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UCLA is no longer a Final Four contender if their defense doesn’t improve

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Saturday’s win over No. 8 UCLA was massive for No. 7 Arizona for a number of reasons.

They got Allonzo Trier back into the fold. They remained undefeated atop the Pac-12 standings, keeping pace with an Oregon team that’s dealing with another Dillon Brooks foot injury and getting ready to make the nightmarish trip to the Mountain schools, Utah and Colorado, this weekend. They took a two game lead over the Bruins in the Pac-12 standings.

Perhaps more importantly, the Wildcats certified themselves as a legitimate threat to get to the Final Four. Their 17-2 record entering Saturday was pretty. A win at Pauley finally gave that résumé some substance.

So good for Arizona.

But that wasn’t the biggest story line coming out of Pauley Pavilion on Saturday afternoon.

UCLA’s defense, or lack thereof, was.

Ever since the Bruins went into Rupp Arena and knocked off then-No. 1 Kentucky, UCLA has been considered one of the very best teams in the country. Villanova’s up there, too. So is Kansas, and Gonzaga, and those Kentucky Wildcats. North Carolina probably should be in that conversation as well. Maybe Baylor, maaaybe Florida State.

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You get my point. The Bruins, for better or worse, were one of the handful of teams that everyone thought would enter the NCAA tournament as a favorite to win the national title, but it’s time for us to question whether or not that is actually the case. That’s how bad the UCLA defense has been this season, particularly of late.

Against Arizona, the Bruins were a train-wreck. They gave up 96 points on 1.315 points-per-possession, which, for those of you who aren’t into advanced stats, is atrocious. That game was the culmination of a four-game stretch where UCLA’s defense had gone from concerning-but-good-enough to a major red flag. In those four games – road trips to Colorado and Utah and home games against Arizona and Arizona State – the Bruins allowed an abysmal 1.153 PPP. For comparison’s sake, the 2015 Kentucky team that went 38-1, the best defense we’ve seen in the KenPom era, gave up 0.847 PPP. UCLA averages 75 possessions a game, which is a difference of 23 points over 40 minutes.

That’s a big deal.

And on the season, UCLA has fallen the way to 125th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric.

That’s a bigger deal.

For those that don’t know, KenPom.com is a website that ranks teams based on how many points they score and allow per possession, adjusted for schedule strength. It’s widely considered the best way to determine who the best offensive, the best defensive and the best overall teams are.

It’s been around since 2002.

And since 2002, given where UCLA’s defense is today, they would be the second-worst defensive team to ever get to a Final Four.

In 2011, VCU ranked 138th in defensive efficiency as of Selection Sunday*, and they are the only team to ever rank outside the top 80 in defensive efficiency and make it all the way to the Final Four. Only three other teams have ranked outside the top 50 and made it to the final weekend of the season: Marquette in 2003 (76th), Butler in 2011 (72nd) and Michigan in 2013 (66th). Two others ranked outside the top 40 and won at least four games in the Big Dance: Texas in 2003 (46th) and Wisconsin in 2014 (50th):

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*(All of this info is via KenPom.com and as of Selection Sunday in those given seasons. That’s important to note, because winning games against good teams in the tournament changes those stats.)

The precedent is there.

UCLA, unquestionably, has to get better defensively if they want to win a national title.

But all hope is not lost.

The two teams with the lowest defensive efficiency entering the NCAA tournament to win the national title – North Carolina in 2009 and Duke in 2015 – both had top three offenses nationally.

UCLA leads the nation in offensive efficiency.

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.

Bates-Diop, No. 22 Ohio State top Minnesota 67-49

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NEW YORK (AP) — Keita Bates-Diop had 17 points and 12 rebounds, leading No. 22 Ohio State over Minnesota 67-49 Saturday for its seventh straight win.

The game was part of a two-sport Big Ten doubleheader at Madison Square Garden. At night, Minnesota and Michigan State were set to meet in hockey.

The Buckeyes (17-4, 8-0 Big Ten) used a 24-2 burst to overcome a 10-point deficit midway through the first half. They stayed in control, and went on to match last season’s win total.

Kaleb Wesson added 15 points and eight rebounds for Ohio State.

Amir Coffey, who missed five games because of a shoulder injury, scored 11 points for the Golden Gophers (14-8, 3-6). Jordan Murphy had 13.