California v Arizona

Bubble Banter: Illinois, California the biggest movers

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It’s been a big two weeks for Illinois.  The Illini have won four straight, including victories over Indiana and Minnesota.  When combined with wins over Gonzaga, Butler, and Ohio State, it’s hard to imagine the Illini as a bubble team at this point in time.  Taking care of winnable games down the stretch should be enough.

La Salle continues to make a push, as does California.  The Bears have won three straight – including a huge road victory at Arizona.

At the same time, the bubble remains very fluid.  How many SEC teams will ultimately make it?  Maryland and Virginia are right there in the ACC.  The Atlantic 10 is deep, but only Butler, VCU, and Saint Louis have separated at this point.  What we do know is this: It’s going to be a busy few weeks until Selection Sunday.  Much can (and will) change between now and then.  The s-curve moves daily.

Our latest look at the bubble is a picture at this moment in time – through games played on Sunday, February 17.  Enjoy another great week of hoops.

UPDATED: Monday, February 18 | 10:00 p.m. ET

Total Spots (68): Number of teams in the Field.

Automatic Bids (31): None at this time

  • Projected Locks (19): Teams who project to have secured a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
  • Should Be In (16): These teams are in solid position to receive an at-large bid.
  • Bubble: (31): Teams projected to be under consideration for at-large selection.
  • Spots Available (11): Estimated number of openings after Automatic Bids, Locks, and Should Be Ins are considered.
  • RPI and SOS: RPI and SOS data are updated through games completed on Sunday, February 17.  RPI and SOS data is credited to InsiderRPI at ESPN.
Atlantic 10
Locks: Butler | Should Be In: Saint Louis, VCU | Bubble: La Salle, Temple, Charlotte, Massachusetts, Xavier
  • Charlotte (18-7 | 6-5) | RPI: 49 | SOS: 98 | – Charlotte treaded water last week after a road split with Butler and Saint Louis (it’s worth noting that Butler played without center Andrew Smith). A victory over La Salle is the 49ers other NCAA-level win at this point. Wins over Davidson, UMass, and Xavier are worth mentioning. A weak non-conference schedule (No. 240) means Charlotte has to finish strong in the A-10. The schedule is somewhat favorable if the 49ers can win at home and take care of winnable road games.
  • La Salle (18-6 | 8-3) | RPI: 33 | SOS: 76 | – It was a two-win week for the Explorers – the best over Saint Joseph’s. A home win over Butler and a road victory at VCU highlight the Explorers’ resume. They also have a win over fellow-bubble dweller Villanova. La Salle is 5-5 vs. Top 100 teams, and the only blemish is an early November loss at CCSU. Road games at Temple and Saint Louis give the Explorers a chance to secure an NCAA bid provided they take care of business in their other games.
  • Massachusetts (16-8 | 6-5) | RPI: 56 | SOS: 63 | – UMass missed a golden opportunity this past week, falling to both VCU and Temple. While the Minutemen are 6-7 vs. the Top 100, they are just 1-6 vs. Top 50 teams. Time is running short as the only NCAA-level win left on the regular-season calendar is a home game with Butler.
  • Temple (17-8 | 6-5) | RPI: 48 | SOS: 59 | – The Owls continue to teeter on the bubble. Temple took a bad one-point home loss against Duquesne before bouncing back to win by one at Massachusetts. The victory over Syracuse continues to pay dividends, and the Owls also have wins over Saint Louis, Charlotte, and Villanova. Games with La Salle and Charlotte are up next. Winning both would certainly help Temple’s at-large position. It would be a close call if today were Selection Sunday.
  • Xavier (14-10 | 7-4) | RPI: 97 | SOS: 112 | – After a loss at Dayton, the Musketeers numbers took a major hit. That said, wins over Butler, La Salle, and Temple keep the Musketeers on the at-large list for another day. But it may not last long. Xavier has five sub-100 losses, including Wofford (No. 248). If there’s a reason for optimism, it’s this: Xavier closes with five potential NCAA opponents, one of which is Memphis. Put together a strong finish and the Musketeers have a chance entering the A-10 tournament. Odds of that happening? Not great at this point.
ACC
Locks: Duke, Miami-FL | Should Be In: NC State | Bubble: North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Florida State
  • Florida State (14-11 | 6-6) | RPI: 65 | SOS: 14 | – Florida State hasn’t won back-to-back games since beating Clemson and Maryland on the road in early January. Without a winning streak, FSU is likely headed for the NIT. The Seminoles are 1-6 vs. Top 50 RPI teams to go along with non-conference losses to South Alabama and Auburn. A sweep of Maryland helps some – especially if the Terrapins get it together. But how much it helps remains to be seen. FSU plays NC State twice along with UNC and Virginia down the stretch. Can the ‘Noles take advantage?
  • Maryland (18-7 | 6-6) | RPI: 63 | SOS: 101 | – The Terps picked up a huge victory over Duke this weekend. Combined with a victory over NC State, there are two NCAA-level wins on UM’s profile. The albatross, however, is a non-conference schedule (No. 295) that sticks out like a sore thumb. While the Terrapins have no “bad” losses, they lack quality wins. Even with the win over Duke, Maryland is 3-7 vs. Top 100 teams – and one of those is Stony Brook. Assuming the Terrapins can avoid an ACC upset, they close with North Carolina and Virginia.
  • North Carolina (16-8 | 7-5) | RPI: 30 | SOS: 13 | – Carolina ended a two-game skid by beating Virginia. That’s the good news. The bad news is a 1-6 mark vs. Top 50 teams (UNLV). Within the ACC, the Tar Heels have beaten Florida State, Maryland, and Virginia – none of which are guaranteed NCAA teams right now. While the good showing at Duke was nice, a victory would have been much better. The only “bad” loss on the Heels’ profile is at Texas. An NCAA bid is squarely on Carolina’s shoulders. UNC has remaining games with NC State, Florida State, Maryland, and Duke.
  • Virginia (18-7 | 8-4) | RPI: 77 | SOS: 181 | – After a week in which UVA beat Va. Tech and lost at UNC, the highlights and low-lights of the Cavaliers’ resume are well documented: some good wins (including one at Wisconsin) and a bunch of questionable losses (none more so than Old Dominion). While a 6-1 mark vs. Top 100 teams is impressive, Virginia has done most of its quality work in the ACC at home. And then there’s the non-conference SOS number (No. 319) that will test the Selection Committee’s value on quality scheduling. With upcoming games against Miami, Duke, and Maryland, Virginia does have some control of their post-season destination.
BIG EAST
Locks: Syracuse, Louisville, Georgetown, Marquette | Should Be In: Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame | Bubble: Villanova, St. John’s
  • St. John’s (15-10 | 7-6) | RPI: 57 | SOS: 18 | – It’s hard to penalize St. John’s too much for road losses at Syracuse and Louisville. Of course, a win would have helped. The Red Storm have a win at Cincinnati, a victory over Notre Dame, and are 5-7 vs. the Top 100. Outside the Big East, however, SJU’s best win is Detroit, so there’s not a lot of beef to fall back on. SJU has NCAA-level games left with Pittsburgh and Marquette at home, and Notre Dame on the road. Both of the Red Storms’ bad losses were early in the season (San Francisco and UNC-Asheville). It may very well come down to the Big East tournament.
  • Villanova (15-10 | 7-6) | RPI: 58 | SOS: 32 | – All-in-all, a road split with Cincinnati and Connecticut probably helps the Wildcats. Of course, it’s the back-to-back wins over Louisville and Syracuse that are really helping ‘Nova’s resume. That said, Villanova is 5-9 vs. Top 100 teams and Saint Joseph’s is the Wildcats’ best non-league victory. So there’s a lot of average on the Wildcats’ profile. Plus, there’s an ugly home loss to Columbia in November. That seems like a long time ago. So a late push would probably make it a mute point.
BIG 10
Locks: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin | Should Be In: Illinois, Minnesota | Bubble: Iowa
  • Iowa (17-9 | 6-7) | RPI: 79 | SOS: 127 | – The Hawkeyes routed Minnesota over the weekend to collect another Top 50 win. Overall, Iowa has won three straight (Northwestern and Penn State were the other two). At the same time, a No. 325 non-conference SOS is hard to overcome and it drags down the Hawkeyes’ profile. The other problem is a 2-6 mark in true road games. Down the stretch, Iowa’s only two NCAA-level opponents are Indiana (away) and Illinois (home). Outside the Big Ten, Iowa’s best win is Iowa State. They lost big at Virginia Tech.
BIG 12
Locks: Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Baylor, Oklahoma, Iowa State
  • Baylor (15-9 | 7-5) | RPI: 55 | SOS: 27 | – Wins over St. John’s, and BYU are worth noting, but neither are likely to carry Baylor into the NCAAs. That leaves a home victory over Oklahoma State as the Bears’ highlight. That and an early win at Kentucky. So it’s safe to say Baylor has work to do between now and Selection Sunday. Three of Baylor’s final six games are away from home, so a 3-5 road mark is worth noting. Upcoming games with Iowa State and Oklahoma could be very important. The Bears also play Kansas and Kansas State down the stretch.
  • Iowa State (17-8 | 7-5) | RPI: 46 | SOS: 80 | – The Cyclones are pretty good at home – wins over Kansas State, Oklahoma, and Baylor. The road is a different story. ISU is 2-7 away from home and their best road win is TCU. That could be a significant factor if the Cyclones find themselves on the bubble. There’s also a bad loss at Texas Tech. Like many other bubble teams, quality opportunities remain. It’ll be up to ISU to make it happen – or not.
  • Oklahoma (16-8 | 7-5) | RPI: 17 | SOS: 4 | – We could say similar things about the Sooners, who have home wins over Oklahoma State and Kansas and a 3-5 road record. Of course, winning at West Virginia is better than TCU. Oklahoma’s best non-conference win is Texas AM, and there’s not a lot of help coming from the Aggies. Given the Sooners’ RPI and SOS numbers, Oklahoma will get a long look from the Selection Committee. And 9 wins vs. Top 100 teams are a big help, too. If there’s an underlying issue for the Sooners, it’s their closing schedule. They get Iowa State and Baylor at home (which helps). But there aren’t any more chances for truly marquee wins.
CONFERENCE USA
Locks: None | Should Be In: Memphis | Bubble: Southern Miss
  • Southern Miss (18-6 | 9-2) | RPI: 40 | SOS: 94 | – It comes down to this: Southern Miss has to beat Memphis at home this weekend and avoid any bad C-USA losses down the stretch. That will at least keep USM on the at-large board. Right now, their best win is Denver (RPI No. 92) and they are 1-6 vs. Top 100 teams. While the Golden Eagles have thus far avoided any sub-100 losses, an NCAA bid is very unlikely without beating an NCAA-level team.
MISSOURI VALLEY
Locks: None | Should Be In: Creighton, Wichita State | Bubble: Indiana State
  • Indiana State (15-10 | 9-6) | RPI: 60 | SOS: 73 | – How many questionable losses can the Sycamores’ endure? ISU added two more to their profile last week, losing at Missouri State and Bradley. The losses dropped Indiana State’s power numbers into dangerous territory. What’s left is a neutral-court win over Miami-FL and MVC wins at Wichita State and home to Creighton. Add in a win over Ole Miss, and there’s a reason why ISU had NCAA aspirations. But the Sycamores’ overall profile is dwindling and only a home game with Wichita State remains as a boost. ISU needs a sweep of the Shockers and has to avoid further letdowns.
MOUNTAIN WEST
Locks: New Mexico | Should Be In: Colorado State, San Diego State, UNLV | Bubble: Boise State, Air Force
  • Air Force (13-9 | 6-5) | RPI: 69 | SOS: 67 | – The Falcons’ beat UNLV at home but couldn’t pull off the double-down after losing to surging Colorado State. It leaves AF at 4-8 vs. Top 100 teams. More troubling, though, is a non-conference SOS ranked 250-plus in which a victory over Arkansas Pine-Bluff (No. 216) is the highlight. So far, all of Air Force’s trump cards have come at home. With trips to Boise State and San Diego State ahead, that can change. The Falcons’ also have a home date with New Mexico. They need a late surge.
  • Boise State (14-8 | 4-6) | RPI: 42 | SOS: 58 | – Like Air Force, a non-conference SOS in the mid-200’s won’t help. But unlike the Falcons, BSU has a non-conference road victory at Creighton. They also lost a close contest at Michigan State. Inside the MTW, Boise has managed only a win over UNLV at home, and a sweep of now-struggling Wyoming. Boise played New Mexico tough in Albuquerque but came up a bit short. Down the stretch, the Broncos have plenty of opportunities. Can they take advantage?
PAC 12
Locks: Arizona | Should Be In: Oregon, Colorado, UCLA | Bubble: Arizona State, Stanford, California
  • Arizona State (19-7 | 8-5) | RPI: 70 | SOS: 125 | – The victory at Colorado was huge following a sub-par loss at Utah. It gave ASU a sweep of the Buffaloes and raised the Sun Devils’ mark to 3-3 vs. Top 50 teams. Wins over California and Arkansas are also looking a little better. The real trouble is a 13-2 mark vs. sub-150 RPI teams and a non-conference SOS ranked No. 287. That could yet be a big hurdle to overcome. After visits from the two Washington schools, ASU closes with road trips to UCLA, USC, and Arizona. Those three games may decide the Sun Devils’ post-season fate.
  • California (16-9 | 8-5) | RPI: 54 | SOS: 35 | – For a team with a very average profile, three straight wins makes a big difference – especially with two of those wins being at Arizona and against UCLA. While a 4-9 mark vs. Top 100 teams isn’t great, it’s certainly a huge improvement from two weeks ago. The other plus on the Bears’ resume: no bad losses. If Cal can survive a trip through Oregon, the schedule is favorable for a solid close.
  • Stanford (15-11 | 6-7) | RPI: 73 | SOS: 42 | – Stanford’s hopes are fading fast after back-to-back home losses to USC and UCLA. Now it’s off for a swing through Oregon, and the Cardinal are just 3-5 in road games this season. The losses are mounting, and a sub-.500 record in the Pac-12 won’t cut it. Stanford needs a winning streak. The Cardinal are just 1-8 vs. Top 50 teams. That’s not exactly an endearing mark.
SEC
Locks: Florida | Should Be In: Missouri | Bubble: Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas
  • Alabama (16-8 | 9-3) | RPI: 59 | SOS: 70 | – While Alabama’s profile has plenty of holes (and suspect losses), the Crimson Tide played several of those games without Andrew Steele. How that plays out remains to be seen. With a 1-3 mark vs. Top 50 teams (that win being Kentucky), the Tide’s overall 9-3 SEC mark is somewhat deceiving. A non-conference win over Villanova is noteworthy. The rest is pretty average. It’s hard to tell how an 11 or 12-win SEC team will fare. What’s left that matters (really) are trips to Florida and Ole Miss.
  • Arkansas (16-9 | 7-5) | RPI: 75 | SOS: 85 | – We’ve established that Arkansas can win at home – Oklahoma, Florida, Missouri. What we’ve also established that to this point the Razorbacks can’t win away from home (1-6). Will a bunch of nice home wins be enough? Probably not. Arkansas also played a number of sub-300 RPI teams which is dragging down its RPI numbers. The Hogs have remaining road games at Florida, LSU, and Missouri. How they fare in those games will be important.
  • Kentucky (17-8 | 8-4) | RPI: 43 | SOS: 49 | – Without Nerlens Noel, Kentucky is 0-1 with a lopsided loss at Tennessee. While the Wildcats still have time to show what they can do without one of their best players, it’s not overly promising. UK had a mediocre profile before the injury (4-8 vs. Top 100 teams and 0-4 vs. Top 50 teams). If there’s good news, four of UK’s final six games are at Rupp Arena. It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out.
  • Mississippi (19-6 | 8-4) | RPI: 53 | SOS: 137 | – Ole Miss’ profile doesn’t have anything bad. But it also doesn’t have a lot of really good, either. The Rebels have home wins over Missouri and Arkansas and a sweep of Tennessee. But the rest is ho-hum. Outside the SEC, the Rebels’ best win is Rutgers. They lost to Indiana State and Middle Tennessee. There’s also a non-conference SOS ranked No. 280. Another issue? Ole Miss has one remaining game against a team with any realistic NCAA hopes: Alabama. Best recipe is to keep winning all winnable games.
WEST COAST
Locks: Gonzaga | Should Be In: None | Bubble: St. Mary’s, BYU
  • BYU (18-8 | 9-4) | RPI: 68 | SOS: 103 | – At this point, the Cougars don’t have a lot to offer the NCAA Selection Committee. BYU’s best wins are Tennessee State, Montana, and Santa Clara. That made losses to San Diego and San Francisco all the more troubling. Without beating both Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga down the stretch it’s hard to imagine BYU getting much consideration.
  • Saint Mary’s (21-5 | 11-2) | RPI: 50 | SOS: 149 | – Saint Mary’s best RPI win is Harvard, although BYU might be better. Either way, the Gaels’ profile is largely empty despite a high volume of wins. Early losses to Georgia Tech and Pacific are there too. SMU has to beat BYU at home, and probably needs to beat Creighton to be in the mix heading to the WCC tournament. The Gaels were swept by Gonzaga.
BEST OF THE REST
Locks: None | Should Be In: None | Bubble: Middle Tennessee, Belmont, Bucknell, Akron, Louisiana Tech
  • Akron (20-4 | 12-0) | RPI: 52 | SOS: 175 | – The Zips have not lost since December 15 (at Detroit). That said, Akron’s only Top 100 win during that stretch is Ohio at home. An early win over Middle Tennessee State helps, giving Akron a 2-3 mark vs. the Top 100. The Zips are 16-1 vs. sub-150 teams – meaning all but three wins are against the lower half of Division I. Akron has to win an outright MAC title and probably reach the conference tourney final to have a realistic shot.
  • Belmont (18-6 | 11-2) | RPI: 29 | SOS: 64 | – Good scheduling and a 5-4 mark vs. Top 100 teams has put the Bruins on the radar for at-large consideration. A win over Middle Tennessee State is the Bruins’ best RPI win, although a victory at Stanford might be equally important. There are no “ugly” losses on the Bruins’ resume – although Northeastern isn’t great. If Belmont wins the OVC outright and makes it to the title game the Committee will have an interesting decision. From there, it depends on the overall landscape.
  • Bucknell (20-5 | 8-2) | RPI: 61 | SOS: 204 | – A victory over La Salle highlights a resume that shows a lot of wins but not a lot of high-quality W’s. Bucknell has beaten New Mexico St and won at Purdue. Unfortunately, the latter hasn’t helped quite as much as expected. The negatives are losses at Penn State and Princeton and a very weak overall schedule.
  • Louisiana Tech (23-3 | 14-0) | RPI: 51 | SOS: 261 | – La Tech’s strength of schedule is a major hurdle to overcome – reflected by 20 games (19-1 record) against sub-150 opponents. The Bulldogs’ best win is over bubble-dweller Southern Miss. There’s also an ugly loss at McNeese State. Despite a high volume of wins, an at-large bid is unlikely.
  • Middle Tennessee (23-4 | 15-1) | RPI: 25 | SOS: 107 | – An early win over Ole Miss helps but the Blue Raiders’ only other Top 100 win is Central Florida. Like some others on this list, a 15-0 mark vs. sub-150 teams is a drag on the schedule. Middle Tennessee also has losses to fellow bubble-dwellers Belmont and Akron – although both were on the road.

No. 1 Kentucky succeeding with many willing to assist

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 23:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball during the game against the Cleveland State Vikings at Rupp Arena on November 23, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) For a team that annually turns over its roster of talented individuals, top-ranked Kentucky is playing like a group that has worked together for a while.

The Wildcats’ unselfish play is reflected in a No. 3 ranking in assists (21.3 per game), helped by a season-best 33 on 44 baskets in Monday night’s 115-69 pasting of Arizona State in the Bahamas. That was Kentucky’s highest total under coach John Calipari, who has emphasized sharing the ball to every crop of heralded freshmen.

While that’s better than he might have expected this soon, Calipari doesn’t seem too surprised.

“There’s a couple reasons,” Calipari said Friday. “They’re really skilled, so you can share. When you’re not skilled, you put your head down and you bounce it and you run people over.

“Second thing is, their minds think quick. So, they can see stuff and recognize quickly. . And it’s hard to figure that out until you coach a guy, so there are guys that I’ve had that you have to know that that’s who they are. OK, they’re going to play a little different. But when you put five guys with nimble minds and are skilled, that’s what you get.”

Selflessness could be in play often when Kentucky (7-0) hosts No. 11 UCLA on Saturday in a matchup of college basketball’s marquee programs featuring similar strengths.

The Bruins (8-0) lead the nation in assists (24.8 per game) and field goal percentage (55.3) and are third in scoring average (97 points), just ahead of Kentucky (95.6). UCLA also features the country’s top distributor in freshman guard Lonzo Ball, who averages 9.6 assists including a school freshman-record 13 on Wednesday against UC Riverside.

Kentucky features several facilitators with freshman guard De’Aaron Fox drawing raves after posting Kentucky’s second triple-double (14 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) and first since 1988. Fox ranks fourth nationally with 7.6 assists per game and appears to have inherited the floor general role handled last season by Tyler Ulis.

But other Wildcats have willingly fed their teammates, with the freshmen in particular arriving in Lexington with some playing history together.

“We know how we played a little bit, so we were comfortable with each other,” said guard Malik Monk, Kentucky’s scoring leader (19.3 points). “We just came here and put the work in. .

“We share the ball naturally. I don’t think he (Calipari) knows that we’re going to share the ball the whole game. When I said we just play basketball and we have fun together, that comes with sharing the ball.”

Monk has two highlight-reel examples of how much the Wildcats enjoy giving.

His off-balance effort to keep a ball inbounds against Arizona State culminated in a one-handed pass to forward Wenyen Gabriel for a two-handed reverse dunk, one of several signature moments besides Fox’s milestone. Last week against Cleveland State, Monk followed up his steal by bouncing the ball off the glass to a trailing Fox for a dunk that brought the house down.

Monk ranks third in assists behind Fox and senior guard Dominique Hawkins (22 assists, two turnovers), a reserve who’s known more for defense. Calipari noted that as proof of the Wildcats’ willingness to share, a trait that could be demonstrated by both teams on Saturday.

Said Monk, “It’s working for us good, so we’re going to keep it rolling.”

More AP College Basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org

Previewing Kentucky vs. UCLA: The season’s most anticipated matchup to date

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The most impressive team in college basketball through the first three weeks of the season has been the Kentucky Wildcats.

They’re ranked No. 1 in the country for good reason. They’ve won by at least 21 points in every game they’ve played, they’ve scored at least 87 points in every games except one, they’ve cracked triple-digits in each of their last three games and they just so happen to have one of the best defenses in the sport.

What else do you need?

Critics will say they need to do this against a team with comparable talent, and it’s not unfair. Kentucky’s beaten up on five mid-major teams, Arizona State and a Michigan State team that is currently 4-4.

On Saturday, we get that matchup. The Wildcats will host No. 11 UCLA, who has an electric freshman guard of their own leading an offense that is lighting up scoreboards out west.

It will be the most-anticipated matchup on a day filled with terrific games, not only because it’s between two blue-blood programs playing elite-level basketball, but because the way these two teams play should turn this into a fast-paced, highlight-laden shootout.

Let’s break the matchup down.

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If you looked solely at the box scores of Kentucky’s games, you’d probably assume that the Wildcats are the second-coming of the Golden State Warriors, an offensive juggernaut with a roster full of players that are unguardable.

That’s not necessarily the case.

What makes this Kentucky team so special happens on the defensive side of the ball. Simply put, they are a nightmare to play against. De’Aaron Fox is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country. Isaiah Briscoe isn’t all that far behind, and Malik Monk has assuaged fears about whether or not he was a guy that cared about that side of the ball.

And I haven’t even mentioned the size and versatility along their front line yet.

Cal isn’t doing anything all that fancy with them on the defensive end, either. He isn’t reinventing the wheel. He’s not playing gimmick defenses or using any kind of full-court pressure. All he’s doing is asking his guys to play aggressive, pressuring man-to-man defense, often-times picking up the primary ball-handler for 94-feet, and his team has bought in.

Their best defensive lineup, the one that Cal has used to start three of the last four games, features Wenyen Gabriel at the four and Bam Adebayo at the five. Both Gabriel and Adebayo are athletic enough to cover point guards, so Cal will switch every exchange 1-through-5.

Kentucky plays with an unbelievable amount of effort and energy on defense. Everyone on the roster plays like they’re the walk-ons, like the only way they can get minutes is if they lead the team in floor-burns. But they’re not. They’re lottery picks, and in the case of Fox and Monk, more athletic than anyone they’re going to face this season. They make running offense a nightmare, and once they get the ball back – whether it’s off a missed shot, a turnover and, oftentimes, even a made shot – it’s off to the races.

And it’s that transition game that kills you.

Briscoe, Fox and Monk are all interchangeable. They can grab a defensive rebound and lead the break coast-to-coast. (Part of the reason that Fox is averaging such a high number of rebounds is that he doesn’t have to worry about point guards crashing the glass, so while the other four guys on the floor go find a body, Fox heads to the rim and grabs the board, the quickest way to ignite their break.) If that doesn’t work, all three of them can throw outlet passes 94 feet and drop them in the bucket like Aaron Rodgers throwing a fade route. They can be the guys running the lanes, catching those passes and finishing acrobatic layups with two guys draped all over them. They can throw the alleys and finish the oops.

But the key to their transition game?

They read each other so well. If Fox sees Briscoe is in a spot to get an outlet pass, he’s gone. If Monk is corralling a rebound, he knows Fox and Briscoe will be running the floor already. That’s why you see “possessions” for Kentucky that so often look like this:

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On the year, 28.7 percent of Kentucky’s offensive possessions come in transition, according to Synergy’s logs, which is second nationally only to a Savannah State team that has yet to record a win over a Division I opponent.

One of the criticisms of Coach Cal is that he’s only a recruiter. He doesn’t coach, he just rolls the ball out and lets the talent on his team takeover. Frankly, that’s what he’s doing this year, and it’s brilliant. He doesn’t need to micro-manage this group. All he had to do as devise a system that would play to their strengths and let their instincts takeover.

He did, and it’s working pretty well to date.


The key to beating Kentucky this season is to force them to play offense in the half-court. The closest anyone has come to doing that this season was Michigan State, and they held the Wildcats to a manageable 69 points. Kentucky has a perimeter shooting issue. Fox and Briscoe combined have made just five threes on the season and are shooting 20.8 percent from beyond the arc even after combining to go 3-for-3 against Arizona State on Monday night. Their best defensive lineup doesn’t really have a front court scoring threat while guys like Isaac Humphries and Derek Willis, upgrades offensively, limit how effective that Kentucky defense is.

The easiest way to slow down a team’s transition game is by scoring. Make them take the ball out of the net.

And the good news for Bruins fans is that UCLA not only has one of the nation’s most potent offenses themselves, but they just so happen to be able to do the things that you need to be able to do to operate against that Kentucky defense.

The biggest thing is that the Bruins, like the Wildcats, are terrific in transition. Believe it or not, UCLA actually plays at a faster tempo and has a shorter average length of possession than the Wildcats, according to KenPom.com. The best way to score on a great defense like Kentucky’s? Beat them down the floor and score before they’re set. Get uncontested layups. Get open threes before the defense can locate all of the shooters, of which UCLA has plenty.

Kentucky’s transition game is designed around getting those layups, using their speed to beat teams to the rim. UCLA’s is slightly different, geared towards getting the myriad of shooters on the roster open, rhythm threes. No one in the country is better at making that happen than Lonzo Ball, and I say that for three reasons: (1.) UCLA leads the nation in effective field goal percentage because (2.) they’re second in the nation in three-point percentage and (3.) they’re in the 88th percentile in transition points-per-possession just a year after finishing in the 21st percentile, according to Synergy, while (4.) Ball averages 9.6 assists, leading the nation.

In this case, the effect is two-fold: Not only will UCLA avoid having to run offense in the half court, it will keep Kentucky from getting out in transition at the same time.

It’s not crazy to think that UCLA’s best defense on Saturday will be fast break buckets.

But even if the Bruins are unable to get out and run, this is still a team with weapons that can break down Kentucky’s switching man-to-man defense.

Think back to the NBA Finals. The way the Cavaliers attacked Golden State’s switches was to create the mismatches that they wanted; in other words, they’d have whoever Stephen Curry was guarding set a ball-screen for LeBron James or Kyrie Irving, then sit back and let talent takeover.

You beat a switching defense by identifying the mismatch you want to take advantage of and force that switch.

Part of the reason that Kentucky’s switching has been so effective is that they haven’t run into a team who has guards that are capable of fully taking advantage of those mismatches. Is anyone really that worried about Tum Tum Nairn or Tra Holder? UCLA, however, does. Everyone should know how good Ball is at this point, but the other three pieces the Bruins have on the perimeter – Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday – are talented as well. Combined, those three are averaging 46.4 points, 10.6 assists and shooting 44.8 percent from three on nearly 17 threes attempted per game.

They spread the floor with shooters, their perimeter is littered with playmakers and their bigs are skilled enough to be able to slip screens and take advantage of having a smaller guard on them.

The one thing UCLA does not do well is crash the glass, but that has a hidden benefit: keeping two or three guys behind the ball is a really good way to limit how many run-outs Kentucky can get.


Neither Kentucky nor UCLA has truly played a team that appears to be on their level this season, which is what makes this game so intriguing.

Lonzo Ball has played like the potential No. 1 pick in the draft and UCLA has looked like the hands-down favorite to win the Pac-12.

And Kentucky?

Playing them has been about as much fun as getting your hand caught in a meat grinder.

On Saturday, for really the first time this year, we’ll get a sense for whether or not their early-season hype has been justified. But more than that, we’ll see a game between two of the most entertaining teams in the country, two teams loaded with offensive firepower and future NBA players in a game where the winner will be the team that can run the floor better.

What more can you ask more?

Weekend Preview: Kentucky-UCLA, Baylor-Xavier and the rest of Saturday’s Showdowns

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15:  Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats talks with Malik Monk #5, De'Aaron Fox #0, and Wenyen Gabriel #32 in the second half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 11 UCLA at No. 1 Kentucky, Sat. 12:30 p.m.: Outside of the Champions Classic, this matchup between a pair of blue-bloods in one of the nation’s most famous arenas is likely the most anticipated game of the season to date. Why? For starters, the amount of talent that’s going to be on the floor is ridiculous, but more importantly, that talent allows Kentucky and UCLA to both play styles that are quite aesthetically pleasing. Our full preview for this game can be found here.

  • Prediction: The official lines are not out yet, but according to KenPom.com, which is usually a fairly good approximate for Vegas, Kentucky looks to be around a 10-point favorite. At (+10), I’ll be on UCLA.

No. 7 Xavier at No. 9 Baylor, Sat. 3:30 p.m.: UCLA-Kentucky may be the most anticipated matchup of the weekend, but Baylor-Xavier is the game that will pit two top ten teams against each other. Xavier we all expected to be in this spot this season, but Baylor’s emergence as a potential Big 12 contender caught a lot of people by surprise.

There are going to be two key matchups here. The Bears are going to have a huge advantage on the interior. Johnathan Motley will be the best big man on the floor by a wide margin – if he keeps playing the way that he’s been playing, he’ll be in the discussion for all-american teams – while Jo Lual-Acuil has been a revelation this season. That duo can really protect the rim, and the Bears have been good about making sure they run offense through them on the other end of the floor. I’m not sure who Xavier has to slow them down.

On the other side, we have the Musketeers, who are going to have to figure out how to deal with Baylor’s 1-1-3 zone, which looks like a junk defense on the surface but is tough to figure out the first time you see it. Chris Mack’s club has some perimeter talent – Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner are the big names, but J.P. Macura has been terrific this season – but Myles Davis, the guy that makes their offense run smoothly, still is not cleared to play.

  • Prediction: We’ll update this when an official line comes out. KenPom has Baylor winning by four, and if that’s the case, Baylor (-4) is a good bet.

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SEVEN MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • No. 25 West Virginia at No. 6 Virginia, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: Styles don’t get any more contrasting than that of Press Virginia and the Pack-Line. The Mountaineers want to play full court, frenetic basketball while the Wahoos like to control every detail of a game. What wins out?
  • Saint Joseph’s at No. 2 Villanova, Sat. 1:00 p.m.: The Holy War! An always-intense rivalry, I don’t think that the Hawks have the horses to take a run at Villanova this season, especially not when the game is being played in the Pavillion.
  • No. 8 Gonzaga vs. No. 16 Arizona, Sat. 5:30 p.m.: This game looked a lot more interesting when we thought Arizona would have Parker Jackson-Cartwright, not to mention Allonzo Trier, Ray Smith and Terrence Ferguson.
  • Oklahoma at No. 17 Wisconsin, Sat. 1:00 p.m.: The Sooners are sitting at 6-1 on the season despite learning to play without Buddy Hield and company. This will be their biggest test of the season to date.
  • No. 21 Rhode Island at Providence, Sat. 4:30 p.m.: A battle for supremacy in the state of Rhode Island. It may not make waves nationally, but this rivalry matters in the state.

FIVE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Kentucky and UCLA are both playing elite teams for the first time: That is the No. 1 story line that needs to be taken out of this game.

Kentucky has been absolutely massacring opponents this season. They’ve only scored fewer than 87 points once and cracked triple-digits in their last three games. UCLA has reached triple-digits quite often themselves this season, putting together a transition attack that is less ruthless but more aesthetic than Kentucky’s. Both of them look like the runaway favorites to win their respective leagues as of today, but neither of them have played anyone all that good. Kentucky has wins over Michigan State and Arizona State. UCLA has picked off Nebraska and Texas A&M.

Those wins are nothing like the wins that Indiana now has, which is the beauty of this game. UK and UCLA matchup really, really well, so this should not only be an incredibly entertaining game to view, it is going to be our first chance to really see how they do going up against a significant test.

2. The same can be said for West Virginia and Virginia: The Mountaineers are doing crazy things with their press this season – like, for example, forcing 40 turnovers in a 40 minute game – but they aren’t exactly doing it against the best competition. They have beaten Illinois (who lost to Winthrop) and lost to Temple (who lost to New Hampshire and UMass). So who knows just how good they actually are.

The same can be said for Virginia, who gave up an average of just 41.3 points in their first six games but who also found themselves down 32-16 with five minutes left in the first half at home against Ohio State. The Wahoos eventually won that game, but seeing as the Buckeyes, who are a borderline tournament team, are the best team that Virginia has played this season, I don’t think we really have a feel for just how good this team is or how much they miss Austin Nichols.

We’ll learn a lot in Charlottesville on Saturday.

Virginia guard London Perrantes (32) reacts to a three pointer during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Charlottesville, Va., Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. Virginia won the game 63-61. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia guard London Perrantes (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

3. About Nigel Hayes … : Hayes played easily his best game of the season in Tuesday’s win over No. 22 Syracuse, coming within a point of a triple-double as he almost single-handedly sliced apart the Orange zone. It wasn’t a coincidence that Wisconsin looked as good as they have all year when Hayes, who hasn’t shot a three in two games, operated as a playmaker in the paint and played inside-out. But that was also against a zone, where it only makes sense to play Hayes at the high-post.

So what happens this weekend? What happens against Oklahoma? Will Hayes continue to embrace what he does best at this level, or will be continue to try to prove what he can be to the next level?

4. Melo Trimble vs. Jawun Evans: Evans might be the best point guard in the country that you haven’t heard of yet. Trimble, on the other hand, is a guy that everyone knows, a guy that has developed a reputation for saving his team in crunch time. Both Evans’ Oklahoma State team and Trimble’s Maryland Terrapins really could a win on Saturday night when they play at the XFinity Center.

5. So who’s hurt the most by injuries?: Duke’s problems aren’t exactly a secret anymore. Neither are Michigan State’s, although news came down on Thursday evening that star freshman Miles Bridges is dealing with an ankle injury that could keep him out for a few weeks. USC learned on Thursday that Bennie Boatwright, a starting forward, will be out for six weeks after spraining his MCL while Arizona is going to be without starting point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright for some time with a high-ankle sprain. And Indiana? They have two games this weekend and neither of them will be played with O.G. Anunoby on the floor.

BLOOMINGTON, IN - NOVEMBER 30: O G Anunoby #3 of the Indiana Hoosiers grabs his ankle after being injured during the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Assembly Hall on November 30, 2016 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
O.G. Anunoby (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

CBT Podcast: North Carolina-Indiana and a look at a terrific weekend of hoops

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 25:  Nate Britt #0 of the North Carolina Tar Heels highfives teammate Joel Berry II #2 in the second half against the Indiana Hoosiers during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament East Regional at Wells Fargo Center on March 25, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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A new episode of the NBCSports.com College Basketball Talk podcast is now live.

On it, we took a long look at everything that happened in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge – How big was Indiana’s win? Should we be concerned about North Carolina? Where does Wisconsin go moving forward? – and broke down the four big games on the slate for Saturday.

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You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Audioboom

Cincinnati upsets No. 19 Iowa State

AMES, IA - DECEMBER 1:  Gary Clark #11 of the Cincinnati Bearcats passes the ball around Darrell Bowie #10, and Matt Thomas #21 of the Iowa State Cyclones in the first half of play at Hilton Coliseum on December 1, 2016 in Ames, Iowa.(Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images)
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There was no Hilton Magic on Thursday night.

Cincinnati scored the last four points in the final 2:24 of overtime to upset No. 19 Iowa State. It was the first time in 38 games that a non-conference opponent came into Ames and left win a win.

The Cyclones have dropped two straight, while the Bearcats landed a signature, non-conference road victory.

Iowa State led for the most of the night, but left the door open for Cincinnati at the end of regulation and in the final moments of overtime. The Cyclones hadn’t scored in almost 90 seconds when Matt Thomas came up with a steal with less than 30 ticks to play. However, he got trapped just over half court, and quickly turned it over. Jacob Evans later converted on a game-tying bucket.

The Cyclones still had time for a final possession, but instead of Monte Morris attacking a defense that had not yet set up, they settled for a Naz Mitrou-Long three. He was one of two starters who did not score on the evening.

In the extra frame, Iowa State took a 54-51 led with 2:24 remaining after Deonte Burton cleaned up Morris’ missed fastbreak layup. However, in the ensuing possessions, Burton and Morris both settled for isolation jumpers. In between those two plays was a layup from Kevin Johnson, that cut the deficit to 54-53, and a pair of free throws by Evans that put the Bearcats up 55-54. Again, Iowa State was left with time to produce another Hilton Magic-esque ending. Even with 20 seconds remaining, they waited too long, and had to settle for another 3-pointer from Mitrou-Long that was off the mark. A scrum unfolded on the ground, and while Iowa State was looking for a held ball, the officials determined the clock expired.

Iowa State’s last two losses have come with questionable decisions down the stretch. In the AdvoCare Invitational championship game on Sunday against then-No. 11 Gonzaga, the Cyclones, who nearly erased an 18-point second half deficit, failed to get a shot off on the final possession despite having 14 seconds to work with. Thursday night’s late-game execution wasn’t any better.

In the end, Cincinnati landed a rare win inside Hilton Coliseum. This is an important victory, especially after Mick Cronin’s team blew a halftime lead against then-No. 21 Rhode Island in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off two weeks ago. That loss meant the Bearcats either had to defeat No. 19 Iowa State inside Hilton, or knock off No. 18 Butler inside Hinkle Fieldhouse the following week in order to score a marquee win before AAC play.

The Bearcats did the former, and could possibly be back in the top-25 by the time they take on the Bulldogs on Dec. 10.