Mark Gottfried

Weekend Preview: Who’s 2nd best in the Triangle, Kentucky/UCLA with a chance for a statement


Someone wants to be relevant in the Triangle, right?: North Carolina heads to Raleigh to take on No. 18 NC State on Saturday (7:00 p.m. ET, ESPN) in a game that features two of the bigger disappointments in the ACC this season. And, frankly, it’s not totally unexpected. We knew that North Carolina was young heading into the season and we knew that NC State was talented but coming off of a fluky run to the Sweet 16 and still had Mark Gottfried as their head coach.

But in a season that as proven to be as wide-open as any in recent memory — particularly with the injury to Ryan Kelly at Duke — it’s still surprising that both the Tar Heels and the Wolfpack have fallen so far out of the discussion for the ACC regular season title. They’ll fall even farther with a loss Saturday night, as both teams are currently sitting two games behind undefeated Miami in the ACC standings.

Are either of these teams truly going to be competitors for the ACC crown? A loss on Saturday pretty much ends that discussion.

So what’s the deal with Kentucky?: Does anyone have a definitive answer at this point? They have plenty of talent on the roster. They have some pieces that, in a vacuum, can be really impressive. But “it” just hasn’t “clicked” yet for the Wildcats. What I mean is that John Calipari has yet to get this team to the point where they look better every single time they step on the court. With last year’s group, Kentucky would seemingly get better after each TV timeout, not just after each game. Their ascent from young-but-talented to holy-crap-they’re-awesome was fast and steep. This year’s team is still making the same mistakes and still has the same issues that we were talking about in November. That’s a problem.

On Saturday, LSU visits Kentucky (4:00 p.m. ET, ESPN3) in a game that the Wildcats simply have to win. But this is one of those instances where just a win may not suffice. The Wildcats need a confidence builder. They need to come out and dominate an overmatched Tiger team from the start. They need to make a statement, because that will a) allow their fans to slowly step away from the edge of the cliff, and b) it will provide a building block on which they can grow. Hesitancy and a lack of confidence are the worst traits an athlete can have, and it’s an issue afflicting everyone on Kentucky not named Nerlens Noel.

Rotnei Clarke’s return: When Temple visits No. 9 Butler on Saturday (6:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2), we’ll likely see Clarke return to the court for the first time since this terrifying injury that he suffered at Dayton two Saturday’s ago. He’s been cleared to practice and the Bulldogs are awaiting word on whether he’ll be allowed to play on Saturday. Butler beat Gonzaga in a thrilling win last Saturday night, but they lost on a last-second shot from Ramon Galloway at La Salle on Wednesday night. Clarke’s return should be a major boost for the Bulldogs.

Turn the Bruins turn a corner last night?: On Thursday, UCLA put on one of the most impressive displays we’ve seen out of Ben Howland’s program since … they made the 2008 Final Four? Seriously. UCLA went into the McKale Center and just drubbed Arizona, jumping out to a 19-3 lead and never allowing the Wildcats to get closer than four points the rest of the way. Now here comes the big test. UCLA visits a good Arizona State team on Saturday (4:00 p.m. ET, FSN). It’s a game they probably can’t afford to lose if they want to keep within striking distance of Oregon at the top of the Pac-12.

Good teams win on the road. The really good teams, the teams that can compete for conference championships and Final Fours, don’t have letdowns after winning a big game on the road. Saturday should tell us a lot about UCLA.

Big Sky showdown: Weber State had to go and lose to Montana State on the road on Thursday night, taking some of the luster off of the big matchup in the Big Sky on Saturday night (9:05 p.m. ET). As was the case last season, Weber State and Montana are the class of the conference. The Grizzlies are now sitting at 9-0 in the league while the Wildcats 8-1. It will be a good way to cap what should be another great Saturday of hoops.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.