Kentucky outlasts UNC; ‘Game of the Year’ lives up to hype

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I want more.

Seriously, let’s run that back. I’m sure I’m not the only one that feels that way. We can do it right now. I don’t think any of the fans in attendance would mind. Its still early in the afternoon, Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg have nothing else to do today. As we speak, CBS is airing a preview of “A Game of Honor”. I’m pretty sure they can push that back.

More than anyone, I think No. 5 North Carolina wants a second shot against No. 1 Kentucky after losing to the Wildcats 73-72 at Rupp Arena on Saturday afternoon. After Marquis Teague missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 21 seconds left, UNC took possession of the ball with a chance to steal a win in Rupp. The Heels dumped the ball into Tyler Zeller, who promptly had it knocked out of his hands. The ball happened to bounce right to a seemingly wide-open John Henson, but Henson — who has probably never had a jump shot blocked in his career — had a 12-footer blocked by Anthony Davis, who came out of nowhere to make a game-saving defensive play.

But where the real bitterness for UNC isn’t a result of the block, its the result of what happened after the block.

The shot left Henson’s hand with about six seconds left on the clock, but instead of fouling Davis, who came down with the loose ball, Henson backed away. As Henson’s teammates ran at the UK freshman, he threw the ball to Marquis Teague, who dribbled the final few ticks away.

If Henson has the awareness to foul Davis, he sends a freshman big man that is a 53% free throw shooter to the line with enough time to go to the length of the court for the tie or the win.

This had been the most highly-anticipated matchup of the college basketball season, and there isn’t even a close second. The two most talented teams in the country. The two favorites to win the national title. A half-dozen lottery picks and a dozen potential pros on the court. John Calipari and Roy Williams.

It had everything you could ask for, and that’s why every college hoops fan — not just Big Blue Nation or the folks on Tobacco Road — had been salivating over this game ever since Coach Cal had reeled in yet another loaded recruiting class and Ol’ Roy got confirmation that his trio of talented front court players would be back for another year in Chapel Hill.

And up until that final possession, this game had completely lived up to the hype.

UNC used some hot-shooting from beyond the arc — they were 6-9 from long range in the half — to build up a lead and could have taken complete control in the first half had they been able to keep Kentucky off of the offensive glass. The Wildcats grabbed 12 offensive rebounds in the first half and had 16 second-chance points.

While the first half brought us end-to-end action, like two feather-weight fighters catching each other with jab after jab, the second half was a heavyweight brawl, as the UNC and Kentucky traded haymakers.

Every time the Wildcats would put together a spurt to get back into the game, UNC had the answer. Kentucky scored seven of the first nine points in the second half, tying the game at 45, but back-to-back threes from Kendall Marshall pushed the lead back to six. Michael Gilchrist — who had game-highs of 17 points and 11 boards — scored seven straight points to give Kentucky a 52-51 lead, their first lead since the score was 11-9. But the Heels again answered, with a deep PJ Hairston three and a short jumper from Marshall.

It wasn’t until the eight minute mark that Kentucky finally took control. Down 60-56, Darius Miller used a three-point play to spark a 13-4 run that was capped by back-to-back threes from Doron Lamb, putting UK up 69-64 with 3:49 left. Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock both hit tough, clutch threes down the stretch to set up the underwhelming finish.

If the anti-climatic ending did anything, it created a national desire to see a rematch.

And if the NCAA Tournament wasn’t exciting enough already, we will now all be able to root for the same thing come March: running back the Game of the Century in New Orleans.

What We Learned

Kentucky:

– Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the truth, and this game was his coming out party. He’s a terrific athlete and relentless attacking the rim, whether its off the bounce or on the offensive glass. He defends and he can create off the dribble. He is going to be such a weapon for UK this year.

– Just as important was the play of Darius Miller, who finished with 12 points in 23 minutes off the bench. He made a number of big plays in the second half.

– Terrence Jones still doesn’t understand quite how to use his physical tools. With his combination of perimeter ability and physical strength, he’s an impossible matchup at the college level. He took advantage of that early in the game, as he was aggressive getting to the rim. But he spent the second half floating around the perimeter. That has to change for him to live up to his potential.

– Anthony Davis needs to get stronger. But he’s as young and as raw as any prospect we’ve seen this decade. Three plays stood out to me: the lob he caught midway through the second half against Zeller, the rebound he grabbed — stretch-armstrong style — with four minutes left and, of course, the block to seal the win.

– I get on Marquis Teague as much as anyone does, but he deserves some credit here. While he struggled shooting the ball (3-11 from the floor for just seven points), he only turned the ball over once while adding four assists and controlling the pace down the stretch. The reason UK won this game was that they turned the final eight minutes into a half-court game. That credit goes to Teague.

North Carolina:

– The Heels are still getting beat up inside. The biggest issue I have is that John Henson and Tyler Zeller go to the defensive glass like they do the offensive glass. They aren’t able to use their body to box out on the defensive glass.

– UNC was better in the half court tonight, especially on the offensive end of the floor, but they still run into trouble when teams are able to execute their sets offensively. They simply have too many defensive question marks. Looking at you, Kendall Marshall and Harrison Barnes.

– The one question mark that has been answered is UNC’s perimeter shooting. PJ Hairston and Reggie Bullock knocked down some big threes in this game.

– The question that a lot of people were asking during the game was whether Harrison Barnes or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a better NBA prospect. I think, without question, the answer is Kidd-Gilchrist, simply because his all-around game is so much better. But anyone that says that Barnes isn’t a terrific prospect in his own right is out of their mind. The kid is a terrific shooter that thrives in the clutch. He may not be the second-coming of Kevin Durant — hell, he may not ever be an all-star in the NBA — but he is going to score a lot of points for a very long time at the next level.

– UNC now has two losses in their last three games. Losing to UNLV was an issue, but don’t read too much into this loss. Kentucky is absurdly talented and was playing in an unreal environment at Rupp. This team will be right there at the end of the season.

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

Report: Western Kentucky’s Lamonte Bearden staying in 2018 NBA Draft

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Western Kentucky guard Lamonte Bearden will stay in the 2018 NBA Draft after hiring an agent, according to a report from ESPN’s Jeff Goodman.

The 6-foot-3 Bearden just completed his redshirt junior season with the Hilltoppers as he averaged 11.8 points, 3.4 assists and 2.3 rebounds per game. A slippery guard with good size, Bearden shot 47 percent from the field and 82 percent from the charity stripe while also getting in the passing lanes for 1.7 steals per game.

Although Bearden has good size and athleticism at lead guard, his perimeter jumper has been inconsistent during his college career. He was 31 percent from three-point range (a career high) this past season. Starting his college career at Buffalo, Bearden helped lead the Bulls to the NCAA tournament before opting to play in Conference USA for Western Kentucky.

The Hilltoppers will certainly miss Bearden’s presence in their backcourt as the program has seven new players signed for next season.

USC makes a statement landing Class of 2019 four-star forward Isaiah Mobley

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USC ended a strong week of recruiting with another major statement on Friday afternoon as four-star Class of 2019 forward Isaiah Mobley pledged to the Trojans.

The second major Class of 2019 commitment for USC during the week, the 6-foot-9 power forward joins five-star big man Onyeka Okongwu. The Compton Magic teammates should be able to help replace the loss of Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, with Mobley playing the skilled, floor-spacing Boatwright’s role and Okongwu providing the interior energy of Metu.

Having two highly-touted big men commit in the same week is huge for USC. And it looks like the start of even bigger things in a continually-evolving SoCal recruiting war against Pac-12 rival UCLA.

Landing both Mobley and Okongwu is significant for the Trojans for a number of reasons. As previously mentioned, both come from the famous Compton Magic grassroots program that runs on the adidas Gauntlet. While landing AAU teammates from a regional program is common for high-major programs of USC’s stature, the commitments signify that the Trojans are the ones with the biggest pull with the Magic at the current moment.

And the Magic used to get raided by UCLA.

In the past few years, the Bruins signed T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu, Jaylen Hands and Jalen Hill from the Compton Magic. Now, it’s USC who looks to be in the driver’s seat recruiting the program.

The Trojans aren’t done, either.

Newly-hired USC assistant coach Eric Mobley is the father Isaiah Mobley, as well as five-star Class of 2020 big man Evan Mobley. As Rivals national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi noted in his story about Isaiah, “Barring something strange happening, look for the younger Mobley to join his brother and father by committing to USC within the next two weeks.”

That would mean the Trojans would have landed three top-30 caliber big men in the span of a few weeks. That allows the USC coaching staff to recruit other positions extremely hard. Outside of Kentucky, USC has arguably the best future recruiting status of any program in the country.

The Trojans have taken full advantage of UCLA letting go popular assistant coach David Grace. The Bruins are still pulling in top-100 prospects, as evidenced by Grant Sherfield and Jaime Jaquez’s commitments in the Class of 2019, but losing two Magic kids in a week to a rival has to sting.

Considering where USC was last fall with the FBI investigation, who saw this type of recruiting swing coming? Other programs involved in the investigation like Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State have landed solid recruits. They also haven’t pulled in nearly the high-level talent that the Trojans currently have committed.

Even amidst the uncertainty surrounding the FBI investigation, USC is still pulling in elite talent while beating local rivals. It’ll be fascinating to see if the Trojans can continue to recruit at this level as they try to fill out the rest of an important recruiting class.

USF signs Oklahoma State transfer Zack Dawson

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USF landed a major addition on Friday as the school announced the signing of Oklahoma State transfer guard Zack Dawson.

The 6-foot-3 Dawson is a former consensus top-100 prospect coming out of high school as he’ll have to sit out the 2018-19 season due to NCAA transfer rules. A native of the region, Dawson will have three years of eligibility remaining once he’s able to play again.

Dismissed from Oklahoma State on Dec. 14 for violating team rules, Dawson averaged 4.4 points and1.6 assists per contest as he only suited up in five games for the Cowboys. Once Dawson is eligible to play for USF, he gives the Bulls a potentially dynamic backcourt along with rising sophomore guard David Collins.

“We are excited to welcome Zack back home to Florida as a member of the Bulls family,” USF head coach Brian Gregory said in a release. “He is a dynamic and versatile guard who can impact the game in a variety of ways. Zack comes from one of the best high school programs in the state, South Miami High School, so he immediately brings a championship attitude here to the University of South Florida.”

This is a really nice pickup for the Bulls, as they utilized a local transfer to help bolster the roster. Landing top-100 kids out of high school is going to be tough until USF boosts its basketball credibility. But getting a former top-100 player on the transfer market is a solid approach to building the Bulls into a respectable threat.

Michael Porter Jr.: ‘I’m the best player in this draft’

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The more I think about it, the more that Michael Porter Jr. is becoming the most interesting prospect at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft.

As a high school senior, he was considered by many to be the top player in the class, a 6-foot-10 combo-forward with a lethal three-point shot, NBA dunk contest athleticism and the versatility to, one day, be a multi-positional defender that would seamlessly fit into fit into the modern NBA.

But his one and only season at Missouri was derailed by back surgery, and that has allowed the rest of the class of 2017 to shine while we have focused on everything else that comes with drafting Porter. The reputation that he had for the majority of his high school career of being soft. The intel that was coming out of Missouri, that he was cocky and arrogant and something of a bad teammate. Questions about whether or not he is truly a wing or a four, more like a more athletic Lauri Markkanen.

When the only thing that we’ve had a chance to see this season is an out-of-shape Porter struggling in postseason games, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that his hype train has derailed.

“I know without a doubt that I’m the — I played against all these guys, they’re all great players — but I’m the best player in this draft,” Porter told ESPN. “And I just can’t wait to show what I’m capable of.”

And therein lies the conundrum for any team drafting him.

I have little doubt that Porter is going to be able to score and score a lot in the NBA. I think he and Bagley are the safest bets to average 20 points at the NBA level before their rookie contract runs out.

But putting up points and playing on winning basketball teams are not one and the same. For a ten-year stretch after his rookie season, Rudy Gay averaged at least 17.2 points while making the playoffs once during that stretch. Is that what Porter is going to turn into at the next level? Or will be find a way to become the kind of NBA defender his athleticism says he should be and, by the time he signs his first contract extension, end up the player that Paul George is?

The mitigating factor here is that Porter is going to do a fantastic job in every interview he has. He’s an intelligent, charismatic and articulate kid that is going to be able to sell himself. The red flags that he has aren’t going to show when he’s sitting down in front of NBA general managers.

They would have shown up — or been written off — if there was a season’s worth of game-tape available, but there isn’t. What that means is that scouts are going to have to decide whether or not Porter, who by all accounts had a very impressive senior season in high school, is that player or the one that had the reputation for being soft for years before that.

And all of that is going to come after the doctor’s have a chance to examine his back to see if the surgery he underwent fixed what was wrong, or if this is the kind of situation where a recurrence is likely.

The result is the widest range for any player at the top of the draft.

He could sell someone on taking him as a top four pick. He could also slide his way down to the Knicks at No. 9 or the 76ers at No. 10.

Which is what makes him the most interesting prospect at the top of this draft.

P.J. Washington ‘definitely going back to school’ without first round guarantee

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Kentucky forward P.J. Washington is one of the handful of players that currently finds themselves in the tenuous position of having their name in the NBA draft pool without having a clear picture of where, exactly, they are going to end up getting picked.

Will they be a late-first round pick? Will he be an early second round pick? Will he even be drafted at all?

Washington told reporters at the NBA combine this week that, if he’s a first round pick, he’ll be heading to the NBA. If he only gets a second round guarantee, he’ll be returning to school.

As we detailed last week, getting selected in the second round does not mean a player is destined to end up being broke his first year out of school. In the last six drafts, only one college player picked in the top ten picks of the second round (31-40) did not receive a guaranteed contract. In the 2017 NBA Draft, every college player selected in the top 50 received a guaranteed deal of at least one year, and Thomas Bryant was the only player whose one-year guaranteed deal was at the league minimum.

That doesn’t mean that Washington should leave Kentucky if he’s going to be a second round pick. If he returns to school, becomes a 42 percent three-point shooter (and can make free throws) and proves that he’s more versatile defensively than he was his year, then he could move up into the first round in a weaker 2019 draft.

It’s a risk for him, financially, to leave after this year if he doesn’t get that first round guarantee. It’s also a risk to return to school, where the best-case scenario isn’t always what happens.

I don’t envy the decision he has to make, but I am glad that Washington will have every chance in the world to be informed about the decision.