UK Athletics

SEC Preview: Kentucky’s favored, but watch for Vandy, Texas A&M

1 Comment

Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the SEC.

As has been the case for much of the recent past, the SEC shakes out like this: Kentucky, and then everyone else. Part of that is a result of just how good the Wildcats are and have been. Part of that is due to the fact that the SEC is a football league with the hoops side of things playing catchup. And while the gap is closing, it may be a few years before the impact is truly apparent.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Kentucky is loaded again … obviously: It’s standard at this point. This group is likely not going to be making a run at 40-0 like last year’s group, but they will be making a run at a national title. Skal Labissiere will be the nation’s best big man. Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe will make up the nation’s best back court. Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress will get their shot, finally.

2. But they may not have the best freshman in the league: That title could end up going to LSU’s Ben Simmons, who, along with Skal, is a favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. The Tigers are loaded with talent this year. Along with Simmons, they bring in McDonald’s All-American Antonio Blakeney, top 40 recruit Brandon Sampson and Arizona transfer Craig Victor. Throw in returnees like Tim Quarterman, Josh Gray and Keith Hornsby, and LSU, on paper, is a top 15 team. But head coach Johnny Jones has underachieved with talented rosters before. Is this the year they break through?

3. Vanderbilt will be the second-best team in the conference: It’s tough to call them a sleeper at this point because they’re getting plenty of pub, but the Commodores are the odds-on pick to finish second in the conference behind the Wildcats. They’re anchored by Damian James, who may be the most under-appreciated player in college basketball. The 6-foot-10 junior is a legitimate All-American candidate. Throw in talented sophomores Wade Baldwin IV and Riley LaChance, and another promising recruiting class, and head coach Kevin Stallings has more than enough pieces to put together something special in Nashville. Vandy won eight of their last ten regular season games last year after starting SEC play 1-7.

4. Coaching turnover: There has been an impressive influx of coaching talent into the SEC this year, although the league did lose arguably the best coach in the sport.

  • Billy Donovan left for Oklahoma City, leaving Florida in an interesting spot with new coach Mike White. More on them in a minute.
  • Former UCLA head coach Ben Howland took over for Rick Ray at Mississippi State and immediately reeled in Malik Newman, a top ten freshman in the class.
  • Donnie Tyndall was fired due to the scandal he was involved in at Southern Miss, but Tennessee went out and picked up former Texas coach Rick Barnes.
  • Alabama missed on Gregg Marshall but they did land Avery Johnson.
  • And don’t forget, in his second season at Auburn, Bruce Pearl has things rolling on the recruiting trail

5. Keep an eye on Texas A&M, too: Billy Kennedy is not a new hire by any stretch of the imagination, but his new assistant coach — Rick Stansbury — is already paying dividends on the recruiting trail. The Aggies have a loaded recruiting class, one that is going to be afforded the luxury of a year’s worth of seasoning as veterans Danuel House, Alex Caruso, Jalen Jones and Alex Robinson lead the way this year. This is a group that can reach the Sweet 16.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE:

  • Favorite: “Kentucky. For sure. One pro leaves, and any pro comes in. Skal is as good as anyone they’ve had and Jamal Murray can play either guard spot, but Tyler Ulis will make them go. He can lead, and he’s perfect in his role with those other guys around them.
  • Sleeper:
    • “Mississippi State is under the radar, with Malik Newman and Ben Howland coming in. But they’re starting to get attention, so I’ll go with South Carolina. They have a lot returning. Their ability to shoot is always a question, but [freshman P.J.]Dozier can really open things up.”
    • “Georgia. They’ve got really good guards and seemingly no one is talking about them.”
  • Best player: “Skal or Ben Simmons. Simmons versatility and his passing ability — he can use both hands as well as anyone — sets him apart.”
  • Most underrated player:
    • “[Mississippi State’s Craig] Sword on the wing. He’s as athletic as can be. His shooting can be streaky at times, he’s kind of hit and miss, but he will be better this year. He’s a really good fit in their system. Also, [Vandy’s Luke] Hornet has grown. He can really shoot it from deep, and with Damian Jones focal point, Luke’s ability to stretch the court will be key.”
    • “Stefan Moody. Dude is the SEC’s leading returning scorer and can’t even make a preseason watch list.”

PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Skal Labissiere, Kentucky

I’m still of the belief that Labissiere is the best player on Kentucky and, feasibly, the most talented player in the entire country. He’s a seven-footer with a back-to-the-basket game, perimeter skills and a soft jumper and that shows up when he squares up opponents. The Anthony Davis comparisons are going to flow because the they’re both No. 1 recruits and centers at Kentucky with similar body-types, but Labissiere is much more skilled offensively and much less dominant defensively. Think LaMarcus Aldridge.

Damian Jones (AP Photo)
Damian Jones (AP Photo)

THE REST OF THE ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM:

  • Malik Newman, Mississippi State: Newman is a high-volume scorer that can drop 25 in a half without breaking a sweat. He’ll be playing on a team where he’s going to be asked to take a lot of shots. His efficiency numbers likely won’t be great, but he’s going to score a lot.
  • Damian Jones, Vanderbilt: For my money, Jones is the single-most underrated player in college basketball this season. He may be the best big man in the country this side of Labissiere.
  • Jamal Murray, Kentucky: I’m still not sold on Murray being a future NBA star, but based on his performance at the Pan-Am Games this summer, I think he’ll end up being a very good combo-guard in college.
  • Ben Simmons, LSU: Casual fans are going to love watching Simmons play. He’s a 6-foot-9 point forward that is so talented. He’d be the National Player of the Year if he was in a different program.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Tyler Ulis, Kentucky
  • Tim Quarterman, LSU
  • Danuel House, Texas A&M
  • Stefan Moody, Ole Miss
  • Wade Baldwin IV, Vanderbilt

BREAKOUT STAR: Yante Maten, Georgia

Wade Baldwin IV of Vanderbilt was an intriguing pick here, but I’m going with Maten. The 6-foot-8, 240 pound big man was somewhat buried on Georgia’s bench as a freshman last season, averaging just 18.2 minutes while watching Marcus Thornton and Nikola Djurisic. But while his playing time was limited, Maten did manage to average 5.0 points, 4.3 boards and 1.4 blocks. He’ll now step into a starting role in Georgia’s front court.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Kim Anderson, Missouri

This is just Anderson’s second season in Columbia, but things have not gone well for him. The Tigers went 9-23 last season, finished just 3-15 in the SEC and lost their top two players — freshman Teki Gill-Cesear and sophomore Johnathan Williams III — to transfer. Does Anderson have what it takes to turn the program around? If the Tigers don’t show signs of improvement this season, he may not get a chance.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Kentucky isn’t the only team from the SEC eyeing a run to the Final Four. Ain’t that right, Vanderbilt?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Watching those freshmen play. Skal Labissiere — assuming he eventually gets eligible — and Ben Simmons could end up going Nos. 1 and 2 in the 2016 NBA Draft, while Jamal Murray and Malik Newman won’t be all that far behind.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • 11/17, Duke vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic)
  • 12/6, Vanderbilt vs. Baylor
  • 1/30, Kentucky at Kansas
  • 1/30, LSU vs. Oklahoma
  • 1/30, Iowa State vs. Texas A&M

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @kyletucker_cj

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Kentucky: The Wildcats have a very strong argument to be the No. 1 team in the entire country heading into the season. Of course they’re going to be No. 1 in the SEC power rankings.
2. Vanderbilt: It’s hard not to love what Kevin Stallings brings back this season. One of the best X’s-and-O’s coaches in the sport has one of the nation’s best big men at his disposal and surrounds him with a myriad of talented shooters and scorers on the perimeter. I think this is a Sweet 16 team.
3. Texas A&M: The Aggies are in a great spot this year. Not only are they built for the future thanks to Billy Kennedy’s recruiting class, but they have enough veteran talent on their roster that they can make a run in an SEC that isn’t overly strong at the top. Daneul House and Alex Caruso get slept-on nationally.
4. LSU: From a talent perspective, LSU is second only to Kentucky in this league. But talent hasn’t kept Johnny Jones from underachieving before, so until this group proves that they can compete for an SEC title, I’ll expect them to be a borderline top 25 team that won’t feel comfortable about their NCAA tournament prospects until March.
5. Georgia: Georgia returns their veteran back court but graduates key pieces in their front court. The key to their season could end up being the development of YantTagse Maten. If he turns into an all-SEC caliber player, they should end up being a tournament team.
6. Florida: The Gators are one of the most interesting teams in college hoops this season. They lost Billy Donovan to the NBA after a disappointing year, but they also return plenty of elite talent from a team that was far more competitive than their record shows; no one in the country suffered more heart-breaking losses than the Gators last season, as it felt like they kept inventing new ways to lose basketball games. There’s talent, depth and athleticism on their perimeter (Kasey Hill, Chris Chiozza, Devin Robinson, KeVaughn Allen, Brandone Francis) and South Florida transfer John Egbunu will sneak up on some people on the interior. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mike White led this group to a top four finish in the league. I can also see them heading to the NIT.
7. Auburn: I think Bruce Pearl is still a year or two away from really making Auburn competitive in the conference. That said, to me, Pearl’s presence on the sideline makes the Tigers two or three games better in league play.
8. Ole Miss: Stefan Moody is back for the Rebels this season, but they lose a ton of talent off of last year’s tournament team. Moody will put up some big numbers, but the Rebels would do well to finish in the top half of the conference this season.
9. South Carolina: The Gamecocks have some sleeper potential this season. They return five of their top six players and add top 30 recruit P.J. Dozier to the mix. But will Dozier be the difference between finishing 6-12 last season and reaching the top half of the league this season?
10. Mississippi State: Ben Howland is a terrific coach and he has a dynamic lead guard in Malik Newman, but it’s going to take more than one year and one player to turn things around in Starkville.
11. Arkansas: Mike Anderson lost the underrated Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls to the NBA and had three players get arrested for using counterfeit bills. It was a rough offseason in Fayetteville.
12. Tennessee: Rick Barnes takes over for Donnie Tyndall in Knoxville. The Vols overachieved last season and lost their best player, Josh Richardson, to graduation. Barnes will build Tennessee back up, but it will take a few years.
13. Alabama: Avery Johnson did a great job landing Terrence Ferguson, a top 10 recruit in the Class of 2016, but he really could use Ferguson this season.
14. Missouri: The Tigers went 9-23 in Kim Anderson’s first season and then proceeded to lose their two best players to transfer during the offseason. It’s going to be a long year in Columbia.

No. 14 Oregon ride Pritchard to beat No. 24 Arizona in OT

AP Photo
Leave a comment

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) Payton Pritchard scored a career-high 38 points, Shakur Juiston added all of Oregon’s points in overtime and the 14th-ranked Ducks rallied to beat No. 24 Arizona 73-72 on Saturday night.

Pritchard had a terrific game in regulation and Juiston was the unlikely hero in overtime, scoring nine points, including a layup with 1.4 seconds left that was the winner. Arizona had one more great opportunity but Christian Koloko missed two free throws with one second left that could have tied or won the game.

Arizona led 64-58 with 3:27 left in regulation but the Wildcats went cold and Pritchard hit six straight free throws to pull the Ducks (21-7, 10-5 Pac-12) even with 15 seconds left. Arizona’s Josh Green missed two free throws with 2.5 seconds remaining that would have put the Wildcats ahead.

RELATED: Latest CBT Bubble Watch | Bracketology

Dylan Smith led Arizona (19-8, 9-5) with 18 points. Zeke Nnaji and Nico Mannion both scored 13. The Wildcats had a rough night at the free-throw line, making just 10 of 21 and missing the four crucial ones by Green and Koloko.

Oregon’s offense revolved around the great shooting of Pritchard. He gave the Ducks a huge boost by making several difficult 3-pointers, shooting over Arizona defenders who were right in his face.

The rest of the team didn’t have a particularly good night until Juiston’s clutch play in the final minutes. Oregon snapped a three-game road losing streak. Juiston finished with 14 points.

Pritchard scored 20 points in the first half as Oregon pushed to a 36-33 halftime lead. He hit 7 of 11 shots – including 4 of 8 from behind the 3-point line – before the break. Nnaji had eight points and five rebounds for the Wildcats in the first half.

BIG PICTURE

Oregon: The Ducks were competitive on the road and finally broke through with a big win. Oregon’s offense was stagnant outside of Pritchard and too many possessions consisted of four players watching the senior guard try to work his shot-making magic. Juiston’s overtime scoring was sorely needed.

Arizona: The Wildcats are playing well at the right time of the year but this one stings. Their newfound confidence will get a big test when they head to California and face USC and UCLA next week.

UP NEXT

Oregon: Hosts Oregon State on Thursday night.

Arizona: At Southern California in Thursday night.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

No. 23 BYU upsets No. 2 Gonzaga 91-78

AP Photo
Leave a comment

PROVO, Utah (AP) Yoeli Childs scored 28 points to help No. 23 BYU upset second-ranked Gonzaga 91-78 on Saturday night and end the Bulldogs’ 19-game winning streak.

Jake Toolson added 17 points and T.J. Haws had 16 points. BYU (23-7, 12-3 WCC) never trailed after halftime en route to winning its eighth straight game.

Killian Tillie scored 18 points and Corey Kispert added 16 to lead the Bulldogs. Filip Petrusev added 14 points and Admon Gilder chipped in 13. Gonzaga (27-2, 13-1) won the previous five meetings in Provo before Saturday.

Gonzaga trailed by 14 points early in the second half before mounting a comeback. The Bulldogs cut the deficit to 70-68 on a jumper from Drew Timme with 7:52 remaining. BYU did not let Gonzaga erase the lead entirely.

RELATED: Latest CBT Bubble Watch | Bracketology

Zac Seljaas made back-to-back baskets to give the Cougars a little breathing room again. Then Childs bookended a string of four straight BYU baskets with a layup and a jumper to put the Cougars up 87-76 with 3:15 left.

BYU got a big lift from Childs in the first half. The senior forward crashed the boards and made several critical baskets to provide a much-needed spark for the Cougars on offense.

Childs capped a 13-4 run that gave BYU a 21-18 lead with back-to-back baskets. Gonzaga briefly regained a 25-24 lead on back-to-back baskets from Kispert and Petrusev. The Cougars surged back ahead before halftime thanks to Childs.

He accounted for three buckets on a run of five straight possessions that ended in baskets for BYU. It helped the Cougars claw out a 38-32 lead.

Gonzaga struggled to keep pace with BYU after going without a field goal over the final 4:36 of the first half.

The Cougars kept building on their momentum early in the second half. 3-pointers from Kolby Lee and Toolson highlighted a run of four straight baskets that put BYU up 58-44.

A win over a Gonzaga team that spent part of the season ranked no. 1 overall will go a long way to helping the Cougars lock up an NCAA Tournament bid in March.

UP NEXT

Gonzaga hosts San Diego on Thursday.

BYU visits Pepperdine on Saturday.

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Saturday’s Things To Know: Three of the nation’s top four teams lose

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Leave a comment

It was a wild Saturday in college basketball, as it started with No. 3 beating No. 1 and ended with the final undefeated team in the country losing right before the No. 2 team in the nation took their second loss.

Here are the ten things that you need to know:

1. NO. 3 KANSAS BEAT NO. 1 BAYLOR IN WACO

It’s weird when the highlight of a college basketball Saturday happens in the first game, but that was precisely the case today, as Udoka Azubuike put together one of the most dominant performances on both ends of the floor that we have seen this season in a 64-61 win over the No. 1-ranked Baylor Bears in Waco.

I wrote all about that game and Azubuike right here.

2. UNLV ENDED SAN DIEGO STATE’S UNDEFEATED SEASON

That sucks. My column.

3. OH, AND GONZAGA LOST, TOO

If it wasn’t enough that the No. 1 team in the country and the lone remaining unbeaten team in the country both lost on Saturday, No. 2 Gonzaga lost as well. The Zags went into Provo and got dropped, 91-78, by No. 23 BYU.

Yoeli Childs led the way for the Cougars with 28 points, 10 boards, three assists and a pair of steals while Tyler Haws and Jake Toolson combine for 33 points and 14 assists. It’s precisely the kind of marquee win that BYU needed on their resume if they want to climb up to the No. 5 or 6 seed line on Selection Sunday.

It certainly was a statement of intent by BYU, but I’m not all that worried about Gonzaga after this loss. The Cougars are a dangerous team when Haws and Toolson are making shots. The Marriott Center is a wild environment for a game of this magnitude. There were 20,000 fans going absolutely bonkers, and if the Zags had made a couple of the open threes that they missed late in the second half, when they had cut a 14 point lead to just two points, maybe this game would have been different.

Put another way, Gonzaga is not going to shoot 5-for-25 from three all that often. Corey Kispert is not going to shoot 1-for-10 from three all that often. Everyone has off nights, and when it happens on the road against a ranked team, you lose.

Even if you’re Gonzaga.

4. PAYTON PRITCHARD WENT NUTS

No. 14 Oregon and No. 24 Arizona played another overtime thriller on Saturday night. Oregon won, 73-72, but this one had too many twists and turns in the final minutes to hash it all out here. Just know this: Arizona had two free throws to win the game in regulation and Josh Green missed both. In overtime, they had two more free throws with 1.1 seconds left down by one, and Christian Koloko missed both.

You don’t see that happen often.

The bigger story, however, was the play of Payton Pritchard, who made sure to remind everyone that he is still in the National Player of the Year race. He finished with 38 of Oregon’s 73 points. He was 12-for-27 from the floor. He had six boards and four assists and he turned the ball over just twice despite being asked to have the ball in his hands on just about every possession.

He was dominant. He hit big shots. He made big plays. And he’s done it all season long.

I don’t know if I would have Pritchard as the National Player of the Year, but it’s hard to talk myself out of him being a first-team All-American this season.

5. PROVIDENCE IS THE WEIRDEST TEAM IN THE COUNTRY …

I’m not sure there is a team in the country that had a more disappointing run through the non-conference portion of the schedule.

The Friars, who were thought to be a borderline top 25 team entering the year, lost to Northwester, Penn, Long Beach State and Charleston. They got smacked by in-state rival Rhode Island. They got blown out by Florida. Entering the month of February, the Friars were sitting at 11-10 overall and 4-4 in the Big East having lost three straight games.

Then everything changed in February. They won at Butler. They beat Creighton, the only team to do so since January 15th. They beat Seton Hall in a game they led by as many as 25 points. They won at Georgetown. And, on Saturday, they blew out Marquette, winning 84-72 in a game they led by as many as 20 points despite allowing Markus Howard to go for 38.

They have seven Quad 1 wins, which is incredible when you consider that they still have a lot of work to do to get into the NCAA tournament.

I would not want to have to face the Friars in March.

6. … BUT UCLA ISN’T FAR BEHIND

Back in December, as the calendar was getting ready to turn, UCLA fans were trying to fire their new head coach, Mick Cronin. After losing to Cal St. Fullerton — who is horrendous — the Bruins were sitting at 7-6 on the season with a pair of losses to mid-major programs in Pauley Pavilion; back in November, they lost to Hofstra at home.

And it only got worse from there. After winning at Washington to open Pac-12 play, the Bruins reeled off three straight losses. They were sitting under .500 on the season in mid-January, and it was the best thing to happen to them?

Because it was the spark that UCLA needed.

Since losing to Stanford at home on January 15th, UCLA has won nine of their last 11 games. After winning at Colorado on Saturday, the Bruins have now won five straight games. They swept Colorado. They won at Arizona. And, sitting at 17-11 on the season, they can probably play their way into the NCAA tournament in they can beat Arizona State and Arizona at home and win at USC.

7. MEMPHIS KEPT THEIR AT-LARGE HOPES ALIVE

The Tigers are hanging on by a thread, but they are still hanging on right now.

Memphis knocked off No. 22 Houston, 60-59, in the FedEx Forum on Saturday afternoon. They still have some work to do if they are going to go dancing, but with a pair of Quad 1 wins and trips to SMU and Houston with a home date against Wichita State left, the Tigers still have a chance to get this done.

8. IMMANUEL IS QUICKLEY BECOMING A STAR

No. 10 Kentucky survived Florida, 65-59, on Saturday in large part due to the play of Quickley, who finished with 26 points. He’s been easily the most consistent player on this Kentucky roster, and he has made a habit of hitting the biggest shots over the course of a game. On Saturday, it was three straight triples to turn a 44-41 deficit into a 50-44 lead.

And then there is this stat from Kyle Tucker of The Athletic: Quickley, who is averaging 15.2 ppg on the season, is averaging 15.5 ppg in the second half of the last six games.

9. VIRGINIA IS THE HOTTEST TEAM IN THE ACC

Kihei Clark led four players in double figures with 17 points and Virginia went on the road to knock off Pitt, 59-56, meaning that they have now won four straight games and seven of their last eight. With just four games left in the regular season, the Wahoos have a chance to prove themselves in the final two weeks: They still get Duke and Louisville at home.

10. MICHIGAN IS THE HOTTEST TEAM IN THE BIG TEN

The Wolverines have now won five straight games after going into Mackey Arena and dropping a hammer on Purdue. They’ve won seven of their last eight games. This week, they went into the RAC and won as well, meaning that the Wolverines went 2-0 in arenas where the road team had been 3-27 combined on the season.

Isaiah Livers played on Saturday. He was on the floor for 36 minutes. He finished with 19 points on 5-for-11 shooting with six boards and a pair of blocks.

Michigan is back, baby.

UNLV hands No. 4 San Diego State its first loss, 66-63

AP Photo
Leave a comment

SAN DIEGO — Elijah Mitrou-Long scored 19 points, including two free throws with 11.5 seconds left, and UNLV handed No. 4 San Diego State its first loss of the season, 66-63 on Saturday night to end the Aztecs’ 26-game winning streak.

San Diego State, which had been the nation’s only undefeated team since Jan. 15, erased most of a 14-point deficit when it pulled to 64-63 on Malachi Flynn’s 3-pointer with 14.5 seconds left. Mitrou-Long was fouled by Matt Mitchell with 11.5 seconds left and made both free throws.

Flynn missed a contested 3-pointer with 3.3 seconds left and the ball went to the Runnin’ Rebels. After a long pass down the court, Mitchell ended up with the ball and his desperation shot at the buzzer fell short.

SDSU (26-1, 15-1 Mountain West) unveiled the regular-season conference banner before the game and then looked nothing like the team that raced to the best start in school history. The Aztecs trailed by 14 midway through the second half and were down 11 with 4:32 to go.

They were uncharacteristically porous on defense and sloppy on offense, missing easy shots and committing careless turnovers.

SDSU had been projected as the No. 1 seed in the East in the NCAA Tournament. Providing the Aztecs don’t stumble again, the loss could keep the Aztecs in the West as the No. 2 seed. Gonzaga is the projected No. 1 seed in the West, where the regionals will be at Staples Center up the freeway in Los Angeles.

Amauri Hardy scored 17 points and Bryce Hamilton added 11 points and 10 rebounds for UNLV (15-14, 10-6).

Flynn scored 24, Mitchell 13 and Jordan Schakel 10 for SDSU.

SDSU pulled to 62-60 on Flynn’s two free throws with 1:47 left and Arop Aguek’s layup with 25.6 seconds left. Mitrou-Long then made two free throws with 19.9 seconds left for a four-point lead.

Hardy’s jumper gave UNLV a 44-30 lead three minutes into the second half before SDSU pulled within seven, thanks to Flynn’s layup and Jordan Schakel’s 3-pointer. But Hardy then made a jumper from the free-throw line and a layup to put the Runnin’ Rebels back up by double digits.

UNLV took advantage of numerous SDSU breakdowns to take a double-digit lead midway through the first half and pushed it to 37-25 at halftime on a steal and slam dunk by Mitrou-Long.

SDSU had the lead just once, at 14-13 after Flynn’s 3-pointer, and then allowed UNLV to go on a 10-0 run. Mitrou-Long started it by converting a 4-point play when he hit a 3-pointer and was fouled by Flynn. Cheikh Mbacke Diong scored inside and then Hardy hit a floater and Mitrou-Long made a layup.

SDSU’s only points in a four-minute span were two free throws apiece by Mitchell and Flynn. UNLV kept connecting, though, getting a bank shot by Hamilton and a 3-pointer by Mitrou-Long to take its first double-digit lead, 28-18 with 7:12 before halftime.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Aztecs will drop from their No. 4 spot in the Top 25, which matched the highest ranking in school history.

BIG PICTURE

UNLV: The Runnin’ Rebels lost at home to SDSU by just four points on Jan. 26. They came out strong on the road and let SDSU have the lead just once in the first half, at 14-13 after Flynn’s 3-pointer.

SDSU: Matt Mitchell was recognized before the game for reaching the 1,000-point plateau, which he accomplished in the previous home game, Feb. 11 against New Mexico.

UP NEXT

UNLV hosts Boise State in its home finale on Wednesday night.

SDSU hosts Colorado State in its home finale on Tuesday night.

UNLV ends No. 4 San Diego State’s undefeated season

AP Photo/Denis Poroy
Leave a comment

And then there were none.

On the night that San Diego State celebrated winning the Mountain West regular season title, the dream of an undefeated season died, and T.J. Otzelberger killed it.

Elijah Mitrou-Long led the way with 19 points off the bench, hitting four clutch free throws in the final minutes, while Amauri Hardy went for 17 points and Bryce Hamilton chipped in with 11 points and 10 boards as UNLV handed the No. 4 Aztecs their first loss of the season, 66-63. The Rebels were able to hang on despite the fact that they did not make a field goal in the final 10:44 of the game, which should tell you how the first 30 minutes of the game went.

RELATED: Latest CBT Bubble Watch | Bracketology

The Aztecs came out flat. They led for the first 1:41 of the game, but that’s it. UNLV jumped out to a 37-25 halftime lead, pushed it to 14 points during the second half and SDSU was not able to get it to a single possession game until the final 30 seconds. If the game was a minute longer, maybe they win, but that’s not how basketball is played.

And if I’m being honest, I think this sucks.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled for Otz and the entire UNLV program. Those kids played their tails off and deserved to win that game. They showed up for 40 minutes and completed an off-the-butt inbounds against a press with 15 seconds left on the clock. San Diego State spent too long celebrating a league title to be up for it.

It is what it is.

Weird things happen when 21-year olds play basketball.

But it doesn’t change the fact that the most entertaining and exciting storyline of this college basketball season died on Saturday night. I was all in on the Aztecs making a run at a perfect season. I wanted to see them get through the Mountain West unscathed. I wanted them to survive challenges in the second round of the tournament, roll into Madison Square Garden and take down some East Coast powerhouse en route to Atlanta. I wanted to write columns about how Brian Dutcher was able to reinvigorate a program that had stagnated a bit under Steve Fisher and argue about whether or not this SDSU team would be able to beat Kawhi Leonard’s SDSU team. I wanted to see Kawhi sitting right behind me on press row when the games actually tipped off.

In a year where there are no great teams, no great players and no one that is must-see TV, all I wanted in my life was the greatest possible storyline.

San Diego State becoming the first team to go undefeated since Bobby Knight’s 1976 Indiana team in the same year that Knight finally returned to Indiana was that.

So while you might think that, given how annoying San Diego State fans are on any and all social media platforms, I want to dance on the grave of the SDSU undefeated season, you’re wrong.

This sucks.