Ryan Boatright (AP Photo)

UConn beat Florida because they played Florida’s game, only better

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ARLINGTON, Texas — The story all tournament long — all season long, really — was that the UConn Huskies were only going to go as far as Shabazz Napier was going to carry them. He was the reincarnation of Kemba Walker, a veteran, all-american point guard that took complete control of a supposedly overmatched UConn team, strapping them to his back and carrying them from an unremarkable regular season on a magical run to the Final Four.

That narrative played out to perfection for the first two weeks of the tournament. Napier was the East Regional’s Most Outstanding Player, averaging 23.3 points, 6.0 boards and 4.5 assists. The only reason he wasn’t named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player in the first two weekends was that it is an award that doesn’t exist.

Entering Saturday night’s bout with the Florida Gators, every single pundit told you that the only way the Huskies would be able to handle the behemoth that the Gators had become would be for Napier to go crazy. That didn’t happen. Shabazz didn’t score his first point for more than 15 minutes and finished with “just” 12 points, six assists and four steals.

And it didn’t matter.

UConn won 63-53.

“We had no chance, right?” UConn assistant Karl Hobbs told the media gathered outside the UConn locker as the Huskies left the floor and took their first steps towards playing for the program’s fourth national title. It wasn’t just Hobbs that felt that way, either. Walking through the UConn locker room, it was obvious that was something that had been made very clear to the players. The only people that thought UConn had a shot had an 860 area code.

“We like that everybody’s not believing in us and picking us to lose,” Ryan Boatright told NBCSports.com. “We were supposed to lose every game in the postseason. They had us losing every single one. We take that to heart and use it as fuel to our fire. Every time we step out on the court, it’s us against the world.”

It was Boatright that ended up being the difference maker in this game. DeAndre Daniels was the star, posting a 20-point and 10-rebound performance that may end up sending him off to the NBA Draft, but Boatright finished with 13 points, six boards and three assists, hitting a number of key buckets early in the second half and, more importantly, playing the kind of stellar on-ball defense that he did against Michigan State. “At my size, I can’t afford to lack on defense,” he said, and it certainly wasn’t lacking on Saturday.

Scottie Wilbekin is Florida’s best player. He was on a number of all-american teams and was named the SEC’s Player of the Year, which is a really long-winded way of saying the dude can ball. Against UConn, he had four points on 2-for-9 shooting with three turnovers and just a single assists. Kasey Hill, Florida’s other point guard, finished with four points and four turnovers on 2-for-6 shooting. Michael Frazier, Florida’s sharp-shooter, got just three looks at a three and made one of them.

Napier played a role in that, as did guys like Terrance Samuel and Lasan Kromah, but it was Boatright that did the heavy lifting.

“It all starts with Boatright,” Florida head coach Billy Donovan said in regards to UConn’s defense. “He does a great job pressuring the ball.”

The irony is that UConn essentially beat Florida at their own game.

The Gators climbed their way to the No. 1 overall seed by playing smothering defense, particularly on the perimeter, and relying on a balanced, but limited at times, offensive attack spurred on by Wilbekin’s ability to make a play at the end of a clock.

UConn won this game because they were able to do just that, only more effectively.

After a slow start that saw UConn dig themselves a 16-4 hole more than 11 minutes into the game, the Huskies went on a 27-6 run because they were able to do three things: Napier and Boatright were able to turn the corner on ball-screen actions and get into the lane, UConn stopped turning the ball over and the Huskies were able to keep Florida off of the offensive glass. They took away opportunities for easy points in transition and on second chances, forcing the Gators to try and break down what has turned into a hellacious half court defensive team.

“The difference in the game was Scottie Wilbekin couldn’t live in the lane like he had all year long for us,” Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. Every time we needed a big shot or a big play, whether against Arkansas or UCLA, he was in the lane. He had a really, really hard time getting in the lane around Boatright [and] Napier, which inevitably made our offense very, very difficult.”

“The biggest difference in UConn’s team, in my opinion, from seeing them in December and then watching them on tape is they have turned into a great defensive team.”

“Any time we can stop transition and make them play against our five we like our chances,” Boatright said.

At the other end of the floor, the Gators were able to limit Napier by switching on ball-screens and double-teaming him when the had the ball. Florida was daring the rest of UConn’s team to beat them, and they did.

The reward is a chance to play for a national title.

“We’re a complete team,” Boatright said as matter-of-factly as a player that just won a game in the Final Four can possibly speak. “It’s not a one player team, it takes an entire team to be in the national championship game. When Shabazz ain’t having the game that he’s normally having, people gotta step up.”

“People did.”

Eastern Kentucky basketball player charged with rape

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RICHMOND, Ky. (AP) Authorities say an Eastern Kentucky basketball player has been arrested on a rape charge.

Records at Kentucky’s Madison County Detention Center show 23-year-old Jaylen Babb-Harrison was arrested Sunday in Richmond and charged with first-degree rape.

A statement from Eastern Kentucky says Babb-Harrison, a redshirt senior guard, has been suspended from the team. It says the school is cooperating with police.

Local media organizations cited an arrest citation in reporting that police were called to a Richmond hospital when a female reported she was at Babb-Harrison’s home and that he had sex with her against her will.

WKYT-TV reports Babb-Harrison declined to be interviewed at a jail. His first court appearance is set for Wednesday.

Online jail records didn’t list an attorney for the player.

Judge dismisses sex charges against ex-Michigan State star

3 Apr 2000: Mateen Cleaves #12 of the Michigan State Spartans celebrates on the floor as he holds up the trophy after winning the NCAA Men''s Finals Four Game against the Florida Gators at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Spartans defeated the Gators 89-76.
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FLINT, Mich. (AP) A judge has dismissed all charges against former Michigan State basketball star Mateen Cleaves, who was accused of sexually assaulting a woman after a charity golf event.

Judge Cathy Dowd in Flint, Michigan, said Monday there wasn’t enough evidence to send Cleaves to trial. Prosecutors can appeal.

A woman said she twice tried to get away from Cleaves but was pulled back into a motel room and sexually assaulted in September 2015. A witness confirmed that she saw the woman try to escape a room at the Knights Inn near Flint.

But a police officer said the woman never indicated that she was assaulted. Cleaves pleaded not guilty.

The Associated Press generally doesn’t name people who say they were sexually assaulted. Cleaves led Michigan State to the 2000 national championship.

Coaches Poll: Villanova takes the top spot

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 03: Kris Jenkins #2 of the Villanova Wildcats yells to his team in the first half against the Saint Joseph's Hawks at The Pavilion on December 3, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Saint Joseph's Hawks 88-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Villanova has overtaken Kentucky as the new No. 1 in the Coaches Poll on Monday.

The defending champions also took No. 1 in the new AP poll thanks to an 8-0 start while UCLA beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena this weekend. The Bruins finished at No. 2 while Kansas and Duke are right behind them.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | NBC Sports Top 25

  1. Villanova (28)
  2. UCLA (1)
  3. Kansas (1)
  4. Duke (2)
  5. North Carolina
  6. Baylor
  7. Kentucky
  8. Gonzaga
  9. Indiana
  10. Creighton
  11. Saint Mary’s
  12. Virginia
  13. Louisville
  14. Xavier
  15. Butler
  16. West Virginia
  17. Wisconsin
  18. South Carolina
  19. Purdue
  20. Arizona
  21. Florida
  22. Notre Dame
  23. Cincinnati
  24. Oregon
  25. Iowa State

AP Poll: Defending champion Villanova is the new No. 1

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in the second half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Josh Hart
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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The defending national champs are back at No. 1.

Villanova is atop the latest Associated Press top 25 poll this week as the 8-0 Wildcats are off to a hot start. With Kentucky’s loss to UCLA and North Carolina’s loss at Indiana there were some major shakeups in the polls this week.

  1. Villanova (57 first-place votes)
  2. UCLA (2)
  3. Kansas
  4. Baylor
  5. Duke
  6. Kentucky
  7. North Carolina
  8. Gonzaga
  9. Indiana
  10. Creighton
  11. Louisville
  12. Saint Mary’s
  13. Xavier
  14. Virginia
  15. West Virginia
  16. Butler
  17. Purdue
  18. Wisconsin
  19. South Carolina
  20. Arizona
  21. Florida
  22. Cincinnati
  23. Notre Dame
  24. Oregon
  25. Iowa State

 

Five things we learned last week: UCLA, Kentucky, the Big 12 and Lagerald Vick

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Isaac Hamilton #10 of the UCLA Bruins drives to the basket against Bam Adebayo #3 of the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half of the game at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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1. There’s a lot more to this UCLA team than just Lonzo Ball: Entering this weekend, that’s the name that everyone knew on UCLA. Ball is the team’s superstar freshman point guard, a player that has been compared favorably to Jason Kidd and whose ability to spray passes all over the floor is the biggest reason that the Bruins offense is a juggernaut.

But that offense isn’t going to be the difference-maker for the Bruins this season, because the Bruins were able to score last year, too.

No, the reason that UCLA has a chance to win a national title this season is that they can actually defend. They’re not Virginia. They’re not going to hold good teams to 50 points. They’re not going to be forcing 20 turnovers a night. They don’t have to. All they need to do is to be ‘good enough’ on that end of the floor. Limit penetration, protect the rim, clean the defensive glass.

If we learned anything on Saturday, it’s that the Bruins are going to be able to do the latter two things on that list. T.J. Leaf injected a shot of athleticism into the front court while Ike Anigbogu provides a physicality and a toughness they haven’t had in the paint under Alford. Throw in Thomas Welsh, who more than held his own against the Wildcats, and this is a pretty good front line that UCLA is working with.

And given what we already know about this team’s guards, that’s a scary proposition.

RELATED: Player of the Week | Team of the Week | Five Takeaways

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: De'Aaron Fox #0 and Isaiah Briscoe #13 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrate in the first half of the game against the UCLA Bruins at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

2. Kentucky is going to be just fine: Saturday’s loss was a humbling one for the Wildcats. After steam-rolling through literally everyone they’ve played this season – Kentucky entered the game having won by at least 21 points in every game – the Wildcats got outplayed by UCLA pretty thoroughly. That’s going to happen with young teams, regardless of how well they play against inferior competition, and it may happen again before SEC play starts; Kentucky still have to play North Carolina and Louisville before Christmas.

The Wildcats are an elite defensive team, and they are even better at scoring in transition. Where they struggle, however, is with half court offense. They simply don’t have enough shooters to be able to consistently create high-percentage looks against a set defense, and the way to force them into half court offense is, simply, to score on them. UCLA is one of just a handful of teams that has the guard play and the offensive weapons to be able to do that consistently for 40 minutes, and even then, it took the Bruins a while to grow into the game.

In other words, there aren’t very many teams that can do what UCLA did to Kentucky’s defense.

Thus, there aren’t very many teams that can actually beat Kentucky.

So don’t be worried about the ‘Cats.

They’ll be just fine.

3. Turns out, the Big 12 is really good: The narrative on the Big 12 entering the season was that the league was down outside of Kansas. The Jayhawks were the favorite to win the league just like they always are, but once you got past Bill Self’s club, there really wasn’t much of substance in the league.

That looks to be a dumb narrative.

It starts with Baylor, who has been awesome this season. The Bears picked up yet another excellent non-conference win on Saturday, coming from behind at halftime to beat No. 7 Xavier by 15 points in Waco. It turns out that Baylor actually has the supporting cast around Johnathan Motley to be relevant, and if the tournament was to start today, Baylor would very likely be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.

Then there’s West Virginia, who went into Charlottesville and picked up a road win over No. 6 Virginia the same week that they forced 40 turnovers in a 40 minute game. Iowa State is probably still top 25 good, even with that home loss to Cincinnati last week, and we’d be remiss not to mention the play of both Texas Tech and TCU, the latter of whom is one of just two teams in the league and 11 teams in the country that are still undefeated.

Here’s the kicker: As of today, the No. 1 conference in college basketball, according to KenPom.com, is … the Big 12.

LAWRENCE, KS - NOVEMBER 29: Lagerald Vick #2 of the Kansas Jayhawks dunks on a fast break as Javonntie Jackson #35 of the Long Beach State 49ers looks on during the game at Allen Fieldhouse on November 29, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Lagerald Vick (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

4. Is LaGerald Vick the most surprising player in the league?: Baylor’s Manu Lecomte has been better than expected, as has his teammate, Jo Lual-Acuil. Jawun Evans has been a star for Oklahoma State, but we all knew that he was going to be good. Texas A&M transfer Alex Robinson is leading TCU in points, assists and steals, but he was a good player for the Aggies before he left. We knew he would do good things in Fort Worth.

But Vick?

I’m not sure anyone expected Vick to develop into a starter for Kansas just weeks into the season, but here we are. He’s averaging double-figures on the season. He’s made 9-of-11 threes in the last three games, a stretch where he’s averaging 15.3 points. He’s been terrific defensively, and his presence has allowed Kansas to put plus-defenders on the floor at every position while playing small-ball lineups.

Who saw that coming?

5. So maybe the North Carolina hype train got a bit out of control: Yes, North Carolina played well early on this season. Yes, they were impressive in their wins against Chattanooga and in the Maui Invitational. Yes, Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson have both gotten better.

But the fact that the narrative last week somehow turned into North Carolina being the most impressive team in college basketball seemed a little bit weird, a fact that was confirmed by UNC’s loss at Assembly Hall on Wednesday night.

Now let me be clear: There’s no shame in losing in Assembly Hall, not when IU was playing the way they were playing. But UNC dug themselves a 26-9 hole early in the first half that they were never really able to dig out of. They were rattled by the atmosphere. They did not play well at all, and I just don’t think that if this was truly the best team in college basketball, that doesn’t happen that way.

UNC is good, and probably better than many thought entering the season, but before we go anointing them the champs can we take a second to remember these are basically the same dudes we’ve been unimpressed by for a couple of years now?