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Four things we learned from No. 3 Kansas knocking off No. 7 Kentucky

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CHICAGO — The second game of the Champions Classic wasn’t quite as “artistic” (using Bill Self’s words for the first game) as Duke’s statement win over Michigan State but the clash between college basketball bluebloods still showed us a few things about two intriguing top-ten teams.

1. Kansas needs more help for Devonte’ Graham when it comes to creating offense

One of the major issues for Kansas on Tuesday night was creating effective offense in the half court. Last season the Jayhawks could rely on Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham, and to a lesser extent Josh Jackson, to create offense. This current Kansas group is lacking players who can create their own shot in the half court.

The numbers that Kansas put up on the offensive end on Tuesday indicated the struggle. The Jayhawks finished shooting 35 percent (24-for-68) from the floor while their three-point percentage (28 percent on 8-for-28) was even worse.

The length, athleticism and depth of Kentucky’s defense wearing down a team that effectively played only six players definitely had something to do with it. But Kansas looked like they really needed some help for Graham out there. There are only so many times that the preseason All-American floor general can run pick-and-roll with Udoka Azubuike. Especially since Azubuike seemed to be at his best when he could seal and score on post touches.

Malik Newman (4-for-14 shooting for 12 points) struggled to score over length at the rim as he was often trying to do too much on the offensive end. Newman is still a potentially lethal three-point shooter, if he gets hot, but he doesn’t look like a shot creator for himself or others in the half court at this current juncture. Newman really struggled scoring over length at the rim against Kentucky.

Svi Mykhailiuk (17 points) hit some momentum-shifting shots from the perimeter, but he also had an average night on the offensive end creating for himself as catch-and-shoot jumpers remain his most consistent mode of offense. Lagerald Vick might actually be the second best shot-creator for the Jayhawks at the moment. That’s not really saying much. Vick also struggled to a 4-for-13 night from the field.

It will certainly help the Kansas offense to get Arizona State transfer guard Sam Cunliffe at the semester break. Freshman forward Billy Preston is also a noted offensive threat, but Kansas has a long way to go if they’re going to be an effective offensive team. Let’s just keep it simple: Graham needs more help.

2. Kentucky freshman Kevin Knox looks like the real deal

We’ve grown to expect Kentucky freshmen to immediately contribute and become key players since John Calipari has masterfully worked the one-and-done recruiting landscape over the last decade.

There were also some serious questions as to whether freshman wing Kevin Knox, rated by some services as the best Kentucky freshman, could be an effective and potential go-to guy for the Wildcats. The 6-foot-7 Knox answered many of the those questions with his stellar play on Tuesday night. Knox buried three first-half three-pointers as he finished with a game-high 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting.

Consistent perimeter shooting was always a major question mark for Knox throughout his high school career. But a hot hand early for Kentucky was a pleasant surprise. Looking like he was ready to play in a huge spotlight game while other Kentucky freshmen struggled, Knox carried the Kentucky offense at times despite not getting nearly enough shot attempts until late in the game.

When Kentucky found themselves down by two points with 33 seconds left, they put the ball in Knox’s hands, letting him go to work as his tough runner along the baseline rimmed out. Even though Knox missed a tough and contested look, just the fact that he looked comfortable the ball in his hands in a critical spot is an important development for a young Kentucky team that needs a takeover guy.

While Knox’s perimeter shooting could ebb-and-flow at times this season, he certainly seems ready to play during big moments. The development of Knox as a potential go-to bucket-getter this season will be fascinating to watch.

Kevin Knox (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

3. Udoka Azubuike needs more post touches for a struggling Kansas offense

Kansas was completely overmatched on the interior in terms of sheer bodies on Tuesday night. That didn’t prevent sophomore big man Udoka Azubuike from having a very solid night for the Jayhawks.

Facing four or five different Kentucky big men, many of them former McDonald’s All-Americans, Azubuike finished with 13 points and eight rebounds on 5-for-5 shooting, severely outplaying his Wildcat counterparts.

Looking slimmer and more mobile than last season, the power-based Azubuike is still at his best when he can manhandle lesser opponents in the paint. Besides for the interior buckets, Azubuike was also effective as a screener while doing a great job of walling up on the defensive end without getting into severe foul trouble. This game would have been very ugly if Azubuike got in foul trouble. Thankfully, Azubuike did an admirable job of defending without fouling as the Jayhawks didn’t have a lot of size without Preston in the lineup.

For as good as Azubuike was, one of the big problems for Kansas was getting him enough effective opportunities to make plays in the post. It seemed like only Devonte’ Graham was doing a good job of working the ball inside for post touches as the other players on the floor for Kansas often hunted their own offense while basically ignoring their lone post target.

Azubuike is never going to be a major scorer commanding double teams based on his post skill. But his power post game is a major asset for a Kansas team that needs all the easy buckets they can get at this point in the season. If Kansas is struggling on offense like they did tonight, they need to get Azubuike more touches to put pressure on opposing defenses.

4. Kentucky’s depth will still create issues and keep them in games

Kansas wasn’t the only team to struggle on the offensive end on Tuesday.

Kentucky’s offense looked just as ugly as they shot 41 percent (23-for-55) from the field and 23 percent (3-for-13) from three-point range. Point-guard play was also an issue for Kentucky as they turned the ball over 18 times — including six alone from freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Despite all of the offensive issues and only one player on the roster, Kevin Knox, making a three-pointer, Kentucky still found themselves with a chance to tie or take the lead with under 30 seconds left against a top-five opponent.

It’s a testament to how Kentucky can still wear opponents down by throwing body-after-body at them in all facets of the game. The Wildcats were able to stay in this game in the second half by hitting the offensive glass hard and scoring whenever they could in transition.

Even with freshman big men Nick Richards and P.J. Washington combining for only one field goal and 11 combined rebounds in 37 total minutes, Kentucky was able to throw talented depth like Sacha Killeya-Jones and Wenyen Gabriel on the floor to give another look.

Killeya-Jones, who spent most of his freshman season stuck on the bench, was particularly solid for Kentucky as his length and perimeter shooting helped the Wildcats. Finishing with eight points and nine rebounds, while blocking three shots, Killeya-Jones looked like another intriguing development for Kentucky to come out of this game.

It’s part of what makes Kentucky so dangerous. It’s a collective group with a lot of promise and potential that is still figuring everything out, and yet, they’re still staying close against a top-five team like Kansas. Like many Calipari one-and-done operations, we probably won’t understand Kentucky’s identity or personnel until the calendar rolls over into the new year.

High school basketball player collapses, dies at AAU event

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James Hampton, a member of Team United and a senior at Liberty Heights, a private high school in Charlotte, collapsed and died during a Nike Elite Youth Basketball League game on Saturday night.

Hampton was 17 years old.

In the second half of a game against Nike Phamily, a Phoenix-based program that is run by the father of Marvin Bagley III, Hampton collapsed to the floor unresponsive. Trainers at the event began CPR on and administered chest compressions. Parademics arrived within 10 minutes, but Hampton could not be revived.

The cause of death has not yet been released, but this is not the first time that Hampton had an issue. Last spring, at an event in the Washington D.C. area, Hampton collapsed on the court and had to be given CPR.

“He just fell down on the floor,” Team United director Jacoby Davis told the Charlotte Observer. “He had seizures a year ago and I remember (one of the Team United coaches) telling me that, ‘I saw his eyes rolling back in his head.’ I ran on the court thinking he was having a seizure. A trainer came over and said he didn’t know what was wrong. Another trainer checked his pulse. He said he didn’t have a pulse. It got crazy after that.”

RIP James Hampton.

Nevada’s Jordan Caroline pulls out of 2018 NBA Draft

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Jordan Caroline has opted to pull his name out of the 2018 NBA Draft as he will return to Nevada for his senior season, he announced on Saturday.

The 6-foot-7 Caroline put together a strong season for the Wolf Pack as he averaged 17.7 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game as Nevada made the Sweet 16 behind one of the most talented offenses in the country.

Caroline’s return is a huge boost for Nevada as they still await the NBA draft decisions of Caleb and Cody Martin.

Currently ranked No. 17 in the NBCSports.com Preseason Top 25 (without the Martin twins), the Wolf Pack will still have a ton of talent around Caroline next season. Five-star freshman center Jordan Brown recently committed to Nevada. The program also a number of talented transfers entering the mix, including Tre’Shawn Thomas, Nisre Zouzoua and Ehab Amin.

If the Martin twins return to school (and that is a big if) then Nevada could have a potentially elite offense next season. But even if the Martin twins go pro, Nevada should still be the favorite in the Mountain West and a threat to once again make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

Dewan Huell returning to Miami for junior season

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Miami received some positive news on Saturday afternoon as the school announced the return of forward Dewan Huell for his junior season.

After testing the NBA draft waters without an agent, the 6-foot-11 Huell will be back for the Hurricanes. Starting all 32 games for the program last season, Huell averaged 11.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game while shooting 57 percent from the floor.

“After getting feedback from NBA teams and talking it over with my family and coaches, I would like to announce that I will be returning to Miami for my junior season,” Huell said in the release. “I’m really excited to get back to work with my brothers so we can accomplish more than ever during the 2018-19 season.”

A former McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school, Huell’s return gives the Hurricanes stability in the front court for next season as he’ll play with other returning players like Sam Waardenburg and Ebuka Izundu. With Miami losing both Lonnie Walker and Bruce Brown early to the 2018 NBA Draft, Huell could be expected to provide more offensive production as a junior.

Bruce Weber receives contract extension at Kansas State

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Kansas State and head coach Bruce Weber have agreed to a two-year contract extension, according to a release from the school.

After leading the Wildcats to a surprising Elite Eight appearance in March, Weber will be the head coach at Kansas State through the 2022-23 season, which gives him another five seasons to work with. Weber will be paid $2.5 million in 2018-19 and he’ll receive a $100,000 increase to his salary in each remaining contract year.

Weber had already signed a two-year extension in August 2017, but this move gives the veteran head coach more job security (and positive recruiting perception) for the next few seasons.

“We are very fortunate to have not only such an outstanding basketball coach but also a man in Coach Weber who conducts his program with integrity and class and is widely respected across the nation,” Kansas State Director of Athletics Gene Taylor said. “Certainly last season was one of the most memorable postseason runs in our program’s history, and we are excited for next season and the years ahead under Coach Weber’s leadership.”

With Kansas State returning most of its roster from last season, including the return of guard Barry Brown from the 2018 NBA Draft process, expectations are sky-high for Weber and the Wildcats this season. Currently ranked as the No. 8 team in the NBCSports.com Preseason Top 25, Kansas State’s veteran club could give Kansas a serious run for a Big 12 regular season title this season.

Northwestern loses incoming freshman point guard

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Northwestern and incoming freshman point guard Jordan Lathon are parting ways. The 6-foot-4 Lathon was viewed as a potential candidate to replace Bryant McIntosh at lead guard for the Wildcats this season, but Northwestern has reportedly revoked his offer of admission and basketball scholarship.

It is unclear why Lathon was unable to be admitted into Northwestern, but the school’s VP for University Relations, Alan Cubbage, gave a statement to Inside NU’s Davis Rich and Caleb Friedman.

“Northwestern University has revoked its offers of admission and an athletic scholarship for Jordan Lathon, a recruit for the Northwestern men’s basketball team,” the statement said. “Out of respect for the privacy of the student, the University will have no further public comment.”

Lathon later acknowledged the situation in a tweet explaining to fans that he will no longer be attending Northwestern.

While it is unclear why Lathon and Northwestern are parting ways, other high-major programs are already very interested in bringing in Lathon for next season. Oklahoma State immediately jumped in with a scholarship offer. There is also speculation that Lathon, a native of Grandview, Missouri, could also hear from the in-state Tigers as well.

It’ll be interesting to see where Lathon lands, and how this also affects Northwestern’s point guard situation. The loss of a four-year starter like McIntosh will be tough to fill, especially since Lathon was committed to Northwestern since last June. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Wildcats and head coach Chris Collins seek out a veteran point guard graduate transfer to try and get some immediate help.