After win at No. 4 Duke, it’s time to give No. 2 Virginia their due

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I will never doubt Tony Bennett again.

Ever.

In a year where the Virginia Cavaliers were supposed to be rebuilding, in a season where they were supposed to be a season away from underclassmen like Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter, Bennett may have the best team he’s ever had as a college basketball coach.

On Saturday, No. 2 Virginia went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and knocked off No. 4 Duke, 65-63, despite the fact that Duke’s super star Marvin Bagley III went for 30 points and 14 boards. Wendell Carter added 14 points, 15 boards, four blocks and four assists.

Duke — a top five team with arguably the most talented starting five in the sport — did what they always do: They dominated the paint, they ran their offense through the biggest and best front line in the country and, frankly, they controlled the majority of the second half in one of the best home courts in college hoops, and it still wasn’t enough.

Which begs the question: Is Virginia actually the best team in college basketball?

I’ve long argued that it is Villanova. They have a lottery pick in Mikal Bridges. They have another NBA player and a potential National Player of the Year in Jalen Brunson. Their head coach has won a national title and may end up in the Hall of Fame when it is all said and done. They are old, they shoot the cover off the ball, they are a nightmare to matchup with given their versatility. It’s not a coincidence that the Wildcats have been the most successful program in the country for the last five seasons.

If not them, then Purdue seemed to be the name at the forefront of the discussion. Or maybe you thought it was one of the absurdly-talented preseason title favorites — Michigan State, or Arizona, or the Duke team that Virginia just knocked off — that haven’t quite seemed to put it all together yet.

Whatever the case was, prior to Saturday, unless your address is in Charlottesville, you probably didn’t think that Virginia was college basketball’s best team.

But if Saturday was evidence of anything, they might just be.

Nothing about the way that Virginia plays is sexy. They are the slowest team in the country. They grind you down defensively. Their fans cheer shot clock violations louder than they do three-pointers. They prefer to run through two or three sets and take 28 seconds off of the shot clock than shoot anything other than a great shot.

And while watching them may put you to sleep faster than taking a dose of Nyquil and trying to read War And Peace, playing against them is death by 1,000 papercuts. Every win looks beautiful in the ACC standings, and as things currently stand, the only team within two games of Virginia in the conference title race is Louisville, who probably won’t be making any miraculous runs to a league title, not when they’ve lost to Virginia the last four times they’ve faced off.

That may be why Virginia cannot get the respect that they have earned.

Sexy sells in college basketball. The teams that have the NBA talent, the high-flying athletes, the pace-and-space offense. They are the ones that get the attention. Virginia doesn’t really have any of that. De’Andre Hunter, a redshirt freshman that played 24 minutes off the bench on Sunday, is probably the best NBA prospect on the UVA roster, but he’s still a few years away and likely won’t be the kind of player that we’re talking about as a potential lottery pick. Kyle Guy is fun to watch when he gets it going, but he’s not going to do all that much more than run off of screens and catch-and-shoot. Ty Jerome makes more big shots than anyone, but he also makes London Perrantes look athletic.

But that’s only half the problem.

Virginia is dealing with some of the same issues that Villanova dealt with before they won their title; that Bill Self and Jim Calhoun dealt with before their titles; that Sean Miller is currently dealing with. Tony Bennett has never done it in March. He’s been to the last four NCAA tournaments and made it out of the first weekend just twice. He lost in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed in 2014. He lost in the second round as a No. 2 seed in 2015. He lost in the Elite 8 in 2016, blowing an 16-point lead against No. 10 seed Syracuse in the final nine minutes. Last year, as a No. 5 seed, Virginia got dropped by Florida in the second round.

Fair or not — it’s not — until Virginia is playing on that first weekend in April, they are always going to be looked at as that team that can win games in January but cannot in March.

When that is the reputation your team has, it is really hard to shake it. Ask Villanova. They are not even two years removed from a national title and they still battle it.

This may finally be the group that gets Virginia to the Final Four.

And if this team — the one that was supposed to be rebuilding, the one that was supposed to still be a year away from reaching its peak — is the one that finally gets Bennett and Virginia to the Final Four, it would be the perfectly fitting for the program that is quietly one of, if not the best in the ACC today.

Tennessee center Tamari Key out for season with blood clots

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee senior center Tamari Key will miss the rest of this season because of blood clots in her lungs, coach Kellie Harper said.

Doctors found the issue during testing. Key is expected to make a full recovery after treatment from University of Tennessee doctors, Harper said, adding that her sole concern is Key getting the medical care she needs to heal and return to full strength.

Key missed the first game of her career in a win Tuesday night over Chattanooga after playing her first 99.

“This is much bigger than basketball. We are so grateful that this medical condition was caught,” Harper said in a statement. “Our entire program will be right beside Tamari during this process and welcomes prayers and positive thoughts from Lady Vol Nation and beyond.”

The Lady Vols opened the season ranked fifth but currently are 5-5.

The 6-foot-6 Key from Cary, North Carolina, currently is Tennessee’s third-leading scorer averaging 8.4 points a game and averaged 4.2 rebounds per game. She started all 34 games as the Lady Vols reached their first Sweet 16 since 2016 last season and set the school record with 119 blocked shots.

Key had 18 blocks this season and 295 for her career, five away from becoming the eighth woman to reach that mark in Southeastern Conference history.

No. 7 Tennessee beats Eastern Kentucky, win streak hits 7

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyreke Key scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and finished with 17, and No. 7 Tennessee overcame a sluggish first half and beat Eastern Kentucky 84-49 on Wednesday night.

“Tyreke is handling the ball now,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s all new to him. He keeps getting better.”

The Volunteers (8-1) struggled in the first half but still built an 11-point lead over Eastern Kentucky (4-5) on the way to their seventh straight victory.

Key led Tennessee in scoring before leaving with a cramp in his right leg with 6:15 left in the game. Julian Phillips had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Zakai Zeigler and Uros Plavsic added 13 points apiece. Olivier Nkamhoua scored 10.

“I’m still settling in,” said Key, a transfer from Indiana State who didn’t play last year while recovering from an injury. “This is a new role. I’m taking steps every day and keep learning.”

Eastern Kentucky, which came into the game averaging 83.5 points, was held well below that total due to 17% (6 for 35) shooting from long range and 22% (15 for 68) overall. Leland Walker led the Colonels with 13 points.

It was the seventh time this season Tennessee has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points.

“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”

At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting 20% and still leading by 10 points. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who shot 24% (8 of 34), led 32-21 at the break.

“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes said. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”

Tennessee shot 41 free throws. Phillips, a true freshman, was 7 of 10.

“(Phillips) has learned the pace of the game,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in the country (this season).”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Since its early season slip against Colorado, Tennessee has had a steady ascent in the rankings. The Vols’ next two games – neutral site (Brooklyn) against No, 13 Maryland (Dec. 11) and at No. 10 Arizona (Dec. 17) – will go a long way toward justifying the No. 7 ranking.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels’ run-and-gun style of offense had them averaging 83.5 points through their first eight games. They ran into a defensive buzz saw in Tennessee, which was yielding just over 51 points.

Tennessee: Santiago Vescovi sat out his second straight game with a shoulder problem. He is expected to be ready to play Sunday against Maryland. . The Vols have won seven in a row since their loss to Colorado.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

Tennessee: Take on No. 13 Maryland on Sunday at the Hall of Fame Invitational in New York.

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan State snaps 2-game skid

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Matthew OHaren/USA TODAY Sports
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats Boston College 73-58

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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.