Saint Louis beats Butler for third time, looks like Final Four contender in the process

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NEW YORK — After their 72-55 win over Charlotte on Friday, I explained why the Saint Louis Billikens have the look and feel of a team that can make the Final Four.

The Billikens’ 67-56 win over the Butler Bulldogs on Saturday in the Atlantic 10 semifinals only reinforced my beliefs.

Butler has wins this season over the likes of Indiana, Gonzaga and North Carolina. Now consider this: Saint Louis beat Butler not once, not twice, but three times.

Saint Louis has a deep, experience-laden roster. They have guys who excel in a multitude of different areas. They are poised and do not make mistakes. Their season has been driven by and motivated by extenuating circumstances out of their control.

Sure, they will struggle against elite athleticism and physical frontcourts, but that appears to be their only real weaknesses.

“I think St. Louis is one of the best teams in the country,” said Butler coach Brad Stevens prior to the contest. “I don’t care where they’re ranked or where they’ll be seeded. Somebody who hasn’t played against them next week, they’re going to say uh‑oh.”

Stevens offered even more praise for the top-seed following his team’s tough loss.

“I’ve said all year to the people who have listened, and some that don’t, how good they are. They are a legitimate contender to win the whole thing.”

That is high praise from a coach who went to back-to-back National Championship games within his first five seasons as a Division I head coach.

Saint Louis will be a difficult match-up for teams who have not faced them before. They don’t make mistakes, play extremely physical, and run simple yet effective sets designed to control the flow of the game.

“Sometimes, when you don’t know you’re doing, if you don’t make mistakes and don’t turn the ball over, the opponent won’t know what we’re doing either.” Saint Louis head coach Jim Crews quipped following his team’s 14th win in their past 15 games.

Dwayne Evans led the Billikens in scoring for the second consecutive game, finishing with 24 points, 11 rebounds and 3 steals.

Butler’s Roosevelt Jones spent much of the game guarding Evans. “He’s probably the most physical player that I have ever played against in my life. I thought that he should have been Player of the Year in the conference.”

But Evans was not the Billikens’ only source of offense. Saint Louis got 13 points from Cody Ellis and nine from both Mike McCall Jr. and Jordair Jett.

Brad Stevens continued in his praise of the Billikens.”The thing I go back to, is Cody Ellis and Jordair Jett are two of their best players. They’re not in the starting lineup. Their starting lineup is really good. So they have depth. They have physicality. They have toughness”

The Billikens trailed by as many as six points in the first half, but took the lead heading into the break on a buzzer-beating lay-up from Rob Loe. The experienced Billikens never trailed in the final 20 minutes.

“We’ve got eight guys that are juniors or seniors, and they’ve invested a lot into the program and invested in each other”, said Crews.

It would be fitting for Saint Louis to make a Final Four run with both VCU and Butler in the Atlantic 10 for the first time. But unlike both VCU and Butler’s Final Four appearances, Saint Louis’ would not come as a surprise.

You can contact Troy Machir on Twitter at @TroyMachir

No. 8 Kansas clinches 14th straight Big 12 regular season championship with win at No. 6 Texas Tech

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The streak is still alive.

Devonte’ Graham scored 26 points and made two critical, tough shots in the final minute as No. 8 Kansas clinched a share of the Big 12 title by going into Lubbock and knocking off a shorthanded No. 6 Texas Tech, 74-72.

Svi Mykhailiuk added 21 points for the Jayhawks, who put to rest all the concern that this would be the year that the streak came to an end with a week left in the regular season.

If there was ever going to be a season where the streak came to an end, this looked like it would be the one. Just two weeks ago, after Kansas lost by 16 points at Baylor on the same day that Texas Tech beat Kansas State by 20 in Manhattan, Texas Tech say in the driver’s seat. They were a game up on the Jayhawks with six to play and a home game against Kansas left on the schedule. For a team that was, at the time, ranked in the top six on KenPom, that was a dream scenario, one that was set aflame by an unfortunate case of turf toe.

Keenan Evans, a front runner for Big 12 Player of the Year and by far the best offensive weapon on the Texas Tech roster, landed funny late in the first half of a game at Baylor a week ago Saturday, slamming his toe into the court and severely hobbling himself. He did not play in the second half at Baylor. He did play in the last two games, 56 minutes combined, but he was not the Keenan Evans Big 12 fans have come to know and hate. He shot 2-for-13 from the floor and missed all seven of his threes. He scored eight total points.

The Red Raiders, as you might imagine, lost all three of those games.

And with it, any chance of ending the Jayhawks’ streak and, in turn, becoming one of the best college basketball stories this decade.

Creighton lands massive win over No. 3 Villanova

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Creighton landed its biggest win of the season on Saturday afternoon as the Bluejays outlasted No. 3 Villanova for an 89-83 overtime Big East win.

The home win comes a few weeks after the Bluejays fell just short of knocking off Xavier as Creighton has the signature victory they were looking for when it comes to the 2018 NCAA tournament.  More importantly for Creighton, they seem to be gaining some positive momentum in the final weeks of the regular season.

Guards Marcus Foster (28 points) and Khyri Thomas (24 points) led the charge for the Bluejays against the Wildcats as the duo combined for 52 points while making some timely plays down the stretch in a tight game. Creighton can almost always rely on Foster and Thomas to bring their best effort and the veteran duo did a great job of carving up an average Villanova defense that can struggle against strong backcourts.

Foster and Thomas coming through was a huge storyline. The continued emergence of freshman big man Jacob Epperson is becoming the main thing to keep an eye on for Creighton’s season.

Initially redshirted at the start of the 2017-18 season, Epperson has played in the last eight games for the Bluejays after the team decided to play him this season once Martin Krampelj went down with injury. The 6-foot-11 Epperson delivered another strong outing against Villanova on Saturday as he had 12 points, five rebounds and two blocks in a season-high 23 minutes. Playing key minutes in overtime against a top-five team, Epperson was thrown into the fire and responded by playing very well.

A month ago, Epperson was a redshirt freshman who was returning to practice following a minor knee procedure in December. A week away from March, Epperson is actively in the rotation now for Creighton as he has scored in double-figures in three of his last four games. Epperson seems to be gaining confidence with every game and it’ll be fascinating to see if his minutes and his role can stay at this type of level.

Epperson has added 20 pounds of muscle since the start of the season, and that added weight has helped the skinny Australian compete against Big East opponents right away. And the Bluejays really need Epperson to be a steady presence on the interior now that Krampelj is down for the season with the torn ACL.

Not a lot of NCAA tournament-caliber teams add players at this point in the season. Creighton is incorporating a four-star prospect into the rotation who is already producing against some of the better teams in the Big East. That’s an encouraging sign and something to build on over the next several weeks.

Creighton doesn’t need Epperson to be a go-to guy or even a big-time scorer. That’s why they have veteran guards like Foster and Thomas and other role players like Davion Mintz and Mitchell Ballock — also in double-figures against Villanova.

But if Epperson can provide a little bit of production on the interior while giving the Bluejays some much-needed size then they becoming an intriguing team that can put up a lot of points.

Deandre Ayton eligible to play for Arizona

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Arizona announced on Saturday afternoon that Deandre Ayton will be eligible to play the rest of the season. The Wildcats play at Oregon on Saturday night.

On Friday night, ESPN reported that Sean Miller was caught on a wiretap during the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball discussing a $100,000 payment to secure the services of Ayton.

The conversations that were intercepted were between Miller and Christian Dawkins, a former runner for ex-NBA agent Andy Miller. According to ESPN, when asked by Dawkins if he should work through former Arizona assistant coach Emanuel ‘Book’ Richardson to finalize a deal, “Miller told Dawkins he should deal directly with him when it came to money.”

Miller will not be coaching for Arizona tonight.

“I believe it is in the best interest of our team that I not coach the game tonight,” Miller said in a statement. “I continue to fully support the University’s efforts to fully investigate this matter and am confident that I will be vindicated. For now, my thoughts are with our team. They are a great group of young men that will support each other and continue their pursuit of winning a Pac-12 championship.”

McDuffie leads No. 13 Wichita State past SMU 84-78

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DALLAS — Markis McDuffie scored a season-high 26 points off the bench, including nine during the first four minutes of the second half, to lead No. 13 Wichita State to an 84-78 win over SMU on Saturday.

The Shockers (23-5, 13-3 American Athletic Conference) have won six straight games and are one-half game behind first-place Cincinnati. Wichita State will host Cincinnati on March 4 in the regular-season finale for both teams.

SMU (16-13, 6-10) lost for the sixth time in seven games since leading scorer Shake Milton (18 points per game) was sidelined with a hand injury.

McDuffie added to Wichita State’s 37-35 halftime lead on the first possession of the second half with a midcourt steal leading to a three-point play. A 10-1 run put the Shockers ahead 56-43 with 12:18 to play, and they led by as many as 17 points.

McDuffie, a junior forward, led Wichita State in scoring last season but missed this season’s first 11 games because of a stress fracture. He has primarily been a reserve since returning.

Jahmal McMurray led SMU with 28 points. McMurray has topped the Mustangs in scoring in five of the past six games.

Shaquille Morris had 21 points and 10 rebounds for Wichita State. Landry Shamet returned after missing the Shockers’ previous game because of illness and scored 10 points in 27 minutes, playing only eight first-half minutes because of foul trouble.

Because of injuries and NCAA-mandated scholarship limitations, SMU played with seven scholarship players on Saturday and has had seven or fewer during its past seven games.

Wichita State failed to pull away during the first half despite a 21-12 rebounding advantage. The Mustangs shot 45.4 percent during the half and the Shockers 41.4 percent, both hitting six 3-pointers.

Wichita State got even for one of its two home losses this season, 83-78 on Jan. 17.

BIG PICTURE

Wichita State: The Shockers are 8-2 in true road games this season with one to play. Since the start of the 2013-14 season, they lead Division I in road wins (48) and road winning percentage (.857). They avoided a conference opponent’s sweep of a two-game season series for the first time since 2012-13 (Evansville, Missouri Valley).

SMU: The Mustangs opened the season 12-3, including wins over then-No. 2 Arizona and then-No. 14 USC, but have since gone 4-10. SMU will finish with a losing league record after winning the AAC last season at 17-1.

UP NEXT

Wichita State will visit UCF on Thursday.

SMU hosts Houston in its final home season of the season on Wednesday.

Shareef O’Neal decommits from Arizona

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Shareef O’Neal, the son of NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, has decommitted from Arizona following the latest in the FBI scandal.

Considered a five-star prospect on Rivals, the 6-foot-9 Shareef becomes one of the best available prospects in the country in the Class of 2018.

Arizona head coach Sean Miller was reportedly caught on a wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to secure the services of freshman Deandre Ayton. The conversations that were intercepted were between Miller and Christian Dawkins, who is a focal point in the FBI’s investigation.

Recruiting has taken a major hit for Arizona over the last several months as the program lost five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly and now O’Neal due to scandal.