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Five Takeaways from Kentucky’s Bahamas exhibitions

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Big Blue Nation invaded the Bahamas last week, as the Kentucky Wildcats took another trip to the Atlantis Resort to play four exhibition games against professional competition.

And man, was their performance on the islands dominant.

Kentucky knocked off three professional teams as well as the Bahamian National Team by an average of 29 points in their four games.

Here are the five things that I learned while watching the Cats play:

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KENTUCKY IS GOING TO BE VERY, VERY GOOD

This isn’t exactly breaking news.

Kentucky is, after all, currently sitting at No. 3 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25, and I am on record saying that the top three — Kansas, Gonzaga and Kentucky — is so close that any of them are justifiable as a preseason No. 1; Duke could be tossed in that mix as well.

And after watching 160 minutes of Wildcat basketball this weekend, that ranking is more than justified. Kentucky has it all. They haave size. They have depth. They have perimeter scoring. They have guards that can really, really pressure the ball. They are going to be able to get on the glass. Their sophomores look terrific. Their freshmen look ready, and have the luxury of not being asked to carry the load from the get go.

Perhaps most importantly, there is lineup versatility. They can play big; or small; or roll out a lineup that can press and force turnovers; or play a team that is going to be able to put up points in a hurry.

And we still haven’t really gotten a chance to see E.J. Montogomery in action yet.

Suffice to say, Kentucky looks like they are going to be farther along early in the season than I expected,

I’m not quite ready to bump them up in my preseason top 25, but that’s mostly because I don’t want to overreact to only seeing them play without actually seeing how good Kansas or Gonzaga — or those Blue Devils — look as well.

That said, I still do have some of the same concerns that I had before, and that’s because …

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… THE KEY TO KENTUCKY’S SEASON IS GOING TO BE ROLE ACCEPTANCE

To a point, this is always the case with Kentucky, isn’t it?

Their best teams are absolutely overloaded with talent — see: 2009-10, 2011-12, 2014-15, etc. — to the point that Anthony Davis is taking the fourth-most shots on the team or Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker are averaging 21 minutes a night. The reasons those teams were as good as they were on the court, and not just on paper, was because lottery picks that eventually turned into NBA superstars were perfectly fine with seeing their minutes reduced or their shots limited for the sake of winning.

John Calipari is the best in the business at getting guys to buy-in for the good of the team.

It’s incredible, really.

And he’s going to have to do it again this season.

It starts at the point guard spot, where Cal brought back former five-star recruit Quade Green while bringing in top ten prospects Immanuel Quickley and Ashton Hagans, the latter of whom reclassified in order to enroll at UK a season early. Those are three of the top 20ish best point guards in the sport this season. At least one of them is going to be forced to come off of the bench, and in the event that Cal goes with a two-point guard look, they are all going to have to accept that they will be playing quite a few minutes off of the ball. (More on this in a minute.)

I think Reid Travis is going to be forced into a situation where he has to play a lesser role than anyone expected. Part of that is because both P.J. Washington and Nick Richards look like they’ve taken significant steps forward this offseason (again, more on this below), but it’s also because he was somewhat exposed during this trip. Travis is an absolute hoss on the block. He might be the strongest player in the country, and he’s undeniably a sensational rebounder, but he’s also somewhat limited athletically and quite a bit of his production the last couple of seasons was a result of being Stanford’s No. 1 option when there wasn’t a No. 2 option.

That’s not to say that he won’t be effective. There will be a bit of a learning curve, but I think our expectations for Travis should be something closer to 11 points and seven boards than, say, 15 points and nine boards.

Hell, he might not even start, because the biggest question I have this Monday morning is …

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… WHO IS NO. 4 AND WHAT DID HE DO WITH NICK RICHARDS?

I was expecting both P.J. Washington and Quade Green to develop into critical pieces for Kentucky this season.

I was not expecting Nick Richards to looks like a player that could force first-team all-Pac-12 transfer Reid Travis to the bench, but that’s exactly what Richards did during those four games in the Bahamas.

Richards fits the mold of the kind of center that Cal loves. He’s a 7-footer with athleticism that can catch lobs at the top of the square. There’s a reason that he started all 37 games for Kentucky last season despite the fact that he was, frankly, not very good. H

But he was awesome in the Bahamas, averaging 12.0 points while showing off an array of quick post moves and a soft touch that extended out to about 16-feet. He’s not exactly an instinctual rebounder and, despite his size, I think Washington may be a better rim-protector, but Richards is very much going to be a player that will have a positive impact on this team.

And as good as he looked in the post and as a lob target, I think his shooting touch will be just as important to this group. Both Washington and Travis are question marks as shooters, and while mid-range jumpers are not great shots, Richards’ ability to consistently make shots out to even just 12-feet will help to unclog the lane.

It’s amazing what a little bit of confidence will do for a player.

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TYLER HERRO IS GOING TO FORCE COACH CAL TO PLAY HIM

The biggest question I have with this team right now is simple: Who their go-to guy?

Over the course of the last two seasons, Kentucky’s offense has essentially centered about two things: Point guards making plays off the bounce and in ball-screen actions, and shooters/scorers getting run off of baseline screens. The former centered about De’Aaron Fox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, respectively. The latter involved Malik Monk (as a three-point shooter) and Kevin Knox (more in the mid-range).

That will change somewhat this season, as Washington is probably the odds-on favorite to lead Kentucky in scoring at this point, but I do think that it’s fair to be worried about how trustworthy he will be as someone that you give the rock to and count on to make a play.

Enter Tyler Herro, who averaged a team-high 17.3 points while coming off of the bench during this trip. Not only is he clearly the best three-point shooter on the team, but he is the guy that is the best-suited to running off of those baseline-screens. He is going to get the shots — if not play the role — that Knox, Monk and even Devin Booker have gotten in past seasons, and while he had some issues on the defensive end during this trip, he has the size and athleticism to be at least an adequate defender in the SEC.

For a team that has questions about where they are going to get offense in the halfcourt and whether or not they can space the floor, Herro is a guy that is going to force Cal to play him a lot of minutes.

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QUADE GREEN IS THIS TEAM’S QUINN COOK

I still, to this day, believe that the most important player in Duke’s run to the 2015 national title was Quinn Cook for one, simple reason: A former McDonald’s All-American and all-ACC point guard went into his senior year and gladly accepted a brand-new role playing off the ball. He embraced the idea that he would be the guy that chased around shooters defensively, that spaced the floor offensively and operated as a secondary ball-handler to Tyus Jones.

If Cook doesn’t buy into that role, if he doesn’t sacrifice his shots and the prestige of being “Duke’s starting point guard!” then his leadership falls on deaf ears and the talent on that roster is irrelevant in the big picture.

The scenario here is slightly different — Green is a sophomore, not a senior, and he’s never been an all-SEC point guard — but the impact will likely be the same. Kentucky absolutely needs Quade Green on the floor this year. His playmaking, his shooting, his decision-making. But they are likely going to need him playing off the ball, as the more dynamic Quickley and Hagans will get the first crack at that lead guard role.

He’ll still get his chances — Cook averaged 15.3 points and 2.6 assists as a senior, parlaying that into an NBA career that included a ring as a floor-spacer with the Warriors, and no one thinks Chris Paul isn’t a point guard playing next to James Harden — and as long as he’s cool with those chances coming in a different role this season, he’ll be the key that unlocks Kentucky’s best lineup.

VIDEO: Auburn’s 5-11 Jared Harper posterized Xavier

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Jared Harper might have the best poster dunk for a player under 6-feet this season.

When the No. 8 Tigers on the ropes against Xavier in the opener of the Maui Invitational, Harper made a huge play in overtime that helped ensure that Auburn would pull away with the win.

It was this:

VIDEO: Zion Williamson’s windmill defies the laws of physics

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Get used to seeing posts like this: Zion Williamson dunks making the highlight reel.

This might have been his best to date, a windmill that came off of a steal in Duke’s 90-64 win over San Diego State in the opening game of the Maui Invitational:

To really get an appreciation for this dunk, you have to look at the entirety of the picture at the top of this post. The faces … they know what they are seeing:

(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

No. 1 Duke routs San Diego State 90-64 in Maui

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LAHAINA, Hawaii — R.J. Barrett scored 20 points, Cam Reddish added 16 and top-ranked Duke remained undefeated at the Maui Invitational with a 90-64 rout over San Diego State.

The Blue Devils (4-0) shot 52 percent, made 10 of 25 from 3-point range and improved to 16-0 in Maui while earning a spot in Tuesday’s semifinals against No. 8 Auburn.

Duke has been the talk of college basketball since its highly-touted freshmen shot the season out of a canon with a blowout win over then-No. 2 Kentucky. The five-time Maui champion Blue Devils arrived in paradise the favorites and played like it against the Aztecs (2-1).

Despite front-court foul trouble in the first half — Zion Williamson played seven minutes — Duke took control with an 11-0 run and led 49-32 by halftime behind Barrett’s 16 points.

The Blue Devils kept the runaway going with an early 8-0 run in the second half, building the lead to 71-46 on Williamson’s breakaway windmill dunk. Williamson had 13 points in 18 minutes.

Devin Watson had 15 points to lead San Diego State (2-1).

No. 8 Auburn outlasts Xavier 88-79 in Maui

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LAHAINA, Hawaii — Bryce Brown scored 26 points, Jared Harper added 25 and No. 8 Auburn outlasted Xavier 88-79 in overtime to open the Maui Invitational.

The Tigers (4-0) shot poorly from the perimeter early and had a hard time shaking the new-look Musketeers (2-2), missing badly on a shot to win it in regulation.

Auburn took control in the overtime behind its defense, outscoring Xavier 11-2. The Tigers scored 31 points off Xavier’s 22 turnovers overall to earn a spot in the semifinals against the Duke-San Diego State winner.

Ryan Welage had 17 points and Paul Scruggs 16 for the Musketeers.

Auburn had a five-point lead with a minute left in regulation, but Naj Marshall made a 3-pointer from the wing to pull the Musketeers within 77-75.

Xavier tied it at 77-all with 26 seconds left in regulation on Tyrique Jones’ two free throws and Brown’s last-second shot came up well short.

Villanova, Syracuse fall out of Top 25 poll as Duke, Kansas stay on top

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Two of college basketball’s bluebloods remained firmly entrenched atop the AP Top 25 after a week of easy wins, while two more tumbled all the way out after a week filled with defeats.

One of them happens to be the reigning national champion.

While top-ranked Duke and No. 2 Kansas did little to hurt their status as early national title contenders, Villanova and Syracuse slid all the way out of the Top 25 on Monday. The Wildcats lost a rematch of last year’s championship game with Michigan, then lost in overtime to Furman on Saturday to give coach Jay Wright’s team back-to-back losses for the first time in five years.

The Wildcats had risen to No. 8 last week. They were among those receiving votes this week.

“We’re trying to work out a lot of chemistry things with our team. We have a lot of new guys,” Villanova guard Phil Booth said. “We’re trying to play more together and figure things out.”

Indeed, the Wildcats are trying to replace key players Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman after last year’s championship run. But while a strong recruiting class is trying to find its way, the Wildcats are off to a 2-2 start for the first time since 1997.

They’re also the first national champion to start 2-2 since UCLA in 1995.

The Wildcats weren’t the only big-time program to take a tumble this week. Syracuse dropped from No. 15 out of the poll after losing to Connecticut and Oregon in the 2k Classic.

“We have to play better offensively we’re going to be successful. Our defense is nowhere near the point it was last year. That’s something that also has to get better,” said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose team is 2-2 for the first time since the 1987-88 season. “There’s no doubt we have a lot of work to do. We’re a long ways away.”

The top five remained unchanged with Duke remained the clear No. 1, receiving 53 of 63 first-place votes after blowing out Eastern Michigan. Kansas was second with seven first-place votes after wins over Vermont and Louisiana-Lafayette, followed by Gonzaga, Virginia and Tennessee.

“I think in the past few days we grew up a bit more,” said Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose team played San Diego State in the first round of the Maui Invitational on Monday.

Gonzaga (3-0) and eighth-ranked Auburn (3-0) are also in the tournament.

“It’s a great field,” Krzyzewski said. “You’re playing three straight days, which will never happen otherwise during the season, so success or failure there has to be looked at a little bit closer. It’s a great opportunity for competition, and there are some big-time teams in the tournament, which usually there are when we’re in the tournament.”

AT THE TOP

The only major movement in the top 10 involved Villanova dropping out and Michigan (5-0) climbing from No. 18 to ninth. Nevada (3-0) remained sixth and North Carolina (4-0) seventh. Auburn moved up one spot and Kentucky (3-1) rounded out the first 10.

BIG RISERS

The Wolverines were the biggest movers, while Virginia Tech (4-0) climbed three spots to No. 13. Clemson was No. 16, followed by UCLA, TCU and LSU after each of them also moved up three spots.

ALSO SLIDING

Marquette joined Villanova and Syracuse in dropping from the poll after the Golden Eagles (3-1) were routed by Indiana. Oregon (3-1) dropped from No. 13 to No. 21 after splitting its games against Iowa and Syracuse in New York.

BIG TEN NEWCOMERS

Iowa (4-0) leaped into the poll at No. 20 after beating Oregon and blowing out UConn to win the 2K Classic. It’s the first time the Hawkeyes have been ranked since the final poll of the 2015-16 season.

The other newcomers this week were also from the Big Ten: Ohio State (4-0) entered at No. 23 after beating Creighton and South Carolina State, and Wisconsin squeaked in ahead of another Big Ten rival in Nebraska at No. 25 after the Badgers (3-0) took care of Xavier and Houston Baptist.