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After win at No. 4 Duke, it’s time to give No. 2 Virginia their due

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I will never doubt Tony Bennett again.

Ever.

In a year where the Virginia Cavaliers were supposed to be rebuilding, in a season where they were supposed to be a season away from underclassmen like Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter, Bennett may have the best team he’s ever had as a college basketball coach.

On Saturday, No. 2 Virginia went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and knocked off No. 4 Duke, 65-63, despite the fact that Duke’s super star Marvin Bagley III went for 30 points and 14 boards. Wendell Carter added 14 points, 15 boards, four blocks and four assists.

Duke — a top five team with arguably the most talented starting five in the sport — did what they always do: They dominated the paint, they ran their offense through the biggest and best front line in the country and, frankly, they controlled the majority of the second half in one of the best home courts in college hoops, and it still wasn’t enough.

Which begs the question: Is Virginia actually the best team in college basketball?

I’ve long argued that it is Villanova. They have a lottery pick in Mikal Bridges. They have another NBA player and a potential National Player of the Year in Jalen Brunson. Their head coach has won a national title and may end up in the Hall of Fame when it is all said and done. They are old, they shoot the cover off the ball, they are a nightmare to matchup with given their versatility. It’s not a coincidence that the Wildcats have been the most successful program in the country for the last five seasons.

If not them, then Purdue seemed to be the name at the forefront of the discussion. Or maybe you thought it was one of the absurdly-talented preseason title favorites — Michigan State, or Arizona, or the Duke team that Virginia just knocked off — that haven’t quite seemed to put it all together yet.

Whatever the case was, prior to Saturday, unless your address is in Charlottesville, you probably didn’t think that Virginia was college basketball’s best team.

But if Saturday was evidence of anything, they might just be.

Nothing about the way that Virginia plays is sexy. They are the slowest team in the country. They grind you down defensively. Their fans cheer shot clock violations louder than they do three-pointers. They prefer to run through two or three sets and take 28 seconds off of the shot clock than shoot anything other than a great shot.

And while watching them may put you to sleep faster than taking a dose of Nyquil and trying to read War And Peace, playing against them is death by 1,000 papercuts. Every win looks beautiful in the ACC standings, and as things currently stand, the only team within two games of Virginia in the conference title race is Louisville, who probably won’t be making any miraculous runs to a league title, not when they’ve lost to Virginia the last four times they’ve faced off.

That may be why Virginia cannot get the respect that they have earned.

Sexy sells in college basketball. The teams that have the NBA talent, the high-flying athletes, the pace-and-space offense. They are the ones that get the attention. Virginia doesn’t really have any of that. De’Andre Hunter, a redshirt freshman that played 24 minutes off the bench on Sunday, is probably the best NBA prospect on the UVA roster, but he’s still a few years away and likely won’t be the kind of player that we’re talking about as a potential lottery pick. Kyle Guy is fun to watch when he gets it going, but he’s not going to do all that much more than run off of screens and catch-and-shoot. Ty Jerome makes more big shots than anyone, but he also makes London Perrantes look athletic.

But that’s only half the problem.

Virginia is dealing with some of the same issues that Villanova dealt with before they won their title; that Bill Self and Jim Calhoun dealt with before their titles; that Sean Miller is currently dealing with. Tony Bennett has never done it in March. He’s been to the last four NCAA tournaments and made it out of the first weekend just twice. He lost in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed in 2014. He lost in the second round as a No. 2 seed in 2015. He lost in the Elite 8 in 2016, blowing an 16-point lead against No. 10 seed Syracuse in the final nine minutes. Last year, as a No. 5 seed, Virginia got dropped by Florida in the second round.

Fair or not — it’s not — until Virginia is playing on that first weekend in April, they are always going to be looked at as that team that can win games in January but cannot in March.

When that is the reputation your team has, it is really hard to shake it. Ask Villanova. They are not even two years removed from a national title and they still battle it.

This may finally be the group that gets Virginia to the Final Four.

And if this team — the one that was supposed to be rebuilding, the one that was supposed to still be a year away from reaching its peak — is the one that finally gets Bennett and Virginia to the Final Four, it would be the perfectly fitting for the program that is quietly one of, if not the best in the ACC today.

Bubble Banter: There will be some NCAA tournament bids determined today

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As we will do every day throughout the rest of the season, here is a look at how college basketball’s bubble teams fared on Saturday.

It’s worth reminding you here that the way winning are labeled have changed this season. Instead of looking at all top 50 wins equally, the selection committee will be using criteria that breaks wins down into four quadrants, using the RPI:

  • Quadrant 1: Home vs. 1-30, Neutral vs. 1-50, Road vs. 1-75
  • Quadrant 2: Home vs. 31-75, Neutral vs. 51-100, Road vs. 76-135
  • Quadrant 3: Home vs. 76-160, Neutral vs. 101-200, Road vs. 136-240
  • Quadrant 4: Home vs. 161 plus, Neutral vs. 201 plus, Road vs. 240 plus

The latest NBC Sports Bracketology can be found here.

WINNERS

FLORIDA (RPI: 63, KenPom: 32, NBC seed: 9): Florida landed a massive win on Saturday night, picking off Auburn at home. They now have eight Quadrant 1 wins, including Gonzaga and Cincinnati on neutral courts, Texas A&M and Kentucky on the road and, now, Auburn at home. With two Quadrant 1 games left, I think the Gators are just about a lock.

LOUISVILLE (RPI: 39, KenPom: 32, NBC seed: Next four out): The Cardinals landed a big, big win on Saturday afternoon as they went into Virginia Tech and picked up a win. It’s their third Quadrant 1 win and the 19-10 Cards now have a 5-10 record against the top two Quadrants. I still think Louisville needs to win at least two more games. Next week, they play Virginia at home and at N.C. State before the ACC tournament commences.

TEXAS (RPI: 51, KenPom: 43, NBC seed: Play-in game): Texas landed a massive win on Saturday at home against Oklahoma State for one, simple reason: Losing to the Pokes would have been a disaster. Texas is 5-9 against Quadrant 1 opponents and they have eight wins against the top two quadrants with no bad losses. But they are 17-12 on the season and 7-9 in the Big 12 with games left at Kansas and at home against West Virginia. They could not afford to add a Quadrant 3 loss to their profile. As it stands, I think they are in if they beat West Virginia and win their first game in the Big 12 tournament.

ST. BONAVENTURE (RPI: 26, KenPom: 69, NBC seed: 12): The Bonnies added another Quadrant 2 win to their résumé on Saturday as they went into Richmond and knocked off VCU. They are now 4-2 against Quadrant 1 — with a win over Rhode Island — also a season-opening loss to Niagara is weighing their chances down. I’ve said all along, they need to win out in the regular season and, ideally, lose to URI in the Atlantic 10 tournament if they want an at-large.

SAINT MARY’S  (RPI: 37, KenPom: 22, NBC seed: 11): I don’t think that the Gaels will be in real danger of missing the NCAA tournament unless they take a truly terrible loss in the WCC tournament, but I think it is pointing out just how flimsy their profile is. They’ve played just one Quadrant 1 game this season, their win at Gonzaga, and are just 3-2 against the top two Quadrants with two Quadrant 3 losses.

PROVIDENCE (RPI: 43, KenPom: 71, NBC seed: 10): The Friars avoided what could have been a disastrous loss by handing on to beat Georgetown in Washington D.C. on Saturday. The Friars had lost two in a row — at Butler and Seton Hall at home — and play at Xavier on Wednesday, meaning that they would be staring a four-game losing streak in the face had they lost at Georgetown. As it stands, Providence is 3-7 against Quadrant 1, which includes home wins over Xavier and Villanova, but they’ve also lost two Quadrant 3 and one Quadrant 4 games.

MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE (RPI: , KenPom: 43, NBC seed: 11): Middle Tennessee has had some good things happen to them in recent days. Belmont and Murray State have both climbed into the top 75 of the RPI, meaning that the Blue Raiders have gone from having one Quadrant 1 win to three Quadrant 1 wins. At the same time, Belmont is now 76th in the RPI. If they climb into the top 75, they will no longer be a Quadrant 3 loss for MTSU. These are the dangers of grouping. Regardless, the way I see it, MTSU has to win out and lose to either Western Kentucky or Old Dominion in the CUSA tournament if they want an at-large bid.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (RPI: 56, KenPom: 50, NBC seed: Next four out): The Bulldogs continue to creep closer to the bubble, but their biggest issue at this point is that they only have one win that can truly be looked at as a good win: at Texas A&M. MSU has a second Quadrant 1 win, but it is at South Carolina, who is 73rd in the RPI. They really need to beat Tennessee at home on Tuesday.

SETON HALL (RPI: 21, KenPom: 31, NBC seed: 8): Seton Hall stumbled their way onto the bubble by losing four straight to start February, but they’re rebounded with three straight wins. Surviving a postponed game at Providence might have been what put the Pirates in the Dance. I think they are a lock with one more win.

OKLAHOMA (RPI: 33, KenPom: 39, NBC seed: 10): The losing streak is over. The Sooners snapped a six-game skid by beating Kansas State at home. They are now 6-8 against Quadrant 1 and 9-11 against the top two Quadrants. I still think their margin for error is slim given that they still play Iowa State in the regular season, but for my money, they’re in with two more wins, including the Big 12 tournament, and right on the cut-line in with one more win.

TEXAS A&M (RPI: 25, KenPom: 31, NBC seed: 9): The Aggies snapped a three-game losing streak by going into Vanderbilt and getting a win. The biggest issue for the Aggies right now is that it is hard to project how the committee is going to value their roster. They’ve had more suspensions and injuries than anyone I can remember. I think it would behoove them to win out in the regular season. That would get them to 20-11 overall and 9-9 in the SEC.

USC (RPI: 29, KenPom: 51, NBC seed: First four out): USC has now won four straight games after sweeping the mountain schools this week. The loss to Princeton could be a killer for them — there are not many bubble teams with a Quadrant 4 loss to their name — but the Trojans were without two rotation players in that game. They are now 7-8 against the top two Quadrants. The biggest issue for USC at this point is that they just don’t have much in the way of quality wins. Beating Utah is just their second Quadrant 1 win because New Mexico State, who USC beat in the title game of the Diamond Head Classic, fell out of the top 50. A win over Middle Tennessee State on a neutral is their only other Quadrant 1 win.

WASHINGTON (RPI: 51, KenPom: 96, NBC seed: Last four in): Washington avoided disaster by beating Cal on Saturday. They’ll need to do the same next week against Oregon State and Oregon. If they can do that, the Huskies will have a shot. They are 3-3 against Quadrant 1 opponents but they also have two Quadrant 3 losses to their name. That win over Kansas in Kansas City looks better and better.

MIAMI (RPI: 28, KenPom: 39, NBC seed: 8): The Hurricanes overcame a late deficit to knock off Boston College at home, which is big considering that Miami had been sliding of slide. Before this week, they had lost three straight games and are now 20-8 on the season. They are 4-4 against Quadrant 1 with a Quadrant 3 loss, and it is worth noting that they don’t really have any great wins: Middle Tennessee on a neutral, at N.C. State, at Virginia Tech, at Notre Dame. I think they’re closer to the bubble than you might think.

TCU (RPI: 20, KenPom: 21, NBC seed: 9): The Horned Frogs have just about punched their ticket. A win over Baylor today was yet another good win. They now have four Quadrant 1 and four Quadrant 2 wins without a single loss outside the top two Quadrants. If they lose out it will be interesting, so I would say they need one more win to lock up a bid.

LOSERS

VIRGINIA TECH (RPI: 56, KenPom: 35, NBC seed: 9): Virginia Tech is still in a pretty good spot, but they certainly didn’t help themselves by losing at home against Louisville. The good thing for the Hokies is that they are 4-6 against Quadrant 1 with the single-best win in college basketball this season — a win at Virginia. But a non-conference SOS in the 320s and a Quadrant 3 loss puts them in a more difficult position than you would think. If they beat Duke at home or win at Miami next week, they’ll be fine no matter what happens in the ACC tournament. If they lose both, then it gets interesting.

LSU (RPI: 75, KenPom: 63, NBC seed: Play-in game): The Tigers had their two-game winning streak snapped at Georgia on Saturday. On the one hand, that’s a Quadrant 1 loss. It doesn’t exactly hurt them. On the other hand, for a team that is already on the margins — they are 16-12 overall and 7-9 in the SEC with a Quadrant 3 loss — any quality win they can add is important. I think they need to win at least three more games to really feel comfortable.

BAYLOR (RPI: 58, KenPom: 38, NBC seed: Play-in game): The Bears lost their second straight game on Saturday, falling to 16-12 overall and 7-9 in the Big 12. They are in a tough spot now. They have four Quadrant 1 wins but they are just 4-10 in those Quadrant 1 games. All 12 of their losses, however, are “good” losses, and they still play Oklahoma at home and Kansas State on the road before the Big 12 tournament. I don’t think they can get a big with 14 losses, so I think they need to win two more during the regular season and maybe another one in the Big 12 tournament.

KANSAS STATE (RPI: 55, KenPom: 47, NBC seed: 10): Losing at Oklahoma isn’t a killer for Kansas State by any stretch. They are now 20-9 on the season, with a 3-8 mark against Quadrant 1 and six Quadrant 2 wins. The big issue they have is that there is that home loss to Tulsa — that’s a Quadrant 3 loss, but Tulsa is 79th in the RPI and if they make it into the top 75 it will be Quadrant 2 — as well as a non-conference SOS that’s in the 310s. Throw in an RPI in the 50s, and the Wildcats need to at least split down the stretch to really feel confident.

UTAH (RPI: 49, KenPom: 59, NBC seed: First four out): Utah had a chance to play their way into the conversation if they had won out during the regular season and maybe won a game or two in the Pac-12 tournament. I guess there is still a chance, but for my money, the Utes should plan on winning the automatic bid for the Pac-12 if they want to go dancing.

MARQUETTE (RPI: 64, KenPom: 52, NBC seed: First four out): Marquette took their worst loss of the season on Saturday afternoon, going into Chicago and losing at DePaul, the first Quadrant 3 loss for the Golden Eagles. They are now 16-12 on the season and 7-9 in the Big East with just four Quadrant 1 wins. I don’t think the dream is dead yet, but the biggest issue Marquette currently faces is that they cannot help themselves without winning a game or two in the Big East tournament.

SMU (RPI: 94, KenPom: 75, NBC seed: Out): I’m only mentioning SMU here because I think it’s worth nothing that they’ve lost six of their last seven while Shake Milton has been out with a broken hand. At 16-13 overall and 6-10 in the American, it may not matter. But they did win by 23 points at Wichita State with him healthy. It’s at least worth being aware of.

Jevon Carter makes history as No. 21 WVU beats Iowa State 85-70

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Jevon Carter scored 24 points and made some history as No. 21 West Virginia pulled away for an 85-70 victory over Iowa State on Saturday.

With 15:59 left in the first half, Carter picked up his first assist of the game, setting up a 3-pointer by Esa Ahmad to become the first major-conference player in NCAA history to record more than 1,500 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists and 300 steals in a career.

West Virginia (21-8, 10-6 Big 12) was held in check early by the short-handed Cyclones. Iowa State played only five starters and two reserves and led the Mountaineers by as much as four with 11 minutes left in the first half.

WVU clawed back to tie the game at 28 with 3:39 left, and then closed out the half on an 11-2 run to take a 39-30 halftime lead. The Mountaineers opened the second half with an 8-2 run, and the Cyclones never recovered.

Ahmad had 18 points and 11 rebounds for his second career double-double. Sagaba Konate added 14 points along with six blocks, and Daxter Miles scored 14 points.

Lindell Wigginton led Iowa State (13-15, 4-12) with 29 points. Terrence Lewis added 12 points and Cameron Lard grabbed 10 rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Iowa State remains winless on the road in the Big 12 with one opportunity remaining, at Oklahoma on Mar. 2. The Cyclones will get Donovon Jackson back for their home game against Oklahoma State on Tuesday. Jackson missed Saturday’s game to attend his father’s funeral.

West Virginia has won three of its last four games and has a chance to earn the No. 2 seed in the Big 12 tournament.

Landale leads No. 22 Saint Mary’s past Santa Clara, 67-40

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MORAGA, Calif. — Jock Landale was more concerned about enhancing the postseason prospects for Saint Mary’s than he was about making a final appearance at McKeon Pavilion.

It could be another two weeks before the 22nd-ranked Gaels know their fate for certain, but they like their chances of getting into the NCAA Tournament after closing out the regular season with a third straight win.

Landale had 19 points and eight rebounds in his final home game, and No. 22 Saint Mary’s beat Santa Clara 67-40 on Saturday.

Emmett Naar added 12 points and Calvin Hermanson had 10 on Senior Day for Saint Mary’s (27-4, 16-2 West Coast Conference). Jordan Ford scored 13.

“We all did a really good job of blocking (Senior Day) out,” Landale said. “The way we looked at it was we don’t want to play another home game. We want to stay out of the NIT.”

The Gaels appeared in good shape thanks to a 19-game winning streak earlier this season, but their hopes dipped after back-to-back losses earlier this month.

That’s why coach Randy Bennett felt his team still needed to make a favorable impression on the selection committee.

“Absolutely,” Bennett said. “We were 27-5 after the conference tournament (two years ago) and we were watching. You just have to think like an optimist and work like a pessimist. That’s where we’re at.”

A matchup of the top two scorers in the WCC fizzled out quickly when Santa Clara’s KJ Feagin limped off the court with a sprained left ankle with 7:16 left in the first half. He did not return.

Landale had an uneven game in his final appearance at McKeon Pavilion. He missed five of his first nine shots and at times looked uncomfortable in the paint against 267-pound Santa Clara center Emmanuel Ndumanya before helping the Gaels pull away in the second half.

The conference’s top scorer and rebounder, Landale scored 10 points and had a pair of dunks in the second half, including one that put Saint Mary’s up 56-34.

The Gaels struggled from the perimeter but made up for it in the backcourt. Naar, the Gaels’ career assist leader who has been nursing a sore left ankle for the past week, had only one against Santa Clara (11-19, 8-10) but repeatedly scored on drives through the lane.

Ford also gave the Broncos problems and provided the game’s signature moment when he flipped the ball off the glass and in with his left hand after driving past a pair of defenders.

“It gives us another look,” Naar said. “Jock is obviously the bulk of our scoring. If we can penetrate and get inside the key, different teams will do different things. Today they tried to make us finish and score.”

Henry Caruso had 14 points and seven rebounds for Santa Clara.

The Broncos, who lost to the Gaels 81-57 in January, struggled to get anything going without Feagin. Santa Clara went scoreless for nearly eight minutes in the first half and shot 23.5 percent for the game.

TIP-INS

Santa Clara: Feagin had four points on 2-of-7 shooting when he got hurt and appeared to get emotional on the bench after being examined by a team trainer. The junior guard had been averaging 23.5 points over the previous four games. Ndumanya also went down late in the second half after a hard fall on the court but walked off on his power.

Saint Mary’s: Hermanson went 2 for 2 on 3-pointers. The rest of the Gaels were a combined 1 of 8 beyond the arc.

AND STILL COUNTING

The Gaels are 106-25 over the past four seasons with Landale, Naar and Hermanson on the roster.

QUOTABLE

“That’s like a third punch, and we have to have it. Your first punch is Jock. The second punch is you’re shooting 3s. The third punch is you have to get penetration.” — Bennett on the play of Saint Mary’s guards.

VIDEO: Creighton gives Greg McDermott a heart attack celebrating win over No. 3 Villanova

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Creighton upset No. 3 Villanova on Saturday night.

Afterwards, they celebrated with head coach Greg McDermott and nearly stopped the man’s heart as they doused him with water to celebrate in the locker room:

No. 5 Duke holds Syracuse to 44 points as winning streak extends to five

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Marvin Bagley III returned to the Duke lineup on Saturday night and poured in a team-high 19 points in 31 minutes as the No. 6 Blue Devils knocked off Syracuse in Cameron Indoor, 60-44, despite shooting just 2-for-18 from three on the night.

Bagley looked healthy. He didn’t look too out of shape. He added seven boards and he made 8-of-9 field goals and, after a slow start, looked like the guy that we’ve become accustomed to seeing in a Duke uniform.

And that’s important.

As good as Duke has played in the last two weeks without Bagley, they are just not the same basketball team without him. He’s a freak, an alien, a talent unlike just about any other in the sport this season. But it is also key to note that the reason that Duke thrived without Bagley is that Grayson Allen took over the lead guard role and found a rhythm while the Blue Devils excelled playing exclusively a zone defense.

Which is why the most important takeaway from Saturday night is that Duke was awesome defensively. Again. Syracuse scored just 44 points, the fewest that Duke has allowed in an ACC game since giving up 40 points to Clemson in January of 2013, and notched just .657 points-per-possession. That is the best performance Duke has had defensively in this recent run of five games.

During this winning streak, the Blue Devils have allowed just 0.837 PPP, which would be the best in the country if they did it over the course of an entire season. For comparison’s sake, Virginia is second nationally in defensive PPP at 0.86.

Duke used Bagley as a wing in their 2-3 zone. They used him in lineups that included two other bigs — Carter and Bolden as well as Carter and DeLaurier. They played him at the top of their 1-2-2 three-quarter court press. He was active and engaged and a positive influence on that end of the floor; that hasn’t always been the case with him.

That’s another good sign.

As is the fact that Allen finished with six assists and just one turnover. He didn’t shoot the ball well — he was just 3-for-9 from the field and missed all six of his threes — but no one on Duke did. That might just be the result of playing Syracuse; the Orange are rated as college basketball’s 10th best defense on KenPom.

When Duke plays the way that they did on Saturday — the way that they have over the last two weeks — they are the best team in college basketball.