No. 1 Kentucky has talent (and time) to right what went wrong in loss to No. 2 Michigan State

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CHICAGO — Big Blue Nation’s traveling posse will head to O’Hare or Midway or back down I-65 to Lexington disappointed on Wednesday morning.

The first showing of Kentucky’s world famous recruiting class on a national stage did not exactly go as planned, as the No. 2 Wildcats took a generally hard-fought, but at times mighty frustrating, 78-74 loss to No. 2 Michigan State on Tuesday night at the Champions Classic.

On paper, the loss looks bad, as Kentucky went just 20-for-36 from the free throw line and finished with eight assists and 17 turnovers. Throw in a 4-for-20 performance from beyond the arc, which includes a scorching 0-for-9 in the second half, and, well, that’s just not pretty.

That’s also the point.

Think about it like this: Kentucky probably could not have played worse in the first 15 minutes. They were down 10-0 in the first four minutes. They were down by 15 with five minutes left in the half. Michigan State’s two All-Americans, Gary Harris and Adreian Payne, were on fire. It looked like we were primed for a beatdown to kick things off in the United Center.

“That coulda been 25,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said after the game. “It shoulda been 20 at half.”

But it wasn’t.

(MORE: Keith Appling came up big when Michigan State needed him)

For all the issues that the Wildcats had on Tuesday, for everything that went wrong in the first 20 minutes, Kentucky battled all the way back. They tied the game in the second half, erasing a 12 point halftime deficit despite missing 12 free throws in the final 20 minutes. They missed open three after open three, yet continued to slowly chip away at Michigan State’s lead. Despite a couple of seemingly back-breaking turnovers and momentum-killing bad shots, the only thing that could finally stop Kentucky’s surge was the final buzzer.

They did all that against a very well-coached, veteran Michigan State team with two future first round picks and a senior point guard playing his best game in recent memory that just so happened to enter this game as the No. 2 team in the country.

And all of that came in the first game that most of these guys have ever played at this level and with this much national attention.

Do you realize just how impressive that is?

“This kind of tournament is great for college basketball,” Cal said. “It is terrific for the teams. It’s just tough for a really young team. I knew we’d start that way.”

“They’ve never been in an environment like this. When guys get that, they get into themselves a little bit. It gets discombobulated. We just did stuff that shot ourselves in the foot. But that’s what kids like this are going to do.”

The bottom line is this: Julius Randle is a beast. He had 27 points and 13 boards and thoroughly dominated any and all of Michigan State’s big men in the second half, when he had 23 points and nine boards to spur the comeback. Randle did have eight turnovers, but that comes with the territory. This was the first time in Randle’s career he’s faced a team that is this talented and this well-coached in how to double-team the post. He’ll not only learn how to read where the double is coming from, he’ll develop a post move beyond just a simple spin — which was probably responsible for seven of those eight turnovers. 27 and 13 on an off-night? Yikes.

Randle wasn’t the only guy that showed promise. James Young had 15 points in the first half and 19 on the game. Alex Poythress finished with seven points, 12 boards (seven offensive) and three blocks. Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson did some good things when they were on the floor.

You weren’t being lied to when you were told that there is a ridiculous amount of talent on Kentucky’s roster, and it’s only going to get better as the season progresses.

The key, however, is going to be how the Harrison twins progress. Aaron, the shooting guard, was 1-for-7 from the floor. Andrew, the point guard, had 11 points and three assists, but committed four turnovers, took a couple of bad shots down the stretch and had noticeably poor body language. Kentucky needs that duo to provide leadership. Coach Cal needs them to be floor generals, facilitating offense and getting the Wildcats into their sets. He needs them to understand that their best offense is when the ball goes into the post.

We’re not quite there yet, which is part of the reason that Kentucky has not quite reached their potential yet.

The best news to come out of Tuesday? What Kentucky has more than enough of is time.

“I’ve got four months to get this right,” Cal said.

Elite 8 Preview: Sunday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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No. 4 FLORIDA (-3) vs. No. 7 SOUTH CAROLINA, 2:20 p.m., CBS: If you’re a fan of uptempo, wide-open basketball, of teams running beautiful offensive sets, spreading the floor and using the three-point line like it should be used, this game probably is not going to be for you.

This is going to be as physical and as tough as any game you watched all season long. Both the Gamecocks and the Gators are top five teams in defensive efficiency, and both of them get out and pressure defensively, Florida in the full court and South Carolina in the half court. They shun shooters for the toughest athletes on their roster. They pride themselves in being tougher, both mentally and physically, than whoever they end up playing.

And they think that a game played in the 50s is beautiful basketball.

So bet the under if you can.

But the pick I like is Florida here. Their ability to defend is going to make it very difficult for South Carolina’s offensive renaissance to continue, and their guards will be able to make the plays offensively that South Carolina dares you to make.

PREDICTION: Florida (-3)

No. 1 NORTH CAROLINA (-2.5) vs. No. 2 KENTUCKY, 5:05 p.m. CBS: This is the rematch we all wanted, right?

Ever since that day three months ago, when Kentucky got 47 points from Malik Monk in a 103-102 win over North Carolina in Las Vegas, I don’t think there is a soul in the country that would have told you otherwise.

There are two major differences between these two teams now and those two teams then. The biggest is the presence of Theo Pinson, North Carolina’s best perimeter defender. Pinson has dealt foot injuries all season long, and when these two got together in December, he was not yet healthy enough to play. I assume that he will draw the assignment of Malik Monk, chasing around the man that had definitively been Kentucky’s most dangerous scorer. Pinson will make life more difficult for Monk than it was the first time around.

But is he going to spend the entire game on him?

Because after De’Aaron Fox’s 39-point outburst against UCLA on Friday night, it’s fair to wonder whether or not Pinson may be better suited to taking on the task of keeping Fox from getting into the paint. Whatever Roy Williams opts to do, the bottom line is pretty simple — if he needs to find a way to keep Kentucky’s back court in check.

The other difference between now and then is that Bam Adebayo has been playing up to his potential for the past six weeks. He was solid earlier in the year. He can be dominant at times now, and that is going to be critical for the Wildcats, who are going to be outsized by a significant margin by UNC’s front line. The Tar Heels lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage, and they are one of the only elite teams that thrives playing two bigs at the same time. In other words, one of Wenyen Gabriel or Derek Willis are going to have to deal with Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley. That’s a matchup that favors UNC, which is why Aebayo is going to have to play up to his size.

In the end, I think Pinson’s presence and North Carolina’s size advantage will be too much.

But if Fox and Monk play their game, they can carry Kentucky a long, long way.

PREDICTION: North Carolina (2.5)

Lawrence Police Department trolls Bill Self following Elite Eight loss

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Kansas had its season ended with a 74-60 loss to No. 3 seed Oregon.

The Jayhawks were the top seed in the South region. They were playing a de facto at the Sprint Center, which is 40 miles away from the school’s campus. As you can imagine, fans in Lawrence were likely unhappy, especially since it’s the second year in a row KU has been bounced one-game shy of the Final Four.

The Lawrence Police Department, while prepping for potential riots, couldn’t help tweeting a joke at the future Hall of Famer’s expense.

Bill Self’s teams have been eliminated seven times in the Elite Eight during his tenure at Kansas. He’s led the Jayhawks to a pair of Final Fours, winning the national championship in 2008.

Kansas finished the season 31-5.

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.

VIDEO: Tyler Dorsey hits dagger after dagger in upset of Kansas

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Tyler Dorsey is building himself quite the reputation for being a big-shot maker.

He hit the game-winner that got Oregon to the Sweet 16. He hit two threes at the end of the first half to push Oregon’s lead to 11 points over Kansas. And he hit this three, the dagger through the heart of Kansas:

Dorsey finished with 27 points. He’s scored at least 20 points in every game since the NCAA tournament began.

No. 3 Oregon heading to first Final Four in 78 years

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Oregon, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, made what looked to be a smooth path to Phoenix into a bumpy road. But after 78 years, the Ducks are going back to the Final Four, defeating No. 1 Kansas, 74-60, in Elite Eight on Friday night in Kansas City.

Everything went right for the Ducks in the first half. Josh Jackson was called for two fouls in the less than three minutes. The Jayhawks were limited in transition. Tyler Dorsey’s two 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds gave them a double-digit lead at halftime. Oregon stretched it to as many as 18 in the second. Kansas couldn’t buy a basket from three (a far cry from the 3-point barrage it put on Purdue two nights earlier). When the Jayhawks drove to the basket, it was Jordan Bell (11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks) who either blocked or altered their shots.

However, the Ducks not only left the door open for the Jayhawks, they held it open. Kansas’ comeback attempt was a mix drink that was equal parts KU putting the clamps on defensively, Oregon playing a bit of hero ball, and the Ducks playing not to lose instead of to win. Up six with less than two minutes remaining, Dorsey (27 points) buried a dagger 3-pointer that all but sealed the win — and a spot in next week’s Final Four — for the Ducks.

Oregon will play the winner of the South region, which will either be No. 1 North Carolina or No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday.

The slogan of the NCAA Tournament is “The Road to the Final Four”.

Outside of Duke, the runaway preseason favorite, and it’s months-long narrative of “Is Duke back?”, you could make the case there wasn’t a Final Four contender with a journey filled with more ups and downs than Oregon.

Weeks following a season-ending loss to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight, Oregon learned that both Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey would return to school for the next season. In July, Dylan Ennis was granted a sixth-year of eligibility. With Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell returning, and Payton Pritchard joining the program, the Ducks were an easy choice for a preseason Final Four pick.

Brooks’ offseason foot surgery — and the recovery that followed — raised concern about whether or not Oregon could fully reach its preseason potential, entering conference play without a notable win. Brooks’ Pac-12 Player of the Year season put to rest the status of his foot, leading the Ducks to a 16-2 Pac-12 record.

Hours before Oregon was set to battle with Arizona, it was announced that Chris Boucher had torn his ACL and would be out for the remainder of the season. Not only could this have played a role in the team’s seeding by the selection committee, but Boucher offered more than rim protection, as he helped space the floor given his ability to step out and shoot from the perimeter.

After fending off a good fight from Iona, the Ducks looked to be part of a Rhode Island’s magical postseason run. Tyler Dorsey ended that. In the Sweet 16, Oregon was matchup with Michigan, dubbed as the team of destiny. Bell and Dorsey, Oregon’s two tournament stars, stepped up in critical moments once again. Slated as an underdog for the second straight game, Oregon proved its Final Four worth by handing Kansas its worst tournament defeat of the Bill Self era in a regional final game that was played 40 miles away from the KU campus.

“I’m happy for our team,” Oregon head coach Dana Altman said following the game. “I’m happy for, as I mentioned, our university and our state. It’s been a long time coming and now we just need to go continue to play well.”

For Oregon, its road to the Final Four has come full circle.