Kentucky v North Carolina

Kentucky is a flawed team, but does that mean they can’t contend?

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We are now 11 games into the college basketball season, but No. 11 Kentucky still appears to be a long way away from being a team capable of winning a national title. The Wildcats are sitting at 8-3 after Saturday’s 82-77 loss to No. 18 North Carolina, with one final chance against Louisville to try and post a marquee non-conference win.

Is it time to be worried about the Wildcats?

This Kentucky basketball team has some major flaws this season, some of which can be corrected and some of which are woven into the fabric of this team.

As good as Willie Cauley-Stein is at defending the rim, the other four players that join him on the floor just don’t seem to be all that good on the defensive side of the ball. Some of it is a lack of desire to keep their man from penetrating. Some of it is an overabundance of gambling for steals. Some of it is the failure to understand help-side rotations.

Simply put: Kentucky is not a good defensive basketball team right now, but that can get better. With those athletes, defense can always get better.

That’s not it.

The Wildcats are some issues on the offensive end of the floor as well. I’ve seen some bemoan the lack of a point guard for the Wildcats, and that’s part of it. The bigger issue is that Kentucky’s three best perimeter players are all guys that are shoot-first scorers that need the ball in their hands to be effective. That’d be fine if they had, say, T.J. McConnell out there to facilitate their offense. But they don’t, which is why their offense too often gets bogged down. On Saturday, the result was that Kentucky’s offense devolved into the Harrison twins going 1-on-1 on every possession.

They also don’t have any perimeter depth. Their three best perimeter players are, more or less, their only three perimeter players. Alex Poythress is not a small forward, but he’s Kentucky’s first wing off the bench. Dominique Hawkins and Jarrod Polson are a great story, but they should be getting spot minutes when Kentucky is in foul trouble, not playing a significant role in UK’s rotation.

That issue isn’t fixable. Neither is Kentucky’s lack of a leader. Who is the guy that settles people down in a timeout? Who takes control offensively in a moment when Kentucky desperately needs to get a bucket? Who is the pulse of the locker room? Who is the guy that refuses to lose, that convinces his teammates that, no matter how dire the circumstances, they’ll find a way to win? Right now, whoever it is isn’t doing a very good job. Kentucky’s body language was awful in the second half on Saturday. That team didn’t look like they believed they could win late in the game. That’s not a good thing.

Consider all of that.

Now add in the fact that Kentucky was playing their first true road game against a team that has already beaten Michigan State and Louisville. Then toss in the foul trouble that the Wildcats were dealing with, and the fact that their best player — Julius Randle — was a non-factor, finishing with 11 points and five boards on 3-for-9 shooting.

Think about all of those problems.

And remember this: Kentucky lost this game by five points. They weren’t run out of the gym, they were slowly overwhelmed by a more experienced team. This wasn’t like last year’s Notre Dame loss.

It’s obvious that all the talk about this Kentucky team being legendary has quickly gone out the window.

But writing this group off as a national title contender at this point is too early.

Johnson, Paige help No. 9 Tar Heels roll past Panthers 85-64

North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks (4) dunks against Pittsburgh during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
AP Photo/Gerry Broome
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Brice Johnson scored 19 points to lead a dominating offensive performance that helped No. 9 North Carolina beat Pittsburgh 85-64 on Sunday.

Marcus Paige added 15 points for the Tar Heels (21-4, 10-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 59 percent to stay atop the league ahead of the next renewal of their fierce rivalry with Duke.

UNC had plenty of balance, shared the ball and got out in transition in arguably their best performance in weeks, using a 13-0 second-half burst to blow the game open. UNC finished with 26 assists on 32 baskets, 24 points off turnovers and scored 16 fast-break points after managing a combined five in the past two games.

Michael Young and James Robinson each scored 15 points to lead Pitt (17-7, 6-6). But the Panthers shot 37 percent and committed 19 turnovers, and a strong effort on the glass did little to offset their troubles.

The Tar Heels were playing their first home game in two weeks after a difficult three-game road trip that started with losses at Louisville and Notre Dame. Then came Tuesday’s game at Boston College, where the Tar Heels struggled against a winless league team then had a scare when Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams briefly collapsed in a second-half huddle after an attack of vertigo and had to leave the sideline for the rest of the game.

Williams was back in the office on Wednesday’s off day, returned to practice Thursday and told reporters Friday he was fine and even cracked jokes about a two-decade history with vertigo dating to his Kansas years.

Getting back home certainly helped everyone feel better. After wrestling with shooting struggles for much of the past month, UNC’s offense kicked back into an efficient and balanced gear, while Paige – the player the Tar Heels are practically begging to jolt free from a prolonged shooting slump – looked more like his old self against the Panthers.

That included one second-half play in which he caught a crosscourt pass from Theo Pinson in transition and made sure to step back behind the arc before burying a 3-pointer.

The Panthers had lost three of four since a 5-2 league start coming in, including 65-63 on a late tip-in at No. 12 Miami on Tuesday. And Pitt again had trouble getting their offense going, failing to crack 70 points for the third straight game.

TIP-INS

Pittsburgh: Second-leading scorer Jamel Artis scored five points on 2-for-8 shooting. … Pitt finished with a 41-29 rebounding advantage. … Pitt made 9 of 21 3-point attempts.

UNC: Justin Jackson scored 14 points. … UNC made 8 of 15 shots from 3-point range and 13 of 15 free throws. … Jackson and Pinson had six assists each. … UNC managed just one offensive rebound.

UP NEXT

Pittsburgh hosts Wake Forest on Tuesday.

UNC hosts Duke on Wednesday.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

Denzel Valentine dominant as No. 8 Michigan State whips Indiana

Michigan State's Denzel Valentine (45) shoots over Indiana's Kevin Yogi Ferrell during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
AP Photo/Al Goldis
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Trailing by one point at the half, Indiana appeared to be in good shape at No. 8 Michigan State. However the fact that they were unable to slow down Denzel Valentine, who scored 15 first-half points, was a major concern for Tom Crean’s Hoosiers. Sure enough the national Player of the Year candidate continued on his tour de force in the second half, scoring another 15 points and dishing out seven assists as the Spartans rolled to an 88-69 victory.

For the game Valentine finished with 30 points, five rebounds, 13 assists and just one turnover. Of Michigan State’s 48 second half points, Valentine had a hand in 29 of them with all seven of his assists resulting in Michigan State layups. It was a dominant performance from one of the nation’s best players, a versatile guard whose four games missed due to injury may have led to some overlooking him when it comes to those national Player of the Year conversations.

When Valentine’s on everything else flows smoothly for Tom Izzo’s team, as his ability to both score and create results in quality looks for teammates who would struggle if they had to get that part of the job done themselves.

The biggest beneficiary Sunday afternoon was forward Matt Costello, who finished the game with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Of Costello’s ten made field goals (10-for-12 FG) five were assisted by Valentine, and he accounted for 13 points and seven rebounds in the second half. As a team Michigan State shot 63.3 percent from the field and assisted on 16 of their 19 made field goals in the second half, turning a tight contest into a blowout.

Tum Tum Nairn returned the court for the first time in seven games, but he played just two minutes and his time on the court will be managed carefully by Izzo moving forward. For many teams not having your point guard at full strength would represent a crippling blow, but that hasn’t been the case for Michigan State thanks in large part to Valentine. Michigan State went 4-3 in those seven games without Nairn, but the three losses were by a total of three points.

Valentine’s ability to make his teammates better will be a key factor down the stretch for Michigan State, and that skill was what led to the Spartans blowing out Indiana on Sunday.