Cody Zeller, the nation’s best role player, lifts Indiana to 1st in Big Ten

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Cody Zeller was supposed to be the superstar for this Indiana team.

He was supposed to be the Player of the Year candidate, the all-american who has an offense custom-built to his every post-move; the guy that opposing coaches lost sleep fretting about and spent far too much practice time game-planning for.

Zeller is probably still the most talented player on the Indiana roster. He’s easily the best NBA prospect and his numbers are still pretty impressive. But at this point in the season, he’s probably not even Indiana’s MVP. That award would go to Victor Oladipo.

But I don’t think that matters at all to Zeller, as he has embraced the role that he has to play on this team. And rest assured, Zeller’s become a role-player, and that’s what makes Indiana so good. They are, at heart, a perimeter-oriented team. They have shooters everywhere on the floor. They have a pair of quality ball-handlers. Their MVP’s biggest improvement has been his ability to knock down open threes. Their power forward’s most valuable trait as a player is his ability to spread the floor.

It just so happens that this perimeter-oriented group just so happens to have the nation’s best center in the middle.

Indiana doesn’t need Zeller to make all the plays. They need him to make the winning plays. Like, for example, the two putback dunks he had midway through the second half that pushed Indiana’s lead back to six after Michigan had gotten within 57-55. Or the loose ball that he tracked down with just under two minutes left that saved possession for Indiana when they were up 69-62.

Zeller led the way with 19 points on 8-10 shooting and nine boards in Indiana’s 81-73 win on Saturday night against No. 1 Michigan in Assembly Hall, but he didn’t need a touch on every possession to do it. He capitalized on the opportunities he had and he made the big plays down the stretch.

And thanks to Zeller’s play, for the first time since Feb. 13th, 2008, Indiana is in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten standings.

And in all likelihood, the Hoosiers will be climbing their way back to the top of the polls come Monday morning after they knocked off Michigan, the current No. 1 team in the country. They may not actually be the best team in the country (ahem, Florida), but polls aren’t exactly the best way to measure the best teams. You’re No. 3 and beat No. 1 on the same day No. 2 loses, you’re moving on up.

It’s far too early in the season to be getting up-in-arms about something as meaningless as national rankings, but Indiana’s placement atop the Big Ten standings is hugely important.

Everyone in the Big Ten has a tough schedule this year, and a number of the marquee games have been backlogged, meaning that the top teams play each other quite a bit over the final month and a half of conference season.

Indiana’s may be the toughest simply because they have yet to play a difficult road game. Five of their last nine games are away from Bloomington. Those five road trips: at Illinois, at No. 11 Ohio State, at No. 13 Michigan State, at No. 23 Minnesota and at No. 1 Michigan. That doesn’t include their home game against the Buckeyes five days before the rematch with the Wolverines.

If the Hoosiers go 4-2 in those six games, I would be impressed. If I was a betting man, I’d be wagering on the Hoosiers going 3-3 during that stretch, point being that Indiana isn’t going to make it through the rest of conference season unscathed. Digging themselves a one game hole behind Michigan — even considering the fact that the Wolverines’ next three games are Ohio State, at Wisconsin and at Michigan State — would make an outright title a tough feat to accomplish.

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

De’Aaron Fox outplays Lonzo Ball, leads No. 2 Kentucky to Elite Eight

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De’Aaron Fox won the personal battle against Lonzo Ball in convincing fashion, and by doing so led No. 2 seed Kentucky to the Elite Eight with a 86-75 win over No. 3 seed UCLA on Friday night at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.

Fox, in a rematch from a loss to the Bruins on Dec. 3, had 39 points, the highest of any player in the NCAA Tournament so far this season, to go along with four assists, three rebounds and two steals. His counterpart, Ball, settled for 10 points off 4-of-10 shooting (1-of-6 from three) with eight assists and four turnovers.

Kentucky, which committed only six turnovers (one in the second half), controlled the tempo of the game, and never allowed UCLA’s offense to go on any sort of explosive run. The Wildcats held the Bruins’ high-power offense to 75 points.

The Elite Eight is set for another rematch. Kentucky will play top-seeded North Carolina on Sunday night. On Dec. 17, the Wildcats defeated the Tar Heels, 103-100, in a game where Kentucky’s other star guard, Malik Monk, dropped 47 points.

 

Berry scores 26 points and Carolina defeats Butler 92-80

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) Joel Berry II scored 26 points and Justin Jackson added 24 as top-seeded North Carolina moved to the Elite Eight with a 92-80 victory over Butler in the NCAA South Region on Friday night.

Luke Maye recorded his first career double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds, helping fuel a quick start for Carolina (30-7). The Tar Heels never let their lead get under double digits in the second half.

Andrew Chrabascz led the fourth-seeded Bulldogs (25-9) with 21 points and seven rebounds, while Kelan Martin finished with 16 points for Butler, which struggled shooting early and did not recover.

Carolina, which reached the Elite Eight for the 27th time, will face the winner of Friday’s second game between UCLA and Kentucky. The Tar Heels connected on 54.4 percent of their shots, while Butler was at 43.5 percent.

The Tar Heels broke out of the gate early, building a double-digit lead and really weren’t threatened after halftime, although Butler did get within 10 at one point.

North Carolina used early accurate shooting to build a 16-point lead as the Tar Heels connected on 13 of their first 18 shots, including missing only one of seven from outside the arc.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs were suffering through a scoring drought the stretched beyond 4 minutes.

That helped Carolina build the advantage to 30-14 when Maye connected on a 3-pointer near the midway point of the first half.

While Butler managed to whittle the deficit to single digits on a couple of occasions before halftime, North Carolina would simply answer with another rally, the last one of the half stretching the Tar Heels lead to 52-32 on its eighth 3-pointer of the half.

By halftime, Jackson had 17 points, and Maye had already reached his career-high in points with 14, plus grabbing nine of the Tar Heels’ 22 boards. That helped Carolina carry a 52-36 lead into the break.

Chrabascz led the Bulldogs with 11 points.

The Tar Heels lead would stretch the lead back to 20 near the 12-minute mark of the second half, but Butler didn’t exactly allow North Carolina to coast home. A 13-4 Bulldog run made a dent in the advantage as Martin had seven in the stretch with Avery Woodson connecting on a 3-pointer. Martin closed out the run with another 3-pointer to pull Butler within 71-60.

But while the Bulldogs would cut the Carolina advantage to 10 points 2 minutes later, they would get no closer the rest of the way.

BIG PICTURE

Butler: The Bulldogs had not trailed in the tournament until Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks scored the game’s opening basket. Butler is now 2-5 against No. 1 seeds.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels have reached the Elite Eight 27 times, including eight times since 2000.

JENKINS ATTENDS: Kris Jenkins, who made the 3-pointer to defeat the Tar Heels in last year’s national championship game, was seated near the Carolina bench. Jenkins was cheering on his brother, senior guard Nate Britt.

PENCE CANCELS: Vice President Mike Pence, who once was expected to attend Friday’s game, cancelled Friday because of the action in Washington surrounding health care. Pence has ties to Butler, not only as the former governor of Indianapolis, but also because his wife, Karen, attended the school.

UP NEXT: North Carolina plays the winner of the region’s second game on Friday between No. 2 seed Kentucky and the third-seed UCLA.

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

South Carolina beats Baylor 70-50 to advance to Elite 8

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NEW YORK (AP) Sindarius Thornwell scored 24 points and seventh-seeded South Carolina cruised past third-seeded Baylor 70-50 on Friday night in the East Regional semifinals, the Bears’ worst NCAA Tournament loss.

The Gamecocks (25-10) were in control from the middle of the first half on, mixing defenses and hustling all over the Madison Square Garden court to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time.

South Carolina will meet the winner of the Wisconsin-Florida game on Sunday with a trip to the Final Four at stake.

DJ Dozier and Chris Silva had 12 points each and Duane Notice added 11 for the Gamecocks.

Johnathan Motley had 18 points, 12 in the second half, for Baylor (27-8), which just couldn’t get any offense going. The Bears missed 11 of their first 13 shots from the field and it didn’t get a whole lot better the entire game. They finished 17 for 56 from the field (30.4 percent), including 3 for 13 from 3-point range.

South Carolina opened the second half on a 12-6 run to get the lead to 49-28. The largest lead was 63-41.

Baylor was able to close to 11 points but that was as tight as the game would get.

The Gamecocks went on a 16-0 run that lasted 7:44 in the first half. They turned a 15-15 tie into a 31-15 lead with 2:50 left in the first half. The Bears went 0 for 10 from the field and committed four turnovers in the run. South Carolina’s biggest lead of the half was 37-20 on a 3 by Notice with 29 seconds to play. It was 37-22 at halftime.

The Bears shot just 25 percent from the field in the first half (8 of 32) and committed seven turnovers.

BIG PICTURE

South Carolina: The Gamecocks came into the NCAA Tournament having lost five of seven. … The Gamecocks’ previous largest margin of victory in the NCAA Tournament was 78-70 over Texas Tech in the first round in 1973.

Baylor: The Bears came into the NCAA Tournament having lost four of seven. … This is the Bears’ fourth straight tournament appearance. They were trying for their second Elite Eight appearance. They lost to Duke in the round of eight in 2010. … Baylor was 9-1 against the Southeastern Conference since 2012-13. … Baylor’s previous worst loss in the NCAA Tournament was 69-52 to Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 in 2014. … The 22 points matched Baylor’s low for a half this season.

UP NEXT

South Carolina will face the Florida-Wisconsin winner in the Elite Eight on Sunday.

UCLA’s Gyorgy Goloman dunks over Kentucky’s Isaac Humphries

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In a rematch between No. 3 seed UCLA and No. 2 seed Kentucky, anyone could have starred in a highlight play.

Malik Monk.

De’Aaron Fox.

Lonzo Ball.

Nope. It was UCLA’s sparingly used reserve forward Gyorgy Goloman, who finished over Isaac Humphries for a first half dunk.

The 6-foot-11 junior entered the night averaging 3.7 points in 11.7 minutes per game for the Bruins this season.

No. 3 Baylor’s loss to No. 7 South Carolina doesn’t diminish career-defining season for Scott Drew

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NEW YORK — It was with a whipping and a whimper that Baylor’s season can to an end on Friday night.

The final two minutes of the game wasn’t actually a game. No. 7 seed South Carolina dished out a 70-50 beatdown that wasn’t in doubt after the Gamecocks used an 18-0 run at the end of the first half to turn a rock fight into statement, and for the final two minutes of the game, the Gamecocks and, eventually, Baylor dribbled out the remaining seconds before joining arms at center court for a postgame prater.

It’s the third straight year that Baylor has been bounced from the NCAA tournament by a team seeded lower than them. In 2015, it was R.J. Hunter’s heroics that knocked his dad off of a stool and sent No. 14 seed Georgia State into the second round of the tournament. “I remember my brother’s shot,” he said, “and even though I’m a big fan of father-son stories because of it, I was a victim of the same thing with the Hunters.”

In 2016, the Bears fell in the first round to No. 12 seed Yale, prompting one of the most memorable press conference moments in NCAA tournament history.

And on Friday night, it was South Carolina that sent the Bears into offseason hibernation.

“When you coach for a while and you make Elite Eights and Sweet 16, you kind of start taking it for granted that you will always be successful in March,” Drew said. “But it’s a good reminder to be here and know how hard it is.”

It was a disheartening end to a season, a loss that will surely provide fodder for the people that traffic in ‘Scott Drew can’t coach’ jokes, the irony being that the 2016-17 season was definitive proof that Scott Drew is almost certainly better at his job than you are at yours.

It’s easy to see the seed next to Baylor’s name on the TBS graphics, easy to remember that the Bears, at one point during the season, were ranked No. 1 in the country, and think that this Baylor team was destined for this kind of success. They have, after all, spent the better part of the last decade as an NCAA tournament participant and a factor in the Big 12 title race.

But that simply isn’t true.

Baylor did not receive a single vote for the top 25 in the preseason AP Poll. They lost three starters off of a team that went 22-11 last season and spent much of the year on the cusp of the top 25. Drew has the reputation of being a recruiter, a guy that relies on the five-star, surefire lottery picks to win games, and if that’s really who he is as a head coach, than he isn’t very good at it. Baylor starts juniors and seniors, none of whom were considered more than a borderline top 50 recruit when they came out of high school.

Johnathan Motley, who had an all-american season and who played his way into being a first round pick, is who he is because of his development within Drew’s program. Manu Lecomte is a better player than he was before he spent last season as a redshirt after transferring from Miami. The same can be said for Jo Lual-Acuil. Terry Maston and Jake Lindsey, critical role players for this team, were under-the-radar prospects that the Bears were able to identify.

“I’m proud of what the guys have accomplished this year,” Drew said, “coming from not ranked to first time ever in school’s history being ranked number one, tying the best record in the regular season.”

There’s a reason that Drew was a favorite for the National Coach of the Year award under a late-season swoon.

Drew put it best after Friday’s loss, saying that the Bears “overachieved in many people’s eyes.”

That’s almost always a result of coaching.

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And this season is the perfect microcosm of what Drew has done in his 14 seasons in Waco. When he took that job in 2003, you would have been hard-pressed to find a worst place in high-major basketball to be a coach. The program hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1988, and that was their only trip to the Big Dance since 1950.

One NCAA tournament in 53 years.

That’s before you factor in that Drew took over for Dave Bliss, who was fired after he was caught on tape trying to paint one of his players, who had been murdered by a teammate, as a drug dealer to coverup for the fact that he was paying the player. The NCAA hit the program with massive sanctions, reducing them to seven scholarships for two years and, in 2005-06, banning the program from playing non-conference games.

By 2008, he had the Bears in the NCAA tournament.

By 2010, he had them in the Elite 8. In the last decade, he’s been to seven NCAA tournament, four Sweet 16s (all in the last eight years) and a pair of Elite 8s.

Prior to Drew’s arrival, Baylor had been to four NCAA tournaments.

Ever.

What he’s done with that program, making it one of the top 30 basketball programs in college basketball, is remarkable and the single best building — not rebuilding, building — job in the history of the sport.

And while there’s not much to say about his team’s performance on Friday other than South Carolina took them to the woodshed, it doesn’t change what he did with that team this season or what he’s done with that program in his career.

“If you coach long enough,” Drew said, “you’ll have some of your greatest memories and some of your worst memories during March.”