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Interior play pushes No. 14 Kentucky past Vanderbilt

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Given how young No. 14 Kentucky is, with just one upperclassman (Jarrod Polson) part of the playing rotation, there were bound to be growing pains during non-conference play. And there are still some lessons to be learned by this group as the move deeper into SEC play with an eye towards the NCAA tournament. Saturday’s 71-62 win at Vanderbilt likely provided another lesson, one that focuses on where the Wildcats need to get the ball if they’re to be at their best offensively.

On an afternoon that saw the Wildcats shoot 6-for-22 from beyond the arc, Kentucky won due to their work in the paint and on the offensive glass. With Andrew Harrison (four offensive rebounds) and Julius Randle (six; all in the first half) combining to grab ten of Kentucky’s 18 offensive rebounds, the Wildcats corralled nearly 44% of their missed shots. And while they only scored 15 second chance points the impact of those extra opportunities can add up for a team if they lack depth as Vanderbilt does.

Add in 36 points in the paint and 12 more free throw attempts, and Kentucky was able to win despite shooting poorly from beyond the arc and the foul line (13-for-22). With Randle, a center in Willie Cauley-Stein (15 points, six rebounds) who seems to improve by the game and a forward in Alex Poythress (nine points) who played with an intensity that he struggled to produce earlier this season in the front court, the Wildcats can be a very difficult team to slow down in the painted area. And that’s before mentioning the penetration ability of the Harrison twins and James Young.

But they can only take advantage of this if they become “greedier” offensively. By that I don’t mean guys going for theirs at the expense of their teammates, but rather being attack-minded and not settling for perimeter jumpers. That was still an issue at times on Saturday, and for a team that entered the game shooting just 29.8% from beyond the arc it may be best to limit those shots despite the presence of players who have the ability to make three-pointers. Why? Because they’re much tougher to slow down when aggressive looking to get into the middle of the floor by way of the pass or dribble penetration.

It should also be noted that there were also stretches in which Kentucky did a better job of not simply taking what was dictated to them offensively, and their three primary perimeter options (the Harrison twins and Young) combined for ten assists to just three turnovers. Already among the nation’s best when it comes to hitting the offensive glass, there’s still room for Kentucky to grow on that end of the floor. And if they can take those steps, the Wildcats will improve their chances of winding up where many projected them to before the season began.

No. 5 Xavier stumbles at Creighton, lose 70-54

Creighton's Cole Huff (13) and Toby Hegner, left, guard Xavier's Jalen Reynolds (1) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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Mo Watson went for a career-high 32 points, seven boards and five assists as Creighton jumped out to an early 21-4 lead and never looked back, beating No. 5 Xavier, 70-54, in Omaha on Tuesday night.

 

It was a massive win for the Bluejays, who still have an outside shot at earning an at-large bid this season. (We wrote all about that here.)

As well as Creighton played, the bigger story here may actually be Xavier, who lost for just the third time this season; they had been the only top ten team with just two losses to their name.

The issue for the Musketeers tonight was two-fold, but they both are a symptom of what could be an issue down the road for this team: Xavier doesn’t really have a true point guard.

They certainly didn’t have anyone to stop Watson. By the second half, they had essentially asked Reynolds, who was playing the middle of their 1-3-1 zone to matchup with Watson. It was weird but was actually somewhat effective.

The Musketeers also started out ice cold from the floor, missing 11 of their first 13 shots, and those misses led to leak outs from Bluejays, who got layups and open threes in transition to build that 17 point lead. Once Xavier got behind, it turned into scramble mode for Xavier. They forced shots early in the clock and didn’t start pounding the ball into the paint until it was too late. What they needed was someone to be able to settle things, to ensure that offensive would get initiated and sets would get executed when they were able to get the lead down to single digits.

That 1-for-19 shooting performance from beyond the arc certainly didn’t help matters, and neither did the fact that they got just nine field goals all game from players not named James Farr or Jalen Reynolds. The most frustrating part for head coach Chris Mack? They had good shots. It wasn’t like Creighton took away everything that Xavier wanted to do.

The kids just had one of those nights where nothing went down.

Those happen.

And when you combine them with a total inability to contain the opposing team’s point guard, what you get is a 16 point loss on the road against a team that was desperate to get a good win.

Gill’s 16, ‘D’ lead No. 7 Virginia past Virginia Tech, 67-49

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AP Photo/Andrew Shurtleff
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (AP) Anthony Gill scored 16 points and No. 7 Virginia turned the tables on state rival Virginia Tech with a 67-49 victory Tuesday night, the Cavaliers’ seventh straight.

Isaiah Wilkins added a career-best 14 points and Malcolm Brogdon had 12 for the Cavaliers (20-4, 9-3 Atlantic Coast Conference). Virginia avenged a 70-68 loss to the Hokies in Blacksburg on Jan. 4 in what rates as their worst performance of the season, and extended their winning streak at John Paul Jones Arena to 17 games.

Freshman Justin Robinson scored 16 points and classmate Chris Clarke had 11 in his first action for the Hokies (13-12, 5-7) since breaking his right foot in late December. Virginia Tech’s top two scorers, Zach LeDay (16.0 ppg) and Seth Allen (14.5), were limited to seven and six points, respectively, in part because of foul trouble.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said his team wasn’t ready to play when it lost to the Hokies earlier, but they have been surging of late and were focused from the outset. They were credited with assists and 14 of their first 15 baskets and forced 10 turnovers in the first half; they forced just eight in the last meeting of the teams.

For most of the game, the Hokies had more turnovers than field goals.

The Cavaliers led 32-20 at halftime and extended their advantage to 47-29 on a three-point play by Mike Tobey with 12:11 remaining. It capped an 11-4 run for Virginia, during which LeDay was whistled for his fourth foul. On Virginia’s next trip down court, it got the ball to Gill inside and LeDay basically backed off and let him score, quickly earning a spot on the bench.

The Cavaliers’ lead never dipped into single digits again.

The Hokies had just eight turnovers and outscored Virginia 26-6 off turnovers in their first meeting. This time, Virginia Tech had 10 turnovers by halftime and the Cavaliers had already turned them into 15 points. Virginia Tech finished with 16 field goals and 15 turnovers.

Already leading 9-6, Virginia got scoring from eight players in a 23-8 run that spanned about 8 1/2 minutes.

Gill started it with a dunk, Brogdon hit a 3-pointer, London Perrantes had a four-point play and Wilkins finished it with two free throws, giving the Cavaliers a 32-14 lead with 2:06 left in the half. They didn’t score again, and the Hokies closed within 32-20 by halftime.

TIP-INS

Virginia Tech: The Hokies shot 57.1 percent (15 of 26) from the field in the second half of their 70-68 victory against Virginia on Jan. 4. … Virginia Tech’s starting five totaled four points in the first half.

Virginia: The Cavaliers have held four consecutive opponents to 50 points or fewer.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech plays at No. 12 Miami next Wednesday.

Virginia plays at Duke on Saturday.

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The AP’s college basketball page: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org