UCLA Bruins

Villanova head coach Jay Wright shouts instructions to his team during the first half of N NCAA college basketball game against Miami in the regional semifinals of the men's NCAA Tournament in Louisville, Ky., Thursday, March 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)
AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley

College Basketball Talk Top 25: Villanova is the new No. 1

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1. Villanova (14-0, Last Week: No. 2): It feels like what Villanova is doing this season is still flying under the radar despite the fact that they are undefeated and the No. 1 team in the country while staking claim as the reigning national champions.

2. UCLA (14-1, 3): UCLA lost on the road on a game-winner with 0.7 seconds left to a team that I now have in the top ten, a team that was in the preseason top five before we realized that Dillon Brooks, who is now healthy and mowing down opponents, wasn’t at 100 percent to start the year. I’m not concerned in the least.

3. Kansas (12-1, 4): The Jayhawks survived a scrappy TCU team in their Big 12 opener thanks to a punishing performance from center Landen Lucas. He has suddenly turned into the most important player on the Kansas team now that Udoka Azubuike is out for the year with a wrist injury.

4. Kentucky (11-2, 5): Kentucky put together their most complete performance on the season last week when they beat Ole Miss in Oxford. Isaiah Briscoe put up a triple-double, Bam Adebayo played his best game of the season and Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox did the things that Monk and Fox do.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBC Sports Top 25

5. Duke (12-2, 1): So what do we do with the Blue Devils? I’m still in the camp that says that Duke has the highest ceiling of any team in the country, and I also think we’ve underrated just how good Virginia Tech is this season; the Hokies would be undefeated right now if they hadn’t choked away a loss to Texas A&M in the Wooden Legacy semifinals. This isn’t like Duke going to Boston College and taking a beating.

But Duke still took a beating, and the biggest concern was that the Blue Devils seemed to lack the effort and the intensity to make the plays they needed to make defensively. They almost looked selfish offensively, as the lack of a point guard on that roster was glaring. They played without Grayson Allen, who was serving the first game of his suspension, but the issues Duke had on display were much bigger than Allen.

Put another way, Saturday made me think that Duke may not ever get to their ceiling. But hey, at least Harry Giles III finally scored a point.

(UPDATE: And now Coach K will miss up to a month to recover from back surgery.)

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6. Gonzaga (14-0, 8): The Bulldogs were pushed by both Pacific and Pepperdine this week, but came out unscathed with double-digit wins. There is a real chance that Gonzaga could head into Moraga on Feb. 11th as the lone undefeated team in college basketball.

7. Baylor (14-0, 9): The Bears keep rolling along. On Saturday, they opened up Big 12 play by mollywhopping Oklahoma in Norman. It is going to be fun when the Bears get together with Kansas this season, on Feb. 1st and Feb. 18th.

8. Wisconsin (12-2, 11): While Indiana lost twice last week and Purdue dropped a home game to Minnesota, the Badgers continue to roll along. Since Nigel Hayes made the change to being a point forward, the Badgers have looked like a totally different team.

9. Louisville (12-2, 7): Outside of Duke, Louisville is the hardest team in this poll to rank. They beat Kentucky, but they beat Kentucky by three in a game they were favored by two on their home floor, the same home floor where they were smacked around by Virginia just five days ago. But then the Cardinals turned around and gave Indiana a similar whooping in Indiana. Wherever you have them ranked, here’s what you need to admit: the Cards are, right now, as good as, if not better than any team in the ACC.

10. Oregon (13-2, 21): Oregon vaults up to No. 10 in our poll for one, simple reason: they’re back.

11. West Virginia (12-1, 12)
12. North Carolina (12-3, 6)
13. Creighton (13-1, 10)
14. Florida State (14-1, 25)
15. Virginia (11-2, 18)
16. Xavier (12-2, 16)
17. Saint Mary’s (12-1, 17)
18. Arizona (14-2, 22)
19. Cincinnati (13-2, 20)
20. Butler (12-2, 13)
21. Purdue (12-3, 14)
22. Virginia Tech (12-1, UR)
23. Notre Dame (12-2, 23)
24. USC (14-1, 19)
25. Indiana (10-4, 15)

DROPPED OUT: No. 24 Seton Hall
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 22 Virginia Tech

VIDEO: UCLA commit LaMelo Ball calls shot, drills jumper from halfcourt

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LaMelo Ball may have entered the trash talk hall of fame, and he’s not even halfway through high school yet.

The younger brother of UCLA freshman star Lonzo, LaMelo made the likes of Gary Payton and Reggie Miller proud by not only nailing a half-court shot as if it was a normal attempt in the middle of a game, but calling his shot before doing so.

This is such a savage move.

Pulling up and nailing a just dumb shot from halfcourt like it’s nothing is one thing, but to call it out, to let your opponent not only know it’s coming but that you care so little for his pride, is straight nasty.

It’s something only the most supremely confident would even attempt, and the thing only the supremely confident and supremely talented – or lucky – can pull off. Given that LaMelo is the youngest of three UCLA-bound brothers, with Lonzo currently tearing it up for an undefeated Bruins team and LiAngelo going for 65 in the very same high school game – confidence and talent seem to be in steady supply for the family.

 

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

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17:  Head coach John Calipari of the Kentucky Wildcats looks on as Malik Monk #5 celebrates after hitting a go-ahead 3-pointer late in the team's 103-100 win over the North Carolina Tar Heels during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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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.

No. 2 UCLA outlasts Ohio State

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17:  TJ Leaf #22 of the UCLA Bruins dunks against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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We learned something about No. 2 UCLA on Saturday: The Bruins don’t have to play well to win games.

Facing off with Ohio State in the opener of the CBS Sports Classic out in Las Vegas, the Bruins committed 12 first half turnovers and had one of their poorest shooting performances – they went just 10-for-30 from three – and the Bruins still managed to beat Ohio State, 86-73.

The outcome never felt like it was in doubt, either.

The Buckeyes hung around. They spent the entire second half within striking distance, as Marc Loving kept hitting shots and JaQuan Lyle kept making plays, but there was never truly a point where it seemed as if the Bruins were truly in danger of losing control of this one. Whenever the Buckeyes would make a push to cut the lead to six or seven, the Bruins would find an open three or get a couple of buckets in transition. It was like playing your little brother one-on-one: You know that you can coast a little bit, but every time he scores a couple of baskets in a row, it’s time to remind him that he is, yanno, the little brother.

And on the one hand, that’s a concern.

This was anything-but UCLA’s best. There were more defensive lapses than we’ve become accustomed to with this group. They let Ohio State muck things up for them offensively. They didn’t hit as many open threes as we’re used to seeing them hit. They were really sloppy in the first half. It happens, and the Bruins were able to turn it on when they needed to in order to pull away, but that’s not something they’re going to want to make a habit out of, particularly once we get into league play.

But the other side of it is that the Bruins were able to coast to a 13-point win over Ohio State in a game where they put forth somewhere around a C+ performance. As the saying goes, great teams win games when they play poorly, and that’s exactly what UCLA did on Saturday.

Aaron Holiday, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton combined for 57 points. Lonzo Ball nearly notched a triple-double – eight points, nine boards, nine assists – while fellow freshman T.J. Leaf added 13 points and eight boards.

CBT Roundtable: College Basketball’s Biggest Surprises

Baylor's Johnathan Motley goes up for a shot after getting past Southern's Jared Sam (12) and Shawn Prudhomme, rear, in in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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Rob Dauster: Be honest with me for a second, I promise I won’t tell anyone. Before the season started, how many players on Baylor could you name? I’m guessing you probably knew Scott Drew because everyone knows Scott Drew – he’s the running joke that pulled a hammy. If you’re a fan of a Big 12 team, you probably knew Johnathan Motley’s name, too. Motley is a talented dude that has never found the consistency to live up to his potential. Beyond that, however, unless you played high school ball with someone on that roster, you Baylor was probably an afterthought for you back in October.

Hell, they were an afterthought for me entering the year.

And man, what a difference a month makes, right? The Bears have put together what is, to date, the most impressive résumé in college hoops. They beat Oregon by 17. They beat Xavier by 15. They have wins over VCU and Michigan State. They beat Louisville despite trailing by 22 points in the first half. Point guard Manu Lecomte is one of the nation’s most improved players. Jo Lual-Acuil, one of the nation’s leading shot-blockers, has teamed with Motley to give Scott Drew one of the longest and most athletic front lines in college basketball. Baylor myriad of wings – Ish Wainwright, Al Freeman, Jake Lindsay, King McClure – have all played their roles well. The Bears are justly ranked in the top five and look like they will actually give Kansas a run for the league title. If you say you saw this coming a month ago, you’re a liar and we all know it.

Travis Hines: The season Luke Kennard is having for Duke. We all knew he was good. The kid was a five-star recruit who played over 25 minutes a game as a freshman for Mike Krzyzewski. That doesn’t happen on accident. The thinking went, though, that potential National Player of the Year Grayson Allen might have to take a backseat to freshmen phenoms Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden, let alone Kennard. But with those three youngsters sidelined due to injury, Kennard has emerged as perhaps the Blue Devils’ best player of the year candidate. He’s shooting 52 percent from the floor and 40.9 percent from 3-point range while averaging 20 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists for a team, despite being shorthanded or feeling its way through lineup changes this season, looks to be, maybe, head-and-shoulders above the rest of the country. Kennard being good is certainly no surprise. His being one of – if not the – frontrunners for National Player of the Year is shocking given the situation we expected him to be inhabiting.

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Terrence Payne: Notre Dame has reached the Elite Eight in back-to-back seasons, yet when the ACC preseason poll was released in October, the Fighting Irish were pegged to finish seventh in the conference. A month later, Mike Brey’s team finds itself in the top-25 nationally, sitting on a 9-1 record with the only blemish coming to No. 1 Villanova. Despite going undefeated through the first nine games – its best wins were over Colorado and Northwestern – Notre Dame didn’t prove it was the real deal until its first loss of the season, falling to No. 1 Villanova 74-66 on a neutral floor. The game was closer than the final score indicated, as the Irish had an 11-point lead at one point over the reigning national champions.

A big part of this is the play of experienced upperclassmen. Junior Bonzie Colson, the undersized forward, is having a breakout year averaging 16.5 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem, two seniors, are averaging 16.6 and 15.5 points per game, respectively. But the biggest surprise has been the emergence of Matt Farrell. When Jerian Grant graduated in 2015, Brey was left with the assurance that he had another future NBA Draft pick, Demetrius Jackson, to fill the void. When Jackson left, it was up to Matt Farrell, a junior guard who was in-and-out of the rotation last season.

Not only is Farrell averaging 13.0 points and 5.5 assists per game (an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3:1), his best games have been against Villanova and sophomore point guard Jalen Brunson and during the Legends Classic, where he earned MVP honors. It’ll be a tall feat to unseat Duke atop the standings this season, but Notre Dame looks the part of a top-five team in the loaded ACC.

Scott Phillips: To me, the story – not just the biggest surprise – of the 2016-17 college basketball season is UCLA. We knew they had as good of a shot to be good as they did to crash and burn again. Some people had them ranked in the preseason, many others didn’t. But nobody except Lavar Ball could have predicted this. The father of UCLA’s star freshman point guard, Lonzo Ball, predicted a national championship for a team that finished 15-17 last season, and then the Bruins back up that sentiment by going into Rupp and winning. This UCLA team is changing the way we watch college basketball by playing a blistering, three-point oriented attack that is overwhelming opponents. They could, statistically, turn out to be the best three-point shooting team ever. UCLA passes my patented “Friends and Family Test” with wild outlet passes and flying colors. If someone I know shows even the slightest bit of interest in an orange bouncing ball, I force them to watch this team play. They never regret it.

No. 2 UCLA cruises over UC Santa Barbara

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 14:  TJ Leaf #22 of the UCLA Bruins dunks during a 102-62 win over the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos at Pauley Pavilion on December 14, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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LOS ANGELES — Two freshmen almost managed something in one game that’s been accomplished only four times in UCLA’s storied history — a triple-double.

Forward T.J. Leaf and guard Lonzo Ball each finished only a few assists shy of a triple-double in No. 2 UCLA’s dominating 102-62 victory over UC Santa Barbara on Wednesday night.

Leaf finished with 25 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, while Ball had 13 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.

UCLA coach Steve Alford took both players out with several minutes still to play, uninterested in individual accomplishments.

“It all centers around our guys being unselfish,” Alford said. “I’m not going to leave our guys in for something like that in a 40-point game.”

UCLA (11-0) scored at least 100 points for the fifth time this season.

The Gauchos outrebounded the Bruins 50-46, but UCLA held Santa Barbara to 30.1 percent shooting (25 of 83).

“We let the boards get away from us in the second half (34-23), but we did have 10 blocks,” Alford said.

Ami Lakoju had 12 rebounds and 11 points, and Gabe Vincent added 10 points for the Gauchos (1-7).

Santa Barbara struggled to find consistency against the Bruins, shooting just 25 percent (13 of 52) in the second half.

Gauchos coach Bob Williams was left almost in awe of the Bruins’ effort.

“They are incredibly gifted, very long and they shoot really well,” Williams said. “They really run effortlessly and they’re playing and making the game easy. They pass and move and cut hard.

“At times out there, they have five guys who can shoot the 3. Their length is something you don’t see at our level.”

Leaf and Ball said they were both unconcerned at just missing a triple-double.

“We really didn’t notice it,” Leaf said. “We’re trying to play unselfish basketball, and we were able to do that tonight.”

Five Bruins scored in double figures. Aaron Holiday had 20 points, Bryce Alford added 15 and Isaac Hamilton had 13 (all in the first half).

The Bruins played their second consecutive game without starting center Thomas Welch, who is out with a bruised right heel.

BIG PICTURE

UC Santa Barbara: The Bruins were the highest-ranked team the Gauchos have faced since meeting No. 1 North Carolina on Nov. 21, 2008. The Tar Heels won 84-67.

UCLA: Coming off Saturday’s 102-84 victory over Michigan, the Bruins were ripe for a letdown but had too much talent to ever be in trouble against Santa Barbara.

STAR WATCH

Holiday, who lost his starting spot with the arrival of Ball, continued his torrid scoring pace off the bench. He is averaging 13.9 points per game. Alford said Holiday had been disappointed in his 73 percent free throw shooting and had been spending extra time on it.

“I was just concentrating,” Holiday said. “Nine of nine? That’s pretty good.”

TURNING POINT

The Bruins trailed once, slipping behind 12-11. They responded with a 17-0 run — all but three points scored by Leaf.

TRIPLE-DOUBLES

The four triple-doubles in the UCLA record book belong to Kyle Anderson (2013), Toby Bailey (1995), Jelani McCoy (1995) and Bill Walton (1973). The assist became an official NCAA stat in 1983-84.

POLL IMPLICTIONS

The Bruins looked very much the No. 2 team in the country, the spot they have held since upsetting then-No. 1 Kentucky on Dec. 3.

UP NEXT

UC Santa Barbara: The Gauchos meet Iona on Wednesday in Las Vegas in the South Point Holiday Hoops Classic.

UCLA: The Bruins meet Ohio State on Saturday in Las Vegas as part of the CBS Sports Classic. The Buckeyes will have been off a week.