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No. 5 Duke knocks off No. 21 Florida in the Jimmy V Classic

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NEW YORK — Luke Kennard is a realist.

He was a McDonald’s All-American. He’s the second all-time leading high school scorer in the state of Ohio, finishing his career with more points than LeBron James, and had his pick of just about any school in the country when he decided that he would play his college basketball at Duke.

And he knew that, at Duke, at a program that has spent recent history building around the likes of Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Brandon Ingram, he was destined to be the unheralded prospect. He knew that when Jayson Tatum, Harry Giles and Grayson Allen all committed to being his teammates during his sophomore season, that he would be relegated to a role.

Here we are a month into the season, Duke is through every test they’re going to get in non-conference play, and not only is Kennard Duke’s leading scorer, if the season ended today, he’d be a first-team All-American with a very legitimate case to be the National Player of the Year. Per Draft Express, he’s the only player in college basketball averaging more than 20 points and 3.5 assists per 40 minutes and less than 2.0 turnovers per 40 minutes while shooting better than 60 percent on twos and 35 percent from three.

If I had told you that in October, you would have called me an idiot.

And you wouldn’t be the only one that was skeptical.

“I probably wouldn’t believe you,” Kennard said after putting up 29 points on 16 shots as the No. 5 Blue Devils handled No. 21 Florida in the Jimmy V Classic, 84-74. It was Kennard’s second-highest scoring output of the season and, arguably, his second-best performance in Madison Square Garden this year.

“He’s come through for us,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Beautifully.”

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 06: Jayson Tatum #0 of the Duke Blue Devils drives the ball up the court against the Florida Gators in the second half during the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden on December 6, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Jayson Tatum (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

It’s good to be Coach K these days.

We’re a month into the season and Duke has yet to play a game where half of the four potential lottery picks on the roster have been healthy enough to look like, you know, potential lottery picks. Harry Giles is still more than a week away from actually playing in a game for the Blue Devils; Coach K said that he hopes to have him back for Duke’s two games in the week before Christmas. Marques Bolden has played just 14 minutes in two games since returning from a lower leg injury. Jayson Tatum played his second game with the Blue Devils on Tuesday night, and it wasn’t until the second half against Florida, when Tatum scored 14 of his 22 points, that he got into enough of a rhythm to take over a game the way we know he can.

And Allen, the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year? He’d played in seven of Duke’s eight games, but a toe injury has sapped him of the burst that makes him such a difficult matchup.

But that hasn’t slowed the Blue Devils down. They’re 9-1 on the season, ranked in the top five of every poll and a Frank Mason III buzzer-beater away from surviving an injury-laden first month without a blemish.

It’s a credit to the amount of talent that Duke has stockpiled on their roster.

Because Kennard isn’t the only unheralded star on this Duke team. Amile Jefferson, a fifth-year senior that is only on the roster this season because Duke opted not to bring him back late last year after he suffered a broken foot, has picked up where he left off. Entering Tuesday night, Jefferson was averaging 14.7 points, 9.8 boards and 2.0 blocks. On Tuesday night, he played arguably his most impressive game as a Blue Devil, finishing with 24 points, 15 boards and four blocks.

He, too, is playing at an all-american level this season, and man, what a luxury that is to have. There isn’t another team in the country that could handle that kind of devastating injury luck without missing a beat.

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 06:  Amile Jefferson #21 of the Duke Blue Devils puts up a shot against the Florida Gators in the second half during the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden on December 6, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Amile Jefferson (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

“We have so many weapons in offense,” Tatum said after his breakout performance, which couldn’t have come at a better time. Not only was this Tatum’s first nationally-televised came with the Blue Devils, but he put on a show in Madison Square Garden with what seemed like half of the NBA in attendance. “On any given night two or three guys can go off. Other guys that can score might have more rebounds or assists. [Grayson’s] shots weren’t falling but he had eight assists.”

“There is absolutely no jealousy on the team with who is scoring,” Kennard said. “We have a lot of guys willing to share the ball and it’s fun to play with.”

And that may be the best news for Duke for two reasons.

On the one hand, roles are going to change now that the Blue Devils are getting healthy. The minutes-crunch will likely be felt more in the front court, where Giles and Bolden are going to have to force Coach K to take Jefferson off of the floor. Minutes and touches will be at even more of a premium if Duke continues to roll out small-ball lineups that feature Tatum at the four. Chase Jeter, who only got on the floor for one minute on Tuesday, is going to get buried on the bench again, and it wasn’t exactly promising that, in a game where Giles only participated in warm-ups, Bolden got off the pine for just two minutes.

The back court rotation will take a hit as well. Duke’s best lineup come ACC play could very well end up featuring Allen, Kennard and Tatum on the perimeter with Jefferson and Giles up front, meaning that Frank Jackson – who only played 20 minutes against Florida – and Matt Jones will likely end up seeing much less of the floor than they are right now.

But it’s also a sign that the concerns over Duke’s point guard play may have been overblown.

Entering the season, that was the biggest concern with this group. Jackson is the only point guard on the roster, but even he’s more of a scorer than he is a facilitator. That lack of a point guard hasn’t hurt Duke yet, however, and the reason for it is, as Kennard said, “There is absolutely no jealousy on the team.”

That lack of jealousy comes through in the way that Duke plays. Not only do they whip the ball around the perimeter, the Blue Devils are always going to have four-if-not-five players on the floor that can handle the ball in transition or against a press. Their best guards may not be Tyus Jones or Lonzo Ball, but they are kids that are willing and able to create off the bounce and understand how to operate in ball-screen actions. Beyond that, Duke runs crisp offense, which is as essential to efficient offenses as anything, and will always have three guys on the court that can create offense for themselves in a 1-on-1 situation.

That’s even more relevant to point out after playing Florida, who, on paper, is precisely the kind of team that should give the point guard-less Blue Devils trouble. Florida presses, entering Tuesday night 12th in defensive turnover percentage, and yet the Blue Devils committed just 13 turnovers in 71 possessions, a really good number considering the opponent and the matchup.

“Whoever gets the rebound, perimeter guys and Amile, they told us we can bring it up,” Kennard said. “We have a lot of playmakers, guys that can handle the ball coach wants us to push it. We’re a really good transition team if we get stops on defense.”

“Not having a true PG benefits us in a way.”

That’s not too bad for a team that’s still trying to work out their early-season kinks.

“It’s almost like we’re in October mode now when everyone else is in December mode,” Coach K said.

“But I think we can catch-up.”

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 06:  Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils looks on against the Florida Gators in the second half during the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden on December 6, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Grayson Allen (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Tuesday’s Things to Know: Creighton, Kentucky, Illinois earn big road wins

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College basketball saw some big results in the Big East and Big Ten on Tuesday night. Road wins from Illinois and Creighton left a big impression. Kentucky, meanwhile, kept the strong road-win theme of the night going with a strong win at LSU in the SEC.

No. 15 Creighton takes down No. 19 Marquette

Perhaps the night’s biggest win went to No. 15 Creighton. The Bluejays held off No. 19 Marquette for a crucial Big East road win.

Ty-Shon Alexander shook off a first-half shot to the jaw to finish with 22 points. And Creighton did a strong job of defending Markus Howard. The nation’s leading scorer was limited to 13 points in the loss.

The win gives Creighton a legitimate shot to win at least a share of the Big East title. I examined more on the Bluejays here.

NBC SPORTS BRACKETOLOGY

Ayo Dosunmu’s return lifts Illinois over No. 9 Penn State

The night started with Illinois snapping a four-game Big Ten losing streak. Sophomore Ayo Dosunmu’s return fueled a critical 62-56 road win for the Illini at No. 9 Penn State.

After a scary knee injury against Michigan State last Tuesday, Dosunmu missed the Illinois loss to Rutgers over the weekend. The guard looked healthy in his return to the Illinois lineup. Dosunmu paced the Illini with 24 points. With the shot clock winding down with under a minute left, Dosunmu buried a runner to help seal the win.

Dosunmu’s return also helped Illinois immensely on the defensive end. Penn State only shot 36 percent from the floor and 21 percent from three-point range. The Illini threw length at the Nittany Lions on the perimeter. And the size of Kofi Cockburn (15 points) enabled Illinois to defend Mike Watkins (eight points) one-on-one. Life was also tough for Lamar Stevens during a 3-for-11 night. In a grind-it-out game where both teams went scoreless for minutes at a time, Illinois looked like a top-30 defense in a huge road game.

At this point in the season, Illinois is still a full three games out of the Big Ten lead. It’s unlikely the Illini can jump four or five teams to vault into first. But this is also a very dangerous team if they can get hot.

Starting Big Ten play at 8-2, Illinois already showed they’re capable of running off six or seven wins in a row in the deepest conference in the country. Although one win at Penn State doesn’t put Illinois back in contention it gives a dangerous team confidence.

The next two for Illinois are winnable games against bottom feeders in Nebraska and Northwestern. From there, it’s a three-game sprint to the finish with Indiana, at Ohio State and Iowa. With only one road game against a top Big Ten team, Illinois will be a fascinating team to track the next few weeks.

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No. 10 Kentucky gets past LSU

In the SEC, the Wildcats kept their lead with a strong road win at LSU. The win gives Kentucky a two-game lead in the loss column on LSU. Auburn remains in second in the league at a game behind Kentucky.

The road win also gives the Wildcats another quality win. Winners of nine of their last 10 games, Kentucky looks like a team that is figuring things out down the stretch. Sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley has turned into the team’s most consistent scorer the past several weeks.

Quickley led Kentucky with 21 points on Tuesday night to lead the Wildcats. Establishing Nick Richards on the interior is still Kentucky’s best route to earning a win. But Quickley scoring at least 12 or more points in 14 straight games is something to track going forward.

Richards dominating on the inside and Quickley’s consistent scoring on the perimeter has given the Wildcats more of an established identity during the stretch run.

No. 15 Creighton takes down No. 19 Marquette

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Creighton earned a massive Big East road win by holding off No. 19 Marquette 73-65 on Tuesday night.

Ty-Shon Alexander fought through an early-game throat injury to finish with a team-high 22 points to pace Creighton. The Bluejays did an admirable job defending Marquette star Markus Howard as well. Holding the nation’s leading scorer without a point in the first half, Howard struggled to 13 points on 4-for-14 shooting on the night.

The win keeps the No. 15 Bluejays firmly in the Big East title race. Creighton remains one game behind Seton Hall in the loss column with two weeks to go in the regular season. And with four games left on the schedule, Creighton only plays one game away from home — a winnable game at St. John’s. The regular season closes in Omaha with the Bluejays facing a Pirates team they just beat on the road last week.

NBC SPORTS BRACKETOLOGY

Creighton has gone early-season afterthought to potentially winning one of the toughest top-to-bottom leagues in the country. It’s come with a roster that is continually evolving as the season moves along.

Once transfer forward Denzel Mahoney entered the mix for Creighton the Bluejays turned into a different team. Mahoney became eligible for Creighton after missing the first 10 games of the season after sitting out from Southeast Missouri State.

The 6-foot-5 junior isn’t recognized as one of Creighton’s most talented offensive players. Mahoney only scored nine points and collected five rebounds in the win over Marquette on Tuesday. Alexander, point guard Marcus Zagorowski and veteran shooter Mitchell Ballock are all more gifted offensive weapons than Mahoney.

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But Mahoney gives the Bluejays something they’ve greatly lacked in recent seasons: a junkyard dog who can defend up to all five spots on the floor. In the modern small-ball world of basketball, Mahoney is versatile enough to do damage without anything getting run for him. He’s the Big East equivalent to Draymond Green during the Warriors’ dynasty.

Greg McDermott is known for his offensive-minded approach as Creighton’s coach. The man tailored an entire college offense around his son. Doug McDermott became one of college basketball’s greatest modern scorers.

Creighton teams don’t often feature rugged and physical players like Mahoney. With Mahoney’s added edge, however, Creighton has been one of the best teams in the country after the first month of the season.

The Bluejays can bury you offensively at multiple spots. This team moves the ball as well as anybody in the country. And now Creighton has unique lineup versatility that is very tough to prepare for. Mahoney can play small-ball five and give the Bluejays all sorts of different combinations. It’s helped make Creighton one of the best teams in college basketball that nobody is talking about.

Very quietly, the Bluejays are in position to play themselves for a share of the Big East title with a final home game against Seton Hall.

Illinois outlasts No. 9 Penn State

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Ayo Dosunmu felt well enough during warm-ups to return to lineup. That was enough for Illinois against No. 9 Penn State.

Dosunmu, the Fighting Illini’s leading scorer who missed the previous game with a knee injury, scored 24 points, and Illinois snapped a four-game losing streak with a 62-56 victory over Penn State on Tuesday night.

“He knows we struggled without him,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “He did what really, really good players do. He elevated his game.”

Kofi Cockburn added 14 points for the Fighting Illini (17-9, 9-6 Big Ten), who led most of the way and ended Penn State’s eight-game winning streak.

NBC SPORTS BRACKETOLOGY

The win also snapped Illinois’ six-game losing streak against Penn State.

Lamar Stevens scored 13 points for the Nittany Lions (20-6, 10-5), who entered with their highest ranking in the AP Top 25 since they were No. 9 at the same point of the 1996 season.

Izaiah Brockington added 10 points for the Nittany Lions, who trailed 30-26 at halftime and by as many as nine points with 5:35 to play.

Penn State got a pair of free throws from Seth Lundy that cut its deficit to 58-56 with a minute left, but Dosunmu iced it with a layup 30 seconds later.

The Nittany Lions made just 21 of 58 shots, well below their 45% average. Penn State shooters made just 4 of 19 3-pointers.

“We haven’t shot this poorly the way we’ve been playing,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “Obviously, that was shocking to me.”

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It was back-and-forth early as teams swapped the lead five times in the first. The Illini controlled play for 9:06 and Griffin gave them their biggest lead of the half when he hit a 3-pointer, drew a foul and hit the ensuing free throw to put the Illini up 21-16 with 8:54 before halftime.

Penn State used an 8-1 run, capped by a steal and dunk by Lundy, to retake the lead 4:22 later.

But Illinois got eight straight points from Dosunmu before a put-back by Giorgi Bezhanishvili to go up 30-26 at the break.

“This is definitely a reality check,” Penn State guard Myles Dread said. “We’ve been on cloud nine for eight games. As good as it feels to win, it feels much worse to lose.”

EXHALE AND EXALT

Illinois players hooted, shrieked and hollered as they filed off the court and into the Bryce Jordan Center’s visiting locker room.

The celebration continued when Underwood and the rest of the coaches entered. They praised their team’s resilience and highlighted Da’Monte Williams’ defensive efforts against Stevens, who was 3 for 11 from the floor.

“We had won seven in a row and you become the hunted,” Underwood said. “We’re not desperate. I think there was some urgency, but desperate is never in my vocabulary.”

ROUGH PLAY

Watkins picked up a technical foul for shoving Dosunmu shortly after the whistle as both had been jostling for a loose ball.

Watkins’ temper had been rising in the moments leading up to their confrontation. Penn State’s big forward was surly after he had drawn physical coverage down low on his previous two shot attempts and failed to get foul calls

The sequence drew the ire of Penn State fans who booed the officiating crew as they disappeared into the tunnel for halftime and again when they emerged for the second half.

THE BIG PICTURE

Illinois: For the Illini, getting Dosunmu back certainly helped. The sophomore guard had missed Saturday’s loss at Rutgers after suffering an injury to his left knee is a win over Michigan State on Feb. 11. Despite their recent shooting woes, they looked confident against a strong Penn State defense that’s been nearly flawless at home.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions entered a game behind Maryland in the hunt for the Big Ten’s top seed. There’s still plenty of time for them to recover and make up ground.

UP NEXT

Illinois: Hosts Nebraska on Monday.

Penn State: Visits Indiana on Sunday.

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

All-out brawl mars the end of Jackson State-Prairie View A&M game

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After a chippy end to Prairie View A&M’s 70-61 win over Jackson State on Monday night, several players were involved in a fight that came after the buzzer sounded and knocked over fans sitting courtside.

The skirmish started during the handshake line, when Jackson State’s Dontelius Ross appeared to take exception to something that was said by Prairie View’s Darius Williams. He was initially held back, but the melee continued elsewhere on the floor.

Here is another angle of the brawl:

Monday’s Things To Know: Kansas is ready for Baylor, UNC drops another heartbreaker

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Monday was a slow night for college basketball, but we did get a couple of fun finishes around the country.

Here are the three things that you need to know:

1. NORTH CAROLINA’S HEART-BREAKING SEASON CONTINUES

No team in the country has suffered more soul-crushing losses than the Tar Heels have this season.

Remember when they lost to Virginia Tech in double-overtime? Remember when they lost to Clemson in the Dean Dome for the first time ever because Roy Williams forgot to tell his team to foul up three? What about the time they lost to Boston College because Brandon Robinson sprained his ankle while “fouling” a three-point shooter with 17 seconds left? We all remember the collapse against Duke, but did you see Tomas Woldetensae’s game-winning three for Virginia on Saturday?

And if that wasn’t enough, the Tar Heels lost at Notre Dame on Monday night when Nate Laszewski hit a three with 1.8 seconds left for a 77-76 win in South Bend.

That is now six straight losses for the Tar Heels, if you’re scoring at home. Four of the six are one possessions losses. They lost by six at Florida State in a game they led by eight late in the first half, too. They are really not all that far away from being a team with a pretty good record, but as it stands, they are now going to finish the season under .500.

It’s been a tough, tough season for the Tar Heels.

2. ZACH FREEMANTLE SAVES XAVIER

Zach Freemantle, a freshman forward for the Musketeers, scored four points in the final 10.4 seconds as Xavier landed a key win at St. John’s on Monday night.

The Musketeers are still fighting for a spot in the NCAA tournament. They do have some room to spare right now, but if they can find a way to win out during the regular season, the Musketeers will have a shot of climbing up past the 8-9 game. They’ve now won four of their last five games.

3. DEVON DOTSON SHOWS OUT AS KANSAS IS FINDING A RHYTHM OFFENSIVELY

Kansas has picked a great time to get hot.

On Saturday, the Jayhawks put up 87 points — the most points they have scored in regulation against a high-major opponent this season — in a 17 point win over Oklahoma on Saturday. They shot 11-for-22 from three in that game.

On Monday, they Jayhawks put up 91 points after shooting 12-for-27 from three against Iowa State. Marcus Garrett scored 24 points on Saturday. Devon Dotson scored 29 points on Monday.

Why is this important?

Because the Jayhawks play No. 1 Baylor in Waco on Saturday. When these two teams last faced off, the Bears beat the Jayhawks 67-55 in Phog Allen Fieldhouse. They’ll be ready for the rematch.