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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)

What’s Wrong With Trae Young: An in-depth look at how defenses are adjusting to the Oklahoma superstar

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In the past two weeks, Oklahoma’s Trae Young learned the hard way that there is always a cost that comes with success, and for him, it appears to be the weight of expectation.

Young has become a sensation in college basketball this season. He is this year’s version of Adam Morrison, or Jimmer Fredette, or Stephen Curry. He is the best story in college basketball, must-see TV not just because of the numbers he puts up but because of the entertainment that comes with getting seats to the The Trae Young Show.

Not only that, but Young is playing in the toughest conference in college basketball for a title contender as a 19-year old freshman in the biggest, most important and most influential role I can ever remember seeing a player in. Put another way, he has the best coaches in the country ranking their brains for a way to slow him down and get the ball out of his hands all while he, in the back of his mind, is wondering how he can top what he did the game before.

Young has never told me that’s the way he feels, but isn’t that human nature? When I write a great story, I want the next one to be just as good if not better. Musicians want their next single to be better than their last. Lawyers that crush a cross-examination want their closing argument to ensure they win the case. And Young wants to be better every game than he was the previous.

And that, it seems, is why Young has hit the first slump of his post-high school career.

On Tuesday night, No. 4 Oklahoma went into Kansas State and got whooped, 87-69, as Young shot 8-for-21 from the floor and turned the ball over 12 times. Against the Wildcats, Bruce Weber came up with a game-plan that was as simple as it was effective. They blitzed Young on every ball-screen and dribble-handoff, forcing the ball out of his hands before face-guarding him to try and prevent him from getting the ball back.

That came on the heels on committing nine turnovers against TCU over the weekend. He currently leads the country in turnovers – 5.2 per game, including 39 turnovers in his last five games – and it’s a result of the degree of difficulty of the plays that Young is trying to make; it’s almost as if he’s trying to get an assist, to make a highlight reel pass, on every possession, an issue that gets magnified by the number of layups opponents get off of those turnovers:

“He’s trying to do too much,” Young’s father, Rayford, said this week. “He wants to win so bad. He’s got to understand in this league coaches make a lot of money to scout you and shut you down.”

“That’s the difference between now and the beginning of the year. People didn’t understand how to get the ball out of his hands. Now there is some film on him.”

The other issue with Young of late is making the right read. I wrote earlier this season about Young’s passing and how he is so good at reading where defenders are in pick-and-rolls. He had a knack for almost always making the right pass:

But he’s made mistakes more often in recent games than in the first couple of weeks of the season.

In the first clip below, you’ll see Young try to make a no-look pass to the roll-man out after getting blitzed, not seeing that Kansas State was sending a weak-side defender to help. The pass that was open was to the weak-side corner, where Christian James would have had an open look at a three:

In the second clip above, the pass Young tries to make isn’t wrong – getting Jamuni McNeace the ball with a smaller defender on his back can work – but he didn’t put the ball on the money.

That is another trend I noticed watching Young in recent games. I’m not sure sloppy would be the right word to use, but where he typically had been putting the ball exactly where it needed to be previously, he’s now throwing the ball into the crowd.

In the first clip below, you’ll see Young make the right read and find Brady Manek for an open three. The shot didn’t go down, but that’s the shot that Oklahoma is looking for. In the second clip, Young does the same, except the pass ended up three feet off the mark and resulted in a turnover. At the end of the play, Young is visibly frustrated:

In the end, I think the fix here is fairly simple.

For starters, Lon Kruger just needs to settle the kid down. The first action of a possession doesn’t have to lead to a shot. Keeping possession and running more offense is better than forcing a pass with 20 seconds left on the shot clock. I would also expect Kruger to find more ways to get Young into a ball-screen action that goes beyond a simple high-ball screen. Some false motion at the start of a possession can work wonders moving a defense around and getting individual defenders into uncomfortable positions.

Young also needs to trust his teammates a little more, and not in the sense that he doesn’t think they can get the job done but because it would alleviate some of the pressure that falls on his shoulders. Brady Manek, Christian James, Kameron McGusty. Those are good players that can probably handle more of the load.

At the end of the day, opponents have made some adjustments to what Oklahoma wants to do.

And now it is on the Sooners to tweak what they do.

This happens with every team in the country during the course of the season, but given how reliant Oklahoma is on one player, the effect is magnified.

That’s a long-winded way of saying this: The Sooners are fine.

Stanford’s surprising mid-season turnaround continues with upset of No. 16 Arizona State

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Stanford earned a huge home win over No. 16 Arizona State on Wednesday night, taking down the Sun Devils for an 86-77 Pac-12 win.

The win for the Cardinal continues one of the best (and most surprising) turnarounds in the nation as Stanford is keeping pace with Arizona atop the Pac-12 standings. Now sitting at 5-1 in the conference, the Cardinal have won five consecutive games after sitting at 6-8 for the season following a loss to Cal. Stanford has picked off UCLA, USC and Arizona State since the start of 2018 while also sweeping the Washington schools on the road last week. Now Stanford is 11-8 overall while looking like one of the more dangerous teams in the Pac-12.

So how did this turnaround exactly happen?

Stanford figured things out with the mid-season addition of touted freshman forward Kezie Okpala. A bit of a late-blooming prospect coming out of high school, the 6-foot-8 Okpala was a high-end four-star recruit who had to sit out Stanford’s first 12 games this season due to academic complications.

During his final semester of high school, Okpala dropped below the threshold of what Stanford required in an AP calculus course while he tried to juggle the academic rigors of three AP classes. Stanford’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions notified Okpala of this and said they’d honor the original decision to admit him if he agreed to sit out of competition.

It was initially unclear if Okpala would play this season, but he’s figured out the academic side of things, and Stanford is very happy that he’s with them on the court. Since Okpala’s debut, the team has gone 5-2 with the freshman playing extended minutes in all seven contests. Okpala has even scored in double-figures in five of seven games he’s played in so far this season.

While Okpala actually had his worst shooting performance of the season on Wednesday in the win over Arizona State — finishing with four points on 1-for-8 shooting — his size and skill level on the wing (five assists) helped the Cardinal in other facets of the game. Outrebounding the Sun Devils, 44-30, while adding 13 offensive rebounds, Stanford has a long and athletic main lineup with Okpala in the mix.

Forward Reid Travis (18 points, 10 rebounds) remains one of the Pac-12’s most productive players after helping dismantle the Sun Devils with another double-double. Seniors like guard Dorian Pickens (19 points) and center Michael Humphrey (four points, five rebounds) are solid contributors. Freshman guard Daejon Davis (13 points, eight assists) is also seeing his play improve over time as he’s been picking things up lately as conference play gets going.

It might be too-little, too-late when it comes to Stanford’s NCAA tournament hopes after such a rough start. At least the Cardinal are showing plenty of fight now that they have their prized recruit in the lineup. Okpala’s return has given Stanford a major boost as the Cardinal look like a real threat with its rotation in place.

There’s still a long way to go before the Pac-12 conference race is decided. Stanford still has to prove this five-game winning streak isn’t merely a fluke like the half-court buzzer-beater that lifted them past USC. But the Cardinal has at least put themselves in the conversation among the league’s better teams. Nobody saw that coming a few weeks ago.

Wednesday’s Three Things To Know: No. 8 Texas Tech, No. 19 Seton Hall get dropped on the road

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The nights where there aren’t any marquee games are always the nights where college basketball goes absolutely batty.

Wednesday night was no different.

Here are the three things you need to know.

1. TEXAS TECH BLEW THE ADVANTAGE THEY HAD IN THE BIG 12 RACE

It’s a talking point that never really caught on, but prior to Wednesday night’s trip to Austin, No. 8 Texas Tech had the inside lane in the race for the Big 12 regular season title.

There is a clear-cut top four in the conference: Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma and the Red Raiders. The way to win the league was simple: Beat the teams outside of the top four and protect your home court against the other three contenders. Entering Wednesday, Texas Tech and Kansas were sitting one game ahead of West Virginia, who had lost at home to Kansas, and Oklahoma, had lost on the road to Kansas State. Texas Tech already had a leg up on the Jayhawks as well, as they won in Phog Allen Fieldhouse earlier this year.

I would hesitate to call anyone a favorite in the Big 12 that isn’t named Kansas, but the Red Raiders had certainly put themselves in a position where they had the easiest path.

And then the Texas game happened.

Mo Bamba went for 15 points, 11 boards and five blocks and Kerwin Roach poured in 20 in a return to the lineup as Texas beat No. 8 Texas Tech, 67-58. We knew losses were likely coming for the Red Raiders – no one is going to make it through this league without taking some lumps – but it has to be frustrating that those losses came when the program had a chance to keep pace with Kansas.

Credit to Texas. Their defense played as well as it has in weeks, they showed some toughness to get the win against a physical Tech team and they landed a résumé win that should age well.

Texas Tech also did a really cool thing for Andrew Jones prior to the game.

2. SETON HALL GOT BLOWN OUT ON THE ROAD AND DESI RODRIGUEZ GOT BENCHED

Twice in the last eight days, No. 19 Seton Hall has lost by at least 17 points on the road after they fell, 80-63, at Creighton on Wednesday night.

Creighton is a good team. They were playing at home in an arena that routinely puts 17,000 butts in seats. When they get it going they are tough to beat, so there really isn’t all that much to be concerned about here in a vacuum.

But we’re not in a vacuum.

Creighton lost by 20 points at Marquette last Tuesday. Marquette is not as good as Creighton and they do not play in as tough of an atmosphere as there is in Omaha.

What’s worse, however, is that Desi Rodriguez – the guy that has probably been Seton Hall’s Player of the Year – played just six minutes. Here is Kevin Willard’s explanation:

“He had that look in his face where he just didn’t want to be out there. When he gets that way, you just got to let him regroup and refocus. And it just never happened.”

That’s probably a cover for something else, but the concern for Seton Hall fans was that Rodriguez was hurt.

Getting benched isn’t ideal. But it’s better than getting hurt.

3. ALABAMA ENDED NO. 17 AUBURN’S 14-GAME WINNING STREAK

But what is more impressive is that they did it without Collin Sexton, who was sitting out with an injury.

That is a massive win for the Crimson Tide’s NCAA tournament hopes, which our Scott Phillips detailed here.

No. 24 TCU snaps 3-game skid with 96-73 over Iowa State

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Vladimir Brodziansky had 26 points and No. 24 TCU snapped a three-game losing streak with a 96-73 win over Iowa State on Wednesday night, when the Horned Frogs played for the first time without injured starting point guard Jaylen Fisher.

Alex Robinson, who started at point guard, scored eight points and had a school-record 17 assists for the Horned Frogs (14-4, 2-4 Big 12), who never trailed and shot 60 percent from the field. He had only one turnover in 38 minutes.

Brodziansky shot 11 of 13 for his third 20-point game in five games. JD Miller added 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting with five 3-pointers. Kouat Noi scored 16 points and Kenrich Williams had his eighth double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

Donovan Jackson had 19 points for Iowa State (10-6, 1-5). Cameron Lard and Lindell Wigginton each had 16.

Fisher was scheduled to have surgery Thursday, two days after injuring his right knee during practice. The sophomore guard missed the team’s trip to Australia in August after tearing meniscus in his left knee during practice then, but was back for the start of the season after surgery.

Robinson’s 12th assist, surpassing his previous career high of 11, was on pass to Brodziansky for a slam dunk that made it 70-53 with 11:36 left before an Iowa State timeout. That was among many plays applauded by Fisher, who sat in a chair near the TCU bench.

TCU jumped out to a 14-4 lead in the game’s first 5 minutes, and led by as many as 17 in the first half.

BIG PICTURE

Iowa St.: Even while they shot 51 percent from the field (30 of 59), the Cyclones couldn’t gain any momentum coming off their first Big 12 victory Saturday against Baylor. Wigginton, the freshman who was the Big 12 newcomer of the week after games with 30 and 27 points last week, had only two points at halftime after he got two fouls in the first 9 minutes.

TCU: After so many close games, including consecutive overtime losses on the road last week, the Frogs finally had a game in which they didn’t have to press in the closing minutes. Their four Big 12 losses are by a combined 11 points, and their only previous conference win was by three points in overtime.

UP NEXT

Iowa St.: Another ranked opponent for the Cyclones, who host No. 8 Texas Tech on Saturday.

TCU: The Horned Frogs play three of their next four games on the road. They are at Kansas State (13-5, 3-3) on Saturday.

No. 14 Arizona overcomes slow start, runs past Cal 79-58

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BERKELEY, Calif. — Deandre Ayton had 20 points and 11 rebounds, and No. 14 Arizona overcame a slow, sloppy start to beat California 79-58 on Wednesday night.

Parker Jackson-Cartwright scored 14 points with three 3-pointers during a decisive stretch spanning halftime as the Wildcats won their third straight since losing at Colorado on Jan. 6.

Dylan Smith made all four of his 3s and added 14 points and Allonzo Trier scored 15 as Arizona (15-4, 5-1 Pac-12) played without sophomore guard Rawle Alkins, held out as a precaution with what the school said was mild right foot soreness.

Justice Sueing scored 19 points to lead Cal (7-12, 1-5) but missed all six of his 3-point attempts for the cold-shooting Golden Bears, held to 35.3 percent and outrebounded 36-22. Don Coleman had 11 points but shot just 3 of 13.

Ayton made 9 of 11 shots and Arizona shot 62 percent, going 11 for 19 from deep.

Arizona connected on six straight 3-pointers from the 9:20 mark until 2:32 left before halftime to take control, three by Parker Jackson-Cartwright, then seven in all spanning halftime. Cal got within single digits, down by nine, for all of 17 seconds in the second half.

The Wildcats went four possessions until getting their first shot off while committing three quick turnovers and falling behind 6-0. They had turnovers on six of their initial nine possessions and 21 overall but still wound up shooting 70 percent in the opening half.

Arizona won its fourth straight in the series.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona: The Pac-12’s top team from the free throw line, the Wildcats followed up a 34-of-37 showing at the line against Oregon last Saturday — the program’s first time at 90 percent or higher with at least 35 attempts since going 38 of 40 (.950) vs. Washington on Jan. 27, 2005, a span of 454 games — by shooting just 13 free throws and making six. Arizona came in shooting 85.3 percent at the line. … The Wildcats are 18-11 in Pac-12 road games played in the state of California under Sean Miller since 2009. Miller also is 12-4 vs. Cal.

Cal: Kingsley Okoroh, a 7-foot-1 center, scored 10 points to post his first game in double figures scoring since Nov. 16 against Wofford. … Cal has beaten ranked Arizona teams 11 times, including No. 1 four years ago at Haas Pavilion. While the Bears averaged 54.5 points over their recent road trip to Washington and Washington State last weekend, they hurt their chances with a 1-for-13 shooting performance from 3-point range but made 21 of 30 free throws.

UP NEXT

Arizona: At Stanford on Saturday afternoon.

Cal: Hosts Arizona State on Saturday night.