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Duke lands come-from-behind win over North Carolina

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BROOKLYN — Jayson Tatum, Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard combined for 62 points and Frank Jackson chipped in with 15 points of his own on Friday night as Duke erased a double-digit second half deficit for the second straight game, knocking off top-seeded North Carolina in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, 93-83.

The Blue Devils trailed 61-48 with just over 13 minutes left on Friday, using a 29-8 run that coincided with Joel Berry II’s fourth foul to take a 77-70 lead that North Carolina never recovered from. On Thursday night, in Duke’s win over Louisville, the Blue Devils erased a 12-point deficit — that score was 61-49, coincidentally — to knock off the Cardinals.

Here are four things to take away from Duke’s win:

1. Get ready for the Duke love affair to begin anew: Because it’s going to happen.

The Blue Devils were the consensus favorite to win the national title before the season began. Throughout November and December, every story about Duke read, in part, “just wait until they get their guys healthy.”

Well, guess what: their guys are healthy. Allen’s ankle looks as good as it has looked all year long, Tatum looks like the best isolation scorer in the country and Luke Kennard is still capable of putting up 20 points on a night where he didn’t play all that well. The Blue Devils have their flaws — they are never going to be a great defensive team, their depth is an issue, North Carolina’s bigs absolutely beat the crap out of the Blue Devils for the first 30 minutes on Friday — but this team is more talented than anyone else in college basketball.

And they are now coming off of wins over a pair of top ten teams on back-to-back nights where they trailed by double-digits in the second half of both games.

The love affair is about to begin again.

2. You got a glimpse of the real Harry Giles III: Giles’ story doesn’t need to be retold at this point. An elite prospect during the early years of high school, Giles suffered a torn ACL in both knees and, prior to the start of practice, underwent a procedure on the first knee he injured. He spent 14 months not playing basketball.

That’s not easy for anyone to overcome, let alone a freshman that has never played basketball at this level before, and it showed during the season. Giles struggled with everything: the physicality, the speed of the game, defensive rotations, his endurance, his explosiveness. He just wasn’t the same guy.

On Friday night, however, we saw a little bit of what made him so special as a high schooler. Late in the second half, with Amile Jefferson on the bench with four fouls and Duke in a physical battle with the Tar Heels, Giles had a pivotal stretch where he blocked a shot at one end, beat Tony Bradley down the floor for a dunk at the other end, stole an entry pass on the ensuing UNC possession and, after Duke scored at the other end of the floor, snagged a rebound in between two of North Carolina’s big, physical dominating front court pieces.

That’s the guy that we’ve been waiting all year to see, and this was another step towards Giles being that guy.

3. North Carolina is damn good when they have everyone on the court: Duke won on Friday, but North Carolina showed just how dominant they are capable of being when all their guys are on the floor.

Berry went to the bench with 15 minutes left. Duke’s run came entirely with him out of the lineup, and coincided with UNC’s inability to get anything done offensively. We all know how important Berry is to the Tar Heels — if you didn’t, I think today proved it to you — and that loss is a by-product of one of those things that happens in hoops.

Berry isn’t in foul trouble often, however.

And when he’s on the floor, Theo Pinson is healthy and Isaiah is both healthy and not in foul trouble, the Tar Heels are as good or better than just about anyone.

Put another way, North Carolina-Duke Round 4 in the Final Four is not something that should shock anyone.

4. Where are these teams going to get seeded?: I think North Carolina is probably going to be safe as a No. 1 seed, but they’ve now lost two games in the last week. With Gonzaga going 32-1 and, in all likelihood, one of the three elite teams in the Pac-12 winning that conference tournament, might their be two West Coast teams that earn a No. 1 seed?

I don’t think so, but it’s possible.

Perhaps more interesting, however, will be where Duke is seeded. They just added two top ten wins to a résumé that looked good enough to be in contention for a No. 3 seed. With a win on Saturday night, can they climb into the No. 2 seed line?

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.