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Kentucky’s got the talent, but here’s why they will not win a title this year

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Back in December, when Kentucky got dropped by North Carolina on their visit to Chapel Hill, I wrote this column and this sidebar taking stock of Kentucky’s status and potential this season.

I think it’s worth revisiting now. If you don’t feel like reading through 1,000 words of two month-old writing, here’s a summary of what I wrote:

  • Kentucky’s three best perimeter players — Aaron and Andrew Harrison and James Young — are all shoot-first scorers. There is no point guard and there is no distributor.
  • There is also no perimeter depth. Alex Poythress is not a small forward, and Jarrod Polson and Dominique Hawkins should not be getting playing time on this team.
  • Outside of Willie Cauley-Stein, there is no one on this team that is a good defender.
  • Kentucky doesn’t have any leadership. There is no vocal leader on that roster. The players that lead by example do it with awful body language and effort.

I think it’s safe to say that after last night’s drubbing — the final score of 87-82 doesn’t do justice to the beatdown that Kentucky took — at LSU, most of those points have been reinforced.

The bottom-line is this: last season, the Wildcats were a flawed basketball team even before they lost Nerlens Noel to the knee injury. The pieces just didn’t fit together well, Ryan Harrow wasn’t ready to run a team facing the scrutiny of a program like Kentucky and, quite frankly, that team just wasn’t talented enough.

This team is.

I think it’s inarguable at this point that we overrated the Harrison twins, particularly Andrew’s ability to run the point. But Julius Randle has been as good as advertised, Willie Cauley-Stein had been playing his role very well until the last two weeks, James Young can get buckets and Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson finally seem to be turning a corner.

In other words, this issue with this team isn’t the talent on the roster. The issue is what that talent is missing.

Let’s call a spade a spade: Kentucky got punked last night. LSU came out and punched them in the mouth to start the game and to start the second half, and the Wildcats didn’t have what it took to complete a comeback.

Simply put, the Wildcats were atrocious defensively last night.

Ah. Tro. Shuss.

Johnny O’Bryant got position anywhere he wanted it in the paint, post-doubles and help-side rotations were slow, and LSU was able to get to the rim on straight-line drives whenever they decided to put the ball on the floor. That never would have happened with the 2012 National Title team. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist wouldn’t have allowed it. Darius Miller wouldn’t have allowed it. None of those guys would have allowed it.

Instead of coming together and fighting through what was clearly an off-night, Kentucky looked like they splintered. There were the confused looks after every defensive breakdown. There was Cauley-Stein yelling at Kenny Payne on the bench. There was John Calipari, clearly frustrated, shoving one of the Harrisons to try to get him to move into the right position. Their body language was simply awful, to the point where it looked like those guys don’t even like each other.

And that’s only what came through on TV.

I can’t even imagine how bad it looked in person.

That is why I think we can write Kentucky off as a national title contender. It’s not because they lack a point guard; running an offense through Randle and allowing their three perimeter players to create when teams are forced to double him could work. It’s not because they’re mediocre defensively, because they have the athletes to improve on that end if they really wanted to. It’s not because they lack perimeter depth or because they don’t have any role players.

They have the talent to make up for that.

What their talent can’t make up for is the fact that this group does not appear to have the leadership or the mental toughness to come together and play through adversity.

You need to win six straight games against good teams to win a national title. At some point, Kentucky will get burned.

Michigan State wins without starting shooting guard

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 12: Head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans talks to Matt McQuaid #20 as he comes to the bench against the Maryland Terrapins in the semifinals of the Big Ten Basketball Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 12, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Maryland 64-61. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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As if Michigan State’s injury woes weren’t enough, the Spartans played Saturday’s game against Tennessee Tech without Matt McQuaid.

McQuaid took a shot to the head in practice on Thursday. He had started eight of MSU’s ten games this season.

“I was looking at the bench and I’m sitting with McQuaid, Miles, Ben and Gavin and I said to my assistant, Dwayne Stephens, ‘All four of those guys would have probably started,’” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. Miles Bridges is out with an ankle injury while Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling could both end up missing the season with knee injuries.

“I just have to make sure those guys don’t sit next to me on the bench anymore. When it gets to be four of them it looks like we have more guys on the bench. At least if I put them in suits maybe people would think they are assistant coaches. Maybe I’ll do that.”

Freshman Josh Langford started for McQuaid and finished with 10 points.

Izzo added that he didn’t think McQuaid suffered a concussion, and that his return is totally in the hands of MSU’s team doctors.

Jawun Evans sits out Oklahoma State win with shoulder injury

LAHAINA, HI - NOVEMBER 21: Jawun Evans #1 of the Oklahoma State Cowboys dribbles the ball during the second half of the Maui Invitational NCAA college basketball game at the Lahaina Civic Center on November 21, 2016 in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Photo by Darryl Oumi/Getty Images). Oklahoma State won the game 98-90
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Oklahoma State’s star point guard Jawun Evans was unavailable in a 71-67 win at Tulsa on Saturday afternoon due to a shoulder injury he suffered in practice.

The injury is reportedly a sprained AC joint, which will be concerning to Cowboy fans considering that Evans missed the end of the 2015-16 season with a shoulder injury that required surgery.

The good news?

This injury is not only not serious, it’s to the other shoulder.

Evans has been in the top ten of the NBC Sports Player of the Year Power Rankings all season long.

Macura, Gaston lead No. 13 Xavier over Utah 77-69

CINCINNATI, OH - NOVEMBER 29:  J.P. Macura #55 of the Xavier Musketeers shoots the ball during the game against the North Dakota State University at Cintas Center on November 29, 2016 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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CINCINNATI (AP) J.P. Macura emerged from his shooting slump by scoring 18 points, and RaShid Gaston helped No. 13 Xavier get the edge up front against the nation’s top rebounding team on Saturday, leading the Musketeers to a 77-69 victory over Utah.

The Musketeers (8-2) were coming off back-to-back road losses that featured long scoring droughts. Xavier’s balanced offense built a 15-point lead in the first half, and the Musketeers stayed ahead the rest of the way.

Gaston had 11 points and 14 rebounds, helping Xavier to a 33-28 edge on the boards. The Utes (6-2) came in averaging 47.7 rebounds per game. Gaston had nine points and 10 rebounds – one less than Utah’s total – in the first half.

Macura was 5 of 7 from beyond the arc after going only 2 of 16 in his last three games. Trevon Bluiett also scored 18 points.

Freshman Devon Daniels had a career-high 19 points for the Utes, whose two losses have been against ranked Big East teams. They also lost to Butler.

BIG PICTURE

Utah: The Utes’ top two scorers – Kyle Kuzma and Tyler Rawson – were a combined 2 of 10 for five points in the first half as Xavier took control.

Xavier: The Musketeers went through long second-half scoring droughts during their losses. Utah opened the second half with an 11-4 spurt but couldn’t get any closer.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Musketeers figure to slip in the Top 25 based upon their 68-66 loss at Colorado on Wednesday, but limited the damage with their win on Saturday.

UP NEXT

Utah hosts Prairie View A&M next Saturday, and then closes nonconference play the following week in Hawaii as part of the Diamond Head Classic.

Xavier plays the first of four straight home games leading into Big East play, hosting Wake Forest next Saturday in the Skip Prosser Classic.

More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org

No. 5 Duke routs UNLV 94-45

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 10: Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils smiles during a game against the UNLV at T-Mobile Arena on December 10, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Duke won 94-45. (Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images)
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LAS VEGAS (AP) Grayson Allen shot 75 percent from the field – including a perfect 7 of 7 in the second half – en route to a career-high 34 points to lead No. 5 Duke to a 94-45 victory over UNLV on Saturday in the first college basketball game ever played at T Mobile Arena.

Luke Kennard had 16 points and five rebounds for the Blue Devils (10-1), while Jayson Tatum had 13 points and five rebounds, and Amile Jefferson contributed with 10 points and 12 rebounds.

Duke, which is 4-1 on a neutral court, jumped out to a 20-3 lead in the first 7 minutes and never looked back, as it outscored the Runnin’ Rebels 52-19 in the second half.

The Rebels (5-4) tried to make a couple of runs to challenge Duke, getting as close as 38-26 late in the first half after an 8-0 spurt. The Blue Devils answered with their defensive prowess and proved to be too much for an outmatched UNLV team that committed 13 turnovers a little more than 14 minutes into the game, and shot just 34 percent (10 of 29) in the first half.

Though UNLV was competitive on the glass, outrebounding the Blue Devils 20-17 in the first half, Duke outscored the Rebels 26-10 in the paint while opening a 42-26 halftime lead.

Jalen Poyser had 16 points for UNLV.

The Blue Devils shot 58.7 percent (37 of 63) from the field, including 10 of 22 (45.5 percent) from 3-point range. UNLV, meanwhile, shot 29.6 percent (16 of 54) from the field.

BIG PICTURE

Duke: Jefferson came into Saturday’s game leading the ACC in field goal percentage, converting at a rate of 67 percent for the season. He is a career 63 percent shooter from the field.

UNLV: After opening the season 5-2, the Runnin’ Rebels have lost their last two after allowing an average of 95.5 points per game. UNLV lost at Arizona State 97-73 last Saturday.

UP NEXT

Duke: Hosts Tennessee State on Dec. 19

UNLV: Hosts Incarnate Word on Wednesday

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

SATURDAY’S SNACKS: Villanova, Wisconsin earn good wins, UNI’s Jeremy Morgan explodes

NEWARK, NJ - DECEMBER 10: Donte DiVincenzo #10 of the Villanova Wildcats attempts a three point shot against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the first half of a college basketball game at Prudential Center on December 10, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. Villanova defeated Notre Dame 74-66. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: No. 1 Villanova 74, No. 23 Notre Dame 66

Josh Hart put together one of the best games we’ll see all season as he put up a career-high 37 points and 11 rebounds to will Villanova to the win. Here are the four things we learned from the game.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

No. 17 Wisconsin 93, Marquette 84: The Badgers avenged last season’s loss to in-state rival Marquette with a solid road win. Putting up 58 points in the second half, Wisconsin had six players finish with at least 11 players as Bronson Koenig led with 18 points. Another solid outing from Nigel Hayes as he ended up with 17 points, nine rebounds and four assists.

No. 16 Butler 75, No. 22 Cincinnati 65: The Bulldogs bounced back from a loss to Indiana State earlier in the week with a win over Cincinnati in Hinkle Fieldhouse. But the real story of this game was the continued struggles of the AAC. How close is this to being a one-bid league?

No. 2 UCLA 102, Michigan 84: The Bruins put five players in double-figures and shot 15-for-24 from three, using a late-surge to pull away from Michigan. The Wolverines finished the night shooting 50 percent from the floor, shooting 14-for-26 from three and committing just eight turnovers … and still lost by 18 points. UCLA is lethal.

Wichita State 76, Oklahoma 73: The Shockers got 17 points from Zach Brown and 13 points and six assists from Daishon Smith as they beat Oklahoma in Oklahoma City. This is a nice win for the Shockers, who should once against be the favorite to win the Missouri Valley.

STARRED

Jeremy Morgan, Northern Iowa: We saw the most impressive half of basketball of the season – and maybe the most impressive half ever – on Saturday. Morgan finished with 38 points for the Panthers in a come-from-behind win over North Dakota, and he was scoreless heading into halftime. He had two points with 16 minutes left in the game. As a team, UNI scored 49 second half points.

The craziest part? Morgan missed six second half free throws. He easily could have scored 40 points in a single half.

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Preseason All-Americans: Josh Hart set his career-high with 37 points while Grayson Allen set his career-high with 34 points.

Rodney Bullock, Providence: The Friars earned another solid win over UMass as Bullock finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds. Bullock was 7-for-14 from the field and he went 10-for-12 from the free-throw line.

Dedric Lawson, Memphis: The sophomore just missed a triple-double as he finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds, eight blocks and three assists in a Memphis win over UAB. Lawson played all 40 minutes.

Marquise Moore, George Mason: Moore had 17 points, 16 boards and 10 assists. No one has posted a line like that since 2013 and it’s only happened twice since 2010.

Derrick Griffin, Texas Southern: Griffin’s Jaguars lost at Louisville, but he finished with 26 rebounds, 15 on the offensive end of the floor.

Tracy Abrams, Illinois: Abrams had a career-high 31 points as the Illini landed a win over Central Michigan.

STRUGGLED

Demontrae Jefferson, Texas Southern: Making his college debut against Louisville, the exciting 5-foot-7 guard showed his talent but was also very inefficient. Jefferson finished with 27 points but was 10-for-30 from the field with 11 turnovers. Watching Jefferson’s run-and-gun style is going to be fascinating this season.

San Diego State: The Aztecs lost their third in a row, this time a home game to an Arizona State team that was humiliated by their coach after a 33-point whopping against Purdue.

TOP 25

  • Nebraska dug themselves a huge first half whole that they couldn’t overcome, losing to No. 3 Kansas, 89-72.
  • No. 5 Duke blew out UNLV in Vegas, and Grayson Allen may not be allowed to leave the state after this act of felonious assault.
  • Przemek Karnowski had 14 points and eight boards to lead No. 8 Gonzaga past Akron.
  • O.G. Anunoby warmed up but he didn’t play. He wasn’t needed, either, as No. 9 Indiana smoked Houston Baptist.
  • No. 11 Louisville cruised to an easy win over Texas Southern as Quentin Snider led the Cardinals with 13 points.
  • J.P. Macura busted out of his shooting slump with five threes as No. 13 Xavier survived Utah at home.
  • Easy win for No. 15 West Virginia as they beat VMI for a home win. Daxter Miles Jr. finished with 20 points and was 5-for-6 from three-point range.
  • No. 18 Purdue raced past Cleveland State as Isaac Haas had 14 points and Caleb Swanigan had 13 points and 10 rebounds.
  • The freshman duo of Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons each had 19 points to pace No. 20 Arizona to a win over Missouri. The Wildcats overcame foul trouble from freshman big man Lauri Markkanen as they shot 54 percent from three-point range.

NOTABLE

  • Syracuse had a big win over Boston to snap a recent cold stretch. John Gillon led the Orange with 23 points while Taurean Thompson had 22 points.
  • Nice home win for Houston over Rhode Island as Rob Gray scored 30 points and Danrad “Chicken” Knowles added 25 points. The Rams are 0-3 on the road and have lost four of their last six games.
  • Michigan State picked up a home win over Tennessee Tech as Eron Harris led with 20 points. The Spartans struggled from the free-throw line in this one — at one point head coach Tom Izzo sat at the end of the bench in frustration.
  • Pitt was able to outlast Penn State as Michael Young finished with 29 points and nine rebounds.