Billikens’ journey to the Final Four begins with 17-point victory over Charlotte

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NEW YORK – March is the month where the elite teams identify themselves.

The top spot in the Atlantic-10 Conference changed hands numerous times this season, with VCU, Butler and even Charlotte atop the conference standings at one point.

But nobody remembers who No. 1 was in December. A team is judged based on what they do late in the season, when the games matter most.

But for the Saint Louis Billikens, all they have done since the games started to matter is win 14 of the past 17, with two losses coming in overtime.. The Billikens continued their winning ways on Friday, defeating Charlotte 72-55 in the Atlantic-10 Quarterfinals at The Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Saint Louis not only looked like the most complete team in the Atlantic-10, but also like a team that can compete for a spot in the Final Four.

That’s right. I said it.

This team has experience, cohesion, confidence and talent.

Saint Louis’ greatest strength is roster depth.. The late Rick Majerus did a masterful job putting together a dynamic team with players who each bring a unique skill set to table. Enter Dwayne Evans, the Billikens’ multi-purpose who led the way with 25 points and 9 rebounds on Thursday afternoon in win over the 49ers.

Evans has been the team’s steadiest hand since the beginning of February, scoring in double figures in each of the last 14 games.

But Saint Louis isn’t a one man show. In fact, the Billikens’s top five scorers are separated by just 3.1ppg, six Billikens average 7.4ppg or more, and four Billikens average at least 10ppg. Saint Louis has sure-handed guards, efficient shooters, versatile big-men, and a strong supporting cast.

“We’ve got a bunch of guys who are really good three‑point shooters,” said Evans following the quarterfinal win.

“You have to cover them and leave the inside open. So we kind of played in and out.”

On Friday against Charlotte, Saint Louis got a total team effort. Senior forward Cody Ellis scored 13 points to go along with Evans’ standout performance. They got steady play from forward Rob Loe, who finished with seven points, four rebounds, four assists and one block. Senior guard Kwamain Mitchell also added seven points, three rebounds, four assists and four steals. Both Loe and Mitchell had spot performances on Friday, but either one of them could easily take the lead next game. Coach Jim Crews echoed these sentiments following the win.

“I think we got the win kind of like we usually do. It comes from all kinds of different‑‑ I mean, we get a little from the defense, a little inside. We don’t shoot the ball that well from three. It seemed like we get threes at the right time, get to the line‑‑ I mean, we have a lot of different ways. I don’t know if we’re really, really good at any of them, but we’re good at a lot of them. The same thing with the players. They just‑‑ this guy, this game or next game or these three guys or those four guys. That’s kind of the beauty of our team.

That’s the beauty of this team. The Billikins don’t have to rely on one player. That stems from the team’s strong chemistry and experience. The Billikens embody the same characteristic that many of Rick Majerus’ famous Utah teams
from the mid-90s carried: integrity and a high level of character. The Billikens don’t get rattled easily.

“Teams are going to make runs on us all the time”, said guard Mike McCall Jr., who finished with nine points and four assists.

“We just need to go on to the next play and try to make a run ourselves.”

They are a top-50 team in both offensive and defensive turnover percentage. All eight of the Billikens’ primary players are upperclassmen. This is not a team filled with players that need the ball. This is not a team with fiery personalities, and Jim Crews likes that.

“I think we’ve got a bunch of guys that are leaders, but we don’t have one or two guys that kind of stand on top of the mountain top and say whatever needs to be said. We don’t have those type of personalities. So everything has kind of peaked with us. They don’t get real excited. They don’t get real down. They just kind of keep plugging away. That’s a great trait that they have.”

Are there more talented teams in the country than Saint Louis? Yes, there certainly are. But many of those “elite” teams don’t have the intangibles necessary to survive the long postseason trek.

Saint Louis does.

They have the proper personnel and all the tools necessary to make the steep climb to the top of the college hoops mountain.

You can contact Troy Machir on Twitter at @TroyMachir

Zion Williamson’s commitment gives Duke perhaps its best recruiting class ever

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Zion Williamson ended his recruitment and committed to Duke during a ceremony in his high school on Saturday night. The five-star forward from Spartanburg, SC is the most popular high school basketball player since LeBron James, drawing tens of millions of YouTube views and sellout crowds around the country to watch him play.

Landing a top-five prospect and a 6-foot-6, 275-pound forward like Williamson is a huge get for the Blue Devils. It’s also a bit of a shocker to see Duke win this recruiting battle for Williamson as in-state Clemson was considered by many to be the favorite to keep the local star at home. Williamson became a legend in South Carolina, playing to giant crowds, winning multiple state titles and constantly getting recognized in public.

The local stardom turned national and eventually international. Drake got a customized Williamson jersey at one point. When Williamson went to Italy for the Adidas Eurocamp he was recognized there on the street. Millions of people witnessed Williamson’s Las Vegas showdown with LaVar and LaMelo Ball at the Adidas Summer Championships.

And although Williamson is a top-five talent who should help make Duke a better team in the ACC, he gives them perhaps their best recruiting class of all time. Williamson joins R.J. Barrett, Cameron Reddish and Tre Jones in the Class of 2018 recruiting haul. Many scouting services have some combination of Barrett, Reddish and Williamson as the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 prospects in the country. Jones isn’t far behind and still in the top ten.

Watching Barrett, Williamson, Reddish and Jones play together is going to be absolutely fascinating on so many levels. It’s four playmakers who are all talented with the ball in their hands and Barrett, Reddish and Williamson are all potential multi-positional players.

The basketball community has plenty of debates about how Williamson’s NBA stock will play out and how his intriguing skill level will be used at the college level. Watching Williamson live is like seeing a Pro Bowl defensive lineman who explodes off the ground for violent dunks. He’s been compared to throwback players like Larry Johnson and Charles Barkley.

What position will Williamson play? Will Williamson be at his best with the ball in his hands on offense? How will Williamson’s inconsistent perimeter jumper look? Will that perimeter jumper allow Williamson to play on the wing? Can Williamson power through bigger players at the college level? A man among boys at the high school level, Williamson will face legitimately-sized competition at every turn next season.

Duke is going to be riveting to watch no matter where Williamson plays. Williamson could wind up being a star at the college level who has legitimate NBA question marks. The Blue Devils have a potential all-conference player on their hands. We won’t know how Williamson truly looks until he’s fully in-shape and running with an offense that has been suited to help him succeed. Since Williamson has been battling injuries for his senior season, he hasn’t been at his best basketball shape all season. But once Williamson gets healthy and dialed in, he could be one of college basketball’s most fascinating case studies in recent memory.

The Blue Devils have a shocking amount of talent once again next season. It could be their best recruiting class ever — which is really saying something for a Coach K team in the one-and-done era. Now how will it all come together?

Wade scores 20, Kansas St beats No. 24 TCU 73-68

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MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — Dean Wade scored 20 points and Kansas State beat No. 24 TCU 73-68 on Saturday.

Sophomore Makol Mawien added a career-high 18 points on 8 of 11 shooting. He had totaled just 13 points in Big 12 play this season for the Wildcats (14-5, 4-3).

Coming off a win over No. 4 Oklahoma earlier in the week, the Wildcats raced to a 7-0 lead.

TCU coach Jamie Dixon was called for a technical foul later in the first half, then drew another tech in the second half and was ejected. The Kansas State crowd serenaded Dixon as he walked off, and TCU assistant David Patrick took over.

Vlad Brodziansky scored 15 points for the Horned Frogs (14-5, 2-5).

BIG PICTURE

Kansas State: The win gives Kansas a solid four-game stretch with two wins over ranked opponents, three wins in total with the lone loss coming against Kansas.

TCU: The Horned Frogs have lost four of five since starting out the season 13-0.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

With the loss, TCU will more than likely fall out of the AP Top 25.

STATS AND STREAKS: The win gives Kansas State back-to-back wins over ranked opponents for the first time since the 2014-15 season, when it defeated Kansas and Iowa State in back-to-back outings.

No. 5 Duke rolls past Pittsburgh 81-54 for 4th straight win

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DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Grayson Allen stepped confidently into the 3-point shot near the Duke bench and let it fly — only to see the ball go halfway down and then roll out of the rim. The senior could only chuckle.

It’s close, he figures. Don’t change anything.

That much was clear during the fifth-ranked Blue Devils’ 81-54 win against Pittsburgh on Saturday. Allen scored 16 points in the rout, his best output since the start of the 2018 calendar year and a sign that maybe — just maybe — Allen is nearing the end of this monthlong rebellion by his suddenly wayward shot.

“I’ve had like nine of those in the last three games,” Allen said of the second-half 3 that rolled out, “that just hit the front of the rim, go halfway in and bounce out. When you’re about a half-inch off like that, there’s nothing you need to change or anything. You just keep shooting it.”

Freshman Wendell Carter Jr. had 21 points on 9-for-10 shooting to lead the Blue Devils (17-2, 5-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 52 percent and cruised to a second easy win against the Panthers (8-12, 0-7) in 10 days.

That certainly gave Allen — who as a freshman provided the desperately needed spark to help the Blue Devils beat Wisconsin in the 2015 NCAA title game — a low-pressure day to re-find his missing shooting rhythm. He made 5 of 11 shots and 4 of 10 from 3-point range in 26 minutes; he was shooting just 30 percent from the field and 20 percent from 3-point range in six ACC games coming in.

“The games before he went into this kind of shooting slump, he’d been shooting the ball great,” Carter said. “I believe it’s going to fall at some point. We just keep telling him to keep shooting and I’m sure it’s going to be there.”

Allen also showed his familiar emotional edge, most notably when he bounced up from taking an early hard fall on a flagrant breakaway foul and yelling a couple of frustrated expletives while being led away as the referees began to a replay review.

“That fire was already there,” Allen said, “but it added to it.”

Duke finished with 24 points off turnovers to go with 18 second-chance points after controlling the boards, leading by as many as 34 points midway through the second half. Parker Stewart scored 15 points for the Panthers, who shot 41 percent.

“They’re an elite team,” Pitt coach Kevin Stallings said, “so we knew it was a tall challenge when we got here.”

BIG PICTURE

Pittsburgh: Pitt continues hurtling toward a bottom-of-the-ACC finish. The Panthers arrived with its worst start in ACC play — this is their fifth season — and now they have their first 0-7 start in a conference since losing to Louisville for an 0-7 Big East mark in January 2012.

Duke: This was a game for Duke to fine-tune things moreso than a question of whether the Blue Devils would win their fourth straight. Among the positives: Duke’s defense was frequently active and getting hands in passing lanes — particularly in the first half — and pestered the Panthers into three 10-second backcourt violations.

SIMILAR STARTS

Duke’s blowout wins against Pitt followed some familiar first-half routes.

In the 87-52 win on Jan. 10, Duke led 50-24 at halftime while Pittsburgh had more turnovers (10) than made baskets (9). In this one, Duke led 48-26 at halftime while Pitt again had more turnovers (11) than field goals (10). Duke also had a lot of points off turnovers (22 in the first game, 19 Saturday) by the break.

The best news for Pitt? The Panthers only committed four second-half turnovers with the outcome long determined.

“In the second half, I thought we did a much better job of taking care of the ball, and that allowed us to play better,” Stallings said, adding: “But we’ve still got a long way to go.”

DeVoe leads No. 20 Clemson to 67-58 win over Irish

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CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Notre Dame coach Mike Brey believes his program had been perfect against Clemson because during the crucial stretches, it was the Fighting Irish who made the biggest plays.

“Tonight, they made plays,” Brey said after No. 20 Clemson beat Notre Dame for the first time, 67-58 on Saturday.

Gabe DeVoe had 17 points including a critical 3-pointer with 3:18 left to keep the Tigers out front. Shelton Mitchell had 10 of the Tigers’ final 20 points after Notre Dame cut an 11-point deficit to 47-46, and freshman Amir Simms hit a 3 from the right corner with just over a minute left that proved the winning blow for the Tigers (16-3, 5-2 Atlantic Coast Conference).

The victory came after an awful-looking injury to Clemson captain Donte Grantham, whose right knee buckled after getting fouled from behind.

Grantham, a 6-foot-8 senior who averages 14 points a game, had 11 before going down with 10:54 left in the game. Clemson coach Brad Brownell said Grantham would have an MRI on the knee.

“He’s had a very good year and we’re hopeful it’s not over for us,” Brownell said.

Notre Dame (13-7, 3-4) lost its fourth straight. The Fighting Irish had a 5-0 all-time mark over the Tigers, and Clemson barely escaped continuing a second streak of failure in the same week: The Tigers fell to 0-59 all-time at Chapel Hill with their 87-78 loss to North Carolina on Tuesday night.

DeVoe said the Tigers learned from the slow start in that game to break out on top, 21-10 against the Fighting Irish. When things tightened up, he said Clemson’s experience came through.

“Knowing how to finish games has really helped us out a lot this year,” he said.

Mitchell and Marcquise Reed scored 12 points each for the Tigers. Mitchell caught fire after Notre Dame’s rally with a 3-pointer and a driving layup to extend the lead to 52-46.

TJ Gibbs led Notre Dame with 18 points. Matt Farrell, who came in averaging 18 points per game, ended with six on 2-of-11 shooting.

“He had an off night shooting,” Brownell said of Farrell. “But I’d like to think some of it was our defense.”

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish dug themselves an early hole as Clemson made seven of its first eight shots. But Notre Dame answered, gradually cutting the lead to 31-30 as it tightened up the defense and found its shooting touch. … Notre Dame shot just two free throws.

Clemson: When the Tigers are hitting shots, they’re tough to beat. Unfortunately for Clemson, it doesn’t always happen that way. DeVoe, Reed and Grantham all had open 3s early on as the Tigers forged a double-digit lead. Clemson went cold after that, making just four of its last 16 shots of the opening half to open the door for the Fighting Irish. Clemson did just enough to stay in front.

WELCOME BREAK

Brey believes his team’s week off — the Irish don’t play until next Saturday — will help them physically and mentally before trying to even their ACC record. “I think 4-4 (in the ACC) would feel like 8-0 to this group,” Brey said.

TREE TIME

Clemson great and NBA standout Wayne “Tree” Rollins was the featured former Tiger during a pregame alumni celebration. Rollins was recently inducted into the school’s Ring of Honor, the highest athletic award the university gives out. Rollins played 18 years in the NBA, 11 with the Atlanta Hawks. Rollins finished his degree from Clemson two years ago.

Jackson-Cartwright, No. 14 Arizona rally for 73-71 win at Stanford

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STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — Rawle Alkins made a go-ahead layup with 38 seconds remaining, and No. 14 Arizona held on for a 73-71 comeback win Saturday over Stanford to take sole possession of first place in the Pac-12.

Allonzo Trier, who led the Wildcats (16-4, 6-1 Pac-12) with 21 points, added three free throws in the final 18 seconds for Arizona, which trailed by 11 points midway through the second half. Dusan Ristic added 18 points and nine rebounds and Alkins scored 13 for the Wildcats, who have won 16 straight against the Cardinal.

Reid Travis had 20 points for Stanford (11-9, 5-2), which had defeated No. 16 Arizona State three days earlier and was on a five-game winning streak.

The game was tied at 46 when Stanford went on an 11-0 run that included a technical foul on Arizona coach Sean Miller. The Wildcats responded with their own 11-point run, tying the game on a 3-pointer by Trier with 6:20 remaining.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona: The Wildcats have won 13 of their last 14, but this one was closer than most of the 12 other victories — which had come by an average margin of 11 points.

Stanford: The Cardinal’s five-game winning streak was their longest in conference play in a decade.

UP NEXT

Arizona: The Wildcats return home, where they have not lost in 10 games this season, to face Colorado on Thursday.

Stanford: The Cardinal start their annual two-game trip to Los Angeles on Wednesday at Southern California. Stanford is 2-5 away from home this season, including 0-4 at neutral sites.