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George Washington’s weekend another positive sign for the Atlantic 10

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Another in-season tournament, and another solid performance from an Atlantic 10 team that wasn’t expected to do a great deal when the season began.

Just days after Dayton, which was picked to finish seventh in the Atlantic 10 preseason poll, won third place at the Maui Invitational the George Washington Colonials did the same at the Wooden Legacy in southern California with a 60-53 win over No. 20 Creighton. Picked to finish tenth in the A-10, Mike Lonergan’s team displayed signs of growth and the ability to exceed those low preseason expectations.

Their biggest achievement on Sunday night was harassing All-American and national Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott into the (statistically speaking) worst performance of his college career, as McDermott finished with just seven points on 2-for-12 shooting. As a team the Bluejays, one of the nation’s most efficient offensive teams, shot just 33.9% from the field and turned the ball over 13 times with just nine assists.

That was due in large part to the work of the Colonials on the defensive end, as they outscored Creighton 17-4 in points off of turnovers and limited the Bluejays to 7-for-28 shooting from beyond the arc. Creighton struggled with George Washington’s length for much of the night, and that’s an attribute (along with their offensive balance) that can serve the Colonials well once they begin conference play. Kevin Larsen led four starters in double figures with 14 points, and while there isn’t one “headliner” on Lonergan’s roster he has multiple players capable of contributing on a nightly basis.

Offensive balance and a stout defense will be the keys for George Washington going forward, because in a league as balanced as the Atlantic 10 it’s tough to make that climb up the standings relying solely on one or two players. Isaiah Armwood played very well defensively against McDermott and will be a factor on both ends of the floor, and in Maurice Creek, Patricio Garino, Joe McDonald and Kethan Savage the Colonials have the perimeter players needed to make life difficult for the opposition.

How successful of a season the Atlantic 10 enjoys in 2013-14 remains to be seen but if the in-season tournament performances of teams like Dayton and George Washington are any indication (yes, expected contender UMass won the Charleston Classic), this is setting up to be a good year for the league.

After blowout of South Carolina, is No. 22 Kentucky a Final Four contender?

Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis (3) guards the ball after a rebound during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, in Auburn, Ala. Auburn won 75-70. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
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It only took 2:26 for official Doug Sirmons to plant two technical fouls on Kentucky head coach John Calipari, and that may have been the worst thing that could have happened to South Carolina.

He poked the bear, and the result was that a ticked off No. 22 Wildcat team proceeded to run the Gamecocks out of their own gym, 89-62.

The star of the show was interim head coach Tyler Ulis, who put together as dominating of a performance as you’ll ever see out of a player that stands 5-foot-9. Ulis finished with 27 points and 12 assists, hitting 4-for-8 from three and turning the ball over just once.

Marcus Lee added 11 points and 13 boards, including six on the offensive end, and Jamal Murray had his customary 26 points on 9-for-21 shooting, but the story of this game was Ulis.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seed a player under 6-foot capable of dominating a game the way that Ulis can dominate. Murray can take over with the best of them — we saw it against Florida and Ohio State — but when it comes to the NCAA tournament, this Kentucky team will go as far as Ulis carries them.

And based on the way that he’s played in the last six weeks, that could end up being pretty far. In SEC play, Ulis is averaging 19.4 points and 7.6 assists. He’s scored at least 17 points in 12 of the last 14 games and has notched as least five assists in all 14. He just orchestrated a total mollywhopping of a Frank Martin-coached team that was tied for first place in the SEC while playing without his head coach and on the road.

The issue with Kentucky is the same today as it was a month ago. They’re a two-man team with an inconsistent supporting cast. When their two studs play like this, they can beat anyone in the country. When they don’t, they can struggle against anyone.

But here’s the thing: When Ulis is playing the way that he’s played of late, they don’t really need all that much from their supporting cast. Derek Willis needs to be able to space the floor. Lee and Skal Labissiere need to be able to hold their own against opposing big men.

And when that happens?

Kentucky is clearly the best team in the SEC and good enough to be able to win four straight in the Big Dance and get to a Final Four.

No. 25 Wichita State falls to Northern Iowa as at-large chances take critical hit

Northern Iowa's Matt Bohannon drives in the lane past Wichita State's Conner Frankamp during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Matthew Putney/The Waterloo Courier via AP)
(Matthew Putney/The Waterloo Courier via AP)
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Northern Iowa has been a confusing team to follow this season but the Panthers peaked against a ranked team once again on Saturday in a 53-50 upset of No. 25 Wichita State. While the Panthers looked like a potential at-large NCAA tournament team during the non-conference season with wins over North Carolina and Iowa State, they’ve faltered in Missouri Valley Conference play.

Saturday’s road win at Koch Arena proves that Northern Iowa (16-11, 8-6) is still a credible threat in the conference tournament as they’ve now won six consecutive games. The loss for the Shockers could end their at-large hopes and their 43-game home winning streak — the longest such streak in the nation — was snapped.

A defensive adjustment was the difference for the Panthers as a switch to a 2-3 zone in the first half confused Wichita State’s offense enough for Northern Iowa to jump out to a 38-27 halftime lead. The Shockers (18-7, 12-2) recovered enough to make it a tight game, but Northern Iowa came up with big shots down the stretch to come up with the road win. Klint Carlson was a tough matchup for the Wichita State defense as he led the Panthers with 12 points while Wyatt Lohaus contributed 11.

Wichita State had two good looks from 3-point range to tie in the game’s final 10 seconds, but Ron Baker (12 points) and Connor Frankamp (0 points) both missed. Senior Fred Van Vleet was held scoreless in the first half and finished with eight points on 3-for-15 shooting.

This loss is concerning for Wichita State, not only because they hurt their dwindling at-large chances, but they didn’t look prepared to face the zone and 3/4 court press that Northern Iowa threw at them. The Shockers shot 30 percent (20-for-66) from the field and 22 percent (7-for-31) from 3-point range as they really couldn’t get much of anything going on the offensive end. Van Vleet and Baker couldn’t get their shots to fall and Northern Iowa mustered just enough offense to pull off the win.

As noted before, this win is another confidence builder for Northern Iowa, as they’ve reeled off six consecutive wins after a puzzling 2-6 start in the Valley. It’s also nice that the Panthers won a slow, grind-it-out game on the road over a quality opponent, since the North Carolina and Iowa State wins came in more uptempo settings.

The Missouri Valley is looking like a one-bid league as we inch closer to Arch Madness and with Wichita State falling to Illinois State and Northern Iowa recently, the conference tournament could have a lot of teams with a realistic chance for the autobid.