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Bill Self: ‘This will all be a pretty good teaching tool for us.’

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ATLANTA – With 5:07 left on the clock against Michigan State on Tuesday, Kansas was firmly control of the opening game of the Champions Classic.

Travis Releford and Jeff Withey combined to score six straight points as the Jayhawks opened up a 59-54 lead, and with the momentum fully in their favor, Bill Self’s club looked like they were on the verge of handing Sparty their second loss in five days to kick off the season.

Kansas had the ball eight times in the final 5:07. One possession ended in a pair of Elijah Johnson free throws. Another ended with an and-one layup in transition by Ben McLemore off of a (foul-assisted) Keith Appling turnover. The other six possessions, which resulted in four missed jumpers and two turnovers, were just as ugly aesthetically as they were in the box score. In the end, the Jayhawks lost, 67-64.

No one wanted the ball in crunch time for Kansas. No one was ready, willing, or capable of demanding the ball and saying, ‘Clear out, I got this’. And that, more than anything, is where Kansas truly misses Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson.

“The thing about playing a game this early is somebody is going to lose,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said after the game. “If you look at it, I thought we were pretty good for about 35 minutes. I thought we played probably about as I good as I thought we were going to play.”

“But games are decided in the last five, and they were much better in the last five.”

The conundrum for Kansas lies in their roster makeup. They are one of the more experienced teams in the country. Three seniors start, two of whom are in their fifth-years. Another fifth-year senior comes off the bench. With the exception of Perry Ellis, every member of the Kansas rotation was part of the program last season when they made the national title game.

The problem is that all of those veterans are role players. Jeff Withey is arguably the most intimidating defensive force in the country, but he’s still not much of a threat on the offensive end of the role. Johnson is a nice complimentary scorer, nut he’s yet to prove he can handle being the focal point offensively. Releford is a glue guy, a defender that will hit open threes, and not too much more.

The stars?

The supreme talents?

The potential first round draft picks?

They’re all freshmen.

“Our freshmen are going to be good, but they’re pretty green and naive,” Self said. “They’re not your typical heralded freshmen that have had a lot of exposure. They’ve been pretty sheltered as far as experiences.”

McLemore is the guy expected to be the star for this group, but he still has to learn about to play that role. He may have been a top 25 recruit, but he wasn’t even the go-to guy when he played at high level events in high school. In AAU ball, he deferred to Bradley Beal, last year’s No. 3 pick in the NBA Draft. There are things that McLemore, who played just his second collegiate game after redshirting last season, has to learn to be able to do to thrive in that role.

“Plugging himself in where he knows where his shots are coming from, putting himself in the game where he’s more of an impact guy,” Self said of what McLemore needs to develop. “He’s a pretty efficient player, but seven shots for him is not enough. He needs to take more shots. He’s just so talented and he’s going to learn. It’s just all new to him. He’ll get. It’s going to take a while, but he’s going to get it.”

Ellis is a finesse player at this point in his career, and while nothing has changed about his ability to put up points, finesse power forwards aren’t exactly the ideal. Traylor showed off some unbelievable athleticism, with a ridiculous put-back dunk and one of the best fast-break blocks you’ll ever see, but right now he has Thomas Robinson’s motor without his skill set.

Those guys will learn and they’ll develop and they’ll get better as the season goes along, but throwing them into the fire in a nail-biter against a Big Ten contender on national television in the Georgia Dome isn’t exactly bringing them along slowly.

Give them time.

“I thought this was a good game for us,” Self said. “I’m not leaving out of here discouraged at all. I’m not happy we lost because you’re up in that situation, you’ve gotta close, and we didn’t close. But there were some good things that happened.”

“I think this will all be a pretty good teaching tool for us.”

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

Duke knocks off No. 13 Louisville in first game of critical four-game stretch

Duke's Grayson Allen (3) and Marshall Plumlee (40) react during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Louisville in Durham, N.C., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Duke won 72-65. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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Grayson Allen scored 16 of his 19 points in the first half and Brandon Ingram added 18 points, 10 boards and four assists as Duke picked up a critical win over No. 13 Louisville in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Monday night, 72-65.

A call this a critical win for the Blue Devils because it kicks off what may be the most important two-week stretch of Duke’s schedule This weekend, the Blue Devils square off with No. 9 Virginia. Next Wednesday, they’re at the Dean Dome to take on No. 7 North Carolina. Four days after that, they head to the Bluegrass State to pay a visit to Louisville.

 

With the way that Duke has been struggling on the defensive end of the floor without Amile Jefferson, that’s a stretch that could derail Duke’s season; entering Monday, all four of those games were losable. But a four-game winning streak — or even going 3-1 in that stretch — could completely change the tenor of what has been a fairly disappointing year for the defending champs, and that’s before they get Jefferson back to 100 percent.

And the difference was defensively, at least in the first half.

I’ve written in this space a number of times about how opponents know what they’re going to get from Duke defensively. Coach K, traditionally, plays half court man-to-man defense, switching every exchange — ball-screen, off-ball pick or simply when two players run by one another — that doesn’t involve the center. In recent years, he’s played some zone in situations where he defense has struggled or, like this season, when he doesn’t have the depth to risk foul trouble. We’ve even seen some 2-2-1 pressure from him of late.

But on Monday night, Duke played straight man-to-man for much of the game, and in the first half, it seemed to fluster the Cardinals. They scored just 24 points in the first 20 minutes, and while Louisville did find a way to break Duke down defensively in the second half — they shot better than 55 percent from the floor after the break — but part of the reason Duke was able to win this game was the lead they built. After a three from Allen opened scoring in the second half, the Blue Devils were up by 14, and while Louisville made a run down the stretch, they could never get control of the game.

Duke is becoming appointment viewing for basketball nerds like me that pay too much attention to X’s-and-O’s to see what kind of wrinkle Coach K is going to put in to try and compensate defensively, so I’m not sure that this performance sticks. But it is worth noting that this was the first time in eight games the Blue Devils gave up less than 1.0 PPP, and the first time since Dec. 19th they did so against an NCAA tournament-caliber team.

As far as Louisville is concerned, you have to tip your hat to those kids. They played their hearts out and fought back from a big deficit in one of the toughest places in the country to play. They did all that three days after their school ripped their hearts out with an NCAA tournament ban for this season.

So good for them. You never know how a team is going to react to something like that, but the Cardinal players showed that they have some serious fight in them.

Iowa State’s starting center Jameel McKay remains suspended

Iowa State forward Jameel McKay celebrates on the court at the end of an NCAA college basketball game against Oklahoma, Monday, Jan. 18, 2016, in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State won 82-77. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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Steve Prohm announced on Monday that starting center Jameel McKay will not be in the lineup on Wednesday when the Cyclones take on Texas Tech.

“He’ll practice today because I want him in practice,” Prohm said, “but game-wise, he’s suspended.”

McKay did not make the trip to Stillwater with the team on Saturday, where Iowa State beat Oklahoma State, 64-59. Prohm has not gotten into specifics regarding the cause of McKay’s suspension, but it’s reportedly an issue with the way he has been practicing. McKay is dealing with a nagging knee injury, which may play a role in the situation as well.

“My hope is he’ll be with us on Saturday,” Prohm said.