No. 6 Duke vs. No. 4 Arizona is more than just a matchup of freshmen

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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.

NEW YORK — No. 6 Duke got the win they were supposed to get and they did it the way they were supposed to do it.

Freshman phenom Jabari Parker finished with 27 points on 9-for-12 shooting while adding eight boards as the Blue Devils overcame a slow start to knock off Alabama 74-64 and advance to the finals of the Preseason NIT. Parker is only the third freshman in the last decade to score at least 20 points in his team’s first seven games. The other two were Kevin Durant and Eric Gordon. Impressive company.

It took a couple of minutes for the Blue Devils to finally wake up, but once they did, they turned a 12-5 deficit into a 46-28 lead in the blink of an eye. Alabama threw a press at Duke in the second half, whittling the lead down to six at one point, but they never got any closer than that. Freshman Matt Jones, who has struggled a bit early on this season, hit a pair of threes midway through the first half to help kick start the Blue Devil’s run while it was Quinn Cook that hit some big shots down the stretch. Jones finished with 13 points and Cook chipped in with 17, production Duke desperately needed due to the foul trouble that Rodney Hood found himself in. He finished the night with just 21 minutes.

“When a run happens and a team doesn’t fold is spectacular,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the game. “A lot of teams, in that situation, would lose the game. I’m very, very proud of my team.”

While none of the writers on press row will admit it publicly, this is the outcome we were all rooting for.

Because now, on Friday afternoon at the Garden, we’ll get a chance to see those very Blue Devils go up against No. 4 Arizona, who made a sterling comeback of their own on Wednesday night.

The game will be billed as a matchup between Parker and his fellow freshmen Aaron Gordon, which is to say anyone that buys into that tired story line will be doing the game a disservice. That’s lazy. There’s so much more to discuss that simply naming the two star freshmen.

Duke is not a big basketball team. In fact, when their best team is on the floor, Duke is as small as any nationally relevant team in the country, as they have been using three guards along with Hood at the four and Parker at the five. There aren’t many teams out there that are capable of fielding a team that can matchup with that array of perimeter talent, but Arizona can. The Wildcats have the ability to be an absolutely stalwart defensive team, and they may have the most versatile roster in the country. If Sean Miller so pleases, he can run Gordon and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson out there with T.J. McConnell, Nick Johnson and Gabe York and be satisfied knowing that he won’t be breaking out of his rotation to go small enough to matchup with Duke.

Getting Arizona to go small will be a key for the Blue Devils because they won’t have an answer for Kaleb Tarczewski or Brandon Ashley in the paint. Tarczewski played a phenomenal second half against Drexel, dominating the low block and scoring every time he got a touch and Drexel neglected to double-team him. He did so despite playing a miserable first half, something that wouldn’t have happened in past years. Duke doesn’t have anyone that can guard Tarczewski down low. Not Josh Hairston, no Marshall Plumlee and not Amile Jefferson. Would they be willing to risk playing Parker on Tarczewski in the post if Arizona doesn’t go small? What happens to the Blue Devils if Parker gets into foul trouble?

Who will be the first coach to be forced to make a change? Will Coach K go big before Miller goes small?

That’s not the only fascinating part of this matchup.

Duke is one of the best offensive teams in the country, ranking first in offensive efficiency on Kenpom. Arizona’s strength is on the defensive end of the floor. Duke can push tempo with the best of them, but will they want to against an Arizona team who can struggle running half court offense? Will it matter given the fact that Duke has been as bad defensively as any of the teams that Coach K has had in his career?

With the exception of the couple of poor souls that made it all the way to the Garden in their Drexel and Alabama gear, everyone in that arena was hoping to see Duke and Arizona advance to the final.

We got what we wanted: another early season, neutral court, top ten tilt.

That’s awesome, and not simply because of the two freshmen on the floor.

No. 7 South Carolina upends No. 3 Baylor to advance to the Elite 8

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NEW YORK — It was with a whipping and a whimper that Baylor’s season can to an end on Friday night.

The final two minutes of the game wasn’t actually a game. No. 7 seed South Carolina dished out a 70-50 beatdown that wasn’t in doubt after the Gamecocks used an 18-0 run at the end of the first half to turn a rock fight into statement, and for the final two minutes of the game, the Gamecocks and, eventually, Baylor dribbled out the remaining seconds before joining arms at center court for a postgame prater.

It’s the third straight year that Baylor has been bounced from the NCAA tournament by a team seeded lower than them. In 2015, it was R.J. Hunter’s heroics that knocked his dad off of a stool and sent No. 14 seed Georgia State into the second round of the tournament. In 2016, the Bears fell in the first round to No. 12 seed Yale, prompting one of the most memorable press conference moments in NCAA tournament history.

And on Friday night, it was South Carolina that sent the Bears into offseason hibernation.

It was a disheartening end to a season, a loss that will surely provide fodder for the people that traffic in ‘Scott Drew can’t coach’ jokes, the irony being that the 2016-17 season was definitive proof that Scott Drew is almost certainly better at his job than you are at yours.

“When you coach for a while and you make Elite Eights and Sweet 16, you kind of start taking it for granted that you will always be successful in March,” Drew said. “But it’s a good reminder to be here and know how hard it is.”

No. 1 North Carolina handles No. 4 Butler en route to Elite Eight

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North Carolina, the top seed in the South Region, led by as many as 20 en route to a 92-80 win over No. 4 Butler in the Sweet 16 matchup on Friday night at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.

The Tar Heels were led by 26 points, off 8-of-13 shooting, from junior point guard Joel Berry II. The 6-foot floor general had been hampered by an ankle injury through the first weekend. While he still seemed to favor that same ankle at times, his play was a big improvement on his 3-of-21 shooting through the NCAA Tournament’s first two rounds. Justin Jackson nearly matched Berry’s game-high with 24 points.

Andrew Chrabascz, in the final game of his four-year career at Butler, finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and four assists.

North Carolina, the last of the ACC’s nine tournament bids, advances to the Elite Eight to face the winner of No. 3 UCLA and No. 2 Kentucky. The Wildcats own a win over North Carolina, defeating the Tar Heels, 103-100, on Dec. 17 behind 47 points from Malik Monk.

Missouri lands No. 1 player in Class of 2017 as Michael Porter Jr. commits

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Missouri and new head coach Cuonzo Martin have landed the No. 1 player in the Class of 2017 a week after he took the job as forward Michael Porter Jr. committed to the Tigers on Friday.

Formerly a Washington commit under now-fired head coach Lorenzo Romar, the 6-foot-9 Porter was released from his Letter of Intent this week and many believed he’d end up back at Missouri.

The Porter family lived in Columbia for many years as two of Michael’s older sisters play for the Missouri women’s team while Michael Porter Sr. was an assistant coach for the women’s team.

When Porter Sr. was hired to Missouri to be an assistant coach on Martin’s staff this week — after losing his assistant coaching job at Washington when Romar was fired — it all but sealed the deal that the Porters would return to Missouri and Michael Jr. would play for the Tigers.

Missouri might not be an NCAA Tournament team next season after struggling to an 8-24 finish and 2-16 record in the SEC. But Porter might be the most productive freshman entering college basketball next season as he has a chance to be dominant in the SEC.

Oklahoma State promotes assistant coach Mike Boynton to head coach

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Oklahoma State has decided to promote assistant coach Mike Boynton to head coach, the school announced on Friday.

Boynton was an assistant with the Cowboys under former head coach Brad Underwood, who left Oklahoma State to take the Illinois job last weekend. Also an assistant coach at Stephen F. Austin, South Carolina, Wofford and Coastal Carolina, Boynton is a native of New York City who played his college ball for the Gamecocks.

The hire of Boynton is surprising since he doesn’t have any head-coaching experience as it follows in the footsteps of Cal promoting assistant coach Wyking Jones earlier in the day. Boynton also notably won the job over broadcaster and former Oklahoma State guard Doug Gottlieb as Gottlieb interviewed for the job but wasn’t selected.

 

Rhode Island junior E.C. Matthews will return to school

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Rhode Island junior guard E.C. Matthews will return to school for his redshirt senior season, the school announced on Friday.

The 6-foot-5 Matthews led the Rams in scoring at 14.9 points per game this past season as he returned from a torn ACL and helped Rhode Island reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1999.

Besides for being a talented scorer, Matthews is a good overall playmaker for the Rams as he also put up 4.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game.

With Matthews returning, it gives head coach Dan Hurley a huge weapon for next season as Rhode Island returns everyone besides the senior front court of Hassan Martin and Kuran Iverson.