No. 1 Arizona survives No. 4 San Diego State, advances to the Elite 8

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It took 37 minutes and 14 seconds, but eventually No. 1 Arizona’s all-american shooting guard Nick Johnson scored.

It was a layup in transition, one that capped a 10-2 momentum-changing run to put the Wildcats up 56-51. After SDSU scored at the other end, Johnson buried his first three of the game and followed that up with eight straight free throws to help the Wildcats hold off the No. 4 seed Aztecs, 70-64, and advance to the Elite 8. He finished with 15 points, all coming in the final 2:46.

He had 15 of Arizona’s last 16 points and hit ten critical free throws during that stretch. That’s what veterans do. That’s what all-americans do. And that’s why Johnson is Arizona’s closer.

The Wildcats will face No. 2 Wisconsin on Saturday night in the Honda Center in Anaheim for the West Region title and the right to go to the Final Four.

And after this performance, the idea of Arizona being a national championship caliber team only gets reinforced.

That may sound weird after the performance we just witnessed, but hear me out.

San Diego State is a really good basketball team. On Thursday night, they played about as well as they can possibly play. They didn’t turn the ball over and allow Arizona to get out in transition. They pounded the Wildcats on the offensive glass, and even if it didn’t result in a ton of second chance points, it forced Sean Miller to send all five players to the defensive glass. That prevents leak outs. That prevents fast breaks.

And that, in turn, forced Arizona to play a possession by possession game, where their subpar half court offense had to try and score against SDSU’s set defense, which is as stout as any defense in the country.

That’s not all. In addition to the fact that Johnson missed his first ten shots from the floor, Kaleb Tarczewski, their starting center, picked up three fouls in the first half and drew his fourth with more than 18 minutes left in the game. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who finished with 15 points off the bench, fouled out with just under five minutes left. Arizona is not a deep team at all, particularly in their front court.

Throw in the fact that Xavier Thames had it going in the second half, and this was a worst-case scenario for Sean Miller. This was the blueprint for what you needs to happen to beat Arizona.

And they survived.

If Arizona proved anything tonight, it’s that their defense is good enough to overcome their worst performance.

That’s a scary thought for Wisconsin.

Three Things To Know: Auburn’s rolling, Kentucky’s struggling, Mizzou is tough

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It was a relatively quiet night in college hoops, but there were still three things that were worth discussing.

1. IS AUBURN THE BEST TEAM IN THE SEC?

I’m trying to come up with a reason to argue otherwise, and it’s just not working.

Despite the fact that they lost their three best players from last season’s Final Four team, the Tigers look like they are going to once against have a shot of getting back to the final weekend of the college basketball season.

This year’s group is a little different than last season. They’re not forcing as many turnovers as they did last year, but they are running the floor and they are shooting up a ton of threes and, right now, they are playing with as much swagger and confidence as anyone in the country. Colgate is a solid, veteran mid-major team and they were absolutely mollywhopped by Auburn. The final score was 91-62, but don’t forget that Auburn led 53-21 at halftime. The spread of 16 points. Auburn was covering midway through the first half.

Now, if we’re going to talk about them in terms of being the best anything, it’s important to note that they haven’t really played anyone yet. Colgate and South Alabama are fine. Davidson was, apparently, entirely overrated. Hopefully Auburn will get a showdown with Wisconsin in the final of the Legends Classic, otherwise we may not see them face a tournament team until they host N.C. State.

In other words, expect a lot of wins from Auburn in the month of December.

2. KENTUCKY CERTAINLY ISN’T, NOT RIGHT NOW

We have already spent quite a bit of time on Kentucky in this space. The Wildcats struggled with a mid-major foe in Rupp Arena for the second straight game. They did not lose on Monday night, but they did leave us asking the question: Can Kentucky actually cure what is ailing them this season?

3. MISSOURI IS GOING TO BE A TOUGH OUT ALL SEASON LONG

I’m not sure there is a team that is flying further under the radar than Missouri right now. The Tigers improved to 3-1 on the season with a 75-56 win over Wofford on Monday night. They’ve also beaten Northern Kentucky and took No. 18 Xavier to overtime in Cincinnati.

As of today, they are a top ten team defensively, according to KenPom. They are ninth nationally in defensive effective field goal percentage. They have an assembly line of talented perimeter players that can all get out and pressure while Jeremiah Tilmon has embraced being the defensive anchor for this group while also becoming an efficient catch-and-dunk offensive weapon that can draw fouls.

I’m going to hold off on going all-in on Missouri until we see them in the Hall Of Fame Classic next week (they open with Butler, another sneaky-good team) but at this point, it looks like the Tigers should be a tournament team.

Cassius Winston addresses Michigan State crowd: ‘I lost a piece of my heart’

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Michigan State guard Cassius Winston spoke publicly for the first time since his younger brother died by suicide nine days ago.

He thanked the crowd at the Breslin Center:

Can Kentucky cure what is ailing them?

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For the second straight game against mid-major competition, the Kentucky Wildcats looked like everything but the team that beat No. 1 Michigan State in the season opener.

On Tuesday night, the Wildcats blew a 14-point second half lead and allowed Mark Madsen’s Utah Valley Wolverines to have a couple of shots to take the lead in the final three minutes of what eventually turned into an 82-74 win. This came just six days after the Wildcats, as the No. 1 team in the country, found a way to lose to Evansville, who turned around and lost to SMU at home Tuesday.

So things have been better in Lexington.

Much better.

But panicking over anything would be silly right now.

Because the thing that this Kentucky team needs more than anything else is the only thing that cannot be rushed: Time.


What’s wrong with Kentucky? We broke it down last week.

One of college basketball’s most annoying bits of coachspeak and cliche is the saying, “This will be a different team come March.”

Sometimes it’s accurate. Sometimes it’s a coach or a columnist trying to explain away the dumb mistakes that a team keeps making.

And sometimes, it’s said in regard to this iteration of the Kentucky Wildcats, who will be a completely different team in, what, two weeks? A month? Surely not much more than that. Right now, Kentucky more closely resembles a MASH unit than it does a college basketball. Look at this seemingly ever-growing list of injuries:

  • E.J. Montgomery has missed the last three games with an ankle injury he suffered in the opener against Michigan State.
  • Ashton Hagans has been dealing with some kind of leg injury that John Calipari hasn’t specified but that had limited him early on this season.
  • Nick Richards is still battling an ankle injury that has kept him out of practices.
  • Immanuel Quickley missed the Utah Valley game with what was termed a chest injury.
  • Dontaie Allen is still recovering from a torn ACL.
  • Kahlil Whitney appeared to dislocate a finger with three minutes left before popping it back in himself. He did not return to the game.

Do the math, and the Wildcats finished this game with six scholarship players, two of whom are not at 100 percent.

That’s rough for any team to deal with, especially when three of the opening night starters are on that injured list.

But the issue is magnified for Kentucky.

The Wildcats are not only incredibly young, but they also lack the kind of elite talents we typically associate Big Blue with. There is no surefire lottery pick on this roster. More importantly, there may not be a college All-American on this roster. Tyrese Maxey is the most dangerous scorer they have, but he’s shooting 28 percent from three, has eight assists and nine turnovers in four games and has looked far from the star guard he played like against Michigan State. Ashton Hagans and Nick Richards were terrific on Tuesday, but if they’re the two best players on this team that’s a far cry from Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns, or John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis.

Hell, there isn’t anyone on this roster that is as good as P.J. Washington or Tyler Herro were last season.

At least right now. That’s the important part here.

Because, if you remember, neither P.J. Washington or Tyler Herro were as good in November as they were in February and March. They got better as the season went on, just like the guys on this roster will get better (and healthier) as the season goes on.

So when you put it all together, what you have is a team that we knew was going to need time to gel dealing with injuries to half their roster that is keeping key pieces out of games and, perhaps more importantly, out of practice. Don’t gloss over that. If injuries are keeping these guys from practicing, it’s keeping them from getting better, from learning their roles, from growing into the player they will hopefully be once league play begins. That is in no way insignificant.

Frankly, Maxey going absolutely bonkers in Madison Square Garden while Michigan State paired foul trouble with 5-for-26 shooting from three papered over a lot of these cracks.

We knew Kentucky was going to take their lumps early on these season and we ranked them where we ranked them anyway.

They are taking their lumps.

And if you are patient, they’ll look like Kentucky again soon enough.

No. 9 Kentucky gets another scare, holds off Utah Valley

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Ashton Hagans scored a career-high 26 points, and No. 9 Kentucky survived another close game against what should have been a lesser opponent, beating Utah Valley 82-74 on Monday night.

The Wildcats (3-1) dropped out of the No. 1 spot in The Associated Press Top 25 after losing at home to Evansville last week, and they had to overcome a late surge to hold off the Wolverines.

Kentucky led by 16 points early in the second half, but Utah Valley steadily chipped away until T.J. Washington’s 3-pointer got the Wolverines (3-2) within one at 68-67 with 3:26 remaining. Nate Sestina responded with a three-point play that helped the Wildcats pull away.

Kentucky was without second-leading scorer Immanuel Quickley, who sat out because of a chest injury. Quickley has scored 16 points in each of the last two games.

The Wildcats also have been without forward EJ Montgomery, who has missed the past three games because of an ankle injury. Coupled with Quickley’s injury, Kentucky’s roster has dwindled to seven scholarship players, leaving the Wildcats short-handed in practice.

Nick Richards had 21 points and 10 rebounds, while Tyrese Maxey added 14 points.

Washington led the Wolverines with 22 points, followed by Trey Woodbury with 17 and Jamison Overton with 10.

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats are used to shooting free throws and averaged 29.7 attempts per game in their first three. Kentucky made 31 of 34 from the line against the Wolverines, including 14 of 15 in the first half. The Wildcats held a 46-27 edge in rebounding, including 34 on the defensive end.

Utah Valley: Just as Evansville did in its upset, the Wolverines spread the floor and forced the Wildcats to play defense in the open court. The Wolverines made 11 3-pointers to keep the game close.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Wildcats play two more games this week and could move up a spot or two with three victories, although games like this will surely give voters pause. The Wildcats don’t play a ranked opponent again until they take on No. 10 Ohio State at Las Vegas on Dec. 21.

UP NEXT

Utah Valley hosts Lamar on Thursday.

Kentucky hosts Mount St. Mary’s on Friday

Villanova’s Antoine medically cleared for game action

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Freshman guard Bryan Antoine has been medically cleared for game action, Villanova announced on Monday.

Antoine is a former five-star prospect that has missed the first two weeks of the season. He underwent surgery on his shoulder on May 31st.

“Bryan has been fully cleared to play in games and we’re happy for him,” head coach Jay Wright said in a statement. “He’s worked extremely hard in his rehab with Jeff Pierce and John Shackleton to get to this point.

“Our plan is to bring Bryan along slowly. He’s only just returned to practice and the learning curve is steep for any freshman. Bryan’s working hard to catch up and we’re going to do all we can to help him in this transition.”