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No. 15 Kansas holds off No. 8 Iowa State as Wiggins, Embiid and Tharpe lead the charge

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Kansas received big-time efforts from multiple members of its starting lineup in holding off No. 8 Iowa State, 77-70, on Monday in a Big 12 conference clash at Hilton Coliseum as the dynamic freshmen duo of Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid showed how special they can be in a number of different ways.

It would have been acceptable for either freshman — or the young Jayhawks as a whole — to fold under the pressure of playing at Hilton Coliseum, but because No. 15 Kansas has played the most difficult schedule in the country, the Jayhawks came out in attack mode and led for most of the contest as they prevented Hilton Magic from happening.

For Wiggins, it was a breakout performance. Although the freshman forward scored a quiet 17 points and never got fully going on the offensive end, it was his 19 rebounds and overall intensity that really impressed on Monday night. It just seemed like for the first time all season, Wiggins put together a complete game in every single facet of the game. Wiggins was engaged on the defensive end, rebounded hard on both ends and attacked the basket both in transition and the halfcourt. Wiggins’ three-point shot still struggled (1-for-5) but he still hunted his offense with confidence.

Embiid was also a man among boys at times in the contest as well. The freshman center had 16 points, nine rebounds and five blocks as he showed his versatility on both ends of the floor with the way that we can move and run the floor. Embiid is one of the few players in the country that can making a jaw-dropping play on the defensive end and follow it up just as quickly with a ridiculous display of potential on offense.

Although Wiggins and Embiid imposed their will for much of the game, turnovers were still an issue for the duo, as they combined for 13 of them, but Kansas still earned the victory and Wiggins and Embiid are still freshmen playing in one of the toughest arenas in the country.

Not to be overlooked, junior point guard Naadir Tharpe was also tremendous. Wiggins and Embiid playing well means a lot for the Jayhawks, but they still need a steady contribution at point guard to be among the nation’s elite.

On Monday, Tharpe was steady and reliable, shooting 7-for-9 for 23 points and also added six rebounds and four assists to be the Jayhawks’ third wheel in the big road win.

When the Jayhawks get three of their starting five rolling like they did on Monday, they’re going to be tough to beat, and that’s not even mentioning acceptable outings from freshman guard Wayne Selden (seven points, six assists) and sophomore forward Perry Ellis (eight points, six rebounds).

When the Kansas starting five is producing at that level, they might be impossible to beat. When you couple that with holding Iowa State to only 4-for-25 shooting from the three-point line and there’s a lot to like about this Jayhawk win on the road.

Kansas outplayed a top-10 opponent in a difficult place to play and their two star freshmen and up-and-down point guard all played very good games. There’s a lot to like about Kansas’ chances to win the Big 12 if they continue to play the way they did tonight.

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.