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Five Things We Learned This Week: UCLA’s defense, Duke’s depth and Gonzaga undefeated?

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1. So UCLA might be able to defend after all?: The knock on the Bruins is a secret to absolutely no one.

They don’t defend, at least not consistently or with the kind of effort needed to be able to beat some of the nation’s elite teams.

Here’s the only stat you need to know in regards to UCLA: They currently rank 126th in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and the only team to reach the Final Four with a defensive efficiency that rated that low in the KenPom era – since 2002 – was VCU in 2011.

It’s an issue, but it’s one that the Bruins seemingly found a solution – or, at the very least, a bandaid for – this week.

On Thursday night Oregon came to town fresh off of a 27-point depantsing of then-No. 5 Arizona, and in the first 30-or-so minutes, that Duck offense didn’t slow down in the least. They put up 48 first half points. They were up 64-49 with just under 15 minutes left in the game, and that’s when everything changed. Over the course of the final 14 minutes, according to Kory Alford, a UCLA staffer, the Bruins gave up just 0.65 points-per-possession. They followed that up by allowed just 60 points on 66 possession to Oregon State on Sunday afternoon.

UCLA actually saw their defensive efficiency ranking drop from 115th to 126th after this week, but much of that had to do with the fact that A) they were eviscerated for 25 minutes by Oregon, and B) KenPom’s formula weighs the caliber of opponent, and Oregon State is ranked 281st in the country. What matters, however, is that the Bruins proved that they can defend when they need to, and that’s half of the battle.

The next step?

Make it a consistent thing.

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2. Gonzaga is going to go undefeated: At this point, it seems a virtual lock that they are going to finish the regular season with a 30-0 record. I’m not sure how you can predict anything else to happen. The Zags have won every game they’ve played in the WCC by double-figures, and that includes the road trips to BYU and Saint Mary’s, where the hosts had to scrap just to get the final deficit to 10 points.

Three of their last four games are at home, in a building where Gonzaga took down No. 20 Saint Mary’s by 23 points last month.

In fact, I’d be surprised at this point if Gonzaga doesn’t enter the NCAA tournament with an undefeated record, and you should seriously be considering them as a national title contender. (I went in depth on why right here.) And while I do understand if the public-at-large has Gonzaga fatigue – they get hyped every year, and fail to deliver every year – this is a great story line for college basketball. For the third time in the last four seasons, we could end up with a team entering the NCAA tournament with an unblemished record.

As a sports fan, greatness is something you should either root for or enjoy seeing achieved. The Zags have a chance to do just that this season.

3. Duke’s depth is a major, and unforeseen, concern: For a team with half-a-bajillion McDonald’s All-Americans, it seems ridiculous that they need to worry about the amount of depth on their roster, but that’s precisely where we are with this team right now.

Duke wants to play small-ball, which means that Jayson Tatum starts at the four with three of Duke’s four guards – Luke Kennard, Grayson Allen and either Matt Jones or Frank Jackson. Those four guards rotate through and, generally speaking, play the combined-120 minutes at the three perimeter positions. Tatum plays the four, where he is really the only guy suited for the small-ball role; there are not many players that are 6-foot-9 with guards skills and the physicality to hold their own on the defensive glass with natural power forwards, which is what makes him such a useful weapon.

But it also is an easy way to drain the legs of a player at this point in the season. That was evident on Saturday, when Duke played Clemson 39 hours after their emotional win over North Carolina and looked totally drained, almost listless. Tatum was the one that seemed to be dealing with fatigue the most.

The problem is their front court. Chase Jeter is unplayable right now due to some combination of injury and ineffectiveness. Marques Bolden, simply put, is nowhere near where he needs to be on the defensive end of the floor to be able to contribute to this team. Amile Jefferson is playing through pain, but he needs to contribute upwards of 30 foul-free minutes a night because Harry Giles III still isn’t ready to give 20 effective minutes. He shines for a few minutes, but he doesn’t have the stamina, explosion or the strength to handle the workload; it’s hard to come back from two surgeries and 14 months away from the game.

Put another way, this Duke team has roughly six guys that Coach K trusts at this point, and that may be generous considering Jackson’s been somewhat up-and-down this season.

LOUISVILLE, KY - JANUARY 14: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Duke Blue Devils dribbles 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)
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

4. Just how much should we respect the Big Ten: The conference, as a whole, could end up getting as many as eight teams into the NCAA tournament, but that has as much to do with the fact that there are very few mid-majors worthy of an at-large bid while leagues like the AAC, the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West do not have the depth that we are used to seeing.

This fact is exacerbated by Northwestern beating Wisconsin on Sunday night. The Badgers, who have been taken to overtime by Nebraska and Rutgers in recent weeks, lost at home to a team that was playing without their leading scorer. They had already been left out of the top 16 in Saturday’s bracket reveal, and that loss certainly isn’t going to help their cause.

At this point, it’s worth asking if the Big Ten will disappear from the NCAA tournament before the Sweet 16.

5. Donte DiVincenzo is going to be a star: The reason that Villanova has not felt any ill-effects from the injury suffered by Phil Booth has been the play of the “Big Ragu”. He’s just a redshirt freshman, but he’s been terrific of late. He’s averaged 17.3 points over his last three games, including a team-high 17 in the win at Xavier, and that doesn’t factor in his game-winning tip-in against Virginia earlier this month. He is going to be the most popular Breakout Star pick next October.

Player of the Year Power Rankings: It’s time to put Trae Young at No. 1

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1. TRAE YOUNG, Oklahoma: The way the college basketball Player of the Year award is given out is generally pretty simple: Unless there is a player on a good team – i.e. a top four seed – having an insane, outlier season, the award is given to the best player that is on the roster of a team that is a national title contender.

That rule has proven true in every year of the one-and-done era.

  • 2017: Frank Mason won and played for No. 1 seed Kansas.
  • 2016: Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine split the award. Oklahoma was a No. 1 seed and reached the Final Four. Michigan State was a No. 2 seed and entered the tournament as the favorite to win it all.
  • 2015: Frank Kaminsky was a No. 1 seed with Wisconsin.
  • 2014: Doug McDermott averaged 26 points for No. 3 seed Creighton.
  • 2013: The only name on this list that doesn’t quite fit perfectly, Trey Burke starred for Michigan, who was a No. 4 seed that year. But they also spent much of the season ranked No. 1, reached the Final Four and finished as a top five team on KenPom.
  • 2012: Anthony Davis won as the star of Kentucky’s title-winning team.
  • 2011: Jimmer Fredette won as Jimmer-mania swept the college basketball world and BYU finished as a No. 3 seed.
  • 2010: Evan Turner beat out John Wall for most of the awards. Ohio State was a No. 2 seed and Kentucky was a No. 1 seed.
  • 2009: Oklahoma finished as a No. 2 seed after Blake Griffin returned for his sophomore season and dominated.
  • 2008: The year before North Carolina won the national title they finished as a No. 1 seed as Tyler Hansbrough won the Player of the Year award.
  • 2007: Kevin Durant averaged 26 points and 11 boards for Texas as the Longhorns entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 seed.
  • 2006: J.J. Redick was playing for No. 1 seed Duke, and he was almost beaten out by Adam Morrison, who averaged 28.1 points for No. 3 seed Gonzaga.

That’s why Trae Young has not topped our Player of the Year rankings yet this season.

Because there wasn’t much evidence that he was on a team with a shot of getting a top four seed. I’m still not convinced that is any sort of lock, but as of today the Sooners are now sitting at 7-1 on the season and ranked in the top 25. If they win at No. 3 Wichita State this weekend, that will change. Even if they don’t, playing in a league that is as good as the Big 12 appears to be – no one in the conference ranks lower than 63rd on KenPom – will mean that their computer numbers will get and stay inflated once league play starts.

But here’s the other part of it: Young’s season is such an outlier than the rules may not matter. Assuming he stays on his current pace (I can’t imagine that he actually will, but he might) he’ll do things that have not been done for 27 years, and that may never have been done before. Young is currently averaging 28.8 points and 8.8 assists. The last player to do that was Loyola Marymount’s Terrell Lowery back in 1990-1991.

And as far as I can tell, no player – at least not in the KenPom era, so please correct me if I’m wrong here – has ever posted his level of efficiency on the insane amount of usage he gets in the Oklahoma offense:

2. MARVIN BAGLEY, Duke: Bagley posted another double-double on Saturday, finishing with 15 points and 12 boards as the Blue Devils took a loss against Boston College, but what was most concerning about that performance was that he took four shots in the second half and three of them were three-pointers. That doesn’t diminish the start that he has had to the season, where he took over down the stretch in wins over Florida, Texas and at Indiana.

3. TRA HOLDER, Arizona State: Tra Holder has been the best player for the most surprising team in college basketball this season. He’s averaging 21.2 points, 5.2 assists and 5.6 boards while shooting 46.3 percent from three on more than six attempts per game. He had 29 points and seven assists in a win at Phog Allen on Sunday. He put up 40 points on Xavier. He’s having a tremendous season.

4. MIKAL BRIDGES, Villanova: Bridges came to the forefront on Tuesday night in the Jimmy V Classic, and in the process took over the lead as Villanova’s Player of the Year option. Read all about that here.

5. TREVON BLUIETT, Xavier: Ho hum, it was another week with a pair of 25-point performances for Bluiett. He’s now scored at least 25 points in six of 10 games this season.

6. DESI RODRIGUEZ, Seton Hall: Rodriguez has turned into Seton Hall’s best player this sason. Last weekend, he had 17 points, seven boards and four assists in a blow-out win over VCU.

7/. JEVON CARTER, West Virginia: West Virginia has completely turned things around after that embarrassing start to the season. Carter has been the catalyst. He’s averaging 19.4 points, 6.0 assists, 5.4 boards and 3.8 steals and just put 23, 10 and seven on Virginia.

8. BONZIE COLSON, Notre Dame: Colson’s Notre Dame team took a couple of hits in the last month, but he’s still putting up impressive numbers and is an improved defensive presence. Now if he can only find a way to start making threes at a better clip again.

9. JORDAN MURPHY, Minnesota: Murphy fell this week and will continue to drop in these rankings for the same reason that I had a hard time putting Trae Young at No. 1 before this week. Minnesota needs to stop losing games.

10. LUKE MAYE, North Carolina: Maye makes his way back into these rankings. He’s averaging 19.9 points and 10.5 boards for the Tar Heels this season, but he really struggled against Michigan State. I need to see Maye play more teams of that ilk before fully buying in.

ALSO CONSIDERED: DEANDRE AYTON, Arizona; JALEN BRUNSON, Villanova; KEENAN EVANS, Texas Tech; D.J. HOGG, Texas A&M; DEVONTE’ GRAHAM, Kansas; DAKOTA MATHIAS, Purdue; YANTE MATEN, Georgia; SHAKE MILTON, SMU; LANDRY SHAMET, Wichita State; KHYRI THOMAS, Creighton; ALLONZO TRIER, Arizona

Point man: Can Nick Weiler-Babb’s move to PG put Iowa State back in the tourney?

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AMES, Ia. — It was clear Iowa State needed a change. The Cyclones stood 0-2 with an 18-point home loss to Milwaukee already on the resume. It was clear they were due for a reboot this season after losing four starters – including All-American point guard Monte Morris – but getting trounced at Hilton Coliseum by a team picked to finish eighth in the Horizon League constitutes an emergency.

The Cyclones didn’t panic, though. They adjusted. 

After that disastrous start to the season, coach Steve Prohm moved Nick Weiler-Babb from small forward to point guard while slotting the two players who had been manning the point –  sharpshooter Donovan Jackson and five-star freshman Lindell Wigginton – off the ball.

All Iowa State done since is win.

The Cyclones have rattled off seven-straight with Weiler-Babb flirting with triple-doubles, Jackson shooting 41.6 percent from deep and Wigginton looking like a future star.

“Good we moved him over there,” Prohm said.

It certainly has been good for the Cyclones. Iowa State was 9 of 34 (26.5 percent) from 3-point range, shot 38.8 percent overall and failed to reach 60 points in its opening two losses. In the seven games since, they’re converting at a 46.4 percent clip overall, 39.4 percent from distance and averaging 83.6 points per game. They’ve seemingly become a different team with Weiler-Babb at the helm.

“It’s taking a whole new role,” Weiler-Babb said. “Coach just told me whatever I have to do to win, I have to do it. That’s what I’ve tried to do. Take the ball out of the guys’ hands and give it to the scorers.”

The 6-foot-5 junior is averaging 7.9 assists along with 12.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. He’s become indispensable for the Cyclones a year after being a bit player on the Big 12 tournament championship team.

“He went through some tough times last year,” Prohm said. “But that’s what everybody’s got to understand. Freshmen, sophomore, you’ve got to put your time in a little bit to have success and earn success. He’s doing that.”

The immediate returns have been spectacular for Iowa State, but a question still lingers as they eye Big 12 play later this month.

Is it real?

Or, rather, will it be real against an unforgiving Big 12 schedule? Given Iowa State’s non-conference slate, whether it is or not will determine the postseason fate of a team sitting on a program-best six-straight NCAA tournament appearances.

As good as Weiler-Babb and the Cyclones have been during their seven-game winning streak, the competition can’t be ignored. Iowa State’s best win during this stretch is either Boise State, which only got 8 minutes from Chandler Hutchison after a head injury, or Iowa, which is 5-6 with losses to Louisiana Lafayette and South Dakota State. The wins haven’t all come easy for Iowa State, either. They narrowly defeated Appalachian State and Tulsa while initially struggling against Northern Illinois and Alcorn State before pulling away.

Things have been good for the Cyclones, but they haven’t been perfect.

Iowa State is a mediocre shooting team overall and could have serious spacing issues going forward given the roster forces Prohm to play two non-shooting bigs together for major minutes. Wigginton has been excellent, scoring 20-plus in three of the last four games, but his level of athleticism is something the likes of Western Illinois can’t counter. Texas, Kansas and West Virginia can. Big swaths of the roster, which features eight newcomers, haven’t faced Big 12 caliber competition ever in their careers. Weiler-Babb’s size and skill at the point guard position makes him a major problem for mid-majors, but can he keep up this pace when he faces length and physicality similar to his own?

Those questions, though, have to be welcomed by the Cyclones. If there were answers to them for a team with so much youth and so many unproven players in new positions in mid-December, it probably would register in the negative.

That they’re unknown means there is possibility, opportunity and promise. That exists in no small part because Prohm made Weiler-Babb a point guard.

“The challenge is, what do we really want to be?” Prohm said. “But he spearheads everything we do.”

Texas’ Jones out with a broken wrist

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Texas may be without its leading scorer heading into conference play.

Longhorns coach Shaka Smart announced Monday that sophomore Andrew Jones suffered a hairline fracture in his right wrist and will be sidelined for the foreseeable future.

“Fortunately it’s not one of those injuries where he should be out for an extended long period of time,” Smart said at his news conference Monday, “but he’s going to miss at least the next few games before Christmas. They decided not to put it in a cast, which is good news.”

Jones suffered the injury last week against VCU when he took a number of tumbles to the floor. He’s averaging 15.3 points while shooting 52.4 percent from the floor and 43.2 percent from 3-point range.

“It’s a tough injury for us because he’s our leading scorer and has done a phenomenal job for us this year,” Smart said. “We’re going to need everyone on our team, not just guards, but everyone on our team to step up and take a little more responsibility.

“Your margin for error is a little smaller.”

The Longhorns, who are 6-2 with losses to Duke and Gonzaga, face Michigan on Tuesday, Louisiana Tech on Saturday and Alabama next week. Jones is certainly out for those games, and his availability for Texas’ first Big 12 games – Dec. 29 vs. Kansas and Jan. 1 at Iowa State – would seem to be in question.

“We don’t have an exact timeframe,” Smart said. “It’s really good news they didn’t put it in a cast.

“We’re hopeful that we can get him back in three, four weeks, but that’s not a set timetable.”

 

Coaches Poll: Villanova climbs to the No. 1 spot

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The new top 25 coaches poll is out, and the No. 1 team in college basketball is now Villanova.

Michigan State, who received 10 of a possible 32 first-place votes, came in at No. 2 while Duke, last week’s No. 1 team, fell to No. 4 with a loss to Boston College.

After winning at Kansas this week, Arizona State vaulted up to the No. 6 spot, while the Jayhawks fell to No. 12.

Here is the full coaches poll.

1. Villanova (22 first-place votes)
2. Michigan State (10)
3. Wichita State
4. Duke
5. Kentucky
6. Arizona State
7. North Carolina
8. Miami
9. Xavier
10. Texas A&M
11. West Virginia
12. Kansas
13. Gonzaga
14. TCU
15. Seton Hall
16. Virginia
17. Purdue
18. Notre Dame
19. Florida State
20. Tennessee
21. Baylor
22. Florida
23. Arizona
24. Oklahoma
25. Creighton

Villanova hops over Michigan State for No. 1 in AP Top 25

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Villanova’s unbeaten start now includes a No. 1 ranking in the AP Top 25 , while Arizona State is making a rapid rise into the top 10 under third-year coach Bobby Hurley.

After a tumultuous week in which unanimous No. 1 Duke and No. 2 Kansas lost, the Wildcats (10-0) earned 41 of 65 first-place votes to hop over Michigan State and reach the top for the third straight season.

Villanova and Michigan State were the favorites to take over at the top after the Blue Devils’ weekend loss at Boston College, though there was far less certainty for voters about who was now the nation’s top team. The Spartans (9-1) earned 19 first-place votes to climb from third to second, while the other five first-place votes went to the Sun Devils — who leapt 11 spots to No. 5 after Sunday’s win at Kansas.

Arizona State (9-0) is off to its best start since the 1974-75 season. Now the Sun Devils — who also have a win against Xavier this season — have their highest ranking since reaching third during the 1980-81 season.

Wichita State climbed three spots to No. 3, followed by Duke and Arizona State. Unbeaten Miami climbed four spots to No. 6, followed by North Carolina, Kentucky, Texas A&M and Xavier to round out the top 10.

Villanova helped itself with an impressive win against No. 12 Gonzaga last week in New York, though the Wildcats had to fight to the final minute Sunday to close out a La Salle team that entered at 5-5.

“It’s always an honor to be ranked No. 1,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said in a statement. “It’s great for the Nova Nation and we appreciate the respect of the writers. We know it’s early, though, and we need to get a lot better.”

KANSAS’ FALL

The Jayhawks (7-2) slid 11 spots to No. 13 after two losses last week, the first coming against Washington in Kansas City, Missouri, before losing to the Sun Devils in Allen Fieldhouse.

SHUFFLE UP

Only two teams — No. 8 Kentucky and No. 12 Gonzaga — stayed in the same spot. Thirteen teams rose in the poll, while four of the seven teams that fell slid at least eight spots.

TOP RISERS

Arizona State’s leap was the biggest, though No. 11 West Virginia (9-1) moved up seven spots after beating then-No. 15 Virginia. No. 14 TCU (10-0) climbed six spots after a win against a then-ranked Nevada team.

Miami, UNC, No. 15 Seton Hall, No. 17 Purdue and No. 20 Tennessee all climbed four spots.

LONGEST SLIDES

While Kansas’ losses stood out, No. 22 Florida had the biggest fall of the week.

The Gators (6-3) slid 17 spots after home losses to Florida State and to Loyola Chicago — a game in which they led for all of 93 seconds. Florida salvaged a win against Cincinnati in the Never Forget Tribute Classic in Newark, New Jersey, to avoid a four-game skid.

No. 18 Notre Dame (8-2) fell nine spots after an upset loss to Ball State, while the No. 25 Bearcats (7-2) slid eight spots.

NEWCOMERS

There were three newcomers to this week’s poll, though one is more of a welcome back.

The list included No. 19 Florida State (9-0) and No. 24 Texas Tech (7-1), while Arizona returned to the rankings at No. 23.

Arizona’s 0-3 showing at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas made the Wildcats the first team in three decades to go from No. 2 in the AP Top 25 to unranked in a week. But four straight wins have the preseason Final Four favorite back in the poll.

SLIDING OUT

Minnesota (No. 14 last week), Nevada (No. 22) and Southern California (No. 25) all fell out of the poll.

1. Villanova (41 first-place votes)
2. Michigan State (19)
3. Wichita State
4. Duke
5. Arizona State (5)
6. Miami
7. North Carolina
8. Kentucky
9. Texas A&M
10. Xavier
11. West Virginia
12. Gonzaga
13. Kansas
14. TCU
15. Seton Hall
16. Virginia
17. Purdue
18. Notre Dame
19. Florida State
20. Tennessee
21. Baylor
22. Florida
23. Arizona
24. Texas Tech
25. Cincinnati