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Defense will determine if this Texas season is a success

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AMES, Ia. — It’s the kind of cold that socks you right in the chest, takes your breath away and leaves you disoriented.

There’s no shaking it. There’s no escaping. The kind of cold that hit central Iowa on Monday, with temperatures as low as minus-20 and wind chills dipping below minus-30, is something that makes simply being borderline unbearable.

In a way, it’s the role model for what Texas wants its defense to be.

“Our team is trying to build a constant mindset of every single day,” junior Dylan Osetkowski said, “that we want to be the best defensive team in the nation.”

There were hints of that Monday when the Longhorns found respite from the frigid temperatures inside Hilton Coliseum, where they sent Iowa State shooting percentages plummeting as low as the mercury in a 74-70 overtime victory featuring little in the way of offensive beauty but plenty of defensive mettle.

“It just shows our fight,” point guard Matt Coleman said.“Just keep fighting. Stuff won’t go your way early, just find a way to win.”

It was a return to form for the Longhorns after Kansas gouged them for 92 points – 1.26 points-per-possession – last week in which the Jayhawks connected on 17 of 35 (48.6 percent) of their 3-pointers.

“I thought we were a step off,” Texas coach Shaka Smart said.

Texas’ defense was in lock-step against the Cyclones. Iowa State was never comfortable, never in rhythm and never productive for anything but spurts. The Longhorns held them to 36.8 percent shooting overall and 25.9 percent from 3-point range. These Cyclones don’t possess the high-octane offense of years past, but to keep them to .959 points per possession in their home gym – where Texas hadn’t won in 8 years – is no small feat.

“Did a really good job embracing our ego,” freshman center Mohamed Bamba said. “We knew how tough it was going to be to play here we haven’t won one year since 2010.

“We dominated the process going into it. The outcome is what we got.”

Bamba, a projected top-10 pick in June’s NBA draft, is as integral to Texas’ defensive stalwartness as anything. Even on a night where he struggled to contain Iowa State’s bigs and his coach said “he looked a little sluggish out there at time,” Bamba made an impact defensively, blocking four shots. His eight-foot wingspan has propelled him to a 16.8 block percentage, fifth-best in the nation.

The Longhorns now rank sixth nationally in adjusted defense, according to KenPom.com. Opponents are converting at just a 30.3 percent clip from 3-point range and 42.7 percent inside the arc. The defensive effective field goal percentage of 43.7 is 15th-best in the country.

Every little bit counts defensively for Texas. Largely because the offense is, well, not very good. It’s hard to have an effective and modern offense in 2018 when you’re shooting 29.2 percent from 3-point range as a team, as the Longhorns are. That’s a big reason they’re outside the top-100 in adjusted offense. Osetkowski abused Iowa State’s troubled pick-and-roll defense Monday to hit 7 of 13 from distance which inched his season shooting percentage from 3 just above 30, joining Andrew Jones (46.3) as the only Longhorn members of that club.

Winning ugly is as big a cliche as it is a reality for Texas as long as that shooting percentage stays low. The Longhorns, though, appear built to win games with shooting percentages only marginally less chilly than an Iowa winter.

“To come back and fight and battle after being down a few different times and then overtime, I thought we really followed the process,” Smart said. “We really systematic about following the plan of what we wanted to do. It wasn’t perfect. It’s usually not going to be. There some stuff left on the table that we want to get better at but I thought our guys did a good job down the stretch.

“The guys earned one. Road wins are hard to come by in this league especially when you’re playing in front of a raucous crowd like this this is a very very hard place to come in and win.”

Texas did it with defense, not much in the way of Havoc that ultimately got Smart the job in Austin, but something more conventional, though the Longhorns continue to create more turnovers each year under Smart. They’re probably not a contender to win the Big 12 and end Kansas’ 13-year run atop the conference this season, but Texas’ defense makes them an interesting follow the next few months. Especially if can continue to improve and keep offenses in a deep freeze into the spring.

“On about 60, 70 percent of the plays we were back to defending with the level of aggressiveness and urgency we needed,” Smart said Monday, “and then there was a third or a quarter where we weren’t aggressive enough.

“Obviously you don’t want to be at 60 or 70 percent. You want to be at 100 percent.”

Three Things To Know: Auburn’s rolling, Kentucky’s struggling, Mizzou is tough

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It was a relatively quiet night in college hoops, but there were still three things that were worth discussing.

1. IS AUBURN THE BEST TEAM IN THE SEC?

I’m trying to come up with a reason to argue otherwise, and it’s just not working.

Despite the fact that they lost their three best players from last season’s Final Four team, the Tigers look like they are going to once against have a shot of getting back to the final weekend of the college basketball season.

This year’s group is a little different than last season. They’re not forcing as many turnovers as they did last year, but they are running the floor and they are shooting up a ton of threes and, right now, they are playing with as much swagger and confidence as anyone in the country. Colgate is a solid, veteran mid-major team and they were absolutely mollywhopped by Auburn. The final score was 91-62, but don’t forget that Auburn led 53-21 at halftime. The spread of 16 points. Auburn was covering midway through the first half.

Now, if we’re going to talk about them in terms of being the best anything, it’s important to note that they haven’t really played anyone yet. Colgate and South Alabama are fine. Davidson was, apparently, entirely overrated. Hopefully Auburn will get a showdown with Wisconsin in the final of the Legends Classic, otherwise we may not see them face a tournament team until they host N.C. State.

In other words, expect a lot of wins from Auburn in the month of December.

2. KENTUCKY CERTAINLY ISN’T, NOT RIGHT NOW

We have already spent quite a bit of time on Kentucky in this space. The Wildcats struggled with a mid-major foe in Rupp Arena for the second straight game. They did not lose on Monday night, but they did leave us asking the question: Can Kentucky actually cure what is ailing them this season?

3. MISSOURI IS GOING TO BE A TOUGH OUT ALL SEASON LONG

I’m not sure there is a team that is flying further under the radar than Missouri right now. The Tigers improved to 3-1 on the season with a 75-56 win over Wofford on Monday night. They’ve also beaten Northern Kentucky and took No. 18 Xavier to overtime in Cincinnati.

As of today, they are a top ten team defensively, according to KenPom. They are ninth nationally in defensive effective field goal percentage. They have an assembly line of talented perimeter players that can all get out and pressure while Jeremiah Tilmon has embraced being the defensive anchor for this group while also becoming an efficient catch-and-dunk offensive weapon that can draw fouls.

I’m going to hold off on going all-in on Missouri until we see them in the Hall Of Fame Classic next week (they open with Butler, another sneaky-good team) but at this point, it looks like the Tigers should be a tournament team.

Cassius Winston addresses Michigan State crowd: ‘I lost a piece of my heart’

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Michigan State guard Cassius Winston spoke publicly for the first time since his younger brother died by suicide nine days ago.

He thanked the crowd at the Breslin Center:

Can Kentucky cure what is ailing them?

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For the second straight game against mid-major competition, the Kentucky Wildcats looked like everything but the team that beat No. 1 Michigan State in the season opener.

On Tuesday night, the Wildcats blew a 14-point second half lead and allowed Mark Madsen’s Utah Valley Wolverines to have a couple of shots to take the lead in the final three minutes of what eventually turned into an 82-74 win. This came just six days after the Wildcats, as the No. 1 team in the country, found a way to lose to Evansville, who turned around and lost to SMU at home Tuesday.

So things have been better in Lexington.

Much better.

But panicking over anything would be silly right now.

Because the thing that this Kentucky team needs more than anything else is the only thing that cannot be rushed: Time.


What’s wrong with Kentucky? We broke it down last week.

One of college basketball’s most annoying bits of coachspeak and cliche is the saying, “This will be a different team come March.”

Sometimes it’s accurate. Sometimes it’s a coach or a columnist trying to explain away the dumb mistakes that a team keeps making.

And sometimes, it’s said in regard to this iteration of the Kentucky Wildcats, who will be a completely different team in, what, two weeks? A month? Surely not much more than that. Right now, Kentucky more closely resembles a MASH unit than it does a college basketball. Look at this seemingly ever-growing list of injuries:

  • E.J. Montgomery has missed the last three games with an ankle injury he suffered in the opener against Michigan State.
  • Ashton Hagans has been dealing with some kind of leg injury that John Calipari hasn’t specified but that had limited him early on this season.
  • Nick Richards is still battling an ankle injury that has kept him out of practices.
  • Immanuel Quickley missed the Utah Valley game with what was termed a chest injury.
  • Dontaie Allen is still recovering from a torn ACL.
  • Kahlil Whitney appeared to dislocate a finger with three minutes left before popping it back in himself. He did not return to the game.

Do the math, and the Wildcats finished this game with six scholarship players, two of whom are not at 100 percent.

That’s rough for any team to deal with, especially when three of the opening night starters are on that injured list.

But the issue is magnified for Kentucky.

The Wildcats are not only incredibly young, but they also lack the kind of elite talents we typically associate Big Blue with. There is no surefire lottery pick on this roster. More importantly, there may not be a college All-American on this roster. Tyrese Maxey is the most dangerous scorer they have, but he’s shooting 28 percent from three, has eight assists and nine turnovers in four games and has looked far from the star guard he played like against Michigan State. Ashton Hagans and Nick Richards were terrific on Tuesday, but if they’re the two best players on this team that’s a far cry from Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns, or John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis.

Hell, there isn’t anyone on this roster that is as good as P.J. Washington or Tyler Herro were last season.

At least right now. That’s the important part here.

Because, if you remember, neither P.J. Washington or Tyler Herro were as good in November as they were in February and March. They got better as the season went on, just like the guys on this roster will get better (and healthier) as the season goes on.

So when you put it all together, what you have is a team that we knew was going to need time to gel dealing with injuries to half their roster that is keeping key pieces out of games and, perhaps more importantly, out of practice. Don’t gloss over that. If injuries are keeping these guys from practicing, it’s keeping them from getting better, from learning their roles, from growing into the player they will hopefully be once league play begins. That is in no way insignificant.

Frankly, Maxey going absolutely bonkers in Madison Square Garden while Michigan State paired foul trouble with 5-for-26 shooting from three papered over a lot of these cracks.

We knew Kentucky was going to take their lumps early on these season and we ranked them where we ranked them anyway.

They are taking their lumps.

And if you are patient, they’ll look like Kentucky again soon enough.

No. 9 Kentucky gets another scare, holds off Utah Valley

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Ashton Hagans scored a career-high 26 points, and No. 9 Kentucky survived another close game against what should have been a lesser opponent, beating Utah Valley 82-74 on Monday night.

The Wildcats (3-1) dropped out of the No. 1 spot in The Associated Press Top 25 after losing at home to Evansville last week, and they had to overcome a late surge to hold off the Wolverines.

Kentucky led by 16 points early in the second half, but Utah Valley steadily chipped away until T.J. Washington’s 3-pointer got the Wolverines (3-2) within one at 68-67 with 3:26 remaining. Nate Sestina responded with a three-point play that helped the Wildcats pull away.

Kentucky was without second-leading scorer Immanuel Quickley, who sat out because of a chest injury. Quickley has scored 16 points in each of the last two games.

The Wildcats also have been without forward EJ Montgomery, who has missed the past three games because of an ankle injury. Coupled with Quickley’s injury, Kentucky’s roster has dwindled to seven scholarship players, leaving the Wildcats short-handed in practice.

Nick Richards had 21 points and 10 rebounds, while Tyrese Maxey added 14 points.

Washington led the Wolverines with 22 points, followed by Trey Woodbury with 17 and Jamison Overton with 10.

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats are used to shooting free throws and averaged 29.7 attempts per game in their first three. Kentucky made 31 of 34 from the line against the Wolverines, including 14 of 15 in the first half. The Wildcats held a 46-27 edge in rebounding, including 34 on the defensive end.

Utah Valley: Just as Evansville did in its upset, the Wolverines spread the floor and forced the Wildcats to play defense in the open court. The Wolverines made 11 3-pointers to keep the game close.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Wildcats play two more games this week and could move up a spot or two with three victories, although games like this will surely give voters pause. The Wildcats don’t play a ranked opponent again until they take on No. 10 Ohio State at Las Vegas on Dec. 21.

UP NEXT

Utah Valley hosts Lamar on Thursday.

Kentucky hosts Mount St. Mary’s on Friday

Villanova’s Antoine medically cleared for game action

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Freshman guard Bryan Antoine has been medically cleared for game action, Villanova announced on Monday.

Antoine is a former five-star prospect that has missed the first two weeks of the season. He underwent surgery on his shoulder on May 31st.

“Bryan has been fully cleared to play in games and we’re happy for him,” head coach Jay Wright said in a statement. “He’s worked extremely hard in his rehab with Jeff Pierce and John Shackleton to get to this point.

“Our plan is to bring Bryan along slowly. He’s only just returned to practice and the learning curve is steep for any freshman. Bryan’s working hard to catch up and we’re going to do all we can to help him in this transition.”