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Josh Jackson, No. 3 Kansas outlasts No. 2 Baylor

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Josh Jackson finished with a career-high 23 points and 11 boards and Frank Mason added 17 points and five assists in an off-night as No. 3 Kansas protected their home floor and gave themselves the inside track to winning their 13th straight Big 12 regular season with a 73-68 win over No. 2 Baylor on Wednesday.

Landen Lucas was terrific for the Jayhawks, finishing with 11 boards and two huge baskets over Baylor’s massive front line late in the second half.

Johnathan Motley had 14 of his 16 points in the first half, but Kansas did an excellent job of taking him away down the stretch. Manu Lecomte added 16 points for the Bears, who turned the ball over with 1.3 seconds left in a game that they trailed 71-68.

Here are five things we can take away from this game:

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 01: Manu Lecomte #20 of the Baylor Bearspasses as Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks defends during the game at Allen Fieldhouse on February 1, 2017 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

1. Josh Jackson is officially the best player on Kansas: I’m not sure it’s much of an argument anymore, either. He had 23 points, 11 boards and two blocks on Wednesday. He shot 8-for-13 from the floor and hit a pair of threes. He spent much of the game defensively dealing with the much larger Johnathan Motley and Jo Lual-Acuil, a pair of seven-footers that wanted nothing more than to bully Jackson as much as they could, and he more than held his own. Acuil had just 10 points and eight boards while Motley was totally ineffective in the second half.

What’s more is that the Jayhawks just finished the toughest three-game stretch of their season, and possibly of anyone’s season. They played at West Virginia, at Kentucky and at home to Baylor, going 2-1 in three games against top ten KenPom teams. Jackson, in those three games, averaged 21.7 points, 8.0 boards and 2.7 assists while shooting 57.1 percent from the floor and 61.6 percent from three. The difference on Wednesday was that Jackson was totally locked-in on both ends of the floor. Against West Virginia, he just wasn’t good defensively. That was not the case against Baylor.

At this point, he’s absolutely played himself into the discussion for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft and is almost certainly going to end up being a top five pick.

Frank Mason III is still the Kansas MVP. He’s the emotional leader of that group. He’s the guy who makes the important decisions and will get shots on the most important possessions. He’s our leader for National Player of the Year for a reason.

But that doesn’t change the fact that he’s no longer the best player on Kansas.

2. If anyone still doubts Baylor, you should stop: If going into Phog Allen and putting together this kind of a performance doesn’t sell you on the idea that the Bears can get to a Final Four and are the only threat to the Jayhawks in the race for the Big 12 title, nothing well.

You don’t win in Phog Allen. You just don’t. And Baylor had the ball with a chance to tie on their final possession in a game where they were outshot from the free throw line by 21 foul shots. And yes, Kansas has been challenged in that building before. No, it’s not always by a good team. (See: State, Kansas.) But when you combine the fact that A) Baylor has arguably the best résumé in the sport, B) is considered by just about every metric to be one of the nation’s elite teams and C) they put together this kind of a performance in that building, even the most diabolical hater west of the Mississippi will struggle to nitpick them.

So I ask you, in all seriousness, if you don’t believe in this Baylor team by now: What else do you need to see?

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 01: Jo Lual-Acuil Jr. #0 and Johnathan Motley #5 of the Baylor Bears watch a loose ball during the game against the Kansas Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse on February 1, 2017 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

3. The zone is here to stay: For the second straight games against a fellow Final Four contender, Bill Self’s zone defense changed the game in the second half. The Jayhawks didn’t play strictly zone – there were possessions of man-to-man thrown in there as well – but I’m not sure there’s a way to justify not playing it. We’ve been over the reasons why it works for Kansas numerous times by now, but to recap: It protects Landen Lucas, who is essentially the only big man on the roster; it saves the legs of the Jayhawk guards, who are being asked to play crazy amounts of minutes; and, with the length, athleticism and mobility of their wings, it’s actually pretty effective defense, especially if Josh Jackson is going to get double-digit rebounds.

4. Landen Lucas was awesome: He finished with 11 boards, four offensive, and five points, but his numbers don’t do his impact on this game justice. After a first half where Motley gave the Jayhawks 14 points and six boards, Lucas turned in a stalwart performance in the paint. He changed shots at the rim. He cleaned the defensive glass. He got his hands on passes in the lane. What Kansas needs out of him more than anything else is for him to be big, tough and physical in the paint without fouling, and he played that role to perfection Wednesday.

And that wasn’t it. Lucas had two huge baskets down the stretch and, on the final possession, played terrific defense on not one, but two ball-screens, helping to force the game-clinching turnover.

5a. Baylor is still winless in Phog Allen Fieldhouse in program history: They’re 0-14 in the building since joining the then-Big Eight in 1996, but that’s not uncommon. The Jayhawks don’t lose at home, not under Bill Self. He is now 9-0 at home in games against top five teams. Hell, Self has lost nine games in Phog Allen Fieldhouse in his 14-year career as the head coach at Kansas. To put that into perspective, Baylor head coach Scott Drew has now lost 10 games at Phog Allen.

5b. Maybe there’s a reason for that: Kansas shot 27 free throws. Baylor shot six. I guess the Jayhawks just play harder …

Florida State picks up late commit from McDonald’s All-American

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The losses sustained by Florida State have been numerous and significant. Three players declared early for the NBA Draft. Another two contributors were lost to graduation. All in all, the Seminoles haven’t had the greatest of springs.

Wednesday, though, they got some good news.

McDonald’s All-American wing M.J. Walker committed Leonard Hamilton’s program to give Florida State a late, and important, addition to its 2017 recruiting class, beating the likes of Ohio State, Georgia Tech and UCLA.

Walker, a 6-foot-5 guard, gives the Seminoles yet another five-star prospect after landing Dwayne Bacon and Jonathan Isaac in the last two recruiting classes. Walker will help Hamilton and Co. reboot after both Bacon and Isaac, along with Xavier Rathan-Mayes, all left school to pursue professional careers after the Seminoles’ 26-9 season that saw them advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Walker becomes the sixth member of Hamilton’s 2017 recruiting class that was previously headlined by four-star 7-footer Ikechukwu Obiagu. That group will be tasked to retool a team losing not only major NBA-level talent, but also major production. The Seminoles won’t return a single player who averaged double-digit points per-game last year and just one who played at least 20 minutes per night.

Michigan returns Mo Wagner, loses D.J. Wilson

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The best-case scenario did not take place for Michigan this week.

The Wolverines waited for four weeks to hear back from their pair of mobile big men, and the news on Mo Wagner was positive. The 6-foot-10 junior from Germany announced on Wednesday that he will return to school after testing the NBA Draft waters.

The news was not as fortunate with D.J. Wilson, who announced less than ten hours before the deadline that he will be signing with an agent and turning pro. Wilson is projected as a late first round or early second round pick.

Without Wilson in the fold, Michigan lacks some front court depth, which will probably be enough to keep them out of the preseason top 25.

Gonzaga to return Johnathan Williams III

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Losing Nigel Williams-Goss and Zach Collins to the professional ranks probably torpedoed Gonzaga’s chance of making another run to the NCAA tournament national title game, but after Johnathan Williams III announced on Wednesday that he will be returning to school and withdrawing from the NBA Draft, Gonzaga does appear to be a favorite to win the WCC title again.

Williams is now Gonzaga’s leading returning scorer and rebounder, anchoring a front court that also loses Przemek Karnowski to graduation. He was expected to go undrafted.

With Williams back in the fold, the Zags should be right there with Saint Mary’s in the race for the WCC title. Josh Perkins, Silas Melson and Killian Tillie all return as well.

ESPN was the first to report the news.

Injured Gamecocks point guard Blanton gives up basketball

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina guard TeMarcus Blanton is giving up basketball after struggling with a serious hip injury he suffered before his freshman season.

Gamecocks coach Frank Martin says Blanton told him he could not get his body to respond to a level that would allow him to continue playing basketball. Blanton is a 6-foot-5 junior from Locust Grove, Georgia, who hurt his hip during preseason for the 2014-15 season. He needed surgery and could not return to the court until his sophomore year.

Blanton played in 29 games, averaging 1.4 points a game.

He said on social media he is grateful to his coaches, teammates and South Carolina fans, “but my journey of basketball has come to an end.”

Blanton received a medical exemption from the Southeastern Conference to remain part of the Gamecocks’ program moving forward.

North Carolina’s Tony Bradley to remain NBA Draft

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For the first time in a decade and just the third time in 14 seasons as UNC’s head coach, Roy Williams has a one-and-done player.

North Carolina’s Tony Bradley will sign with an agent and remain in the NBA Draft.

Bradley had an impressive freshman season, averaging 7.1 points and 5.1 boards in less than 15 minutes per game as the sixth-man for the national title-winning Tar Heels. He initially declared for the draft without signing with an agent, testing the waters, and the feedback was positive: He’ll likely be a late first round or early second round pick.

As the process dragged on, it became fairly evident that Bradley would keep his name in the draft, and that is a massive blow for a UNC team that is already losing Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, not to mention Justin Jackson.

As it stands, Roy Williams will likely start the following lineup next season: Joel Berry II, Kenny Williams and Theo Pinson on the perimeter with Luke Maye and either Brandon Huffman or Garrison Brooks, both freshmen, alongside him. Williams is one of the few coaches left in the sport that still relies on playing two bigs and utilizing an overwhelming front court to win games, and that is not going to be an easy thing to do with that group of bigs.

UNC’s perimeter is strong. Berry will likely be a preseason all-american while Pinson and Williams are both above average role players on the wings.

But without that hoss in the paint — Bradley, like Berry, would have popped up on preseason all-american teams — the Tar Heels are going to have a tough time making a run at an ACC title, let alone a third straight trip to the national title game.

North Carolina is currently ranked 18th in the NBC Sports preseason top 25.