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No. 16 Kentucky lands largest win over Louisville since Pitino’s first season with Cards

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It was over before the first TV timeout of the second half.

Kentucky used a 36-16 surge to close the first half and opened the second half on a 26-9 run, opening up a lead that climbed as high as 32 points as the No. 16 Wildcats cruised to their most impressive win of the season, humiliating a beaten-down Louisville team with a 90-61 win.

The last time the Wildcats won by more than 20 points in this rivalry came back in 2001, exactly 16 years ago to the day, when the Cardinals lost 82-62 to No. 6 Kentucky in Rick Pitino’s first season as Louisville head coach and his first trip back to Rupp Arena since leaving Kentucky for the Boston Celtics.

Here are four things we can take away from that beatdown:

1. SHAI GILGEOUS-ALEXANDER PLAYED HIS BEST GAME TO DATE

I’ve been as hard on SGA this season as anyone for one, relatively simple reason: For a team that can struggle on the offensive end of the floor, he can be a limiting factor. He wasn’t on Friday afternoon, finishing with a career-high 24 points to go along with five boards, four assists and three steals off the bench. It wasn’t just in transition, either, which is where a lot of his offense has come from this year. He was beating Louisville defenders off the dribble. He showed an ability to navigate taller defenders in the paint. He was more than just a straight-line driver. He was terrific. I’m not sure how much more there is to add.

And that’s significant because he already is an excellent presence on the defensive end of the floor given his 6-foot-6 size, length and athleticism. We know what he provides on that end. It’s why he’s in the conversation as a potential first round pick whenever he does end up heading to the professional ranks. But to see him provide this kind of spark offensively? I think this raises the ceiling of what Kentucky can be for one, simple reason: Before today, I didn’t know if it was possible to close the gap between Kentucky’s best offensive five and their best defensive five.

Well … they did.

2. KENTUCKY’S DEFENSE WAS TERRIFIC

Prior to the start of the season, the big concern that everyone had with this Kentucky roster was on the offensive end of the floor. Would they be able to score efficiently enough and shoot consistently enough to be a Final Four contender? We had that concern because the general consensus was that, with the size and athleticism that John Calipari had at his disposal, he would find a way to make the Wildcats one of the nation’s best defensive teams.

That was not the case for the first six months of the season. While the Wildcats were good enough offensively – they entered Friday with the 27th-best offensive, according to KenPom, while shooting 36 percent from three and grabbing 37 percent of their own misses, all numbers that, in a vacuum, should be enough – they struggled on the defensive end of the floor. Virginia Tech put up 86 on them. UCLA put up 83. Even Vermont’s guards were able to torch the Wildcats in a game earlier this year, and it’s not like they overwhelmed the likes of Harvard, or Troy, or East Tennessee State.

On Friday, Kentucky’s defense looked like the defense we thought the Wildcats would be capable of playing this year. The Cards shot 34.8 percent from the floor, 3-for-25 from three and scored all of 0.91 points-per-possession, which included a flurry of offense once the game was decidedly in hand. Some of that, however, might have been due to Louisville being #notgood, but we’ll get to that in a second.

3. WILL LOUISVILLE MAKE THE NCAA TOURNAMENT?

This is a legitimate question that needs to be asked at this point. The Cardinals finished non-conference play at 10-3, and none of their losses are all that bad – at Purdue, at Kentucky, Seton Hall at home. All three of those teams have legitimate Final Four upside.

It is concerning that their best win in the non-conference came against a six-loss Indiana team that has been beaten at home by a combined 41 points by Fort Wayne and Indiana State, but what’s more concerning is that this Louisville team just does not look like they are good enough to collect the wins that they need to collect in order to put together a profile strong enough to get a tournament bid in the ACC.

Yes, this is recency bias rearing up, but you tell me, Louisville fans: Are you confident in your team’s ability to nick a win off of, say, Duke, or North Carolina, or Miami? What about Notre Dame? Or even someone like an 11-1 Clemson team?

4. ALL THIS SHOULD GO TO SHOW YOU JUST HOW GOOD OF A COACH RICK PITINO IS

Here’s something crazy that I remembered today: In the first iteration of the 2017-18 Preseason Top 25, the one that we released on the night of the national title game, when Donovan Mitchell was returning to school, Miles Bridges seemed like a one-and-done player and Marvin Bagley III was thinking about junior prom, the Cardinals were No. 1.

Let me repeat: Nine months ago, I thought Louisville would be the best team in college basketball this season.

Yes, losing a potential Rookie of the Year in the NBA changes a lot of things, but the Cardinals were still the No. 16 team in the preseason AP Poll even after everything they’ve gone through in the last two months. They still have players like Quentin Snider, Deng Adel, Anas Mahmoud, Ray Spalding and V.J. King, guys that were expected to play a major role regardless of who was their head coach.

Padgett was put into an impossible position and has performed about as well as you could have asked him to.

So maybe that should shed some light on why we keep referring to Pitino as one of the best to ever coach the game of basketball.

Weekend Preview: Big East showdown headlines an interesting slate of games

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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

*(NOTE: Lines are not posted for Saturday or Sunday games as of publication. Spreads referenced are via Kenpom.com)

No. 11 XAVIER at No. 19 SETON HALL (-1), Sat. 2:30 p.m. (FOX)

The only game this weekend featuring two teams that are currently ranked in the top 25, Xavier and Seton Hall square off in a battle of programs trending in opposite directions. Now that Trevon Bluiett has rediscovered his shooting stroke, the Musketeers have reeled off back-to-back wins, including a beatdown of then-No. 25 Creighton. Seton Hall, on the other hand, lost by a combined 37 points at Marquette and Creighton in the last 11 days and struggled with a Georgetown team that was down 44 points at home against Villanova.

  • PREDICTION: Xavier’s new starting lineup will be interesting. The Musketeers are much more offensively oriented right now, but Kerem Kanter and Naji Marshall are not exactly known for their defense and physicality. Seton Hall has a big, old, tough and strong front line. I think they get this win they badly needed in front of a packed out. Seton Hall (-1)

No. 14 ARIZONA (-5) at STANFORD, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (CBS)

First place in the Pac-12 is on the line as 5-1 Arizona squares off with 5-1 Stanford. And yes, you read that correctly. In their last five games in league play, the Cardinal have swept the LA schools at home, the Washington schools on the road and beaten Arizona State in their place. Now they get the best team in the Pac-12. Stanford is healthy and playing the best basketball they’ve played in a long, long time.

  • PREDICTION: If Stanford is getting five points at home I am all over the Cardinal. The problem is that I don’t think they will be. KenPom’s projections don’t factor in that Stanford is healthy and hot. I think the line will be closer to Stanford (-2), and I would still probably take them. Stanford (-5)

FLORIDA at No. 18 KENTUCKY (-3), Sat. 8:15 p.m.

This matchup is fascinating. Two teams that still have quite figured things out that play polar opposite styles of basketball. Florida is loaded with quick, veteran guards that fire up threes. Kentucky is loaded big, athletic forwards that can’t really shoot. Coming off of a loss at South Carolina, I think this game is probably more important for Kentucky, who finally looks like they are going to be healthy.

  • PREDICTION: Can Kentucky overwhelm Florida with their size or will the Gators exploit the mismatches with their guards? That answer really comes down to whether or not the Gators get hot from deep. I’m going to guess that they will since they have a tendency to show up in big games. Florida (+3)

WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO WATCH?

  • No. 1 Villanova (-17) at UConn, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (CBS): The big question in this game for me, beyond “Will UConn lose by enough for UConn to fire Kevin Ollie on the spot?”, is whether or not Villanova is the elite team in college basketball that we swear doesn’t exist. Villanova (-17)
  • No. 7 Wichita State (-1) at Houston, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPNU): The Shockers have turned into a defensive liability out of nowhere, and on Saturday they will be traveling to visit a Houston team that badly needs this win. Wichita State (-1)
  • No. 4 Oklahoma (-3) at Oklahoma State, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN): Trae Young hasn’t been right for a couple of weeks, and now he gets a rival on the road. Is this the game that he figures it out? Oklahoma (-3)
  • BAYLOR at No. 10 KANSAS (-8), Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN): Kansas has actually had some issues at home this season, more than they’ve had on the road. Baylor tends to play the Jayhawks tough. Is this a letdown spot after that massive win at West Virginia? Kansas (-8)

No. 10 Jayhawks back on top of Big 12 with fresh approach

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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — The hallmarks of Kansas under Bill Self over the years have been inside-outside post play and gritty defense, the kind of in-your-shorts man-to-man that leaves opponents gasping for air.

That trusted formula has produced 13 straight Big 12 championships.

But if the No. 10 Jayhawks are going to break a tie with the UCLA teams of the 1960s and ’70s for the most consecutive conference titles, their formula will look quite different this season: They are going to pour in 3-pointers, race around the court and simply outscore their foes.

“I do think you can get tougher. I do think you can get harder. I do think you can become more competitive and learn how to compete as you go,” Self said, “but the reality of it is we’re not changing right now playing four guards. Our second-best rebounder is 6-foot-5, 180 pounds. We’re not changing that. We’re not changing our next-best rebounder weighs 200 pounds. We’re not changing that fact.

“We’re playing four really average-sized guards,” Self said. “We’re not going to change that.”

So, best to adapt to it.

It helps that those four guards — Devonte Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Lagerald Vick and Malik Newman — form one of the best backcourts in the nation. Graham is a do-everything floor general, Mykhailiuk one of the best sharpshooters in the nation, Vick the most athletic of the bunch and Newman is capable of getting to the rim with as quick of a first step as anybody in the league.

It also helps that they’re experienced: Graham and Mykhailiuk are seniors with three title rings on their fingers, Vick is a junior and Newman is a third-year sophomore who redshirted last season.

Together, they’ve led the Jayhawks (15-3, 5-1) to four consecutive wins, including road wins over then-No. 16 TCU and sixth-ranked West Virginia. They’ve pushed Kansas back to the top of the league standings headed into Saturday’s game against Baylor, and back into the discussion of a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament when the bracket is revealed in about six weeks.

In other words, they have Kansas right where it is accustomed to being.

But the route has been much different, and that was evident in the Jayhawks’ comeback victory over the Mountaineers on Monday night. Graham and Mykhailiuk combined for 20 of their final 26 points, most of them on 3s and pull-up jumpers — each of them knocked down three from beyond the arc.

The comeback in years past would have featured a big man such as Darrell Arthur or Thomas Robinson in the post, or an elite guard such as Frank Mason III going right to the rim.

Different styles, even if the results have been the same.

“I think we assume some things because of the past,” Self said. “You look at the past, I mean, Landen Lucas was tough. We’re not replacing him with the same toughness. Josh Jackson was a monster. He was an assassin. We’re not replacing him with the same type of mentality. Certainly, you can’t match Frank’s mentality in that area. Which is OK. We were so spoiled with that in the past.”

Those past teams may have had bruising big men, tough guard play and pure scorers all over the floor, and they may have been one of the best defensive teams in the country. But they also had deficiencies, and in many cases, they are the same areas where this year’s team excels.

The Jayhawks have already hit 195 shots from beyond the arc, tops in the Big 12, and are shooting 41 percent from that range. They are among the league leaders in assists and shooting percentage, numbers that help to offset the fact that Kansas ranks ninth out of 10 teams in the league in rebounding.

“We’re going to be scrappy, tough. We got to do a way better job of rebounding, obviously,” Graham said. “But yeah, basically we’ve just got to get way tougher, like I’ve been saying.”

That toughness could get a boost now that Silvio De Souza, a five-star prospect from Florida’s IMG Academy, has been cleared to play. He graduated in December and promptly joined the Jayhawks, and Self is hopeful the big man will be up to speed by the time February rolls around.

It could get another boost if Billy Preston, another five-star prospect, is ever cleared. The school and NCAA have been looking into the ownership of a car he was driving on campus last fall.

In the meantime, the Jayhawks head into their game against the Bears on Saturday riding a win streak, winning high-scoring affairs thanks to 3-pointers and an offensive flair.

“We don’t have the same team we’ve had in the past,” Self said, “and we have to understand that.”

TCU PG Jaylen Fisher to miss rest of season following knee surgery

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FORT WORTH, Texas — TCU point guard Jaylen Fisher had surgery Thursday to repair a meniscus tear in his right knee and will miss the rest of the season for the No. 24 Horned Frogs.

Fisher got hurt Tuesday, the second time in less than six months he injured a knee in practice. He had surgery after a meniscus tear in his left knee in early August.

The sophomore guard missed the team’s trip to Australia after the previous surgery, but was ready for the regular season. He averaged 12.1 points and was fifth in the Big 12 with 5.4 assists while playing the first 17 games. He had a career-high 22 points in an overtime loss Saturday at No. 4 Oklahoma, and he made 11 of 20 shots from 3-point range his last four games.

Fisher will need three to four months of recovery.

“I feel bad for him. We all feel bad for him,” coach Jamie Dixon said.

Even with his knee locked in a bent position and having to use crutches, Fisher attended TCU’s 96-73 home win over Iowa State on Wednesday night. He sat in a chair near the TCU bench.

Bracketology: Searching for No. 1 seeds

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That search for No. 1 seeds?  It may take a while.  We have some very good basketball teams.  But, at least to this point, we’re absent that handful of elite teams we’ve seen in recent years.  So if you’re writing teams on seed lines – including the top line – you might want to use a pencil.

Kansas is squarely back in the race after beating West Virginia in Morgantown.  And keep eye on North Carolina, too.  The Tar Heels are quietly putting together the type of profile that Selection Committee members traditionally like.  They currently own the No. 1 overall SOS (strength of schedule) in the nation, and have six wins over “tourney” teams in today’s bracket update.

Here’s the latest:

UPDATED: January 19, 2018

FIRST FOUR PAIRINGS – Dayton (First Round)

  • LSU vs. SMU | Midwest Region
  • Texas AM vs. UCLA West Region
  • ROBERT MORRIS vs. NC A&T | East Region
  • FLA GULF COAST vs. JACKSON ST | Midwest Region

BRACKET PROJECTION

EAST Boston                           MIDWEST – Omaha     
Pittsburgh Detroit
1) VILLANOVA 1) PURDUE
16) NC A&T / ROB MORRIS 16) FL GULF CST / JACKSON ST
8) Louisville 8) Miami-FL
9) Georgia 9) Providence
San Diego Boise
5) RHODE ISLAND 5) Arizona State
12) SOUTH DAKOTA ST 12) NEW MEXICO ST
4) Ohio State 4) CINCINNATI
13) BUFFALO 13) LOUISIANA
Dallas Nashville
6) Tennessee 6) TCU
11) Notre Dame 11) LSU / SMU
3) Texas Tech 3) Clemson
14) VERMONT 14) WILLIAM & MARY
Nashville Wichita
7) Michigan 7) Florida
10) Missouri 10) Butler
2) North Carolina 2) KANSAS
15) IONA 15) MONTANA
WEST – Los Angeles SOUTH – Atlanta
Charlotte Charlotte
1) Duke 1) VIRGINIA
16) PENNSYLVANIA 16) BUCKNELL
8) Texas 8) SAINT MARY’S
9) Arkansas 9) Marquette
Boise Dallas
5) Seton Hall 5) Michigan State
12) Texas AM / UCLA 12) MISSOURI STATE
4) Wichita State 4) AUBURN
13) BELMONT 13) E. TENNESSEE ST
San Diego Detroit
6) Creighton 6) Gonzaga
11) WESTERN KENTUCKY 11) NC State
3) ARIZONA 3) Xavier
14) S.F. AUSTIN 14) WRIGHT STATE
Wichita Pittsburgh
7) NEVADA 7) Kentucky
10) Alabama 10) Florida State
2) Oklahoma 2) West Virginia
15) CS-FULLERTON 15) RADFORD

NOTES on the BRACKET: Villanova is the No. 1 overall seed – followed by Purdue, Virginia, and Duke

Last Four Byes (at large): Florida State, Missouri, NC State, Notre Dame

Last Four IN (at large): LSU, Texas AM, SMU, UCLA

First Four OUT (at large): Washington, Houston, Baylor, Boise State

Next four teams OUT (at large): Syracuse, Maryland, USC, St. Bonaventure

Breakdown by Conference …

ACC (9): VIRGINIA, Duke, North Carolina, Clemson, Louisville, Florida State, Miami-FL, Notre Dame, NC State

SEC (9): AUBURN, Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri, LSU, Texas AM

Big East (7): VILLANOVA, Xavier, Seton Hall, Creighton, Marquette, Providence, Butler

BIG 12 (6): KANSAS, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas Tech, TCU, Texas

Big 10 (4): PURDUE, Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan

Pac 12 (3): ARIZONA, Arizona State, UCLA

American (3): CINCINNATI, Wichita State, SMU

West Coast (2): SAINT MARY’S, Gonzaga

Atlantic 10 (1): RHODE ISLAND

Mountain West (1): NEVADA

ONE BID LEAGUES: Missouri State (MVC), Iona (MAAC), Western Kentucky (C-USA), Louisiana (SBELT), Penn (IVY), Montana (BSKY), Wright State (HORIZON), S.F. Austin (SLND), East Tennessee State (STHN), UC-Fullerton (BWEST), Buffalo (MAC), Florida Gulf Coast (ASUN), Belmont (OVC), William & Mary (CAA), Radford (BSO), North Carolina A&T (MEAC), South Dakota State (SUM), New Mexico State (WAC), Vermont (AEAST), Bucknell (PAT), Robert Morris (NEC), Jackson State (SWAC)

New coach, healthy star push Buckeyes to unexpected heights

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio State’s elimination from the Big Ten tournament by lowly Rutgers last March showed the depths to which Buckeyes basketball had fallen in a just few short seasons.

First-year coach Chris Holtmann showed his players video cuts of that debacle before Sunday’s game, the first against the Scarlet Knights since the tournament. Ohio State then went out and routed Rutgers 68-46 .

On Monday the Buckeyes cracked the AP Top 25 poll for the first time in nearly three years. On Wednesday night they beat Northwestern to improve to 7-0 in the Big Ten — matching the number of conference wins they had all of last season.

Ohio State, 16-4 overall, is tied for first place in the conference with No. 3 Purdue and has forced its way into the NCAA Tournament conversation. Holtmann is the first coach in 95 years to win his first seven Big Ten games.

Who would have thought?

The Buckeyes missed the tournament for the second straight season last year. The loss of three of the top four scorers, transfers and a thin recruiting class led to a gloomy forecast for 2017-18. Thad Matta , who oversaw the rebuilding of Ohio State basketball in his 13 seasons, was fired and Holtmann, who had success at Butler, was brought in.

Holtmann managed to pull some pieces together but Ohio State lacked depth, especially at point guard. The coach did his best in the preseason to keep expectations low for what looked like another lost season.

He’s still trying to temper expectations, but the Buckeyes haven’t yet taken the lumps that he or anybody else were sure would come.

“Any coach that, through a third of the season, went undefeated would have to say they’re surprised,” he said. “I just think fortunately our team in general has played well and our really good players have led the way with that, both at home and on the road.”

None of those players has been better than Keita Bates-Diop , who missed all of the Big Ten schedule last season with a left leg injury that required insertion of a steel rod in his shin. He didn’t play again after Jan. 5 and not much went right for the Buckeyes after that.

Averaging 19.8 points per game, the 6-foot-7 forward has earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors for the past two weeks in a row.

Jae’Sean Tate, last year’s leading scorer, again is a major contributor. Point guard C.J. Jackson is second on the team in scoring, averaging 13.3 points per game. Freshman Kaleb Wesson, 6-foot-9 and 270 pounds, is providing needed bulk inside while averaging 11.2 points per game. His brother Andre, a sophomore, missed all of the summer and the first few weeks of fall practice with an illness but is contributing again.

Center Micah Potter, slowed by ankle injury this season, stepped up with a season-high 13 points on Wednesday as Northwestern applied pressure on Bates-Diop and Tate.

And Andrew Dakich, a graduate transfer who was a bit player for three years at Michigan, has been a bulldog at guard. His career high 11 points against Maryland Jan. 11 included three 3-pointers at the end of the first half that helped propel the Buckeyes to a 91-69 blowout. He is 12 of 18 for the season from 3-point range.

Holtmann, with an emphasis on defense and proper response to adversity, continues to publicly promote the theme that his team can’t possibly keep scoring at this pace and having this kind of success.

Don’t tell his players, though.

“I think it’s been all about approach,” Tate said. “Our approach every day in practice, our approach pregame. We always say we were picked (to be) one of the last teams in the Big Ten. We’re going to continue to play with that chip on our shoulder.”