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Hoosiers struggling to find solutions for midseason funk

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) Coach Tom Crean got right to the point after Indiana’s latest loss.

The defense must be more consistent, the shooting must improve and his players must become better leaders over the next month if the Hoosiers are to have any chance of earning an NCAA Tournament bid.

So after 26 games and the same old problems, there are real questions about what, if anything, can be fixed in time to make a late-season push.

“I’m not shirking responsibility one iota, it falls on me. One thing I’ve learned in nine years, it all falls on me,” Crean told reporters Sunday. “The bottom line is we’ve got to do something to get communication up and when the shots aren’t going is when the communication has got to be even higher. It’s very easy to be locked in and connected to one another when the shots are going, but when they aren’t going is when real leadership’s got to emerge.”

Those are not words Indiana fans expected to be hearing this season. The defending Big Ten champs were considered a preseason conference favorite and solidified that claim with November upsets of No. 3 Kansas and No. 3 North Carolina.

Since then, things have unraveled:

– They have lost five straight to ranked opponents and three in a row overall .

– They have lost four times at Assembly Hall this season, starting with Nebraska’s victory Dec. 28 that ended Indiana’s 26-game home winning streak.

– At 5-8 in league play, they are closer to last place than first.

– And with only one home game left finishing below .500 in the conference is now a real possibility.

Angry fans are blaming Crean. Some, again, want the coach fired. Others are again counting down the days till July 1, when Crean’s contract buyout drops from $4 million to $1 million. And after Sunday, some contended Crean was more critical of his players than himself.

“Immaturity in the back court,” Crean said when asked about Indiana’s season-long turnover problems. “We don’t play both ends of the floor with the same purpose that we have to play when our shots aren’t going. And we’ve had injuries in there, too. But that’s got to change.”

Indiana (15-11) lost starting forward and longtime leader Collin Hartman with a season-ending knee injury in September. OG Anunoby, the Hoosiers’ top defender, went down with a season-ending knee injury in January. Leading scorer James Blackmon Jr. hasn’t been the same either since returning from a lower left leg injury on Thursday. He’s averaged 8.5 points in the two games he’s played since returning from a three-game game absence, almost half his normal scoring.

While Crean refuses to use injuries as an excuse, the sudden struggle has forced the Hoosiers to question how they play.

“I just think a lot of it is not being prepared to shoot before you get the ball,” guard Robert Johnson said after scoring five points in Sunday’s 75-63 loss to Michigan. “A lot of it is not hitting guys on time and on target with passes, and I think it just comes from confidence.”

Why would a team that went into Sunday averaging 81.3 points this season and a league best 78.2 since 2011-12 suddenly lose confidence in its ability to shoot?

Crean intimated that his players may be feeling too much pressure to play up to the expectations.

But they also lack an experienced leader, and it shows.

For four seasons, point guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell provided the expertise and intangibles needed to make the Indiana offense run. This season, with all of the injuries, the Hoosiers have struggled to find someone who can consistently take charge on the floor.

“It’s a 19-year-old guy trying to find his own game and trying to lead a group of guys that he really should be getting a little more help,” Crean said, referring to sophomore center Thomas Bryant who has battled foul trouble in each of the last two games. “I’ve got to give him more help, obviously.”

If the Hoosiers want to make any kind of postseason run, so do his teammates.

“It all falls on the upperclassmen, me, James, guys that have been here,” Johnson said. “We have to come with a consistent level of effort, communication. Those are things that we always have to have within the game, and I think we’ll be good to go if we do those.”

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2018 NCAA Tournament: Azubuike’s presence huge as No. 1 Kansas holds off No. 8 Seton Hall

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It turns out Kansas is a whole heck of a lot better when Udoka Azubuike is in the floor.

Who knew?

The sophomore center returned Saturday for extended minutes after being limited with a knee injury to help the No. 1 Jayhawks to a 83-79 win over No. 8 Seton Hall to earn a spot in the Sweet 16.

Azubuike had 10 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, but the strongest stat in his column was his plus-minus. When he was on the floor, Kansas bested the Pirates by 21 points. When he was off, the Jayhawks got outscored by 17, and there is noise in that number as Seton Hall continued to put them on the foul line in the last minute with Azubuike on the bench.

The 7-footer’s importance to Kansas has been apparent all season, but it was even starker against the Pirates, whose Angel Delgado feasted when Azubuike wasn’t on the floor.  Seton Hall’s double-double machine finished with 24 points and 23 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to power the Pirates into next week. Neither was Khadeen Carrington’s 28 points, all but two of which came after halftime.

Azubuike’s critical role for Kansas is three-fold. First, he’s very talented. Second, he makes the four-out offense possible. Third, the drop-off behind him – apologies to Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa – is rather significant.

Kansas, which got 28 points from Malik Newman, has to play a very specific way offensively with guard-heavy roster. The Jayhawks have to get up a ton of 3s, and they’ve got to make a bunch of them. Without Azubuike in the middle drawing attention and making it difficult for defenders to stay hugged-up on shooters on the perimeter, the architecture of the offense can crumble in on itself.

Azubuike certainly isn’t a perfect or dominant player, but he rebounds well, blocks shots and makes about three-quarters of his shots. Which, of course, means he fits his role perfectly for maybe the most vulnerable Kansas team in Bill Self’s tenure. The Jayhawks’ margin for error, at least at this juncture against the competition they’re going to see in Omaha, is pretty small. Deviate from the plan and things can get away from them quickly. Duke and Michigan State, Kansas’ presumptive opponents in the Elite Eight, will punish them for any missteps or holes in their gameplan.

Azubuike is the linchpin. When he’s in place, things hold together. When he’s not, there’s trouble.

No. 11-seed Loyola-Chicago beats No. 3 Tennessee to advance to Sweet 16

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Cinderella is headed to the Sweet 16!

For the second time in this tournament, trailing 62-61 on the final possession of the game, Loyola-Chicago has won.

On Thursday, the Ramblers got the benefit of a missed Lonnie Walker free throw and a game-winning three from Donte Ingram to beat No. 6-seed Miami, 64-62.

On Saturday, the situation was almost the same — the Ramblers had the ball with 10.5 seconds left on the clock — but the execution was different.

Clayton Custer hit a jumper with 3.6 seconds left to answer Grant Williams’ and-one and send Loyola-Chicago to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

In the immortal words of Gus Johnson, the slipper still fits:

Loyola was in control of this game for the majority of the second half and led by eight points at the under-four time out, but a pair of threes from Tennessee set up Williams’ and-one on Tennessee’s final possession. Jordan Bone had a shot to win the game at the buzzer that bounced off the back of the rim.

Aundre Jackson led the Ramblers 16 points off the bench as No. 11-seed Loyola landed their second upset of the weekend, beating No. 3-seed Tennessee, 63-62, in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Those 16 points that Jackson scored were the most that any Loyola player scored in either of their games this weekend. The 10 shots that Jackson took in the first round win over No. 3-seed Miami was the only time in those two games that a Rambler player had double-digit field goal attempts. They held Miami and Tennessee to a combined 116 points.

I say all that to say this: Loyola is not a typical Cinderella team. They don’t have some superstar scorer that carried them to this point in the tournament, like a Jairus Lyles from UMBC or a Jon Elmore from Marshall. They’re not a high-scoring team or a team that just-so-happened to catch fire from three at the right time. What they are is a smart, tough and extremely well-coached group that is everything you think of when you picture Missouri Valley basketball.

They aren’t going to give up penetration defensively. They are going to pound the defensive glass. They aren’t going to commit silly turnovers or take dumb shots. They’ll run their offense and trust that whatever their coach calls is going to get them the shot they need to get.

They will not beat themselves, and if you are going to beat them, you’re going to work for every possession.

And it’s worked.

Loyola will advance to Atlanta where they will face the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 2 Cincinnati and No. 7 Nevada. With Buffalo losing and either No. 10-seed Butler or No. 11-seed Syracuse counting as anything close to a mid-major, Loyola, Marshall and UMBC are the only true Cinderella teams left in the tournament. The 16th-seeded UMBC Retrievers, who became the first No. 16 seed to get to the second round of the tournament after a Friday night win over top overall seed Virginia, take on No. 9-seed Kansas State on Sunday while No. 13-seed Marshall gets a date with in-state an rival, No. 5 West Virginia.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander paces No. 5 Kentucky past No. 13 Buffalo

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Its deficit cut to five, Buffalo zipped down the floor in transition. The ball found Jeremy Harris, who stepped into his 3-point shot attempt and let it fly as the crowd in Boise was ready to blow the roof off Taco Bell Arena, hopeful they’d have the chance to will the Bulls to an upset of Kentucky. The shot barrelled toward the basket, carrying Buffalo’s Sweet 16 dreams with it.

The ball, along with control of the game, clanged off the rim and bounced into Kentucky’s hands.

The No. 5 Wildcats turned away No. 13 Buffalo, 95-75, on Saturday to advance to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend.

Buffalo got 26 points from Wes Clark and 18 from CJ Massinburg, and made the Wildcats sweat deep into the second round until things spiraled away from them. Making just 7 of 31 shots from 3-point range and your opponent shooting 56.3 percent from the floor is no recipe for an upset.

Even with a rough shooting day, Buffalo threatened Kentucky time and again, but at every turn, the Wildcats had Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The 6-foot-6 freshman was simply spectacular, scoring 27 points on 10 of 12 shooting. He added six rebounds and six assists for good measure.

Gilgeous-Alexander was an unsolvable problem for Buffalo. The Bulls were never able to find a way to corral or deny him. He just got what he wanted when he wanted it, and what he wanted was buckets. Lots of them.

Inconsistency has been the pock on Gilgeous-Alexander’s rookie campaign, but in recent weeks he’s found his groove. He’s scored in double-digits in nine-straight games. He’s either made shots or gotten to the free-throw line. Sometimes both.

For a Kentucky team without a dominant player, Gilgeous-Alexander’s emergence as a go-to and consistent scorer is huge. The Wildcats are going to have an athletic advantage in almost every game they play. If they’ve got a guy other than Kevin Knox they can count on for 15-plus, that’s going to take a lot of pressure off an offense that doesn’t have the benefit of much in the way of shooting.

The path for Kentucky to the Elite 8 looks incredibly navigable after Virginia’s stunning and historic loss Friday to UMBC. The Wildcats will have to beat a nine or 16 seed to be just 40 minutes from another Final Four.

If Gilgeous-Alexander can continue to be the offensive weapon he’s turned into over the last month, San Antonio may very well be hosting Big Blue Nation in April.

VIDEO: Buffalo’s Nick Perkins posterizes Kevin Knox

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Buffalo and Kentucky are locked in an entertaining battle on Saturday afternoon, and while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been completely dominant, the play of the day comes courtesy of the Bulls.

After Kentucky pushed their lead to 10 points with less than nine minutes left, Nick Perkins — who is known for as a three-point shooter than anything else — dunked on Kentucky’s soon-to-be lottery pick, Kevin Knox, emphatically:

Bettor wins $16,000 on UMBC wager

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The whole country became UMBC fans throughout Saturday night as the Retrievers attempted – and ultimately pulled off – the first-ever 16-over-1 upset in the NCAA tournament against Virginia.

There may have been one person at The Venetian in Las Vegas cheering a little more than most, though. They had a little more on the line. The moneyline, to be exact. 

One bettor won $16,000 on a $800 wager that UMBC would beat the Cavaliers, which is exactly what they did, 74-54, in Charlotte.

While the bet paid off this time and it makes for an all-time story, it’s probably best not to make this your betting strategy. If you would have bet 800 bucks on every 16 seed every year, you would have been $108,000 in the hole before getting your Retriever payout and riding a rough 135-bet losing streak. Can’t win without buying a ticket, though, right?

And it’s not like that the person who just cashed a $16,000 check cares about that at the moment. Also no word on how they’re betting UMBC against Kansas State, either. The Wildcats are 10.5-point favorites, if you were wondering.