earning the top seed for Arch Madness? That’s some drama, brother. The only thing keeping it from being a high-stress situation is that both teams are likely headed for the NCAA tournament.

Mountain West: Wyoming 68, UNLV 66
Playing at a higher elevation does have its advantages. Unless you’re UNLV. The Rebels (21-4, 5-2) had their chances to avoid the upset, but couldn’t connect in the final seconds and now find themselves a game behind San Diego State. Wyoming (18-5, 4-3) didn’t seem overly worried about UNLV’s preferred up-tempo pace. Maybe that’s because playing at 7,200 feet doesn’t bode well for teams like that.

Impact: Significant. The MWC’s gone from two-team league to a deep, trying conference this season. Any edge is crucial, though UNLV does benefit by playing host to SDSU next weekend. Make up a game there and trips to New Mexico and Colorado State become more manageable.

MAAC: Iona 85, Manhattan 73
Technically not an upset (the Gaels were favored by 2.5 points; Kenpom had them losing by 1), this wasn’t a huge surprise given the talent gaps between the teams. Iona (19-5, 10-2) features three of the conference’s best players in Scott Machado, Michael Glover and Momo Jones. Yes, they’d lost earlier in the season to Manhattan, at home even. But when they opened up a 19-point second-half lead, they weren’t about to blow it – like their 18-point lead earlier this season.

Impact: Crucial. Manhattan (17-8, 10-3) was one of two MAAC teams tied with Iona entering Saturday’s games. The other is Loyola (Md.), which plays host to the Gaels next Saturday. If the newly mature Iona team shows up – it’s all about focus for them – this conference race is over.

Sun Belt: Denver 75, Middle Tennessee 60
Another “non” upset (oddsmakers favored the Pioneers; Kenpom had it as a 1-point Denver loss), it was still Middle Tennessee’s first conference loss. The Blue Raiders’ only loss since Dec. 10 had been to Vandy (last weekend), but also lessening the surprise was their close victory against North Texas on Thursday. Maybe that’s why Denver closed out the final five minutes on a 14-5 run.

Impact: Minimal. The Blue Raiders (21-4, 10-1) are blessed to be in the league’s weaker division, avoiding the likes of Denver, North Texas, Arkansas-Little Rock and Louisiana Lafayette twice in a season. They’ll stil cruise to the division crown.

WAC: Idaho 72, Nevada 68
Forget the marquee teams. This was the stunner of the day. The Wolf Pack hadn’t lost since Nov. 25 (BYU), a stretch of 16 straight wins, including two against Pac-12 schools and their first eight WAC games. Nevada (at home!) was favored by 10.5. Kenpom had its chance of winning at 81 percent. Yet it was the Vandals (12-11, 5-4) who made the late plays and hit the shots for the win.

Impact: Moderate. Nevada (19-4, 8-1) still holds a two-game lead over New Mexico State and has already beaten the Aggies at their place. The Wolf Pack should still win the WAC, but this loss was certainly odd.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

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.

Louisville’s Mitchell declaring for draft, won’t hire an agent

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Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell is the latest to decide to see what the NBA might offer.

“I have decided to test the waters and not hire an agent!” Mitchell wrote in an Instagram post Wednesday. “I am excited to work out this summer for teams and hopefully participate in the NBA combine! I want it to be clear I have not decided to leave Louisville!”

Mitchell, who is expected to be joined by dozens of players, is taking advantage of new NCAA rules that allow him to work out for teams and attend the NBA draft combine before making a decision on whether to remain in the draft and return to school.

Players have until May 24 to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

Mitchell averaged 15.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists as a sophomore, shooting 40.8 percent overall and 35.4 percent on 3-point attempts.

The 6-foot-3 guard is projected as a potential first-round pick, but should he return, the Cardinals would project as one of the top teams in the country with nearly the entire core returning from this year’s 25-9 squad.

Moe-mentum: Wagner stands tall for Sweet 16-bound Michigan

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) Ask Moe Wagner who he looked up to when he was younger, and suddenly the Michigan big man’s fiery demeanor makes a little more sense.

“Kevin Garnett was always my biggest idol, even though our play isn’t really similar. Just the way he brings intensity and energy to his team,” Wagner said. “That always was something that really impressed me.”

Now Wagner is providing his own emotional leadership to a Michigan team that has become one of college basketball’s most remarkable stories this March.

The Wolverines have won six in a row since they were involved in a plane accident on the eve of their Big Ten Tournament opener.

After winning that conference tourney, they opened the NCAAs with victories against Oklahoma State and Louisville – with Wagner scoring 26 points in the win over Louisville that sent Michigan to the Sweet 16.

The 19-year-old Wagner is in his second season with the Wolverines. He showed some promise in 2015-16, but averaged only 8.6 minutes a game as a freshman. He’s been a starter the whole way this season, teaming up with D.J. Wilson to give Michigan some unexpected production in the frontcourt.

The Wolverines entered the season with high hopes thanks to the presence of seniors Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin.

The 6-foot-11 Wagner has made them even tougher to defend. The sophomore from Berlin is averaging 12.2 points a game, and unlike Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan – two of Michigan’s top big men of the recent past – Wagner is a threat from beyond the arc. He’s made 41 percent of his 3-point attempts in 2016-17, putting even more pressure on opposing teams.

An expressive player on the court, Wagner admits he’s still learning how to keep his emotions under control.

Coach John Beilein says Wagner can be hard on himself, but he has an upbeat attitude the Wolverines can appreciate.

“I don’t want to rob him of his energy and his passion,” Beilein said. “If you heard him in timeouts – I mean, he is really into it. And it’s encouraging things he’s saying.”

The key for Wagner is to stay on the court. He’s been whistled for 100 fouls this season – no other Michigan player has more than 80 – and he picked up two in the first 3:11 when the Wolverines faced Oklahoma State in their NCAA Tournament opener Friday. Wagner played only 14 minutes in that frenetic game, which Michigan won 92-91 .

Against Louisville in the round of 32 , Wagner went 11 of 14 from the field and kept his poise after being called for his second foul late in the first half.

“He’s always just been an excited guy – play hard and play with a lot of passion,” Walton said. “I don’t think anything has changed. I think he’s just channeling it a little better.”

The seventh-seeded Wolverines face third-seeded Oregon on Thursday night in a regional semifinal. Michigan has won seven in a row, a streak that began with the team’s last game of the regular season.

What happened next is well documented. The day before its opening game in the conference tournament, Michigan’s plane slid off the runway .

There were no serious injuries, and the Wolverines arrived in time to play. Then they won four games in four days to take the title.

Now, Michigan is two victories away from an improbable Final Four appearance. If the Wolverines actually make it that far, Wagner will be a big reason why – and he’ll probably be as excited as anyone.

“One of my youth coaches actually used to say that I was somebody who, like, sees the basketball court as a stage and really enjoys it,” Wagner said. “Last year, I started to understand what that actually means, and kind of embraced that this year. That’s just me. I really love it. I really enjoy it.”

 

California’s Ivan Rabb declares for the NBA Draft

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Ivan Rabb announced on Wednesday that he will be declaring for the NBA Draft and foregoing his final two seasons with California.

“I want to thank everybody for their support,” Rabb said in a statement. “Since the day I committed to Cal, the love from Bay Area fans was overwhelming. I could genuinely tell that people really appreciated seeing me come to Cal and succeed and do well. Haas Pavilion will always hold a special place in my heart, and I won’t forget how incredible it felt to be “Oakland’s Own” as I ran onto the court in front of my friends, family and team.”

As a sophomore, Rabb averaged 14.0 points and 10.5 boards. He’s projected as a mid-to-late first round pick in the draft a year after making the decision to return to school as a projected lottery pick last season.

Duke’s Jayson Tatum declares for the NBA Draft

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Duke’s Jayson Tatum will declare for the NBA Draft and hire an agent, the program announced on Wednesday.

Tatum is a projected top five pick in the NBA Draft. He averaged 16.8 points playing the role of small-ball four for the Blue Devils this season after missing the first month of the season with a foot injury.

“I have absolutely loved coaching Jayson Tatum,” Coach K said in a statement. “His skill set and work ethic will make him a star in the NBA. Whichever team selects him will be getting a humble, thoughtful and talented young man whom we are proud to call a member of the Duke basketball brotherhood.”

Tatum was the most talented player on the Blue Devils this season, but it was an up and down year for Duke as a whole. They were predicted by just about everyone to win the national title back in the preseason, but they eventually bowed out of the NCAA tournament in the second round.