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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.

College Basketball Coaches Poll: Kansas vaults to No. 1

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 03:  Devonte' Graham #4 of the Kansas Jayhawks celebrates with Frank Mason III #0 after making a three-pointer during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Allen Fieldhouse on December 3, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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1. Kansas (23 first-place votes)
2. Villanova (4)
3. UCLA (2)
4. Gonzaga (3)
5. Kentucky
6. Baylor
7. Creighton
8. West Virginia
9. North Carolina
10. Oregon
11. Louisville
12. Florida State
13. Arizona
14. Butler
15. Notre Dame
16. Virginia
17. Wisconsin
18. Duke
19. Xavier
20. Cincinnati
21. Florida
22. Purdue
23. Saint Mary’s
24. South Carolina
25. Maryland

College Basketball AP Top 25: Villanova is back to the top spot

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 13: Kris Jenkins #2 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in the second half against the Temple Owls at The Pavilion on December 13, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Temple Owls 78-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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1. Villanova (28 first-place votes)
2. Kansas (32)
3. UCLA (3)
4. Gonzaga (2)
5. Kentucky
6. Baylor
t-7. Creighton
t-7. West Virginia
9. North Carolina
10. Florida State
11. Oregon
12. Louisville
13. Butler
14. Arizona
15. Notre Dame
16. Virginia
17. Wisconsin
18. Duke
19. Florida
20. Cincinnati
21. Purdue
22. Xavier
23. Saint Mary’s
24. South Carolina
25. Maryland

Texas gets important commitment from 2017 point guard Matt Coleman

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Texas landed an important piece for its future on Monday as four-star Class of 2017 point guard Matt Coleman committed to the Longhorns during a televised announcement.

A priority recruit for head coach Shaka Smart, the 6-foot-2 Coleman is regarded as the No. 35 overall prospect in the country, according to Rivals. A lefty floor general who can attack the basket and set up others, Coleman played for Smart this summer as the two won a gold medal together with the USA Basketball U18 team during the 2016 FIBA Americas.

Coleman is going to have to improve his perimeter shooting for the next level — he only shot 18 percent from three-point range in Nike EYBL play — but he’s the type of setup guard who should help the talented Texas perimeter get ideal shots. It’ll be intriguing to see how Smart plans to play Coleman in what could be a crowded backcourt next season but Coleman should help bring stability to the team.

With Coleman in the mix, we’ll likely see Smart use a lot of lineups with two ball handlers as we saw with Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix last season. That type of backcourt might suit Smart’s style of play a bit better than the current Texas roster this season.

Coleman is the fourth commitment for Texas in the Class of 2017. He joins three other four-star prospects in big man Jericho Sims, guard Jase Febres and forward Royce Hamm.

Five things we learned: Duke’s a mess, Gonzaga’s a controversy, Baylor’s back

ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 27:  Nigel Williams-Goss #5 and Josh Perkins #13 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs celebrate a victory over the Iowa State Cyclones at HP Field House on November 27, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
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1. The ‘Is Gonzaga a No. 1 seed?’ controversy is coming whether you like it or not: Gonzaga improved to 17-0 this week, meaning that the Zags are now exactly halfway to entering the NCAA tournament undefeated on the season. The statement was made on Saturday night, when No. 5 Gonzaga hosted No. 21 Saint Mary’s and won by 23 points.

The game was much closer than the final score – a late-run from the Zags and foul trouble for Jock Landale were the culprits in the end – but it was a statement nonetheless. Saint Mary’s is really good, and Gonzaga dispatched them with little trouble. It more or less confirms what we already knew: there is a very real chance that the Zags can go undefeated during the regular season, and it is a virtual certainty that ‘Is Gonzaga really a No. 1 seed?’ will be one of the biggest talking points on Selection Sunday.

Think about it: How many more games will the Zags actually lose? Their trip to Saint Mary’s is going to be tricky, BYU is certainly dangerous and they’ll likely face one of those two teams in the WCC title game. Throw in the fact that every road game they play is the biggest game of the year for their opponent, and I’ll set the over/under for Zag losses at 2.5; worth noting: KenPom projects Gonzaga to be favored in every game they play.

Let’s think about this in a best-case scenario: The Zags will enter Selection Sunday with neutral site wins over Iowa State, Arizona and Florida, but a clean sweep of Saint Mary’s. That will, in all likelihood, be the totality of their top 50 wins. The Selection Committee is going to have to compare that profile to the profiles of Villanova, Kansas, Kentucky and the eventual ACC champion, not to mention fellow west coast powerhouse UCLA.

If Gonzaga ends up going 34-0, they’ll be an automatic No. 1 seed, or at least they should be. But if they lose a game or two?

That’s when this will become interesting.

And even if the Zags don’t lose a game, there will still be people saying they don’t deserve to get a top seed.

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2. Duke is a total mess right now: Twice in the last week and for the third time this season, Duke went on the road in ACC play and took a loss in a game that never felt like it was all that much in doubt. On Tuesday, the Blue Devils lost by 16 at Florida State in a game where they gave up 88 points. On Saturday, they lost by nine at Louisville, giving up 78 points to the offensively-challenged Cardinals.

And that’s where their issues begin. On defense, particularly in ball-screen defense. Harry Giles III just doesn’t look like he quite understands where he has to be and when he has to be there yet, while Marques Bolden, in Amile Jefferson’s absence, is playing behind both Chase Jeter and Javin DeLaurier. Offensively, the issues they’ve had with point guard play are really coming to the forefront, as Grayson Allen, for all his ability, is an attacker, not a facilitator, at heart. Jayson Tatum is a super-skilled scorer, but he lacks a feel for the game to the point where Duke has actually looked like a better team with him on the bench.

The Blue Devils lack toughness. They lack a killer. They get pushed around. And their leaders – Coach K on the bench and Jefferson on the floor – are both currently on the mend.

At what point do we start questioning if, not when, Duke can turn this thing around?

3. Xavier has their own problems: The Musketeer’s issues have less to do with ability than they do with the fact that this team lacks résumé wins. As of this moment in time, Chris Mack’s club may not have a win over an NCAA tournament team. They beat Clemson who can’t beat anyone in the ACC. They beat Utah before Utah had David Collette and Sedrick Barefield eligible. They beat Wake Forest (whatever) and Northern Iowa twice (they stick this year).

There are still plenty of good wins left for them to get – Creighton twice, at Cincinnati, Xavier at home, Butler at home, the Big East tournament – and this team is good enough to get some of them, but it’s worth noting that, as of today, Xavier’s tournament profile is not good.

4. Maybe Baylor wasn’t the best team in the country after all: It was fun while it lasted for the Bears, as No. 1 Baylor went into Morgantown and learned what Press Virginia is all about. They committed 29 turnovers in a 21-point loss. And frankly, if you were paying attention, the result shouldn’t have been all that surprising. Yes, Scott Drew’s club got beaten worse than we thought, but they were also a team that earned that No. 1 ranking because of the way that the voting is done, not necessarily because they were the best team in the country.

WACO, TX - JANUARY 7: Johnathan Motley #5 and Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. #0 of the Baylor Bears celebrate after defeating the Oklahoma State Cowboys 61-57 on January 7, 2017 at the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas.  (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

5. New Mexico and Colorado State do not like each other: New Mexico and Colorado State got into a couple of different altercations on Saturday in UNM’s win at Colorado State. It started in the pregame, where a reporter for the Albuquerque Journal reported that CSU players were talking trash to UNM players about the job status of the Lobo coaches. During the game, a hard-screen set by a UNM player resulted in a near-brawl, one where UNM assistants Chris Harriman and Terrence Rencher were ejected for leaving their bench.

After the game is when things really got interesting. The Journal reporter published video of a verbal altercation outside the arena between Rencher and CSU player Emmanuel Omogbo. Omogbo, who was held back by CSU head coach Larry Eustachy, claimed that Rencher started the altercation, and Eustachy’s wife, Lana, accused him of laughing when he was told of the tragedy Omogbo has lived through; his parents and two two-year old sisters died in a house fire last year.

UNM strongly denied that those allegations were true, and their account was supported by the Journal reporter. It turned into a big deal this weekend, largely due to the fact that it was a coach and a player that got into it …

… and because it was on video.

And that was where the real damage was done.

Dust-ups like what happened in and around that building on Saturday happen more than you think, particularly in the gyms where both teams have to leave the floor through the same tunnel. In this incident, a 22-year old coming off of a chippy home loss lost his temper. It happens. Rencher didn’t raise his fists or raise his voice, essentially responding to the player by saying, “Keep it moving, you don’t want these problems.”

Neither man covered himself in glory, and neither of them did anything that was all that bad.

It was a situation that was diffused pretty quickly, never escalated into any type of violence and only became ‘a thing’ because it was captured on video.

These two teams play again in mid-February. Hopefully this will be the last time we have to talk about it until then.

Team of the Week: West Virginia Mountaineers

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25:  Head coach Bob Huggins of the West Virginia Mountaineers reacts against the Temple Owls in the second half during the championship game of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Barclays Center on November 25, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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The Mountaineers did two things this week that should impress you.

For starters, they absolutely crushed No. 1 and then-undefeated Baylor at home. The Bears committed 29 turnovers and lost by 21 points in a game that never felt like it was in doubt for WVU. Press Virginia has never looked so good.

But Bob Huggins’ club followed that up on Saturday by going on the road, playing in an empty arena at Texas and overcoming a flu outbreak to land a come-from-behind win over the Longhorns. Let-down games are a real thing, especially when those games are played in arenas that don’t have the same kind of energy as a packed WVU coliseum.

We know what this team is and we know what they bring on a nightly basis. Their loss to Texas Tech puts them behind the eight-ball in a conference where Kansas is going to be so difficult to beat, but we need to take them as seriously as a Big 12 title contender as we do Baylor.

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THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • UCLA: The Bruins became just the fourth team since Utah and Colorado joined the Pac-12 to sweep the road weekend at the Mountain schools. UCLA hit 19 threes and scored 104 points at Colorado and followed that up with a come-from-behind win at Utah, a game where UCLA’s legs were clearly weighing on them. Worth noting: the other three schools to accomplish this feat both won the conference.
  • Mississippi State: For all the talk about Mississippi State’s struggles this season, they’re quietly looking pretty good this year. They’re 12-4 on the season and, after a win at Arkansas and a win over Texas A&M at home, are sitting at 3-1 in the SEC.
  • Louisville: The Cardinals shook off a slow start to ACC play this week, hanging on to beat Pitt despite 43 points from Jamel Artis and following that up with a win over Duke in the Yum! Center on Saturday. Anas Mahmoud played the best game of his career in the win over Duke.
  • Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish are now 16-2 on the season and 5-0 in the ACC after landing close wins at Miami and Virginia Tech this week. The Irish choked away big leads and lost a game down the stretch against both Villanova and Purdue. It looks like they may have shed those demons. Their five ACC wins are by a combined 23 points.
  • Cincinnati: The Bearcats asserted their dominance atop the American by beating SMU at home on Thursday night. They followed that up with a road win at an overmatched East Carolina. Cincinnati is one of the nation’s best defensive teams, and a team that we probably are not paying enough attention to right now.