A Kodi Justice three-pointer in the final seconds of the first half capped a mediocre 20 minutes for No. 5 Kentucky. While they did hold a one-point lead at that point, the Wildcats looked nothing like one of the nation’s top teams. Whatever John Calipari and his staff said to the players in the locker room got through to the players, as the Wildcats produced a far better half of basketball on their way to the 72-58 victory in Lexington.
And moving forward, the key for Kentucky will be putting together quality performances for a full forty minutes as opposed to doing so in fits and spurts.
A 19-5 second half run put the game out of reach for the visiting Sun Devils, who grabbed nearly half of their available offensive rebound opportunities (eight offensive rebounds to nine defensive rebounds for Kentucky) in the first half. Arizona State did grab seven offensive rebounds in the second half, but thanks to Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress (four defensive rebounds each) the Wildcats did a better job of limiting the visitors to one shot.
Those defensive rebounds helped the Wildcats establish a better flow on the offensive end, with Kentucky scoring 20 of their 40 second-half points in the paint and shooting 57.7 percent from the field.
Poythress (ten points, six rebounds) left the game in the first half with a hyperextended right knee (not the one he injured last season) after playing some of his best basketball of the season, and with Skal Labissiere once again ineffective (zero points, zero rebounds) the senior’s absence was felt. Since the start of the season Calipari’s been on Poythress to be more athletic on the court, because he has the potential to change the equation offensively for the Wildcats.
Lee, who’s been effective this season, finished Saturday’s game with 14 points and seven rebounds and has been an important piece for the Wildcats in the front court. But with the strides Labissiere still needs to make being greater than many anticipated before the season began, Poythress’ aggressiveness is an important factor for Kentucky moving forward. They missed him when he wasn’t on the court, with Arizona State hitting the offensive glass, and that changed for the better when he returned.
Another positive in the second half for Kentucky was their perimeter shooting, as they made five of their ten attempts from three after shooting 1-for-11 in the first half. Arizona State used a zone at times, and unlike the first half in which Kentucky settled offensively they were more disciplined in finding quality looks. The Wildcats have capable shooters in Tyler Ulis (12 points, six assists), Jamal Murray (17 points) and Isaiah Briscoe, but they don’t have a consistent knockdown guy.
That makes the quality of shots they get that much more important, and in the second half thanks to their improved execution the Wildcats averaged 1.14 points per possession (0.87 first half).
Given the combination of new pieces and guys who were supplementary options a season ago stepping into primary roles, this is going to be a work in progress. Kentucky took some positive steps in their half-court offense in the second half Saturday, which allowed them to pull away from Arizona State. And as they continue to work on that aspect of their game, the Wildcats need to figure out how to get their prized freshman big man going.
Duke leapfrogs Kansas for No. 1 in latest AP Top 25 poll
I’m sure that, at some point this season, we are going to see an individual performance better than the one that C.J. Massinburg posted late on Friday night in Morgantown, W.V., but it’s not going to be easy to do. In a 99-94 overtime win over then-No. 13 West Virginia, Massinburg put up a career-high 43 points to go along with 14 boards and three assists all while shooting 9-for-15 from three.
But the box score itself doesn’t really do his performance justice. He had nine points in an 11-3 run in the final three minutes of regulation that capped off a flurry late in the second half as Buffalo erased a double-digit lead. He hit a three with 14 seconds left that forced the extra frame. He scored nine of Buffalo’s 15 points in overtime.
It was incredible, and it came on the road against a tournament team that plays one of the most aggressive brands of basketball in the country. This is the kind of win that will help get Buffalo on the right side of the bubble should disaster strike during their conference tournament.
TEAM OF THE WEEK: Duke Blue Devils
The irony is almost too much to bear.
After repeatedly getting burned by overhyping the one-and-done bluebloods and overstating the impact that one recruiting class, regardless of how good it is, can have on a basketball, the one time that the discussions surrounding a loaded freshman class is somewhat muted, that class ends up looking like it will be as dominant as any that we have ever seen.
Duke brought in three of the nation’s top five freshmen and may have the top three picks in the 2019 NBA Draft on their roster, and it sure did look like it in Tuesday’s season-opener, as the Blue Devils absolutely man-handled Kentucky, beating the then-No. 2 Blue Devils, 118-84.
The win was so dominating and so overwhelming that Duke is going to unseat Kansas from the No. 1 spot in the polls despite the fact that Kentucky is 1-0 with a win over a top 15 team. That’s impressive.
DUKE IS GOING TO GO UNDEFEATED
How do you stop Duke’s Big Three?
That is the question that is going to force opposing coaching staffs to lose sleep for the next five months, and I’m not sure there actually is an answer. If we’ve learned anything from the first two games that Duke has played, it is that it is going to take a herculean effort to slow down either R.J. Barrett (28.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 4.0 apg) or Zion Williamson (27.5 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 3.5 bpg, 3.0 apg). Given their size and their athleticism, there are few teams at the college level that will have one — let alone — two elite wing defenders to put on them.
And then there is Cam Reddish (23.5 ppg, 3.0 apg, 10-for-21 from three). He’s another big, athletic wing and a potential top three pick in the 2019 draft, and he’ll be checked night-in and night-out by what can only be described as the worst wing defender opposing teams have on the floor.
Let me put this another way: Duke has three players on their roster that college teams are not going to be able to defend. That’s a good problem for Coach K to have.
Normally these overreactions are meant to be somewhere between semi-serious, moderately-outlandish and a good old fashioned hot-take, but I’m not kidding in the least when I ask this question: Can Duke be beaten?
AUBURN IS THE BEST TEAM IN THE SEC
Entering the season, I thought that Kentucky would be the best team in the SEC this season as most did. I also thought that Tennessee, given what they brought back from the reigning SEC title team, would end up being the second-best team in the league. I thought Auburn would end up being third, partially by default but mostly because I didn’t think that their success last season would be as replicable as Tennessee’s.
It is still early, but boy, does that look like a dumb take.
Auburn smoked South Alabama in their opener before putting a 22-point win on Washington in their second game of the season. Jared Harper looks terrific, Bryce Brown’s shooting shoulder seems to be healthy and the addition of Samir Doughty is already paying dividends.
But the real difference in this group is the return of Anfernee McLemore and the emergence of Chuma Okeke. That’s Auburn’s starting frontcourt. Both are athletic, 6-foot-8 forwards with legitimate three-point range. Okeke has five blocks through two games. McLemore led the nation in block percentage last season, and looking back, it’s not hard to figure out that the reason Auburn trailed off towards the end of last season was the loss of McLemore.
Auburn’s system works when they have a switchable, floor-spacing, rim-protecting big.
And Bruce Pearl now has two.
Can we please get Duke-Auburn in the Maui Invitational?
PRESS VIRGINIA WILL NEVER BE THE SAME WITHOUT JEVON CARTER
We talk about unicorns in college basketball all the time, and while there is nothing about Carter’s physical tools that make him unique in college basketball, there is no questioning just how good he was as a defensive presence last year. He could single-handily take a player out of a game, and on Friday night, West Virginia desperately needed someone to do that to C.J. Massinburg.
They didn’t have that player.
And while Beetle Bolden, Brandon Knapper, Chase Harler and Jordan McCabe are all fine players that will win games for the Mountaineers, the fact that they cannot put anyone on Jevon Island this season is going to hurt.
KENTUCKY HAS THREE FIVE-STAR POINT GUARDS AND A MAJOR POINT GUARD PROBLEM
There are all kinds of issues currently plaguing this Kentucky program, but I don’t think any of them are as big as the point guard conundrum that John Calipari is currently facing. There are three point guards on their roster that were five-star prospects in high school, and none of them are good enough to take over that point guard role.
Ashton Hagans is a complete mess at this point. It’s still early in the year and Hagans is a guy that reclassified to enroll early, so it’s being too harsh on him probably isn’t fair, but suffice to say that he cannot play major minutes in close games at this point. Immanuel Quickly is probably the best scorer of their trio of ball-handlers, but he has just one assist in 50 minutes thus far this season and did not make a shot from the field against Duke. Quade Green is the guy with the experience, but truth-be-told, he’s better playing off the ball as a secondary ball-handler due to some of his physical limitations.
Rationing minutes between Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson is going to become an issue — especially if Herro keeps making it clear Johnson should be on the floor — as will P.J. Washington’s disastrous start to the season — is Kentucky’s best front-line really Nick Richards and E.J. Montgomery?
But none of those things will matter if Calipari doesn’t fix what’s ailing his point guards.
THE ATLANTIC 10 AND AMERICAN WILL END UP ONE-BID LEAGUES
The start to this season as been absolutely disastrous for the Atlantic 10.
George Mason got first-place votes in the A-10 preseason poll. They’re 0-2 with home losses to American and Penn. George Washington is 0-3 with home losses to Stony Brook (after leading 22-0) and Siena. Michigan is next. La Salle started 0-2 with a loss at home to Lafayette. Richmond lost at home to Longwood, St. Bonaventure lost at home to Bucknell and Fordham lost at home to Houston Baptist.
Things haven’t been much better in the American. League-favorite UCF lost at home to Florida Atlantic. SMU lost at home to Southern Miss. Wichita State did look impressive in a neutral site game against Providence, but they had to win that after losing their opener at home to Louisiana Tech. Cincinnati got dropped by Ohio State at home. East Carolina lost to James Madison. Tulane took a home loss as well, but at least that came to No. 17 Florida State, who absolutely pounded Florida in their opener.
Non-league performance is critical for conferences like this. The dreck at the bottom of the leagues already hurts the computer numbers for everyone in the conference, and taking this many ugly losses early in the year only gives those computer numbers a lower floor.
I’m not sure anyone will be that shocked if the Atlantic 10 ends up only sending their automatic bid winner to the NCAA tournament.
But it will be quite the wake-up call for the AAC if they do the same.
With all the hand-wringing and excitement about the return of college basketball this week, you might be surprised to learn that just three teams ranked in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25 lost.
Two of those losses came in the Champions Classic, as Kentucky and Michigan State fell to the top two teams in this week’s NBC Sports Top 25, Duke and Kansas, respectively. The third? Then-No. 17 West Virginia losing at home to now-No. 25 Buffalo on Friday night.
I say all that to say this: There really isn’t all that much to change about the Top 25 this week. There are really only three questions that need to be answered, so I’ll walk you through my thought process for each one:
Can Kansas fall out of the top spot with a win over a top 15 team?: Hell yes they can. The Jayhawks were the No. 1 team in the country in the preseason based on projections and feelings we had about how good they might end up being. Now we have actual, actionable results to evaluate, and there really should be all that much of a discussion. I’m not even sure there are Kansas fans will sit here and say that, after watching Duke beat Kentucky by 34 points, they believe the Jayhawks are better than the Blue Devils.
How far should Kentucky fall?: I dropped the Wildcats to 18th. I’ve seen other top 25s that have Kentucky at the back-end of the top ten. I don’t think that’s crazy, but I also think that we have much more to worry about with this Wildcat team that those folks realize. Kentucky still has top ten potential, but for my money they are much further from reaching their ceiling than anyone realized. I ended up with them 18th because I couldn’t justify dropping them below LSU or Mississippi State.
What do we do with West Virginia and Buffalo?: I was already lower on West Virginia entering the season than the public, so dropping them out of the top 25 with a loss at home against Buffalo was pretty easy for me to do. I know that loss came as a result of a once-in-a-career blow-up game from C.J. Massinburg and that the Mountaineers didn’t have Beetle Bolden down the stretch as he dealt with cramping issues, but it seemed pretty evident that Press Virginia has some kinks to work out. Buffalo, on the other hand, entered the season as one of the best mid-majors in the country after smoking Arizona in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament. They lived up to that billing, so why not reward them?
Washington’s bad road trip to Alabama got worse on Friday night when the team had to evacuate their bus.
Following an 88-66 road loss at Auburn earlier in the night, the Huskies boarded the team bus to take a charter flight home to Seattle. That’s when the team bus blew a tire about 15 miles outside of the airport in Montgomery.
The bus caught fire and the team had to evacuate. A Washington spokesperson told Percy Allen of the Seattle Times that no one was injured. Senior big man Noah Dickerson documented the experience on Twitter. The team had to wait for a second bus to arrive at 1:30 a.m. to get them to the airport to end a long night.
Thankfully, everybody seems to be okay after this incident. Washington doesn’t play again until hosting San Diego on Monday night, as they will hopefully have time to rest after a long night of travel.
Duke picked up a commitment late Friday night as Class of 2019 four-star shooting guard Boogie Ellis pledged to the Blue Devils.
Although the San Diego native is not the typical five-star recruit commonly associated with Duke recruiting over the last several seasons, he is a valuable addition to the Blue Devil Class of 2019 recruiting haul. The 6-foot-2 Ellis became a national recruit this summer heading into fall thanks to his shot-making ability and knack for making clutch plays. Regarded as the No. 41 overall prospect in the Rivals national Class of 2019 national rankings, Ellis should fit in well in Duke’s backcourt next season.
If point guard Tre Jones stays for his sophomore season, then he’ll have a quality complementary shooter in Ellis beside him and five-star wing Wendell Moore could also fit in at the three. Ellis averaged 17.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game in the Nike EYBL playing with the Oakland Soldiers this spring and summer. Perhaps most importantly, Ellis shot 46 percent from three-point range, meaning Duke’s floor-spacing will be greatly benefitted by his arrival.
Duke recruiting hasn’t been as dominant in this class as it has in the past few years. But that could quickly change in the coming weeks as the Blue Devils remain heavily involved with a number of top-ten prospects and five-star recruits.