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Five things we learned this week: Oregon’s peaking, Kentucky’s struggling and Gonzaga’s statement

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1. Gonzaga may not be the best team in the country, but they’re the most consistent among the elite: I don’t think there is a “best team in college basketball” because I don’t think there is any team in the country that is without noticeable and exploitable flaws. Kansas has no depth on the interior and can’t guard anyone. Kentucky can’t score in the half court and lacks a measure of toughness inside. UCLA can’t guard anyone. Baylor’s guard play and been shaky in recent weeks. Arizona is heavily reliant on inconsistent freshmen. Duke is Duke.

You get the point.

The only possible exception to that is Gonzaga, the last remaining undefeated team in the country. The knock on this team earlier is the season was that they didn’t have a go-to guy. They didn’t have someone that could take a game over, that could be relied upon to demand the ball and make a play at the end of a clock or to quell another team’s run.

But isn’t that exactly what Nigel Williams-Goss has been doing? Take Thursday night, for example. Williams-Goss had 33 points as Gonzaga went into the Marriott Center and knocked off BYU. That many point is always going to come in an impressive performance, but perhaps what stood out the most is that he always had an answer. The Zags took control early and held a pretty significant lead for much of the game, but every time BYU made a run and looked like they were ready to make this thing interesting, Williams-Goss had an answer. BYU isn’t great, but they’re talented and play in one of the rowdiest environments in the country; 19,000 screaming Mormons pack that building every game.

The Zags are balanced, they are deep, they are big, they defend and they have their go-to guy. They also have yet to put together the kind of ugly performance we’ve seen out of every other title contender this season.

Saturday’s trip to Moraga to take on No. 18 Saint Mary’s can’t get here soon enough.

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2. Kentucky is going through growing pains: Right now, Kentucky is a mediocre basketball team loaded with talented basketball players. Part of it is that Malik Monk has been struggling with his shooting stroke the last two weeks, and when Monk is off, the Wildcats simply cannot score in the half court. Part of it is that De’Aaron Fox has been battling a bum ankle and an illness that held him out of a game and seemingly sapped him on injury in another. Part of it is that Bam Adebayo just isn’t the kind of force on the block that Kentucky needs him to be.

The biggest reason for their recent struggles, however, is that teams are starting to figure out how to have success against them. Keep Fox from turning the corner going left, stay attached to Monk as much as possible, get physical in the paint, attack the glass, limit transition. That’s exactly what Florida did in their 88-66 win over the Wildcats on Saturday.

Most good teams go through something like this. The issue isn’t midseason struggles, the question is what the response will be. When teams figured out they could beat up Kansas in the paint, Kansas started playing zone. When Duke struggled playing lineups with two big men, they moved Jayson Tatum to the four. In 2014, John Calipari famously “tweaked” his offense to get his 10-loss team to the national title game. What will this year’s tweak be?

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 11: (L-R) Isaiah Briscoe #13, Edrice Adebayo #3 and De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrate on the bench against the Hofstra Pride in the second half of the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival at Barclays Center on December 11, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

3. Oregon’s best can beat anybody’s best: I’m not sure Arizona fans can be all that upset about what happened in Eugene on Saturday, because I’m not sure that any team in the country could’ve gone into Matthew Knight Arena and beaten Oregon that day. Hell, I’m not sure anyone could’ve kept it close.

At one point in the first half, Oregon had made 10 threes and Arizona had scored 11 points. The Ducks hit 16 of their first 21 long-range bombs. Their defense, which has been underrated all season long, held Arizona to one tough spot per possession, and the Ducks were able to beat Arizona down the floor in transition when they secured the rebound.

I say all that to say this: When Oregon is playing like that, they are damn-near unbeatable. They aren’t always going to play that way – hell, two days earlier, they needed Dillon Brooks to score 12 straight points in the final minutes to avoid losing at home to Arizona State – but Saturday served the rest of the nation with notice: The Ducks belong in the conversation with the rest of the nation’s elite as national title contenders.

4. Duke is all-in on small-ball: The Blue Devils got Coach K back on Saturday in a win over Pitt, but that wasn’t the story of their weekend because what the Blue Devils did on Saturday didn’t differ all that much from what they did on Monday, or last Saturday. Duke has fully bought into the idea of playing small-ball, of rotating Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard, Matt Jones and Frank Jackson through the three back court spots while allowing Jayson Tatum to spend as much time as possible at the four.

This is the best lineup that Duke can put on the floor. It allows Tatum to take advantage of mismatches against bigger defenders while keeping the floor spread for Allen and Kennard, who can create off the dribble and help to nullify Duke’s point guard issues. The issue is going to be how the Blue Devils adjust to the fact that it is going to cut into some player’s minutes. Harry Giles III is going to struggle to crack 10 minutes a game if Amile Jefferson isn’t in foul trouble. Marques Bolden is going to be firmly planted on the Duke bench.

And if that’s what it’s going to take for the Blue Devils to win, they’re just going to have to live with it.

5. The Big 12 title race is going to be a roller coaster ride: On Wednesday night, Kansas beat Baylor in Phog Allen Fieldhouse which, essentially, gave the Jayhawks the inside track to their 13th straight Big 12 regular season title … until they went and they lost in that same building on Saturday to Iowa State. That loss opened up the door for Baylor to pull even with the Jayhawks, which was massive because the Bears still get to host Kansas later on this season … but then Baylor lost at home to Kansas State. That meant that the big winner of the day in the conference was West Virginia, who could pull within a game of first place and draw even with Baylor in second place in the conference … until they lost at home to Oklahoma State.

I don’t expect this ride to slow down.

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 04: Head coach Bill Self of the Kansas Jayhawks greets Monte Morris #11 of the Iowa State Cyclones during a break in their game on February 4, 2017 at Allen Field House in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Getty Images)
Head coach Bill Self (Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Getty Images)

Late run sparks Villanova past West Virginia, into Elite Eight

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BOSTON — It is always just a matter of time before the avalanche comes.

And when it does, you better hope that lead you have is big enough to withstand what’s coming.

For No. 5-seed West Virginia, it was not. With 11 minutes left on Friday night in Boston’s TD Garden, the Mountaineers led 60-54 and had seemingly wrestled control of the game from the No. 1-seed in the East Region. Less than five minutes later, after the Wildcats hit four of their next five threes, Villanova had taken a 76-66 lead by going on a 22-6 run, and West Virginia was never able to recover.

Jalen Brunson led the way for the top-seeded Wildcats with 27 points and four assists while Omari Spellman finished with 18 points, eight boards and three blocks and Mikal Bridges chipped in with 16 points despite playing relatively poorly — by his standards — on Friday.

With a 90-78 win, Villanova advanced to the Elite Eight and a date with the winner of tonight’s game No. 2 Purdue-No. 3 Texas Tech.

That’s the way that it works with this Villanova team. Armed with the most potent, high-volume three-point shooting attack in college basketball — maybe in the history of college basketball — fans of their opponents are just waiting for the inevitable.

On Friday night, Villanova shot 13-for-24 from three, which is damned-impressive and exactly what we expect at the same time, but the game was won during that five-minute surge when West Virginia just didn’t have an answer.

VIDEO: Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall with mammoth dunks for Villanova

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Villanova took the lead on West Virginia and turned the tide of momentum with a pair of emphatic dunks in transition.

It started with Omari Spellman, who had an unbelievable sequence, spiking a shot into the floor before throwing down a put-back dunk all over a defender:

A couple of possessions later, Eric Paschall finally did the impossible.

He dunked on Sagaba Konate:

I am having way too much fun at this game.

No. 1 Kansas into Elite Eight with win over No. 5 Clemson

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OMAHA, Neb. — Once Kansas found its stride, Clemson had little chance of keeping pace – even after a late stumble.

The No. 1 Jayhawks ran away from the No. 5 Tigers with a second-half flurry that powered them to a 80-76 victory Friday night at CenturyLink Center to put them in the Elite Eight on Sunday against either Duke or Syracuse.

Kansas moves on to the Midwest Region final on the back of a second-half offense that Clemson had nearly no success in slowing until the final minutes, when the Tigers turned a 20-point laugher into  a six-point nail-biter.

Malik Newman paced Kansas with 17 points while Devonte Graham 16 and Udoka Azubuike 14 and 11 rebounds.

Clemson got 31 points from senior Gabe DeVoe, but there just wasn’t enough help around him for the Tigers to keep things competitive after the Jayhawks hit them with three-consecutive 3s in the opening minutes of the second half to open up a 20-point lead.

Clemson was already hanging on by a threat after it shot just 35.7 percent from the floor and committed eight turnovers. DeVoe’s 12 first-half points kept the Tigers afloat, but they never enjoyed a lead before halftime.

The Jayhawks, meanwhile, had five players  score at least six points in the first half, including 10 from Azubuike, Their usual strengths – 3-point shooting (4 of 13) and Devonte Graham (1 of 7) – were absent in the first half, but Clemson was unable to take advantage as Kansas continued to get quality looks inside and stops on defense.

The Jayhawks previously played Syracuse in December, beating the Orange by 16 on a neutral floor in Miami. They haven’t faced the Blue Devils, though they have already shared a building with them once this year in the Champion’s Classic. Kansas topped Kentucky, 65-61, while Duke defeated Michigan State, 88-81, that November night in Chicago.

VIDEO: Mikal Bridges tries to dunk on Sagaba Konate, gets denied

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There really is nothing better in this world than seeing someone who is typically a great dunker take flight to try and dunk on Sagaba Konate of West Virginia, because it never, EVER ends well for the dunker.

See: Bridges, Mikal:

Auburn AD Greene gives Bruce Pearl a vote of confidence

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Speaking publicly for the first time about head coach Bruce Pearl, new Auburn athletic director gave his embattled head coach a vote of confidence.

Greene was on an in-house podcast produced with the voice of Auburn sports, and was asked about Pearl’s standing in a pod that lasted less than five minutes and felt more like a press release than anything else.

“He’s been a tremendous blessing for the Auburn family,” Greene said. “The FBI investigation is a long process. We’re going through that process to make sure that we, as a university, are doing what it is that we’re supposed to do to comply. Coach Pearl has been excellent in that regard and I look forward to continuing to work with him as we continue to do the very best to support he, his staff and the student athletes of Auburn University.”

This is the first time since former assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested that a member of the Auburn athletic department had spoken so positively about Pearl. In the fall, Auburn’s president Steven Leath lamented Pearl’s lack of cooperation in the investigation, but just last week released a statement saying Pearl is “working with university officials as part of our due diligence.” Pearl said after his team’s 84-53 loss to Clemson in the second round of the NCAA tournament that he would like to return.

There has been speculation that Pearl’s job was in jeopardy ever since Auburn was mixed up in the FBI’s complaint. Two players were forced to sit out this entire season after the FBI alleged they had received money funneled through Person from a runner for an agent and a financial advisor.

“One of the challenges that we have facing the industry is college basketball,” Greene said. “We want to make sure we work incredibly hard to clean up the game, to make it as pure as it can possibly be so that our student-athletes can enjoy the intercollegiate athletic experience. one of the things that we have to keep in mind is that the state of college basketball is not in a good place right now and I’m a little bit disappointed that auburn is involved in that, but that doesn’t take away from the excellent job that Coach Pearl has done.”