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Top-ranked Duke dispatches No. 8 Auburn, 78-72

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LAHAINA, Hawaii — Bruce Pearl spent the early part of the week telling everyone how he was concerned that his team wouldn’t belong in the field of the Maui Invitational when Auburn was announced back in 2016.

The Tigers have certainly proven those fears unwarranted, but they also just helped Duke make the case that no one may belong on the same court as them this winter.

Duke was undeniably brilliant again, this time in perhaps its most difficult test yet against the talented and experienced Tigers, who proved to be no match in the Blue Devils’ 78-72 win in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational.

It wasn’t a perfect performance by Duke, but that makes it even clearer how far ahead they are the rest of the country. It doesn’t take the Blue Devils’ best to clearly be better than a top-10 team full of veterans on a neutral court.

The final score didn’t indicate the space between Duke and Auburn. The Tigers made big shots and came up with huge plays. The Blue Devils shrugged every single one of them off, and countered with something even stronger.

“We threatened them,” Pearl said, “but they were never scared.

The Tigers – who 22 points from Jared Harper, 17 from Austin Wiley and 16 from Bryce Brown – didn’t shake Duke, but they showed yet again how far they’ve come in Pearl’s five seasons.

“When I talked to (tournament director) Dave Odom several years ago about trying to get Auburn in the field,” Pearl said Sunday, “he was honest with me. He said, ‘Coach, the program just isn’t up to snuff. I don’t know that you’re going to travel and be competitive.’

“I was so glad that we were able to travel and we are competitive, able to represent Auburn here and the SEC.”

It was evident when Duke blasted Kentucky that their ceiling was special, but what they did to Auburn in the Lahaina Civic Center was something different. The Blue Devils didn’t just blow out a talented but inexperienced team like John Calipari’s. They handled the defending SEC champs, a team with pros and vets, without really even hitting on all cylinders for 40 minutes.

We saw it for a bit at the outset, when the Blue Devils overwhelmed Auburn to get out to a 17-point lead.

“Duke got whatever they wanted early,” Pearl said. “Duke’s start says something about the fact that those four freshmen are a lot more mature than (most freshmen).”

But then Auburn did what good, seasoned teams do. They fought back. They threw everything they had at Duke, which never found that same level of play where they lived early the rest of the game.

Still, it didn’t matter because R.J Barrett, Cam Reddish, Zion Williamson and Tre Jones are not only a wildly talented assortment of freshmen but a mature one. A group that doesn’t rattle. A quartet that is, as Krzyzewski said Monday, is “over themselves. It’s not about them. They’re very secure, and they have been parented well, they have been coached well, and so they understand being part of something bigger than them, but still being really good.”

Duke is going to go as far as those four take them, and they look equipped for the long haul.

“Those four guys are really good now,” Pearl said. “It’s a special group.”

It also helps when the forgotten fifth guy is a junior who himself is a former five-star recruit capable of flirting with a triple-double on a stage like this. Marques Bolden – remember him? – put up 11 points, nine rebounds and seven blocks.

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“This is the first year he’s been healthy the whole time,” Krzyzewski said. “So he has continuity of preparation, shape, and it’s a big thing. It’s a big thing. He’s made the most of it. He’s really gotten in great shape and he’s taken great care of himself and as a result he’s good.”

So where does this Duke team go? There is so much season left, and they’ve already exhibited a level of hoops we rarely see from any team in any season, let alone a freshmen-led team in November.

“It’s got to be fun for them,” Krzyzewski said. “I’ll do everything I can not to let them think that everything is won in November or December. But what we need to do is just use the season to get better and don’t worry about, no one gives a trophy for who is No. 1 in November, December, January or February. Even March. And don’t play for things that the outside wants you to play for. Play for what you want to play for and that’s fun, getting better.”

Things may change over the course of the next month. There could be injuries or whatever else that derails seasons. The biggest threat to Duke, though, seems to be complacency. Not because they’re freshmen or because they’ll settle on a sense of entitlement, but because they’re really, really good and the season is long. Complacency is just natural.

The bar to clear for Duke is a national championship. That’s probably true every year given the legacy and the continuous talent in Durham, but with this group it’s hard to see even a Final Four or runner-up finish as something to celebrate given just how damn good they look.

So maybe they should go for something more.

Kentucky’s 2014-15 team showed a team with a special core of freshmen and a supporting cast of veterans can get to at least the precipice of a perfect season. How is this group, with potentially the top three picks in June’s NBA draft, another first-rounder at point guard and plenty of experience around them, any different? Why shouldn’t this be the team that matches that 1976 Indiana team helmed by Coach K’s one-time boss, Bob Knight?

That would keep things fun.

“You look at our league, we’re going to be in a lot of games,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re going to get beat.”

Maybe they won’t, though.

Maybe this season will be as special as those freshmen.

Maybe this season will somehow add something Coach K is missing from his legacy.

Three Things To Know: Iowa comes back, Christian Braun arrives, three-bid ACC?

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It was a very slow night in the college basketball world, but there were three games that are relevant enough to talk about.

So let’s talk about them.

Here are the three things that you need to know about Monday’s college basketball action:

1. THE ACC GOT THAT MUCH CLOSER TO BEING A THREE-BID LEAGUE

On Monday morning, our Dave Ommen published his updated NCAA tournament bracket projection, and he had just four ACC teams in the field. One of those four teams was N.C. State, who was sitting in the play-in game prior to Monday night’s action.

So what did they do on Monday night?

They just lost at home to a North Carolina team that ranks outside the top 100 in the NET. Suddenly, the Wolfpack, who looked like they could be as high as a 9 or 10 seed last week, would likely be out of the NCAA tournament if it started today. They are 14-7 overall, which isn’t terrible, but they have just one win against a top 50 opponent to go along with a pair of Quad 3 losses. They do have three Quad 1 wins, but two of those — Wisconsin (30) at home and UNCG (75) on the road — are the bottom of the cutoff for Quad 1 wins. Put another way, they are the worst possible Quad 1 wins, and that is something that will be discussed by the committee.

Ironically enough, I think this win was a sign that North Carolina might actually be the most likely CC team to give the league a fourth bid. Hear me out. The Tar Heels have ten losses on the season, but seven of those ten — including all of their bad losses — came without Cole Anthony on the roster. If he comes back healthy, that’s something that will be taken into consideration by the selection committee.

But more importantly, it feels like the Tar Heels are starting to play much better. Garrison Brooks has turned into a dominant force on the block, and he and Armando Bacot can do the things that Roy Williams wants his frontline to do. Brandon Robinson is playing much better despite being injured, while Leaky Black, Christian Keeling, Justin Pierce and Andrew Platek have all seemed to figure out a role that they can be effective in. It reminds me a bit of what happened to Seton Hall when they were without Myles Powell. The supporting cast had to put on their big boy pants and find a way to win. It took UNC longer than it took Seton Hall, but I think they’re getting there now.

The problem that the Tar Heels faced early in the season was that defenses could throw everything at Cole Anthony because no one else on UNC was really a threat, and Anthony couldn’t give the ball up because, well, no one else was really a threat. If he has a supporting cast now, and he comes back as the player he was before he hurt his knee, then the Tar Heels will have a chance.

2. NO. 18 IOWA LANDS A COME FROM BEHIND WIN TO BEAT WISCONSIN

For 33 minutes, this looked like Wisconsin’s night, like the Badgers were going to go into Carver-Hawkeye Arena and make a statement with a road win against a ranked team in a league where those are few and far between.

That’s not what happened.

Iowa used a 21-2 run late in the second half to turn a 57-45 deficit into a 66-59 lead, holding on for a 68-62 home win that few saw coming. And to me, this is the kind of win that speaks to the change in what we have seen in the Iowa program this season. Fair or not, the reputation the Hawkeyes have had in the past is to start the year out well before collapsing late in the season. This is precisely the kind of game that they would lose in past seasons.

That’s not the way it worked out on Monday night.

With the win, Iowa moves to 15-5 on the season and remains a game out of first place in the Big Ten regular season standings. Luka Garza finished with 21 points, 18 boards and three blocks, continuing what has been a first-team All-American caliber season.

3. WHO SAW CHRISTIAN BRAUN COMING?

Christian Braun scored 16 points, hitting four threes on Monday night, and added nine boards as No. 3 Kansas routed Oklahoma State in Stillwater.

Braun was moved into the starting lineup for the first time this season, and it paid off for Bill Self, who was forced to work around a roster that only had seven scholarship players available and lacked any kind of interior presence behind Udoka Azubuike. He’s earned the chance, too. This performance came just six days after he scored a career-high 20 points in a win over Kansas State in the Phog. For a team that has desperately been searching for consistent three-point shooting and a defensive presence on the perimeter, Braun checks a lot of boxes.

Sometimes you just need a guy that can go out and do a job for you, and that’s precisely what Braun has done. What will be interesting is to see where Self goes from here. When David McCormack gets back from his suspension on Saturday, will he return to the starting lineup?

Or did he cost himself his spot in the starting five when he decided to go into the stands during a fight?

UConn honors GiGi Bryant with jersey at Team USA scrimmage

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GiGi Bryant, the daughter of Kobe Bryant, already dreamed of playing for the UConn women’s basketball team.

She tragically passed away on Sunday, dying alongside her father in a helicopter crash that claimed the lives of nine people in Southern California.

On Monday night, the UConn women scrimmaged Team USA, and to honor GiGi, the team left a jersey for her on their bench:

(AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

AP Poll: Baylor remains No. 1 in week with few changes at the top

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Here is the latest college basketball AP Poll.

For those interested, here is the NBC Sports Top 25.

Baylor is No. 1 for a second straight week in a college basketball AP poll that had no major changes at the top, a rare bit of stability in a wildly unpredictable season.

The Bears stayed well ahead of No. 2 Gonzaga in Monday’s poll, part of an unchanged top seven for the first time this season. In fact, the only change in the top 10 came with Villanova moving up a spot to No. 8 to swap positions with No. 9 Duke. That comes in a season that has seen seven different teams reach No. 1 this season, matching a record set during the 1982-83 season.

Baylor (17-1) hopped over Gonzaga last week to reach No. 1 for the second time in program history, then earned 44 of 64 first-place votes to keep a firm hold on the top spot after beating Oklahoma and Florida last week.

The Zags earned 19 first-place votes to remain either No. 1 or No. 2 in the poll since the middle of December, followed by Kansas, San Diego State — the last unbeaten team in Division I — and Florida State.

Louisville, Dayton, Villanova, Duke and Seton Hall rounded out the top 10.

No. 22 LSU, No. 23 Wichita State and No. 24 Penn State were the week’s new additions, re-entering the poll after appearances earlier this season. Texas Tech, Memphis and Arizona fell out of the rankings.

Here is the full college basketball AP Poll:

1. Baylor (44 first-place votes)
2. Gonzaga (19)
3. Kansas (1)
4. San Diego State
5. Florida State
6. Louisville
7. Dayton
8. Villanova
9. Duke
10. Seton Hall
11. Oregon
12. West Virginia
13. Kentucky
14. Michigan State
15. Maryland
16. Butler
17. Auburn
18. Iowa
19. Illinois
20. Colorado
21. Houston
22. LSU
23. Wichita State
24. Penn State
25. Rutgers

ACC fines Mike Brey for his officiating comments

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — The Atlantic Coast Conference has fined Notre Dame $20,000 and publicly reprimanded Fighting Irish basketball coach Mike Brey for his comments about officiating after Saturday’s loss at Florida State.

The league announced the penalties Monday, saying Brey’s comments “were in direct violation” of the league’s sportsmanship policy that states that public criticism of officiating “is not in the best interest of intercollegiate athletics.”

Brey referenced several issues after the 85-84 loss to the Seminoles, including a technical foul called on the Irish bench with 2:31 left. He also mentioned game official John Gaffney by name as he left the news conference in Tallahassee.

“We’re treated by the officials like we haven’t brought football as a full member (to the league), but yet we get a full share of the ACC Network TV, are you kidding me?” Brey said, a reference to Notre Dame’s independence in football even as it remains a member of all other league sports.

Moments later, a frustrated Brey waved both hands as he got up to leave and continued his comments as he left the room.

“You’ve got to be kidding me, man,” Brey said, raising his voice. “Come on, man. We’re in the league, too.”

The league said in a news release that the matter is closed and declined to make additional comment. The fine will go toward an ACC scholarship fund that assists athletes with pursuing graduate degrees after completing undergraduate requirements.

Monday Overreactions: Ayo Dosunmu, Maryland, and Nick Richards’ takeover

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois

Ayo Dosunmu did it again.

Illinois’ sophomore star and leading scorer finished with 27 points, none of which were bigger than the final shot of the game as Dosunmu hit a foul line jumper over Zavier Simpson with 0.5 seconds left on the clock to beat Michigan in Ann Arbor:

It’s the sixth straight win for the Illini, who have climbed all the way up to No. 21 in the AP poll, and no one has been more influential in that run than Dosunmu. He’s averaging 19.0 points and 5.4 assists over the last five games, and in a conference where winning road games is notoriously difficult, the Illini have won at Wisconsin, at Purdue and at Michigan during that stretch.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Maryland Terrapins

No team in the country has elicited a louder chorus of doubters throughout the course of the season than Maryland.

The Terps were a top ten team in the preseason, and spent the entire season ranked inside the top 20 of the AP poll and currently sit at No. 10 in KenPom’s rankings. But because of some uninspiring performances early in the season, combined with the fact that the Terps had entered the week with an 0-4 record on the road, it was easy to overlook this group as nothing more than another fraudulent Mark Turgeon roster.

This week, the narrative changed. The Terps erased a 14 point deficit on the road to knock off Northwester, 77-66, in Chicago and then followed that up by going on a 7-0 run in the final two minutes to land a 77-76 win at Indiana.

Suddenly, the Terps are on a three game winning streak with back-to-back home games coming up next.

MONDAY’S OVERREACTIONS

1. NICK RICHARDS IS THE SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Richards has been one of the most improved players in the country this season, but Saturday was really the first time that we saw him completely take over a game.

He finished with 25 points, 14 boards and four blocks in the 76-74 overtime win at Texas Tech, scoring the game-winning points with 10 seconds left.

This is notable, because if you look at Kentucky’s biggest wins of the season to date, they all happened to be a result of one of Hagans or Maxey going absolutely nuts. Maxey had 27 in the win over Michigan State. He had 26  against Louisville. Hagans went for 21 points, seven boards and seven assists against Georgia Tech. He had 13 points, six boards and six assists at Arkansas and 15 points, nine boards and nine assists against Alabama.

Point being, this is the first time that Richards has definitively been the best player on the floor while carrying Kentucky to a win like this on the road.

I also get it: He completely overwhelmed Texas Tech’s frontline — which, frankly, is not a new occurrence, if you have seen the Red Raiders play this season. But we’ve seen Richards play against frontlines he should dominate and, well, not dominate.

As it stands, he’s now the leading scorer and rebounder for the Wildcats. He’s probably the leader in the clubhouse for SEC Player of the Year, and very much in the mix for an all-american team.

2. TEXAS TECH HAS A SIGNIFICANT AMOUNT OF WORK TO DO TO GET TO THE TOURNAMENT

I’m not sure people realize just how little there is on Texas Tech’s resume right now. They beat Louisville (11) on a neutral court. They beat Iowa State (70) at home. They beat Oklahoma State (83) at home. They won at Kansas State (89). Combined, that’s one Quad 1, two Quad 2 and a Quad 3 win. They have eight wins against sub-200 teams and have lost to seven Quad 1 opponents, including Kentucky (23) at home on Saturday. The Red Raiders will have plenty of chances to build on their profile — they get West Virginia (7) at home and play at Kansas (3) next week alone — but there is no doubt that this team has to start winning some games against teams that are not horrific.

As it stands, the Red Raiders are the very last team in the most recent NBC Sports bracket projection.

3. THE BIG TEN IS GOING TO DISAPPOINT IN MARCH

The biggest reason that I believe this is the lack of elite point guard play. I’ve made this point roughly 18,000 times by now, but in the last decade, the only team that won the national title without having two lead guards playing together was the 2012 Kentucky team that had the top two picks playing together.

And the thing about this year’s Big Ten is that the lead guard play is not great. Cassius Winston, when he’s right, is the best in the country. Ayo Dosunmu, the way he’s been playing for the last month, is right there with him. Anthony Cowan is, in theory, on that list. Zavier Simpson? Maybe. Marcus Carr? At times.

I think that’s it.

So that’s a concern.

As is the fact that every team in the Big Ten is built around their frontcourt play.

I was struck over the weekend as I watch Michigan and Illinois down the stretch play with four centers on the floor — Kofi Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili for the Illini and Jon Teske and Austin Davis for the Wolverines. Iowa is at their best when they play with Luka Garza and Ryan Kriener. Tom Izzo loves to play Xavier Tillman with another big man. I could keep going if I had the time.

That is the only league in the country where that happens, and I think it is fair to wonder how well that will hold up in March.

4. ARIZONA IS NOT FAR AWAY FROM BEING REALLY DANGEROUS

More than anyone else in college basketball, the Wildcats are the team that appear to be the darling of the predictive metrics this season.

(I would say Ohio State, but they spent the first half of the season absolutely bludgeoning really good teams and still don’t have a loss to a team outside the top 40.)

They have one win against a top 30 team and just two wins against top 55 opponents. Their best win away from home is against Wake Forest, yet the Wildcats, at 13-6 overall, find themselves sitting at 10th in KenPom and 12th in the NET. This is what happens when you find a way to lose games close. Five fo their six losses came by five points or less, and it hasn’t always been the same formula. Arizona erased leads to land backdoor covers against Baylor, Gonzaga and Saint John’s. They blew leads on the road in league play in losses to Oregon and Arizona State. They completely collapsed in the second half against Oregon State.

So I’m not sure there is a clear-cut answer to what ails the Wildcats right now.

But I do know that with the talent on their roster, they are not as far away from being an actual top ten team as the average Arizona fan on twitter will have you believe.

5. IS SYRACUSE THE FOURTH-BEST TEAM IN THE ACC?

Someone has to be the fourth-best team in the ACC, and as far as league standings go, the Orange currently qualify. They are 6-3 in the conference, having won their last five games, and they have fully embraced the idea that this roster needs to fire up as many threes as possible to have a chance to win.

That said, they still haven’t beaten anyone. Their best win came at Virginia in overtime, but Virginia may not be a tournament team this season. The trouble is that the Orange only get the other top teams in the conference — Duke, N.C. State, Florida State and Louisville — once each.

They probably need to win at least two of those games to have a real shot at a tournament bid.