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.

Before he won an Academy Award, Mahershala Ali played at Saint Mary’s

HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 26:  Actor Mahershala Ali accepts Best Supporting Actor for 'Moonlight' onstage during the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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Mahershala Ali won an Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in the film ‘Moonlight’ on Sunday night.

How does that tie into college basketball?

It’s simple: Ali played college basketball for four years at Saint Mary’s, from 1992-1996.

Now, this was before Saint Mary’s turned into the Saint Mary’s that Randy Bennett has built. At the time, Ernie Kent was the program’s head coach, and the teams that Ali — whose used his given last name of Gilmore at the time, although he was already using the shortened version of his first name, Mahershalalhashbaz — played on weren’t really all that good. They finished under .500 in the WCC three of the four season, finding a way to finish in a tie for second place in his junior year.

As a senior, Ali averaged 7.0 points for the Gaels.

This would probably make Ali the most famous player that Kent has ever coached. He’s more famous than Aaron Brooks, who had about two good NBA seasons, and he’s definitely more famous than Luke Ridnour, who is best known either for getting traded four times in a week or being name-dropped in a song by the rapper Wale, who bragged about being able to turn ‘Ducks into Bucks [like] Luke Ridnour.’

 

VIDEO: Tom Izzo’s touching senior day tribute to Eron Harris

EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 26: Eron Harris #14 of the Michigan State Spartans kisses the midcourt logo on senior day during the second half of the college basketball game against the Wisconsin Badgers at the Breslin Center on February 26, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
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Eron Harris suffered a career-ending knee injury in a game at Purdue earlier this month, meaning that he would not be able to take the floor for his Senior Day.

Tom Izzo made sure to rectify that, as he called a timeout with just 12 seconds left in Michigan State’s win over No. 16 Wisconsin on Sunday, giving Harris a chance to go out to the center of the court, get a standing ovation and give the Spartan logo a smooch.

He was also greeted by the Wisconsin team. All around great moment:

Nick Ward-led Michigan State beats No. 16 Wisconsin 84-74

EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 26: Nick Ward #44 of the Michigan State Spartans celebrates during a game against the Wisconsin Badgers in the second half at the Breslin Center on February 26, 2017 in East Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)
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EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) Nick Ward had 22 points and nine rebounds, Miles Bridges had 17 points and Matt McQuaid added a season-high 15 to help Michigan State beat No. 16 Wisconsin 84-74 on Sunday.

The Spartans (18-11, 10-6 Big Ten) have won six of their last eight games, moving them into a third-place tie in the conference and perhaps sealing their spot in a 20th straight NCAA Tournament.

The Badgers (22-7, 11-5) have lost four of five and lost a chance to pull into a first-place tie with No. 14 Purdue.

Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes scored 22 points, Bronson Koenig had 17 and Zak Showalter added 15. Ethan Happ fouled out with eight points, more than six points below his average for the Badgers.

Michigan State went on an 11-1 run midway through the second half, building a 12-point lead that it was able to maintain unlike a big lead in the first half.

In the first half, the Spartans led 36-23 only to allow the Badgers to come back with a 15-4 run to pull within a point at halftime.

Michigan State’s Cassius Winston had 10 points and eight assists and Joshua Langford had nine points.

In the last game of the season at Breslin Center, senior guard Eron Harris checked in late in the game a little more than a week after he had a season-ending knee injury. Harris, with a brace on his right knee, went to center court and kissed the Spartan logo to follow a senior tradition Shawn Respert started in 1995.

BIG PICTURE

Wisconsin: The Badgers have been shooting poorly and it is catching up with them. They were held to 43.1 percent shooting against Michigan State, a ninth straight game of connecting on 44 percent or fewer of their shots. They made 13 of 25 free throws at Michigan State after shooting 67 and 57 percent from the line the previous two games.

Michigan State: The Spartans are surging at the right time and are gaining confidence perhaps allowing them to position themselves for better seeding at the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.

POLL IMPLICATONS

With Wisconsin’s losses at Michigan State and Ohio State, the Badgers will likely plummet from No. 16 in The Associated Press poll on Monday.

UP NEXT

Wisconsin: The Badgers end the regular season at home, hosting Iowa on Thursday night and Minnesota on Sunday.

Michigan State: The Spartans close on the road, playing Illinois on Wednesday night and No. 24 Maryland on Saturday.

More AP college basketball at http://collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Update: Creighton’s Watson turns himself into police

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JANUARY 31: Injured guard Maurice Watson Jr. of the Creighton Bluejays looks on during the game against the Butler Bulldogs at Hinkle Fieldhouse on January 31, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Creighton defeated Butler 76-67. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Update: Later Sunday, Watson turned himself into the Douglas County Jail, a law enforcement official told the Omaha World-Herald. Watson’s attorney told the paper that Watson was driving back to Omaha from his native Philadelphia and was slowed by the snowstorm that hit parts of the country this week.

Law enforcement has been unable to arrest Creighton guard Maurice Watson since a warrant for his arrest on the charge first-degree sexual assault was issued last week, according to police.

“The U.S. Marshals Service and the Omaha Police Fugitive Unit continue to look for Mr. Watson,” Omaha Police said in a statement Sunday. “At this point in time, Mr. Watson is dodging law enforcement efforts to arrest him.

“Until he is located and arrested by law enforcement, or turns himself in, the entire Douglas County Court system is operating off of Mr. Watson’s time frame.

“Neither OPD nor the Douglas County Attorney’s Office is part of any specific arrangements for Mr. Watson to turn himself in.”

Watson was accused by a 19-year-old acquaintance, who reportedly is also a Creighton student, of sexual assault in the bathroom of an Omaha residence around 3 a.m. on Feb. 4. A report was filed later that day.

The point guard was in the midst of a banner season for the Bluejays before he tore his ACL in January, which ended his collegiate career. Creighton announced on Feb. 13 he was suspended from the team and not allowed to participate in senior night act due to  “alleged actions that are contrary to university policies and core values.”

The warrant for his arrest was issued Thursday.

 

Seventh-ranked Louisville dominates Syracuse

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The hint arrived early that Louisville might be no kind of matchup for Syracuse when the Cardinals jumped out to a quick 11-2 lead. The Orange, though, appeared to steady and seemed intent on delivering an interesting Sunday afternoon and a maybe another resume-changing win after beating Duke earlier in the week as the roared back to take a lead.

Everyone should have taken the early hint.

Louisville used a 21-4 first-half run to gain separation and never looked back as the Cardinals dominated Syracuse, 88-68, on Saturday afternoon at the KFC Yum! Center.

The win was the fourth in five games for Louisville, which shot 56.9 percent from the floor and held the Orange to 35.7 percent shooting.

Donovan Mitchell was sensational, going for 25 points on 9 of 16 shooting, including 6 of 10 from deep, while also grabbing five rebounds and dishing out four assists. It was his third-straight game with at least 20 points.  He also had an absolutely dynamic one-handed alley-oop late that was just fantastic.

The Cardinals showed no ill effects of a hangover stemming from the loss earlier this week at North Carolina, but instead it was as dominant a performance as they’ve had in weeks.

On the losing side of the ledger are the Orange, who looked to be building some momentum after a three-game losing streak by beating Duke on Wednesday. Then, the Blue Devils went and lost to Miami and Syracuse just got smashed by another ACC contender. That doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence.

For Syracuse, it looks destined to spend another Selection Sunday sweating, though there’s certainly enough time for it to go either way. The Orange can really only hurt themselves until the ACC tournament with Georgia Tech heading to the Carrier Dome this week. That’s a game Syracuse will need to win, lest they really want the pressure ratcheted up in Brooklyn.

A big part of the issue for Syracuse pinning its hopes on the ACC tournament is its total lack of depth. Tyler Lydon and Andrew White both went at least 40 minutes for the 11- and 10-straight games, respectively. Syracuse played seven and got 28 minutes total from its bench.

With a few days typically between days, that’s pretty sustainable for the regular season, but those minutes are sure to weigh on players going on back-to-back (and maybe longer) days.