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College Basketball Top 25: The pressing question for every team in our preseason rankings

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As we get ready for the Fourth of July holiday, we at College Basketball Talk will be rolling through the pressing questions for every team in the top 25.

Today, we take a look at the teams ranked 11-25. 

On Tuesday, we will dive into the top ten teams in the country. 

What is the question that we will need answered for the best teams in college basketball next season?

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11. VIRGINIA TECH HOKIES

  • DO THE HOKIES HAVE THE HORSES TO CRACK THE TOP OF THE ACC?

The very top of the ACC is riddled with the usual suspects. Duke looks to be the favorite, North Carolina should be excellent once again and Virginia is going to be Virginia regardless of how many times they lose to a No. 16 seed. The Hokies, on paper, look like a team good enough to make a run at the top three. They bring back seven of their top eight players, including a potential star in Nickeil Alexander-Walker, but simply returning everyone from a team that was a No. 9 seed doesn’t necessarily mean Tech will go from being a tournament team to a challenger for a top three seed.

12. AUBURN TIGERS

  • HOW DOES AUBURN RESPOND TO THEIR ROSTER TURNOVER?

Last season, Auburn’s surprising level of success — a share of the SEC regular season title — was in large part due to the collective: Everyone bought in, everyone played their role and thrived in it. How will that dynamic work with Mustapha Heron, who led the team in scoring last season, being replaced by Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley? Not only are there concerns about how well those two will fit into the team dynamic, they don’t exactly fit all that well in the uptempo style that Bruce Pearl introduced last season.

13. MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS

  • WILL SPARTY’S JUNIORS BECOME STARS?

The biggest issue that Michigan State had last season was that the way their roster was constructed didn’t make it conducive to playing their best players in an ideal position. Tom Izzo had a half-dozen big men on his roster and questionable backcourt talent, which forced Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson to play at the 3 and the 4 instead of their ideal 4 and 5. That’s why a team as talented as Michigan State underachieved so much. It wasn’t a lack of good basketball players. I say all that to say this: There are still quite a few talented players in East Lansing, but this ranking will seem too high if what’s left of the junior class — Cassius Winston, Josh Langford and Nick Ward — does not play up to their ability.

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14. FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES

  • DOES FLORIDA STATE HAVE A POINT GUARD?

I actually think Florida State has a relatively high floor heading into next season. They bring back almost all of their important pieces from last season’s team that reached the Elite 8, and their position-less, versatility-heavy roster and pressing style will make them a team that is annoying to play against. Their ability to make threes will be important, as will the development of Mfiondu Kabengele and M.J. Walker, but for my money, their ceiling will be determined by their point guard play. Just how good will junior Trent Forrest and Albany grad-transfer David Nichols be?

15. MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS

  • WILL THE BULLDOGS MAKE THREES?

Ben Howland essentially brings everyone back from a team that won 25 games and reached the NIT quarterfinals. Both Quinndary and Nick Weatherspoon pulled their names out of the NBA draft, while Lamar Peters also returns and will be joined by five-star prospect Reggie Perry. Throw in a handful of veteran bigs that are former four-star recruits, and it’s all there. The problem? Well, Mississippi State returns everyone from a team that was 329th nationally in three-point shooting last season. The only starter that shot better than 29.9 percent from three was power forward Aric Holman. That’s not exactly ideal.

16. OREGON DUCKS

  • IS BOL BOL AWESOME OR OVERRATED?

This is a question that will be discussed ad nauseum between now and the start of the season, and probably beyond; this might end up being one of the key storylines heading into the 2019 NBA Draft. On paper, Bol is the kind of prospect that never comes along. He’s 7-foot-3 and an elite rim-protector (when he wants to be) that is a very good three-point shooter. The problem? He doesn’t seem to be all that interested in playing the physical brand of defense that he needs to play, and he seems to believe that, offensively, he should be J.J. Redick. In theory, Bol should be a better version of Chris Boucher, but that all depends on whether or not Bol wants to be and ignores one, simple fact: Oregon became a Final Four-caliber team in 2017 when Boucher got injured and Jordan Bell was moved to center.

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17. UCLA BRUINS

  • WILL UCLA EVER PLAY DEFENSE?

If five seasons as the head coach in Westwood, Steve Alford has had just one team finishing in the top 65 of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. That was his first team, when he had a roster full of Ben Howland’s players. The issue has never been on the offensive side of the ball, not with the parade of high school all-americans and future NBA players that have come through his program. This year should be no different. Not only does he have another loaded recruiting class coming in, but Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands are back. There are no excuses this year.

18. TCU HORNED FROGS

  • CAN JAYLEN FISHER AND ALEX ROBINSON CO-EXIST IN THE BACKCOURT?

Looking at the way that TCU’s roster comes together, it seems as if Jamie Dixon’s best five will include a pair of point guards. Fisher is the more well-rounded of the two, but Robinson is an elite passer even if there are some questions about the rest of his game. They’ll need big seasons out of Desmond Bane and Kouat Noi, but for my money, making things work with two point guards is how they reach their ceiling.

19. LOUISVILLE CARDINALS

  • SO IS THIS CHRIS MACK GUY THE REAL DEAL?

For the Cardinals to finish the season ranked this high, he’ll have to be. Louisville, coming off one of the most trying three-year periods in college basketball history, will be officially replacing an all-time great head coach after losing their starting point guard and a pair of stars — Deng Adel and Ray Spalding — to early entry. There is still talent on this roster. What can Mack do with it?

20. WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS

  • CAN THE MOUNTAINEERS SURVIVE AFTER LOSING THEIR BACKCOURT?

We’ve seen West Virginia overcome the loss of key program players in recent years and not miss a beat, but they did that while keeping the two guys that define the Press Virginia era: Daxter Miles and, more importantly, Jevon Carter. Those two set the tone for this program for the last four seasons. They will not be easily replaced, but that is the task that Bob Huggins has in front of him.

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21. N.C. STATE WOLFPACK

  • JUST HOW GOOD WILL THESE GUARDS BE?

Losing Omer Yurtseven hurts N.C. State because this team now has a massive hole where their frontcourt used to be. That doesn’t concern me all that much for two reasons: There is a massive amount of perimeter talent on this roster, from point guards Markell Johnson and Braxton Beverly to transfers C.J. Bryce and Devon Daniels to freshman Jericole Hellems. Keatts’ best teams at UNC Wilmington had deep, talented backcourts that allowed his pressing style to thrive. Wolfpack fans are hoping that will be the case for this group.

22. LSU TIGERS

  • HOW GOOD IS TREMONT WATERS’ SUPPORTING CAST?

Will Wade has made one thing clear in his 15 months in Baton Rouge: He is going to be able to get players with a lot of stars in their recruiting ranking to come to campus. The question is whether or not those players are going to be able to find a way to fit together. We know how good Tremont Waters was, and how good he will likely be this season, but unless the likes of Javonte Smart, Emmitt Williams and Naz Reid live up to their reputations, the Tigers are probably looking at being somewhere between the back-end of the bubble teams and the top of the NIT bracket.

23. CLEMSON TIGERS

  • HOW WILL CLEMSON HANDLE BEING THE HUNTED?

One of the most under-discussed storylines from last season was the disaster that was Northwestern basketball. They went from making their first NCAA tournament to being everyone’s preseason darling to losing by 36 points to Texas Tech and reminding everyone why they are Northwestern. They are the posterchild for the dangers in becoming satisfied. Clemson was very good last season, a top five seed that reached the Sweet 16, and they return quite a few key pieces. Will the hunger to win still be there after they’ve tasted success?

24. MICHIGAN WOLVERINES

  • WHO IS GOING TO SCORE?

The Wolverines went through long bouts of brick-laying last season, even as they made a run through the Big Ten tournament and to the national title game. They were not a typical John Beilein team, as they won a staunch defense and relied on Mo Wagner and company to do just enough scoring to win. The problem? Wagner and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, by far the two best offensive players on their roster last season, are gone. Will Charles Matthews take the next step to go-to scorer? Will Zavier Simpson? Is Jordan Poole going to be the guy? Michigan’s defense gives them a floor. I’m not sure who gives them a ceiling.

25. SYRACUSE ORANGE

  • WILL TYUS BATTLE BE THEIR ONLY CREATIVE OFFENSIVE THREAT AGAIN?

Syracuse was not a very good basketball team last season, particularly on the offensive end of the floor, but Jim Boeheim is just so damn good at making his zone impenetrable that the Orange were able to win games in the 50s thanks to Tyus Battle finding a way to carry a massive burden offensively. If that’s who they are again next season, the Orange faithful should expect more of the same: ugly games, a low NCAA tournament seed and a shot to win a few games because, oh boy, are they a nightmare to play against. But this team has a chance to be much more if, say, O’Shae Brissett takes the next step or Buddy Boeheim proves to be capable of Gerry McNamara-esque shooting feats.

No. 11 Michigan State’s win over Ohio State overshadowed by Nick Ward injury

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No. 11 Michigan State used a 20-2 run over the course of the final eight minutes on Saturday afternoon, sending Ohio State back to Columbus with a 62-44 loss to keep pace with Purdue and Michigan atop the Big Ten standings, but no one is going to be talking about that today.

They’re going to be talking about Nick Ward.

The 6-foot-9 junior center for the Spartans emerged from halftime with his left hand — shooting hand — heavily bandaged and played just four second half minutes because of the injury. At this point, it is unclear what the severity of the injury is or how the injury was actually suffered, but what is clear is that the Spartans are not the same team without him.

Michigan State is already down their second-best scorer with Josh Langford injured. Losing Ward would mean losing their best low-post scorer and a guy that gets them a couple of easy buckets every night because of his ability to run the floor and the way Cassius Winston can find him in transition.

With Langford out of commission, Michigan State is going to have a tough enough time with Michigan in two of their last four game.

Without Ward?

It’s hard to see the Spartans winning much of anything if this injury ends up being serious.

Saturday’s Things To Know: Barrett shines, Kentucky rolls, Kansas’ time is a flat circle

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PLAYER OF THE DAY: R.J. Barrett, Duke

Barrett has been something of a disappointment this season considering what the expectations for him were coming into the year. He was the No. 1 prospect in the class, the guy we thought was going to the No. 1 pick, and he’s been … just an all-american?

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, I guess.

One of the knocks on Barrett throughout the year has been that he can be too selfish and that he’s an inefficient gunner. Well, on Saturday, as Zion Williamson poured in 32 points while battling foul trouble in a 94-78 win over N.C. State, Barrett completed just the fourth triple-double in the history of the Duke program. He had 23 points (8-for-16 shooting), 11 boards and 10 assists, and he did it without committing a turnover.

Not bad.

TEAM OF THE DAY: Kentucky Wildcats

No. 5 Kentucky smacked around the No. 1 team in the country on Saturday, beating Tennessee, 86-69, in Lexington. It was their ceiling game. We wrote 1,000 words all about it here.

ONIONS OF THE DAY: Joe Wieskamp, Iowa

After Geo Baker hit a go-ahead three with 3.3 seconds left, Iowa answered with one of the wildest shots of the season. Check this out:

EXTRA ONIONS: David Jenkins, South Dakota State

Jenkins capped off a comeback from 17 points down in the second half as the Jackrabbits knocked off North Dakota State with a buzzer-beater from halfcourt:

WINNERS

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines kept a hold on first place in the Big Ten race by rolling over No. 24 Maryland in Ann Arbor on Saturday.

AVERY BENSON AND ANDREW SORRELLS: No. 15 Texas Tech steam-rolled another Big 12 opponent on Saturday, beating Baylor by 25 points. And while the win didn’t make all that much noise, Texas Tech did make some headlines thanks to a pair of walk-ons who through an alley-oop in the final seconds of a blowout win. Chris Beard was not happy:

My take?

Whatever the punishment ends up being — the suicides, the wall-sits, whatever it is — it was worth it. Walk-ons only get so many shots at glory. If you have a chance to throw a lob or catch a lob and dunk it as a walk-on, you take it. Those two already are legends on campus.

Like I said, it was worth it.

LSU: The Tigers hung on to beat Georgia on the road, their second road win of the week. This is significant because Kentucky knocked off Tennessee on Saturday as well, and that Wildcat win means that LSU is now tied with Tennessee for first place in the league standings. The best news? Four of LSU’s final six games are at home, including hosting a game against the Vols. And the Vols also have to play Kentucky against. Is … is LSU the odds-on favorite to win the SEC now?

LOSERS

INDIANA: This has to be rock bottom for the Hoosiers, right?

Not only have they now lost 10 out of their last 11 games, but this loss was a total and complete humiliation. The Hoosiers lost by 21 points at Minnesota. They trailed by as many as 30. With an NCAA tournament bid still up in the air, Indiana played as if they didn’t even want to make the trip up to Minneapolis. This has not been the sophomore season that Archie Miller wanted.

DEAN WADE’S FOOT: No. 18 Kansas State lost to No. 23 Iowa State at home on Saturday, which cost them the cushion they had in the Big 12 title race, but that might not be their biggest loss of the day. Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year Dean Wade suffered another foot injury. It does not appear to be all that serious, but for a guy that has missed long stretches of each of the last two seasons with foot injuries, everything is serious.

CLEMSON: The Tigers lost their second straight game in demoralizing fashion on Saturday. Against Louisville, the Tigers erased a seven point deficit in less than 15 seconds and, with 3.5 seconds left in a one-point game, forced a turnover and had two shots two win it at the buzzer. Spoiler alert: They didn’t. On Wednesday, it was Miami — one of the worst teams in the ACC — hitting a last-second jumper that bounced off the backboard twice before going in. There’s only a bid to the NCAA tournament on the line here.

FINAL THOUGHT

Kansas is always going to find a way to win the Big 12.

Right?

I mean, it’s proven to be true for 14 straight years, regardless of what disaster or obstacle gets put in their way.

And after what transpired on Saturday, it looks like we’re heading down that same road again.

Kansas State entered the day holding a two game lead in the loss column in the league title race. But they lost at home to Iowa State and, in the process, lost Dean Wade. The injury does not appear to be serious, but it does appear to be something that will, at the very least, bother him for a little while. We know what Kansas State is without Wade on the floor at 100 percent (not very good), which opens the door for Kansas.

The standings, as of today, look like this:

  • Kansas State (9-3)
  • Texas Tech (9-4)
  • Kansas (9-4)
  • Iowa State (8-4)

Kansas still has to play at Texas Tech next Saturday in the game that appears to be the most likely to keep Kansas from calling themselves Big 12 champions one again. The Jayhawks also host Kansas State while Texas Tech pays a visit to Iowa State on the last day of the regular season.

Those are the games that will decide the Big 12 regular season title.

And despite starting four freshmen, one of whom was supposed to redshirt this season, while playing without Udoka Azubuike, Marcus Garrett and Lagerald Vick, Kansas is very much in the thick of the race.

One win in Lubbock next week, and they might even be the favorites.

Someone once told me, time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re going to do over and over and over again.

No. 5 Kentucky hands No. 1 Tennessee first SEC loss in dominant fashion

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This time, Kentucky made sure that it didn’t come down to a controversial call.

The No. 5 Wildcats used a 14-0 to open the second half, pushing a 37-31 halftime lead to 20 points as they cruised to a 86-69 win over No. 1 Tennessee in Rupp Arena on Saturday night. They were led by 23 points from P.J. Washington, who outplayed Tennessee’s all-american Grant Williams and staked his claim to the title of the SEC’s best player.

Keldon Johnson added 19 points for Kentucky, hitting three first half threes that helped lead Kentucky to an early double-digit lead.

This is the first loss in SEC play for Tennessee, who had not lost a game since they fell to Kansas in overtime in the title game of the Preseason NIT way back on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The win keeps Kentucky within a game of first place in the league standings. No. 21 LSU, who beat Kentucky in that controversial finish, is now tied with Tennessee for first in the SEC title race after they beat Georgia on Saturday night.

Here are three things we can take away from Saturday night’s top five battle:

1. THIS IS KENTUCKY’S CEILING GAME

We have been talking about the fact that Kentucky is good enough to get to the Final Four and win a national title for a couple of months now, but this game is the first time that was have seen them on the floor make a statement of this magnitude.

There are reasons to be concerned about just how good Tennessee is — and we’ll get to that — but there’s no doubt that they are one of college basketball’s best teams.

And Kentucky absolutely took them behind the woodshed.

P.J. Washington was living his best life and doing so while going up against the man we all thought was the favorite for SEC Player of the Year in Grant Williams. He finished with 23 points on a cool 9-for-12 fro the floor to go along with five boards, two steals and two blocks. He was a major reason that Tennessee could not find a way to get their offense flowing through Williams.

Keldon Johnson was just as good. He got hot early in the game, which helped the Wildcats shake off some early jitters and jump out to a double-digit lead, and looked every bit the part of a floor-spacer that is a threat to score off the bounce. Tyler Herro didn’t shoot the ball all that well, but he did finished with 13 boards and three assists while Ashton Hagans did his usual — pestering defensive to go along with nine points and seven assists.

Even Nick Richards gave Coach Cal terrific minutes, but perhaps the biggest surprise of the night was the play of Reid Travis. He finished with just 11 points, eight boards and a pair of blocks, but he did the job that Kentucky needed him to do, helping to wear down Tennessee’s frontcourt with his bulk.

It’s not all that surprising to see Kentucky come out and win a game like this given what happened on Tuesday night, but the way in which they won should let you know that these Wildcats are going to be a very real threat in March.

(AP Photo/James Crisp)

2. THIS RESULT HAD A LOT TO DO WITH MATCHUP

Tennessee wants to pound the ball in the paint as much as anyone in college basketball. There are only 20 teams in the country that get a higher percentage of their scoring off of two-point field goals and just 21 that get fewer points off of threes. It makes sense when you think about it: Their best player is Grant Williams, their second-best player is Admiral Schofield and those guys earn their keep because they are tougher, stronger and more physical than just about anyone that they come across. They are the nation’s second-most efficient offensive, according to KenPom, without making threes because of the way that their bigs are able to use their strength to their advantage, both in the post and when creating space for drivers.

The problem Tennessee ran into on Saturday night was that they faced off with a team that could match them inch for inch and pound for pound in the post. This was never going to be an ideal matchup for the Vols, but the way it played out sealed their fate.

And perhaps the most surprising thing about what happened on Saturday night is that it was Kentucky, not Tennessee, that was the bully.

The Vols are old, they are tough, they have a roster full of guys that look like they would thrive in the WWE and they’ve won an SEC title already. They were playing a team that is essentially all freshmen and sophomores, and it was the younger guys that treated their elders like little brother. Kentucky was the team that kept knocking Tennessee to the floor. Kentucky was the team that kept getting every loose ball. Kentucky was the team that was able to shake off physical play and continue to execute.

To think that this is the same team that rolled over and died against Duke three months ago is wild.

3. THE CONCERNS ABOUT TENNESSEE’S TALENT ARE REAL

Tennessee isn’t going to blow you away with their talent. They aren’t a one-and-done factory that is stacked with future NBA superstars. They do have some guys that will earn paychecks at the next level, but the truth is that much of the reason that the Vols have been as successful as they have the last two years comes down to effort, execution and intelligence.

That issue was at the forefront on Saturday night.

Tennessee wasn’t getting enough out of their frontcourt on Saturday night, and they needed their guards to step up and carry them. Lamonte Turner finished 2-for-11 from the floor. Admiral Schofield had 17 points, but it took him 18 shots to get there. Jordan Bowden was just 1-for-7 from the floor. Jordan Bone finished with 19 points and six assists, but 11 of those 19 points and four of those six assists can after Tennessee trailed 62-38 with 12 minutes left in the game.

Not everyone has a frontcourt as good as Kentucky’s, and Kyle Alexander is not going to be in foul trouble every game, but this was a perfect example of why there are concerns about whether or not this team can win six in March.

Waters, Smart lead No. 19 LSU over Georgia, 83-79

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ATHENS, Ga. — Tremont Waters scored 20 points, Ja’vonte Smart added 19 and No. 19 LSU won its fourth straight game, holding off Georgia for an 83-79 victory Saturday night.

The Tigers (21-4, 11-1 Southeastern Conference) are off to their best start in league play since the 1981 Final Four team was 11-0. They never trailed after Smart’s 3-pointer midway through the second half, but Georgia stayed close and didn’t allow LSU to lead by more than eight the rest of the way.

LSU was down six midway through the first half, but went on a 17-2 run to take a 31-22 lead on Skylar Mays’ layup. Georgia remained in the game, thanks in part to a sixth straight sellout crowd at Stegeman Coliseum making it tough on the Tigers.

Nicolas Claxton finished with 17 points and Rayshaun Hammonds had 13 for Georgia (10-15, 1-11). The Bulldogs have lost six straight in their first season under coach Tom Crean.

TIP-INS

LSU: The Tigers keep finding ways to win on the road. They sneaked out of Rupp Arena this week with an upset victory on Kavel Bigby-Williams’ last-second tip-in against Kentucky, and they’ve won three times in overtime. It’s a big turnaround after LSU lost its final seven SEC road games last season and dropped nine in a row away from Baton Rouge before starting league play this year. The Tigers are 7-0 on the road in the SEC for the first time since 1981.

Georgia: In 24 SEC halves played this season, the Bulldogs have been outscored 20 times. … Crean went with a three-guard starting lineup, sitting forward Derek Ogbeide and guard Teshaun Hightower in favor of Turtle Jackson, Jordan Harris and walk-on redshirt senior Christian Harrison. … The Bulldogs have struggled all season off the dribble and in giving help, so Crean mostly used a 2/3 zone in hopes to jump-starting the defense. It didn’t help much as LSU, the SEC’s best free-throw shooting team, still made it to the rim to draw fouls and score 18 points from the foul line.

R.J. Barrett’s triple-double, Zion Williamson’s 32 points lead No. 2 Duke past N.C. State

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DURHAM, N.C. — RJ Barrett had Duke’s first triple-double in 13 years, finishing with 23 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in the second-ranked Blue Devils’ 94-78 victory over North Carolina State on Saturday night.

Zion Williamson scored 32 points on 12-of-16 shooting and Tre Jones added 13 to help the Blue Devils (23-2, 11-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) win their ninth straight.

Barrett became the fourth Duke player with a triple-double and the first since Shelden Williams in January 2006. He completed it in the final minute, hitting Williamson for a layup that put Duke up 90-74.

Duke overcame 19 percent shooting from 3-point range by building a 44-26 rebounding advantage and scoring 22 points off N.C. State’s 12 turnovers.

Markell Johnson had 16 points and 10 assists, Torin Dorn scored 17 points and C.J. Bryce added 13 points for the Wolfpack (18-8, 6-7), who had their two-game winning streak snapped.

BIG PICTURE

N.C. State: The Wolfpack played like a team that believed it could beat Duke — because they had, winning each of the last two meetings — and kept coming up with an answer when the Blue Devils tried to pull away. But their struggles to keep Duke from scoring in the paint — the Blue Devils had 58 points there — kept them from their first three-game winning streak in the series since 1987-88.

Duke: The Blue Devils didn’t need a rally in this one, unlike their victory at Louisville four nights earlier in which they stormed back after trailing by 23 with less than 10 minutes left. They kept one neighborhood rival at arm’s length all night — though they never really delivered a knockout blow — and now they can focus on a bigger one: No. 8 North Carolina, which comes in Wednesday night.

IN THE SEATS

There was even more buzz inside Cameron Indoor Stadium for this one, with boxer Floyd Mayweather sitting directly behind the Duke bench and next to former Blue Devils guard Quinn Cook. Among the handful of other NBA players in attendance was Minnesota’s Tyus Jones, the older brother of the current Duke point guard, and Phoenix’s T.J. Warren, a Durham native and former N.C. State star who was in the stands with NBA All-Star Weekend taking place 2 hours away in Charlotte.