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Team Of The Week: Houston Cougars

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The Cougars have now won five straight games, but it was the two games they won this week that set the tone for what the rest of their season can be.

On Thursday night, Cincinnati came to down and Houston dropped them, 67-62, despite digging a double-digit hole in the first half. They followed that up by going into North Philadelphia and poleaxing Temple. They were up 34-11 midway through the first half. They won by 21 points. It was never a question.

And as a result, Houston’s bid to the NCAA tournament is no longer a question so long as they avoid losing to Memphis, East Carolina and UConn. And if they truly are an NCAA tournament team, they’ll get that done.

But perhaps the best piece of news is that the Cougars did all this while Rob Gray did not play well. He’s one of the best players in that conference, and the fact that they were able to right Devin Davis and Corey Davis to wins in two of their most important and toughest games of the league slate is significant.

What happens when Rob Gray gets right?

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • WICHITA STATE: Not only did Wichita State land a come-from-behind win over Temple on Thursday night, one where they trailed by 14 points at halftime, but they followed that up by going to Cincinnati and knocking off the then-No. 5 Bearcats.
  • MICHIGAN STATE: The Spartans moved into sole possession of first place in the Big Ten due in large part to the fact that they were able to erase a 27-point first half deficit at Northwestern.
  • BAYLOR: The Bears look like they are now heading for the NCAA tournament after landing wins at Texas and at home over Texas Tech on Saturday. Now that Scott Drew’s team is healthy, they look like they belong in the top 25.
  • ST. BONAVENTURE: The Bonnies might have solidified their bid for the NCAA tournament. As long as they don’t do anything dumb the rest of the season, beating Rhode Island at home on Friday night should be enough for them to get in.
  • DUKE: The Blue Devils have now won three straight games after losing Marvin Bagley III to a minor knee sprain, mainly because their defense is now playing at a level that we haven’t seen yet this season. Are the Blue Devils better without Marvin Bagley??? (Hint: No.)

Player Of The Week: Terry Maston, Baylor

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Terry Maston is back from injury and playing the best basketball of his career.

The 6-foot-8 senior was utterly dominant in two critical, close wins this week. It started with 26 points and six boards in a double-overtime win at Texas on Monday night that was something of a play-out game for NCAA tournament purposes.

Then on Saturday, that win was overshadowed. Maston had 24 points and five boards in regular as the Bears knocked off No. 7 Texas Tech for their fifth straight win, and suddenly it looks like Scott Drew’s club will be in the NCAA tournament come Selection Sunday.

All told, in what will arguably be the most important week of the season for Baylor, Maston scored 50 points, or a total of 38 percent of Baylor’s total scoring output in those two games.

Not bad for a guy that came off the bench in both of those wins.

THE ALL-‘THEY WERE GOOD, TOO’ TEAM

  • GRAYSON ALLEN, Duke: In three games without Marvin Bagley III, Duke is now 3-0 thanks to Grayson Allen averaging 22.3 points and 5.3 assists while shooting 42 percent from three. Last week, Duke beating Virginia Tech by 22 points and won at Clemson.
  • CALEB and CODY MARTIN, Nevada: The Wolf Pack picked up two road wins this week, including a win at Boise State that gave them the inside track at the Mountain West regular season title. The twins combined to average 42.5 points, 12.5 boards and 4.0 assists in those two wins.
  • AARON HOLIDAY, UCLA: The Bruins stayed on track to earn a berth into the NCAA tournament with wins over Oregon and Oregon State. Holiday was the star both nights, going for 17 and 10 assists against OSU and following that up with 29 points, six assists and five boards in an overtime win over Oregon.
  • MATT MOBLEY, St. Bonaventure: Mobley averaged 28 points and nine boards as the Bonnies beat La Salle and No. 16 Rhode Island to put themselves in a spot where they can realistically feel good about their chances of getting into the NCAA tournament.
  • DEANDRE AYTON, Arizona: Ayton had one of his best games of the season on Thursday night, going for 25 points, 16 boards, four assists and three blocks as the Wildcats picked off Arizona State on the road.

College Basketball Power Rankings: Villanova remains in the top spot

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I’ve said it for about a month now: When healthy, I think that Villanova is the best team in college basketball.

When healthy.

Over the course of the last seven games, they played without Phil Booth, one of the program’s better perimeter defenders and a double-digit scorer that averages better than three assists per night. His presence also means that the Wildcats have someone coming off the bench that isn’t a freshman that’s in over their head after missing a month with a broken hand.

Booth took his cast off on Saturday, a day when the Wildcats went into Cincinnati and mollywhopped No. 4 Xavier. There is hope that he will be able to suit up on Wednesday, when Villanova hosts DePaul, meaning that Villanova is back to full strength. They are 24-3 on the season and two of those three losses came without Booth.

Virginia probably has the best résumé in college basketball. I’m not sure Villanova will be able to earn the No. 1 overall seed unless the Wahoos slip-up; I’m also not sure it matters, Villanova is heading to the East Regional almost regardless of what happens.

But I do think that Villanova is college basketball’s best when they are at their best.

And now, with Booth back, they are at their best.

So they’re my No. 1 team.

Here is my full top 25:

1. Villanova, 24-3 (Last Week: No. 1)
2. Virginia, 24-2 (2)
3. Michigan State, (3)
4. Xavier, 24-4 (5)
5. Purdue, 24-5 (4)
6. Duke, 22-5 (10)
7. Texas Tech, 22-5 (7)
8. Cincinnati, 23-4 (6)
9. Gonzaga, 25-4 (11)
10. North Carolina, 21-7 (17)
11. Auburn, 23-4 (8)
12. Ohio State, 22-7 (9)
13. Kansas, 21-6 (13)
14. Wichita State, 21-5 (25)
15. Clemson, 20-6 (12)
16. West Virginia, 19-8 (15)
17. Rhode Island, 21-4 (16)
18. Tennessee, 19-7 (14)
19. Arizona, 21-6 (21)
20. Nevada, 23-5 (20)
21. Michigan, 22-7 (23)
22. Butler, 18-10 (22)
23. Texas A&M, 17-10 (18)
24. Baylor, 17-10 (NR)
25. Saint Mary’s, 25-4 (19)

DROPPED OUT: No. 24 Oklahoma

NEW ADDITIONS: No. 24 Baylor

No. 19 Wichita State upends No. 5 Cincinnati 76-72

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HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. (AP) — Dave Stallworth was running the show the last time Wichita State beat a Top 5 team on the road. Landry Shamet took the lead as the Shockers did it again 54 years later.

This one, too, will be a reference point, given all that was at stake.

Shamet scored 19 points, and No. 19 Wichita State ended the nation’s longest home-court winning streak, beating No. 5 Cincinnati 76-72 on Sunday to leave the American Athletic Conference race wide open.

The Shockers (21-5, 11-3) beat a Top 5 team on the road for the first time since 1964. They led most of the way, building an 11-point lead midway through the second half and holding on. Shaquille Morris’ dunk with 5 seconds left finished it off.

The Shockers ran onto the floor for congratulatory chest bumps. Coach Gregg Marshall got a celebratory dunking in the locker room, leaving his light-colored shirt clinging to him.

“It’s tremendous,” Marshall said. “Look at my shirt. College basketball has such tremendous parity. The games are decided by great players making great plays. Landry is a tremendous player.”

The Bearcats (23-4, 12-2) had won their last 39 home games. In their first real home challenge of the season, they wound up playing catch-up and coming up short. Cincinnati hasn’t beaten a ranked team all season, falling to 0-3 with losses to Xavier and Florida.

Cincinnati and Wichita State were expected to contend for the title in the Shockers’ first season in the AAC. Wichita State gave itself a chance with a solid all-around game led by its point guard. Shamet had 16 points in the first half, when the Shockers shredded the nation’s second-ranked defense to take control.

Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin was bothered by his team’s “gross, mind-boggling defensive breakdowns,” including allowing the Shockers to get open for those two late layups. Wichita State shot 53 percent from the field, getting open 3-pointers in the first half and layups in the second half.

“We’re just not in a good place right now,” Cronin said. “I hadn’t slept much. We’re not in a good place for a lot of reasons.”

Wichita State closes the regular season by hosting Cincinnati on March 4. Houston (21-5, 11-3) also is in the running for the league title after beating Temple on Sunday.

The Shockers hit seven of eight shots during a 17-3 run that gave them a 34-23 lead. Cincinnati responded by turning up its full-court defense, forcing three quick turnovers, and going on a run that cut the deficit to 42-40 at halftime.

The Shockers showed a little defense of their own, forcing five turnovers while rebuilding their lead to 59-48 with 11 minutes left, matching its biggest of the game. Cincinnati closed to 72-70 on Trevon Scott’s dunk with 13 seconds left, but the Shockers scored on a pair of inbound passes by Landry, the last a full-court heave to Morris for a dunk that provided the final margin.

“This is what we do,” said Austin Reaves, who made the first of the two decisive layups. “We stick together on the road.”

BIG PICTURE

Wichita State: The Shockers needed a win to maintain their chances of a regular season title, and they got it with another good showing on the road. The Shockers are the most successful road team in the nation over the past five years at 47-8, including 7-2 this season.

“This is like our 50th red-out or white-out or black-out,” Marshall said. “We feel comfortable when that happens.”

Cincinnati: The Bearcats moved into the Top 5 even though they hadn’t beaten a ranked team all season. Losses at Houston and at home to Wichita State left them prepared for a plummet.

“As it gets later in the season, every team is better,” said Jacob Evans III, who had 16 points. “It’s not the beginning of conference or the season. Every team knows us well. We’ve got to be able to go to second options when they take away the first ones.”

NO LONGER A SWEET HOME

The Bearcats hadn’t lost at home since a 77-70 defeat against Temple on Dec. 29, 2015. They went 18-0 at Fifth Third Arena last season and were 13-0 at Northern Kentucky’s BB&T Arena, where they’re playing this season while their on-campus arena is renovated.

LONG TIME NO SEE

The Shockers and Bearcats played regularly as members of the Missouri Valley Conference from 1958-70, but it was their first game since 1981.

TOP 5 HISTORY

It was only the fourth time the Shockers have beaten a Top 5 team on the road. They beat No. 5 Oklahoma A&M in 1954 and topped No. 3 Loyola in 1963 and again in 1964 behind Stallworth.

TOUGH WEEKEND IN CINCY

Cincinnati had two teams in the Top 5, and both of them lost at home over the weekend. No. 4 Xavier lost to No. 3 Villanova 95-79 on Saturday at Cintas Center.cincinnati

Andy Kennedy resigns from Ole Miss effective immediately

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Andy Kennedy announced that, effective immediately, he will be stepping down as the head coach at Ole Miss. Tony Madlock will serve as the interim head coach for the remainder of the season.

The reason is simple: Kennedy wanted to “relieve any external pressure being felt by our current players” and he did not believe that last week’s announcement that this would be his final season in Oxford accomplished that.

“It has become readily apparent to me that my continued presence as the head coach is proving detrimental to these players finishing the season in a fashion that is representative of The Standard for this program that has been clearly established and maintained for over a decade,” Kennedy said in a statement. “Yherefore, I believe that it is in everyone’s best interest that I exit my role as head coach effective immediately. We all know that “clean breaks” are always best, and I should have realized this last Monday. My apologies.”

On Saturday, Ole Miss lost by 17 points at Mississippi State. That came two days after Kennedy went viral for a brutally honest criticism of what his team was going through.

“I can’t get to them,” he said. “I can’t reach them.”

It’s sad that this is the way that it had to end for the best basketball coach that Ole Miss has ever had. But it had to be done.

No. 12 Duke beats No. 11 Clemson as defensive resurgence continues

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Grayson Allen finished with 19 points, four assists and four steals, scoring 17 of his points in the first half, and Wendell Carter added 15 points, 10 boards and three blocks as No. 12 Duke won their fourth straight game without Marvin Bagley III, 66-57.

No. 11 Clemson was short-handed as well, and that’s something that needs to be noted. Not only are they playing without Donte Grantham, who tore his ACL earlier this year, but Shelton Mitchell was not in the lineup after suffering a nasty concussion at Florida State on Wednesday.

The Tigers were a No. 3 seed when the bracket reveal occurred last Sunday, but like Ohio State and Oklahoma, they have now lost back-to-back games; 11 of the top 16 teams have lost a game in the last week.

But the story here more than anything is Duke.

Yes, Allen finished with 19 points and continues to play well without Bagley on the floor. Getting him into a rhythm is critically important for this team. He was averaging 14.7 points in 24 games with Bagley. He is averaging 22.3 points in the last three games that Bagley has missed, and that does not include the 37-point outburst he had when Bagley went down with an injury against Michigan State.

Coach K also has had a chance to develop some confidence in his bench. Javin DeLaurier had 10 boards on Sunday. Marques Bolden didn’t play a done of minutes, but he still finished with five points, three boards and a pair of blocks. He was, generally speaking, a positive influence on the game.

But here is the most important and perplexing nugget: Duke, for the third straight game, was excellent defensively. They’ve now allowed fewer than 1.0 points-per-possession in each of the last three games. They are clearly not the same time offensively without Bagley’s presence on the floor, but it is impossible to ignore what they have been defensively in the last 10 days without him.

To put it into context: For all the talk about how much of a problem Duke’s defense has been, the Blue Devils are now ranked 43rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. They were 79th after they lost to North Carolina, the last game that Bagley played. Villanova, who many believe is the best team in the country when healthy, is 42nd.

The question we need to ask is whether or not that will continue once Bagley makes his return.

Because the only thing standing between Duke and a Final Four is their inability to defend.