(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Four things we learned from No. 3 Kansas knocking off No. 7 Kentucky

Leave a comment

CHICAGO — The second game of the Champions Classic wasn’t quite as “artistic” (using Bill Self’s words for the first game) as Duke’s statement win over Michigan State but the clash between college basketball bluebloods still showed us a few things about two intriguing top-ten teams.

1. Kansas needs more help for Devonte’ Graham when it comes to creating offense

One of the major issues for Kansas on Tuesday night was creating effective offense in the half court. Last season the Jayhawks could rely on Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham, and to a lesser extent Josh Jackson, to create offense. This current Kansas group is lacking players who can create their own shot in the half court.

The numbers that Kansas put up on the offensive end on Tuesday indicated the struggle. The Jayhawks finished shooting 35 percent (24-for-68) from the floor while their three-point percentage (28 percent on 8-for-28) was even worse.

The length, athleticism and depth of Kentucky’s defense wearing down a team that effectively played only six players definitely had something to do with it. But Kansas looked like they really needed some help for Graham out there. There are only so many times that the preseason All-American floor general can run pick-and-roll with Udoka Azubuike. Especially since Azubuike seemed to be at his best when he could seal and score on post touches.

Malik Newman (4-for-14 shooting for 12 points) struggled to score over length at the rim as he was often trying to do too much on the offensive end. Newman is still a potentially lethal three-point shooter, if he gets hot, but he doesn’t look like a shot creator for himself or others in the half court at this current juncture. Newman really struggled scoring over length at the rim against Kentucky.

Svi Mykhailiuk (17 points) hit some momentum-shifting shots from the perimeter, but he also had an average night on the offensive end creating for himself as catch-and-shoot jumpers remain his most consistent mode of offense. Lagerald Vick might actually be the second best shot-creator for the Jayhawks at the moment. That’s not really saying much. Vick also struggled to a 4-for-13 night from the field.

It will certainly help the Kansas offense to get Arizona State transfer guard Sam Cunliffe at the semester break. Freshman forward Billy Preston is also a noted offensive threat, but Kansas has a long way to go if they’re going to be an effective offensive team. Let’s just keep it simple: Graham needs more help.

2. Kentucky freshman Kevin Knox looks like the real deal

We’ve grown to expect Kentucky freshmen to immediately contribute and become key players since John Calipari has masterfully worked the one-and-done recruiting landscape over the last decade.

There were also some serious questions as to whether freshman wing Kevin Knox, rated by some services as the best Kentucky freshman, could be an effective and potential go-to guy for the Wildcats. The 6-foot-7 Knox answered many of the those questions with his stellar play on Tuesday night. Knox buried three first-half three-pointers as he finished with a game-high 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting.

Consistent perimeter shooting was always a major question mark for Knox throughout his high school career. But a hot hand early for Kentucky was a pleasant surprise. Looking like he was ready to play in a huge spotlight game while other Kentucky freshmen struggled, Knox carried the Kentucky offense at times despite not getting nearly enough shot attempts until late in the game.

When Kentucky found themselves down by two points with 33 seconds left, they put the ball in Knox’s hands, letting him go to work as his tough runner along the baseline rimmed out. Even though Knox missed a tough and contested look, just the fact that he looked comfortable the ball in his hands in a critical spot is an important development for a young Kentucky team that needs a takeover guy.

While Knox’s perimeter shooting could ebb-and-flow at times this season, he certainly seems ready to play during big moments. The development of Knox as a potential go-to bucket-getter this season will be fascinating to watch.

Kevin Knox (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

3. Udoka Azubuike needs more post touches for a struggling Kansas offense

Kansas was completely overmatched on the interior in terms of sheer bodies on Tuesday night. That didn’t prevent sophomore big man Udoka Azubuike from having a very solid night for the Jayhawks.

Facing four or five different Kentucky big men, many of them former McDonald’s All-Americans, Azubuike finished with 13 points and eight rebounds on 5-for-5 shooting, severely outplaying his Wildcat counterparts.

Looking slimmer and more mobile than last season, the power-based Azubuike is still at his best when he can manhandle lesser opponents in the paint. Besides for the interior buckets, Azubuike was also effective as a screener while doing a great job of walling up on the defensive end without getting into severe foul trouble. This game would have been very ugly if Azubuike got in foul trouble. Thankfully, Azubuike did an admirable job of defending without fouling as the Jayhawks didn’t have a lot of size without Preston in the lineup.

For as good as Azubuike was, one of the big problems for Kansas was getting him enough effective opportunities to make plays in the post. It seemed like only Devonte’ Graham was doing a good job of working the ball inside for post touches as the other players on the floor for Kansas often hunted their own offense while basically ignoring their lone post target.

Azubuike is never going to be a major scorer commanding double teams based on his post skill. But his power post game is a major asset for a Kansas team that needs all the easy buckets they can get at this point in the season. If Kansas is struggling on offense like they did tonight, they need to get Azubuike more touches to put pressure on opposing defenses.

4. Kentucky’s depth will still create issues and keep them in games

Kansas wasn’t the only team to struggle on the offensive end on Tuesday.

Kentucky’s offense looked just as ugly as they shot 41 percent (23-for-55) from the field and 23 percent (3-for-13) from three-point range. Point-guard play was also an issue for Kentucky as they turned the ball over 18 times — including six alone from freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Despite all of the offensive issues and only one player on the roster, Kevin Knox, making a three-pointer, Kentucky still found themselves with a chance to tie or take the lead with under 30 seconds left against a top-five opponent.

It’s a testament to how Kentucky can still wear opponents down by throwing body-after-body at them in all facets of the game. The Wildcats were able to stay in this game in the second half by hitting the offensive glass hard and scoring whenever they could in transition.

Even with freshman big men Nick Richards and P.J. Washington combining for only one field goal and 11 combined rebounds in 37 total minutes, Kentucky was able to throw talented depth like Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel on the floor to give another look.

Killeya-Jones, who spent most of his freshman season stuck on the bench, was particularly solid for Kentucky as his length and perimeter shooting helped the Wildcats. Finishing with eight points and nine rebounds, while blocking three shots, Killeya-Jones looked like another intriguing development for Kentucky to come out of this game.

It’s part of what makes Kentucky so dangerous. It’s a collective group with a lot of promise and potential that is still figuring everything out, and yet, they’re still staying close against a top-five team like Kansas. Like many Calipari one-and-done operations, we probably won’t understand Kentucky’s identity or personnel until the calendar rolls over into the new year.

No. 2 Arizona drops second-straight

Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
Leave a comment

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — SMU attacked the glass and kept scoring off turnovers to offset a bad shooting performance. It was enough to hand No. 2 Arizona a second stunning loss to an unranked opponent in two nights.

Ben Emelogu scored 20 points and the Mustangs upset the Wildcats 66-60 in Thursday’s consolation round at the Battle 4 Atlantis, a jarring start for an Arizona team that began the season as a Final Four favorite with a preseason Associated Press All-American in Allonzo Trier.

Arizona (3-2) lost to North Carolina State 90-84 in Wednesday’s first round. It’s the first time the Wildcats have dropped back-to-back games against nonconference opponents since losing to Mississippi State and San Diego State in November 2011.

“This is a different feeling,” coach Sean Miller said. “It might be healthy for our team because instead of everybody telling you how good you are and you’re going to get to a Final Four and you’re awesome, it’s going to go opposite now.

“And I think that it could be something that drives our team to have even better practice to fix a few things and hopefully get back in the winner’s circle.”

The Mustangs (5-1) blew an 11-point lead in the second half but responded with a 10-2 run to go ahead for good. SMU won despite shooting 31 percent and going eight minutes without a basket in the second half.

“I always say — and everybody thinks I’m lying but I’m not when I say this — the best wins of the year are always when you can’t get your shots to go in the basket and you find a way to win anyway,” SMU coach Tim Jankovich said. “That’s how great seasons are made. Everybody wins when they shoot great and feel great and all that.”

The Mustangs hung on in two ways. First, they capitalized on 20 Arizona turnovers by scoring 19 points off those miscues. Then there was their effort on the boards; they were outrebounded 43-39 overall but nearly doubled up Arizona on the offensive glass (20-11) to finish with 23 more shot attempts and 14 second-chance points.

“We talk about this all the time,” Jankovich said. “Really break it down: Does it take a lot of talent to go run after a ball? Does it take a lot of talent to dive on a ball? … And the answer is no. So really what it takes is the character and it takes an unselfishness and a commitment to the things that win rather than the things that necessarily make me look good.

“And in the end, if you have a team full of those guys, then you’re going to have a successful team.”

Trier scored 22 points to lead the Wildcats, who shot 47 percent. Arizona freshman Deandre Ayton added 17 points and 15 rebounds, but no other Wildcats player scored in double figures. Arizona also shot just 5 of 20 on 3-pointers.

“No, our confidence isn’t affected at all,” freshman forward Ira Lee said. “We’ve just got to see these two games as a learning experience and move on.”

BIG PICTURE

Arizona: Miller immediately said offense wasn’t the problem after the loss to N.C. State, noting the Wildcats haven’t dropped many games when scoring 84 points. Rather, he was concerned about a bad defensive effort. This time, his team had some good defensive moments, but Miller said there was something missing in glaring fashion.

“Maybe we did play some good defense,” Miller said, “but defense always ends with the rebounding. And we were unable to rebound.”

SMU: The Mustangs trailed much of the way against Northern Iowa in their first-round tournament game, but played from ahead in this one. They also came up with a counterpunch, regaining the lead after Arizona erased that 11-point deficit.

“The effort, gosh darn, I don’t care if we were big or tiny or medium-sized out there or who was guarding who, I saw some fighting cats out there,” Jankovich said. “And I loved it.”

EMELOGU’S NIGHT

Emelogu went 7 of 11 from the field and 5 of 7 on 3-pointers to lead SMU’s offense. The rest of SMU’s starters made 12 of 53 shots (23 percent).

“A lot of times, you just play hard and play defense, you win games even though offense didn’t go our way,” Emelogu said.

UP NEXT

Arizona: The Wildcats will play No. 18 Purdue in Friday’s seventh-place game.

SMU: The Mustangs will play Western Kentucky in Friday’s fifth-place game.

Western Kentucky upsets No. 18 Purdue 77-73 in Bahamas

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Leave a comment

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Darius Thompson scored 12 points and hit two clinching free throws with 5.1 seconds left to help Western Kentucky upset No. 18 Purdue 77-73 in Thursday’s consolation round at the Battle 4 Atlantis.

The Hilltoppers (3-2) led nearly the entire night, but needed to make several clutch plays late to hang on.

P.J. Thompson hit a corner 3-pointer with 5.8 seconds remaining to bring the Boilermakers (4-2) to 75-73, but Thompson answered with two free throws that made it a two-possession game and all but sealed the win.

Justin Johnson led the Hilltoppers with 17 points, including a tough driving score for a five-point lead with 21 seconds left.

Isaac Haas scored 22 points to lead Purdue, which shot just 32 percent in the first half. The Boilermakers trailed 42-31 at the break and never fully recovered.

BIG PICTURE

Purdue: That’s an 0-2 showing in two days for the Boilermakers in the Bahamas. The high-scoring, 3-point shooting offense hasn’t found its rhythm here, though Purdue shot 50 percent after halftime in this one to give itself a chance late.

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers were coming off a loss to No. 5 Villanova, making this the first time they had played consecutive games against ranked opponents since the 1993 NCAA Tournament. But they earned a win against a ranked team for just the second time in the last 15 tries.

UP NEXT

Purdue: The Boilermakers will play the Arizona-SMU loser in Friday’s seventh-place game.

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers will play the Arizona-SMU winner in Friday’s fifth-place game.

Duke overcomes tenacious Portland State 99-81

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Leave a comment

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Marvin Bagley III said the Blue Devils knew they had to wake up for the second half against Portland State.

And eventually, they did. Trevon Duval had 22 points and No. 1 Duke pulled away for a 99-81 victory over the surprisingly tenacious Vikings on Thursday to open the Phil Knight Invitational.

 Bagley added 18 points, and Grayson Allen had 14 points and nine assists. The Blue Devils (6-0) will face the winner of the Thursday game between Butler and Texas.

Duke trailed by as many as eight points but took control midway through the second half when Wendell Carter Jr.’s dunk put the Blue Devils in front 67-62. They would go on to lead by as many as 21 points.

“The first half we obviously weren’t playing like we were normally do. We weren’t doing the things that we do well. We weren’t going to our strengths. We kind of came out sluggish,” Bagley said. “But going into the second half it was just ‘You have to wake up.’ They (the coaches) mentioned to us that these are the type of games that are going to be like that if you don’t come out ready to play.

It was coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 200th victory as coach of a No. 1-ranked team. He’s 200-29 when the Blue Devils sit atop the poll.

Deontae North led the Vikings (4-1) with 24 points, including 20 in the first half, but fouled out with 8:39 left in the game.

It was the first time in program history that the Vikings had faced a top-ranked team. Portland State’s last win over a ranked opponent was an 86-82 victory over then-No. 25 Portland in December 2009.

“I thought they just knocked us back the whole first half,” Krzyzewski said. “We were in a reactionary mode the first 20 minutes.”

The tournament involves 16 teams playing in two brackets on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, with a break on Saturday. The field also includes No. 4 Michigan State, No. 7 Florida and defending national champion North Carolina.

Dubbed the PK80, the tournament celebrates Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday.

Duke and Portland State were in the Motion Bracket, playing Thursday at the Memorial Coliseum. Teams in the Victory Bracket played at the adjacent Moda Center.

Knight was sitting courtside for the game.

The five-time NCAA champion Blue Devils were coming off a 92-63 victory over Furman on Monday night, led by Bagley with 24 points.

Portland State was coming off an 83-79 victory over Utah State at the Memorial Coliseum on Monday. The Vikings are playing the first season under coach Barret Peery.

“I’m proud of our team,” Peery said. “But I was proud of our team before the ball went up.”

Portland State was no pushover from the start, taking a 12-11 lead on North’s 3-pointer with 16:54 to go in the opening half. North hit another 3 that put the Vikings up 19-15 and Michael Mayhew’s jumper extended the lead.

North made another 3 to make it 33-26 with 8:33 left in the half. The Vikings stayed out in front until Gary Trent Jr. made a pair of free throws for Duke to tie it at 42 with 2:09 left in the half.

Mayhew hit a long 3-pointer and Portland State led 49-45 at the half. Mayhew was among five Vikings who fouled out in the second half.

Carter’s layup put Duke out in front 54-53, but North answered with a jumper and Bryce Canda added a 3-pointer.

Carter had another layup to give the Blue Devils a 61-60 lead and Bagley’s tip-in pushed the lead to 63-60, energizing the mostly blue-clad crowd at the Coliseum. Duke never trailed again.

“This was a big stage for us,” said Canda, who finished with 14 points. “But we can’t hang our heads.”

BIG PICTURE

Duke: Allen scored just five points against Furman, and Krzyzewski said he was banged up and held out of a couple of practices going into the game. But he was back in form against Portland State. He taunted a Portland State player late in the game and got a technical, eliciting a strong reaction from Krzyzewski.

Portland State: It was the first time Portland State had faced a No. 1-ranked team. The Vikings have twice faced a No. 2 team, including Duke in 1997. … The Vikings play in the Big Sky conference. They’ve made the NCAA tournament twice, in 2008 and 2009, with first-round losses both times.

MORE COACH K: Krzyzewski has coached 229 games with a No. 1-ranked team, surpassing John Wooden for the lead. … It is the 500th week that Duck has been ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll under him, most by a coach in the AP Top 25’s history.

NORTH’S SECOND TECH: North was on the floor in front of the scorer’s desk, getting ready to check into the game when he earned his second tech of the game. Coach Peery said apparently the ref thought North had commented on the previous play.

UP NEXT

Duke: The Blue Devils go on to face the winner of the late Thursday afternoon game between Butler and Texas when the tournament continues on Friday.

Portland State: The Vikings will face the Butler-Texas loser.

Terrell lifts Rhode Island past No. 20 Seton Hall, 75-74

Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images
Leave a comment

NEW YORK (AP) — Jared Terrell made a running layup with 5.2 seconds left to give Rhode Island a 75-74 victory over No. 20 Seton Hall on Thursday night in the second game of the Preseason NIT.

Terrell finished with 32 points to help the Rams improve to 3-1. Stanford Robinson added 15 points.

Myles Powell led the Pirates (4-1) with 21 points. Angel Delgado had 18 points and 14 rebounds, and Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez had 12 points each.

Following Terrell’s layup, Seton Hall inbounded the ball to Carrington, who raced up court but lost his dribble and the Pirates were unable to recover the loose ball before the buzzer sounded.

Trailing by nine at halftime, Seton Hall outscored Rhode Island 27-17 in a 14:06 span to take the lead at 72-71. Carrington made two free throws with 5:54 left to give the Pirates their first lead since his jumper 5:09 into the game.

Defense was both the cause and effect for Seton Hall’s turnaround. Specifically, the Pirates played defense in the second half after surrendering 60.7 percent (17 of 28) shooting from the field — including 77.8 percent (7 of 9) from 3-point range — —in the first 20 minutes.

The Rams regained the the lead, 73-72, on Andre Berry’s layup with 4:05 left. The lead lasted for 2:02 until Ismael Sanogo’s layup gave Seton Hall a one-point advantage.

BIG PICTURE

Seton Hall: The Pirates entered the game having yielded just 254 points_or an average of 63.5 points per game_in winning their first four games. Against Rhode Island, Seton Hall allowed 54 points in the first half and the Rams broke the 64-point barrier with 11:03 left in the second half on Jared Terrell’s 3 in front of the Rhode Island bench.

Rhode Island: The Rams authored an otherworldly offensive performance — in the first half. Rhode Island scored 54 points on 60.7 percent shooting. But college basketball is a two-half game and, in the second, Rhode Island only made 8 of 31 shots from the field.

NOTABLE

Seton Hall Fell to 7-2 against Rhode Island

Rhode Island: The second of two games at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center also marked the second time Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley coached against his alma mater. Hurley scored 1,070 points in five years at Seton Hall.

UP NEXT

Seton Hall: Plays Vanderbilt in the consolation game Friday.

Rhode Island: Plays Virginia in the championship Friday.

No. 5 Villanova beats Tennessee 85-76 in Battle 4 Atlantis

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 16: Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats drives against Elijah Long #55 of the Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers in the first half during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KeyBank Center on March 16, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
1 Comment

PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas — Jalen Brunson scored 25 points to help fifth-ranked Villanova rally from 15 down and beat Tennessee 85-76 in Thursday’s semifinals at the Battle 4 Atlantis.

The Wildcats (5-0) trailed 44-29 with 1:39 left before roaring out of a break with a dominating run. Villanova scored the first 11 points as part of that 23-2 burst, with the Wildcats playing far more aggressively and getting out in transition.

Mikal Bridges added 21 points for Villanova, which shot 52 percent after halftime and built a 15-point lead with 4:40 left before having to hold off a late rally by the Volunteers.

Grant Williams scored 20 points for Tennessee (3-1), which clawed to within 79-76 on Admiral Schofield’s 3-pointer with 51.6 seconds left. But that was as close as the Volunteers got, with Villanova hitting four free throws and getting a breakaway dunk from Donte DiVincenzo with 13.2 seconds left to seal it.

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers were coming off an overtime win against No. 18 Purdue in the first round and they were poised to add an even bigger upset. But that flat second-half start wiped out a strong half’s worth of work and squandered the momentum that came through their board work and converting turnovers.

Villanova: That’s two straight days the Wildcats put together a second-half spurt to take control in the Bahamas. They did it in Round 1 against Western Kentucky to finally break the game open, but this one — full of active hands, deflected passes and guys diving on the floor — brought them back in a game that was once getting away from them.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: The Volunteers will play the North Carolina State-Northern Iowa loser in Friday’s third-place game.

Villanova: The Wildcats will play the N.C. State-Northern Iowa winner in Friday’s championship game.