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2018-19 Atlantic 10 Preview: Turnover at the top creates wide-open league race

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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.

Today, we are previewing the Atlantic 10 Conference.


Since sending a combined 11 teams to the NCAA tournament in 2013 and 2014, the Atlantic 10 has put just 12 combined teams into the tournament in the four years since.

In those four years, the league has been the target of more powerful conferences.

First, in realignment and expansion. More recently in pilfering head coaches like Shaka Smart, Archie Miller and, this offseason, Dan Hurley.

The conference was fortunate to get three teams into the Dance last year after a fluky A-10 tournament title run.

That mark may be difficult to repeat this year unless the top of the league exceed expectations.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Turnover at the top

Predicting the contenders of the A10 in recent years hasn’t been much of a chore with the likes of Rhode Island, VCU, St. Bonaventure and Dayton fixtures at the top. This year doesn’t promise the same continuity. Rhode Island is down four starters and a head coach, VCU is still finding footing in the wake of Shaka Smart and Will Wade’s departure, the Bonnies lost their backcourt and Dayton is rebuilding since the loss of Archie Miller. The top crop this year features some familiar names that look to be back on an upswing like St. Louis and George Mason along with traditional contenders St. Joseph’s and Davidson, but the league doesn’t have any heavyweights and may be without much depth either.

Travis Ford (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

2. Built Ford tough?

St. Louis has gone 29-37 overall and 15-21 in the two years since Travis Ford took the helm after eight years leading Oklahoma State, but this would seem to be the season when things could take a major leap forward. The Billikens are adding transfers Traimaine Isabell, Jr. (Missouri and Drexel) and Dion Wiley (Maryland) along with four-star recruit Carte’Are Gordon to a core that already included Javon Bess (all-A-10 defense), Hasahn French (all-A-10 rookie) and Jordan Goodwin (11.5 points and 7.5 rebounds).

Ford’s teams have always played defense, and he got the Billikens to buckle down on that end last year after struggling to do so in his debut season, but if St. Louis is going to win the A-10 and make some noise nationally, it’ll have to improve on offense. They went from being one of the worst offenses in the country in 2017 to merely poor last year based largely on hitting the offensive glass — a good idea when you’re one of the weakest shooting teams in the country. If the Billikens can hold the line defensively and make big a leap on the other end, they’ve got the talent to be quite good.

3. Davidson’s next star(s)

Every sweet-shooting guard Davidson ever has, from now until eternity, will likely have the unfortunate fate of being compared, or at least mentioned in relation to, Steph Curry. Such is life when an under-the-radar recruit evolves into a transformational, generational player under your watch. Fair or not, expect to hear plenty of Curry talk when it comes to sophomore Kellan Grady. The 6-foot-5 guard shot 37.2 percent from 3-point range and had a true-shooting percentage of 61.1 percent while scoring 18 points per game.

Grady, obviously, isn’t Curry, but he’s a damn good player with a potential NBA future. Before that, though, he’ll be tasked with helping get Davidson back to a second-straight NCAA tournament and compete for its first league title since 2015. He won’t be doing it alone, though, as Jon Axel Gudmundsson is back after a sophomore campaign in which he shot 40.6 percent from beyond the arc. They’ll both need to be at their best to replace Peyton Aldridge and the 21 points he scored every night.

4. Rhode Island rebuild

Dan Hurley took Rhode Island from eight wins in his first season of 2012-13 to a combined 51 wins and two NCAA tournaments the last two years. Now, though, he’s gone, off to Connecticut to try to return the Huskies to prominence, and so, too, are four starters off last year’s squad. Rhode Island bet on itself when finding Hurley’s replacement, promoting David Cox, who spent four years on Hurley’s staff (including two as associate head coach), to the first chair.

Cox also helped preside over a recruiting class that will be carrying a heavy load, but is well-regarded. It’s highlighted by top-100 forward Jermaine Harris and three-stars Dana Tate and Tyrese Martin. Returning guard Jeff Dowtin should help lead the way after averaging just under 10 points per game as a role player and lone returning starter, but the Rams have quite a bit of work ahead of them replacing the likes of Jared Terrell and E.C. Matthews.

Phil Martelli (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

5. How high can healthy Hawks fly?

St. Joseph’s finished the year on a tear, winning seven of its last nine games and nearly upending Rhode Island in the A10 tournament. That, along with a fourth-place finish in the regular season standings, is an admirable season, but one in which the Hawks couldn’t have helped but wonder what might had been if Lamarr Kimble and Charlie Brown, who combined to play one game last season, had been healthy.

Both are now back to a team that sustained minimal losses from a season ago. Kimble, who broke his foot one game into the season, averaged 15.5 points per game as sophomore wile Brown put up 12.8 as a freshman before a broken wrist robbed him of 2017-18. Their return along with four starters, including Taylor Funk (11.8 ppg), means St. Joe’s has championship aspirations and eyes on its third NCAA tournament in six years.

PRESEASON ATLANTIC 10 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: KELLAN GRADY, Davidson

So now that we’ve previously established that Kellan Grady is not, in fact, Stephen Curry, let’s talk about what exactly he is.

Grady was a fringe top-100 recruit in the 2017 class, and picked Davidson over other A10 programs and more than a handful Power 5 offers. The decision to follow in his idol’s footsteps – the Boston native picked up NBA league pass as an 11-year-old to follow Curry’s rookie season – paid off in a major way during his own rookie campaign. He went for more than 20 in his first two games (hitting seven 3s in his debut), erupted for 30 on Christmas Day against Akron and then 39 in a three-OT thriller against St. Bonaventure. He did all that while playing aside A10 player of the year Peyton Aldridge, who, while being an excellent player, took 30 percent of Davidson’s shots while on the floor. His departure means more looks for Grady. That could mean that Grady’s stay at Davidson is one year shorter than Curry himself.

THE REST OF THE ATLANTIC 10 FIRST TEAM

  • JOSH CUNNINGHAM, Dayton: A former top-150 recruit who began his career at Bradley, blossomed in his junior year, averaging 15.6 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting 64.6 percent from the floor.
  • OTIS LIVINGSTON, George Mason: The 5-foot-11 point guard from New Jersey put up 17.3 points per game last year for the Patriots.
  • LUWANE PIPKINS, UMass: The Minuteman went from 10.2 ppg as a freshman to 21.2 ppg as a sophomore thanks in large part to shooting 42.6 percent from 3-point range.
  • JAVON BESS, St. Louis: The Michigan State transfer emerged as a major contributor last year and could be even better with an improved team around him.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • JEFF DOWTIN, Rhode Island
  • CHARLIE BROWN, St. Joseph’s
  • CARTE’ARE GORDON, St. Louis
  • JON AXEL GUDMUNDSSON, Davidson
  • GRANT GOLDEN, Richmond
Josh Cunningham (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR

Carte’Are Gordon is the rare top-75 recruit to call the A-10 home, which makes him interesting enough, but Gordon’s ability to do stuff like render a backboard to mere smithereens means there’s a decent chance your Twitter feed features a healthy helping of Gordon highlights, especially if St. Louis is the class of the conference.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

Fordham isn’t exactly a traditional power or a program with exactingly high hoops standards, but the Rams have gone in the wrong direction the last two years under Jeff Neubauer. He posted a 17-win season after taking over for Tom Pecora, who had five-straight losing seasons, in 2016, but the Rams regressed to 13 wins in 2017 and down to nine last year. The recipe for improvement – unless you’re at Duke or Kentucky, which is decidedly not the case here – does not include eight freshmen on the roster, as Neubauer has this season.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The Atlantic 10’s trouble continued without strength beyond the top, limiting it to three NCAA tournament teams if all goes well.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

While the league may not have its historical depth, there’s plenty interesting with St. Louis, George Mason, St. Joe’s and others, but the excitement the A10 generates this year is going to come from Kellan Grady. He’s a potential superstar.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Dec. 22, St. Louis vs. Florida State
  • Dec. 29, George Mason vs. Kansas State
  • Dec. 8, St. Joseph’s vs. Villanova
  • Dec. 29, Davidson vs. North Carolina
  • Dec. 8, Dayton vs. Auburn
Otis Livingston II (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. ST. LOUIS: Year 3 under Travis Ford should bring the level of success the Billikens were hoping for when they became Ford’s post-Oklahoma State landing spot. With a solid group of returners meshing with talented newcomers, St. Louis should be the class of the Atlantic 10.

2. ST. JOSEPH’S: Phil Martelli’s group was competitive last year despite losing two of its top players for essentially the entire season. WIth Lamarr Kimble and Charlie Brown back and healthy, however, the Hawks should be in position to be more than a fly in the ointment – they should be among the A10’s best.

3. DAVIDSON: Replacing A10 player of the year Peyton Aldridge is no easy task, but coach Bob McKillop has a potential first-round draft pick in Kellan Grady, but also dynamic backcourt mates Jon Axel Gudmundsson and KiShawn Pritchett. There are frontcourt questions, but none loud enough to doubt the Wildcats much.

4. GEORGE MASON: Otis Livingston and Jaire Grayer (son of former NBA player Jeff) give the Patriotsa significant one-two scoring punch and Virginia transfer Jarred Reuter could help solidify a defense that struggled.

5. UMASS: It was a struggle for Matt McCall’s team in his first season in Amherst, but things are looking up in Year 2. Luwane Pipkins can get buckets with the best of them, but the Minutemen will need to clean up the defense to really make an A10 run.

6. ST. BONAVENTURE: The Bonnies won 13-straight to end the regular season and get an at-large bid before knocking off UCLA in the First Four last year, but the losses of Jaylen Adams and Matt Mobley means they’re due for a step back this season.

7. RICHMOND: The Spiders limped to the finish line last year, dismissed second-leading scorer De’Monte Buckingham and lost Khwan Fore to Louisville, but Grant Golden should be one of the best in the conference and keep the Spiders competitive.

Mike Rhoades (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

8. VCU: Star guard Marcus Evans suffered a second Achilles tear this summer, but is still hopeful to play this season. With his health in doubt, however, the Rams could be in for bumpy ride in Mike Rhoades’ second season.

9. DAYTON: Josh Cunningham leads a group of four returning starters that should make things better for Anthony Grant in his second season with the Flyers, though frontcourt issues could hold them back.

10. RHODE ISLAND: The Rams welcome a solid recruiting class and David Cox represents stability on the coaching staff, but Rhode Island’s losses are simply too much to suffer without ensuing struggles.

11. DUQUESNE: Keith Dambrot is counting on five Division I transfers to get things off the ground in his second season in Pittsburgh after a 13-year run at his alma mater Akron.

12. GEORGE WASHINGTON: Yuta Watanabe exhausting his eligibility would have been a tough blow by itself, but Jair Bolden transferring to South Carolina makes this an especially tough hill to climb for coach Maurice Joseph in Year 3.

13. LA SALLE: Ashley Howard had heaps of success across town on Jay Wright’s national championship staff, but he’s got a significant rebuild job ahead of him with the Explorers.

14. FORDHAM: Joseph Chartouny transferring to Marquette was a huge loss that will loom large for a Rams team that struggled mightily last year.

Zion Williamson was helped by one-and-done year at Duke, regardless of current injury status

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The biggest story in American sports, the argument that every daytime sports talk show that embraces debate will have on Thursday morning, will center around Zion Williamson and the right knee injury that he suffered when the Nike PG 2.5 on his left foot blew out on Wednesday night.

Zion’s injury is going to be a tipping point, but not the one we want. This isn’t going to change the rules of amateurism or put an end to the one-and-done rule, but that rumbling you hear in the distance is a slew television producers foaming at the mouth as they brainstorm ways they can frame the discussion about whether or not Zion made the correct decision to keep playing once his status as the No. 1 pick and the biggest brand to ever enter the NBA was already cemented.

It’s going to be everywhere.

And 99 percent of the opinions that you hear are going to end up missing the point.

Because it’s simple, really: Zion Williamson not the example you want to use when discussing the ills of the NCAA and amateurism, and the only person with a right to an opinion on whether or not he made the correct decision is Zion Williamson himself.

Let’s start with the latter: The reasoning behind Zion shutting his season down now is sound. The kid is the biggest sensation college basketball has seen in years. He’s not even 19 years old and he has already reached a point where you mention his first name and everyone knows who you are talking about. He could leave college today and sign endorsement deals worth more than a winning Powerball ticket. He’s a lock to join the pantheon of players that get their biggest paychecks from someone other than the team they play for.

Like LeBron, like Kevin Durant, like Stephen Curry, basketball is going to be Zion’s side gig at the next level.

Duke is calling the injury Zion suffered a mild knee sprain. He’s lucky. It could have been worse, and for a kid whose career hinges on being more explosive than just about any other human being on the planet, all it takes is for one unlucky slip or one popped achilles to see some of those dollars signs start to dry up.

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

“Why would he risk all that when he’s not getting paid anything to play?”

It’s a good question, one with a really, really simple answer: Because playing for Duke, playing with these teammates, makes the kid happy.

“I can’t just stop playing,” Zion said last month when he was asked about comments Scottie Pippen made saying he should shut it down. “I’d be letting my teammates down, I’d be letting Coach K down, I’d be letting a lot of people down. If I wanted to sit out, I wouldn’t have went to college. I came to Duke to play.”

Anyone that has seen the schoolboy enthusiasm and unbridled emotion that Zion plays with every second he is on the floor for Duke would know that isn’t just lip service.

He meant it.

He may not be getting paid, but he is having a blast.

Which brings me to the next point: I am as anti-amateurism as anyone on the planet this side of Jay Bilas, but Zion is not the kid to use as an example of all that is wrong with the NCAA and their arcane rules.

Because he did not enter college as the surefire No. 1 pick in the draft. R.J. Barrett did. There was talk that Cam Reddish could end up being the No. 1 pick if things played out a certain way this year. Zion was looked at as a potential top five pick. He was the No. 5 player in his recruiting class, according to 247 Sports. No one really knew how his athleticism was going to translate to the college level. No one knew if he actually had the skill set to be more than a big-bodied dunker.

Turns out he does.

Turns out that he is probably the best prospect that we have seen come through college basketball since Anthony Davis was cutting down the nets for Kentucky in 2012.

Turns out that Zion is must-see TV and the most in-demand ticket this side of LeBron and Steph Curry. When the Lakers come to your city, you get tickets to go see LeBron. When the Warriors come through, fans pour out to see Steph and to see KD. When Duke hits the road, fans are clamoring for tickets on the secondary market to see Zion.

It wasn’t this way before he got to college, not on this level. He had the Instagram followers and he was a YouTube sensation, but so was Mac McClung. How many of you know who he is, or would be willing to shell out a mortgage payment to see him play for Georgetown?

Put another way, we wouldn’t be talking about Zion becoming a billion-dollar athlete if he had gone straight to the G League or spent a year tucked away in some smoky gym in Europe, or China, or Australia.

Do I think that is borders on criminal that Zion is not allowed to tap into the revenue streams that he has helped create right now?

Of course.

He might be the only person that is not finding a way to capitalize on his name. Think about the ticket prices. Think about the money made at the bars and restaurants around every venue he plays in. DraftKings Sports Book ran a special tonight on Zion Williamson prop bets, and they won every single one of them when he went out in the first minute. Hell, I can’t even claim innocence. This will be the third thing that I publish on Zion tonight and the sixth thing in the last two days centered around his role in this rivalry game.

He should be allowed to get his cut right now.

He shouldn’t have to wait until he’s done with his collegiate eligibility to go get that money.

But he will get it eventually, and in the long run, the brand notoriety and status that he has earned as a household name having spent just one season playing in college will end up meaning his makes millions and millions and millions more in his career.

All of that will happen after he goes No. 1 in the 2019 draft.

And as long as Zion walks up to that podium and shakes Adam Silver’s hand content with the decisions that he made, then none of the noise matters.

San Diego State upsets No. 6 Nevada

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San Diego State used a sound defensive effort and balanced scoring to pull off Wednesday night’s biggest upset with a 65-57 Mountain West home win over No. 6 Nevada.

The Aztecs (17-9, 9-4) have now won seven of their last eight games, as the league’s hottest team earned their best win of the season. Devin Watson and Jeremy Hemsley each scored 15 points for San Diego State while Jalen McDaniels chipped in 10 points. Defense also came through in a huge way for the Aztecs as they held the star Nevada trio of Jordan Caroline, Caleb and Cody Martin to only 33 combined points on 9-for-33 shooting.

While this is a monster win for the Aztecs, they’re not particularly close to the NCAA tournament bubble right now thanks to a mediocre profile that includes some bad missteps. San Diego State is going to be an intriguing team to follow down the stretch. They got hot late last season to play their way into the tournament with the Mountain West autobid. We’re also still weeks away from the postseason getting started and seeing if this San Diego State team is truly one to watch like they were last season.

For as good as this win is for San Diego State, the real intrigue from this outcome is what happens next with Nevada?

The Wolf Pack (24-2, 11-2) cruised to an easy start this season thanks to an unintentionally light non-conference schedule and a weak Mountain West. That’s resulted in the No. 6 ranking in the AP poll along with some strong rankings in other metric areas. But the 24-1 start and positive national acclaim hasn’t necessarily translated to positive seedings from respected bracketologists.

Many NCAA tournament projections had the Wolf Pack sitting around a No. 4 seed entering Wednesday night’s game. Now, after suffering a second Quadrant 3 loss this season, Nevada will likely be falling even further. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Wolf Pack on the No. 5 or the No. 6 seed line after losing on the road to the Aztecs.

To make matters worse, Nevada still hasn’t even played a Quadrant 1 team yet. So while the Wolf Pack’s computer numbers are already suffering from the weak schedule, they’re also a complete mystery against the best competition.

The Mountain West race just got a whole lot more interesting thanks to Wednesday night’s outcomes. With Utah State’s win over New Mexico, they only rest a game behind Nevada in the league standings. The two conference leaders still have one more head-to-head clash to be played as well, with Utah State fighting hard for an at-large bid if they fall short of winning the conference tournament.

It’s doubtful we’ll see the trio of Caroline and the Martin twins all play so poorly during the same game again this season. But having that happen — even once — on Wednesday night might have just cost Nevada some valuable seeding that could really hurt them come March.

Wednesday’s Things to Know: North Carolina rolls Duke as Zion exits with injury; Four ranked teams upset

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Duke vs. North Carolina had the nation’s attention on Wednesday night but there were still plenty of other happenings to track in the world of college basketball. Four ranked teams suffered upsets to unranked opponents while the Big East had a shakeup at the top.

No. 8 North Carolina dismantles No. 1 Duke as Zion Williamson exits with injury

It only took 33 seconds, but the entire trajectory of Wednesday night’s storied ACC rivalry between Duke and North Carolina changed once Blue Devil star freshman Zion Williamson literally exploded out of his shoe and left with a knee injury.

Once Williamson exited the contest (preliminarily being called a mild knee sprain), the Tar Heels pounced as they jumped all over Duke for an easy double-digit win.

CBT’s Rob Dauster has plenty more on this one as he breaks down Zion’s impact on the game while talking about Duke’s underperforming supporting cast.

Marquette takes the lead in the Big East following Villanova’s loss to Georgetown

Among the conference races to watch on Wednesday included an intriguing two-horse race in the Big East. The conference began the night with No. 17 Villanova losing back-to-back league games for the first time ever in the reformatted “new” Big East as Georgetown had a convincing upset win.

Following the slip-up by the Wildcats, No. 11 Marquette took advantage as they rallied after a halftime deficit to knock off Butler at home. The win gives the Golden Eagles (11-2 in league play) a current half-game lead in the loss column over Villanova (11-3 in league play) as the season heads into the final stretch. A week from now (Feb. 27) these two teams play in Philly as it could serve as a sort of Big East regular-season title game.

Florida, Syracuse among the night’s bubble winners after upset wins

Besides for Georgetown’s aforementioned win over No. 17 Villanova, two more ranked teams suffered upsets to unranked bubble teams on Wednesday night.

In the ACC, Syracuse earned its best win since the road upset at Duke in early January with a blowout home win over struggling No. 18 Louisville. Given the tumultuous state of the bubble, this could be the win that really helps the Orange get into the field as an at-large as this was an important win before the remaining schedule becomes daunting.

Over in the SEC, Florida continued a recent surge with an impressive overtime road win at No. 13 LSU. Banged up and depleted in this one, the Gators rode the hot hand of senior guard KeVaughn Allen (21 points) in the second half and overtime for their biggest win of the season. With one of the most bizarre bubble profiles in the country, Florida desperately needed this one to avoid the bubble bursting. Now, with a winnable three-game stretch following Wednesday’s win, the Gators could build some momentum before some tough games to end the regular season.

No. 6 Nevada falls to San Diego State

To close out an action-packed night, San Diego State earned the biggest upset of Wednesday with a home win over No. 6 Nevada.

Suffering only their second loss of the season after a 24-1 start, this could wind up being a killer loss for the Wolf Pack. Not only does Nevada have to contend with Utah State being one game behind in the Mountain West standings, but this loss could have potentially big NCAA tournament seeding ramifications.

Although nationally-ranked in the top ten of the AP poll, Nevada doesn’t have nearly the same credibility when it comes to bracketology numbers. The Wolf Pack, remarkably, still haven’t played a single Q1 opponent this season as their non-conference schedule and a weak Mountain West has hurt their strength of schedule. Already slotted as a No. 4 seed by many, this is the type of loss that could drop Nevada to the No. 5 or No. 6 line — even though they’re currently the No. 6 team in the country.

Howard and John lead Marquette to 79-69 win over Butler

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MILWAUKEE — Theo John made Butler pay the price for focusing on Markus Howard.

Howard scored 28 points and John added 15 points and matched his career-high with 11 rebounds as No. 11 Marquette pulled away in the second half for a 79-69 victory over Butler on Wednesday night.

“Teams have to dedicate a lot to our shooting, and teams have to dedicate a lot to Markus Howard, in particular,” Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski said. “A lot of times, the second defender on Markus is the opposing team’s center. So, when we got the ball out of the trap, Theo was open. To his credit, he was able to finish.”

Marquette (22-4, 11-2 Big East) erased a eight-point deficit early in the second half with a 25-7 run.

Sean McDermott had 27 points and Kamar Baldwin 12 for Butler (15-12, 6-8).

With No. 17 Villanova’s 85-73 loss at Georgetown on Wednesday, the Golden Eagles moved into the Big East lead a half-game ahead of the Wildcats.

Howard, the Big East’s leading scorer, made 9 of 20 shots, including 6 of 13 from beyond the arc.

“They have a lot of guys who can make them, and you’ve got a lot of attention on Howard, which is tough,” Butler coach LaVall Jordan said. “We executed well in the first half and then not as well in the second.”

John, a 6-9 sophomore forward known for his defense, made 6 of 7 shots and 3 of 4 free throws. John, the Big East’s leading shot blocker, also had three blocks to go along with his fourth double-double of the season.

“Most of the time when we have elite scorers on our team, so I don’t have to bring it up,” John said of his offense. “But, if the game brings it to me, I’m going to try and contribute at much as I can.”

Baldwin hit two free throws to put Butler in front 44-43 with 12:45 remaining, but the Golden Eagles ran off 11 consecutive points, pushing the lead to 54-44 on John’s rebound dunk.

Jordan Tucker ended Butler’s scoring drought of almost 5 1/2 minutes with a 3-pointer. On the ensuing possession, Howard was fouled on a 3 and converted the four-point play to make it 58-47 with 6:48 remaining.

Marquette was playing for the first time in eight days, but John said the layoff was not a factor in the slow start.

“I’d say it was just concentration, a lack of focus,” he said. “We came out kind of slow, and Butler came ready to play. They punched in this mouth and we just came back and kind of gathered ourself, and we responded.”

Marquette made 16 of 27 shots in the second for 59.3 percent, including 7 of 11 from three-point range. The Golden Eagles, outrebounded 20-14 in the first half, had a 21-11 advantage on the boards after the break.

Butler scored the first seven points of the second half to go up 37-29, but Marquette answered with eight consecutive points, pulling even at 37 on John’s layin.

Marquette trailed 26-18, but closed the half with an 11-4 run.

“The second half, they made an adjustment or two, and countered,” Jordan said. “Give them credit. And, then we had to adjust, but they got a rhythm going in that second half that we didn’t allow them to get in the first.”

BIG PICTURE

Butler: The Bulldogs entered Wednesday in a six-team logjam in the middle of the conference, one game behind St. John’s and Seton Hall in the win column, and a game ahead of Georgetown, DePaul and Xavier.

Marquette: The Golden Eagles have five regular-season games against teams they already have beaten. But, except for a 79-68 home victory over Providence, each of the other four games were decided by four points or less.

HOWARD MOVES UP

Howard pushed his career scoring total to 1,772 points, moving past Dominic James (1,749) into fourth on the Marquette all-time scoring list. Howard, a 5-11 junior guard, now is just one point behind George Thompson, who played from 1966-69. Jerel McNeal is Marquette’s career scoring leader with 1,985 points.

UP NEXT

Butler hosts Providence on Tuesday.

Marquette is at Providence on Saturday

More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

No. 8 North Carolina steamrolls No. 1 Duke after injury to Zion Williamson

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Luke Make finished with 30 points and 15 boards and Cam Johnson chipped in with 26 points of his own as No. 8 North Carolina strolled into Cameron Indoor Stadium and dropped a hammer on the No. 1 Duke Blue Devils, winning 88-72 and moving into a three-way tie for first place in the ACC with No. 3 Virginia at 11-2.

The Tar Heels were dominant from the jump, and credit to them for pouncing on Duke when they had the chance, but that is hardly the story of the game.

Zion Williamson, the surefire No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and the overwhelming favorite to sweep the 2019 National Player of the Year awards, went down with an injury to his right knee just 30 seconds into the game.

And now we wait.

Because as of this very moment, the single biggest story line of this college basketball season has become the status of Zion’s right knee. Coach K said after the game that the injury is a mild knee sprain, but that his status will not be known until tomorrow.

Until then, here are the three things that we can take away from this game:

1. THIS RESULT SHOULD UNDERLINE HOW MUCH ZION IMPACTS A GAME

What we saw on Wednesday night in Durham was the terrifying reality of what Duke is without their star attraction: Not all that good.

We can start on the defensive end of the floor, where Duke’s ability to defend the interior — which is quietly the best part of Zion’s game — was exposed. North Carolina scored 62 of their 88 points in the paint, as they were able to take advantage of the total lack of fear of anyone in Duke’s frontcourt. Maye has not had a great senior season, but he did whatever he wanted against the Blue Devils once we reached a point where he did not have to worry about being guarded by an absolute freak of nature.

Zion averages roughly two steals and two blocks per game, so it’s not exactly shocking to anyone that’s been paying attention that he is an impact defender, but it’s hard to truly quantify the impact his presence has on a game until he’s not there.

One thing that does need to be noted here is that North Carolina did score seven layups in transition, which were killers and went in the book as points in the paint, but part of that a result of Zion’s absence as well. The Big Fella averaging 22.4 points per game. He’s 68.3 percent from the floor. He can handle the rock, he’ll catch just about anything that his thrown his way and — this is the most important part — he is so good that defenses have to change the way that they play to account for him.

He creates space and driving lanes for his teammates simply by being on the floor, which is to say nothing of his ability to score in the mid-post and off of offensive boards.

And without him, Duke will only have two players on the floor that are any kind of a threat offensively.

2. DUKE’S SUPPORTING CAST IS A COMPLETE DISASTER RIGHT NOW

On Wednesday night, Duke shot 25-for-72 (34.7%) from the floor and 8-for-39 (20.5%) from three, which are dreadful numbers. But it is worth pointing out that Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett both played about as well as you can ask them to play. Combined, they scored 60 points on 21-for-45 shooting (46.7%) and 7-for-23 (30.4%) shooting from three.

That second number is the concerning one, but it’s also a situation where they had no choice but to fire away.

Because at no point on Wednesday night did North Carolina have to guard any of the other three players on the floor for Duke.

The rest of the team finished with 12 points. They shot 4-for-27 from the floor, which includes a 3-for-3 night from Javin DeLaurier. Duke’s four other perimeter players — Tre Jones, Jack White, Alex O’Connell and Jordan Goldwire — were 1-for-23 from the floor. They shot 1-for-16 from three. White has now missed 25 consecutive threes, dating all the way back to January 12th. Defenses have stopped guarding Jones on the perimeter, and the result has been the paint being as muddled as a mojito.

Zion is not going to be the guy that creates space on the wings, but the value he brings to this offense is obvious. For starters, he’ll typically end up as an initiator while Reddish is the guy buried in the corner as a spot-up shooter. He also creates space when he’s in the lane because defenses have to protect against a lob that would be thrown when he is in the dunk spot, and his ability to hold position in the lane can help clear out shot-blockers when the wings drive into the lane.

And if all else fails, Zion might just be the best offensive rebounder in college basketball.

But we know all that.

The problem isn’t simply that Zion isn’t on the floor.

It’s that the defenses trying to stop Duke would be more worried about defending Barack Obama if Duke suited him up than they are defending whoever it is that Coach K is currently running out on the perimeter.

The first three clips below should give you a sense of what Barrett and Reddish are going to be looking at when they try to drive with Zion out of the lineup. Thanks to Coby White making a mistake defensively, in the last clip you get a glimpse of what happens when the “shooter” that Duke puts in the corner actually has gravity:

3. NORTH CAROLINA SURVIVED DESPITE COBY WHITE PLAYING TERRIBLY

Tre Jones was a liability on the offensive end of the floor, but one of the biggest reasons that Duke was in this game until the end was because he ate up Coby White defensively. White finished 3-for-14 from the field with six turnovers, which is not great but at the same time it’s the risk you take playing a point guard that can be as streaky as White has been.

It’s part of the job description, if you will.

What North Carolina needs is for this to be the game that gets Luke Maye going. He entered the season as an all-american and has seen his numbers — from his scoring to his shooting percentages to his assists and rebounds — go down across the board. Part of that is because Coby White and Cam Johnson are shouldering a bigger load of the offense, but a bigger reason is because the Tar Heels don’t have a natural playmaker the way that they did last season with Theo Pinson on the floor with Joel Berry II.

Maye has had to do more on his own, and that’s not necessarily his strength.

Will this be the game that gets him headed in the right direction?