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No. 16 UCLA Bruins: The talent is there, but can Steve Alford turn that into wins?

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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. 16 UCLA.


Steve Alford’s tenure with the Bruins has been a weird one, to say the least.

The former Indiana Hoosier is heading into his sixth season as the head coach of the most storied college basketball program in the history of the sport. He’s been to four NCAA tournament in five years, he reached the Sweet 16 in three of those four trips to the tournament, he spent a good three or four years dominating the southern California recruiting scene and he spent one year — the season with Lonzo Ball on his roster — as the most entertaining team in the country to watch.

And yet, the UCLA fanbase has seemed perennially disgruntled. We’re two-and-a-half years removed from someone flying a plane over the UCLA campus with a banner that read “Fire Alford”. That season led to Alford giving back a contract extension, and the reasons why all of that happened are complicated.

Alford was derided for four years for playing what fans believed was “Daddy Ball”, giving his son, Bryce, free reign over his offense while his more talented teammates were asked to accept lesser roles. Then there was the whole ordeal with the Ball family, from LaVar completing overshadowing Lonzo’s memorable freshman season to LiAngelo’s arrest in China and subsequent separation from the program.

And that’s really just scratching the surface. Those three trips to the Sweet 16 gloss over the fact that just about every year Alford has had in Westwood, the Bruins have failed to live up to expectations. Even the year Lonzo was on campus, UCLA finished the regular season third in the Pac-12. That’s before you get to the simple fact that Alford has not been able to find a way to get his UCLA teams to defend, or that he’s lost his grip on LA’s fertile recruiting grounds.

Put it all together, and we are at what feels like something of a crossroads for the Alford era in UCLA.

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UCLA WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

There is no questioning the amount of talent that the Bruins have on their roster.

Alford will have four five-star recruits at his disposal this season as well as a half-dozen four-star prospects. He’s had back-to-back top six recruiting classes, according to 247 Sports, and while I’m not sure there is a lottery pick in the mix, there will be plenty of NBA scouts that will make sure that UCLA is among the teams they get a glimpse of during the regular season.

It starts with Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, UCLA’s top two returning scorers. Wilkes is a 6-foot-8 wing, a smooth scorer with a wiry build that has a chance to end up the leading scorer in the Pac-12 if things break his way. A former five-star prospect from Indiana, Wilkes has some potential as an NBA player given his height and scoring ability.

The same can be said about Hands, who is a toolsy, athletic lead guard that was forced to play second fiddle to Aaron Holiday during his first season on campus. The starting point guard role will likely be his to lose, although the early returns on freshman Tyger Campbell have been promising; there’s a steadying influence he has that UCLA desperately needs.

Prince Ali will likely see plenty of minutes as the lone veteran presence in Alford’s backcourt. A former five-star recruit from Georgia, Ali averaged 9.1 points last year after missing the 2016-17 season an offseason knee surgery. Sophomore Chris Smith — a 6-foot-9 wing — as well as freshman Jules Bernard and David Singleton will also push for minutes.

The frontcourt may actually be more intriguing, as Moses Brown, a 7-foot-1 freshman and a top 15 prospect nationally, has all the tools to be a terrific college player before heading off to the NBA. While he might think he’s better than he actually is, the talent is there for Alford to work with.

Believe it or not, while Brown may be the most talented member of UCLA’s front court, he is already the most well-known. The other freshman big is UCLA’s recruiting class is Shareef O’Neal — Shaq’s son — will miss the season after undergoing heart surgery, but UCLA has depth to spare: redshirt freshmen in Cody Riley and Jalen Hill, both of whom missed last season after shoplifting alongside Gelo Ball, are eligible this season.

There are more than enough pieces on Alford’s roster to win the Pac-12 and enter the NCAA tournament as a top four seed.

RELATED: Expert Picks | CBT Podcast | Best non-conference games
Jaylen Hands (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

BUT UCLA IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

The Bruins have to prove they want to get stops before they come anywhere near living up to expectation.

In five seasons as the head coach at UCLA, Alford has yet to finish better than 37th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric. That came in his first season, when half of his roster were guys that Ben Howland had brought into the program. Since then, he has not finished better than 66th in defensive efficiency. The year that Lonzo Ball was on campus, the year that the Bruins were lethal offensively, UCLA finished third in the Pac-12 and got bounced out of the Sweet 16 by Kentucky in large part due to the fact that they could not — or would not — defend.

And that is a key distinction.

Alford knows how to coach defense. He played for Bobby Knight. He once finished a season as the nation’s top defense, way back in 2006 when he was the coach of Iowa. In his final two years at New Mexico, he entered the NCAA tournament as a top five seed out of the Mountain West after finishing 15th and 16th, respectively, in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric.

The problem now, as I see it, is three-fold:

  1. Alford has prioritized building a team that plays a certain way. They want to play fast. They want to fire up threes. They’ve won by playing a first-to-90 style since he arrived, and one of the risks of being an “outscore you” team is that a lack of emphasis gets put on defense. Giving up a bucket isn’t the end of the world because the reaction immediately becomes “we’ll get that back.”
  2. Compounding that issue is that Alford has recruited players that fit that philosophy and style of play, and those players aren’t always great — or even good — defensively. There are some exceptions (I’ll go to my grave saying Aaron Holiday was criminally underrated) but for the most part, Alford just doesn’t have good individual defenders on his rosters. Zach LaVine, Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Thomas Welsh, T.J. Leaf, Wilkes, Hands, Brown. The one thing they all have in common is an aversion to defense. It’s hard to be good defensively when you don’t actually have good defenders.
  3. The result is that has created a culture where a lack of defense is considered acceptable. If a coach isn’t going to hold players accountable for making mistakes defensively, where is the incentive to stop, you know, making them?

Put all of those things together, and what you get is a team that fails to reach expectations because they can’t find a way to get stops.

Kris Wilkes (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

The truth is that UCLA’s ceiling is going to be determined by whether or not the Bruins find a way to defend. No one is going to be winning regular season titles in any power conference — even a watered down Pac-12 — with a team that cannot get stops.

But UCLA couldn’t guard last year and they still managed to find a way to get to the NCAA tournament. They couldn’t guard when Lonzo was on campus, and they won 31 games. That’s because the Bruins were somewhere between very good and elite offensively those years.

They have been — and will once gain be — an “outscore you” team.

The question I have is whether or not they are going to be good enough on the offensive end of the floor to be able to make that work. Like I said, Holiday was criminally-underrated last season. He’s gone, which means that Alford will spend the next six months mediating a battle between Hands and Wilkes for the title of “UCLA’s go-to guy”.

Both are former five-star prospects. Both declared for the NBA draft this past spring. Both opted to withdraw from school when it became clear they were going to end up being second round picks at best, and now both are heading back to campus on a mission to prove to NBA scouts that they deserve to get that guaranteed contract next June.

In theory, it would be Wilkes. He’s the better scorer, he’s more polished at this point in his development and he’s proven to be more trustworthy early in his UCLA career, but Steve Alford has typically centered the way he plays around his lead guard, whether that was Bryce Alford, Lonzo or Holiday. That would lead one to believe that Hands will be the focal point next season, even if his selfishness has been something that has frustrated the Bruins in the past.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

No coach in college basketball has proven to be better at getting guys on his roster to buy into playing their role than John Calipari.

Whatever the reason, he has a knack for being able to get soon-to-be NBA superstars to accept being something other than a star at the college level. Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist famously took the fourth- and fifth-most shots on Kentucky’s 2012 national title team. Karl-Anthony Towns averaged 10.3 points and 21 minutes for Kentucky’s 2015 team that won their first 38 games. Even Demarcus Cousins averaged just 23 minutes during his one season in Lexington.

Alford’s ability to get his guys to buy into a similar concept is going to be what determines whether or not UCLA can win a Pac-12 title — as the talent on the roster might indicate — and finishing the season outside the top 25.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

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.

WATCH: De’Andre Hunter answers Zion Williamson’s dunk with his own poster

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This Duke-Virginia game is living up to the hype.

After Zion Williamson came close to ending the internet by posterizing Jay Huff, Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter — who is No. 5 in the latest NBC Sports Mock Draft — answered with a poster of his own: