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There were bumps, but this was a successful season for Kentucky

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ARLINGTON, Texas — When the season began, Kentucky was one of the favorites to cut down the nets at AT&T Stadium. With the nation’s top recruiting class on campus, there was even talk of this group dominating college basketball and making a run at the first-ever 40-0 mark.

The Harrison twins and James Young on the perimeter, Julius Randle and a host of other underclassmen in the paint, and a head coach in John Calipari who’s proven throughout his time in Lexington that he’s more than capable of taking a truly loaded roster and leading it deep into March. Clearly a tough formula to duplicate, and also a tough one to crack. the expectations for Kentucky were simple yet lofty: nothing less than a national title would suffice.

But as the season wore on college basketball dealt all involved an, at times, harsh reminder that can be forgotten when considering the skill level of the elite freshmen who ply their trade for no more than nine months before moving on to the professional ranks. The reminder: no one’s given or promised anything on the court, regardless of how many stars are next to their names on the recruiting lists some fans obsess over every spring/summer.

Kentucky struggled at times, and as a result the talk of their being overrated and jokes about the preseason “40-0” chatter got rolling, with every game seemingly being a referendum on Kentucky’s players and the recruiting of individuals who to outsiders had little interest in anything other than the quickest route to professional riches.

RELATED: Napier had to learn how to lead | Harrison twins struggle | Slow start costs Kentucky

However after their loss at Florida to end the regular season, things clicked. Calipari talked about a “tweak,” and whatever that “tweak” (or tweaks) was the young Wildcats played with a level of confidence many expected to see all season long. The Harrison twins played with more confidence, Randle and company proved tough to stop in the paint and even with Willie Cauley-Stein suffering an ankle injury in the Sweet 16 Kentucky still managed to get to Monday’s title game.

Unfortunately for Calipari and his players they didn’t have one last answer against UConn, with the Huskies getting off to a far better start and ultimately winning 60-54. Randle didn’t have his best game and neither did the Harrison twins, and in the early going it seemed as if the magnitude of the moment (along with UConn’s skill) got to Kentucky. Young or old, headed to the lottery or a lengthy career overseas, that can happen to any player especially in front of more than 79,000 fans in AT&T Stadium and millions tuned in across the country.

“These kids aren’t machines. They’re not robots. They’re not computers,” Calipari said after the game. “I say it again, I wish I had an answer for them later in the game where I could have done something to just click it to where it needed to go. That [Aaron Harrison] three in the corner, if that would have gone maybe the game changes a little bit but it didn’t.

“So keep coaching,” Calipari continued. “What do we figure out, how do we do it? And obviously I didn’t have the answers for them. But I’m proud of them. They fought and tried and played a really good team that’s well-coached.”

The question now is how will this group be remembered. For those who hang onto the preseason prognostications and the talk of Kentucky going undefeated, the 11 losses will overshadow the Wildcats’ run to the national title. But this season was by no means a failure, even if Kentucky didn’t reach its ultimate goal. It took some time but the Wildcats grew, both individually and collectively. And regardless of what the next step for Calipari and his players may be, that’s something to be proud of.

“Even in that loss, I can’t believe what these guys got done together,” Calipari said. “Talking about a bunch of young kids that just went out there and believed and believed in each other and just kept fighting.”

No. 22 Xavier pulls away to 86-75 win over Georgetown

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 20:  Edmond Sumner #4 of the Xavier Musketeers reacts after a play in the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 20, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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CINCINNATI — Edmond Sumner overcame a painful left shoulder and led a second-half surge that swept No. 22 Xavier to an 86-75 victory over Georgetown on Sunday, ending the Musketeers’ longest losing streak in three years.

Xavier (14-5, 4-3) had dropped three straight — all against ranked Big East teams. The Musketeers allowed a 12-point lead to slip away in the second half on Sunday before their injured point guard frustrated the Hoyas (10-10, 1-6) again. Sumner had a career-high 28 points in an 81-76 win at Georgetown on Dec. 31.

Sumner wore a support on his injured left shoulder and sat on the bench grimacing late in the first half. He had a jumper, a three-point play and a pair of free throws during a 12-3 run that put Xavier in control 70-61. He finished with 14 points.

Trevon Bluiett led Xavier with 24 points. J.P. Macura added 20.

Rodney Pryor scored 23 for Georgetown, which lost for the sixth time in seven games.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Xavier dropped from 15th to 22nd last week after road losses to Villanova and Butler. A home loss to Creighton on Monday put Xavier in danger of dropping out of the Top 25.

BIG PICTURE

GEORGETOWN: Junior guard L.J. Peak scored 21 points and had six rebounds in the loss to Xavier on Dec. 31, keeping the Hoyas in the game with clutch shots down the stretch. The Musketeers clamped down in the rematch — he was only 3 of 12 for 12 points.

XAVIER: Free throws again were an issue early. Missed free throws were a major factor in the Musketeers’ 72-67 loss to Creighton on Monday, when they went only 16 of 29 from the line. They drove to the basket and drew fouls on Sunday but were only 12 of 19 from the line in the first half, which ended with Xavier up 34-33. The Musketeers finished 36 of 49 from the line overall.

UP NEXT

The Hoyas host No. 7 Creighton on Wednesday. They split their series last season, with each winning at home.

The Musketeers play at crosstown rival Cincinnati, which is ranked No. 20. Xavier has won three in a row and seven of the last nine in the annual game.

VIDEO: Watch Marcus Keene score all 50 of his points

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Marcus Keene, the nation’s leading scorer at 29.8 points, went for 50 yesterday, the first time in four years a college player has done that.

WATCH LIVE: Atlantic 10 basketball Sunday on NBCSN

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13: A detailed view of a Spalding basketball during a quarterfinal game between the Davidson Wildcats and La Salle Explorers in the 2015 Men's Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament at the Barclays Center on March 13, 2015 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
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The Atlantic 10 invades NBCSN and the NBC Sports app on Sunday.

It begins at 2:00 p.m. with La Salle at VCU. Both of these teams are fighting for first place in the Atlantic 10 standings as the Explorers sit at 5-1 in league play and the Rams are at 4-2.

CLICK HERE to watch the Atlantic 10 on NBCSN

No. 6 Baylor uses late spurt for 62-53 victory at TCU

Baylor forward Johnathan Motley (5) reacts to a play against Texas in first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, in Waco, Texas. Baylor won 74-64. (Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald via AP)
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FORT WORTH, Texas — Sixth-ranked Baylor and TCU kept trading the lead in the second half, with a 9 1/2-minute gap when neither team could muster consecutive scores.

Then the Bears finally closed out their 10th straight Big 12 victory over TCU since their instate rival joined the league four years ago.

Ishmail Wainright swished a go-ahead 3-pointer with 4:16 left, and there was then a TCU miss and more than a minute before Johnathan Motley’s layup for the Bears. Manu Lecomte added a layup to cap the 7-0 spurt that finally put Baylor (18-1, 6-1 Big 12) ahead to stay.

“This was typical of the Big 12. Hard-fought game, both teams playing extremely hard. The day after the game, it’s amazing how drained everybody is,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “I hope fans enjoy it, because we’re worn out.”

There were five ties and 13 lead changes after halftime.

The partisan sellout crowd of 7,276 might not have enjoyed it as much, but the Horned Frogs (14-5, 3-4) have shown great progress in their first season under coach Jamie Dixon, the former TCU point guard.

While the Frogs have already won two more games than all of last season, Dixon feels like they have let their last two game slip away late.

“Obviously got some disappointed guys in that locker room, me included,” Dixon said. “Really thought we were here to win this game. … My feeling we were ready to win them, and we were prepared, and we did things right, did things necessary.”

Lecomte scored 17 points while Motley had 15 points and eight rebounds, along with a punctuating dunk in the final minute. That came soon after Lecomte’s alley-oop pass for a dunk by Jo Lual-Acuil, who finished with 11 points.

Vlad Brodziansky had 19 points and 10 rebounds for TCU, while Kenrich Williams had 16 points and 12 rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: This is the first time the Bears have ever been 18-1 overall or 6-1 in the Big 12. They have won their last three games since losing in their first game after reaching No. 1 for the first time in school history.

TCU: Brodziansky and Williams didn’t get much help from the rest of their teammates. TCU shot 29 percent from the field (17 of 58) — Brodziansky and Williams were a combined 12-of-26 shooting; the rest of the team was 5-of-32. “We outrebounded them (38-37), we had lower turnovers (8-10), things we want to do,” Dixon said. “But simply put, the shooting percentages always stand out.”

COMING FROM BEHIND

Baylor is 6-1 this season when trailing at halftime, and has outscored its opponents by more than 10 points in those second halves. “Blessed to have great leadership from the upperclassmen. They don’t panic, they don’t rattle, they stay together,” Drew said. “And they believe in each other.”

TCU led only 24 seconds in the first half, but grabbed a 28-26 halftime lead on Williams’ 3-pointer with 7 seconds left. Baylor opened the second half with four straight layups.

CATCHING AIR

When asked about Wainright’s go-ahead 3, Motley called it a “big shot. I air-balled one, Al (Freeman) too. The fans made sure they let us know. It didn’t matter, we just stayed aggressive, and my teammates trusted me to shoot again.”

UP NEXT

Baylor is home against Texas Tech on Wednesday before consecutive road games, including the SEC-Big 12 Challenge next Saturday at Ole Miss.

TCU plays its next two Big 12 games on the road, starting Monday at Oklahoma State. The Frogs then host Auburn before going to Kansas State.

No. 18 Duke’s insane second half propels them to win

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 21:  Matt Jones #13 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after making a three-point basket against the Miami Hurricanes during the game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 21, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 70-58.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Matt Jones scored all 13 of his points in the second half as No. 18 Duke used a 31-4 run to start the second half, turning a 36-25 deficit into a 56-40 lead as they beat Miami on Saturday night, 70-58.

The Blue Devils were listless defensively and, frankly, bad on the offensive end of the floor throughout the first half, but Jones sparked the second half run with a pair of early threes.

Jayson Tatum added 14 points for the Blue Devils while Marques Bolden played by far his best game as a collegian, finishing with eight points and four boards in 23 minutes, numbers that don’t necessarily reflect his impact.

Miami was led by 19 points from Davon Reed, but looked like a totally different team after halftime.

Here are three things we learned from Duke’s win:

1. The benchings worked: Duke was awful in the first half on Saturday. All of those issues that have popped up this season? They were, once again, at the forefront, and the Blue Devils went into the break down 11 while everyone in my profession tried to figure out what witty lede they were going to use to put an end to Duke’s season.

Saturday also happened to be just the third time in 19 games this season that Duke started their ideal starting lineup – Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard, Harry Giles III, Amile Jefferson and Tatum. But interim head coach Jeff Capel benched three of those starters in the second half, sending Allen, Kennard and Giles to the bench to watch. And it worked. Frank Jackson, Bolden and Jones provided a spark that made the Blue Devils looked like they were Mario Bros and had received star power.

Giles managed just eight minutes on the night. Kennard and Allen combined for 18 points on 5-for-17 shooting.

And it didn’t matter. Duke played their best defensive half of the season – I’d argue it was the best defense they’ve played since the 2015 NCAA tournament – and ended up cruising to a double-digit win.

2. A Matt Jones three may have changed Duke’s season: I’m well aware that the statement that I’m about to make is hyperbolic and as full of #narrative as possible, but I’m going to say it anyway: The first of Jones’ three second half threes – the one that came after he stole an outlet pass, the one that rattled in-and-out before bouncing off the backboard and back in again – may just be the turning point for Duke’s tumultuous season.

Duke has had more issues this season than I care to recount here for the umpteenth time, but one of the biggest issues they’ve faced this season has had to do with the effort level they have played with and the confidence level of the players on the floor. But when that three went in, the Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd went nuts. Even before Miami called a timeout, Capel was nearly to half court, as fired up as anyone on the floor. There was a very distinct, very noticeable change in energy, both in the building and coming off of the bench, and the results can be seen in the way Miami struggled to score.

I know this idea is a reach. I know. I swear I do.

But I just can’t ignore the fact that, after that Jones three, the Duke players looked like they were having fun, like they truly enjoyed playing on this basketball team, for the first time in more than a month.

3. Amile Jefferson returned: Jefferson is the leader of this team on the floor, the captain and the guy that holds their defense together. Part of the reason Duke looked atrocious defending ball-screens against Florida State and Louisville is that they were playing without their best defensive big man.

He was back on the floor on Saturday, recovered from a bone bruise in the same foot he broke last year. This is big because of the fact that Duke hasn’t been the most forthcoming broken when it comes to the injury status of their players.