Weekly Awards: Kevon Looney saves UCLA, Virginia’s ascent continues

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Kevon Looney (Getty Images)

PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Kevon Looney, UCLA

UCLA’s season was over. They had lost five straight games, had kicked off Pac-12 play by losing at Colorado and getting embarrassed at Utah, and had managed to make the term ‘Daddy Ball’ popular among the Bryce Alford haters. But that all changed this past week, as the Bruins beat both Stanford — in double-overtime — and Cal at Pauley Pavilion. And suddenly, things don’t look so bad. That five-game losing streak consisted of two top ten teams and three road games, and with games against USC, Oregon and Oregon State coming up, a 5-2 mark in league play heading into Super Bowl weekend is feasible.

The catalyst for that resurgence? Kevon Looney. The 6-foot-8 former McDonald’s All-American had 27 points and 19 boards against Stanford, following that up with 15 points and seven boards against Cal. He was 14-for-24 from the floor and has now hit four of his last six from three. UCLA may not be a different team than they were a week ago, but the doom and gloom surrounding the program has certainly changed. That’s a big step.

THE ‘ALL THEY WERE GOOD, TOO’ TEAM

  • Kris Dunn, Providence: Dunn led the Friars to wins over Providence and Georgetown, averaging 20.5 points, 7.5 assists and 5.5 boards to go along with three steals and three blocks.
  • Darrun Hilliard, Villanova: The Wildcats reaffirmed their place at the favorite in the Big East by winning at St. John’s and smacking around previously 3-0 DePaul. Hilliard averaged 21.0 points in the two wins.
  • George Fant, Western Kentucky: WKU moved to 3-0 in Conference USA with wins over Charlotte and No. 25 Old Dominion with Fant averaging 21.0 points and 12.0 boards.
  • Marcus Foster, Kansas State: Foster scored 23 points in a win at TCU on Wednesday and followed that up with 14 points, including the game-tying and game-winning shots, as the Wildcats won at Oklahoma. Foster was benched last week.
  • Bobby Portis, Arkansas: Portis went for 21 points as the Razorbacks kicked off SEC play with a win at Georgia, following that up by putting 32 points and 11 boards — nine offensive — on Vanderbilt star Damian Jones.
  • Notables: Ameen Tanksley (Hofstra), Raheem Appleby (Louisiana Tech)

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Virginia Cavaliers

source: AP
Malcolm Brogdon (AP Photo)

Kentucky will remain the No. 1 team in the country after this week despite the fact that they were twice taken to overtime by overmatched SEC opponents. Duke lost to an overmatched N.C. State team on the road. Wisconsin lost at Rutgers. Arizona was pushed to the brink at Oregon State. Louisville lost at North Carolina. Texas lost twice. Elite teams have not handled the start of league play all that well, yet here we are, approaching the midway point of the season, and Virginia is not only undefeated, but they’ve now beaten three top 20 teams on the road.

The Cavs knocked off Maryland during the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and beat VCU in Richmond back in December. But their most impressive win came this week, as they went into South Bend and knocked off No. 13 Notre Dame three days after outlasting a hot-shooting N.C. State team in Charlottesville. I still have my doubts about Virginia, but the Cavs are every bit deserving of that No. 2 ranking they’ll have on Monday.

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Iowa State Cyclones: The Cyclones bounced back from a loss to South Carolina with a pair of impressive wins to kick off Big 12 play, knocking off Oklahoma State in Ames and West Virginia on the road.
  • Dayton: Playing with just six scholarship players, Dayton has now won six straight games and is now tied for first place in the Atlantic 10.
  • Michigan State: The Spartans won three games in Big Ten play this week after losing to Maryland in double-overtime to kick off the conference season.
  • UNC Wilmington: The Seahawks moved into first place in the CAA by picking up three league wins this week. Kevin Keatts has won eight games this season; UNCW won nine all of last year.
  • Wyoming: The Cowboys continue to look like the best team in the Mountain West, following up a win at Colorado State by smacking around Boise State. Larry Nance Jr. is the favorite for MWC Player of the Year at this point.
  • Notables: Vermont, Utah

SET YOUR DVR

  • No. 16 Oklahoma at No. 14 West Virginia, Tue. 7:00 p.m.
  • No. 2 Duke at No. 5 Louisville, Sat. 12:00 p.m.
  • No. 14 West Virginia at No. 10 Texas, Sat. 6:15 p.m.
  • No. 9 Utah at No. 7 Arizona, Sat. 7:00 p.m.
  • No. 12 Kansas at No. 17 Iowa State, Sat. 9:00 p.m.

Calipari signs two-year extension with Kentucky

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Kentucky continues to take care of John Calipari.

The Wildcats coach has received a two-year extension, keeping him under contract in Lexington through the 2024 season, the school announced Wednesday.

The contract will pay Calipari $7.75 million next season and increase to $8 million per season thereafter.

“John has achieved consistent championship-level performance at Kentucky,” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said in a statement. “No one in America is better suited for everything that comes with being the coach here. Not only has he attained incredible success on the court, he is also a leader in our community and in college basketball.

“We have been blessed to have him and Ellen here for the last eight years and we are blessed they will continue to call Kentucky home.”

Not only does the deal extend Calipari, but it continues to keep Kentucky competitive with the NBA, which would seem to be the only outlet that would even potentially tempt Calipari away from Kentucky. An NBA franchise would have to make him among the highest-paid coaches in the league to even match Kentucky financially.

Of course, given that Calipari has spurned interest from the league since returning to college in 2000, it seems unlikely that financial considerations would be the lone or heaviest variable in making a decision to move on.

Certainly, Calipari has an excellent thing going at Kentucky as the premier recruiting program in the country that has enjoyed serious success on the court, culminating in a 2012 national title and a 38-0 start to the 2015 season before a loss in the Final Four.

“The last eight years at the University of Kentucky have been a terrific ride,” Calipari said in a statement. “This extension shows our full commitment to each other. I believe this school is the gold standard and I’m so thankful and blessed that this university has given me this opportunity at this point in my career.”

The Wildcats face UCLA in the Sweet 16 on Friday.

Louisville’s Mitchell declaring for draft, won’t hire an agent

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Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell is the latest to decide to see what the NBA might offer.

“I have decided to test the waters and not hire an agent!” Mitchell wrote in an Instagram post Wednesday. “I am excited to work out this summer for teams and hopefully participate in the NBA combine! I want it to be clear I have not decided to leave Louisville!”

Mitchell, who is expected to be joined by dozens of players, is taking advantage of new NCAA rules that allow him to work out for teams and attend the NBA draft combine before making a decision on whether to remain in the draft and return to school.

Players have until May 24 to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

Mitchell averaged 15.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists as a sophomore, shooting 40.8 percent overall and 35.4 percent on 3-point attempts.

The 6-foot-3 guard is projected as a potential first-round pick, but should he return, the Cardinals would project as one of the top teams in the country with nearly the entire core returning from this year’s 25-9 squad.

Moe-mentum: Wagner stands tall for Sweet 16-bound Michigan

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) Ask Moe Wagner who he looked up to when he was younger, and suddenly the Michigan big man’s fiery demeanor makes a little more sense.

“Kevin Garnett was always my biggest idol, even though our play isn’t really similar. Just the way he brings intensity and energy to his team,” Wagner said. “That always was something that really impressed me.”

Now Wagner is providing his own emotional leadership to a Michigan team that has become one of college basketball’s most remarkable stories this March.

The Wolverines have won six in a row since they were involved in a plane accident on the eve of their Big Ten Tournament opener.

After winning that conference tourney, they opened the NCAAs with victories against Oklahoma State and Louisville – with Wagner scoring 26 points in the win over Louisville that sent Michigan to the Sweet 16.

The 19-year-old Wagner is in his second season with the Wolverines. He showed some promise in 2015-16, but averaged only 8.6 minutes a game as a freshman. He’s been a starter the whole way this season, teaming up with D.J. Wilson to give Michigan some unexpected production in the frontcourt.

The Wolverines entered the season with high hopes thanks to the presence of seniors Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin.

The 6-foot-11 Wagner has made them even tougher to defend. The sophomore from Berlin is averaging 12.2 points a game, and unlike Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan – two of Michigan’s top big men of the recent past – Wagner is a threat from beyond the arc. He’s made 41 percent of his 3-point attempts in 2016-17, putting even more pressure on opposing teams.

An expressive player on the court, Wagner admits he’s still learning how to keep his emotions under control.

Coach John Beilein says Wagner can be hard on himself, but he has an upbeat attitude the Wolverines can appreciate.

“I don’t want to rob him of his energy and his passion,” Beilein said. “If you heard him in timeouts – I mean, he is really into it. And it’s encouraging things he’s saying.”

The key for Wagner is to stay on the court. He’s been whistled for 100 fouls this season – no other Michigan player has more than 80 – and he picked up two in the first 3:11 when the Wolverines faced Oklahoma State in their NCAA Tournament opener Friday. Wagner played only 14 minutes in that frenetic game, which Michigan won 92-91 .

Against Louisville in the round of 32 , Wagner went 11 of 14 from the field and kept his poise after being called for his second foul late in the first half.

“He’s always just been an excited guy – play hard and play with a lot of passion,” Walton said. “I don’t think anything has changed. I think he’s just channeling it a little better.”

The seventh-seeded Wolverines face third-seeded Oregon on Thursday night in a regional semifinal. Michigan has won seven in a row, a streak that began with the team’s last game of the regular season.

What happened next is well documented. The day before its opening game in the conference tournament, Michigan’s plane slid off the runway .

There were no serious injuries, and the Wolverines arrived in time to play. Then they won four games in four days to take the title.

Now, Michigan is two victories away from an improbable Final Four appearance. If the Wolverines actually make it that far, Wagner will be a big reason why – and he’ll probably be as excited as anyone.

“One of my youth coaches actually used to say that I was somebody who, like, sees the basketball court as a stage and really enjoys it,” Wagner said. “Last year, I started to understand what that actually means, and kind of embraced that this year. That’s just me. I really love it. I really enjoy it.”

 

California’s Ivan Rabb declares for the NBA Draft

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Ivan Rabb announced on Wednesday that he will be declaring for the NBA Draft and foregoing his final two seasons with California.

“I want to thank everybody for their support,” Rabb said in a statement. “Since the day I committed to Cal, the love from Bay Area fans was overwhelming. I could genuinely tell that people really appreciated seeing me come to Cal and succeed and do well. Haas Pavilion will always hold a special place in my heart, and I won’t forget how incredible it felt to be “Oakland’s Own” as I ran onto the court in front of my friends, family and team.”

As a sophomore, Rabb averaged 14.0 points and 10.5 boards. He’s projected as a mid-to-late first round pick in the draft a year after making the decision to return to school as a projected lottery pick last season.

Duke’s Jayson Tatum declares for the NBA Draft

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Duke’s Jayson Tatum will declare for the NBA Draft and hire an agent, the program announced on Wednesday.

Tatum is a projected top five pick in the NBA Draft. He averaged 16.8 points playing the role of small-ball four for the Blue Devils this season after missing the first month of the season with a foot injury.

“I have absolutely loved coaching Jayson Tatum,” Coach K said in a statement. “His skill set and work ethic will make him a star in the NBA. Whichever team selects him will be getting a humble, thoughtful and talented young man whom we are proud to call a member of the Duke basketball brotherhood.”

Tatum was the most talented player on the Blue Devils this season, but it was an up and down year for Duke as a whole. They were predicted by just about everyone to win the national title back in the preseason, but they eventually bowed out of the NCAA tournament in the second round.