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Weekend Preview: Four story lines to follow

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1. The rest of the N.C. State season will be awkward?: Mark Gottfried was fired by the university on Thursday, which didn’t come as a surprise. Smoke was rising, and the Wolfpack were sinking. They were 14-13 and 3-11 in the ACC following a 24-point home loss to North Carolina, which followed a 30-point loss to Wake Forest. The Wolfpack are 13th in a 14 team ACC and have lost six straight since their upset win at Duke.

And all of that came after a 16-17 season in 2015-17.

So no, it wasn’t a surprise that Gottfried was let go by the university. What was mildly surprising, however, was that he and athletic director Debbie Yow agreed that he would be able to coach out the rest of the season, four regular season games and N.C. State’s trip to the NCAA tournament, which means that I now am rooting for one thing and one thing only: N.C. State to make the NCAA tournament.

Seriously.

Think about how awesome that would be.

The lame-duck head coach, the one that’s been to four NCAA tournaments in five-plus years in Raleigh, rallies a group that has the talent to get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament after he already received his pink slip. I feel pretty confident saying that has never happened before in the history of the sport, and I also feel pretty confident saying that it will be make things in Raleigh even more awkward.

Some sportswriters root for the best story. Me? I root for chaos, and how could anything be more chaotic than what would happen at N.C. State if Gottfried gets them back into the NCAA tournament?

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2. The Big Ten title race will see some movement: The way things currently stand, Wisconsin, Maryland and Purdue are all tied for first place in the Big Ten with five games remaining. On Sunday, Wisconsin and Maryland square off, meaning that there will be, at most, two teams in the league of the conference come Monday morning. Purdue gets Michigan State at home in a game that the Spartans badly need if they’re going to get into the NCAA tournament.

The x-factor here? Bronson Koening is not healthy. He played just 15 minutes in the loss at home against Northwestern. He didn’t play in Thursday’s loss at Michigan. Maryland, on the other hand, got 30 points out of Melo Trimble in Wednesday night’s win at Northwestern.

Is it possible that Wisconsin, who led the Big Ten by two full games last Sunday, will be out of first place just one week later?

3. Kansas vs. Baylor: A top five battle between the two teams at the top of the Big 12 standings? Yes, please.

There is a lot to go over with this matchup – we do that here – but there are two specific story lines that need to be tracked in this game. First and foremost is the streak. Kansas, obviously, has won 12 straight Big 12 regular season titles, and they’re currently up two games on Baylor in the Big 12 standings. A win on Saturday would give them the outright Big 12 title barring the kind of collapse we only see out of Iowa.

The other side of it, however, is that Baylor is still fighting for a No. 1 seed, but the Bears have lost three of their last five games – including games against Kansas State and Texas Tech – and are no longer a lock for that top seed line, not with the top of the ACC surging. Beating the Jayhawks would be a nice way to keep themselves as a No. 1 seed while also making the Big 12 race relevant down the stretch of the season.

4. Is Kentucky back in their groove?: Two weeks ago, Kentucky bounced back from a stretch where they lost three out of four games by beating a terrible LSU team at home by seven points, a game where they hemorrhaged 58 points second half points.

That convinced Coach Cal to run through a three-hour practice that focused entirely on the defensive side of the ball, and the response has been two wins in a row, at Alabama and at home over Tennessee. On Saturday, the Wildcats pay a visit to Georgia, who was the only team that Kentucky was able to beat in that four-game stretch. That win came at home, in overtime and as a direct result of Malik Monk going absolutely bonkers in the second half.

The Bulldogs are a better team than their record might indicate. Yante Maten and J.J. Frazier may be the best 1-2 punch in the conference. This game will be the test that lets us know if the Wildcats are back to being the team we saw earlier in the season.

No. 10 Kansas overcomes deficits and its own issues to win at No. 6 West Virginia

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It’s hard to look at Kansas – the roster, the stats, the resume and all that comes with it – and not conclude this is the most vulnerable squad the Jayhawks have fielded since its current domination of the Big 12 began in 2005. The flaws are apparent, and they’re serious. They could easily be enough to sink the Jayhawks in an unforgiving conference.

It also could just be business as usual for Bill Self’s program

Tenth-ranked Kansas sputtered and struggled Monday night, but, ultimately, it didn’t matter as the Jayhawks stole a game at a rowdy WVU Coliseum, topping sixth-ranked West Virginia, 71-66, to keep its spot atop the Big 12 despite whatever issues bothered them against the Mountaineers and may persist well into the winter.

One of the major differences of this Kansas team from the 13 that preceded it is the Jayhawks can’t overwhelm with talent and athleticism. There’s no Andrew Wiggins, Josh Jackson, Thomas Robinson or any other surefire lottery pick to just go get buckets. There isn’t a host of high-level athletes that can help Kansas just run inferior teams off the floor. When you have two things, your margin of error gets padded. Mistakes aren’t magnified. They’re minimized. That’s not a luxury Kansas now enjoys.

Then there’s the issue of the roster. Even with Silvio De Sousa being declared eligible, Kansas is still incredibly thin and inexperienced up front. Udoka Azubuike is a load, but he’s the only big man that even inspires a bit of fear from opponents. If Billy Preston ever gets on the floor, maybe this becomes less of an issue for the Jayhawks, but it’s difficult to believe a true freshman making a whole host of difference this late in the season.

So for Kansas to win its 14th-straight Big 12 regular season championship, the Jayhawks are going to have to have to play a specific way. There’s not much wiggle room. They’ve got to defend. They’ve got to shoot 3s. They’ve got to be tough. They’ve got to be resilient.

That’s exactly what the Jayhawks were against Bob Huggins’ team Monday. If you can out-tough, out-hustle and out-work a Huggins team on their home floor, you’re on to something.

West Virginia led by as many as 16 in the first half. The Mountaineers had Kansas shook. Well Sagaba Konate did, at least. Eulogies were already being written for Kansas, especially as West Virginia’s lead stayed in double digits past the midway point of the second half.

West Virginia is designed to wear down opponents. The Mountaineers try to create a crucible, especially in Morgantown, that will force opponents to wilt. That’s supposed to be its most potent late in games.

That’s when Kansas thrived.

The Jayhawks outscored West Virginia 26-11 over the final 8 minutes. The Mountaineers were 5 of 14 (35.7 percent) from the floor with four turnovers during that stretch. Kansas, conversely, make 7 of 10 shots overall and 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

It wasn’t exactly rope-a-dope, but Kansas saved its best for last. They made winning plays. That’s really what’s going to have to separate them from the pack this season. As good as Devonte Graham is, as effective as Svi Mykhailiuk can be and as good as Self is, the Jayhawks are going to have to grind more than they’re accustomed to. 

The Big 12 is unmerciful this season. Texas Tech already has a win at Allen Fieldhouse, Trae Young has gone full supernova and even the league’s bottom tier looks like tough outs. Kansas faces a major test, and they’ll do so without a roster that compares to some of the powerhouses Self has assembled. The Jayhawks have often been able to win just by delivering broad strokes. They were bigger, faster, stronger and, simply, better. When they coupled that with a mastery of the finer points of the game, they dominated.

If The Streak is going to reach 14, it won’t be with that blueprint. The grittier parts of the game are going to have to come to the forefront. Outlasting West Virginia in Morgantown while shooting 44 percent and facing double-digit deficits would suggest the Jayhawks have the toughness and ability to make clutch plays that can paper over other issues.

Kansas isn’t going to overwhelm the Big 12 this year. They still very well could win it.

Monday’s Three Things to Know: Duke wins, Kansas wins and … BC wins?

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1. SO MAYBE KANSAS IS GOING TO WIN THE BIG 12 AFTER ALL

It happens EVERY YEAR.

Kansas goes on some prolonged slump, plays like a hot garbage for a few weeks and gets all of us thinking that yes, this year is different than all of the other years, that this is the year the Jayhawks won’t actually win the Big 12 regular season title.

I am a member of that club, and I feel pretty stupid after Monday night.

Kansas went into Morgantown and knocked off No. 6 West Virginia, 71-66, despite trailing for the majority of the game and spending the first 12 minutes of the second half staring up at a double-digit deficit. Simply put: the Jayhawks had no business winning on Monday night, and yet they did anyway, moving themselves into sole possession of first place in the Big 12 and making up for the fact that they lost at home to Texas Tech earlier this season.

Our Travis Hines penned a column on this game, so I’ll let him elaborate more, but one thing I will note here is that Silvio De Sousa played well in some important minutes at the end of the first half. Turning him into a player that can be a competent energy for 10-15 minutes off the bench will be massive.

2. BC’S ROLLING

The Jim Christian era at Boston College hasn’t exactly been sunshine and rainbows. The Eagles have never finished a season above .500 and failed to reach double-digit wins the last two years. That put Christian on the hot seat coming into the season and with little reason to believe the temperature would come down in the always-competitive ACC.

Things, though, have been pretty good – at least when judged against the last three years – in Chestnut Hill. With Monday’s 81-75 win over Florida State, Boston College is now 3-3 in the ACC, which exceeds its conference win total from the last two years…combined. Yes. BC won just two games against ACC opponents combined in 2016 and 2017, winning two games last year after going 0-18 the season prior.

It hasn’t really been a function of scheduling or luck, either. Other than getting stomped by North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Boston College has been competitive every night out, losing by a combined five points to Virginia and Clemson. Now, don’t go putting Boston College in the FIeld of 68 or anything like that just yet, but it’s easy to see that after three years in the woods, the Eagles may be closer to finding something akin to consistent competency.

3. DUKE IS STARTING TO PLAY SOME DEFENSE

The Blue Devils won at No. 25 Miami tonight. Rob Dauster has a column up on that game right now which gets into everything you need to know.

But there is this tidbit that is important to know: Duke allowed less than 1.00 points-per-possession on Monday night. It’s the third straight game that they have allowed less than 1.00 PPP, and that’s the first time that they have done that since 2014.

Granted, the best offense in those three games ranks outside the top 50 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric (Wake Forest) and two of them (Miami, 107th, and Pitt, 236th) rank outside the top 100. but you have to start somewhere. Is this the beginning of another defensive renaissance?

VIDEO: West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate hosts block party vs. Kansas

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Do not try Sagaba Konate.

The West Virginia big man has no time for anyone – especially Kansas Jayhawks attempting dunks – at the rim.

Konate’s first half against Kansas on Monday night was borderline dominant on the defensive end, with the 6-foot-8 sophomore blocking five shots as the Mountaineers controlled the game against Big 12 favorite Kansas.

The numbers were great, but the actual blocks were even better.

It looked like Konate had submitted his Block of the Year candidate early when Kansas senior Svi Mykhailiuk challenged him on a fast break. Konate wasn’t having any of it.

Konate may have one-upped himself later in the half, though, when Marcus Garrett, despite presumably having eyes and a short-term memory, thought it was a good idea to try to put Konate on a poster with a dunk of his own.

Super bad idea.

The Big 12 has some dominant shot blockers in the 7-footer mold of Texas’ Mo Bamba and Jo Lual-Acuil, but Konate may be the best of the bunch.

Texas Tech fined, WVU’s Harris reprimanded after court-storm

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — The Big 12 fined Texas Tech $25,000 and reprimanded West Virginia forward Wes Harris for hitting a fan who joined thousands of others in storming the court during a weekend postgame celebration.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in a statement Monday that Texas Tech did not ensure the safety and security of West Virginia players following the game in Lubbock, Texas.

Videos posted on social media by fans show Harris and other West Virginia players trying to reach the sideline as Red Raider fans swarmed the court Saturday in celebration of No. 8 Texas Tech’s 72-71 win over then-No. 2 West Virginia.

The videos show Harris striking a fan who had run into him before Harris is pulled away. Other players were involved in a separate skirmish trying to protect a teammate in the swarm.

“We have a duty to provide a safe game environment,” Bowlsby said. “The Texas Tech Department of Athletics has a written event management policy, which was unsuccessful in ensuring the safety and security of the visiting team game participants.”

Texas Tech got the win it its first-ever Top 10 matchup on its home court.

Bowlsby noted that although the Big 12 does not have a policy prohibiting spectators from entering the court for postgame celebrations, “it is of utmost importance that home game management provide adequate security measures for our student-athletes, coaches, game officials and spectators.”

Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt said in a statement that the Red Raiders “admittedly did fail to meet our expectations Saturday in efforts to secure the floor and allow West Virginia to exit without incident.

“We will make the necessary adjustments to continue to ensure that all in attendance have an excellent experience at all of our events.”

West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons said WVU, the Big 12 and Texas Tech had a “positive and open dialogue” over the incident, and court security, player safety and postgame emotions were taken into account.

“We will revisit with our student-athletes to again reinforce our expectations regarding sportsmanship issues across all sports,” Lyons said in a statement. “The Big 12 has issued its reprimand. We accept it, and I consider the matter closed.”

Harris, a sophomore, is averaging 6.2 points and 4.6 rebounds.

“Although the post-game environment did not live up to our expectations, Mr. Harris intentionally striking a fan is contrary to the conference’s sportsmanship standards,” Bowlsby said.

Harris started his 18th straight game Monday night when No. 6 West Virginia (15-2, 4-1 Big 12) faced No. 10 Kansas (14-3, 4-1) in Morgantown.

Texas Tech plays at Texas on Wednesday.

Gary Trent sparks comeback win for No. 5 Duke at No. 25 Miami

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Gary Trent Jr. scored 18 of his career-high 30 points in the final 12 minutes as No. 5 Duke overcame a 13-point second half deficit to knock off No. 25 Miami in Coral Gables, 83-75, on Monday night.

Miami was up 66-53 and cruising with less than eight minutes left on the clock when Trent buried threes on back-to-back possessions to spark a 27-4 run that gave the Blue Devils an 80-70 lead with 39 seconds left. Trent also made the biggest shot of the game in that run, a three with 1:18 left that put Duke ahead 76-70.

The story of this game is going to end up being Duke’s defense. After getting torched for the first 32 minutes of the game, Mike Krzyzewski went back to a 2-3 zone that completely took the Hurricanes out of the rhythm that they were in. That is true.

But that is not what changed the game.

Duke had 19 turnovers in the first 32 minutes of the game that led directly to 20 Miami points. In total, the Hurricanes scored 31 of their first 66 points in transition. In the final eight minutes of the game, Duke stopped throwing the ball all over the court and managed to score 30 points during that stretch; for comparison’s sake, Miami outscored Duke 19-4 in the first nine minutes of the second half when the Blue Devils had seven turnovers.

So credit Duke for getting it done on the offensive end against one of college basketball’s stiffest defenses; Miami entered the night ranked 7th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric.

And credit Coach K for throwing a 2-3 zone at Miami, because it works.

But I don’t think that this performance changes the overarching narrative of Duke’s season – that they are not good enough defensively to win a national title right now – because I think Miami’s struggles against the zone say far more about Miami than they do about Duke.

The Hurricanes are insanely talented. Lonnie Walker and Bruce Brown both look like they are going to play in the NBA and may end up being first round picks. The same can be said for big man Dewan Huell. JaQuan Newton, a senior, and Chris Lykes, a freshman, are both good ACC players. The problem, at least the way that I see it, is that all four of those guards are essentially the same guy: Score-first combo-guards that don’t really shoot it all that well and that don’t really make anyone around them all that much better.

In transition, when Jim Larrañaga’s talented guards can make plays in space, they are really effective. When they play against a man-to-man defense that doesn’t really know how to defend ball-screens, they look great. Against a zone, where trying to beat a man 1-on-1 won’t work, where ball movement and spacing and attacking gaps to create openings for teammates is needed, Miami comes up short.

Duke was not good defensively for the first 32 minutes on Monday night. They were better than they have been, and they do deserve some credit for slowly going from horrendous to just plain bad defensively, but there were still plenty of times where the Blue Devils looked like this trying to slow down Miami:

Duke made the plays they needed to make to come back, and that’s not an easy thing to do. They deserve credit for it.

But it is also fair to say that Miami lost their lead because they were clueless about what to do when faced with a 2-3.

It begs a larger question, one that will be tougher for Hurricane fans to stomach: Was this team overrated coming into the season?

Personally, I don’t think they were. A team with three potential NBA players and a roster full of guards that thrive in a ball-screen heavy offense that Larrañaga runs should be better than they are. But Newton is shooting a career-low from three and losing minutes to Lykes, who is 5-foot-7 and a gambler defensively. Brown did not make anywhere near the improvement many expected him to make – in some ways he’s regressed – and Walker entered Monday shooting under 30 percent from three.

The pieces on the roster aren’t as good as we thought they were and they don’t fit together as well as we had hoped that they would.

We’re now more than halfway through the season and the Hurricanes’ best win came against a Florida State team that has lost three of their last four and four of their last six. They’ve also beaten Minnesota, who has fallen off a cliff recently, and Middle Tennessee State, who probably needs to win their league to get to the NCAA tournament. They’ve now lost two in a row, three of their last four and four of their last seven.

Miami will have plenty of chances to figure this thing out and play their way into the Big Dance, but as of today, the Hurricanes are a bubble team.

Predicting them to win the ACC doesn’t look like my best prediction right now.