Josh Gasser the difference-maker in No. 8 Wisconsin’s win at Virginia

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In a game in which both No. 8 Wisconsin and Virginia struggled to make shots, redshirt junior guard Josh Gasser who was the most accurate shooter and made the plays that helped the Badgers pick up the 48-38 win in Charlottesville. Gasser (team-high 11 points) attempted just two shots from the field but he made both, the second of which being a three-pointer to give the Badgers a 42-30 lead with 6:24 remaining. And based upon how the two teams shot on the night, that margin proved to be insurmountable.

But Gasser’s biggest contribution came on the defensive end of the floor, where he was the player primarily responsible for the assignment of guarding All-ACC guard Joe Harris. In Virginia’s 60-54 win at the Kohl Center last season Harris accounted for 22 points (8-for-19 FG), five rebounds and five assists.

However on Wednesday Harris’ impact was minimal, as he finished the night with just two points on 1-for-10 shooting. The difference: Gasser, who missed all of last season due to a torn ACL and adds an element this team sorely lacked while he was sidelined.

“Just gutsy, tough,” Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said of Gasser following the team’s season-opening win over St. John’s, and those words apply to Wednesday’s performance as well. “That’s Josh. (Thirty-five) games last year, where he wasn’t on the floor, we could have used that. That energy, that moxie. He might not do that every night, but he showed why he worked so hard in the offseason.”

As a team Virginia shot 23.4%, and after scoring 12 of their first 14 points in the paint the Cavaliers struggled to convert what few opportunities they could find to the remainder of the night. Both teams defended well, with Virginia limiting the Badgers to 28.8% shooting (5-for-23 3PT), but it was Wisconsin who did the better job of finding the looks needed to both establish and maintain a working margin.

Now 9-0 on the season with wins over Florida, Saint Louis and Virginia on their resume, Wisconsin has the look of a Big Ten contender and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Under Ryan, who picked up his 300th win at the school on Wednesday, Wisconsin has finished in the top four of the Big Ten standings every season. They’ll have better nights offensively, but even if they don’t the defense will remain a constant.

In games like this it’s difficult to find too much to apply towards the future, but it’s safe to say that with Josh Gasser back in the rotation Wisconsin’s got an entirely different look.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.