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Michigan State is a team going through growing pains

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NEW YORK — This year’s iteration of the Champions Classic was weird, to say the least.

The No. 1 team in the country, Duke, lost in a thriller to a team that was already 0-1 on the season, and not only did the performance assert why that 0-1 team – No. 7 Kansas – is a national title contender – because #BIFM – but it also was proof positive that the Blue Devils are the best team in the country. That’s what happens when you take a team like Kansas to the wire, erasing a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes, without Harry Giles III, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden.

And then there is Kentucky.

The No. 2 Wildcats played their best game of the season, dominating No. 13 Michigan for 40 minutes, beating Tom Izzo’s team by 21 points and doing so while their front line failed to look anything close to dominant. The Wildcats all-but ensured that they will be the No. 1 team in college basketball come Monday morning, and yet, it seems like it’s something that we’re all glossing over.

And, frankly, there’s a reason for that: Michigan State just isn’t very good right now.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but by far the biggest issue is on the offensive end of the floor. The Spartans managed all of 48 points against Kentucky after they struggled to find any kind of offensive rhythm after the opening minutes against Arizona. They shot 32 percent from the floor. They were 5-for-26 from three. they had nine assists and 19 turnovers.

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“I think this is one of John (Calipari’s) best defensive teams,” head coach Tom Izzo said. I’d quibble with that assessment – three times in his Kentucky tenure Coach Cal has fielded a team that finished first or second in KenPom.com’s defensive efficiency metric – but this is a very good Kentucky defense. De’Aaron Fox may be the nation’s best on-ball defender, Isaiah Briscoe has transformed himself into a stopper and there is enough size, length and athleticism on this roster that effort is the only thing that would keep this version of the Wildcats from being very good on that end of the floor.

Putting that kind of defensive back court on the floor against a team whose point guard play is very much a work in progress is going to cause problems, but more on that in a second.

To me, the biggest issue that this Michigan State team has is that they don’t really have a star on the offensive end of the floor. Miles Bridges was supposed to be the guy that carried the load, but he’s just not ready for that at this point in his development. He’s a role player in the same way that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was a role player on Kentucky 2012 national title team. Bridges is an other-worldly athlete that plays hard, defends, rebounds and does all the things on a basketball court that you cannot teach. In the first ten minutes on Tuesday night, he blocked two layups seemingly out of nowhere and broke up another alley-oop, essentially erasing six points that Kentucky would’ve scored against any other team in the country.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15: Miles Bridges #22 reacts after being taken out of the game by head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Miles Bridges (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

But that’s what he does best right now.

At this level right now, he is a glue guy. But given the youth on Michigan State’s roster, the Spartans need him to be the guy, and he’s not that guy, at least not against this level of competition. He finished 2-for-11 from the floor with nine turnovers against Michigan State.

“I’m really embarrassed,” Bridges said, adding that he felt added pressure to try and make something happen when the offense started struggling. “But that’s what I can’t do. I have to get my teammates involved and do something else.”

“In high school, I was getting wherever I wanted, bullying guys,” Bridges added. “You can’t do that here.”

Izzo’s known as one of the best x’s-and-o’s coaches in college hoops, but without a commanding voice at the point guard spot, their offense devolved into too much one-on-one. Instead of running their lanes in transition and running through their sets, Michigan State was trying to break the defense down on their own. That’s not going to work against a team that can defend the way that Kentucky can defend. That’s not going to work if Michigan State is going to beat the teams that they expect to beat.

The good news?

Much of what ails Michigan State is fixable. They’ll get better as Cassius Winston gets more comfortable running the show. They’ll get better as Nick Ward learns how to be a guy that offense runs through in the post. They’ll get better as Josh Langford gets more comfortable being a go-to guy on the offensive end of the floor. They’ll get better as Izzo continues to work with them on how he wants his offensive to run and his team to play. Veteran teams can overcome subpar point guard play. Great point guards can help ‘coach up’ a young team early in the season.

The Spartans, right now, have neither, and the result wasn’t exactly unexpected.

“The good news is the mistakes we’re making are fixable mistakes. [Coach] is not telling us to jump higher or run faster, it’s cutting and the x’s-and-o’s,” Nick Goins said, adding that the loss of Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling, a pair of senior bigs, is taking a toll as well. “Having that leadeship and the people that know our coaches and how they want the program run, it’s where we’re struggling, to get people to fit into those roles.”

“When you have 18 or 20 turnovers, defensive mistakes, that you know you can’t make, that’s stuff you can control,” said Langford. “When you look at yourself in the mirror, it’s frustrating, but you have to live and learn.”

That’s what life is going to be like at this level. Michigan State will have to learn how to adjust.

As Izzo put it, “welcome to the real world.”

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15: Head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans talks with Cassius Winston #5 in the second half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Cassius Winston (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.