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Five Things We Learned This Week: Oregon’s back and the ACC is weird

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1. Oregon is back: On Wednesday, Oregon put the nation on notice.

The Ducks rallied late to knock off No. 2 UCLA on Matt Court thanks Dillon Brooks, Eugene’s resident all-american, hitting a game-winning three with 0.7 seconds left. Two nights later, with No. 22 USC coming to town, Brooks looked every bit the part of an all-american, as he scored 28 points on 10 shots, hitting all four of his threes as the Ducks steam-rolled the Trojans, who had entered Friday night undefeated.

That was Oregon’s statement, their warning to the rest of the country that their early season struggles and health issues were behind them.

I was as high as anyone on the Ducks back in September, but I was in the same boat as everyone else after they lost to Baylor and lost to Georgetown and struggled to beat the likes of Boise State and Alabama and UConn. I wasn’t going to believe in the Ducks as a title contender until they proved they can be a title contender.

They did that this weekend.

Which means that I’m back on board.

2. The ACC was really weird this weekend: And it doesn’t look like that is going to change anytime soon.

Let’s start with the obvious: Each of the top four teams in the league took a loss during the first week of conference play. No. 6 Louisville lost at home to No. 12 Virginia, who proceeded to lose at home to No. 20 Florida State. No. 5 Duke got blown out at Virginia Tech, a lot that should tell you there are more issues in Durham than just Grayson Allen’s tripping problems. No. 9 North Carolina lost at Georgia Tech, who, along with Boston College, were supposed to be the league’s bottom-feeders this season.

Should I mention that Boston College blew out Syracuse on Sunday?

And frankly, this is probably going to be the norm in that conference this season. The teams we all thought were going to struggle to win more than a couple of league games, Boston College and Georgia Tech, both look much more dangerous than they did a month ago. Duke, the juggernaut that was supposed to truck-stick everyone opponent they faced, is clearly at a crossroads of their season. UNC, UVA and Louisville all have flaws. Florida State and Notre Dame are beatable.

The kicker? There are 12 teams in the league that are good enough to push for an at-large berth. It’s the most cliché piece of coach-speak there is, but there are no easy games or off-nights in the ACC this season.

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3. Is Louisville the best team in the league?: I know this sounds crazy five days after Louisville got embarrassed at home by Virginia, but the thing to remember with Louisville is that Virginia is just about the worst possible matchup for them. Styles make fights in college hoops, and what Louisville does well gets taken away by what Virginia is the best in the country at.

And considering that, in the last two weeks, Louisville sandwiched that loss to Virginia with a win over Kentucky and a win over Indiana in Indiana, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this team is peaking. Quentin Snider played the best game of his career in the win over Kentucky. Donovan Mitchell played the best game of his career in the win over the Hoosiers. Deng Adel was very good in both. The early-season struggles of those three players is why there are doubts about the Cardinals.

Should I mention that as Louisville is starting to peak, Duke is a mess and North Carolina is losing to Georgia Tech?

Honestly, I think the correct answer is that there isn’t a “best team in the ACC”, but Louisville has as good of a chance to win the regular season title as anyone.

4. The Big Ten was weird this weekend, too: It wasn’t quite as weird as the ACC was, but after the first week’s worth of Big Ten games it’s pretty clear that the league is going to be tougher to peg than we thought. It starts with Nebraska, who entered league play having lost six of their last eight games and who will enter next week having won at Indiana and at Maryland, two teams that look like they’ll be in the NCAA tournament in March. Then there is Minnesota, who had a 12-1 record during non-conference play and proceeded to lose to an under-manned Michigan State team at home in overtime before beating No. 15 Purdue on the road in overtime.

Wisconsin is quiet clearly the best team in the Big Ten, but before this weekend, I think most observers would have told you that Purdue and Indiana aren’t all that far behind the Badgers. Maybe that’s wrong.

5. Is it time to start calling Villanova the favorite to win it all?: Our Travis Hines was in Omaha for that game and penned an excellent column on this very subject. I won’t totally repeat it here, but I will say this: The freshmen at Duke, Kentucky and UCLA have been as hyped as any freshmen class in recent memory; rightfully so, those dudes are awesome. Baylor has been celebrated because of the fact that no one saw this coming. North Carolina is North Carolina and played the most entertaining game of the year in the most watched game of the year against Kentucky.

And all the while, Villanova just keeps winning.

Yes, they’re the reigning champs. Yes, they have a National Player of the Year favorite on their roster. Yes, they’re No. 1 in both polls.

But they never seem to be the trendy team, the popular pick to win it all, the favorite among the “experts” in this business. It may be time to change that, because if Villanova’s win at No. 10 Creighton taught us anything, it’s that know team in the country understands how to win better than the Wildcats. They’re cool, calm and collected in pressure moments. They don’t rush. They don’t panic. They don’t force shots.

They execute.

They just win.

Villanova guard Jalen Brunson (1) dribbles the ball down court with Creighton guard Khyri Thomas (2) guarding him during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Omaha, Neb., Saturday, Dec. 28, 2016. Villanova defeated Creighton 80-70. (AP Photo/John Peterson)
Villanova guard Jalen Brunson (AP Photo/John Peterson)

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.