SEC Basketball Tournament - Quarterfinals - Vanderbilt v Kentucky

Questions still need answering, but Kentucky takes a step in the right direction in win over UNC-Asheville

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Kentucky isn’t there yet. They looked sloppy and careless at times and are still learning how to play with each other, but it was evident in the Wildcats’ 89-57 victory over UNC-Asheville that John Calipari has a special group on his hands.

Kentucky didn’t need to beat the Bulldogs by 32 points in order for the nation to recognize that the Harrison twins, Julius Randle, and the other future NBA players on the squad are a special group but, if nothing else, tonight reaffirmed that notion.

Recall last year’s Kentucky team that had a bevy of talent and future pro players on the roster. Expectations were high in the preseason, perhaps unreasonably so, and the Wildcats fluttered throughout the year thanks to inconsistent play at point guard and Nerlens Noel suffering a torn ACL midway through the season. That team never seemed to click, and while it’s still extremely early for the current team, the chemistry seems to be there.

Yes, the sloppy play for much of the first half that saw Kentucky head to the locker room with an unimpressive 41-31 lead needs correcting. Yes, missing 18 free throws is a legitimate concern. And yes, whether freshman point guard Andrew Harrison will be able to shoulder the load of leading this team or not is in question.

However, what we saw tonight was a team that seemingly enjoys playing with each other and has fun. It sounds juvenile for a team to “have fun” out on the floor, but far too often last season that appeared to be an issue.

The star of the night was freshman Julius Randle, who poured in 23 points and corralled 15 rebounds. There is no doubt he will be a menace in the paint throughout the season, but what was so encouraging about Randle’s night was drilling 11-13 from the line. He’s going to receive double and triple teams and he is going to be sent to the line a fair amount, especially with the new defensive rules. If he can hit 75% of his free throws or better, he becomes that much more of a threat.

Conversely, there has to be a cause for concern that the rest of the Wildcats combined to shoot 19-35. Free throw shooting has bit John Calipari’s teams in the past — remember some of his teams at Memphis — and that’s an area needing work.

One can only learn so much after blowing UNC-Asheville out at home. Kentucky’s game against a talented Michigan State team next Tuesday will be a good barometer of just how far along the Wildcats are — how the youthful talent on Kentucky maintains their composure against a veteran Spartan team will be telling.

One of the primary questions of this team over the summer months was if Cal could get these future NBA players to all buy-in. Tonight was a step in that direction.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: A huge Saturday of hoops

Maryland players, including Jaylen Brantley (1) and Varun Ram (21), cheer after Jake Layman (10) scored against Nebraska during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lincoln, Neb., Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016. Nebraska's Shavon Shields (31) and Benny Parker react. Maryland won 70-65. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 18 Purdue at No. 4 Maryland, 4:00 p.m.

From Rob Dauster’s Weekend Preview.

We’re going to be getting an interesting contrast of styles in College Park on Saturday afternoon, as the Boilermakers — with arguably the biggest front line in college basketball and one of the best defenses in the sport — take on a Maryland team that likes to spread the floor and relies on the ability of their two talented guards to make plays. The issue for Purdue all season long has been their back court play. Will Johnny Hill and P.J. Thompson make enough plays? Can they get the ball to A.J. Hammons, Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan in a position where those big bodies can be effective?

Hammons is going to be the key here. Diamond Stone has had an up-and-down season. There are nights he looks like a top five pick and games where he seems to be completely overmatched. Hammons is a first-team all-Big Ten performer and a guy with an outside shot of making an all-american team that is playing his best basketball of the season right now. So while Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon — along with Robert Carter — get the headlines, the matchup with Stone and Hammons may be the most important of the game and the one that brings out the NBA scouts en masse.

THIS ONE’S GOOD TOO: No. 3 Villanova at No. 11 Providence, 2:30 p.m.

This game was far more intriguing before Providence forward and Big East leading scorer Ben Bentil injured his ankle in Wednesday’s loss to DePaul. Why was it intriguing? Because Villanova is all alone in first place in the Big East, and if the Friars have any prayer of catching the Wildcats, this is a must-win game. It’s also a rematch of a game from earlier this season, when Providence overcame the two feet of snow Snowzilla dumped on Philly to beat Villanova in overtime. Then throw in the fact that the Friars are looking to right their ship after losing to DePaul (!!!) this week, and there were all kinds of intriguing story lines heading in.

And then Bentil had to go and sprain his ankle.

AND DON’T FORGET THIS ONE: No. 15 Baylor at No. 14 West Virginia, 8:00 p.m.

The Big 12 race is not for the faint of heart this season, but both the Bears and the Mountaineers currently find themselves in the thick of the race. After knocking off Iowa State in Ames this week, West Virginia has climbed into a tie for first place with Oklahoma while Baylor is sitting a game out in a tie for third. Jonathan Holton is not expected back for this one, which should give Baylor an advantage on the interior. The key here: How will Lester Medford deal with the WVU pressure?

WHO’S GETTING UPSET?: No. 2 North Carolina at Notre Dame, 7:00 p.m.

From Rob Dauster’s Weekend Preview:

Does anyone know what’s wrong with Marcus Paige? Over the course of his last six games, the former all-american is shooting just 21.3 percent from the floor and 14.3 percent from beyond the arc. That’s atrocious, particularly when you consider just how good Paige has been at times during his career. The other problem for the Tar Heels? Joel Berry II isn’t playing his best basketball right now, either, and Justin Jackson was in the midst of a slump of his own until Monday’s loss at Louisville. Notre Dame isn’t quite as good as we thought they would be this season, but the Fighting Irish are still a tournament team with one of the best point guards in the country in Demetrius Jackson. The key for them is getting stops, but if they do, they’re potent offensively.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1. Pitt has a big, big game this weekend as they host No. 9 Virginia at 12:00 p.m. We’re still in a position where we don’t really know all that much about the Panthers. Just how good is this team? The only ranked team they’ve played is Louisville (they scored 41 points and lost by 18) and the only quality wins on their profile came against Notre Dame and Syracuse. The could use a home win against a top ten team that has been inconsistent on the road this season.

2. No. 10 Michigan State seemed to find their stride last week, as Denzel Valentine returned to his Player of the Year caliber form while Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello have been playing some of their best basketball of the season. The Spartans will pay a visit to rival Michigan at 2:00 p.m., and while the Wolverines have picked off Maryland in Ann Arbor without Caris LeVert, they’re coming off of a blowout loss in the same building to Indiana.

3. Florida visits No. 20 Kentucky at 4:00 p.m. and I can’t help but feel like we’re going to learn quite a bit about both teams in this game. Kentucky followed up their terrific performance at Kansas by … blowing a 21 point lead at Tennessee and losing. The Gators? They’re streaking right now, having landed a blowout win over West Virginia last weekend. Going into Rupp and winning is a different beast, however.

4. No. 23 Arizona is in a bit of an interesting position right now, as they don’t have much in the way of quality wins on their NCAA tournament profile right now. They’re also two games off the pace in the Pac-12 regular season standings and are still playing without Allonzo Trier. Washington, on the other hand, has been one of the nation’s most entertaining teams. The two will square off on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.

5. There are two games that will be featured on NBCSN on Saturday: Davidson at Duquesne (12:30 p.m.), Delaware at William & Mary (2:30 p.m.).

CLICK HERE to watch these games on NBC Sports Live Extra Saturday afternoon.

OTHER TOP 25 GAMES

  • No. 1 Oklahoma at Kansas State, 6:00 p.m.
  • Marquette at No. 6 Xavier, 12:00 p.m.
  • No. 7 Kansas at TCU, 12:00 p.m.
  • No. 25 South Carolina at No. 8 Texas A&M, 4:00 p.m.
  • No. 13 Iowa State at Oklahoma State, 2:00 p.m.
  • Boston College at No. 19 Louisville, 12:00 p.m.
  • No. 21 Wichita State at Illinois State, 10:00 p.m.
  • No. 22 Indiana at Penn State, 8:00 p.m.
  • No. 24 Dayton at George Mason, 6:00 p.m.

OTHER NOTABLE GAMES

  • Florida State at Wake Forest, 12:00 p.m.
  • Temple at UCF, 12:00 p.m.
  • George Washington at VCU, 12:00 p.m.
  • Cincinnati at Memphis, 12:00 p.m.
  • Texas Tech at Texas, 2:00 p.m.
  • Rutgers at Nebraska, 2:00 p.m.
  • N.C. State at Duke, 2:00 p.m.
  • DePaul at Creighton, 2:00 p.m.
  • Missouri at Alabama, 3:00 p.m.
  • New Mexico at San Diego State, 4:00 p.m.
  • Clemson at Virginia Tech, 4:00 p.m.
  • Stanford at Cal, 4:00 p.m.
  • Butler at St. John’s, 4:30 p.m.
  • Auburn at Georgia, 5:30 p.m.
  • Mississippi State at LSU, 6:00 p.m.
  • Tennessee at Arkansas, 8:00 p.m.
  • Vanderbilt at Ole Miss, 8:00 p.m.
  • Georgetown at Seton Hall, 9:00 p.m.

No. 13 Iowa State suspends Jameel McKay indefinitely

Iowa State forward Georges Niang, forward Jameel McKay, forward Abdel Nader and guard Deonte Burton celebrate after center Stuart Nezlek scored late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Coppin State, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Ames, Iowa. Iowa State won 104-84 (AP Photo/Justin Hayworth)
AP Photo/Justin Hayworth
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Already lacking depth, No. 13 Iowa State will be short a key contributor Saturday when they take on Oklahoma State in Stillwater.

Friday night it was announced that senior forward Jameel McKay has been suspended indefinitely by head coach Steve Prohm and did not make the trip with the team. McKay, who’s been dealing with knee issues recently, is averaging 12.4 points and a team-high 9.0 rebounds per game on the season.

Over the last six games he’s averaging 7.7 points and 8.7 rebounds per contest, shooting 60.6 percent from the field.

McKay has been asked to man the middle for a team lacking in both size and depth, with Georges Niang shifting over to the five when McKay needs a break for either rest or foul trouble reasons. Without McKay even more responsibility falls upon the shoulders of Niang, Abdel Nader and Deonte Burton in the front court.

The Cyclones are looking to end a two-game losing streak, and even with Oklahoma State’s struggles accomplishing that gets tougher with McKay out of the lineup.

News of McKay’s suspension was first reported by the Ames Tribune.