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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.

Myles Davis leaves Xavier program

Myles Davis
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Myles Davis announced in a post on twitter on Friday evening that he will be leaving the Xavier basketball team.

“I would like to thank everyone and Xavier for allowing me to get my degree but my family and I have decided that it is time for me to move on from Xavier and start a new chapter in my life,” Davis wrote in the statement. “Wish my teammates the best of luck the rest of the season.”

Davis averaged 10.8 points and 4.1 assists while shooting 38.1 percent from three as a junior in 2015-16, and his skill set would have filled a void that the Musketeers are currently missing on their roster.

But he was suspended for the first 15 games of the regular season following a pair of incidents involving an ex-girlfriend over the summer, and since being reinstated to the team just three games ago, Davis has averaged 11 minutes, scored just two points and shot 0-for-8 from the field and 0-for-6 from three.

O.G. Anunoby’s knee injury is season-ending

BLOOMINGTON, IN - DECEMBER 28:  OG Anunoby #3 of the Indiana Hoosiers attempts a shot in the first half against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Assembly Hall on December 28, 2016 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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Yesterday, Indiana released a statement updating the status of O.G. Anunoby, their star forward and a potential lottery pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.

He was out indefinitely with a knee injury.

On Friday, Indiana’s worst fears were confirmed.

“It has been determined that O.G. Anunoby will undergo surgery on his right knee and will miss the remainder of the season,” head coach Tom Crean said in a statement. “He is expected to make a complete recovery. For a young man, O.G. has a very strong faith and a courageous spirit. We are going to do everything as a basketball family to help him recover and rehabilitate from this unfortunate situation.”

The diagnosis isn’t surprising. Anunoby suffered a non-contact knee injury when he came to a jump-stop, the kind of play that always seems to result in a torn ACL. The loss is a major one for an Indiana team that is already struggling to defend. Anunoby is one of the best and most versatile defenders in college basketball, and it’s a hole the 13-6 Hoosiers, who are already 3-3 in the Big Ten, may not be able to fill.

Weekend Preview: The four biggest story lines to follow

LAS VEGAS, NV - NOVEMBER 25:  Head coach Greg McDermott of the Creighton Bluejays talks with Maurice Watson Jr. #10 during the team's game against the Massachusetts Minutemen during the championship game of the Men Who Speak Up Main Event basketball tournament at MGM Grand Garden Arena on November 25, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Creighton won 97-76.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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FIVE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. What will Creighton do at the point guard spot?: Suddenly, the most important story line in the Big East has become the future of this Creighton basketball team, and we’ll get our first glimpse of it against Marquette in Omaha on Saturday.

The Bluejays lost Mo Watson Jr., their starting point guard and an all-american this season, to a torn ACL on Monday. Watson was leading the nation in assists this season. He was the engine that made Creighton’s high-powered offense run. He was to the Bluejays what Lonzo Ball is to UCLA.

Greg McDermott is one of the more underrated coaches in college basketball, but this is going to be a massive overhaul for him. Their offensive attack was built around Watson’s abilities – the way he can push the ball in transition, the way he can get into the lane, the way he can find their myriad of 45 percent three-point shooters – and there isn’t another guy on the roster that can do those things.

There is still plenty of talent on that Creighton roster, but they’ll be playing the rest of the season without the head of their snake.

RELATED: Weekend picks against the spread

2. Indiana vs. Michigan State is critical, just not in the way we thought it would be: The Hoosiers and the Spartans were supposed to be two of the best teams in the Big Ten this season, but that’s not the way that the year has played out. The two teams have a combined 13 losses, while Indiana is a buzzer-beater from James Blackmon Jr. away from being 2-4 in the Big Ten.

The Spartans look like they have started to right the ship. They are just a game out of first place in the Big Ten standings, their freshmen are starting to play like they’re more than just freshmen and Miles Bridges is back from the ankle injury that cost him a few weeks. Indiana, on the other hand, is at a crossroads in their season. O.G. Anunoby appears to be out for a significant amount of time with a knee injury, and he is the one guy on that roster that can operate as a defensive stopper and something of a glue-guy. Last year, when Blackmon went down with a knee injury, Indiana’s season could have unraveled. Instead, Yogi Ferrell carried them to a Big Ten regular season title.

So while the Spartans will be playing a game they cannot afford to lose if they want to be Big Ten champs, Indiana is going to be trying to prove that 2016-17 isn’t going to be a total loss.

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3. Miami at No. 18 Duke, Sat. 8:15 p.m. (ESPN): Duke is going to be the biggest story line in the sport for the foreseeable future. Part of it is because they are Duke. They are always a massive story. But the more pressing issue is that this team has turned into the most fascinating team I can remember in college basketball. On paper, they are more talented than the 2015 Kentucky, the one that went 38-1. On the floor, they’re a mess. Harry Giles III is still a shell of himself, understandably so. Marques Bolden has been so bad that Chase Jeter and Javin DeLaurier have usurped his spot in the rotation. Jayson Tatum hasn’t adjusted to the college level the way we expected him to, and the only person in the program that seems to realize Luke Kennard is the best player on the team is Luke Kennard.

The leader on the bench, Coach K, is out recovering from back surgery. The leader on the floor, Amile Jefferson, is out with a foot injury.

And then there is Grayson Allen, who … well … you know. He keeps tripping people, and even when he doesn’t, we have successfully lumped him into some controversy on the floor for three straight games. Oh, and he’s the Preseason Player of the Year that just so happens to be playing out of position because the Blue Devils don’t have a point guard.

In 2015, when Duke had an identity crisis in January, they were shredded at home by Miami, losing by 16 points and having their season effectively ended by the public at large. They figured it out that year and won a national title. They’re at a similar crossroads this weekend. Is this when they start to turn things around?

4. First place battles in the ACC, Pac-12 and the SEC: There are a trio of headline-grabbing games this weekend featuring league leaders. No. 12 Louisville travels to No. 10 Florida State, who is tied for first in the ACC, a game ahead of the Cardinals. No. 14 Arizona, who it tied with Oregon for the top spot in the Pac-12 standings, treks to Pauley Pavilion to pay a visit to No. 3 UCLA, who is a game out of first. And finally, No. 5 Kentucky hosts No. 24 South Carolina, the last two undefeated teams in the SEC.

Three terrific games. Three terrific breakdowns right here.

Weekend Preview: First place in the Pac-12, SEC on the line

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17:  Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins brings the ball up the court against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. UCLA won 86-73.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Betting lines won’t be released until later tonight, so our predictions will be based on KenPom’s projected spread. It usually ends up being pretty close to Vegas’ lines.

SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 14 Arizona at No. 3 UCLA, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (CBS): First place in the Pac-12 is on the line on Saturday when Arizona makes the trek to Pauley Pavilion to square off with UCLA. The Bruins, who many believe are actually the best team in college basketball, currently sit a game behind both Arizona and Oregon – who may or may not have just lost Dillon Brooks to another foot injury – in the Pac-12 race, and this will be their chance to close the gap on at least one of those two.

Arizona is an interesting team. On paper, this team has some serious question. As talented as Lauri Markkanen, Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons are, and as good as that 17-2 record looks, the Wildcats still really haven’t done anything this season that would make you believe they are the No. 14 team in the country. Their best win is either Michigan State, who is not the Michigan State we thought they were going to be entering the season, or USC on the road.

UCLA, on the other hand, has an offense that is capable of putting up more than 100 points on anyone. They made 19 threes at Colorado. They made 16 threes against Arizona State on Thursday night, knocking down 10-of-13 in the first half. They’ve had two different players go for more than 30 points in Pac-12 play, and neither of them are Lonzo Ball or T.J. Leaf, UCLA’s two lottery picks. UCLA’s issue is that they don’t defend. As dangerous as this team is, they’re currently sitting at 11th in KenPom because they rank 92nd in defensive efficiency, and while I have my doubts about the Wildcats, they do have three guys that can light it up offensively.

  • PREDICTION: UCLA (-4) is where I would want my money, and I think that this game will hit over (+/- 162), too.

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No. 24 South Carolina at No. 5 Kentucky, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN): The Pac-12 isn’t the only conference where first-place is on the line. South Carolina and Kentucky are the only two undefeated teams left in the league after the Gamecocks beat No. 19 Florida on Wednesday night, and we will get a chance to see the pair of them square off Saturday evening. I think that South Carolina is the second-best team in the SEC, and I think that they do have the pieces to give the Wildcats a fight. It’s worth noting that with Sindarius Thornwell available, South Carolina is undefeated on the season.

Frank Martin’s clubs are never going to get out-toughed, and that is particularly true with this group, whose roster of big, physical veterans have used a pressuring, half-court man defense to sit atop KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. It will be strength on strength for South Carolina, as Kentucky has the nation’s No. 2 offense.

The key? Keep the Wildcats out of transition. Given the lack of perimeter shooting on Kentucky’s roster, if South Carolina can find a way to avoid live-ball turnovers and prevent Kentucky from getting easy buckets on the break – for what it’s worth, no one has really been able to do this – they should be able to keep this game interesting.

The x-factor? Foul trouble. The style that both of these teams like to play does not exactly align with the way college basketball is being officiated this season.

  • PREDICTION: I think Kentucky wins this, but I think the nation’s best defensive team will be able to avoid getting run off the floor, so I’ll take South Carolina (+13).

RELATEDFive Storylines To Follow This Weekend

No. 12 Louisville at No. 10 Florida State, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN): Florida State is part of a three-way tie for first place in the ACC with Notre Dame and North Carolina after the Seminoles knocked off the Fighting Irish on Wednesday evening. The way Leonard Hamilton’s club got that done was to pressure the Irish in the half court and force them to make mistakes offensively. Notre Dame had to shoot 15-for-21 from three to keep that thing respectable.

Louisville is going to face similar issues offensively as well. Already a team with question marks on that end of the floor, they are going to be playing this game without the services of Quentin Snider, who is dealing with a hip flexor injury. Donovan Mitchell looked good against Clemson on Thursday night, but Clemson and Florida State are two different beasts.

It’s worth noting, however that the ‘Noles have point guard issues as well. Xavier Rathan-Mayes isn’t exactly Chris Paul, and Louisville currently has the nation’s second-best defense.

  • PREDICTION: I don’t think Louisville wins this game on the road without their point guard, so I’m on Florida State (-1). But the best I really like is under (+/- 147). Two tough defenses, two teams without point guards.
LOUISVILLE, KY - JANUARY 11: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Louisville Cardinals shoots the ball during the game against the Pittsburgh Panthers at KFC YUM! Center on January 11, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Donovan Mitchell (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • Syracuse at No. 15 Notre Dame, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPN): The Irish are coming off of their first loss of the season, falling at Florida State despite the fact that they shot 15-for-21 from three. Given the way that Notre Dame can shoot the ball and pass the ball, this may not be the best matchup for the Orange zone. PREDICTION: Syracuse (+10)
  • Georgia Tech at No. 16 Virginia, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ACC Network): If you haven’t noticed yet, Josh Pastner actually have Georgia Tech playing some good basketball. The Yellow Jackets have wins over North Carolina, Clemson and N.C. State. Their only losses? At Duke, at Louisville and at Virginia Tech. PREDICTION: Virginia (-16)
  • No. 17 Wisconsin at Minnesota, Sat. 4:30 p.m. (BTN): The Golden Gophers got off to a good start to the season, but in the last week they’ve lost at Michigan State and at Penn State. Richard Pitino’s club, if they are going to be a tournament team, needs to land a couple more wins over the top teams from the Big Ten. This is the perfect opportunity. PREDICTION: Wisconsin (-2)
  • No. 7 West Virginia at Kansas State, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN2): The Wildcats have been on the wrong end of three tough losses already this season. If they are going to have a real chance to get to the NCAA tournament this is the kind of game they need to win. PREDICTION: Kansas State (+3)
  • No. 6 Baylor at TCU, Sat. 8:00 p.m. (ESPNU): TCU is sitting pretty with a 14-4 record, but the Horned Frogs really have beaten anyone yet this season. Two wins over Washington, UNLV, Iowa State, Oklahoma. If this program is going to be good instead of, “Hey, TCU isn’t a guaranteed win anymore,” they need to do things like beat the best teams in the conference at home. That would be Baylor. PREDICTION: Baylor (-2)

Karnowski leads No. 4 Gonzaga past Santa Clara 88-57

Gonzaga forward Zach Collins (32) drives past Santa Clara center Tony Lewis (35) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) Coming off a big win in a showdown with rival Saint Mary’s, No. 4 Gonzaga could have been in for a bit of a letdown.

Seeing another frenzied crowd hoping for an upset was more than enough to keep the Bulldogs on their game.

Przemek Karnowski scored 19 points on just seven shots from the field and Gonzaga remained the only undefeated team in Division I with an 88-57 victory over Santa Clara on Thursday night.

“I’ve been here for five years and basically wherever you go it’s the biggest game of the season, in the conference at least,” Karnowski said. “We have to be prepared for that. Their crowd was really into it. We came out focused and I liked our intensity.”

Karnowski made six shots against the undersized Broncos and added seven more points from the free throw line to help the Bulldogs (18-0, 6-0 West Coast Conference) extend the best start in school history with another lopsided win.

Zach Collins had 16 points and Nigel Williams-Goss added 11 points and 10 rebounds in Gonzaga’s 11th straight double-digit win.

“Every game they come out ready to go,” coach Mark Few said. “They come out with energy, effort, and attention to detail has been really good. They’re a mature group.”

Jared Brownridge scored 23 points to lead the Broncos (10-10, 4-3) but got little help from his teammates as Santa Clara dropped its 13th straight to Gonzaga and 37th in the past 39 meetings.

“We just were stagnant on the offensive end – it had everything to do with us,” Brownridge said. “They’re a great team, there’s no argument about it. Tonight’s game had to do with us.”

Gonzaga scored 13 straight points midway through the first half to open a 20-point lead and never looked back as Santa Clara struggled to get open shots and couldn’t keep the Bulldogs out of the paint.

Brownridge keyed a 15-5 run early in the second half that cut a 21-point lead to 11 but the Bulldogs quickly built the lead back to 20 and coasted to the win.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: After easily passing their first true test in conference play with a 23-point win over then-No. 21 Saint Mary’s on Saturday, the Bulldogs avoided a letdown by building the big early lead. There don’t figure to be many tough tests the rest of the regular season outside of a return trip to Saint Mary’s next month so the main task for Gonzaga will be to maintain their intensity before for the tournaments in March.

Santa Clara: The Broncos came into the game having won four of five but it was a different level of competition this game. They missed 14 of their first 18 shots – with six air balls – and never had a chance at the upset. They struggled to get any consistent offense outside of Brownridge and were overmatched inside in coach Herb Sendek’s first game against the class of the WCC.

DEFENDING BROWNRIDGE

Brownridge moved into seventh place on the WCC all-time scoring list with 2,079 points, jumping ahead of Loyola Marymount’s Forrest McKenzie. He made six 3-pointers but Few was happy with the overall defensive effort.

“Brownridge is an unbelievable player and he’s unbelievably gifted coming off those pin-downs and finding his shots,” Few said. “I thought we did a nice job, mixed up the coverages and made it hard, not just on him, but everyone else.”

LIVING AT THE LINE

Santa Clara committed six fouls in the first 4:13 of the second half and Gonzaga lived at the free throw line from there. The Bulldogs shot 18 for 23 from the line in the second half as they repeatedly fed Karnowski and Collins inside.

“They were in the double bonus early in the second half so we tried to take advantage of that and tried to go inside and pin fouls on them,” Karnowski said.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

A lopsided win over an overmatched opponent should do little to change the ranking for the Bulldogs in the AP poll .

UP NEXT

Gonzaga: Hosts Portland on Saturday.

Santa Clara: Hosts Loyola Marymount on Saturday.

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