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North Carolina’s big men, point guard impress in win over No. 3 Louisville

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From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.

UNCASVILLE, CT — North Carolina was done. This wasn’t a top 25 team. This was a group that would have to fight and scrap just to get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament, especially now that every source for every writer seems to think that P.J. Hairston’s career as a Tar Heel may be over.

That’s what happens when you barely hang on against teams like Holy Cross or Richmond. It’s what happens when you lose to Belmont at home.

It’s also now inaccurate.

Seven days after getting dropped by the Bruins in the Dean Dome, North Carolina put together one of the most impressive performances that we’ve seen from any team this season, as they ran No. 3 Louisville off the court, 93-84, to win the Hall of Fame Tip-Off at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Seriously.

Marcus Paige led the way with a career-high 32 points, giving him 58 points on the weekend. More impressive, however, is the fact that the Heels beat the Cardinals by nine while getting next to nothing from James Michael McAdoo. He finished with nine points and three boards on 3-for-11 shooting, but those numbers vastly overestimate his impact on this game. Two of those buckets were wide-open dunks that came off of a press break. McAdoo was a non-factor.

And it didn’t matter.

So what was the difference?

North Carolina’s front court. All those young guys that everyone has called overrated and under-talented and not-good-enough-for-UNC? They dominated Louisville. There’s no two ways about it. Kennedy Meeks was sensational, finishing with 13 points, 12 boards and seven assists, single-handily shredding Louisville’s press with his ability to pass over the defense. Crazier still is that this came one night after Meeks finished with one point and three boards in five minutes against Richmond, a performance that Roy Williams was not impressed with.

“College basketball is what Kennedy Meeks did,” Williams said after the game. “Yesterday he was one of the worst players on the planet. Today he was unbelievable. I told him last night he wasn’t ready to play, he didn’t have any intensity. This is big time college basketball.”

“I don’t know what was wrong with me, honestly,” Meeks said, ” But I do know that last night, Coach told me I was playing like the worst player on the planet. That’s enough to boost me up right there.”

And what’d he say after this afternoon?

“Helluva game.”

Meeks wasn’t alone, either. Brice Johnson added 13 points, six boards and three blocks, Joel James chipped in with five points and six boards, and even Jackson Simmons played key minutes down the stretch, scoring a couple baskets and picking up the charge that fouled out Montrezl Harrell.

That’s huge for North Carolina for a couple of reasons.

First, the obvious: the Tar Heels perimeter depth has been gutted by the suspensions of Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston. Their depth is non-existent, forcing guys to play out of position. We’ve been over this time and again. It’s not exactly classified information.

More importantly, North Carolina’s offense relies on having quality big men, and the lack of their starting wings is only going to increase how much the Tar Heels rely on their big guys.

“It makes a huge difference. Having an inside presence is the biggest part of Coach Williams’ offense,” Paige said. “Having a couple of different guys that can be that guy for the night is huge for us. We kind of went away from our throw-it-inside mentality last year.”

No one is going to confuse Meeks or James or Johnson with the likes of Tyler Zeller, Tyler Hansbrough or Sean May, at least not yet, but no one is expecting them to be. They don’t even need those three to be all-conference players. they just need them to be productive, to be a threat to score when they get the ball on the block and to be able to hold position, whether it’s on the glass or defensively.

And they proved themselves more than capable of doing that tonight, but the bigs weren’t the only players with something to prove.

Paige was supposed to be this team’s starting point guard, but he’s been forced into playing primarily off the ball thanks to UNC lacking wings. That means that freshman Nate Britt has been forced into the role, something he has not looked ready for. In four games entering Sunday, Britt had 12 points and six assists, total. On Sunday, he had nine points and five assists, playing with an aggressiveness and a confidence that we’ve yet to see from him.

“I’m starting to figure it out, playing at this level,” Britt said. “There’s been a lot of new things to learn for me, and I just feel like at the start of the season, we just want to incorporate all the things we learn in practice. It’s been hard for me to just think about relaxing and playing. Over time, it’s starting to come to me a little more.”

The bottom-line is this: Marcus Paige isn’t always going to play this well and James Michael McAdoo isn’t always going to play this poorly. And at some point, the Heels will get Leslie McDonald back, maybe Hairston as well. In a worst-case scenario, the Heels will have a group of wings that are better than most teams across the country.

But the key to this group competing and contending in the ACC was at the point and in the paint.

At that, more than anything, is why North Carolina’s win was so important.

VIDEO: Fordham tops VCU at the horn in OT

In this Oct. 6, 2015, photo, VCU men's NCAA college basketball coach Will Wade talks to his team during practice at the Franklin Street Gym in Richmond Va. VCU surged at the end of last season, winning the Atlantic 10 tournament to earn its fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. (Mark Gormus/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT (
Mark Gormus/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP
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Down 12 at halftime, VCU needed a second-half comeback to force overtime at Fordham.

There was nothing VCU could do to counteract Fordham’s game-winner.

Antwoine Anderson’s jumper as time expired in overtime gave Fordham a 69-67 victory Wednesday night.

After winning eight-straight games, VCU has now dropped back-to-back games with a loss to Davidson coming last weekend. The loss will likely bring up the same questions that were there after a less-than-steallar non-conference showing for VCU, given Fordham had lost 10 of 12 coming into the night.

Allonzo Trier suspended after failing PED test

Arizona head coach Sean Miller talks with guard Allonzo Trier (11) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Northwestern State in Tucson, Ariz., Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015. (Mamta Popat/Arizona Daily Star via AP)  ALL LOCAL TELEVISION OUT; PAC-12 OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT; GREEN VALLEY NEWS OUT
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The suspension that Arizona guard Allonzo Trier is currently serving is due to positive test for performance-enhancing drugs during the preseason.

Trier, who has missed the first 18 games of the season, confirmed the news with a statement released late on Wednesday night that said he has “never knowingly taken a banned substance.”

According to a statement released by the university, Trier has been cleared by the NCAA after an appeal, but he cannot suit up for the Wildcats until the drug is completely out of his system.

“After finding out that I was given a banned substance by a well-intentioned, but misguided person not associated with the University after an injury, I presented this information to the NCAA,” Trier said in the statement. “The NCAA agreed that I had no knowledge of receiving the substance and my eligibility was restored. Although I can practice and travel with the team, I am not allowed to resume playing in games until the substance completely leaves my body even at a trace amount.”

There is no timetable for his return, but the door is open for a return.

As a freshman last season, Trier averaged 14.8 points and shot 36.4 percent from three. He was Arizona’s best isolation scorer and their leading returning scorer.

Without Trier, Arizona has looked like a Pac-12 title contender. They are 16-2 on the season and undefeated in league play heading into their games at the LA schools this weekend.

VIDEO: James Blackmon saves Indiana with buzzer-beating three

HONOLULU, HI - NOVEMBER 11: James Blackmon Jr. #1 of the Indiana Hoosiers calls out a play during the second half of the second game of the Armed Forces Classic at the Stan Sheriff Center on November 11, 2016 in Honolulu, Hawaii. Indiana won the game 103-99. (Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)
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There is plenty of reason to criticize James Blackmon Jr., and I did plenty of it in this story I wrote about Indiana earlier this month.

It’s also pretty obvious that Blackmon has been Indiana’s best player this season, and he backed that up on Wednesday night. Blackmon kept Indiana from falling to 2-4 in the Big Ten by burying a three at the buzzer to beat Penn State in Happy Valley.

The bigger issue for Indiana fans is the status of O.G. Anunoby’s knee. Indiana’s star forward went down with a non-contact injury in the first half and did not return to the game in the second half. I’m not going to play armchair physician here, but this does not look good.

This shot from Blackmon may have saved the Hoosiers from embarrassment, but where there season goes from here is still a major question mark.

VIDEO: Woodard game-winner topples No. 7 West Virginia

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 02:  Jordan Woodard #10 of the Oklahoma Sooners reacts in the second half against the Villanova Wildcats during the NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at NRG Stadium on April 2, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Welcome back, Jordan Woodard.

The Oklahoma senior, playing in his just third game back from injury, went coast-to-coast to hit a game-winning shot with under 3 seconds to play against West Virginia to give the Sooners an 89-87 victory in overtime.

The Sooners had just 12 turnovers against Press Virginia while shooting 49 percent from the field. Woodard had a chance to win the game in regulation for Oklahoma after he made a shot and was fouled, but the 86.7 percent free-throw shooter missed the shot from the charity stripe. He finished with 20 points.

West Virginia, which was ranked No. 1 by KenPom, shot 43.7 percent overall and 28 percent from 3-point range.

It may be just one loss, but it can only be considered a significant setback for the Mountaineers in their quest to finally be the team to end Kansas’ 12 year run at the top of the Big 12. Not only is losing a home game a blow, but losing one to a team the Jayhawks have already beaten in Allen Fieldhouse is a double-whammy.

West Virginia is now two games out of first place, and still has two games remaining against Kansas, which is either good news or bad news, depending on how you look at it. The Mountaineers will have to sweep the Jayhawks, steal a different one they aren’t expected to on the road or hope Kansas falters like they really haven’t in over a decade.

Yeah, there’s a lot of season left, but you don’t want the math and probability to work against you like it does with a loss like this. That is unless Oklahoma isn’t the same team it’s been through the first third of the Big 12 season, which lessens the blow some. Let’s investigate that.

Oklahoma was largely able to win this game based on its ball security. The Sooners only coughed it up  on 14.6 percent of their possessions. West Virginia has been forcing turnovers at around a 25-percent clip in Big 12 play. Woodard presence made a huge difference there (even if he had five turnovers), and Oklahoma is now 2-1 with only a loss to Kansas since his return.

Are the Sooners still one of the Big 12’s weakest teams or does Woodard make them a serious contender amid the second tier of the league? If it’s the latter, a recalibration of expectations is probably in order for a conference already considered one of the most difficult give its 10-team, round-robin format.

No. 10 Florida State hands No. 15 Notre Dame first ACC loss

Florida State guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes (22) steals the ball from Notre Dame guard Matt Farrell (5) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sears)
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Notre Dame shot over 70 percent on 21 3-point shot attempts, but it wasn’t enough as tenth-ranked Florida State became the first ACC team to defeat the Fighting Irish with a 83-80 win Wednesday night in Tallahassee.

Johnathan Isaac had 23 points and 10 rebounds for the Seminoles, who moved into a tie for the ACC lead along with Notre Dame and North Carolina, which all sport 5-1 league records. The ‘Noles shot 50 percent from the floor and had 39 points off their bench.

The Fighting Irish made 15 of 21 3-point shots on the night, getting six from Matt Farrell and five apiece from VJ Beachem and Steve Vasturia.

Florida State continues the ACC gauntlet with a home test against Louisville on Saturday while the Irish have Syracuse in South Bend on Saturday.

Here are three things to takeaway from this win for Leonard Hamilton’s club:

1. Jonathan Isaac, man: He was so good. He finished with 23 points, 10 boards and seven blocks, shooting just 7-for-9 from the floor, but it wasn’t just the plays that he made that were impressive. It was when they came. Isaac buried a pair of threes and sparked a late Florida State flurry that pushed the Seminoles out to a seven-point lead with two minutes left. He had a nasty block on a dunk attempt by V.J. Beachem, and then, after Florida State turned the ball over on their final possession, blocked two shots at the rim to help preserve the victory.

Isaac has had some issues with intensity and aggressiveness this season, and there are questions about whether or not he has the killer instinct to be a star at the next level. Tonight’s performance should quiet some of those doubters, at least for the time being.

2. This was the first time that Notre Dame looked overmatched by size and athleticism: Florida State is big, they’re athletic and they’re versatile. Notre Dame isn’t, and it showed tonight, particularly in the first half. Matt Farrell had five of his six turnovers in the first 20 minutes. As a team, the Irish finished with 18 turnovers, and just seemed to be out sync offensively for much of the game. That’s what Florida State wants to do defensively. That is their game-plan, and it worked quite well on Wednesday.

And yet, Notre Dame was still able to hang around in this one thanks to their ridiculous three-point shooting. They were 15-for-21 from beyond the arc, the 19th team to make 15 threes and shoot better than 70 percent from three since 2010 and the only one of those 19 to lose. There are a couple ways to look at that:

  1. Notre Dame’s fluky shooting kept them from getting exposed against a team that could take advantage of Notre Dame’s weaknesses..
  2. That Florida State was still able to win, and force turnovers on 23.7 percent of the possessions against the nation’s seventh-best team at protecting the ball, says more about the Seminoles than anything else.
  3. These are two excellent basketball teams that traded haymakers for 40 minutes.

No. 3 sounds about right to me.

3. Both of these teams will be in the ACC title race for the long haul: What more do either of them have to prove? Florida State has now beaten Duke and Notre Dame in their last two home games, which sandwiched an impressive performance in a loss at North Carolina. And the Irish? Their three losses this season came against Villanova, Purdue and Florida State by a combined 16 points, none of them coming at home.