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Kentucky has room to grow, but at least they seem to respond to coaching

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No. 11 Kentucky entered Tuesday night’s matchup with Boise State coming off of a loss to Baylor at the Jerry Dome in Dallas, one in which the Wildcats were crushed on the offensive glass and cut up by the Bears in the pick and roll.

It was concerning. What has made John Calipari’s youthful rosters so good in the past is that he’s gotten his roster full of athletes to buy-in on the defensive end of the floor from Day 1, slowly but surely bringing them along offensively. This year it’s the opposite. Kentucky entered Tuesday night the nation’s third-most efficient team on the offensive end of the floor, according to Kenpom, while sliding in at No. 50 defensively.

Against the Broncos, however, we got a chance to see just how good Kentucky can be defensively when they want to be. Boise State entered the game as the nation’s highest-scoring team. They finished the night shooting 31.9% from the field and 29.4% from three is a 70-55 loss. That’s 0.833 PPP, also know as really, really good defense. It helps when Willie Cauley-Stein is blocking shots like he has been the last two weeks. He swatted nine Boise State shots tonight. Knowing their is a human eraser waiting at the rim makes it that much easier to get out and pressure on the perimeter.

There’s more good news. After allowing Baylor to grab more than half of the available offensive rebounds, Kentucky held Boise State to just a 30.4% offensive rebounding percentage. That’s a step up, but Kentucky still gave up seven offensive to Ryan Watkins, who is really the only big guy on Boise State.

So this team is still a work in progress, which goes without saying.

But the good news is that they seem to be able to respond to the coaching that they get. Their defense struggled last game, so they locked up on Tuesday. They were shooting too many threes against the likes of Eastern Michigan and Cleveland State, so they pounded the ball inside and beat up on Providence.

Eventually, it’s all going to come together for the Wildcats. And when they do, this team has a chance to be very, very good.

Thursday’s Things To Know: No. 6 Michigan State outlasts Nebraska, Ja Morant dunks all over the OVC and the Pac-12 has a sole leader

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There wasn’t a matchup of top-25 teams Thursday, but there were competitive games across the country, starting in Lincoln with Michigan State and Nebraska and ending in Tempe with Oregon State and Arizona State. Pl, there was a dunk that may have qualified as national emergency. Here’s what you need to know:

NO. 6 MICHIGAN STATE STAYS PERFECT IN THE B1G WITH WIN AT NEBRASKA

Nebraska looked like it had the sixth-ranked Spartans on the ropes in Lincoln with the score knotted at 44 just inside the midpoint of the second half. Then, though, Michigan State ripped off a 7-0 run and never looked back – despite an ugly final minute – to claim a 70-64 win over the Huskers to move to 16-2 on the year and 7-0 in the Big Ten.

The win is most notable for the Spartans as it once again came without the services of Joshua Langford or Nick Ahrens, both of whom continue to be sidelined with injuries. With both on the shelf, Cassius Winston put together a game to bolster his player of the year candidacy, scoring a career-best 29 points on 9 of 15 shooting while dishing out six assists and grabbing three rebounds. Winston doesn’t have the game that always pops off the TV screen, but he’s the type of veteran point guard that can help propel a team to a national title, especially if Langford comes back healthy and productive.

For the Huskers, it’s certainly not a bad loss given Michigan State’s profile, but the opportunity cost has to sting. Last year Tim Miles’ team racked up wins, but missed out on the tournament because not enough of them were of the quality variety. Here, they had a top-10 team staggered with less than 10 minutes to play at home but couldn’t close the deal. The good news for them is they’ve already got a couple of nice wins on the resume, but most importantly the B1G isn’t the wasteland it was last year, leaving them with bountiful opportunities to pick up meaningful victories before March. To do that, though, they can’t have James Palmer, Jr. going 6 of 21 from the floor like he did against the Spartans. To Palmer’s credit, though, he got to the line 11 times and made every attempt to finish with 24 points while grabbing eight rebounds and recording three assists. Shooting 5 of 26 (19.6 percent) from 3-point range won’t win you too many games, either.

 

STAY OUT OF JA MORANT’S WAY

If you wanna jump with Ja Morant, God bless you, but it ain’t going to work out well for you. Eastern Illinois learned that lesson Thursday as Morant unleashed yet another must-see dunk.

On top of that, the future lottery pick had 27 points and nine assists while shooting 11 of 16 from the floor and 4 of 5 from 3-point range. He’s an unsolvable problem for the OVC.

 

WASHINGTON IS ALONE IN FIRST IN THE PAC-12

Congratulations to the Washington Huskies, the last remaining undefeated in Pac-12 play. It may not be an honor, but it’s something, at least.

Mike Hopkins’ team blasted Stanford (80-64) while Arizona lost at home to Oregon (59-54) and Oregon State was behind big before making things tight in Tempe and eventually losing to Arizona State (70-67), which has now won three of four. There’s been plenty written about the Pac-12, but the league continues to do itself damage, most notable with the Wildcats taking a loss in Tuscon to a depleted Ducks team. That’s not going to do much for the conference’s reputation or their own NCAA tournament resume.

Zach Norvell leads No. 5 Gonzaga over Loyola Marymount 73-55

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SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Zach Norvell Jr. scored 17 points and No. 5 Gonzaga used a stout defense to beat Loyola Marymount 73-55 on Thursday night, the eighth consecutive win for the Bulldogs since a pair of losses knocked them out of the top spot in The AP Top 25.

Brandon Clarke added 13 points, Corey Kispert 12 and Rui Hachimura 10 for Gonzaga (17-2, 4-0 West Coast), which beat Loyola Marymount for the 20th straight time. The Zags have won 18 straight games at home.

James Batemon led Loyola Marymount (13-5, 1-3) with 12 points.

Loyola used a slow-down offense and stingy defense to keep the scoring low, and it mostly accomplished that goal.

Gonzaga, which averages 92 points a game, led just 17-16 midway through the first half.

The Zags went on a 19-6 run the rest of the half to take a 36-22 lead at halftime. The Lions shot only 36 percent in the first and committed 11 turnovers.

A 3-pointer by Norvell highlighted a 14-2 Gonzaga run to open the second half that lifted the Bulldogs to a 50-24 lead. Meanwhile, the Lions were missing eight of their first 10 shots.

Loyola Marymount made just five of its first 20 shots in the second half, and fell behind 61-35 with less than 8 minutes left.

BIG PICTURE

Loyola Marymount: The Lions opened the season 11-1, but have dropped off since … The Lions ranked 13th in the NCAA in defense at 61.2 points per game … Their last win in this lop-sided series was in 2010. They have not won in Spokane since 1991 … The Lions have already surpassed last season’s 11 wins.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs are cruising toward another WCC title, outscoring conference foes by nearly 30 points per game… The Zags suffered back-to-back losses to No. 3 Tennessee and at No. 13 North Carolina in mid-December and have not lost since … They lead the nation in field goal shooting at 52.6 percent and are second in scoring at 92.2 points per game … Gonzaga and Marquette are the only programs with both men’s and women’s teams in the Top 15.

UP NEXT

Loyola Marymount hosts Pepperdine on Saturday.

Gonzaga plays at last place Portland on Saturday.

Cassius Winston’s career-high 29 lifts No. 6 Spartans over Huskers

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Four nights after Tom Izzo called out Cassius Winston for his poor play in Michigan State’s previous game, the Spartans’ star point guard responded better than his coach would have expected.

Winston scored a career-high 29 points to go over 1,000 for his career, had six assists and played tough defense on Glynn Watson Jr. while leading No. 6 Michigan State past Nebraska 70-64 on Thursday night.

“I told him before the game, ‘You’re going to get measured on how you bounce back,’ ” Izzo said.

Winston more than passed the test.

“Cassius, the way he ran that whole thing, he was like a quarterback dissecting a defense,” Izzo said.

In a win at Penn State on Sunday, Winston had seven turnovers, and his 11 points were his fewest since Florida held him to 10 on Dec. 8. Izzo told reporters it was one of the worst games Winston had played in his three seasons.

Of the Spartans’ first 18 field goals against Nebraska, Winston scored eight of them and had assists on five others. He held Watson, the Huskers’ hottest player the last week, to 3-of-13 shooting from the field and eight points.

Izzo’s criticism motivated him, he said.

“Just get back on track, playing at the level I was playing at,” Winston said. “I want to play at the highest standard, my best ability. I’ve got to do that for this team and put us in the best situation.”

Michigan State (16-2, 7-0) won its 11th straight game overall and extended its school-record Big Ten winning streak to 19 games. The Cornhuskers (13-5, 3-4) had their school-record 20-game home win streak end.

Nick Ward added 15 points and 10 rebounds for his second straight double-double. He also made his first 3-pointer of the season and second of his career.

“That should keep him happy for a week or 10 days,” Izzo said.

The Spartans led by 12 points in the final 2 minutes, but Nebraska cut the lead to four twice before Matt McQuaid made a pair of free throws for his first points with 14.2 seconds to put the game away.

Nebraska shot a season-low 32.8 percent and was just 5 of 26 on 3-pointers, 1 of 12 in the second half.

“I wasn’t very pleased with our offense in any way, shape or form,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said.

James Palmer, who led Nebraska with 24 points, struggled mightily from the field, going 6 of 21, but he made all 11 of his free throws.

“Palmer’s a good player, and I feel like I did a pretty good job on him,” McQuaid said. “I just tried to do what I could. He’s a bigger, more physical guard. I tried to get a couple charges, but things weren’t going my way. So I had to figure out different ways to guard him.”

Nebraska had hoped to build off its win at No. 25 Indiana on Monday night but couldn’t get going. The Huskers were trying for their first win over a top-10 opponent in nine tries.

“You need to build and play from the front against these teams,” Miles said.

He found no consolation in playing the Spartans close for most of the game, which had 11 lead changes and six ties.

“There are no moral victories,” Miles said. “I’m utterly mad and disappointed.”

BIG PICTURE

Michigan State: This was a gut-check win for the Spartans, who were without Joshua Langford (ankle) for a fifth straight game and Kyle Ahrens (back) for a second in a row.

Nebraska: The Huskers were feeling pretty good about themselves after an impressive win at No. 25 Indiana on Monday, and they had an amped standing-room crowd on hand. But they could never find rhythm until it was too late against the nation’s No. 3 team in field-goal defense.

HE SAID IT

“We were paranoid of this game. They didn’t make shots tonight. Those things happen sometimes. Tim’s got a great team that’s going to be an NCAA Tournament team, and I hope they keep on winning now.” — Izzo.

UP NEXT

Michigan State hosts No. 19 Maryland on Monday.

Nebraska visits Rutgers on Monday.

WATCH: Ja Morant can’t be stopped

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The Ohio Valley Conference is just not equipped to deal with Ja Morant.

The Murray State guard just keeps dunking on anyone and everyone that stands in his way, the latest victim coming Thursday night at Eastern Illinois.

There’s just so much to love about this dunk. The athleticism. The explosiveness. The aggressiveness. The ferocity. It’s thunder meeting lightning at the rim.

If there’s someone who can stop Morant, a likely top-10 pick in June, it sure ain’t in the OVC.

UCLA, USC meet amid rocky seasons for crosstown rivals

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — A fired coach. A transfer. Suspensions. Injuries. UCLA and Southern California have experienced it all barely halfway through the season.

Things began promisingly enough for the Bruins. They were an AP Top 25 team and were predicted to finish second in the Pac-12 before early consecutive losses to ranked Michigan State and North Carolina knocked them out. Then came stunning defeats at home to mid-majors Belmont and Liberty. Those precipitated the biggest shocker of all: coach Steve Alford’s firing on New Year’s Eve.

Murry Bartow was quickly tabbed as interim coach for the Bruins (10-7, 3-1 Pac-12). They’ve won three out of four games under him.

“We had a lot of ups and downs,” UCLA freshman Moses Brown said, “but I think we caught our stride and the sky is the limit for us.”

USC was predicted to finish fifth in a weakened Pac-12. The Trojans got off to a 5-2 start before dropping four in a row. They regrouped to reel off four straight wins, including a home sweep to open conference play. But they dropped a pair on the road, where freshman Kevin Porter Jr. got suspended last weekend.

In the midst of rocky seasons, the crosstown rivals meet Saturday at Galen Center. The Bruins have won four in a row in the series and are 8-4 at USC’s arena since it opened.

“Coming off a two-game losing streak, we’re kind of hoping this is a game that we can bounce back,” USC’s Nick Rakocevic said. “We want to be put in a good position for the rest of the Pac-12.”

Both teams would likely need to win the Pac-12 tournament title to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Last March, the Bruins played in the First Four for the first time in school history and lost. The Trojans were snubbed by the selection committee despite finishing second in the Pac-12 for the first time in 25 years after losing twice to UCLA.

“We play UCLA twice, but there’s 16 other games. You have to do well the rest of the league,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “Whether you win or lose these games, yes, it’s great for a rivalry, it’s great for another win in your conference, but it’s a long Pac-12 season. We try to keep that in perspective no matter who we play even if it’s UCLA.”

The Trojans (9-8, 2-2) have played over half their games with eight or fewer scholarship players because of injuries and the recent transfer of Jordan Usher, who was suspended before he left.

“Nothing surprises us at this point,” Enfield said. “The injuries and distractions have had a significant impact on our team.”

Porter was back practicing with the Trojans this week, but he hasn’t been cleared to play in games.

“He’s working on some things off the court. He has very clear expectations that he has to meet,” Enfield said. “As he progresses, we will reevaluate his status.”

Bartow said the Bruins will prepare as if Porter will play Saturday. Before his suspension, Porter missed time with a leg injury.

USC’s Bennie Boatwright, a local product who was recruited by UCLA, has been on an offensive tear in his last seven games. He scored a career-high 37 points in an overtime loss at Oregon State and is averaging a team-leading 17.1 points. The Bruins are led by Kris Wilkes at 17.3 points a game.

“Inside, they’ve got some really, really good players,” said Bartow, who has the Bruins playing at a faster pace and zipping the ball around.

One of the intriguing matchups on Saturday will be the 6-foot-11 Rakocevic and Brown, who at 7-1 is the tallest player at UCLA in decades. Rakocevic averages 14.9 points and a league-leading 9.5 rebounds. Brown averages 11.9 points and 9.0 rebounds

“It’s going to be fun going against somebody like that,” Rakocevic said.

A famous name associated with the rivalry won’t be on the court.

USC’s Chuck O’Bannon, the son of former UCLA star Charles O’Bannon, is expected to seek a medical redshirt. The sophomore broke his pinky finger in practice in November, had surgery, got the cast off in December and it hasn’t healed properly. He’s still has pain, too, Enfield said.

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