This time, Kentucky made sure that it didn’t come down to a controversial call.
The No. 5 Wildcats used a 14-0 to open the second half, pushing a 37-31 halftime lead to 20 points as they cruised to a 86-69 win over No. 1 Tennessee in Rupp Arena on Saturday night. They were led by 23 points from P.J. Washington, who outplayed Tennessee’s all-american Grant Williams and staked his claim to the title of the SEC’s best player.
Keldon Johnson added 19 points for Kentucky, hitting three first half threes that helped lead Kentucky to an early double-digit lead.
This is the first loss in SEC play for Tennessee, who had not lost a game since they fell to Kansas in overtime in the title game of the Preseason NIT way back on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The win keeps Kentucky within a game of first place in the league standings. No. 21 LSU, who beat Kentucky in that controversial finish, is now tied with Tennessee for first in the SEC title race after they beat Georgia on Saturday night.
Here are three things we can take away from Saturday night’s top five battle:
1. THIS IS KENTUCKY’S CEILING GAME
We have been talking about the fact that Kentucky is good enough to get to the Final Four and win a national title for a couple of months now, but this game is the first time that was have seen them on the floor make a statement of this magnitude.
There are reasons to be concerned about just how good Tennessee is — and we’ll get to that — but there’s no doubt that they are one of college basketball’s best teams.
And Kentucky absolutely took them behind the woodshed.
P.J. Washington was living his best life and doing so while going up against the man we all thought was the favorite for SEC Player of the Year in Grant Williams. He finished with 23 points on a cool 9-for-12 fro the floor to go along with five boards, two steals and two blocks. He was a major reason that Tennessee could not find a way to get their offense flowing through Williams.
Keldon Johnson was just as good. He got hot early in the game, which helped the Wildcats shake off some early jitters and jump out to a double-digit lead, and looked every bit the part of a floor-spacer that is a threat to score off the bounce. Tyler Herro didn’t shoot the ball all that well, but he did finished with 13 boards and three assists while Ashton Hagans did his usual — pestering defensive to go along with nine points and seven assists.
Even Nick Richards gave Coach Cal terrific minutes, but perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was the play of Reid Travis. He finished with just 11 points, eight boards and a pair of blocks, but he did the job that Kentucky needed him to do, helping to wear down Tennessee’s frontcourt with his bulk.
It’s not all that surprising to see Kentucky come out and win a game like this given what happened on Tuesday night, but the way in which they won should let you know that these Wildcats are going to be a very real threat in March.
2. THIS RESULT HAD A LOT TO DO WITH MATCHUP
Tennessee wants to pound the ball in the paint as much as anyone in college basketball. There are only 20 teams in the country that get a higher percentage of their scoring off of two-point field goals and just 21 that get fewer points off of threes. It makes sense when you think about it: Their best player is Grant Williams, their second-best player is Admiral Schofield and those guys earn their keep because they are tougher, stronger and more physical than just about anyone that they come across. They are the nation’s second-most efficient offensive, according to KenPom, without making threes because of the way that their bigs are able to use their strength to their advantage, both in the post and when creating space for drivers.
The problem Tennessee ran into on Saturday night was that they faced off with a team that could match them inch for inch and pound for pound in the post. This was never going to be an ideal matchup for the Vols, but the way it played out sealed their fate.
And perhaps the most surprising thing about what happened on Saturday night is that it was Kentucky, not Tennessee, that was the bully.
The Vols are old, they are tough, they have a roster full of guys that look like they would thrive in the WWE and they’ve won an SEC title already. They were playing a team that is essentially all freshmen and sophomores, and it was the younger guys that treated their elders like little brother. Kentucky was the team that kept knocking Tennessee to the floor. Kentucky was the team that kept getting every loose ball. Kentucky was the team that was able to shake off physical play and continue to execute.
To think that this is the same team that rolled over and died against Duke three months ago is wild.
3. THE CONCERNS ABOUT TENNESSEE’S TALENT ARE REAL
Tennessee isn’t going to blow you away with their talent. They aren’t a one-and-done factory that is stacked with future NBA superstars. They do have some guys that will earn paychecks at the next level, but the truth is that much of the reason that the Vols have been as successful as they have the last two years comes down to effort, execution and intelligence.
That issue was at the forefront on Saturday night.
Tennessee wasn’t getting enough out of their frontcourt on Saturday night, and they needed their guards to step up and carry them. Lamonte Turner finished 2-for-11 from the floor. Admiral Schofield had 17 points, but it took him 18 shots to get there. Jordan Bowden was just 1-for-7 from the floor. Jordan Bone finished with 19 points and six assists, but 11 of those 19 points and four of those six assists can after Tennessee trailed 62-38 with 12 minutes left in the game.
Not everyone has a frontcourt as good as Kentucky’s, and Kyle Alexander is not going to be in foul trouble every game, but this was a perfect example of why there are concerns about whether or not this team can win six in March.
ATHENS, Ga. — Tremont Waters scored 20 points, Ja’vonte Smart added 19 and No. 19 LSU won its fourth straight game, holding off Georgia for an 83-79 victory Saturday night.
The Tigers (21-4, 11-1 Southeastern Conference) are off to their best start in league play since the 1981 Final Four team was 11-0. They never trailed after Smart’s 3-pointer midway through the second half, but Georgia stayed close and didn’t allow LSU to lead by more than eight the rest of the way.
LSU was down six midway through the first half, but went on a 17-2 run to take a 31-22 lead on Skylar Mays’ layup. Georgia remained in the game, thanks in part to a sixth straight sellout crowd at Stegeman Coliseum making it tough on the Tigers.
Nicolas Claxton finished with 17 points and Rayshaun Hammonds had 13 for Georgia (10-15, 1-11). The Bulldogs have lost six straight in their first season under coach Tom Crean.
LSU: The Tigers keep finding ways to win on the road. They sneaked out of Rupp Arena this week with an upset victory on Kavel Bigby-Williams’ last-second tip-in against Kentucky, and they’ve won three times in overtime. It’s a big turnaround after LSU lost its final seven SEC road games last season and dropped nine in a row away from Baton Rouge before starting league play this year. The Tigers are 7-0 on the road in the SEC for the first time since 1981.
Georgia: In 24 SEC halves played this season, the Bulldogs have been outscored 20 times. … Crean went with a three-guard starting lineup, sitting forward Derek Ogbeide and guard Teshaun Hightower in favor of Turtle Jackson, Jordan Harris and walk-on redshirt senior Christian Harrison. … The Bulldogs have struggled all season off the dribble and in giving help, so Crean mostly used a 2/3 zone in hopes to jump-starting the defense. It didn’t help much as LSU, the SEC’s best free-throw shooting team, still made it to the rim to draw fouls and score 18 points from the foul line.
DURHAM, N.C. — RJ Barrett had Duke’s first triple-double in 13 years, finishing with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in the second-ranked Blue Devils’ 94-78 victory over North Carolina State on Saturday night.
Zion Williamson scored 32 points on 12-of-16 shooting and Tre Jones added 13 to help the Blue Devils (23-2, 11-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) win their ninth straight.
Barrett became the fourth Duke player with a triple-double and the first since Shelden Williams in January 2006. He completed it in the final minute, hitting Williamson for a layup that put Duke up 90-74.
Duke overcame 19 percent shooting from 3-point range by building a 44-26 rebounding advantage and scoring 22 points off N.C. State’s 12 turnovers.
Markell Johnson had 16 points and 10 assists, Torin Dorn scored 17 points and C.J. Bryce added 13 points for the Wolfpack (18-8, 6-7), who had their two-game winning streak snapped.
N.C. State: The Wolfpack played like a team that believed it could beat Duke — because they had, winning each of the last two meetings — and kept coming up with an answer when the Blue Devils tried to pull away. But their struggles to keep Duke from scoring in the paint — the Blue Devils had 58 points there — kept them from their first three-game winning streak in the series since 1987-88.
Duke: The Blue Devils didn’t need a rally in this one, unlike their victory at Louisville four nights earlier in which they stormed back after trailing by 23 with less than 10 minutes left. They kept one neighborhood rival at arm’s length all night — though they never really delivered a knockout blow — and now they can focus on a bigger one: No. 8 North Carolina, which comes in Wednesday night.
IN THE SEATS
There was even more buzz inside Cameron Indoor Stadium for this one, with boxer Floyd Mayweather sitting directly behind the Duke bench and next to former Blue Devils guard Quinn Cook. Among the handful of other NBA players in attendance was Minnesota’s Tyus Jones, the older brother of the current Duke point guard, and Phoenix’s T.J. Warren, a Durham native and former N.C. State star who was in the stands with NBA All-Star Weekend taking place 2 hours away in Charlotte.
Joe Wieskamp finished with just nine points, but he somehow managed to hit the biggest shot of the game, banking in a three from the deep corner with 0.2 seconds left on the clock as No. 21 Iowa beat Rutgers, 71-69, in Piscataway.
The shot that Rutgers hit to take the lead on the Hawkeyes was equally as impressive, as Geo Baker found a way to roll home a three with just 3.3 seconds left on the clock, which put the Scarlet Knights up 69-68.
Jordan Bohannon led the way with 18 points and five assists for the Hawkeyes, who improved to 20-5 on the season and 9-5 in the Big Ten. They are still two games out of first.
There is not just under a month left in conference play, so it is time for us to go all-in on the “who’s-in-who’s-out” discussion. Bubble Banter has never been more important!
Some quick housekeeping before we dive into it:
- This page will be updated throughout the weekend, so be sure to check back on Friday, Saturday and Sunday as the games get played.
- We’ll update them best that we can, but the NET rankings will be accurate through Friday morning.
- If you see something we missed, if you have an issue with a team we left out or if you want to congratulate us on a job well done, drop a comment below or hit us up here: @RobDauster.
- The cut-off we will be using this year for teams that are “on the bubble” is the No. 9 seed line. If your favorite team is seeded as a No. 9 or better in our most recent bracket, they will not be discussed below. This does not mean that those teams are locks, but it means they need to do something dumb before they are in danger of missing out on the tournament.
- On Thursday, our Dave Ommen released an updated bracket, and these eight teams were placed in an 8-9 game: Buffalo, Alabama, Baylor, Syracuse, St. John’s, Auburn, Washington and TCU.
Onto the weekend’s action.
OKLAHOMA (NET: 41, SOS: 12): The Sooners finally snapped a five-game losing streak by going into Fort Worth and picking off TCU, 71-62. I still think that the Sooners are in a tough spot as it stands, but they now how four Q1 wins and just one loss to a team outside the top 35 in the NET — at West Virginia (115), a Q2 loss. A 4-8 mark against Q1 is not great, and neither is their 16-10 record or 4-9 mark in the Big 12, but OU does have three more shots at Q1 wins, and that doesn’t count Texas at home. Their bid is in their hands.
MINNESOTA (NET: 58, SOS: 60): The Golden Gophers got screwed on a bad foul call in the final seconds of a loss on Wednesday night, which cost them a Q1 win. They bounced back by absolutely humiliating Indiana at home, a win that won’t carry quite as much weight on Selection Sunday but that will keep the Gophers heading in the right direction. I personally think Minnesota is in really good shape right now given their win at Wisconsin and a win over Washington on a neutral. The 3-7 record in Q1 games isn’t ideal, but their worst loss is only a Q2 loss at Boston College. They close the season like this: Michigan (8), at Rutgers (118), at Northwestern (72), Purdue (11), at Maryland (21). If they go 3-2 in that stretch, they’re dancing, and 2-3 might even be enough to get the job done.
FLORIDA (NET: 42, SOS: 43): The Gators are not going to let us quit them. They picked up their best win of the season on Saturday, going into Tuscaloosa and pounding Alabama (45). That’s just Florida’s second Q1 win of the season. They are now 2-9 against Q1 opponents with a Q3 home loss to South Carolina in the mix. Their 14-11 overall record is not good, and their metrics are floated by the fact that they’ve played a lot of good teams close. Mike White’s team still has some ground to make up, but with two games against LSU (14) and a trip to Kentucky (6) on the schedule, they’ll have chances.
NEBRASKA (NET: 40, SOS: 70): I just can’t quit you, Nebraska. The Cornhuskers won their second straight game on Saturday, adding another Q2 win by picking off Northwestern (72) at home. I know that they lost seven straight earlier this year, but the Huskers are now 8-11 in Q1 and Q2 games with a pair of Q1 road wins. That’s enough to keep them in the mix, and with a schedule that is just absolutely brutal in the final three weeks of the season — at Penn State (70), Purdue (11), at Michigan (8), at Michigan State (7), Iowa (28) — they’ll get five more chances to notch Q1 wins.
WOFFORD (NET: 28, SOS: 167): Wofford absolutely beat the brakes off of the second-best team in the SoCon, UNC Greensboro. They won by 30 points. It’s not a Q1 win because it’s at home, but it is their fourth Q2 win to go along with a 2-4 mark against Q1. As long as the Terriers avoid losing at Chattanooga and at Samford, they are an at-large team in my mind. A 15-0 league record against a conference with more top 60 NET teams than the Pac-12 deserves to get in.
ARIZONA STATE (NET: 72, SOS: 67): Arizona State has one of the strangest resumes in college hoops this season. They are 4-1 in Q1 games and have another Q2 win at UCLA (107). But they’ve lost four Q3 games — Princeton (90), Utah (101), at USC (145), at Vanderbilt (189) — and that doesn’t court their worst loss of the year, at home to Washington State (230) by 21 points.
TEMPLE (NET: 55, SOS: 58): Here is the catch-22 for life on the bubble: Entering Saturday, Temple winning at USF (76) would have been a Q1 win. The Owls went out and they beat the Bulls in overtime. The problem? That loss dropped USF to 76th in the NET, meaning that it is now a Q2 win and Temple’s resume is still a win over Houston (5) and not much else. The reality is that won’t matter all that much. The committee will take into account that winning South Florida, whether it’s Q1 or Q2, is not a game-changer, which is why I’m still of the mindset that Temple needs to win at least four of their final five regular season games and avoid an AAC tournament loss to one of the teams at the bottom of the league.
BUTLER (NET: 53, SOS: 25): The Bulldogs beat DePaul on Saturday night, getting the win they needed to set themselves up for a shot at an at-large. Butler plays at Marquette on Wednesday and at Villanova in two weeks. With just one Q1 win to date, Butler might need to get both to really feel comfortable.
VCU (NET: 43, SOS: 40): The Rams were up by 22 points at Dayton (82) early in the second half and blew the lead, but thanks to a late Marcus Evans bucket, they were able to get out of Dayton Arena with a win. The win at Texas (35) continues to look better and better, a 3-2 mark against Q2 teams is solid and with just one bad loss — a Q3 home loss to Charleston (113) — the Rams are the Atlantic 10’s best chance at an at-large.
BELMONT (NET: 60, SOS: 166): For the Bruins to have a chance at an at-large, they need to win out and lost to Murray State and only Murray State in the OVC tournament. On Saturday night, they smacked around Tennessee Tech. So far so good.
UTAH STATE (NET: 38, SOS: 126): The Aggies probably couldn’t afford a loss to Air Force, and they did what they needed to win — win. There are two things that Utah State needs to do in they truly want to get an at-large bid to the tournament: 1. Beat Nevada at home, and 2. Hope that Fresno State cracks the top 75 in the NET. If they two, that’s one less Q3 loss and one more Q1 win on their resume.
UCF (NET: 45, SOS: 83): UCF won against Memphis in Orlando, which gives them a sixth Q2 win but doesn’t do much to change the biggest flaw in their profile: A total lack of Q1 wins. The Knights play at Cincinnati on Thursday. That will be the game-changer.
TEXAS (NET: 35, SOS: 6): The Longhorns did what they needed to do on Saturday, knocking off Oklahoma State in Austin to avoid picking up their second Q3 loss of the year. The Longhorns are now 15-11 overall and just 7-6 in the Big 12, but they have the No. 6 SOS and No. 11 non-conference SOS nationally. Combine that with a neutral court win over UNC (9), home wins over Purdue (11) and Kansas (18) and a win at Kansas State (26), and the Longhorns are in a pretty good spot.
LIPSCOMB (NET: 30, SOS: 188): Losing to a three-win Kennesaw State team would have been a dream-killer for the Bisons. They won and live to fight another day.
N.C. STATE (NET: 37, SOS: 239): The Wolfpack lost at Duke on Saturday, which is what we all expected to see happen. The chink in N.C. State’s armor is that they played the worst non-conference schedule in the country, and when combined with A) just one Q1 win and B) a Q3 loss, Kevin Keatts is not in a place where he can feel comfortable yet. The most troubling part: N.C. State’s season ends like this: Boston College, Wake Forest, at Florida State, Georgia Tech, at Boston College. They have one Q1 opportunity left. They really, really need to win it.
UNC GREENSBORO (NET: 46, SOS: 191): The Spartans were whipped at Wofford, losing by 30 to the SoCon leaders. It’s their second loss this week and probably takes them out of serious bubble consideration. We’ll keep them around, but they’re probably not going to have enough good wins.
ARKANSAS (NET: 63, SOS: 45): I don’t get the appeal of Arkansas as a bubble team. They won at LSU, which is nice, but that is their only Q1 win in seven tries and they are 3-10 against Q1 and Q2 opponents. They’ve also lost at home to both Georgia Tech (118) and Western Kentucky (121), which are Q3 losses. What is the appeal here? What am I missing?
INDIANA (NET: 49, SOS: 36): Indiana is off the bubble at this point. They went into Minnesota and got absolutely poleaxed. The Hoosiers have now lost 10 of their last 11 games to fall to 13-12 on the season and 4-10 in the Big Ten. If they can somehow find a way to put together a winning streak late in the year, they have some great wins — at Michigan State (7), Louisville (16), Marquette (20) — and no bad losses, but that feels like saying if I can lose 30 pounds and get my six pack back I could be an underwear model.
CLEMSON (NET: 42, SOS: 33): The Tigers had a shot to land their second Q1 win of the season, but after erasing and eight point lead in the final minute and forcing a turnover with 3.5 seconds left, the Tigers had a layup blocked with that would have won the game. The result doesn’t really hurt their profile other than the opportunity cost — this is the kind of win that, on this year’s bubble, can jump Clemson up four or five spots in the seed list. That’s a tough miss.
GAMES LEFT TO PLAY
SETON HALL (NET: 69, SOS: 39) at CREIGHTON (NET: 57, SOS: 16), Sun. 3:00 p.m. (FS1)