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No. 8 Virginia takes down No. 12 North Carolina

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Virginia continued its hot week by running past No. 12 North Carolina for a 61-49 ACC home win on Saturday. The No. 8 Cavaliers earned their sixth straight win and fifth consecutive home win against the Tar Heels with the win — which is easily their biggest of the season.

Senior guard Devon Hall paced Virginia with 16 points while DeAndre Hunter added 10 points as the Cavalier defense held North Carolina to under 50 points in back-to-back seasons.

Joel Berry II led North Carolina with 17 points as the Tar Heels never seemed to get going in dropping their second consecutive ACC games.

Here are three takeaways from this one

1. Virginia proved they’re a potential top-tier team after this week’s solid play

Entering the 2017-18 season, NBCSports.com ranked West Virginia in our preseason top 25. Virginia Tech just missed our cut.

We had Virginia picked to finish No. 6 in the ACC. With multiple top-five teams like Arizona State and Xavier losing this week, there’s a very real chance Virginia will be ranked No. 6 in the country next week.

I don’t normally feel inclined to speak on behalf of my colleagues. I’ll say it for all of us: we really screwed up in our projection of Virginia.  The Cavaliers have proven themselves to be pretty good. This week has been their biggest stretch of the season.

After blowing out in-state rival Virginia Tech on the road earlier this week, Virginia soundly outplayed North Carolina on Saturday, leading most of the game and dictating the methodical tempo that suits them so well. Helpless against Virginia’s No. 1-ranked defense (on KenPom), North Carolina’s offense looked out of sync.

Offensively, the Cavaliers created enough buckets off of turnovers — including two crowd-pleasing breakaway dunks off of steals in the first half — and had a balanced effort to still thoroughly beat the Tar Heels with only two double-figure scorers.

Before this week, Virginia had beaten Wisconsin, Vanderbilt and Boston College. Now, after convincing wins against back-to-back solid opponents, it’s time to take Virginia more seriously.

2. North Carolina will be fine despite back-to-back losses

Things have been a bit concerning in Chapel Hill recently. Not only has North Carolina dropped back-to-back ACC road games, but the Tar Heels also had to claw back to get past Wake Forest the game before that.

We’ve expressed a few times in the past that North Carolina is still trying to find its identity in the wake of last season’s national championship team. Senior point guard Joel Berry II is still the team’s heart-and-soul but junior Luke Maye (six points on 2-for-10 shooting) has cooled off a bit recently and a consistent third scorer still needs to emerge.

Thankfully for North Carolina, they have some time to figure this out. Only playing No. 25 Clemson as a ranked opponent until a game against Duke on Feb. 8, the Tar Heels don’t have a lot of top-flight competition to face over the next week weeks.

On the road, they get Bonzie Colson-less Notre Dame, Clemson and Virginia Tech. At home, North Carolina has Georgia Tech, Clemson, N.C. State, Pitt and Boston College. That’s a winnable group of games (while allowing for tweaks in the rotation) before a home stretch that includes two against Duke, Miami and road games at Louisville and Syracuse.

Things don’t look great for North Carolina right now. They also have to integrate Cameron Johnson more into the lineup after only five games so this team still has plenty of room to get better.

North Carolina doesn’t look like a great team right now. It also wouldn’t be smart to count them out.

3. Virginia has to improve on offense to be among the elites but there’s still time

One of the intriguing things about Virginia is how much this team can grow by the end of the season. Since so many of the members of this rotation are in new roles, there has been an adjustment period on the offensive end at times this season.

Sophomore Kyle Guy is living up to his former McDonald’s All-American status by leading the Cavaliers in scoring but he can still get better as the season goes on — particularly if others also step up and alleviate the attention that defenses are giving him.

Other players in the rotation like point guard Ty Jerome, wing De’Andre Hunter and big man Mamadi Diakite are also still in their first years of college basketball with room to grow. Senior Nigel Johnson is another new piece as a grad transfer still figuring out his role.

Already with the No. 1 defense in the country, if Virginia continues to get better on offense then their ceiling continues to expand. A high-floor team with the potential to get knocked out of a tournament-style setting on a cold-shooting day, Virginia enhances their chances of advancing deep into March with a more developed offensive attack.

I mean, have you seen Duke’s offense? At some point, the Cavaliers are going to have to score points. They’re also as effective as any team in the country at keeping games slow and at their tempo. But their offense still has to get better for the Cavaliers to be an elite team.

There’s still a few months left before March and a lot of time to get better. It’ll be fascinating to see if Virginia can improve its offense to hang with some of the big boys.

Washington’s Thybulle returning for senior season

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Matisse Thybulle will return to Washington for his senior season after contemplating declaring for the NBA draft following a junior campaign in which he was named the Pac-12 defensive player of the year.

“The NBA is really enticing and it was definitely something that I seriously considered when the season was over,” Thybulle told the Seattle Times. “I talked it over with my family and we came to the conclusion that it would be in my best interest to stay and get my degree (in communications) and grow as a basketball player and take this last year to mature and fine tune everything so I can be fully prepared to take that next step when it’s time.”

The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 11.2 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 3.0 steals per game last season. He shot 44.5 percent from the field and 36.5 percent from 3-point range.

“I talked to coach (Mike Hopkins) and he gave me some good advice that was honestly something that helped in the grand scheme of things,” Thybulle said. “He told me that if I do it (enter the draft), then I should be all in because that’s what I’m going to be up against is a whole bunch of guys fighting for their lives. He thought it would be a better idea for me to stay in school until I’m at that point.”

Washington is awaiting the decision of Noah Dickerson, who declared for the draft but has not hired an agent. The 6-foot-8 averaged 15.5 points and 8.4 rebounds last season.

Koby McEwen transferring to Marquette

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Steve Wojciechowski added a significant piece to his 2019-20 team over the weekend.

Koby McEwen announced his intention to transfer to Marquette from Utah State late Sunday evening.

“I would like to thank God, my family, inner circle and all the schools/coaches that recruited me during this process!” McEwen tweeted. “With that being said, I’m proud to announce that I’ll be furthering my college career at Marquette University.”

McEwen picked the Golden Eagles over fellow finalists Creighton and Grand Canyon after he decided to transfer when the Aggies announced South Dakota coach Craig Smith was taking over the program last month. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 15.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore.

After sitting out the upcoming season, McEwen will have to years of eligibility remaining. Marquette went 21-14 last season, but missed the NCAA tournament for the third time in Wojciechowski’s four years in Milwaukee.

Minnesota adds Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis

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Minnesota has added some depth for the future.

The Golden Gophers received a pledge from Vanderbilt transfer Payton Willis over the weekend, giving him a guard with two seasons of eligibility remaining starting in 2019-20.

Willis will sit out the upcoming season under NCAA transfer rules.

The 6-foot-4 guard played a limited role in two seasons in Nashville, never averaging more than 18. 5 minutes or 5.2 points per game. He scored in double figures in three games as a sophomore.

Willis was a top-150 prospect in the Class of 2016 coming out of Fayetteville, Ark. with offers from the likes of Tulsa, Rice and Dayton. Vandy and Minnesota were his two high-major offers.

After being ranked in the top-15, Minnesota was beset by injury and suspensions last season as they limped to the finish line in a 15-17 season that featured losses in 12 of its last 13 games.

Richard Pitino still has two available scholarships for the 2018-19 campaign.

Report: Quade Green returning to Kentucky

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John Calipari just landed a critical recruit for 2018-19, and he was already on the roster.

Quade Green, who averaged 25 minutes per game last season, is returning to Kentucky for his sophomore season, his mother told the Lexington Herald-Leader on Monday.

Given that six Wildcat players have entered the draft (Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hami Diallo are signing with agents), getting the 6-foot point guard back for a second season is a massive deal for Calipari and Co. The Wildcats have always been at their best under Calipari with returning players as the cornerstones of the roster with talented one-and-dones providing the extra boost. Getting one such returner at the point guard position is even more critical.

Green, who came to Kentucky as a five-star recruit last year, averaged 9.3 points and 2.7 assists per game while shooting 45.1 percent from the field and a respectable 37.1 percent from 3-point range, an area where Kentucky continually needs help.

With Green back in the fold, Kentucky will now await the decisions of PJ Washington, Wenyen Gabriel and Jarred Vanderbilt, who are all going through the pre-draft process without hiring agents, which will potentially allow them to return to school and bolster a Kentucky roster has the look of a top-five team.

CBT Podcast: NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline: Winners, losers and who has the most on the line?

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The NBA Draft Early Entry Deadline came and went on Sunday night, meaning there are now roughly 60 college players that have signed with an agent and another 100 or so that have declared for the draft while retaining their college eligibility. Who were the winners? Who were the losers? Who has the most on the line? Sam Vecenie of the Game Theory podcast joined Rob Dauster to talk through all of it. The rundown:

OPEN: What do NBA teams value in players these days?

10:00: Villanova has more on the line during this testing the water process than anyone

19:00: Just how important was De’Andre Hunter’s decision to return to Virginia

25:25: Gonzaga getting Rui and Killian Tillie back makes them a title favorite

32:10: Nevada has a top ten season on the line with the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline

36:15: #RANTALERT – The decision to turn pro is so much more complicated than “is he a first round pick”

48:30: Rapid fire: Maryland, Kansas, Syracuse, Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan. What do they have on the line?