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Harper, Okeke lead No. 12 Auburn to 90-71 win over Alabama

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AUBURN, Ala. — Jared Harper scored 21 points, Chuma Okeke had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and No. 12 Auburn beat rival Alabama 90-71 Wednesday night even without ailing star Mustapha Heron.

Down to seven scholarship players, the Tigers (24-4, 12-3 Southeastern Conference) turned a five-point halftime lead into a blowout thanks largely to big performances from Okeke and Malik Dunbar off the bench.

Auburn responded with Heron out with a stomach ailment one game after center Anfernee McLemore was lost for the rest of the season to an ankle injury.

Collin Sexton scored 25 points to lead the Crimson Tide (17-11, 8-7).

Bryce Brown scored 18 points for the Tigers despite shooting just 3 for 14 on 3-pointers. Harper also had six assists.

Okeke, who figures to be a key figure on replacing McLemore, scored 13 points in the second half and finished with a career-high. Dunbar also turned in his top performance with 14 points. Desean Murray had nine points and eight boards.

Auburn took command with a 17-2 run after having its lead cut to one early in the second half.

Sexton made 8 of 12 shots for the Tide, but other top scorers struggled.

John Petty, who had eight 3-pointers and 27 points in the Tide’s January win, missed his first eight attempts and finished with three points.

Donta Hall came in hot but had just seven points and five rebounds. Backup point guard Avery Johnson Jr. scored 10 points.

BIG PICTURE

Alabama: Had won five straight games over ranked teams and could have made a big statement for the NCAA Tournament. Came into the game giving up a league-best 65.6 points in SEC games.

Auburn: Moved a step closer to clinching its third SEC title and first since 1999. Game had to be a confidence builder for players like Malik Dunbar and freshmen Okeke and Michell.

UP NEXT

Alabama hosts Arkansas on Saturday.

Auburn visits Florida on Saturday night.

Bracketology: Kansas returns to top line

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The roller-coaster ride along the No. 1 seed line continues.  This morning, we welcome back Kansas.  The Jayhawks’ rally against West Virginia, combined with Auburn’s loss at South Carolina, inched KU back to the top line.  With three weeks to go, Virginia and Villanova look like good bets to hold their top-seed positions.  The next two spots – occupied today by Xavier and Kansas – are a little more in question.

Various seed line groupings are closely bunched, meaning fluidity remains in the middle and lower ends of the bracket.  A lot of bubble teams won over the weekend, picking up notable wins along the way.  The proverbial stretch run is upon us.

Here’s the latest ..

UPDATED: February 19, 2018

FIRST FOUR PAIRINGS – Dayton (First Round)

  • Washington vs. St. Bonaventure | East Region
  • Syracuse vs. Baylor Midwest Region
  • SOUTHERN vs. SAVANNAH ST | South Region
  • FL GULF COAST vs. NICHOLLS | East Region

BRACKET PROJECTION

SOUTH Atlanta    EAST – Boston                               
Charlotte Pittsburgh
1) VIRGINIA 1) VILLANOVA
16) SOUTHERN / SAVANNAH ST 16) FL GULF CST / NICHOLLS
8) Providence 8) Florida State
9) Florida 9) NEVADA
Boise San Diego
5) Ohio State 5) West Virginia
12) LOUISIANA 12) St. Bonaventure / Washington
4) Tennessee 4) GONZAGA
13) E. TENNESSEE ST 13) BUFFALO
Dallas Wichita
6) Alabama 6) Kentucky
11) MID TENNESSEE 11) Kansas State
3) Texas Tech 3) CINCINNATI
14) CHARLESTON 14) VERMONT
Detroit Nashville
7) Texas AM 7) Creighton
10) NC State 10) TCU
2) MICHIGAN STATE 2) North Carolina
15) WRIGHT STATE 15) WAGNER
WEST – Los Angeles MIDWEST – Omaha
Wichita Detroit
1) KANSAS 1) Xavier
16) PENNSYLVANIA 16) UNC-ASHEVILLE
8) Miami-FL 8) Oklahoma
9) Seton Hall 9) Virginia Tech
San Diego Boise
5) Michigan 5) RHODE ISLAND
12) NEW MEXICO ST 12) LOYOLA (CHI)
4) ARIZONA 4) Wichita State
13) SOUTH DAKOTA ST 13) BELMONT
Dallas Pittsburgh
6) Houston 6) Missouri
11) Texas 11) Baylor / Syracuse
3) Clemson 3) Purdue
14) BUCKNELL 14) RIDER
Nashville Charlotte
7) Arizona State 7) Arkansas
10) Saint Mary’s 10) Butler
2) AUBURN 2) Duke
15) UC-SANTA BARBARA 15) MONTANA

NOTES on the BRACKET: Virginia is the No. 1 overall seed – followed by Villanova, Xavier, and Kansas

Last Four Byes (at large): Butler, Saint Mary’s, Kansas State, Texas

Last Four IN (at large): Washington, Baylor, St. Bonaventure, Syracuse

First Four OUT (at large): UCLA, LSU, Louisville, Marquette

Next four teams OUT (at large): USC, Utah, Georgia, Notre Dame

Breakdown by Conference …

ACC (9): VIRGINIA, Duke, North Carolina, Clemson, Florida State, Miami-FL, Virginia Tech, NC State, Syracuse

SEC (8): AUBURN, Tennessee, Missouri, Alabama, Kentucky, Texas AM, Arkansas, Florida

BIG 12 (8): TEXAS TECH, Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, TCU, Kansas State, Texas, Baylor

Big East (6): VILLANOVA, Xavier, Creighton, Providence, Seton Hall, Butler

Big 10 (4): MICHIGAN STATE, Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan

Pac 12 (3): ARIZONA, Arizona State, Washington

American (3): CINCINNATI, Wichita State, Houston

Atlantic 10 (2): RHODE ISLAND, St. Bonaventure

West Coast (2): GONZAGA, Saint Mary’s

Mountain West (1): NEVADA

ONE BID LEAGUES: Loyola-Chicago (MVC), Rider (MAAC), Middle Tennessee (C-USA), Louisiana (SBELT), Pennsylvania (IVY), Montana (BSKY), Wright State (HORIZON), Nicholls (SLND), East Tennessee State (STHN), UC-Santa Barbara (BWEST), Buffalo (MAC), Florida Gulf Coast (ASUN), Belmont (OVC), Charleston (CAA), UNC-Asheville (BSO), Savannah State (MEAC), South Dakota State (SUM), New Mexico State (WAC), Vermont (AEAST), Bucknell (PAT), Wagner (NEC), Southern (SWAC)

Bracketing principles: read them for yourself at http://www.ncaa.com.

Saturday Recap: Kansas, Villanova earn big wins, Michigan State matches largest comeback win of last decade

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PLAYER OF THE DAY

What’s the best way to shake off a 3-for-18 day that included a 1-for-13 showing from three-point range? By making nine straight three-pointers the next game.

That’s exactly what Notre Dame senior point guard Matt Farrell pulled off in a Saturday afternoon ACC road win at Boston College. With the Irish desperately needing wins to stay in the NCAA tournament picture, Farrell let it fly for 37 points while going 10-for-12 from three-point range.

Farrell also added seven assists and only turned the ball over twice even though he navigated Notre Dame’s high-octane offense through the full 40 minutes.

RELATED: All of Saturday’s Bubble Banter in one place

THE REST OF SATURDAY’S STARS

  • MIKAL BRIDGES AND DONTE DIVINCENZO, Villanova: With Jalen Brunson having a slow afternoon, these two picked up the slack for Villanova. Bridges knocked down four first-half three-pointers on the way to 25 points for the Wildcats. DiVincenzo helped extinguish a Xavier second-half run with some big three-pointers, finishing with 21 points, nine rebounds and nine assists.
  • CALEB AND CODY MARTIN, Nevada: Playing its first game without starting point guard Lindsey Drew, the Martin twins stepped up in a road win at Utah State. Cody played point guard and dropped 30 points on 13-for-18 shooting while adding nine rebounds, four assists and two steals. Caleb added 23 points and six rebounds.
  • JOEL BERRY II, North Carolina: The senior point guard put together a solid overall game in a road win for the Tar Heels over Louisville. Berry finished with 23 points, eight rebounds and five assists while knocking down five three-pointers.
  • FLETCHER MCGEE, Wofford: You might remember the junior guard for his performance in helping the Terriers stun North Carolina earlier this season. McGee had a monster outing to top that game in a win over Chattanooga. Knocking in a school-record 11 three-pointers, McGee had 45 points on 17-for-26 shooting.

TEAM OF THE DAY

Mark this one down as a tie. Kansas and Villanova both picked off fellow top-25 teams. More importantly, they both end Saturday tied for first place in their respective leagues after entering the day in second place.

Although the Jayhawks needed some help and got it with Baylor’s huge upset win over No. 7 Texas Tech, Kansas deserves credit on its own for its second-half, double-digit comeback win over No. 20 West Virginia. Now tied atop the Big 12 with the Red Raiders, Kansas will get a crack at Texas Tech in Lubbock next Saturday.

As for the Wildcats, they continued their domination of No. 4 Xavier with a convincing road win over the Musketeers. While Villanova has struggled with perimeter shooting the past few games, they had no such issues in this one as 11 first-half threes helped them gain control.

GAME OF THE DAY

As if this season hasn’t produced enough insane outcomes to begin with, things got even crazier on Saturday when No. 2 Michigan State rallied to beat Northwestern for a Big Ten road win.

The Spartans found themselves down by 27 points and still came back to win. It matches the largest comeback from the last decade of college basketball. The Big Ten has never had a bigger men’s basketball comeback.

It was a strange game in which the Spartans didn’t even need star sophomore Miles Bridges to have a big game to win one of the biggest comebacks in college basketball history.

WTF???? OF THE DAY

This win probability chart from Michigan State’s unlikely victory over Northwestern is ridiculous. We all understand how you feel, Chris Collins.

WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?

We went this long without talking about Trae Young, so here’s the mandatory update. Texas actually came out of this one as the big story thanks to a huge Big 12 road win over Oklahoma. Dylan Osetkowski paced the Longhorns with 21 points while Young finished with 26 points on 7-for-21 shooting. This one really helps the bubble case for Texas.

Syracuse and Baylor were among the other teams earning huge bubble wins on Saturday as the Orange beat Miami and the Bears knocked off No. 7 Texas Tech. The Red Raiders also lost Keenan Evans to injury in that one as another this is yet another subplot to keep an eye on in the hectic Big 12 race.

Another wild day in the SEC as three ranked teams lost to unranked teams. South Carolina took down No. 10 Auburn but the biggest news in that one could be the Tigers’ loss of leading shot blocker Anfernee McLemore to injuryGeorgia raced past No. 18 Tennessee behind a big effort from Yante MatenAnd Arkansas earned another important resume win by handling No. 21 Texas A&M.

Of course, you can’t talk SEC with Kentucky as the Wildcats had some positive news. They snapped a four-game losing streak as Kentucky took down Alabama.

In the ACC, No. 14 North Carolina won its first game at Louisville as they knocked off the Cardinals.

Kentucky beats Alabama 81-71 behind Washington’s 16 points

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Four straight losses were enough for Kentucky.

PJ Washington scored 16 points, Kevin Knox added 13, and Kentucky beat Alabama 81-71 on Saturday to end a four-game slide.

“They played desperately,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We gave away some games this year and we have to start taking games away from people, which means desperation.”

The Wildcats (18-9, 7-7 Southeastern Conference) displayed a sense of urgency against the Crimson Tide, especially in the rebounding department. The Wildcats held a commanding 44-27 edge on the glass and grabbed 20 offensive boards, resulting in 20 second-chance points for the hosts.

“They were desperate and they had a lot of energy,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said.

Quade Green scored 12 points, Jarred Vanderbilt scored a career-high 11 off the bench with nine rebounds, and Nick Richards added 10 points for the Wildcats.

Vanderbilt played a key role down the stretch for the Wildcats and finished with nine rebounds.

“We came together the last five minutes,” Vanderbilt said. “We made some key plays down the stretch, took care of the ball and we just executed.”

For Kentucky, which hadn’t won since an 83-81 overtime win over Vanderbilt on Jan. 30, fending off the Crimson Tide (17-10, 8-6) wasn’t an easy task. The Wildcats have won six straight over Alabama, including 11 of the past 12 games.

“It felt like we were back to normal and back to where we needed to be,” Washington said. “We just need to keep building from here.”

Alabama, the top defensive team in the conference, forced eight ties and 15 lead changes until the Wildcats gained control midway through the second half to avoid a fifth straight loss. Kentucky led for the final eight minutes.

Knox, Kentucky’s leading scorer, sat out 14 minutes of the first half because of foul trouble, but picked up the scoring load with all of his 13 points in the second half. Knox connected on first field-goal 7/8- a 3-pointer with 13:22 remaining — to ignite the Wildcats’ stagnant offense and spark the team’s impressive finish.

Kentucky led 39-34 at the break amid four ties and 11 lead changes. The Wildcats got most of their scoring off the bench in the opening half with Green and Washington combining for 15 points. Green paved the way with nine and made four of five field goals.

“They just outworked us,” Alabama forward Donata Hall said. “They were a hungry team.”

Hall led Alabama with 16 points, John Petty had 13, Colin Sexton 12 and Alex Reese 10.

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats, who have lost three straight road games (Missouri, Texas A&M and Auburn), will attempt to end the slide Tuesday at Arkansas, which lost just one of its first 14 games at home this season. Kentucky, five games behind conference leader Auburn, is out of contention for a fourth consecutive regular-season title, although a top-four finish isn’t out of question.

Alabama: The Crimson Tide, 5-1 against ranked teams this season, including a 76-71 win over No. 10 Auburn on Jan. 17 in Tuscaloosa, will attempt a sweep of the Tigers Wednesday. Alabama will attempt to lock up one of four top spots and a bye during the final two weeks of the regular season. Alabama coach Avery Johnson fell to 0-6 in games against Kentucky.

PELPHREY RETURNS

Former Kentucky forward John Pelphrey, an assistant coach at Alabama, made his return to Rupp Arena. Pelphrey, a former Mr. Basketball at Paintsville High School in 1987, played for the Wildcats from 1988-92 and was a member of the “Unforgettables” squad that lost to Duke in the 1992 East Region finals.

UP NEXT

Kentucky is at Arkansas Tuesday.

Alabama visits No. 10 Auburn Wednesday.

Alabama slowed down Trae Young to beat Oklahoma but the Sooners have the higher ceiling

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Alabama used a physical defensive effort to hold Player of the Year favorite Trae Young to below his season averages as the Crimson Tide picked up a huge 80-73 win over No. 12 Oklahoma on Saturday afternoon.

Using multiple defenders and face-guarding Young the length of the floor on many possessions, Alabama’s defense wore down the star freshman guard as he finished with 17 points and eight assists — well below his season averages. Looking visibly frustrated at times, Young faced constant double teams and traps from the Crimson Tide defense as the freshman faced a long and athletic defense that made it tough for him to make plays off the dribble. Young didn’t score the first 11 minutes he played. With his team down 10 with over a minute remaining, Young finished the game on the bench.

In a huge matchup of star freshman point guards that drew a sell-out crowd and over 50 NBA scouts in attendance, Alabama’s floor general, Collin Sexton, had a strong outing with 18 points on 8-for-14 shooting to pace the Crimson Tide to the home win. Sexton doesn’t get the hype that Young is getting on a national level this season, but he was stellar at times in this one. Defending Young in some instances, Sexton played a solid overall floor game as he was in total control on offense while helping to limit his counterpart.

That’s the major difference between these two teams. The ceilings of their star freshmen point guards are at entirely different levels. That makes for an entirely different long-term trajectory for these two teams.

Young had an “off” game and still finished with 17 and 8 as his team came up short in a hostile road environment against an NCAA-caliber opponent. Sexton finished with 18 points, while getting more help around him, to lead his team to a hard-fought win at home. When Young is rolling and playing at his best, Oklahoma can knock off any team in the country on any night. When Sexton is playing at his best, Alabama can knock off some teams at home on some nights.

Young might have had the “off” game but he is still far and away the better player and bigger offensive threat this season. Oklahoma can still count on him to be productive in every game he plays. Young has an ability to take over a game that is second to none in college basketball. Sexton is still a big enough question mark with his consistency that the Crimson Tide can’t rely exclusively on him to lead them to victory.

There have been plenty of times this season that Sexton has finished in single digits while showing limited production. Saturday’s game was the second time all season Young was held below 20 points — and his minimum total for a game was the 15 points he had in the season opener.

This is not at all a knock on Sexton — an outstanding player who can erupt for 30 or 40 points on a good night. He has a bright NBA future himself. But Young is putting up historic numbers while beating teams like Wichita State on the road and Kansas in conference play.

Of course, basketball is also a team game and the argument about star point guards is a small part of the overall equation. But the main takeaway is this: Oklahoma has a superstar-caliber threat in Young that makes teams change entire gameplans. Alabama has an all-conference player in Sexton who can lead in stretches if his perimeter jumper is hot.

Regardless of future predictions, this is a huge win for Alabama. They’ve now earned a fourth top-50 win — with the others coming against Rhode Island, Texas A&M and Auburn — as it looks like the Crimson Tide are currently solidly in the Field of 68. Leading for nearly the entire game, Alabama used an impressive 13-0 run in the second half to build a decent lead before running clock and letting its defense do the rest.

But Alabama doesn’t seem like the kind of high-ceiling team that can make a run in the tournament. At least not yet. It took Alabama’s best game in front of a raucous crowd to take down a good team like Oklahoma when Young had an off night. Credit head coach Avery Johnson’s game plan and the Crimson Tide’s other players for also stepping up. Herbert Jones looked like a viable rotation threat with 14 points and strong two-way play while Braxton Key knocked down two important three-pointers to maintain a late lead.

It’s unlikely we see these two teams play again this season. But the Big 12/SEC Challenge gave us a solid non-conference glimpse at two star point guards and two tournament teams and where they might be headed. Alabama might have scored the win in this one, but even in a loss, Oklahoma’s outlook is still looking better thanks to Trae Young’s ceiling.

Alabama, Missouri earn huge wins as SEC NCAA tournament profile looks even stronger

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The SEC’s NCAA tournament profile got even crazier on Wednesday night as Alabama and Missouri both earned crucial home wins over ranked opponents. A league that has been down the past few years, the SEC suddenly looks like it could be a potential juggernaut with a chance at a significant number of bids come March.

Playing without star freshman point guard Collin Sexton, the Crimson Tide struggled with some turnovers, but they were still able to outlast rival No. 17 Auburn for a 76-71 win. Coming into this one, the Tigers had the nation’s longest winning streak at 14 games as Alabama knocked off the hottest team in the country without its leading scorer.

Freshman John Petty replaced Sexton in the starting lineup while also replacing Sexton’s scoring punch by finishing with 27 points — knocking down eight three-pointers during a huge performance. Petty has been inconsistent during his freshman season but he’s another potential weapon for a dangerous Alabama team that can compete with anyone in the league.

Sexton’s injury, which is said to be an abdominal issue, doesn’t appear to be anything major and he should hopefully return soon. Alabama looks like they’re surging now with three straight wins. The Crimson Tide appear to be peaking at a good time with Sexton still returning to the rotation shortly.

Nobody expected Missouri to be in position to potentially make an NCAA tournament but the Tigers could play themselves in if they continue to win games like Wednesday night’s 59-55 victory over No. 21 Tennessee. Playing the entire season so far without star freshman Michael Porter Jr., not many could have predicted the Tigers would be in this position without their potential lottery pick.

Struggling to only 41 percent shooting and 4-for-18 shooting (22 percent) from three-point range, Missouri was able to hold off the Volunteers using a balanced scoring effort. Kevin Puryear notched a double-double with a team-high 12 points and 10 rebounds as the Tiger starting lineup struggled. For Missouri to pick up a win like this on an off-night for its starting lineup says volumes about this team’s toughness — while also proving the Tigers will be a difficult out at home.

Missouri is currently No. 17 overall in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and still beat a top-25 team in a slugfest where they couldn’t knock down anything. That bodes well for their future. And can you imagine if Porter Jr. actually did return for the end of the season? Much like Alabama, Missouri is a dangerous team with room to get better.

The wins from Alabama and Missouri show just how much deeper and stronger the SEC is this season. Some prominent bracketologists even had the league at eight current NCAA tournament teams entering Wednesday’s action. And that doesn’t even account for the two big wins these two teams just pulled off over top-25 teams. Georgia could even be a team who enters the picture as a ninth tournament contender. Alabama hasn’t made the dance since 2012 and Missouri since 2013. These two teams ascending like this shows how much the overall quality of the SEC is improving.

With Alabama and Missouri as two of the teams squarely on the bubble, these are the type of home wins that both teams need to make it to March. Since the SEC is markedly better than in the past few years, both programs will also get significantly more opportunities for quality wins to pad their resume.

It’s been a long time since the NCAA tournament had this many SEC teams in the mix to play for something in March. This could be the year the SEC finally make a major move in basketball after being strictly a football powerhouse for so long.