CBT Monthly Awards: Arizona earns accolades, everybody enjoyed Butler vs. Indiana

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As we did last month, the College Basketball Talk writers got together to pick the very best of December. The month was filled with entertaining games, outstanding performances and everything in between.

With the calenders turning to a new year, we analyze which teams we believe in, and which teams need a reality check.
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Team of the Month: Arizona
Terrence Payne – In less than two weeks, the Wildcats had a pair of top-25 wins including a big-time win over Florida. Nick Johnson’s block preserved a victory over San Diego State on Christmas night. Arizona is now ranked No. 3 and undefeated at 12-0 heading into the New Year.

Daniel Martin – As undefeated teams dropped around them, the Wildcats continue to stand strong, despite lingering questions about the inexperience of their frontcourt and how far natural shooting guard Mark Lyons can take them while playing the point. Regardless, Arizona has claimed its title as the favorite in the Pac-12.

Rob Dauster – Wins over Florida and San Diego State are impressive this early in the season, especially when you consider that the Wildcats are only going to get better as their big men mature.
 
 
Player of the Month:
Daniel Martin – Trey Burke, Michigan – The sophomore point guard averaged 18.2 points, 6.7 assists, and just 1.2 turnovers per game for a team that is still undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the country. He has been the most important part of the offensive engine for Michigan and he is continuing to prove that he made the right choice by foregoing the NBA draft and returning to school.

Raphielle Johnson – Khaliff Wyatt, Temple – Three games of 20 or more points in December, most notably that 33-spot he hung on Syracuse, and Wyatt failed to reach double figures just once (the loss to top-ranked Duke). Many have jumped to say the A-10 race is VCU, Butler and Saint Louis, but Wyatt is one reason why the Owls will be heard from when league play begins next month.

Troy Machir – Anthony Bennett, UNLV – The freshman forward finished the month with four double-doubles and was one of the lone bright spots in the Rebel’s loss at North Carolina. Carried the load when Mike Moser went down. Looks like a ready-made pro just two months into his college career.

Honorable Mention: Ben McLemore (Kansas), Doug McDermott (Creighton), Mason Plumlee (Duke)
 
 
Game of the Year: Butler 88, Indiana 86 (OT)
David Harten – And it’s not really all that close. It had great offensive and defensive play. Great individual efforts. An incredible atmosphere you could feel even through the television. An improbable hero in Bulldogs walk-on guard Alex Barlow and an upset. Case closed.

Raphielle Johnson – Even with the Arizona/Florida game later that night not sure there was a better game this month than the Bulldogs outlasting the Hoosiers. In fact, this could very well end up being the best game of the entire season when it’s all said and done.

Eric Angevine – Absolutely the best, most meaningful game of the month.

Daniel Martin – Not only did it have the typical ingredients for a great game, it had implications, too. The Indiana loss knocked them out of the No. 1 spot and vaulted Butler into the Top 25. It didn’t hurt that reserve Alex Barlow emerged as an unlikely hero with the game-winning shot.
 
 
Most Surprising Team:
Rob Dauster – Oklahoma State – They have a point guard that’s not a natural point guard and they lost tow key players to season-ending injuries. And yet, there they are.

Eric Angevine – Arizona – Don’t get me wrong. This looked like a good team to start the season, but undefeated at year’s end? Didn’t see that coming at all.

Terrence Payne – Illinois – I wasn’t sold on the Illini after winning Maui, but despite the loss to Mizzou, Illinois went into Spokane and behind a great performance from Brandon Paul beat Gonzaga by double digits.

David Harten – New Mexico – Alex Kirk has solidified himself as a go-to big man and Kendall Williams has shown himself to be a contributor as a scorer (14.9 ppg, a team high) and distributor (a team-high 4.7 apg). Tony Snell is the athlete everyone comes to see make plays. Beating no. 8 Cincinnati on Thursday night on the road definitely helped the cause.
 
 
Least Surprising Team: Michigan
Terrence Payne – The Wolverines went undefeated in conference play behind the strong play of Burke, Tim Hardaway, and Glenn Robinson III.

Daniel Martin – Despite being undefeated and the No. 2 team in the country, how much are the Wolverines being talked about in the Final Four discussion? Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, Jr., and Glenn Robinson III are as solid a trio as you’ll find. Pair that with a three-point shooter like Nik Stauskas and inside toughness from Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan and you, too, shouldn’t be surprised at where Michigan is right now.

Troy Machir – Shockingly enough, this is exactly where I predicted the Wolverines to be at this point in the season. They are really, really good. Really.

Eric Angevine – Under Trey Burke and the scions of half of the pre-millennium NBA, the Wolverines have been an absolute machine. Their undefeated run has been so unremarkable that it’s almost easy to forget they’re around.
 
 
Bandwagon you’re jumping on: Kansas
Troy Machir – They have two guys playing like All-Americans and another handful playing like All-Conference selections. Everybody is chipping in. Jayhawks should steamroll through Big-XII play.

Rob Dauster – I’ve been on the bandwagon for a while, but with McLemore playing as well as he has, this team is ahead of the curve.

Terrence Payne – Never quite sure why I leave the bandwagon, but Bill Self has the Jayhawks riding a 10-game winning streak and led Ben McLemore’s 15.8 points per game, KU looks to be a mix on the national stage entering conference play.
 
 
Bandwagon you’re getting off:
Eric Angevine – Florida – I was legitimately on this bandwagon, choosing the Gators as a Final Four contender when we made our CBT preseason picks. But horrible shot selection and poor situational awareness is killing this team, and nothing about that seems to be about to change any time soon.

Raphielle Johnson – Wyoming – The Cowboys are 12-0 and have four players averaging double figures, but no reserves average more than 5.3 points per game (Josh Adams; Riley Grabau’s 5.1 ppg would be the mark if Adams is the fifth starter). If a Leonard Washington, Larry Nance Jr. or Luke Martinez were to land in early foul trouble, would Wyoming have enough offensively to contend with the other powers in the Mountain West?

Rob Dauster – Colorado – They are good and they’ll compete in the Pac-12, but I don’t see the Buffaloes being anything more than a good west coast team.
 
 
New Years Resolution for a team, player or coach:
Rob Dauster – Indiana needs to realize that Cody Zeller is their bread and butter and get him more touches.

Eric Angevine – New Mexico needs to keep big man Alex Kirk engaged. It’s no coincidence that a dangerously close win over New Mexico State and a home loss to the NDSU Jackrabbits happened on successive nights when Kirk was ineffective around the basket.

David Harten – Pittsburgh needs to get more out of Steven Adams. This isn’t a knock on the Panthers or Adams. He’s lived up to the preseason love, but to say he’s reached max potential this season might be far-fetched. Averages of 7.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game aren’t bad at all, but the more I watch him, the more I believe he’s capable of averaging somewhere around 13 and 9 per. He can do it.

Raphielle Johnson – Minnesota should resolve to become more efficient on the defensive glass. The best offensive rebounding team in the country, the Golden Gophers have had their issues on the other end. If that doesn’t improve in Big Ten play, their chances of contending diminish greatly.
 
 
Final Four Picks after two months:
Raphielle Johnson – Duke, Indiana, Louisville, Arizona
David Harten – Duke, Kansas, Louisville, Ohio State
Rob Dauster – Duke, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri
Eric Angevine – Duke, Kansas, Michigan, Indiana
Troy Machir – Duke, Kansas, Michigan, Indiana
Daniel Martin – Duke, Kansas, Michigan, Indiana
Terrence Payne – Duke, Kansas, Michigan, Indiana

Minnesota’s Amir Coffey out for the season with shoulder injury

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Minnesota sophomore Amir Coffey will miss the rest of his sophomore season with a season-ending shoulder injury, according to a release from the school.

The 6-foot-8 Coffey was one of the Big Ten’s most productive freshman last season but he wasn’t able to stay consistently healthy during the 2017-18 campaign. Coffey put up solid numbers when he was able to play, averaging 14.0 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, but he missed 10 total games with the injury.

Coffey has been out for the last five games, and with Minnesota’s postseason hopes plummeting during an eight-game losing streak, the decision to hold him out was probably best for his long-term health.

Barford leads dominant Arkansas past No. 21 Texas A&M, 94-75

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Daniel Gafford capped off the most difficult stretch of his young Southeastern Conference career with a disappointing and foul-plagued performance the last time Arkansas faced Texas A&M.

The standout Razorbacks forward remembered that game all too well, and it showed as he added yet another dominating effort to his remarkable freshman season on Saturday.

Gafford scored 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting to lead Arkansas (19-8, 8-6 SEC) to its fourth straight win, 94-75 over the No. 21 Aggies. It was the fifth straight game in double figures for Gafford, who is shooting 70.7 percent (29 of 41) since the 80-66 loss to Texas A&M on Jan. 30.

The 6-foot-11 freshman was on a mission to atone for that loss, and it showed as he hit his first five shots and punctuated the dominating win with a late dunk.

“Playing them here, in my mind I had to play smarter and more physical,” Gafford said. “Because in my mind, I was ready for them. I was ready for Tyler Davis, I was ready for pretty much all the big men because pretty much I got punked when we went up to Texas A&M, and I didn’t want that to happen tonight.”

Gafford had plenty of help from his teammates, with Jaylen Barford scoring 14 of his 21 points in the second half and adding five rebounds and five assists for the surging Razorbacks.

Also, Daryl Macon finished with 20 points for an Arkansas team that’s won seven of its last nine. It was the eighth time in the last nine games Macon has scored 20 or more. C.J. Jones had 13 points off the bench.

Robert Williams had 20 points and 14 rebounds to lead Texas A&M (17-10, 6-8), which lost its second straight after entering the rankings this week. The 6-foot-10 sophomore also had three blocks and finished 10 of 13 from the field.

Admon Gilder also scored 20 points for the Aggies, while Davis added 15 points and T.J. Starks had 12. However, Texas A&M was unable to slow down an Arkansas team that shot 49.3 percent (35 of 71) from the field and hit 10 of 23 3-pointers.

“There’s not many teams going to come in here and beat Arkansas when they shoot the ball like they did today,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “I thought they shot the ball extremely well and made some tough shots.”

REBOUNDING RAZORBACKS

Texas A&M entered the game 3rd nationally and tops in the SEC in rebounding with an average of 41.9 per game. The Aggies also outrebounded Arkansas 45-30 in their win last month, but the Razorbacks turned the tables on Saturday — finishing with a 45-33 edge on the glass.

Freshman Darious Hall followed up his career-best 11-rebound effort in a win over Mississippi earlier in the week with seven rebounds in only 17 minutes on Saturday, and Gafford and senior Trey Thompson had six rebounds apiece.

“This is a team that beat us by 15 at their place, and they’re one of the better rebounding teams in the country with all that size,” Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “Somehow we found the energy. We found the players that were really engaged and going to get those rebounds.”

BIG PICTURE

Texas A&M: The last time the Aggies won in Fayetteville was March 1, 1986, when both teams were members of the Southwest Conference and Arkansas still played in Barnhill Arena. They led only once on Saturday, a 4-2 advantage that disappeared quickly after the Razorbacks went on an 11-0 run. Texas A&M was 0 of 7 on 3-pointers while trailing 43-32 at halftime, and it just avoided matching its season low for 3-pointers — finishing 4 of 17 as a team.

Arkansas: The win starts a difficult five-game stretch to end the regular season for Arkansas, which entered Saturday 32nd in the NCAA’s RPI ratings. Beginning with the 18th-rated Aggies, the Razorbacks face teams all 31st or higher in the ratings during the five games — including Kentucky, Alabama, Auburn and Missouri. They started the stretch in dominating fashion on Saturday, a key victory for a team hoping to reach the NCAA Tournament for a third time in four seasons this year.

UP NEXT

Texas A&M returns home to face Mississippi State on Tuesday.

The Razorbacks host Kentucky on Tuesday.

Kentucky beats Alabama 81-71 behind Washington’s 16 points

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Four straight losses were enough for Kentucky.

PJ Washington scored 16 points, Kevin Knox added 13, and Kentucky beat Alabama 81-71 on Saturday to end a four-game slide.

“They played desperately,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We gave away some games this year and we have to start taking games away from people, which means desperation.”

The Wildcats (18-9, 7-7 Southeastern Conference) displayed a sense of urgency against the Crimson Tide, especially in the rebounding department. The Wildcats held a commanding 44-27 edge on the glass and grabbed 20 offensive boards, resulting in 20 second-chance points for the hosts.

“They were desperate and they had a lot of energy,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said.

Quade Green scored 12 points, Jarred Vanderbilt scored a career-high 11 off the bench with nine rebounds, and Nick Richards added 10 points for the Wildcats.

Vanderbilt played a key role down the stretch for the Wildcats and finished with nine rebounds.

“We came together the last five minutes,” Vanderbilt said. “We made some key plays down the stretch, took care of the ball and we just executed.”

For Kentucky, which hadn’t won since an 83-81 overtime win over Vanderbilt on Jan. 30, fending off the Crimson Tide (17-10, 8-6) wasn’t an easy task. The Wildcats have won six straight over Alabama, including 11 of the past 12 games.

“It felt like we were back to normal and back to where we needed to be,” Washington said. “We just need to keep building from here.”

Alabama, the top defensive team in the conference, forced eight ties and 15 lead changes until the Wildcats gained control midway through the second half to avoid a fifth straight loss. Kentucky led for the final eight minutes.

Knox, Kentucky’s leading scorer, sat out 14 minutes of the first half because of foul trouble, but picked up the scoring load with all of his 13 points in the second half. Knox connected on first field-goal 7/8- a 3-pointer with 13:22 remaining — to ignite the Wildcats’ stagnant offense and spark the team’s impressive finish.

Kentucky led 39-34 at the break amid four ties and 11 lead changes. The Wildcats got most of their scoring off the bench in the opening half with Green and Washington combining for 15 points. Green paved the way with nine and made four of five field goals.

“They just outworked us,” Alabama forward Donata Hall said. “They were a hungry team.”

Hall led Alabama with 16 points, John Petty had 13, Colin Sexton 12 and Alex Reese 10.

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats, who have lost three straight road games (Missouri, Texas A&M and Auburn), will attempt to end the slide Tuesday at Arkansas, which lost just one of its first 14 games at home this season. Kentucky, five games behind conference leader Auburn, is out of contention for a fourth consecutive regular-season title, although a top-four finish isn’t out of question.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide, 5-1 against ranked teams this season, including a 76-71 win over No. 10 Auburn on Jan. 17 in Tuscaloosa, will attempt a sweep of the Tigers Wednesday. Alabama will attempt to lock up one of four top spots and a bye during the final two weeks of the regular season. Alabama coach Avery Johnson fell to 0-6 in games against Kentucky.

PELPHREY RETURNS

Former Kentucky forward John Pelphrey, an assistant coach at Alabama, made his return to Rupp Arena. Pelphrey, a former Mr. Basketball at Paintsville High School in 1987, played for the Wildcats from 1988-92 and was a member of the “Unforgettables” squad that lost to Duke in the 1992 East Region finals.

UP NEXT

Kentucky is at Arkansas Tuesday.

Alabama visits No. 10 Auburn Wednesday.

No. 3 Villanova continues reign of dominance over No. 4 Xavier, winning 95-79

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Villanova is not a perfect basketball team.

They have their flaws. Their depth in an issue. Their defense is a bigger issue. Their health seems to be working itself out, but with a rotation that has been as shallow as six guys at time, they are never more than one sprained ankle away from being put in a spot where their starters play too many minutes.

And despite all of that, one thing remains true about this group: They are always capable of putting together a shooting performance that leaves you wondering how in the world they ever lost a game to begin with.

That’s precisely what happened on Saturday in Cincinnati, as the No. 3 Wildcats — having lost two of their last three games to fall a game out of first place in the Big East — went into the Cintas Center and truck-sticked No. 4 Xavier, 95-79. It’s a result we all probably should have seen coming. Villanova has, after all, won four straight Big East regular season titles, and they weren’t about to lay down and let the Musketeers take control of their league. Especially since it’s Xavier. In the 11 games since Xavier and Villanova became conference foes, the Wildcats are now 10-1 with an average winning margin of 17.6 points.

Mikal Bridges led the way, scoring 16 of his 25 points in a first half where he buried four of Villanova’s 11 threes. Their lead ballooned as high as 21 points, and they took a 51-37 lead into halftime. Xavier made their run in the second half, getting as close as 62-59 before Donte DiVincenzo, who finished with 21 points, nine assists and nine boards, helped to spark a surge that put the game away.

The difference-maker here was Villanova’s shooting. They were 11-for-19 from three in the first half. They shot 16-for-34 for the game. In losses to St. John’s and Providence in the last two weeks, the Wildcats struggled from beyond the arc. They were 8-for-33 against St. John’s, just 2-for-17 in the second half, and they shot 3-for-19 from distance at Providence during the week.

And it is also worth noting that they got some terrific play from two of their young, unproven freshman who combined to score 11 straight points during a five-minute second half stretch. Dhamir Cosby-Rountree had two critical buckets as Villanova pulled away late midway through the second half, when he was on the floor for Eric Paschall, who had picked up four fouls. And Collin Gillispie followed that up by banging home a three and scoring on a tough finger-roll over Sean O’Mara that helped hold Xavier at bay. All told, Cosby-Rountree finished with four points, three boards and a block while Gillispie chipped in with 10 points of his own.

Perhaps most impressive in all of this was that Villanova put together this kind of a performance on an afternoon where Jalen Brunson struggled to get into his normal rhythm. He finished with 11 points and eight assists, but shot just 5-for-12 from the floor and 1-for-6 from three. For a player that is having a historically-great season from an efficiency perspective, those are surprising numbers.

What it all adds up to is this: The Wildcats are not yet ready to relinquish control over the Big East regular season title. Xavier is still technically in first place by a half-game — they’re 12-3 while Villanova is 11-3 — but for all intents and purposes, they’re tied. Xavier’s schedule down the stretch is much easier than what Villanova has remaining. Xavier has road trips to Georgetown and DePaul left while Villanova still has to go to Creighton and Seton Hall.

That story is still left to be told.

But the simple fact of the matter is that Xavier had a chance to take a two-game lead on Villanova with two weeks left in the regular season and they couldn’t get the job done.

And if they slip up again in their final three games, they may be left wondering ‘what if?’ all over again.

Duke’s Marvin Bagley III to miss third straight game with knee issue

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Duke announced on Saturday afternoon that star freshman Marvin Bagley III will miss his third straight game with what they have dubbed a mild knee sprain.

Bagley suffered the injury in the first half at North Carolina, and while he played the rest of that game, he sat out wins over Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

Both of those games came in Cameron Indoor Stadium. On Sunday, they’ll be playing on the road against a shorthanded No. 11 Clemson program.

In Bagley’s absence, Marques Bolden, Javin DeLaurier and Alex O’Connell have played more minutes while Grayson Allen has seemingly rediscovered his confidence. He’s averaging 24 points and six assists in the last two games.