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No. 14 Louisville knocks off No. 7 Duke, whose slide continues

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Anas Mahmoud had the best game of his collegiate career, finishing with 17 points and 11 boards, and Donovan Mitchell chipped in with 15 points of his own as No. 14 Louisville handed No. 7 Duke their second consecutive loss, 78-69.

Duke jumped out to an early lead on the Cardinals, but Louisville used a 20-5 run late in the half to go ahead 34-30 at the break. The Cardinals did not play great offensively, but they shot 7-for-18 from three and made key jumpers late in both halves to pull away from the Blue Devils.

Grayson Allen led Duke with 23 points and Luke Kennard chipped in with 17, but Duke clearly missed Amile Jefferson – particularly on the defensive end of the floor – and Jayson Tatum shot just 3-for-11 from the field.

Here are four things we learned in Louisville’s win:

1. Anas Mahmoud was awesome: In his fifth game as Louisville’s starting center, Mahmoud had his breakout game. He finished with 17 points, 11 boards, two steals and a block, changing more shots in the lane than I was able to track. His presence in the lineup changes things for the Cardinals on both ends of the floor. On the one hand, he’s probably their best defensive center given his length. He looks like he weighs about 215 pounds, and that is an issue, but what he’s able to bring to the table for the Cardinals defensively – both in rim protection and his ability to switch out onto smaller defenders – is valuable enough to take some risks against stronger opponents.

He’s also a key piece offensively. In prior games, it’s been because of his ability to pass the ball. He’s not a guy that collects a ton of assists, but his ball movement from the low- and high-post lets Louisville’s offense run smoother. On Saturday, however, he point production came as the roll-man in ball-screen actions, which is part of the reason why …

2. … Louisville lit up Duke with ball-screens: This is not the first time this has happened to the Blue Devils this season, and it certainly will not be the last. It’s Duke’s biggest issue on the defensive end of the floor. They are a total mess trying to slow down teams that understand how to execute those actions. In the first half, Mahmoud had four wide-open dunks/layups at the rim because the Blue Devils totally lost track of where he was. At one point in the half, Louisville was 6-for-21 from the floor with three dunks from Mahmoud on alley-oops.

Those were significant baskets. Duke was actually playing well defensively at that point in the game. They were contesting jumpers and limiting penetration, and Louisville’s offense was sputtering as a result. But Duke was never able to extend the lead, meaning that when the Cards did finally get it going, they were able to jump right back into the lead.

3. Duke could not take advantage of Louisville’s switching: Before I go any further, a disclaimer: Louisville is the best defensive team in college basketball and Duke is a team that does not have a point guard on their roster. That said, it is still troubling to see a team with this much talent look this out of sync offensively. They finished with eight assists and 18 turnovers on the day. When they actually were able to score, more often than not it came out of isolations or transition.

The biggest issue, however, was that Duke didn’t have anyone on the block that they could give the ball to that would allow them to take advantage of the fact that Louisville was switching everything. Combine that with the fact that Duke’s guards aren’t quick enough to beat Louisville’s athletic bigs off the dribble, and that offensive performance is what you get.

LOUISVILLE, KY - JANUARY 11:  Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Louisville Cardinals shoots the ball during the game against the Pittsburgh Panthers at KFC YUM! Center on January 11, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Donovan Mitchell (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

4. Duke is a total mess: There’s really no other way to put it. And there are justifiable reasons for this mess. They’ve played 18 games this season, and only twice were all five members of their ideal starting lineup – Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard, Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles III and Amile Jefferson – healthy. The three star freshmen all missed at least the first month of the season. Jefferson did not play in their two toughest road games of the year to date, which both came this week. And all of this is going on while Coach K is out recovering from back surgery.

But that doesn’t change the fact that this team is nowhere near where we thought they would be at this point in the season. Giles was away from the game for, essentially, 14 months as he recovered from an ACL surgery on his right knee and an arthroscopic surgery on his already-surgically repaired left knee. Marques Bolden is even further away from contributing; he’s seen both Chase Jeter and Javin DeLaurier vault past his in Duke’s front court depth chart, which is a very troubling sign. Frank Jackson isn’t playing with anywhere near the confidence that he had in the first month of the season, and Tatum looks like he has no understanding of how to play basketball.

In fact, Duke might be a better basketball team with Tatum on the bench right now. The problem with that, however, is that the Blue Devils don’t have the depth to take him off the court. These four guys that came off the bench to play for Duke on Saturday: Jackson, Jeter, Bolden and DeLaurier. As bad as Tatum has been, Duke is better off with him playing than with any of those other four guys playing.

We’ve seen this before. During the 2014-15 season, Duke lost back-to-back games in the middle of January, falling at N.C. State and at home to Miami by 16 points; if you don’t remember that Miami game, it was the game where Angel Rodriguez looked like Chris Paul. Everyone in the world questioned Duke’s ball-screen defense and whether or not a team that had Jahlil Okafor at the five and Tyus Jones at the point would ever be good enough defensively to win a national title.

If you remember, that team eventually earned a No. 1 seed and, during the NCAA tournament, played defense that was on par with 2015 Kentucky’s record-setting defense en route to a national title.

That team didn’t have the injuries this team does. That team also didn’t have to figure everything out with Coach K sidelined. Duke has actually looked better in these last two losses, which came at No. 9 Florida State and at No. 14 Louisville, than they did in a loss at Virginia Tech. There is reason to be cautiously optimistic.

But there is even more reason to think that Duke is simply never going to reach their potential this year.

LOUISVILLE, KY - JANUARY 14:  Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils shoots the ball during the game against the Louisville Cardinals at KFC YUM! Center on January 14, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Grayson Allen (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Gonzaga passes the title of best program without a Final Four to Xavier in win

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In 1999, Gonzaga was not yet “Gonzaga”.

A No. 10 seed in just their third NCAA tournament, the Zags won three games against high-major competition, coming within a possession of reaching the Final Four in a loss to No. 1 seed UConn.

UConn, at that point, was one of the best programs in the country under Jim Calhoun, but the knock on the Huskies at that point was that they couldn’t win the big one. They had been to three Elite 8s and three more Sweet 16s in the previous eight seasons, but it wasn’t until they knocked off that Gonzaga team that they finally were playing on college basketball’s biggest stage.

For 18 years, Gonzaga tried and failed to get to a Final Four, becoming one of the nation’s premier basketball programs without having the postseason success to legitimize themselves in the eyes of idiots around the country. That ended on Saturday night in San Jose, as No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended No. 11 Xavier’s thrilling run to the Elite 8 and passing on the torch that UConn passed to them.

Xavier can now claim the title of the best basketball program that has yet to make a Final Four, which is both a compliment and a curse.

The Musketeers have been to the NCAA tournament 25 times since the bracket expanded to 64 teams in 1985. They’ve been to nine Sweet 16s and three Elite 8s. They had a winning record in NCAA tournament play until Saturday’s loss and now lay claim to the title of the team with the most NCAA tournament wins without an appearance in the Final Four.

Xavier is going to get there eventually. Chris Mack is one of the best coaches in the business. Hell, if Trevon Bluiett and Edmond Sumner both return to school, it could very well be next season that they snap that streak. It’s coming at some point.

I don’t even think it’s an insult to say this about Xavier. I don’t think it’s a shot at the program or the coaches that have come through it. Getting to the Final Four is hard. Bill Self is a lead-pipe lock to be a Hall of Famer, and he’s been to just two Final Fours in his career. He’s 2-7 in the Elite 8, and if Derrick Rose could make his free throws, the discussion of just how good of a coach Self is if he can’t win a title would be raging with the Jayhawks flaming out of the tournament on Saturday night.

But as with Gonzaga and UConn before them, Xavier is going to have that monkey on their back every time they suit up in March.

VIDEO: Tyler Dorsey hits dagger after dagger in upset of Kansas

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Tyler Dorsey is building himself quite the reputation for being a big-shot maker.

He hit the game-winner that got Oregon to the Sweet 16. He hit two threes at the end of the first half to push Oregon’s lead to 11 points over Kansas. And he hit this three, the dagger through the heart of Kansas:

Dorsey finished with 27 points. He’s scored at least 20 points in every game since the NCAA tournament began.

No. 3 Oregon heading to first Final Four in 78 years

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Oregon, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest region, made what looked to be a smooth path to Phoenix into a bumpy road. But after 78 years, the Ducks are going back to the Final Four, defeating No. 1 Kansas, 74-60, in Elite Eight on Friday night in Kansas City.

Everything went right for the Ducks in the first half. Josh Jackson was called for two fouls in the less than three minutes. The Jayhawks were limited in transition. Tyler Dorsey’s two 3-pointers in the final 40 seconds gave them a double-digit lead at halftime. Oregon stretched it to as many as 18 in the second. Kansas couldn’t buy a basket from three (a far cry from the 3-point barrage it put on Purdue two nights earlier). When the Jayhawks drove to the basket, it was Jordan Bell (11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks) who either blocked or altered their shots.

However, the Ducks not only left the door open for the Jayhawks, they held it open. Kansas’ comeback attempt was a mix drink that was equal parts KU putting the clamps on defensively, Oregon playing a bit of hero ball, and the Ducks playing not to lose instead of to win. Up six with less than two minutes remaining, and Dorsey (27 points) buried a dagger 3-pointer that all but sealed the win — and a spot in next week’s Final Four — for the Ducks.

Oregon will play the winner of the South region, which will either be No. 1 North Carolina or No. 2 Kentucky on Saturday.

 

VIDEO: Jordan Bell’s spectacular chase-down block

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Oregon big man Jordan Bell has been the best player on the floor for the Ducks against Kansas, totally changing the way that Kansas wants to play with his defense.

As of the time of this posting, he had nine points, 11 boards, seven blocks and three assists, but his impact is not solely limited to the shots he swatted — every Kansas player that gets into the lane is very aware of the fact that Bell is lurking around the rim.

The thought of him changes shots.

The best block he’s had today came midway through the second half, when he snuffed out a dunk attempt from Landen Lucas with an impressive chase-down block:

No. 1 Gonzaga reaches first Final Four with win over No. 11 Xavier

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It took 18 long years, but after Gonzaga exploded onto the national scene with a Cinderella run that came one possession short of the Final Four in 1999, after the program followed up that run with back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16 as a double-digit seed, after 19 straight trips to the NCAA tournament marred by moments of unfathomable heartbreak, the nation’s preeminent mid-major success story is finally headed to the Final Four.

What will the ‘Gonzaga is overrated’ crowd say now?

Armed with a roster that included a pair of blue-chip guards in their back court, a trio of high-major transfers and a McDonald’s All-American and future first round pick coming off the bench, Mark Few knocked off No. 11 seed Xavier, 83-59, on Saturday night to win the West Region and punch his first ticket to the final weekend of the college basketball season. Nigel Williams-Goss led the way with 23 points, eight boards and four assists and Johnathan Williams III, who was named the region’s Most Outstanding Player, added 19 points and nine boards as Gonzaga buried 12 threes and jumped out to an early lead they would never relinquish in a game that never felt like it was in doubt.

And with that, the monkey on Mark Few’s back is now gone.

“It means everything that we could deliver for guys like this,” Mark Few said after the game. Few had been the winningest NCAA tournament coach without a Final Four on his résumé. “They believed in us when they came. This is what we wanted to do and set out to do, and these guys were unbelievable. I could not be happier for all these guys, all our former players and all of Zag Nation.”

Whether or not that monkey was deserved is a fair question to ask. Gonzaga has had an incredible amount of success in the NCAA tournament. They’ve won at least one game in 16 of the 19 NCAA tournaments, including this year, that they’ve been a part of, including five of the six years in which they were a double-digit seed. In 13 of the previous 18 NCAA tournaments they played in, they advanced as far or further than their seed suggested they should have. Only five times did they lose to a team that was seeded lower than them. They’ve won 17 WCC regular season titles and 15 WCC tournament titles during that span.

What they’ve done, the consistency of the success that they’ve had, is not something done easily.

And it’s not something that should be overlooked when you consider where this program was in the early 90s. When Few was hired as an assistant coach in 1990, Gonzaga was thought of as the worst job in the WCC. The program, located in Spokane, Washington, which isn’t exactly a hotbed for recruiting, had never been to an NCAA tournament. The school didn’t even have a weight room for the team.

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

“Players would sign out sweats and jerseys at the beginning of every school year and turn them back in nine months later,” wrote Yahoo’s Jeff Eisenberg earlier this week. “Sneakers were the only gear players received new, but obtaining a fresh pair typically required proving the old ones had a hole in the bottom.”

Within five years, Gonzaga was in the NCAA tournament. Within nine years, they had won the league and reached the Elite 8. Within 15 years, the school opened up a sparkling, $25-million, 6,000-seat arena, chartering flights for road games and recruiting trips.

Today, Gonzaga is arguably a top ten program in the sport

It is, quite literally, college basketball’s best rags-to-riches story.

They shouldn’t need this to justify their standing in the sport. Few shouldn’t need this to legitimize himself as something more than a coach feasting on a conference that can’t compete.

“My legacy is I guess built on a lot of other things,” Few said on Friday. “It’s built on the respect my players have for me and how they feel about they were treated and coached and developed and all that.”

“I’m schlepping along right now like vastly far behind my father who is 54 years a Presbyterian minister, man. He’s saved thousands of souls. He’s helped hundreds and thousands of people through all their tough times, you know. And that’s kind of the legacy that I’m looking at.”

But that’s not how our sport works.

March means everything.

If you can’t win on the biggest stage, if you don’t have that level of success when all eyes turn to college basketball, then everything you did during the previous four months is written off.

It’s not fair.

But that’s just how it is.

And now, nearly two decades removed from their introduction into the national consciousness, Gonzaga’s detractors no longer have that leg to stand on.