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SEC Conference Reset: Does Texas A&M have the horses to outpace Kentucky?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy, and what is left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at SEC.

MIDSEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Yante Maten, Georgia

Picking a midseason Player of the Year for the SEC is not easy this season. Tyler Davis and D.J. Hogg have been the best players for a balanced Texas A&M team that is probably the favorite to win the league. Kevin Knox has been Kentucky’s best player, but he hasn’t necessarily been good enough to be the favorite for this award. Collin Sexton is probably the biggest name in the conference, but he’s also playing on an Alabama team that seems about as likely to miss the NCAA tournament as they are to play their way in.

So what does that mean?

We’re going with Yante Maten with the award, at least for now. Maten is not a name that is going to ring out nationally but over the course of the last three and a half years, he’s quietly put together one of the best careers of any big man in college basketball. This year, he’s averaging career-highs of 20.2 points and 9.3 boards for a Georgia team that is, surprisingly enough, in the mix for an NCAA tournament berth. Consider this a lifetime achievement award if nothing else, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t earned it this year.

THE ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM

  • YANTE MATEN, Georgia
  • COLLIN SEXTON, Alabama: Sexton is the most explosive guard in college basketball this season, a dynamic athlete with a competitive edge that borders on the insane. He’s got a shot to play his way into a spot on an all-american team this season.
  • JALEN BARFORD, Arkansas: The senior guard has been the best player for an Arkansas team that has their sights set on the NCAA tournament this season. He’s the third-leading scorer in the conference.
  • KEVIN KNOX, Kentucky: Knox may not be as good as the star of Kentucky teams in past years, but he’s actually been better than some – including me – expected. He’s functioned quite well as a Kentucky’s go-to guy in a season they badly needed one.
  • TYLER DAVIS, Texas A&M: Picking an Aggie for this list is tough but I’m leaning Davis here. He’s their anchor and, for my money, their best player. Or maybe I have an affinity for land warriors in the post with jump hooks.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Texas A&M, Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Auburn
  • NIT: Missouri, Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Ole Miss
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: LSU, Vanderbilt
Yante Maten (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. KENTUCKY IS NOT AS GOOD AS WE THOUGHT THEY WOULD BE DEFENSIVELY: Coming into the season, the big question with the Wildcats was on the offensive end of the floor. Would they be able to score the ball consistently? Would they be able to shoot the ball from three consistently? Would they be able to score in the half court? It’s still early in the season and Kentucky has not exactly played a murderer’s row this season, but the early returns have been largely positive.

Offensively.

Where Kentucky has struggled is on the defensive end of the floor, which is not exactly what we expected. Kentucky has struggled to contain penetration. They’ve allowed too many open threes. They aren’t rebounding the way that a team with their size and athleticism should be rebounding, especially on the defensive end of the floor. In Kentucky’s last two games – which were the only games they’ve played against high-major competition since Nov. 14th – they’ve allowed 1.14 points-per-possessions to Virginia Tech and UCLA two borderline tournament teams. John Calipari has the pieces to be better on that end than they have been, and they’ll need to be better if they are going to make a run in the tournament.

2. TEXAS A&M’S POINT GUARD ISSUES WERE SOLVED BUT A NAME WE DIDN’T EXPECT: One of the reasons that Texas A&M was not considered a top 15 team entering the season was that there was no clarity in their back court. Who would play the point this season? True freshman Jay Jay Chandler? Redshirt freshman JJ Caldwell? Off guard Admon Gilder?

As it turns out, the answer was fairly simple: Duane Wilson. Wilson had been a good but not great point guard for Marquette for the first two years of his career before falling out of favor last season. A grad transfer, Wilson was immediately eligible this year and slid directly into the starting role for the Aggies. He’s averaging 12.3 points and 4.6 assists on the season and has been as big of a reason as anyone that the Aggies look like the favorite to win the league.

3. FLORIDA … NOT WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE: The Gators were the hottest team in the country for the first two weeks of the season, as all four of the talented guards on their roster caught fire at the same time. The nation fell in love with them. Obviously. Teams that run like they run and shoot like they shot are pure entertainment.

But it was a mirage. When the threes stopped falling Florida stopped winning. They’re now sitting at 8-4 on the season and ranked fifth in the SEC on KenPom with an offense that’s fallen out of the top 40 in adjusted efficiency. They’re still dangerous when those shots are going down, but those shots are not always going down these days.

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. WHO IS ACTUALLY THE BEST TEAM IN THE CONFERENCE?: That’s a question that is more difficult to answer with the SEC than just about any other league in the country. Part of that is because it seems like there are people that have some trouble buying into the idea that Texas A&M could very well be a Final Four team this season – something about football schools in football leagues always trips people up.

But then there is the fact that the most talented team in the conference – Kentucky – is still going through the kind of growing pains you’d expect out of a team that is made up of freshmen and sophomores. The bottom fell out of Florida. Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn. Do you trust any of those teams to win the league?

For a neutral, that’s a good thing. The SEC is deep, it’s competitive and it is going to be fun as hell for the next three months.

2. HOW MANY TEAMS CAN THE LEAGUE PUT IN THE BIG DANCE?: Speaking of how deep the league is this year …

There are two things going in the SEC’s favor this season:

  1. There are power conferences that are unquestionably “worse” this year. The Pac-12 looks like it will be lucky to get five teams into the Big Dance this season. The Big Ten is in that same boat. The WCC and the Mountain West look like they’ll top out at three – maaaaybe four – bids. The rest of the mid-majors around the country look like they are going to have to be auto-bid or bust. There are 68 spots in the Big Dance, and someone has to fill them. It may be SEC teams because …
  2. … there really aren’t all that many gimmes this year. Everyone in the league is ranked in the top 85 on KenPom, and while there are a couple teams that are outliers in the RPI’s formula right now, that is sure to normalize as they start playing league games. There are also plenty of quality wins available at the top of the league, meaning that someone like, say, Georgia, who is probably on the outside of the NCAA tournament as of today, has a chance to play their way onto the right side of the bubble by beating some of the higher-ranked teams.

My best guess? Seven SEC teams end up in the tournament at the end of the day.

3. SO IS MICHAEL PORTER JR. MAKING A COMEBACK?: Porter suffered a fracture in his back early on this season and it was supposed to keep him out for the season. That may not actually be the case. It started after the surgery, in late November, when Porter said on his Instagram story that “whoever said it was going to take 3-4 months to recover lied.” Then an orthopedic surgeon that has treated professional athletes said that he thinks that Porter can return sometime in January. Only time will tell what the truth is.

Tyler Davis (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. TEXAS A&M WINS THE LEAGUE: I picked the Aggies to do it in the preseason and I’m going to pick them to do it now. I think that they are the best defensive team in the league, and so long as D.J. Hoog keeps shooting the way that he’s been shooting and Duane Wilson keeps point guarding the way he’s been point guarding, and I think they can get to a Final Four.

2. TENNESSEE’S START IS ANYTHING BUT A FLUKE: Tennessee is legit. They defend. They play hard. They have an all-league player in Grant Williams. Jordan Bowden is developing into a go-to scorer on the perimeter – and shooting 61.9 percent from three! – while Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bone have made the point guard spot work. The Vols don’t play pretty and they aren’t going to draw all that much attention from the guys that only care about the future pros on someone’s roster, but the bottom-line is this: this team is going to win a lot of games this year.

3. KENTUCKY MAKES THE DEEPEST TOURNAMENT RUN OF ANYONE IN THE LEAGUE: I still think that the Wildcats have a ways to go before they reach their ceiling, especially on the defensive end of the floor. But I also think that their ceiling is higher than the ceiling of anyone else in the conference. If – when – they get their, they have the horses to make a run to the Final Four in a year where everyone outside of Villanova and Michigan State has some pretty significant flaws.

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.”