Jared Cunningham is becoming a star

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EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – Along with the No. 1 ranking comes expectation.

So when the new RPI was released and Oregon State sat at the top of the (inherently flawed) standings, it would only make sense that with it came a chance in attitude for the Beavers.

“That number, that’s turning out to be the bane of my existence here,” Oregon State head coach Craig Robinson said with a chuckle after the game.

And while its unrealistic to think that Oregon State is the best team in the country, there are expectations for this team this season. Not just from the media — those pesky, little so-called experts — and the fan base, but from within the program as well. The Beavers expect to win this year. For a team that finished 10-19 last season and has gone just 42-57 in Robinson’s three-year tenure at the school, that’s one of the biggest hurdles the Beavers will have to clear, simply believing they are going to win.

“When I started the season this year I said I like this team,” Robinson said. “I like this team. And now you can see why. This is a tough group of kids. They just kept fighting, just kept fighting, and didn’t give up.”

Perhaps the biggest reason for Oregon State’s early season success has been the play of star Jared Cunningham. A 6’4″ shooting guard, Cunningham is one of the best defenders in the country. He routinely guards the best opposing perimeter player and is notorious in the Pac-12 for his toughness and effort level. Cunningham’s collar is as blue as it gets. He has no problem mixing it up in the paint or diving on the floor for a loose ball.

But he’s never had that issue, either. Where his game has really developed on the offensive end of the floor, where Cunningham is getting awfully close to having to be labeled a superstar. In Oregon State’s 100-95 overtime win against Texas in the Legends Classic semifinals, Cunningham finished with 37 points and nine rebounds. This performance came just one game after Cunningham went for 35 points against Hofstra. On the season, he’s now averaging 26.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg and 2.3 spg.

“He does everything for us,” Robinson said. “He guards the best guy. He scores points. He makes assists. He makes his foul shots. The magnitude of what he had to do today, on this stage and in this tournament against this team, is big time. And it’s getting to be a regular thing with Jared.”

The difference is that Cunningham is beginning to show the signs of being a finisher. Against Texas, he made every big play down the stretch. He had seven points and an assist — and the most important play of the game, stripping J’Covan Brown after he had corralled a long offensive rebound with 30 seconds left and Texas leading 80-78 — in the last three minutes of regulation and added eight more points in overtime.

“I feel like I can be that decision maker in the end,” Cunningham said. “That comes with confidence, and that comes with a lot of pressure on your shoulders, but I feel like I can take it on.”

Cunningham is a freak athlete. When he wants to get to the rim, no one is stopping him. He shot 23 free throws on Friday night and made 20 of them. What Cunningham is still learning to do is how to be a basketball player. Everyone in the country has seen the dunk that he had against Arizona last season, but simply being able to make a play like that isn’t going to make Cunningham a star anywhere other than Sportscenter’s top ten.

What he needs to do is become a better shot creator and a better shot maker. He needs to not only be able to put the ball on the floor and draw a foul, he has to turn that into an and-one instead of just two shots. He needs to shoot better than 4-15 from beyond the arc. He needs to improve his handle and avoid turnovers. That takes time, and while Cunningham has absolutely improved in those areas, he still has so much room to grow.

And he just scored 72 points in back-to-back games. Think about that.

“Jared has evolved as a player since I saw him when he was a sophomore (in high school) and I was at Brown and trying to recruit him before he blew up,” Robinson said. “He has just come a long way. The reason is because he is extremely receptive to coaching. He wants to get better and what you saw out there was a culmination of his hard work.”

“We get to see it all the time out west.”

Oregon State is much improved as a team this year, and its not only the play of Cunningham. Devon Collier, Eric Moreland, Angus Brandt and Joe Burton form an intriguing front line. Ahmad Starks and Roberto Nelson both knocked down some big shots tonight despite not playing their best game. This is a team with some potential that is playing much better as a single unit this season, but its the talent of Cunningham that drives this train. He’s the engine that will determine how far this group goes.

He’s a tough kid, one that’s going to do whatever he can to help his team win.

Even if its at the risk of his future as model.

“Jared is a handsome guy and he’s always worried about his looks so I was more worried about that,” Robinson said when asked about the elbow that Cunningham caught in the overtime that split open his lip. “I wasn’t worried about him coming out of the game. He is a warrior. He looks slight but he is wiry strong and he’s a huge competitor so he wasn’t coming out of the game.”

“I saw the blood and was a little worried,” Cunningham said, “because I didn’t want it to get on my jersey because I wasn’t coming out. I stayed out on the court and was able to make some big plays.”

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

Tennessee center Tamari Key out for season with blood clots

Saul Young/News Sentinel/USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee senior center Tamari Key will miss the rest of this season because of blood clots in her lungs, coach Kellie Harper said.

Doctors found the issue during testing. Key is expected to make a full recovery after treatment from University of Tennessee doctors, Harper said, adding that her sole concern is Key getting the medical care she needs to heal and return to full strength.

Key missed the first game of her career in a win Tuesday night over Chattanooga after playing her first 99.

“This is much bigger than basketball. We are so grateful that this medical condition was caught,” Harper said in a statement. “Our entire program will be right beside Tamari during this process and welcomes prayers and positive thoughts from Lady Vol Nation and beyond.”

The Lady Vols opened the season ranked fifth but currently are 5-5.

The 6-foot-6 Key from Cary, North Carolina, currently is Tennessee’s third-leading scorer averaging 8.4 points a game and averaged 4.2 rebounds per game. She started all 34 games as the Lady Vols reached their first Sweet 16 since 2016 last season and set the school record with 119 blocked shots.

Key had 18 blocks this season and 295 for her career, five away from becoming the eighth woman to reach that mark in Southeastern Conference history.

No. 7 Tennessee beats Eastern Kentucky, win streak hits 7

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Saul Young/USA TODAY NETWORK
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyreke Key scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and finished with 17, and No. 7 Tennessee overcame a sluggish first half and beat Eastern Kentucky 84-49 on Wednesday night.

“Tyreke is handling the ball now,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s all new to him. He keeps getting better.”

The Volunteers (8-1) struggled in the first half but still built an 11-point lead over Eastern Kentucky (4-5) on the way to their seventh straight victory.

Key led Tennessee in scoring before leaving with a cramp in his right leg with 6:15 left in the game. Julian Phillips had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Zakai Zeigler and Uros Plavsic added 13 points apiece. Olivier Nkamhoua scored 10.

“I’m still settling in,” said Key, a transfer from Indiana State who didn’t play last year while recovering from an injury. “This is a new role. I’m taking steps every day and keep learning.”

Eastern Kentucky, which came into the game averaging 83.5 points, was held well below that total due to 17% (6 for 35) shooting from long range and 22% (15 for 68) overall. Leland Walker led the Colonels with 13 points.

It was the seventh time this season Tennessee has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points.

“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”

At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting 20% and still leading by 10 points. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who shot 24% (8 of 34), led 32-21 at the break.

“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes said. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”

Tennessee shot 41 free throws. Phillips, a true freshman, was 7 of 10.

“(Phillips) has learned the pace of the game,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in the country (this season).”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Since its early season slip against Colorado, Tennessee has had a steady ascent in the rankings. The Vols’ next two games – neutral site (Brooklyn) against No, 13 Maryland (Dec. 11) and at No. 10 Arizona (Dec. 17) – will go a long way toward justifying the No. 7 ranking.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels’ run-and-gun style of offense had them averaging 83.5 points through their first eight games. They ran into a defensive buzz saw in Tennessee, which was yielding just over 51 points.

Tennessee: Santiago Vescovi sat out his second straight game with a shoulder problem. He is expected to be ready to play Sunday against Maryland. . The Vols have won seven in a row since their loss to Colorado.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

Tennessee: Take on No. 13 Maryland on Sunday at the Hall of Fame Invitational in New York.

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan State snaps 2-game skid

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Matthew OHaren/USA TODAY Sports
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats Boston College 73-58

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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.