Senior guard Delon Wright, Utah aim to end NCAA tournament drought

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LAS VEGAS — After reaching the Pac-12 tournament semifinals in 2012-13, Utah felt better about its chances of competing within the conference in 2013-14 for a variety of reasons. While the improved maturity of players such as Dallin Bachynski, Jordan Loveridge and Brandon Taylor was certainly a factor, the addition of junior college transfer Delon Wright was another.

Lauded for his versatility, the 6-foot-6 Wright more than lived up to the expectations in his debut season as he posted averages of 15.5 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. Wright’s play was one reason why the Utes improved their win total by six games, and in reaching the Postseason NIT the program made its first postseason appearance since 2009.

Head coach Larry Krystkowiak’s program is in a good spot these days, and with the returnees being joined by a solid recruiting class there’s been an increase in both fan excitement and expectations as the Utes prepare for the 2014-15 season. And the goals for Wright and his teammates are clear-cut: to not only reach the NCAA tournament but to also contend in a conference that has multiple teams looking to threaten early favorite Arizona.

“Everyone’s coming back,” Wright told NBCSports.com at the LeBron James Skills Academy. “We played Arizona three times last year and two of the games were close, so we feel like we can compete with them.”

One of the keys for Utah this season will be Wright’s progression, because even with the vast array of skills he displayed there was a glaring weakness on the offensive end. That weakness: perimeter shooting. Wright finished the 2013-14 season shooting 56.1% from the field, but he made just 22.2% of his shots from beyond the arc. Given teams’ ability to sag off of Wright and dare him to shoot the perimeter shot, the overall field goal percentage displays his ability to not settle for what’s being given to him.

With his ability to remain under control, Wright can get to just about any spot on the floor and that was the case in Las Vegas at the LeBron camp. But for Wright to take the next step individually, thus helping Utah in the process, he knows that the work he puts in to improve his perimeter shot will be key.

“That’s the main thing I need to work on,” Wright noted. “I’ve been shooting a lot of shots in the gym, and I’m trying to work on my form, release and confidence [in taking those shots]. A lot of teams packed the lane against me because they knew I like to drive to the basket.

“They gave me the outside shot and I wasn’t comfortable with it. So I feel that if I can knock those shots down, it will open up my game and open up the game for the entire team.”

As a team Utah finished second in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage, making nearly 49 percent of their shots from the field one season after ranking seventh in that particular category (43.9%). The Utes were also a more efficient offensive team, and given the fact that their top six scorers from last season all return to Salt Lake City there should be optimism surrounding the program. However in order to truly factor into the Pac-12 race, Utah will need to perform better down the stretch in tight games.

Last season in games decided by six points or less the Utes amassed a record of three wins and eight losses, which includes a four-point home loss to Arizona and tight road defeats at the hands of Arizona State (79-75), Colorado (79-75) and Stanford (61-60). So while much was made of the Utes’ non-conference strength of schedule (and rightfully so) when their name wasn’t called on Selection Sunday, those close defeats were just as much of a culprit.

The hope for Wright and his teammates is that with an added year of experience they can change that fortune, and better yet the Utes will be expected to do so. And that represents a step forward for the program, which until that run in the 2013 Pac-12 tournament took more than its fair share of beatings. With this being the case, Utah has the opportunity to move closer to being the program that is currently ranked 15th on the NCAA’s all-time wins list (1,685 wins; .643 win percentage).

“Walking around campus, people aren’t asking us if we’re going to be good,” said Wright. “They’re asking if we’re going to make it to the tournament.”

Making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009 is a realistic expectation for Utah, but it should also be noted that Wright and his teammates aren’t limiting themselves to simply making the field of 68. And with there being a number of hopeful contenders in the Pac-12 with major questions to answer this offseason, that’s a good approach to take.

Zion Williamson’s commitment gives Duke perhaps its best recruiting class ever

Bob Blanchard, Basketball Hall of Fame
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Zion Williamson ended his recruitment and committed to Duke during a ceremony in his high school on Saturday night. The five-star forward from Spartanburg, SC is the most popular high school basketball player since LeBron James, drawing tens of millions of YouTube views and sellout crowds around the country to watch him play.

Landing a top-five prospect and a 6-foot-6, 275-pound forward like Williamson is a huge get for the Blue Devils. It’s also a bit of a shocker to see Duke win this recruiting battle for Williamson as in-state Clemson was considered by many to be the favorite to keep the local star at home. Williamson became a legend in South Carolina, playing to giant crowds, winning multiple state titles and constantly getting recognized in public.

The local stardom turned national and eventually international. Drake got a customized Williamson jersey at one point. When Williamson went to Italy for the Adidas Eurocamp he was recognized there on the street. Millions of people witnessed Williamson’s Las Vegas showdown with LaVar and LaMelo Ball at the Adidas Summer Championships.

And although Williamson is a top-five talent who should help make Duke a better team in the ACC, he gives them perhaps their best recruiting class of all time. Williamson joins R.J. Barrett, Cameron Reddish and Tre Jones in the Class of 2018 recruiting haul. Many scouting services have some combination of Barrett, Reddish and Williamson as the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 prospects in the country. Jones isn’t far behind and still in the top ten.

Watching Barrett, Williamson, Reddish and Jones play together is going to be absolutely fascinating on so many levels. It’s four playmakers who are all talented with the ball in their hands and Barrett, Reddish and Williamson are all potential multi-positional players.

The basketball community has plenty of debates about how Williamson’s NBA stock will play out and how his intriguing skill level will be used at the college level. Watching Williamson live is like seeing a Pro Bowl defensive lineman who explodes off the ground for violent dunks. He’s been compared to throwback players like Larry Johnson and Charles Barkley.

What position will Williamson play? Will Williamson be at his best with the ball in his hands on offense? How will Williamson’s inconsistent perimeter jumper look? Will that perimeter jumper allow Williamson to play on the wing? Can Williamson power through bigger players at the college level? A man among boys at the high school level, Williamson will face legitimately-sized competition at every turn next season.

Duke is going to be riveting to watch no matter where Williamson plays. Williamson could wind up being a star at the college level who has legitimate NBA question marks. The Blue Devils have a potential all-conference player on their hands. We won’t know how Williamson truly looks until he’s fully in-shape and running with an offense that has been suited to help him succeed. Since Williamson has been battling injuries for his senior season, he hasn’t been at his best basketball shape all season. But once Williamson gets healthy and dialed in, he could be one of college basketball’s most fascinating case studies in recent memory.

The Blue Devils have a shocking amount of talent once again next season. It could be their best recruiting class ever — which is really saying something for a Coach K team in the one-and-done era. Now how will it all come together?

Wade scores 20, Kansas St beats No. 24 TCU 73-68

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MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — Dean Wade scored 20 points and Kansas State beat No. 24 TCU 73-68 on Saturday.

Sophomore Makol Mawien added a career-high 18 points on 8 of 11 shooting. He had totaled just 13 points in Big 12 play this season for the Wildcats (14-5, 4-3).

Coming off a win over No. 4 Oklahoma earlier in the week, the Wildcats raced to a 7-0 lead.

TCU coach Jamie Dixon was called for a technical foul later in the first half, then drew another tech in the second half and was ejected. The Kansas State crowd serenaded Dixon as he walked off, and TCU assistant David Patrick took over.

Vlad Brodziansky scored 15 points for the Horned Frogs (14-5, 2-5).

BIG PICTURE

Kansas State: The win gives Kansas a solid four-game stretch with two wins over ranked opponents, three wins in total with the lone loss coming against Kansas.

TCU: The Horned Frogs have lost four of five since starting out the season 13-0.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

With the loss, TCU will more than likely fall out of the AP Top 25.

STATS AND STREAKS: The win gives Kansas State back-to-back wins over ranked opponents for the first time since the 2014-15 season, when it defeated Kansas and Iowa State in back-to-back outings.

No. 5 Duke rolls past Pittsburgh 81-54 for 4th straight win

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DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Grayson Allen stepped confidently into the 3-point shot near the Duke bench and let it fly — only to see the ball go halfway down and then roll out of the rim. The senior could only chuckle.

It’s close, he figures. Don’t change anything.

That much was clear during the fifth-ranked Blue Devils’ 81-54 win against Pittsburgh on Saturday. Allen scored 16 points in the rout, his best output since the start of the 2018 calendar year and a sign that maybe — just maybe — Allen is nearing the end of this monthlong rebellion by his suddenly wayward shot.

“I’ve had like nine of those in the last three games,” Allen said of the second-half 3 that rolled out, “that just hit the front of the rim, go halfway in and bounce out. When you’re about a half-inch off like that, there’s nothing you need to change or anything. You just keep shooting it.”

Freshman Wendell Carter Jr. had 21 points on 9-for-10 shooting to lead the Blue Devils (17-2, 5-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 52 percent and cruised to a second easy win against the Panthers (8-12, 0-7) in 10 days.

That certainly gave Allen — who as a freshman provided the desperately needed spark to help the Blue Devils beat Wisconsin in the 2015 NCAA title game — a low-pressure day to re-find his missing shooting rhythm. He made 5 of 11 shots and 4 of 10 from 3-point range in 26 minutes; he was shooting just 30 percent from the field and 20 percent from 3-point range in six ACC games coming in.

“The games before he went into this kind of shooting slump, he’d been shooting the ball great,” Carter said. “I believe it’s going to fall at some point. We just keep telling him to keep shooting and I’m sure it’s going to be there.”

Allen also showed his familiar emotional edge, most notably when he bounced up from taking an early hard fall on a flagrant breakaway foul and yelling a couple of frustrated expletives while being led away as the referees began to a replay review.

“That fire was already there,” Allen said, “but it added to it.”

Duke finished with 24 points off turnovers to go with 18 second-chance points after controlling the boards, leading by as many as 34 points midway through the second half. Parker Stewart scored 15 points for the Panthers, who shot 41 percent.

“They’re an elite team,” Pitt coach Kevin Stallings said, “so we knew it was a tall challenge when we got here.”

BIG PICTURE

Pittsburgh: Pitt continues hurtling toward a bottom-of-the-ACC finish. The Panthers arrived with its worst start in ACC play — this is their fifth season — and now they have their first 0-7 start in a conference since losing to Louisville for an 0-7 Big East mark in January 2012.

Duke: This was a game for Duke to fine-tune things moreso than a question of whether the Blue Devils would win their fourth straight. Among the positives: Duke’s defense was frequently active and getting hands in passing lanes — particularly in the first half — and pestered the Panthers into three 10-second backcourt violations.

SIMILAR STARTS

Duke’s blowout wins against Pitt followed some familiar first-half routes.

In the 87-52 win on Jan. 10, Duke led 50-24 at halftime while Pittsburgh had more turnovers (10) than made baskets (9). In this one, Duke led 48-26 at halftime while Pitt again had more turnovers (11) than field goals (10). Duke also had a lot of points off turnovers (22 in the first game, 19 Saturday) by the break.

The best news for Pitt? The Panthers only committed four second-half turnovers with the outcome long determined.

“In the second half, I thought we did a much better job of taking care of the ball, and that allowed us to play better,” Stallings said, adding: “But we’ve still got a long way to go.”

DeVoe leads No. 20 Clemson to 67-58 win over Irish

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CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Notre Dame coach Mike Brey believes his program had been perfect against Clemson because during the crucial stretches, it was the Fighting Irish who made the biggest plays.

“Tonight, they made plays,” Brey said after No. 20 Clemson beat Notre Dame for the first time, 67-58 on Saturday.

Gabe DeVoe had 17 points including a critical 3-pointer with 3:18 left to keep the Tigers out front. Shelton Mitchell had 10 of the Tigers’ final 20 points after Notre Dame cut an 11-point deficit to 47-46, and freshman Amir Simms hit a 3 from the right corner with just over a minute left that proved the winning blow for the Tigers (16-3, 5-2 Atlantic Coast Conference).

The victory came after an awful-looking injury to Clemson captain Donte Grantham, whose right knee buckled after getting fouled from behind.

Grantham, a 6-foot-8 senior who averages 14 points a game, had 11 before going down with 10:54 left in the game. Clemson coach Brad Brownell said Grantham would have an MRI on the knee.

“He’s had a very good year and we’re hopeful it’s not over for us,” Brownell said.

Notre Dame (13-7, 3-4) lost its fourth straight. The Fighting Irish had a 5-0 all-time mark over the Tigers, and Clemson barely escaped continuing a second streak of failure in the same week: The Tigers fell to 0-59 all-time at Chapel Hill with their 87-78 loss to North Carolina on Tuesday night.

DeVoe said the Tigers learned from the slow start in that game to break out on top, 21-10 against the Fighting Irish. When things tightened up, he said Clemson’s experience came through.

“Knowing how to finish games has really helped us out a lot this year,” he said.

Mitchell and Marcquise Reed scored 12 points each for the Tigers. Mitchell caught fire after Notre Dame’s rally with a 3-pointer and a driving layup to extend the lead to 52-46.

TJ Gibbs led Notre Dame with 18 points. Matt Farrell, who came in averaging 18 points per game, ended with six on 2-of-11 shooting.

“He had an off night shooting,” Brownell said of Farrell. “But I’d like to think some of it was our defense.”

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish dug themselves an early hole as Clemson made seven of its first eight shots. But Notre Dame answered, gradually cutting the lead to 31-30 as it tightened up the defense and found its shooting touch. … Notre Dame shot just two free throws.

Clemson: When the Tigers are hitting shots, they’re tough to beat. Unfortunately for Clemson, it doesn’t always happen that way. DeVoe, Reed and Grantham all had open 3s early on as the Tigers forged a double-digit lead. Clemson went cold after that, making just four of its last 16 shots of the opening half to open the door for the Fighting Irish. Clemson did just enough to stay in front.

WELCOME BREAK

Brey believes his team’s week off — the Irish don’t play until next Saturday — will help them physically and mentally before trying to even their ACC record. “I think 4-4 (in the ACC) would feel like 8-0 to this group,” Brey said.

TREE TIME

Clemson great and NBA standout Wayne “Tree” Rollins was the featured former Tiger during a pregame alumni celebration. Rollins was recently inducted into the school’s Ring of Honor, the highest athletic award the university gives out. Rollins played 18 years in the NBA, 11 with the Atlanta Hawks. Rollins finished his degree from Clemson two years ago.

Jackson-Cartwright, No. 14 Arizona rally for 73-71 win at Stanford

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STANFORD, Calif. (AP) — Rawle Alkins made a go-ahead layup with 38 seconds remaining, and No. 14 Arizona held on for a 73-71 comeback win Saturday over Stanford to take sole possession of first place in the Pac-12.

Allonzo Trier, who led the Wildcats (16-4, 6-1 Pac-12) with 21 points, added three free throws in the final 18 seconds for Arizona, which trailed by 11 points midway through the second half. Dusan Ristic added 18 points and nine rebounds and Alkins scored 13 for the Wildcats, who have won 16 straight against the Cardinal.

Reid Travis had 20 points for Stanford (11-9, 5-2), which had defeated No. 16 Arizona State three days earlier and was on a five-game winning streak.

The game was tied at 46 when Stanford went on an 11-0 run that included a technical foul on Arizona coach Sean Miller. The Wildcats responded with their own 11-point run, tying the game on a 3-pointer by Trier with 6:20 remaining.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona: The Wildcats have won 13 of their last 14, but this one was closer than most of the 12 other victories — which had come by an average margin of 11 points.

Stanford: The Cardinal’s five-game winning streak was their longest in conference play in a decade.

UP NEXT

Arizona: The Wildcats return home, where they have not lost in 10 games this season, to face Colorado on Thursday.

Stanford: The Cardinal start their annual two-game trip to Los Angeles on Wednesday at Southern California. Stanford is 2-5 away from home this season, including 0-4 at neutral sites.