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UNLV provides more questions than answers after another home loss

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Picked to finish in a tie for second place in the preseason Mountain West coaches poll, Dave Rice’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels were clearly expected to contend for a conference title. While there certainly were some adjustments to be made given the number of newcomers inheriting key roles, there’s enough talent to make UNLV a factor in the Mountain West and at the very least earn another trip to the NCAA tournament.

In the aftermath of UNLV’s disappointing performance in a 74-71 home loss to Nevada on Wednesday night, with the final margin being that close thanks in large part to the Wolf Pack’s struggles to put the game away, it seems pretty clear that UNLV is a team in search of answers. And they don’t look all that equipped to provide the answers needed to turn things around, which is highly concerning with road games against New Mexico (January 15) and No. 13 San Diego State (January 18) next on the schedule.

And for a team that up until the last week proved to be solid defensively, those home losses to Air Force and Nevada are especially concerning in that regard.

After allowing the Falcons to score 1.16 points per possession on Saturday the Runnin’ Rebels weren’t much better against their in-state rivals, with Nevada scoring an average of 1.10 points per possession. Nevada was able to do that despite shooting just 6-for-19 from beyond the arc, with the guard tandem of Deonte Burton (29 points, five rebounds and three assists) and Michael Perez (18 points, seven rebounds and three assists) doing just about whatever they wanted offensively.

Nevada made 52.3% of its shots inside of the arc, as they were able to find ways to attack UNLV’s defense off the dribble on many occasions (and a few backdoor cuts from Perez for good measure) with little resistance to be found. Burton sat a portion of the first half due to foul trouble, but once he was able to get rolling in the latter stages of the half UNLV had no chance of slowing him down.

The reasons for the loss are many and will be discussed ad nauseam by the fans who, like the team, have a week to stew on this two-game losing streak before back-to-back trips to New Mexico and San Diego State starting Wednesday. There may be no better place to start than how excited Burton was to see Kendall Smith guarding him to start the game.

“I was surprised about it,” Burton said. “We just have to exploit the mismatches, and that’s what we did.”

Asked if he was pleasantly surprised, Burton grinned.

“Yes.”

But to limit UNLV’s issues to the defensive end of the floor would be a mistake, especially when considering the fact that they shot just 35% from the field. UNLV got the ball inside but they couldn’t convert at a decent rate, with Khem Birch (3-for-10 FG), Bryce Dejean-Jones (4-for-14) and Kendall Smith (3-for-11) all struggling to knock down shots. Add in Jelan Kendrick’s benching due to his being late to a practice and the problems were plentiful for UNLV.

Now comes the most important six days in the season for the Runnin’ Rebels, and they won’t play a single game during this stretch. For a team that lacked focus, and Birch even noted that players are “emotionally and physically tired” according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, it’s imperative that Rice’s squad uses this time off to get on the same page.

UNLV may be playing better basketball away from Thomas & Mack this season (five of their six losses have come at home), but if they don’t find a way to right the ship those games at The Pit and Viejas Arena will get ugly.

College Basketball Talk Top 25: It gets muddy after a clear-cut top four

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 03: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in front of Lamarr Kimble #0 of the Saint Joseph's Hawks in the first half at The Pavilion on December 3, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Saint Joseph's Hawks 88-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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This week’s rankings were probably more difficult to put together than any week so far this season.

The top four, frankly, seem pretty obvious. I have Villanova No. 1, but I would have no qualms with ranking any of Kentucky, Kansas or Gonzaga in that No. 1 spot. I expect those to be the four teams that get votes for No. 1 in the AP and Coaches Polls this week.

After that, however, is when it gets difficult. Are you going to rank North Carolina above Florida State? UNC beat the Seminoles when they squared off this season but that was the Seminoles lone loss in a six game run against ranked teams. I went with Carolina over them because, simply, I think UNC is a better team.

Then there’s the question of what to do with the top three teams in the Pac-12. Arizona just won at UCLA and they got Allonzo Trier back. Oregon also owns a win over the Bruins, but there’s came at home on a buzzer-beater from Dillon Brooks, who is dealing with a foot injury again. And while UCLA has consistently proven to be one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the country, they are a nightmare defensively right now.

Where does West Virginia slot in after a pair of losses? What about Creighton without Mo Watson Jr.? Butler’s profile looks great but their performance on the floor has been less than stellar since their win over Villanova. Is Duke actually back?

You can find the rankings below. What did I get wrong?

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1. Villanova (19-1, Last Week No. 1)
2. Kentucky (17-2, 2)
3. Kansas (18-1, 4)
4. Gonzaga (19-0, 5)
5. North Carolina (18-3, 5)
6. Baylor (18-1, 7)
7. Florida State (18-2, 8)
8. Arizona (18-2, 16)
9. UCLA (19-2, 3)
10. Oregon (18-2, 10)
11. Louisville (16-4, 11)
12. Wisconsin (16-3, 13)
13. Purdue (16-4, 15)
14. Notre Dame (17-3, 17)
15. Cincinnati (17-2, 18)
16. Duke (15-4, 19)
17. West Virginia (15-4, 10)
18. Butler (17-3, 14)
19. Creighton (18-2, 12)
20. Saint Mary’s (17-2, 20)
21. Virginia (16-3, 22)
22. South Carolina (15-4, 24)
23. Maryland (17-2, 25)
24. Kansas State (15-4, NR)
25. Iowa State (12-6, NR)

DROPPED OUT: No. 21 Xavier, No. 23 Florida
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 24 Kansas State, No. 25 Iowa State

Five Things We Learned This Week: Duke’s back, Creighton might be OK, and can UCLA win a title?

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 21:  Matt Jones #13 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after making a three-point basket against the Miami Hurricanes during the game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 21, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 70-58.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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1. Jeff Capel’s gamble paid off: For the first time in more than a month, Duke looked like Duke again, and it all came from a roll-of-the-dice by interim head coach Jeff Capel.

With the Blue Devils down 36-25 at the half at home against Miami, he benched Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Harry Giles III to open the second half, and it worked. Matt Jones scored all 13 of his points to sparked a 31-4 run that turned what should have been Miami’s first marquee win into a moment in Duke’s season that we have to highlight.

The specific turning point came less than two minutes into the half. Duke was finally playing with energy defensively, but they couldn’t quite get things going on the offensive end of the floor. After another missed shot from the Blue Devils, Jones picked off an outlet pass and rattled home a three that sent Cameron Indoor Stadium into hysterics. The crowd went nuts. The bench went nuts. Capel went to go chest bump Jones at half court after Miami called a timeout and nearly truck-sticked his veteran leader.

And it was more than just Jones hitting shots. Frank Jackson looked the part of an all-american for the first time since his more-heralded freshmen counterparts returned from injury. Marques Bolden played what was by far his best game as a collegian, too. They were brimming with confidence, but perhaps more importantly, it was the first time that Duke looked to be having fun playing basketball since the Jimmy V Classic on Dec. 10th.

I don’t know what the future holds for Duke’s season.

But I do know that if they make a run now, Matt Jones rattling home a three will have been the turning point in their season.

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2. Creighton might be OK without Mo Watson Jr.: Creighton got smoked by Marquette at home on Saturday afternoon, losing 102-94 in a game that wasn’t really that close in the second half. That’s not exactly the most reassuring thing to have happen for a team trying to figure out how to survive without their all-american point guard, but there is something important to note about the result: Creighton lost because they decided not to defend.

Marquette has one of the most potent offensive attacks in the country. They currently rank 7th in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric. They have loads of guards to spread around Luke Fischer in the post, and head coach Steve Wojciechowski has them running and gunning like some of those old Duke teams he played on. They made 12 threes against Creighton, shot 60 percent from the floor and scored 1.275 points-per-possession.

That’s atrocious defense from the Bluejays.

But they also put up 94 points. Marcus Foster went for 30. They were 11-for-24 from the floor and shot 49.3 percent on the game despite missing 23 of their first 34 field goals. Davion Mintz, playing the point in Watson’s absence, finished with 17 points and eight assists. Their offense, overall, looked fine.

Part of that is because Marquette is a bad defensive team. Part of that was likely because they were chasing the game late, able to get a flurry of points down the stretch against a defense that was trying not to foul. And it’s not like we can ignore the 11-for-34 start to the game.

That said, when you combine this performance with the fact that the Bluejays were able to hold on and win at Xavier after Watson’s first half injury, there is reason to be optimistic that Greg McDermott will figure this thing out. Creighton no longer has the same upside without Watson – he was awesome, let’s not forget that – but this weekend showed us the Bluejays aren’t dead yet.

OMAHA, NEBRASKA-NOVEMBER 26: Marcus Foster #0 of the Creighton Bluejays take s a break during their game against the Loyola (Md) Greyhounds at the CenturyLink Center on November 26, 2016 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Marcus Foster (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)

3. Indiana isn’t dead yet, either: We were all ready to bury the Hoosiers after they lost O.G. Anunoby to a knee injury that will require surgery and end his season, but someone forget to tell Indiana.

Four days after James Blackmon Jr. hit a buzzer-beating three to give Indiana a win at Penn State, the Hoosiers smacked around Michigan State at Assembly Hall on the strength of 33 points from Blackmon. All of a sudden, Tom Crean’s club is sitting at 4-3 in the Big Ten, two games out of first place, having won four of their last five, the only loss coming by three points at league leader Maryland.

That’s impressive, but it doesn’t get any easier for the Hoosiers. This week, they visit both Michigan and Northwestern, who is currently 5-2 in the Big Ten. Winning at home in front of a raucous crowd is one thing. Taking care of teams that they should be able to beat on the road is another.

4. Can we still take UCLA seriously as a title contender?: At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, UCLA’s defense has gotten to the point where it’s difficult to picture them winning six games in a row against quality competition. They rank 125th nationally in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric after giving up 1.315 points-per-possession. Arizona routinely obliterated UCLA off the dribble, getting into the paint at will and exposing Bryce Alford as a defensive liability. Arizona also pounded the offensive glass, getting 34 percent of their own misses, and the cumulative effect was that the Bruins were unable to get their transition game into high gear.

As the saying goes, the easiest way to keep a running team from running is to make them take the ball out of their own net.

The Bruins are still the most dangerous team in the country. When they play their best, when they are banging threes and getting out in transition and Lonzo Ball is doing Lonzo Ball things, they can beat anyone else’s best. Their ceiling is the highest ceiling in the sport.

But we’re just not going to see that ceiling for six straight games.

So while Arizona proved themselves a Pac-12 favorite and a threat in March on Saturday, the more telling issue was that UCLA may not be quite as good as we thought they were.

5. Is West Virginia’s press broken?: One of the knocks we had on Baylor entering Big 12 play was that once they began playing teams that knew how to attack that funky zone they run their defense would take a hit. For the most part, that hasn’t been the case for the Bears.

It has, however, for the Mountaineers.

The blowout win over Baylor aside, West Virginia has not been impressive in Big 12 play. They lost to Texas Tech in overtime. They barely beat Big 12 bottom-feeder Texas. They lost at home to Oklahoma in overtime. They lost at Kansas State by four. In all four of those games, the Mountaineers had more turnovers than they forced. West Virginia leads the nation by forcing turnovers on 31.1 percent of their defensive possessions. In those four games, they forced turnovers on 20.3 percent of their possessions.

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)
Head coach Bob Huggins (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Team of the Week: Florida State Seminoles

CHAPEL HILL, NC - JANUARY 14:  Jonathan Isaac #1 of the Florida State Seminoles pulls down a rebound against the North Carolina Tar Heels during the game at the Dean Smith Center on January 14, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. North Carolina won 96-83.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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How about this for a good week for the Seminoles: They beat No. 15 Notre Dame on a night where the Fighting Irish hit 15-for-21 from three, and then followed that up by jumping out to a 14-0 lead and taking a win off of No. 12 Louisville, who never led in the game.

Not bad, right?

Here’s the kicker: Florida State not only is sitting tied for first place in the ACC, they’ve put themselves in a position where getting a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament isn’t all that far-fetched.

The Seminoles ended a run of six straight games against ranked teams on Saturday. They went 5-1 in that stretch, winning at Virginia and beating Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Duke and Louisville in Tallahassee. The only loss came at North Carolina, who, along with the Irish, are the two teams that also have just one loss in league play.

It’s not going to be easy for Florida State to do. To get the No. 1 seed in the East they’re probably going to have to win the ACC regular season title – maybe the ACC tournament title, too – and hope that résumé looks better than Villanova’s, because I would be willing to bet Kentucky will coast into the No. 1 seed in the South, Kansas will lock up the No. 1 seed in the Midwest and Gonzaga will battle it out with UCLA and Arizona for the No. 1 seed out West.

And winning the ACC won’t be an easy thing to do, not with seven of Florida State’s last 11 games coming on the road.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

For now, we should really just appreciate what the Seminoles have done this season.

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THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Kansas State: The Wildcats had twice been on the wrong end of some poor officiating in crunch time this season, costing them wins at Kansas and at Texas Tech that would have slotted them, for the time being, on the right side of the bubble. Bruce Weber’s club fixed some of those problems this week, winning at Oklahoma State and beating West Virginia at home.
  • Arizona: I’m not sure it’s possible for Sean Miller to have had a better week. First, Arizona won at USC. Then, the news about why Allonzo Trier stat out the first 19 games of the season broke. A day later, Trier passed a drug test and was cleared to play. And finally, he went for 12 points, seven boards and four assists as the Wildcats won at UCLA to remain undefeated in the Pac-12.
  • Indiana: Did the Hoosiers save their season this week? They might have, despite the fact that O.G. Anunoby suffered a season-ending knee injury. First, it was James Blackmon Jr. burying a game-winning three to avoid a collapse on the road against Penn State, and then it was Blackmon popping off for 33 points in a win over Michigan State in Assembly Hall.
  • Northwestern: Northwestern did something on Sunday that they haven’t done in 40 years – win at Ohio State. The Wildcats are now 16-4 on the season and 5-2 in the Big Ten. Is this the year that they finally reach the NCAA tournament? With six of their final 11 games coming against Wisconsin, Purdue, Maryland and Indiana, Northwestern will have the chances to bolster their résumé.

Player of the Week: James Blackmon Jr., Indiana

BLOOMINGTON, IN - JANUARY 21:  James Blackmon Jr. #1 of the Indiana Hoosiers attempts a shot over Alvin Ellis III #3 of the Michigan State Spartans in the first half at Assembly Hall on January 21, 2017 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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This could have been the week where Indiana’s season collapsed.

On Wednesday night, O.G. Anunoby, who is arguably the most irreplaceable player on the Hoosier roster, injured his knee badly enough that he will need surgery and miss the rest of the season. The injury happened in the first half of a game against Penn State. Tom Crean said after the game that the team was crying in the locker room at half time.

The Hoosiers then proceeded to blow a big lead to the Nittany Lions, allowing Penn State to draw even in the final minute of regulation. That’s when Blackmon stepped up. The Hoosier star buried a three at the buzzer to give Indiana the win; a loss in that game could have been the kind of thing that sent Indiana’s season spiraling. The shot wasn’t a morale booster as much as it was a morale saver.

On Saturday, Indiana put together one of their best games of the season despite the fact that they were without Anunoby and Juwan Morgan, who was dealing with a foot injury that has now kept him out of back-to-back games. Blackmon, again, was the star, matching a career-high with 33 points.

Suddenly, Indiana has won four of their last five games and are sitting at 4-3 in the Big Ten standings, just two games out of first place.

In the long term, I don’t know if Indiana is going to be able to play at the level Hoosier fans expect without Anunoby. But in the short term, Saturday was an impressive win in a trying week, and it was Blackmon who stepped up to lead with the Hoosiers needed it the most.

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THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Lauri Markkanen, Arizona: Markkanen, as he has all season long, starred for the Wildcats this weekend, helping No. 14 Arizona keep pace with Oregon at the top of the Pac-12 standings. The Wildcats swept the road leg against the LA schools, as Markkanen went for 23 points in a win over USC and followed that up with 18 points and seven boards in the big win over UCLA.
  • Jonathan Isaac, Florida State: The Seminoles had a massive week, and Isaac was the best player on the floor in both of their wins. Against Notre Dame, Isaac had 15 of his 23 points in the second half, adding 10 boards and a pair of game-saving blocks in the final second, and he followed that up with 16 points and 10 boards as Florida State knocked off Louisville.
  • Ethan Happ, Wisconsin: Happ was pretty good in Wisconsin’s win over Michigan, but he was sensational as the Badgers went into Minneapolis and beat Minnesota in overtime, finishing with 28 points, 12 boards, six assists and five blocks. No one had put up a stat line like that since at least 2010.
  • Marcus Keene, Central Michigan: Keene became the first player since South Dakota State’s Nate Wolters in 2013 to go for 50 points in a game, scoring 39 of the 50 in the second half of a win over Miami (OH).
  • Shake Milton, SMU: SMU is quietly rolling along at 17-4, a two-point loss at Cincinnati away from being undefeated in the AAC. The Mustangs picked up a pair of wins this week as Milton averaged 25 points, 5.5 assists and 5.0 boards.

No. 22 Xavier pulls away to 86-75 win over Georgetown

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 20:  Edmond Sumner #4 of the Xavier Musketeers reacts after a play in the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 20, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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CINCINNATI — Edmond Sumner overcame a painful left shoulder and led a second-half surge that swept No. 22 Xavier to an 86-75 victory over Georgetown on Sunday, ending the Musketeers’ longest losing streak in three years.

Xavier (14-5, 4-3) had dropped three straight — all against ranked Big East teams. The Musketeers allowed a 12-point lead to slip away in the second half on Sunday before their injured point guard frustrated the Hoyas (10-10, 1-6) again. Sumner had a career-high 28 points in an 81-76 win at Georgetown on Dec. 31.

Sumner wore a support on his injured left shoulder and sat on the bench grimacing late in the first half. He had a jumper, a three-point play and a pair of free throws during a 12-3 run that put Xavier in control 70-61. He finished with 14 points.

Trevon Bluiett led Xavier with 24 points. J.P. Macura added 20.

Rodney Pryor scored 23 for Georgetown, which lost for the sixth time in seven games.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Xavier dropped from 15th to 22nd last week after road losses to Villanova and Butler. A home loss to Creighton on Monday put Xavier in danger of dropping out of the Top 25.

BIG PICTURE

GEORGETOWN: Junior guard L.J. Peak scored 21 points and had six rebounds in the loss to Xavier on Dec. 31, keeping the Hoyas in the game with clutch shots down the stretch. The Musketeers clamped down in the rematch — he was only 3 of 12 for 12 points.

XAVIER: Free throws again were an issue early. Missed free throws were a major factor in the Musketeers’ 72-67 loss to Creighton on Monday, when they went only 16 of 29 from the line. They drove to the basket and drew fouls on Sunday but were only 12 of 19 from the line in the first half, which ended with Xavier up 34-33. The Musketeers finished 36 of 49 from the line overall.

UP NEXT

The Hoyas host No. 7 Creighton on Wednesday. They split their series last season, with each winning at home.

The Musketeers play at crosstown rival Cincinnati, which is ranked No. 20. Xavier has won three in a row and seven of the last nine in the annual game.