California falls to Stanford, failing to build on Saturday’s big win

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Having lost three straight games entering Saturday’s home game against No. 1 Arizona, California had an opportunity to not only grab a resume-building victory but also right the ship ahead of the stretch run. And the Golden Bears did just that, with Justin Cobbs’ fadeaway with nine tenths of a second remaining giving Cal the 60-58 victory. On Wednesday night, with rival Stanford in Berkeley, Cal had a chance to keep the momentum rolling while temporarily moving into sole possession of second place in the Pac-12.

The Golden Bears failed to take advantage of the opportunity however, coming out lethargic against Stanford and the Cardinal were willing to grab control of the action. The end result: an 80-69 Stanford victory, with Dwight Powell (22 points, 11 rebounds and six assists) playing well defensively against a Cal front court that was coming off of an very good night against Arizona.

Chasson Randle added 19 points and Anthony Brown 16, with Josh Huestis tallying nine points, five rebounds and four steals for the visiting Cardinal. Outside of a loss at Oregon State (which beat UCLA on Sunday) Johnny Dawkins’ team doesn’t have any glaring defeats on its resume, which could set them up for a run at the first NCAA tournament berth of Dawkins’ tenure in Palo Alto.

As for Cal David Kravish finished Wednesday’s game with 12 points and six rebounds, but Richard Solomon (1-for-7 FG) accounted for just six points and nine rebounds with Powell being a big reason why. To be fair Solomon wasn’t alone in his struggles, as Bears other than Kravish, Cobbs and Wallace (57 total points) combined to shoot 4-for-20 from the field. Foul shooting was also an issue, with Cal making just 12 of its 21 attempts and being outscored by 16 points (Stanford made 28 of its’ 35 attempts) on the night.

Cal scored 34 points in the paint and grabbed 15 offensive rebounds, but the free throw disparity and the fact that Stanford was able to score 21 points off of 13 Golden Bear turnovers resulted in a fourth defeat in the last five games. The problem for much of the current stretch has been consistency, especially when it comes to shot selection. It’s February and there are still times in which players struggle with understanding the difference between being aggressive and forcing things that aren’t there.

After beating an Arizona team that will be without Brandon Ashley for the remainder of the season, Cal looked to be headed in the right direction with a chance of climbing back into the Pac-12 title race should the Wildcats slip up. But in order to do that the Golden Bears need to take care of business at home, something that didn’t happen against Stanford.

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.