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No. 19 Syracuse Orange: Can Boeheim better 2018’s Sweet 16 run?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 19 Syracuse.


For the second time in just three seasons, Syracuse and head coach Jim Boeheim did their best to make me look like an idiot in March.

In 2016, after the Orange were bounced out in the first round of the ACC tournament, finishing with a 19-13 record and a 9-9 mark in the ACC, I said that they had absolutely no business getting an at-large bid to the Big Dance before they, as a No. 10 seed, decided to march all the way to the Final Four. This past season, I, again, railed against the Orange’s inclusion in the NCAA tournament field after they entered Selection Sunday with a 20-13 record and an 8-10 finish in the ACC.

What did Syracuse do?

They beat Arizona State in a play-in game before knocking off both TCU and Michigan State en route to the Sweet 16, where Duke was finally able to send Syracuse packing.

You see, despite entering the tournament with a rotation that included just seven scholarship players, Boeheim was able to field a roster that finished with the nation’s fifth-best defense, according to KenPom.com, and was anchored by Tyus Battle, one of the most productive guards in the sport despite the fact that he essentially played every minute for the Orange over the course of the final three months of the season. He finished last season averaging 19.2 points despite playing on one of the slowest teams in college basketball.

And this is the best part: Syracuse returns everyone of consequence from that team while adding a pair of freshmen that will play roles as well as a transfer that could end up pushing for a starting spot.

It’s why Syracuse may not be the most entertaining team to watch this season, but they are a sneaky bet to win the ACC.

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SYRACUSE WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

The Orange will, once again, be one of the single-best teams in the country on the defensive end of the floor.

And, as Jim Boeheim has for what feels like half-a-century, they’ll do so by playing the nation’s preeminent 2-3 zone.

I know what you’re thinking: How can it be so difficult for coaches to game-plan against their zone? Why is it so hard for good basketball coaches and good basketball teasm to run good offense against a defense that is generally reserved for old guys trying to keep the dream alive in a men’s league?

It’s because the zone that Syracuse plays is different than your average 2-3 zone. It starts with the ridiculous amount of length that Boeheim has on his roster. Both of his starting guards are 6-foot-6, long and athletic. The wings are 6-foot-9, long and athletic. His starting center is 7-foot-2, and his back-up center is 6-foot-10. Both of them are, you guessed it, long and athletic.

What all that length does is take away passing lanes, especially when you factor in that Boeheim’s zone starts as something closer to a 2-2-1 than a 2-3. The wings push up high, the guards at the top of the zone cut-off a pass to the high-post as the center at the rim defends against a lob over the top of the defense. Opposing offenses can swing the ball around the perimeter or throw looping passes to the corners, which gives Syracuse defenders ample time to move where they need to be, but that’s about it.

The entire purpose of Boeheim’s recruiting strategy — stockpiling as much height, length and athleticism as humanly possible — is to make moving the ball quickly or getting a clean look from the perimeter against his zone impossible.

With this roster, he has done just that.

Syracuse finished last season ranked as the fifth-best defense in the country, according to KenPom’s adjusted-defensive efficiency metric. That is the highest that any Syracuse team has finished in the 17 seasons in KenPom’s database. They were 10th nationally in defensive effective field goal percentage, and while they struggled on the defensive glass, anyone that grabbed an offensive board still has to contend with finishing in the paint around all that length. Should I mention the Orange finished the year third in defensive block rate?

But that’s not the most impressive thing Syracuse did defensively.

This is: The Orange held opponent’s to just 31.8 percent shooting from three (good for 17th nationally) while forcing their opponents to shoot 44.5 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc. That is the highest percentage of any team in the seven high-major leagues. For comparison’s sake, Virginia held opponent’s to 31.0 percent shooting from three, with 40.8 percent of their field goal attempts coming from beyond the arc.

That, frankly, is incredible. It tells you everything you need to know about the Syracuse.

And not only does Boeheim return all five starters and his sixth-man from that team, three of those six returnees — Oshae Brissett, Marek Dolezaj and Bourama Sidibe — were freshmen a season ago, and another 6-foot-6 guard — East Carolina transfer Elijah Hughes, who sat out last season — is eligible to play this season. Throw in a pair of freshmen — Jalen Carey and Buddy Boeheim — that are expected to see immediate playing time, and the Orange will actually be able to give some of their starters a rest this season.

Syracuse is going to be one of the nation’s elite defenses once again, and that is enough to make them a top 25 team entering the season.

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BUT SYRACUSE IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

I’m not convinced that their offensive improvement is going to be all that drastic.

Let’s call a spade, a spade: Syracuse was downright bad offensively a season ago. They finished the year 135th in KenPom’s adjusted-offensive efficiency metric, which is easily the lowest Syracuse finish in KenPom’s database. The reason the Orange were so poor on that end is three-fold:

  1. They were horrid shooting the ball from the perimeter, making just 31.8 percent of their threes. That was good for 324th nationally. Their floor-spacing was non-existent, which is what happens when you have two players on the floor that are ineffective more than five feet from the rim.
  2. Syracuse didn’t exactly have a point guard on the floor. Franklin Howard led the team in assists, but he was quite turnover prone and, for the second straight season, padded those raw stats against some middling early-season competition. Tyus Battle took over lead guard duties, but …
  3. … he was not only an inefficient scorer that struggled to make his teammates better, he was also more or less the only option for Syracuse to be able to create offense against quality competition.

I don’t think there’s any question that Syracuse will be improved on that end this season. I fully expect Brissett and Dolezaj to be more well-rounded weapons offensively, particularly Brissett, who averaged 14.9 points and 8.8 boards as a freshman. As he gets ‘stretchier’, making more than 33.1 percent of his threes, he’ll only become a better weapon.

Carey and Hughes will also help space the floor and take some of the creative responsibility off of Battle’s plate. Both have drawn rave reviews from sources around the program this offseason. Then there is Buddy Boeheim, a 6-foot-5 sharpshooter that could see 15-20 minutes per game. His size will allow him to play on the top of the zone, hiding his defensive issues, and he steps on campus as the best shooter in the program this side of assistant coach Gerry McNamara.

But I’m nowhere near convinced that this ensures Syracuse will be a top 50 offense, and I think that is what it will take for the Orange to be by the end of the season if they want to be a top four team in the ACC and a true Final Four contender.

Last season, Syracuse was the only top seven team in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric that was not ranked between 30th and 50th in adjusted offensive efficiency. Of those six — Virginia, Cincinnati, Michigan, Texas Tech, Tennessee and Clemson — only Clemson was outside the top three seed lines in the NCAA tournament; the Tigers were a No. 5 seed that reached the Sweet 16.

That’s where the Orange need to be offensively to hit their ceiling …

(Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

… but I’m still in wait and see mode.

The biggest reason? I don’t see a difference in their best five this season when compared to last season. Hughes averaged 7.8 points, 2.3 boards and 1.3 assists while shooting 27.3 percent from three for a bad East Carolina team in 2016-17. Is he going to solve the issues Syracuse has offensively? Carey is a four-star prospect that picked the Orange over Seton Hall and ranked 61st in 247 Sports composite rankings. Buddy Boeheim shoots the leather off the ball, but again, we’re not exactly talking about the second-coming of J.J. Redick here. Those two can fill a role. They’re not going to be one-and-done.

More importantly, every time one of those three newcomers steps on the court, Syracuse will be forced to do one of three things: Send Battle to the bench, send Howard to the bench or play with a guard in one of the wing spots.

Howard has his warts as a player, but he still managed to put up 14.4 points, 4.7 assists and 3.5 boards while leading the Orange in steals. He’s not a perfect fit for what Syracuse needs him to be, but he’s also a long way from being a bum. Playing a guard on a wing will hurt the Orange defensively. Will the boost they get from having another real offensive threat on the floor instead of playing Dolezaj alongside a catch-and-dunk center outweigh what they lose defensively?

And all of this ignores the simple fact that Jim Boeheim despises using his bench. His program hasn’t finished in the top 300 of bench minutes since the 2011-12 season, when he used Dion Waiters — who was the No. 4 pick in the 2012 draft — and Michael Carter-Williams — the No. 11 pick in the 2013 draft and the 2014 NBA Rookie of the Year — as substitutes.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

Syracuse is going to be a good basketball team. They should make it back to the NCAA tournament. They are right there with the likes of Clemson, N.C. State, Virginia Tech and Florida State in the discussion for the fourth-best team in the ACC.

The difference-maker, I think, will be Tyus Battle.

The 6-foot-6 junior scored a ton of points last season. He also took a ton of shots and finished with a higher turnover rate than assist rate. It’s why he’s back in school right now instead of trying to earn a roster spot in the NBA. His inefficiency, while explainable, scared teams off.

And I think he’ll make an effort to improve that this year. He’ll look to take better shots. He’ll try to get his teammates more involved. If he wants to be a combo in the NBA, he has to showcase some ability to make teammates better in college.

If he does that, if he’s more efficient while the sophomore class takes a step forward and the newcomers take some of the load off of Battle’s shoulders, this group has a chance.

Their ability to fluster anyone and everyone with that zone gives them a floor of being a tournament team. Their ceiling, if it all comes together, is as a top ten team, but as of today, my money is on this group finishing closer to their floor than their ceiling.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

NBC Sports Top 25: Duke is still No. 1

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I’m going to get crushed for this.

I know I am.

So before you do it, just listen to my reasoning: Duke, regardless of what happened on Monday night, is still the best college basketball team in the country — which, after all, is what rankings are supposed to determine, right? — largely due to the fact that they still have the two best players in the sport in Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. Those two, playing without the team’s starting point guard, combined to put 57 points on Virginia in a 72-70 win on Saturday. Virginia, I think it’s worth mentioning here, has the second-highest adjusted efficiency margin of any team in KenPom’s database. Kentucky’s 2015 team is the only team that rated higher.

I think it’s also worth mentioning that the No. 2 team in the country in my poll — and the team that is likely going to be No. 1 in the AP Poll come Monday morning — won a one possession game at home against an unranked Alabama on Saturday. They won that game because John Petty, who had 30 points on the afternoon, traveled with the Crimson Tide down 69-68 with 3.2 seconds left.

In just about the same scenario, Duke lost to an unranked Syracuse in an overtime game where Zion missed a free throw in the final seconds of regulation that would have won the game. If Zion makes his free throw and Petty doesn’t travel, we’re not even having this conversation.

That’s how close it is, and making concrete decisions about whom is better than whom based off of one missed free throw and a traveling call is probably sub-optimal.

And, lest we forget, that Duke’s loss came without two of their top four players. Would that game have played out differently if it was Cam “I hit the game-winning three at Florida State” Reddish chucking corner threes instead of Jack “I went 0-for-10 from deep” White?

I say all that to say this: I am not seeding NCAA tournament teams here. Our bracket projection gets updated every Thursday morning, and our Dave Ommen is the very best in the business when it comes to projecting the field. He has Duke as a No. 2 seed, and that is probably correct. If you are looking for someone to do rankings strictly based on accomplishment — if all you are looking for someone to tell you what team has amassed the most impressive array of results — that is the place to go.

There literally is nowhere better on the internet for it.

But this space is supposed to be about ranking the best teams in the country.

And Duke, for my money, is the best team in the country because as of today, I would pick them to beat any other team in the country on a neutral court.

Anyway, here are the full rankings:

1. Duke (15-2, Last Week: 1)
2. Tennessee (16-1, 2)
3. Gonzaga (18-2, 5)
4. Virginia (16-1, 4)
5. Michigan State 16-2, 6)
6. Michigan (17-1, 2)
7. Kentucky (14-3, 10)
8. Virginia Tech (15-2, 9)
9. Kansas (15-3, 7)
10. Texas Tech (15-3, 8)
11. Nevada (18-1, 11)
12. Marquette (16-3, 12)
13. North Carolina (14-4, 13)
14. Maryland (16-3, 20)
15. Ole Miss (14-3, 15)
16. N.C. State (15-3, 16)
17. Auburn (13-4, 17)
18. Mississippi State (14-3, 18)
19. Buffalo (17-1, 19)
20. Villanova (14-4, 21)
21. Houston (18-1, 22)
22. LSU (14-3, NR)
23. Louisville (13-5, 25)
24. Iowa State (14-4, NR)
25. Purdue (12-6, NR)

New Additions: 22. LSU, 24. Iowa State, 25. Purdue
Dropped Out: 14. Florida State, 23. Oklahoma, 24. Indiana

Saturday’s Things To Know: Four top ten teams go down

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PLAYER OF THE DAY: Ethan Happ, Wisconsin

Considering all of the context surrounding this game — Wisconsin having lost four of their last five, Michigan entering the day undefeated, the Badgers’ struggles on the offensive end of the floor, the tenacity with which the Wolverines defend — the performance the we got out of Ethan Happ on Saturday afternoon in the Kohl Center was one of the best individual performances of the year.

Happ finished with 26 points, 10 boards, seven assists and two steals against No. 2 Michigan, one of the nation’s top five defenses, to lead the Badgers to a 64-54 win that moved them to 4-3 in the Big Ten and ended Michigan’s best start to a season in program history. All told, Happ was responsible for 43 of Wisconsin’s 64 points, a fact made even more impressive by the presence of Jon Teske, who has morphed into one of the best defensive big men in the country.

This wasn’t a must-win game for Wisconsin — those don’t exist in January — but it was a ‘prove it’ game.

And Wisconsin did just that.

Thanks to Ethan Happ.

TEAM OF THE DAY: Baylor Bears

Freshman Jared Butler scored 14 of his 19 points in the second half to lead Baylor to an upset home win over No. 8 Texas Tech on Saturday evening. Butler also might have hit the biggest shot of the game, burying a three with 4:30 left in the game after Tech has reeled off an 11-0 run to cut the lead to two points. On the next Baylor possession, he finished a three-point play, and the Bears would go on to win 73-62.

This win is so important for Baylor because it not only adds a marquee win to their tournament resume, but it keeps them in the race for the Big 12 title.

Seriously.

Baylor isn’t in a tie for first right now, but that’s only because they haven’t played as many games as the four teams that are currently tied for first in the league. They are, however, tied in the loss column, and a win at last place West Virginia on Monday would get them there.

Should I mention West Virginia just beat Kansas?

ONIONS OF THE DAY: Tyler Herro, Kentucky

Tyler Herro was the star for Kentucky in their biggest win of the season.

The No. 12 Wildcats went into Auburn Arena and knocked off No. 14 Auburn, 82-80, to keep pace at the top of the SEC standings, and Herro was the reason why. He scored 10 of his team-high 20 points in the final 5:23, including a pair of free throws in the final minute to give Kentucky a lead they would never relinquish.

SATURDAY’S BIGGEST WINNERS

DUKE: I’ve written plenty on Duke’s win over Virginia. Read it all here.

BIG 12 PARITY: Goooooooood luck trying to figure the Big 12 out this year.

As of today, there are four teams in the league that are tied in first place with a 4-2 record in the league — Kansas, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Iowa State. That doesn’t include Baylor, who beat the Red Raiders on Saturday to move to 3-2 in Big 12 play, or Texas, who knocked off Oklahoma to get to 3-3 on the year in league play. TCU, who is in seventh place in the conference race, is just one game out of first in the loss column while Oklahoma, who is ranked 20th in the AP Poll, is sitting in a tie for eighth.

Should I mention that West Virginia — the team in last place in the league — beat the eventual league champs* Kansas today?

*We all know it’s happening. 

WEST VIRGINIA: You heard that right. West Virginia, who entered Saturday with an 0-5 mark in Big 12 play and have played the entirety of the league schedule to date without Sagaba Konate, knocked off No. 7 Kansas in Morgantown for the fourth time in the last five years. In the process, West Virginia exposed the fatal flaw in this Kansas program.

JA MORANT TRACKER: The Murray State superstar and future top five pick finished with 10 points and 10 assists in a win over SIU-Edwardsville. There are some real concerns about his shooting stroke moving forward, but it’s worth noting here: Morant was 21-for-21 from the free throw line. Sources say that’s pretty good.

SATURDAY’S BIGGEST LOSERS

TOP TEN TEAMS: Four of them lost today. Three of those four — No. 2 Michigan, No. 7 Kansas and No. 8 Texas Tech — lost on the road to unranked teams in league play. The fourth — No. 4 Virginia — lost on the road in league play as well, only they fell to … No. 1 Duke. That’ll happen.

UNDEFEATED TEAMS: Entering the day, there were two of them.

As of this very moment, there are none. Of the ten biggest leagues in the sport, only Michigan State, Tennessee, LSU, Villanova, Washington, Gonzaga and Saint Louis are still unbeaten in league play.

AAC OFFICIALS: Gregg Marshall, after getting ejected from a home game against Cincinnati, told reporters afterwards that, “I felt like the road team today.” This was the third time this week that an AAC officiating crew was in the headlines. On Thursday night, Tulsa coach Frank Haith and UConn coach Dan Hurley were both ejected at the same time after being given two technical fouls apiece for this dust-up. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin was also ejected earlier in the week.

It’s worth noting here — two of the officials that tossed Haith and Hurley (Pat Adams and Marques Pettigrew) also tossed Marshall.

SEC TEAMS IN ALABAMA: No. 14 Auburn did not have a good day. They dug themselves a 16 point second half hole against No. 12 Kentucky, came roaring back thanks to 25 second half points from Bryce Brown and then lost in the final seconds because a game-winning bucket from Jared Harper happened to roll off the rim. Brutal.

But Alabama might have had it worse. They had so many chances to put No. 3 Tennessee away in the final minutes, but they couldn’t run offense. They had a chance to win with 11 seconds left, but John Petty traveled. It was not ideal.

FINAL THOUGHT

No. 25 Indiana was embarrassed on Saturday.

They lost to rival Purdue 70-55, but it wasn’t the scoreline that really is the indicator here. It was Romeo Langford, who managed just four points in 22 minutes, getting bench with 3:19 remaining because Indiana was, frankly, better without him. His plus-minus was -16, meaning that Indiana actually outscored Purdue in the 18 minutes that Langford was glued to the pine.

It was the fact that the Hoosiers were once again beaten up in a game that they badly needed to win. This was their fourth straight loss. On Monday, they were beaten by 15 points at home against Nebraska.

And look, it should not be all that surprising that Indiana is working through some growing pains here. This is a young team with a freshmen backcourt and a roster that has dealt with some injury issues. They aren’t all that talented, and they don’t shoot it all that well, and, if we’re going to call a spade a spade, they have not gotten the best that Archie Miller has to offer has a head coach yet.

I think Archie would probably tell you that.

And I think he would also tell you that he’s about to learn, first-hand, just how much pressure there is being the coach of a program like Indiana.

Because the fans are not happy about this losing streak, not when one of their own, the one-and-done lottery pick that is supposed to lead Indiana to the promised, is seeing his only season go to waste. Now the media is starting to pile on. Look at the biggest names covering the team. Gregg Doyel ripped them. Dan Dakich (continues) to rip them. Rick Bozich ripped them. I’m sure there are more that I just haven’t noticed yet.

And it’s not going to stop there.

The Colts are out of the playoffs. The Pacers aren’t going to be winning any titles this year. College basketball is going to drive any and all conversation, and the Hoosiers getting humiliated by their in-state rival is all anyone is going to want to talk about.

It’s not easy being the coach of a blueblood.

There’s a reason that someone like Shaka Smart prioritized Texas and Billy Donovan loved it at Florida. It’s nice when the money is there and the pressure only comes after the football team plays a bowl game and before spring practices start.

That’s certainly not the case at Indiana.

And Archie is going to learn that the hard way this week.

RJ Barrett leads No. 1 Duke past No. 4 Virginia 72-70

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DURHAM, N.C. — No. 1 Duke and fourth-ranked Virginia kept trading baskets — and the lead — down the stretch of another classic at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Here’s the difference: The Blue Devils had RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and a defense that -even without key on-the-ball defender Tre Jones- flipped the script on the Cavaliers.

Barrett scored 30 points, Williamson had 27 and Duke gave Virginia its first loss of the season by beating the Cavaliers 72-70 on Saturday night.

“We did a lot of switching tonight, and we were able to move their defense enough — just enough, not every time — to get some driving lanes,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

The Blue Devils (15-2, 4-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) bounced back from an overtime loss to Syracuse that could cost them their top ranking. They avoided their first two-game losing streak at home since 2016 and proved they can win without Jones.

DeAndre Hunter scored 18 points, and Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy had 14 apiece for the Cavaliers (16-1, 4-1), who entered as the nation’s last unbeaten after No. 2 Michigan was upset at Wisconsin earlier in the day. Virginia allowed Duke to shoot 63 percent in the second half — and hit 12 of 15 shots inside the 3-point arc — while giving up a season-high point total.

“We’re a solid defensive team,” coach Tony Bennett said, “but tonight, we were not solid enough.”

The fourth matchup of top-ranked teams in the sport’s history — Virginia entered at No. 1 in the coaches’ poll — was a tournament-caliber game throughout. There were 14 ties and 15 lead changes, and it was a one-possession game for a 14 1/2-minute stretch of the second half.

“If you scored, you beat good defense,” Krzyzewski said. “If you didn’t score, good defense beat you.”

After the Cavaliers missed 11 of 12 shots during a late nine-minute stretch, they pulled within 69-66 on Guy’s 3-pointer with 23 seconds left. Barrett hit two free throws with 20.9 seconds to play, and Virginia let too much time elapse before Braxton Key was fouled with 8.9 seconds remaining and hit both shots to make it 71-68.

Cameron Reddish hit a free throw to make it a four-point game before Hunter hit a jumper before the buzzer for Virginia.

BIG PICTURE

Virginia: The Cavaliers’ best start since opening 19-0 in 2014-15 is history, and they won’t wind up at No. 1 in the AP Top 25 on Monday. After winning a top-five matchup here last year, untimely cold shooting down the stretch — and their struggles to keep the Blue Devils from getting to the rim on defense — led to their first defeat. But circle the date on the calendar: The rematch in Charlottesville comes on Feb. 9.

“That was our game,” Jerome said. “We had that game. We lost it. We made mistakes that we can control.”

Duke: With one key freshman out — Jones — the Blue Devils rode the three other members of their freshman class to a significant victory. Williamson, Barrett and Reddish combined to take 47 of Duke’s 51 shots and score 66 of their 72 points.

“Coach K gives us the freedom to be us,” Williamson said. “When there’s movement for the three of us, no telling what we can do.”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Good luck to the voters who have to sort this out. It’s hard to punish the Cavaliers too much for losing at Cameron. The question surrounding the Blue Devils: Will the spoils of this victory weigh more than their overtime loss to Syracuse when they were down two starters?

STRATEGY

Bennett said Duke was the first team to switch on every screen set by the Cavaliers — a tweak to the game plan Krzyzewski said he made a couple of days before the game in an attempt to limit Virginia’s open 3-pointers, especially the catch-and-shoot 3s that are an integral part of Guy’s game. He compared Guy to former Duke star J.J. Redick, calling him “the closest that I’ve seen to J.J. in the league.” Guy was 2 of 7 from 3-point range, and Virginia finished 3 of 17 from beyond the arc.

INJURY REPORT

This was the Blue Devils’ first full game without Jones, who separated the AC joint in his right shoulder early on against Syracuse. Jones watched from the bench in a polo shirt but without a sling. Duke had just six assists on 26 baskets after averaging 18 assists in its previous 16 games. Krzyzewski said there’s still no timetable for Jones’ return.

Baylor wins 73-62 to hand No. 8 Texas Tech 2nd loss in row

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WACO, Texas — Baylor freshman Jared Butler scored 14 of his 19 points after halftime and the Bears beat No. 8 Texas Tech 73-62 on Saturday, handing the Red Raiders their second loss in four days.

After Texas Tech scored 11 in a row to get within a basket, Butler hit a 3-pointer with 4 1/2 minutes left before Tech’s Jarrett Culver then had a short shot roll off the rim no good. That led to Butler driving for a layup and making the free throw after getting fouled to stretch the lead back to 61-53.

The Red Raiders (15-3, 4-2 Big 12), coming off a home loss to Iowa State on Wednesday night, are still tied for the Big 12 lead after No. 7 Kansas lost earlier Saturday at West Virginia.

Makai Mason added 16 points for Baylor (11-6, 3-2), which beat a Top 10 team for the seventh time in the last three seasons. The Bears are 7-7 in such games during that span.

Culver led the Red Raiders with 19 points and nine rebounds. Brandone Francis had 14 points and Davide Moretti had 13.

After Texas Tech raced out to a 23-10 lead in the first 9 1/2 minutes, Baylor went ahead to stay with a 23-6 run. Four Bears, including Butler, made 3-pointers in that span while the Red Raiders went more than 10 1/2 minutes without making a field goal.

Baylor had a 33-31 halftime lead before Butler scored the first eight points for the Bears out of the break. It was 41-33 after King McClure stole the ball from Culver and passed ahead to Butler for a breakaway layup.

BIG PICTURE

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders had been the only Big 12 team without a conference loss before this week, and their only loss before that was against No. 1 Duke.

Baylor: This was the most lopsided Big 12 game so far for the Bears, whose first five conference games had all been decided by five points or less. Baylor also won at home against Texas Tech last season when the Red Raiders were a Top 10 team.

UP NEXT

Texas Tech plays on the road for the third time in four games Tuesday night at Kansas State. The Red Raiders play three of their four games after that at home.

Baylor plays Monday night at West Virginia, which is coming off its win over Kansas after a 31-point loss at TCU. It’s the second week in a row the Bears follow a Saturday home game with a Monday road game.

Four takeaways from No. 1 Duke’s win over No. 4 Virginia

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R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson combined to score 57 points as No. 1 Duke survived an off-night from Cam Reddish to take down No. 4 Virginia, the last remaining unbeaten in college basketball, 72-70.

De’Andre Hunter led Virginia with 18 points while Ty Jerome finished with 14 points, four assists and four boards, the majority of his damage being done in the second half. Duke led 37-32 heading into halftime, cut the lead to 40-39 by the first TV timeout. From that point until the Blue Devils used a 6-0 run to push their lead out to 67-60, the game was a thrilling, one possession battle between two of the best teams in the country.

For me, that was the most important factor on display.

These could very well be the two best teams in college basketball. On a different day — one where Kyle Guy or Braxton Key makes one or two of the handful of wide open threes they had in the second half — Virginia wins this game. At the same time, we can say that if Tre Jones is healthy for the return leg, Duke could go into John Paul Jones Arena and get a win and no one would be surprised.

Speaking of Jones, much was made of the importance of his absence in the buildup to this game, but Duke still managed to find a way to win.

Here are four things to takeaway from the result:

1. ZION WILLIAMSON IS SPECIAL

Breaking news!

The likely No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and the probably National Player of the Year is a great basketball player.

Shocking, right?

But in all seriousness, he was absolutely unstoppable on Saturday night in Cameron. There is no team in the country that is better than Virginia when it comes to stopping dribble penetration — that is the entire point of the Pack-Line — and Zion was able to get to the rim more or less at will. Virginia tried everything to slow him down, from using future top ten pick De’Andre Hunter, to Mamadi Diakite, to Braxton Key. By the end of the second half, Tony Bennett put Jack Salt on Zion, hoping that it would be more effective using the burly, 7-foot New Zealander to keep Zion from bullying his way to the basket while helping as much as possible.

(I know this is probably a different conversation for a different space, but in all seriousness, Virginia’s entire premise defensively is to force drivers to play with as little space as possible, and Zion got wherever he wanted. In the NBA — with the longer three-point line, shooters all over the floor and more space than anyone knows what to do with — how do you keep him out of the lane?)

With the loss to Syracuse on Monday night, Duke is going to fall out of the top spot in the AP Poll. That’s justified.

But it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that a team with Zion Williamson as the second-option offensively is not the best team in college basketball.

2. THE CHESS MATCH BETWEEN THESE TWO COACHES WAS AMAZING, BUT COACH K WON THIS ROUND

It was fascinating to watch these two coaching geniuses trade haymakers for 40 minutes on Saturday night.

Coach K landed the first blow. Virginia runs the blocker-mover offense, which is more-or-less a continuity offense where three guards (movers) are constantly running off of screens from the two bigs (blockers), and he was able to completely take UVA out of their offense by switching all exchanges, 1-through-5. Tony Bennett said at halftime that no one had done that against them before. Switching off-ball screening actions minimizes their effectiveness, especially when the bigs aren’t good enough to overpower the guards that are switched onto them:

This through Virginia for a loop early on, but they adjusted. This is when Bennett gets on the scorecard for the first time, because he totally scrapped his offense and started doing exactly what Duke does: He ran screen after screen after screen until he got the matchup he wanted — usually, Marques Bolden on Ty Jerome or De’Andre Hunter. Then he would lift the defense, send the big out to set a ball-screen and let the dribbler attack the space in the paint since Duke wasn’t leaving shooters:

Duke’s response?

They switched to a 2-3 zone for a number of possessions late in the second half, and it got Duke the win, but I do think that it’s important to note than Virginia entered this game as the nation’s seventh-best three-point shooting team and they missed three or four really good looks from three against that Duke zone. If those threes — the shots that Virginia wanted to get, mind you — go down, maybe I’m writing something different here.

They didn’t.

And Duke was able to land themselves the two-point win.

(One point that I think is important to add here: One of the things that people love to cite when they say that Tony Bennett will never be able to coach in the NBA is the offense that he runs. Well, in the second half, Virginia essentially ran the same offense that was run for the entirety of the 2018 Western Conference Finals. He simply moved players into screens to force switches into advantageous matchups, then he let his stars go and make a play. Oh, and should I mention that the Portland Trailblazers run the blocker-mover offense? Because they do.)

Anyway, the more important point about the Wahoos is that …

3. … DE’ANDRE HUNTER AND TY JEROME ARE DIFFERENCE-MAKERS

After watching that game and rewatching much of the second half, I am more sold on the idea that this Virginia team is the team that can finally get to the Final Four.

No one is going to defend Virginia this season as well as Duke did on Saturday night. The Blue Devils schemed UVA out of everything they wanted to do offensively, and Virginia still gave Duke a fight in Cameron.

The point here isn’t to celebrate a moral victory — remember, Virginia won in Cameron last year and lost in the first round to UMBC. The point is that Hunter and Jerome are as good as any 1-2 punch in college hoops this side of Duke. They can create outside of the confines of Virginia’s system. They can take games over, as Hunter did for a stretch in the first half and as Jerome did for much of the second half. They are NBA players that are hidden by the slowest pace in the sport.

The point is that the concern people have about Virginia winning in March is that they are susceptible to losing to teams that can take them out of what they want to do. Duke did that, and Virginia came a couple of missed threes away from picking them off in Cameron.

Maybe Virginia is more matchup-proof than we realized.

4. DUKE DEFINITELY MISSED TRE JONES

It’s easy to hide flaws in a roster when the top two picks in the draft are able to put up  combined 57 points on 21-for-35 shooting against one of the best defenses in college basketball, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t chinks in the armor.

Part of the reason that Duke had to switch as much as they did on Saturday night, and part of the reason they were eventually forced to go to zone, is that Tre Jones’ defense wasn’t on the floor. Part of the reason that Duke had to play Marques Bolden for 33 minutes despite the fact that he was the guy that Virginia targeted every time they switched was because Tre Jones was on the bench. Part of the reason that Cam Reddish struggled to get things going was because there was no true point guard on the floor to initiate offense.

Duke is better with Tre Jones.

I don’t even think there is a question.

But when you have two dudes that are as good as Zion and RJ are, there are going to be a lot of games where it just doesn’t matter.