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For the first time all season, Kentucky lived up to their potential. Can it last?

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ST. LOUIS — Kentucky has been under a national microscope for John Calipari’s entire five-year tenure as head coach of the Wildcats, but this season’s team might have been the most critiqued group of them all.

With seven McDonald’s All-Americans — six of them freshmen — many college basketball analysts considered the 2013-14 version of Kentucky to be the greatest collection of talent the college game had ever seen. The Wildcats had pros backing up pros and the preseason No. 1 team in the country carried so much hype that some people insanely wondered if they could go 40-0.

Growing pains and a number of tough matchups gave Kentucky a 24-10 regular season record, though, as it quickly became apparent that so many ball-dominant players with dominant personalities was having a tough time gelling and playing together.

RELATED: The most anticipated game of the year lived up to the hype

There were the eye rolls and bad body language and the camera shots of Calipari yelling at players that were staring into the distance. Many wondered if this team would ever live up to its vast potential.

None of that matters for now, however, as the Wildcats knocked off undefeated No. 1 seed Wichita State on Sunday to advance to the Sweet 16 to face Louisville. Kentucky played its best game of the season and there’s a sense of relief among some of the players as they head into next weekend’s Midwest Regional matchup with the rival and defending champion Cardinals.

“It feels like five million pounds off your shoulders when the buzzer went off,” sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein said. “It was just a good feeling. Everyone was yelling and super hype and it was just a good win.”

Freshmen have been the talk of college basketball this season, but as elite freshman like Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins had disappointing early-tournament exits, Kentucky saw its own hyped freshmen take turns carrying the game against Wichita State.

Twin brothers Andrew and Aaron Harrison took turns hitting shots early in the game and forward Julius Randle played his most complete all-around game of the season, as he finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Down the stretch, wing James Young hit two critical shots and grabbed a big defensive rebound in traffic. Dakari Johnson made a key offensive rebound off of a missed free throw that kept an important second-half possession alive that Calipari cited as, “the most important play of the game.”

MOREKansas loses to No. 10 Stanford | Bill Self’s fifth tourney loss to No. 9 seed or lower

When Kentucky needed plays, its freshmen took turns making them and after the win over Wichita State they shared a lot of laughs during the postgame press conference. The eye rolls and dropping heads seemed like a thing of the past.

“I know I have great teammates and they have my back out there,” Randle said. “(Our) coaches always say, ‘don’t worry about winning or losing, just go out there and play.'”

Kentucky finally played up to their tremendous capabilities on Sunday and they have the look of a team that could contend for the title. The abundance of talent was always present for the Wildcats, but they’ve come together and gotten through a lot of adversity and they’re finally defending and sharing the ball as a team.

“Early in the season, when we’d get down, we’d get down on ourselves and hang our heads. I don’t think anyone sees that anymore,” senior guard Jarrod Polson said. “We’re just focused. Whether the game is going good or going bad we just stay together and that’s the biggest thing.”

Polson has an interesting perspective. As the elder statesman on Kentucky this year, he’s played with plenty of talented teams that have come through Lexington with high expectations to perform in March. The senior sees this team as coming together at the right time.

“Pretty much every team besides last year, we’ve really come together and it’s been at different times (of the season),” Polson said. “This year, it might have been the latest we’ve ever come together but I think that we really have, especially on the defensive end. We really have each other’s backs and we’re just fighting together and it’s great to see.”

Kentucky might have been criticized by any basketball fan with a pulse at some point during the season, but Calipari has remained patient with this group and it might finally be paying off.

“This team and what people said about this team, all we have done all year is continue to get better,” Calipari said. “We hit some shots, we missed some. Like every team, you hit a hole (where) you don’t play well. But they believed in themselves.”

Kentucky might have aspirations for bigger and better things than a Round of 32 victory over the Shockers, but now its young team can at least sleep a little bit better tonight as they prepare for the rest of the NCAA Tournament.

Earlier this season, Kentucky was seeing red, but now the only red they’ll see this week is the Friday night clash against Louisville in Indianapolis. Kentucky has the potential to still win a title as long as they continue to play together and on Sunday they showed they’re a major threat in the Midwest Regional next weekend.

Kansas star Josh Jackson charged with misdemeanor property damage

LAWRENCE, KS - DECEMBER 10: Josh Jackson #11 of the Kansas Jayhawks dunks he ball against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the second half at Allen Field House on December 10, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Kansas forward Josh Jackson has been charged with one count of misdemeanor property damage after allegedly damaging a car outside a Lawrence bar in December.

The incident happened on Dec. 9th, according to a statement released by the Douglas County district attorney, outside a bar called the Yacht Club. When Jackson left the Yacht Club, a man that he was with had a drink thrown in his face by a woman. Jackson proceeded to get into an argument with the woman, according to the statement, and witnesses claimed to see Jackson kick the driver’s side door and a real taillight, doing $1,127.45 worth of damage to the car.

Witnesses were not able to identify the other people involved, as there was more than $3,000 in damage done to the woman’s vehicle.

According to the Kansas City Star, the woman whose vehicle was damaged is the same woman that a Kansas University investigation determined was “likely” to have been hit “multiple times” by Vick, including kicking her in the face. Vick was also investigated

Weekend Preview: Here are the five story lines that you need to know about

LAS VEGAS, NV - MARCH 11:  Head coach Sean Miller of the Arizona Wildcats  reacts during a semifinal game of the Pac-12 Basketball Tournament against the Oregon Ducks at MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 11, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Oregon won 95-89 in overtime.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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1. The Pac-12 title probably will be as well, but that’s not the most interesting part of UCLA-Arizona: Yes, if Arizona wins they are probably going to win the outright Pac-12 regular season title. If they lose, they are probably going to win a share of the Pac-12 regular season title. That race got significantly less exciting when Oregon ended up losing to UCLA in Pauley Pavilion.

But there still is a race in the Pac-12 that will have significant NCAA title implications: Who is going to be the highest-valued team from the conference by the Selection Committee?

Without getting into the nitty-gritty details too much, there is only going to be one team from that league that can be placed into the West Region due to some of the committee’s bracketing principles, and being in the west is a significant advantage for those Pac-12 teams. They’ll likely play in Sacramento and San Jose before heading to Phoenix, which means more fans, less travel and a friendly time zone. UCLA right now probably has the third-best résumé of the three teams at the top of the Pac-12, but that could change with a win at Arizona.

2. The SEC title is on the line on Saturday afternoon: We all thought Kentucky was going to roll through the SEC this season unchallenged, and man, did that not happen.

The Wildcats are still sitting in a tie for first place, but barely. They snuck past a bad Missouri team. They needed Yante Maten to get injured to be able to survive Georgia. It feels like this group hasn’t played well for somewhere in the neighborhood of six weeks.

And yet, if they can find a way to beat a Florida team that beat them by 22 points in Gainesville a month ago, they’ll very likely be able to call themselves the outright SEC regular season champions.

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3. Six bubble teams will have a chance to land huge wins over ranked teams at home: This is the time of year where teams that are sitting on or near the bubble’s cut line play the games that, in a way, seem to matter the most to their at-large profile. Why? Because adding a last-minute, quality win is the kind of difference-maker that can set one résumé apart from the rest of the hodge-podge that makes up the bubble every year.

This weekend, there are five teams that are squarely in the middle of that mess that host a top 25 opponent in a game that could be the make-or-break result in their quest to get to the NCAA tournament. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these six teams play a role in who will end up getting into the tournament:

No. 19 Florida State at Clemson, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ACCN)
No. 8 North Carolina at Pitt, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ACCN)
No. 12 West Virginia at TCU, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)
No. 14 Purdue at Michigan, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN2)
No. 10 Duke at Miami, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (CBS)
No. 16 Wisconsin at Michigan, Sun. 4:00 p.m. (CBS)

4. There are 17 ranked teams playing on the road, period. This weekend will get weird: Playing on the road is not an easy thing to do in college basketball, and this week alone, there are 17 ranked teams that will be leaving home to play.

What’s that mean?

Don’t be surprised when this weekend gets wild.

5. Most of the mid-major conferences come to a close this weekend: For the most part, mid-major regular season basketball is going to come to an end this weekend, and as of next week, we will officially have our first conference tournament action kicking off. This year will be the first year that the Ivy League will have a conference tournament to determine their automatic bid, which also officially means that next week will be the first week that mid-major basketball actually means something.

Yes, they played for seeding. Yes, there are leagues where home-court is awarded for the league tournament. And yes, there is pride that comes with a conference regular season title. But pride does not equal an automatic bid. That comes with a tournament championship.

If the NCAA tournament ever does expand, I hope that instead of widening increasing the number of mediocre power conference schools that can get at-large bids, the NCAA will start rewarding the teams that win regular season league titles. We don’t even have to get rid of the conference tournament automatic bids. If there are two teams from, say, the MAAC in the NCAA tournament, all that means is that Monmouth was actually able to get in after dominating their league as opposed to letting in someone like Clemson, who, as of today, is on the bubble at 4-11 in the ACC.

Weekend Preview: UCLA-Arizona, Florida-Kentucky headline a wild weekend

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 21: Lauri Markkanen #10 of the Arizona Wildcats drives to the basket against TJ Leaf #22 of the UCLA Bruins during the second half of the game at Pauley Pavilion on January 21, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 5 UCLA at No. 4 Arizona, Sat. 8:15 p.m.: The way things currently stand, it’s very unlikely that the Bruins are going to be able to find a way to win even a share of the Pac-12 regular season title. They are two games behind Arizona in the league standings with just three games left to play. They play at Arizona this weekend, a building the Wildcats have yet to lose in this season, and even if they somehow manage to leave the McKale Center with a ‘W’, they will still need Arizona to lose to Arizona State, Oregon to lose to Oregon State and to sweep the Washington schools in the final week of the season just to be able to share the league title with those two teams.

This is Arizona’s Pac-12 title to lose, and if they can knock off UCLA on Saturday, all they have to do is beat Arizona State to win the title outright.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything for UCLA to play for, because the secret here is that whichever of those three teams the NCAA tournament Selection Committee believes has the best overall résumé will very likely end up being the No. 2 seed out west. They’ll play in Sacramento or Salt Lake City the first weekend, followed by a short trip to San Jose for the second weekend before ending up in Phoenix for the Final Four.

That’s the plan at least, but given the committee’s bracketing rules, only one of those three teams can actually be in the West Region. UCLA is the one playing catchup right now, having split with Oregon and losing at home to Arizona. They need to get this one back — and, if all goes according to plan, beat both Oregon and Arizona en route to the Pac-12 tournament title — if they have any hope of poaching that top seed.

So yes, there is quite a bit to play for here.

But that’s not the best part about this game.

The best part is that both Sean Miller and Steve Alford have their programs rolling at the same time, which is not something that has been in the case in the Pac-12 in recent times. UCLA was going to Final Fours under Ben Howland as Arizona was in the midst of their regime change, going from Lute Olsen to Russ Pennell to Sean Miller. When Howland’s program took a dip near the end of his tenure, Arizona rose up to be the league’s resident power while Steve Alford tried to find his footing.

Now?

What we have is a top five matchup between two programs that target the same players — remember, T.J. Leaf was originally committed to Arizona, which prompted Sean Miller to once question in a press conference why anyone would want to go to a program that couldn’t fill Pauley Pavilion — and are battling for west coast supremacy that will be played in primetime with league title and major NCAA tournament implications on the line.

It just doesn’t get any better than that.

  • PREDICTION: UCLA’s been better defensively, but I find it hard to believe that below average defenders have suddenly gotten good. Arizona’s talented perimeter trio of Kobi Simmons, Rawle Alkins and Allonzo Trier ate up UCLA in the first meeting, as Sean Miller repeatedly targeted and exposed Bryce Alford. I expect that he’ll do it again. Arizona (-3)

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No. 13 Florida at No. 11 Kentucky, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (CBS): This is the SEC title game.

There’s really no question about it, is there?

Florida and Kentucky are clearly the two-best teams in the league. They face off on Saturday afternoon in a position where they are both sitting at 13-2 in the conference, tied for first place with a two-game lead on the rest of the field. Kentucky closes the season with Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. Florida closes the season with Arkansas and Vanderbilt. Those are games that both the Wildcats and the Gators should win.

Kentucky enters Saturday on a bit of a slide. They’ve regained their winning ways since an ugly run a couple of weeks ago. But they’re not exactly impressing in their wins. They barely beat a Georgia team playing without Yante Maten. They struggled to put away an awful Missouri team on the road. This Kentucky team has flaws, and those flaws can be exploited by the Gators.

Florida won the first matchup between these two teams by 22 points, as Malik Monk was never able to get going and Kasey Hill looked like the best player on the floor. Florida’s a tough, physical and aggressive defensive team that does all the things that we’ve waited all year to see Kentucky consistently do.

  • PREDICTION: Kentucky is a better team at home mainly because Monk is a better scorer at home. Kentucky (-3)
LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 07:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Valparaiso Crusaders at Rupp Arena on December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
De’Aaron Fox (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • No. 9 Baylor at Iowa State, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN): These two teams couldn’t be more different. Until the last three weeks, Baylor has been one of the best and most consistent teams in the country, playing slowing, grinding out stops and pounding the ball into the paint. Iowa State? They’ve been inconsistent until the last four games, they like to run-and-gun, they have no interior depth and they are at their best when they’re banging threes. Will Hilton Magic win out? PREDICTION: Iowa State (-1)
  • No. 12 West Virginia at TCU, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN): This is a win that TCU might have to win if they want to be in the NCAA tournament this season, and it’s a game that may be winnable. The Mountaineers have looked great against Kansas and Baylor this season, but they’ve looked beatable against some of the lesser teams in the conference. PREDICTION: West Virginia (-6)
  • No. 23 Creighton at No. 2 Villanova, Sat. 3:00 p.m. (FOX): For just the third time this season, Villanova will be playing a game coming off of a loss. Creighton has put together some promising performances since Mo Watson’s injury, but I think that they are going to run into the buzzsaw that is angry Villanova. PREDICTION: Villanova (-10)
  • Syracuse at No. 7 Louisville, Sun. 2:00 p.m. (CBS): The Orange are coming off of thrilling, buzzer-beating win over Duke on Wednesday night. That got them onto the right side of the bubble … for now. If they want to lock up a bid to the tournament, win this game. It won’t be easy, not when Rick Pitino was clearly upset about the way his team performed at North Carolina. PREDICTION: Syracuse (+13)
  • No. 22 Butler at Xavier, Sun. 3:30 p.m. (FS1): Butler just finished off their sweep of Villanova on Wednesday night, setting themselves up to make a run at a top three seed in the NCAA tournament if they can win out. Xavier has been reeling of late, as they’ve struggled to adjust to the loss of Edmond Sumner and Trevon Bluiett. This is a win that the Musketeers badly need to get. PREDICTION: Butler (-1)

Report: Felony arrest warrant issued for Maurice Watson Jr.

OMAHA, NE - JANUARY 21: Maurice Watson Jr. #10 of the Creighton Bluejays receives and ovation before their game against the Marquette Golden Eagles at CenturyLink Center on January 21, 2017 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
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A felony arrested warrant has been issued for Creighton senior point guard Maurice Watson Jr., according to the Omaha World-Hearld.

According to the outlet’s breaking news reporter Andrew J. Nelson, Watson will be charged with first-degree sexual assault. News came out earlier on Thursday that the star guard had been accused of sexual assault by a female student earlier this month.

The allegation is that Watson sexually assaulted a 19-year-old acquaintance in the bathroom of an Omaha residence around 3 a.m. on Feb. 4. She filed a report later that morning.

Watson, 23, began his career at Boston University before transferring to Creighton in 2015. He has been one of college basketball’s top floor generals during his time with the Bluejays. He was in the midst of an All-American season — and Creighton was a Final Four-caliber team — before he tore his ACL on Jan. 16 vs. Xavier.

Watson was suspended from the program on Feb. 13 for, “alleged actions that are contrary to university policies and core values.” He will not be involved in senior night festivities on Feb. 28.

T.J. Leaf, No. 5 UCLA holds off Arizona State

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 18:  TJ Leaf #22 of the UCLA Bruins rebounds over Elijah Stewart #30 of the USC Trojans during the second half of a game at Pauley Pavilion on February 18, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) T.J. Leaf scored 25 points, and No. 5 UCLA survived an upset bid by Arizona State with an 87-75 victory Thursday night.

The Bruins (25-3, 12-3 Pac-12) won their sixth straight game. Aaron Holiday added 17 points and Thomas Welsh had eight points and 11 rebounds in 18 minutes.

Torian Graham led Arizona State with 28 points and Kodi Justice added 19. The Sun Devils hit 14 3-pointers but were outrebounded 49-30.

The Bruins’ size made a difference throughout the game, with UCLA capitalizing on plenty of second-chance opportunities and taking advantage of Arizona State’s four-guard lineup with a major rebounding edge.

The Sun Devils (13-16, 6-10) scored the first seven points of the second half and got a near capacity crowd on its feet when Shannon Evans II made a fastbreak layup to trim UCLA’s lead to 45-43.

Evans’ dunk made it 50-49 at the 15:22 mark, but UCLA went on a 14-5 run capped by a 3-pointer by Holiday off an offensive rebound. The Bruins had a 31-7 edge in second-chance points and 50-22 in points in the paint.

Holiday hit a 3 for a 74-60 lead with 7:29 to play and the Sun Devils couldn’t rally again.

Arizona State led 14-10 6 minutes into the game and thanks in part to UCLA’s early turnovers. But the Bruins hit five straight shots, three for freshman big man Ike Anigbogu inside.

Anigbogu’s dunk with 6:16 to go in the first half gave UCLA a 29-21 lead, and Arizona State was forced to rely on perimeter shots with UCLA controlling the low post at both ends. The Bruins went ahead 40-27 on a follow by Welsh with 3:18 left, and led by as many as 14 before finishing the half with a 45-36 lead.

The Sun Devils didn’t make a first-half substitution and got 17 points from Graham, who hit four of his team’s seven 3-pointers in the first 20 minutes.

BIG PICTURE

UCLA: The Bruins can still finish in second place in the Pac-12, but need a win at No. 4 Arizona in one of the nation’s marquee matchups this weekend in Tucson, Arizona, for starters. They will likely have to win out and get help from the teams that play current second-place team Oregon. Either way, UCLA looks bound for the NCAA Tournament.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils dropped to 0-7 against Top 25 opponents this season, and still have one more to go in No. 4 Arizona on March 4.

TIP-INS

UCLA: Anigbogu scored a career-high 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting. … The Bruins have won all six games they have played in February.

ARIZONA STATE: Graham has 11 20-point games this season and three in his last four. … Obinna Oleka recorded his 14th double-double of the season with 12 points and 11 rebounds.

HELD BALL

UCLA freshman sensation Lonzo Ball finished with just four points, well under his per-game average of 16.9. Ball, UCLA’s leading scorer this season, also missed a couple of minutes in the first half to get his right ankle checked, briefly returning to the locker room. He returned to action just before halftime and ended up with 11 rebounds and five assists.

UP NEXT

UCLA: At No. 4 Arizona on Saturday, then home for the final two games of the regular season against the Washington schools.

Arizona State: Hosts Southern Cal on Sunday, the second-to-last home of the regular season.

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