Justin Jackson

No. 1 North Carolina handles No. 4 Butler en route to Elite Eight

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North Carolina, the top seed in the South region, jumped out to a 20-point second half led. While the No. 4 seed Butler Bulldogs would not go down quietly, the Tar Heels would keep the lead no less than 10 for the remainder of the evening, advancing to the Elite Eight with a 92-80 win on Friday night at the FedEx Forum in Memphis.

It was the bounce-back win the Tar Heels needed — following a near collapse against Arkansas in the second round — to assert themselves as serious contenders once again.

Joel Berry II, who had been hampered by an ankle injury suffered in the first round win against Texas Southern, had a game-high 26 points, off 8-of-13 shooting. That’s coming a weekend after 3-of-21 shooting in first and second half wins. Justin Jackson followed with 24 points. Luke Maye had 14 of his 16 points in the first half, an offensive explosion that included a trio of 3-pointers.

“Well, at this stage of the year, if you don’t have good offensive games or good defensive games, you go home,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams told reporters after the game. “But we do need to be clicking a little bit on all cylinders. We’ve got one, two — we only had three guys in double figures today, one of them is 26 and the other 24, so that’s pretty good. But yes, we do need both of them making shots and doing some things for us.”

Williams is right. The Tar Heels do need to be clicking on a little bit on all cylinders. And on Friday night, they did a little more of that than they did in a second-round scare from the Razorbacks.

North Carolina’s offense didn’t have a lapse it did in the second half against Arkansas. When Butler cut the deficit to 10 with more than five minutes remaining, North Carolina countered with a 7-2 run. Part of the offensive efficiency should be attributed to the status of Berry’s ankle, which besides a few moments in the second half, didn’t plague him as much as it did in the previous contest. It also helped that Jackson avoided a 5-for-14 shooting performance and the Tar Heels cut down the turnovers from 17 to 10. They also held a good shooting team — one that needed to knock down shots from the outside if it wanted a chance to extend its season — to under 30 percent from beyond the arc.

The Tar Heels controlled the glass, and dominated the inside, outrebounding the Bulldogs 38-26 and scoring 42 points in the paint. That’s a good sign, as they should be expected to hold the advantage on the inside against either team they face in the Elite Eight.

Regardless of who prevails in the rematch between No. 3 seed UCLA and No. 2 seed Kentucky, the top-seeded Tar Heels are in for an all-out war on Sunday in the Elite Eight. But Friday night was the bounce-back performance that showed the Tar Heels are capable of putting it all together to book another trip to the Final Four.

Player of the Week: Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II, North Carolina

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At this point, it’s almost too difficult to separate the contributions being made by Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson.

Berry is the guy that makes everything easier for No. 11 North Carolina offensively. Jackson has turned into the sharpshooter and the closer that the Tar Heels have lacked the last two seasons. And the two of them have essentially taken turns making the big shots down the stretch for UNC this season.

On Wednesday, in a win at Wake Forest, it was Jackson burying a clutch three in a game where he led the Tar Heels with 19 points. On Saturday, it was Berry that had an answer for every Florida State run. He finished with 26 points against FSU. Jackson had 22, and he had a three in a late run that put the game away.

At this point, these two make up the best one-two punch in the ACC. They deserve to be in the same conversation with the likes of De’Aaron Fox-Malik Monk, Josh Hart-Jalen Brunson and Frank Mason III-Josh Jackson when it comes to the best one-two punches in the sport. Both have earned at least consideration for all-american teams.

They are the reason that UNC is very much a contender to get back to the Final Four and win that elusive national title.

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THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: Williams-Goss was the best player on the floor for the Zags on Saturday night as they handed Saint Mary’s their worst loss of the season, 79-56. It was quite the statement for Gonzaga, as Saint Mary’s was considered by many to be a real contender for the WCC title. Is it too early to start talking about Gonzaga’s undefeated season?
  • Bryce Alford, UCLA: Alford put together one of the best shooting performances we’ve seen this season, hitting 9-for-14 from three in a 37-point outburst at Colorado. Alford also hit a huge three late in the second half of the Bruins’ win at Utah, only the fourth time in six years that a Pac-12 team has swept the Mountain schools on the road.
  • London Perrantes, Virginia: Virginia bounced back from a rough start to ACC play with a pair of wins this week, including a win at Clemson. Perrantes was fantastic in the two wins, averaging 24.5 points and hitting a number of critical shots late in the win at Clemson. He’s turning into the go-to guy that the Cavaliers lost in Malcolm Brogdon.
  • Lauri Markkanen, Arizona: Beating an in-state rival like Arizona State is always awesome. Scoring 30 points in a game is always awesome. Scoring 30 points in a blowout win over your in-state rival? Priceless. Or something like that, right? Regardless, Markkanen has more than lived up to the hype he had entering the season.
  • Vlad Brodziansky, TCU: The Horned Frogs moved to 3-2 in the Big 12 this season with wins at Texas and over Iowa State at home, and Brodziansky was the biggest reason why. The 6-foot-11 Slovakian averaged 22 points, 10 boards and three blocks while shooting better than 70 percent form the floor.

Five Things We Learned This Week: Malik Monk, Justin Jackson and Aaron Holiday

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1. Malik Monk is the most dangerous scorer in college basketball: We all saw the 47 points that he scored, right?

And if you didn’t see it you’ve at least heard about it by now, correct?

On Saturday, squaring off against No. 7 North Carolina, Monk went 18-for-28 from the floor and 8-for-12 from three en route to a 47-point eruption, which included a pair of threes in the final two minutes to give the Wildcats a 103-100 win. I honestly cannot remember an individual performance as impressive – I’m sure there’s been one – and it’s critical for the Wildcats for two reasons:

  1. That vaunted Kentucky defense doesn’t look so scary all of a sudden. In the two games they’ve played against elite competition, the Wildcats have now given up 197 points in 162 possessions, or 1.216 PPP, which is a pretty bad number. If this group is going to make a deep tournament run, they’re going to be playing in games where they will need to score in the 90s to win, and I think Monk has proven that he’s capable and unafraid of being the guy to carry this team.
  2. Monk is far and away the most effective player this Kentucky team has in half court settings. Coach Cal knows this, which is why he put in set plays to run specifically to ensure that Monk would get the ball in a spot where he can do some damage. They worked. The key to beating this Kentucky team is keeping them out of transition, where they are just too fast to defend. Forcing them to execute in the half court is the better option given some of the issues they have with perimeter shooting and floor-spacing, but if Monk is going to consistently be able to score when plays are run for him, it makes UK that much more effective offensively.
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17: Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels drives to the basket against De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Kentucky won 103-100. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Justin Jackson. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

2. UNC’s stars gave us reason to believe in them: We learned just how valuable Joel Berry II was last week, when North Carolina struggled at home with Davidson and Tennessee as Berry nursed an injured ankle back to health. If that didn’t prove it to you, then his 23 points and seven assists on Saturday against Kentucky should have.

Berry was terrific.

He was also the second-best player on North Carolina that day, as junior wing Justin Jackson went for a career-high 34 points and kept the Tar Heels within striking distance while their front court seemingly spent the entire game battling foul trouble. That matters, because it is really the first time against competition like this that Jackson has shown that he’s capable of throwing the Tar Heels on his back and carrying them. He damn near led them to a win, too; his three with two minutes left to give UNC their first lead since the opening seconds will go down as one of the biggest shots he’ll ever make even if it doesn’t matter at this point.

The bottom line is this: I’m not sold on UNC’s front court. I think that the Tar Heels were a bit overrated after the way they started the season. But Jackson and Berry very nearly dragged this team to a come-from-behind win over a really good Kentucky team that had a star player going all NBA Jam. That’s notable even in a loss.

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3. Aaron Holiday is the best sixth-man in the country: There are 351 Division I programs in college basketball. There are, at most, five or six programs where Holiday wouldn’t step in and immediately start in their back court. There probably aren’t 20 teams in America where he wouldn’t be the best player on the roster. And yet, Holiday – the younger brother of NBA guards Jrue and Justin – is content working as UCLA’s sixth-man as a sophomore after starting his freshman season.

In fact, he’s more than content. He’s thriving, averaging 14.4 points, 4.1 assists and 1.4 steals. He’s shooting 53.3 percent from three, which leads the team. He’s playing more than 26 minutes a night. He had a team-high 20 points in UCLA’s win over Ohio State. He had 13 points and four assists in the first half of the win at Kentucky, his play changing the course of the game.

It works because of his versatility. He can replace any of Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton and do what they do. He is a point guard by trade, but he’s also capable of playing off the ball as a shooter and can score when he puts the ball on the floor. He’s also a very good on-ball defender, which isn’t necessarily the case for the rest of UCLA’s perimeter. He’s clearly not this team’s MVP, but the Bruins would not be where they are right now without him.

Not just because of his skill set.

But because he embraced the “demotion” of coming off the bench.

4. Can Notre Dame close out games?: Two Saturdays in a row now we’ve seen the Fighting Irish jump out to big first half leads against two of the best teams in the country, and two Saturdays in a row we’ve seen them give those leads right back. The Irish blew an 11-point first half lead against Villanova two weeks ago, following that up by losing to Purdue after holding a 14 point lead at the break.

Point guard Matt Farrell, who has starred in both of those games, was blunt when he asked what happened.

“I think it’s just toughness,” he said. “This is two times now we’ve had double-digit leads and it’s come down to defensive rebounding and we haven’t done that. That’s just toughness.”

“I feel like we got comfortable at halftime just like we did in the Villanova game. We can’t get comfortable, especially if we’re up by 15, we gotta make that jump, extend the lead. It’s all about toughness and winning close games.”

The Irish watched Josh Hart put together the best performance we saw this season pre-Malik Monk. They then let Caleb Swanigan get loose against them on Saturday. On a team without much proven size and with a star big man that tops out at about 6-foot-6 on a good day, it’s worth wondering whether Notre Dame has the physicality inside to be able to handle games against teams like that.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 17: Matt Farrell #5 of Notre Dame shoots the ball during the game against the Purdue Boiermakers in the Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on December 17, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Matt Farrell Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

5. The Big East is as good as it has been since the split: I think that this is the best that we’ve seen the Big East since it split off from the AAC. Villanova, the reigning national champs, are a threat to repeat. Creighton is still undefeated and find themselves ranked in the top 15. The Bluejays have usurped Xavier’s title as Villanova’s biggest threat in the league, although that may change when Myles Davis is allowed to play again. Then there’s Butler, who is the proud owner of the best résumé in the conference, with wins against Indiana, Arizona, Cincinnati, Northwestern and at Utah.

There is a valid argument to make that that top four may actually be better than the top four teams in the ACC.

There also appears to be more depth in the conference than in recent years. Seton Hall is a tough, veteran group that landed a brand-name win last week, handing South Carolina their first loss of the season. Providence is 9-2 on the year with a win over Rhode Island. Georgetown had some struggles early on in the year but just won at Syracuse over the weekend. Marquette probably isn’t looking at a tournament trip this season, but they certainly aren’t going to be pushovers this year. DePaul is DePaul and St. John’s is a tire fire, but overall, there is a lot to like about the league this season.

Player of the Week: Kentucky’s Malik Monk

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In the history of players and weeks and awards, has there ever been an easier pick for someone to receive a Player of the Week award than Malik Monk this week?

In case you spent the last 48 hours under a rock, Monk set a Kentucky freshman scoring record and a season-high nationally by dropping 47 points on Saturday as No. 6 Kentucky knocked off No. 7 North Carolina. Think about it like this: Of all the players that have ever played at Kentucky – including, but certainly not limited to, Karl Towns, Anthony Davis, John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins – here is the list of players that have scored more points in a single game than Monk did on Saturday: Jodie Meeks, Dan Issel, Cliff Hagan and Bob Burrow.

And Monk did it on national television against one of the biggest brands and best teams in the country.

Not only did he score 47 – you can see each of those 47 points right here – but Monk also ensured that the Wildcats didn’t throwaway a game they controlled for roughly 38 minutes.

With two minutes left, North Carolina took their first lead in forever on a three from Justin Jackson. Monk immediately responded with a contested three of his own. Then 90 seconds later, after UNC again took a lead, Monk buried another contested three from the same spot, this one with 15 seconds left to give the Wildcats a 101-100 lead.

But that’s not my favorite part of Monk’s Saturday.

This is: during the halftime interview on the broadcast, John Calipari called Monk’s threes “fool’s gold”. He didn’t want his trigger-happy freshman to start settling for 22-footers just because he had hit a few 22-footers. Which brings us to that game-winning jumper.

“Coach Cal told me to drive,” Monk said. “But I was hot. So I didn’t.”

“I said, ‘Drive the ball! Drive the ball!’ And he shot a three and it went in,” added Cal. “So I said, ‘Great shot, kid. Way to shoot the ball.'”

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THEY WERE GOOD TOO

  • Justin Jackson, North Carolina: De’Aaron Fox and Joel Berry II were both terrific on Saturday as well, but it was Jackson whose performance was the most notable. He finished with a career-high 34 points, doing everything he could to keep the Tar Heels within striking distance of Kentucky. No one will remember it, but the three he hit with two minutes left to give the Tar Heels the lead was as big of a shot as he’s made in his career. UNC fans are allowed to be disappointed with the final result, but someone had to lose. The Tar Heels proved something on Saturday.
  • Kelan Martin, Butler: Speaking of proving something, the Bulldogs thrust themselves into the conversation of Big East contenders with a win over Indiana on Saturday. Martin was the star of the show, popping off for 28 points and helping lead the Bulldogs to a 14-point halftime lead that Indiana could never fully recover from.
  • Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: The Boilermakers erased a 17-point first half deficit to knock off No. 21 Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic on Saturday, and it was Swanigan that did the heavy lifting in their comeback. He finished with 26 points, 10 boards and four blocks as Notre Dame couldn’t handle Purdue’s small lineup.
  • Yante Maten, Georgia: Is there a more underrated player in college basketball than Maten? He went for 30 points and six boards in a win over Charleston Southern just six days after he had 18 points, 15 boards and five blocks against Louisiana. On the season, the 6-foot-8 Maten is averaging 21.5 points, 8.7 boards and 1.9 blocks.

Three-star wing commits to UNLV

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UNLV landed its second recruit of the week on Friday night, as Carlos Johnson, a three-star wing, announced his commitment via Twitter.

“Happy to announce my commitment to UNLV,” he tweeted.

Johnson, who attends Findlay Prep in nearby Henderson, Nevada, joins guard Christian Vital, who picked the Rebels on Wednesday night, and four-star forward Justin Jackson in the Class of 2016.

The 6-foot-4 Johnson played for the Oakland Soldiers on the grassroots circuit, averaging 12.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.0 assists per game in 19 appearances in the Nike EYBL.

United States U19 team advances to semifinals of FIBA U19 World Championships

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After coasting to a comfortable win over Argentina in the Round of 16 despite committing 26 turnovers on Wednesday, the United States U19 team faced a stiffer test Friday morning against Italy.

The Italians hung tough in the first quarter, with the United States taking control in the second quarter of what would eventually become an 86-65 victory. The win advances Sean Miller’s team into the semifinals of the FIBA U19 World Championships, where they’ll take on either hosts Greece or Spain on Saturday.

Jalen Brunson, who will play for Jay Wright at Villanova this upcoming season, led the way offensively with 17 points to go along with five assists and three steals. He was one of four players to score in double figures, with 2016 prospects Harry Giles (ten rebounds) and Josh Jackson scoring 14 points apiece and Jayson Tatum finishing with 12.

As a team the United States shot 54.2 percent from the field and compiled an offensive rebounding percentage of 55.2 percent, but once again turnovers were an issue as they racked up another 22 against Italy. Also of note for the United States is the absence of Arizona signee Allonzo Trier, who did not play after suffering a right ankle injury in the win over Argentina. It remains to be seen whether or not he’ll be able to play in Saturday’s semifinals.

Other teams in action with connections to college basketball are Australia and Canada, with both teams falling earlier Friday. The Australian team, which includes Nebraska commit Jack McVeigh, fell to Turkey 81-70 with McVeigh accounting for a team-high 14 points along with three rebounds.

Canada, whose team includes Oregon forward Dylan Brooks, Harvard forward Chris Egi, and UNLV’s Jalen Poyser and Justin Jackson (a 2016 commit), lost 84-71 to Croatia in another quarterfinal. Jackson led the way offensively with 20 points, and Brooks added 17 in the Canadians’ first loss of the event.