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Monday Overreactions: Josh Langford arrives, Gonzaga’s great, Virginia’s better?

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Joshua Langford, Michigan State

It took a couple of years for us to get here, but we all finally saw what made Joshua Langford a five-star prospect coming out of high school.

The 6-foot-4 off-guard has developed a reputation for being underwhelming in East Lansing. He hasn’t taken over games since he arrived on campus even though the only played ranked higher than him in the loaded Class of 2016 that is still in college is Marques Bolden. He’s not quite athletic enough to get all the way to the rim. He settles for too many long twos, playing as a pull-up jump-shooter when he hasn’t been all that great at jump-shooting. He’s fine, I guess, which is how many view this Michigan State team as a whole.

The Spartans are considered by some to be overrated as a borderline top ten team. Who, they’ll ask you, are the good players on the Spartans? Who scares you if you’re an opposing coach? This is precisely the conversation I had with one scout in the press room at Barclays on Friday prior to the start of the Kansas-Tennessee game.

At that point, the score was Texas 25, Michigan State 6, and I don’t think it is too much of an overreaction to say that this was something of a crossroads in Michigan State’s season. They were getting run out of the gym by a middle-of-the-pack Big 12 team, which is not a good sign when in-state rival Michigan is mowing down any and everyone in their path while the Big Ten continues to dominate during the non-conference.

And to their credit, Michigan State turned that thing around, and Langford played a pivotal role. He scored all 29 of his points in the final 29:35 of a 78-68 Michigan State win. He scored 22 of those 29 points in the second half, including 11 points in a 14-2 run to open the period. He buried a three to give Michigan State their first lead of the game at 50-49. He hit another jumper with 13 minutes left to push the lead to 55-51, and the Longhorns never again got within a single possession.

Langford is now Michigan State’s leading scorer and best three-point shooter on the season.

This is who we thought Langford was when he arrived on campus, and if this is who he continues to be, the ceiling for Michigan State’s preseason expectations are in reach.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Gonzaga Bulldogs

Is there really another option?

Playing without Killian Tillie, Gonzaga headed to the Maui Invitational and showed the nation why they have been considered to be a peer of Duke and Kansas at the top of the polls since the preseason. The Zags survived a challenge from Illinois and Trent Frazier before outscoring Arizona by 30 points in the second half, which led them to the Maui title game where the Zags put to rest all of that premature talk about Duke’s 40-0 season.

Rui Hachimura was dominant. Brandon Clarke Was a defensive menace. Zach Norvell Jr. continued to show why he may have the biggest stones of any shooter in college basketball. Corey Kispert got the attention of everyone as one of college basketball’s best role players. And Josh Perkins, the guy we were all worried about heading into the season, settled some of those concerns. I’m not yet convinced he is the answer Gonzaga needs at the point, but it is quite evident that he is not going to torpedo this season.

There is a reason that the Zags are the new No. 1 in the NBC Sports top 25, and — Are you ready for this scorching hot take? — now have a better chance to go 40-0 this season than Duke ever did. The Bulldogs should cruise through league play, where the WCC is easier than the ACC, which means that if they can get past Creighton, Washington, No. 5 Tennessee and No. 7 North Carolina, they could enter the NCAA tournament without a loss fairly easily.

(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

MONDAY OVERREACTIONS

1. VIRGINIA BELONGS IN THE CONVERSATION WITH DUKE, KANSAS AND GONZAGA FOR BEST TEAM IN THE COUNTRY

Remember when we all thought that Virginia was going to be in for a down year?

LOL.

The Wahoos have been as good as ever through the first two weeks of the season. Ty Jerome was playing at an all-american level before he came back down to earn in wins over Dayton and No. 25 Wisconsin. De’Andre Hunter, on the other hand, has looked every bit the part of a top ten pick, as he’s averaging 16.8 points while shooting 46.7 percent from three. Kihei Clark has proven to be an effective piece that gives Virginia backcourt depth and some lineup versatility; he’s a role player, but he is really effective in his role, pestering ball-handlers and operating as a point guard to give Ty Jerome some possessions off the ball.

All of this is happening as Kyle Guy is still working his way into a rhythm this season and Braxton Key is trying to find his role within this offense.

“The teams [with Malcolm Brogdon] were better overall defensively,” said a coach that has scouted Virginia in recent seasons, noting that the trade-off is that this group is harder to guard. “They’ve small-balled it more with Key and Hunter. They’re more versatile. Still tough and talented [defensively].”

I said it before the season and I’ll say it again now: Virginia is Villanova before the titles. If you remember back then, the narrative was that the Wildcats weren’t talented enough to do more than run through the new Big East, that a team that relies on the three-ball cannot win the national title.

Well, the narrative with Virginia is that they are not talented enough to win it all, and that a team that relies on their defense cannot win a national title.

This may be the year they finally buck that narrative.

2. TEXAS TECH IS THE SECOND-BEST TEAM IN THE BIG 12

Chris Beard is a freakin’ wizard.

Here we are just eight months removed from the Red Raiders losing their top two players and their most versatile defender from what seemed like a once-in-a-generation team for the Red Raiders, and they already appear to be back in the mix for a run at the top of the Big 12.

Jarrett Culver made the leap. Through six games, he is averaging 18.8 points, 5.2 boards and 4.3 assists — which includes the 44 points, 15 boards and seven assists he had in come-from-behind wins over USC and Nebraska last week — all while shooting 50 percent from three. He’s turned into a go-to scorer that is a threat from beyond the arc and can put it on the floor and create.

Throw in South Dakota transfer Matt Mooney and St. John’s transfer Tariq Owens, and Beard has once again managed to fit a bunch of pieces together and make them into a force to be reckoned with.

Here’s to hoping he stays in Lubbock for a long, long time.

Jarrett Culver (Elsa/Getty Images)

3. THE BIG 12 WILL LOOK REALLY GOOD ONCE THEY GET OVER THE INJURY BUG

The Big 12 once again looks like it is going to be a gauntlet.

We know about Kansas and Kansas State at this point, and while West Virginia hasn’t looked like the team we all thought they would be entering the season, they are really the only program in the conference that is underperforming right now. Texas Tech, as we mentioned, looks like they are back in the mix at the top of the league. Oklahoma just went 2-1 in the Battle 4 Atlantis, beating Florida and losing to No. 25 Wisconsin. Oklahoma State blew out Memphis and then beat No. 19 LSU by 13 points on Sunday; if it wasn’t for one of the worst calls in the history of college basketball, the Cowboys would have just a single loss on the season — to Villanova. Texas just beat No. 7 North Carolina in the Las Vegas Invitational, and this looks like it could be the best team that Shaka Smart has had in Austin.

And then there is Iowa State, who is currently sitting at 5-1 on the season with blowout wins over Missouri, Illinois and San Diego State despite the fact that they are playing without four key rotation pieces, including their most talented guard (Lindell Wigginton) and their best big man (Cameron Lard). Talen Horton-Tucker and Nick Weiler-Babb have proven that you can have a hyphen in your name and still dominate.

When the Cyclones get healthy, they are going to be a force to be reckoned with, especially if they continue to defend at this level. Even TCU, who has been the most disappointing team in the league, has reasons for their struggles: They are still waiting for a pair of starters — Jaylen Fisher and Kouat Noi — to get fully healthy.

Should I mention that Kansas is currently sitting at 5-0 with wins over Tennessee, Michigan State and Marquette, and they still don’t look like they are close to hitting their stride?

This league is going to get wild.

4. I GUESS VILLANOVA ISN’T DEAD YET

The Wildcats suffered back-to-back losses and dropped from No. 4 to outside the top 25 before proceeding to head down to Orlando for the AdvoCare Invitational where they ripped the heads off of Canisius, Oklahoma State and No. 14 Florida State.

Villanova is going to go through some growing pains, but they should probably come out of this just fine.  The main reason I say that is that on Sunday, they managed to beat a good Florida State team while shooting just 3-for-14 from three. They won a game based on their ability to be tough defensively and the fact that they decided to put the ball on the floor and get to the rim when their shots weren’t dropping. Collin Gillespie played very well, as did Dhamir Cosby-Rountree.

We’ll see how long this lasts, but this was a message to the rest of the Big East: “The league is still ours.”

5. THREE TEAMS TO KEEP AN EYE ON

There are a trio of teams that I did not expect all that much from this season that have proven to be better than expected: Minnesota, Maryland and Arizona State.

Just how good are they?

I’m not quite sure.

Arizona State knocked off No. 15 Mississippi State in impressive fashion in the opener of the Las Vegas Invitational last week before trucking Utah State in the title game. Luguentz Dort was terrific — as he has been all season long — while Kimani Lawrence has provided a scoring boost as well. I’m going to hold off having a strong take until I see them against Nevada.

Minnesota is another team that had some buzz entering the season, and they’ve gone 5-0 to start the year, including wins over Utah, Texas &M and Washington. They’ll start Big Ten play next week with a trip to Ohio State and a home date with Nebraska. We’ll know then.

Maryland is 6-0. They play Virginia in College Park on Wednesday. Buena suerte.

Thursday’s Things To Know: No. 6 Michigan State outlasts Nebraska, Ja Morant dunks all over the OVC and the Pac-12 has a sole leader

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There wasn’t a matchup of top-25 teams Thursday, but there were competitive games across the country, starting in Lincoln with Michigan State and Nebraska and ending in Tempe with Oregon State and Arizona State. Pl, there was a dunk that may have qualified as national emergency. Here’s what you need to know:

NO. 6 MICHIGAN STATE STAYS PERFECT IN THE B1G WITH WIN AT NEBRASKA

Nebraska looked like it had the sixth-ranked Spartans on the ropes in Lincoln with the score knotted at 44 just inside the midpoint of the second half. Then, though, Michigan State ripped off a 7-0 run and never looked back – despite an ugly final minute – to claim a 70-64 win over the Huskers to move to 16-2 on the year and 7-0 in the Big Ten.

The win is most notable for the Spartans as it once again came without the services of Joshua Langford or Nick Ahrens, both of whom continue to be sidelined with injuries. With both on the shelf, Cassius Winston put together a game to bolster his player of the year candidacy, scoring a career-best 29 points on 9 of 15 shooting while dishing out six assists and grabbing three rebounds. Winston doesn’t have the game that always pops off the TV screen, but he’s the type of veteran point guard that can help propel a team to a national title, especially if Langford comes back healthy and productive.

For the Huskers, it’s certainly not a bad loss given Michigan State’s profile, but the opportunity cost has to sting. Last year Tim Miles’ team racked up wins, but missed out on the tournament because not enough of them were of the quality variety. Here, they had a top-10 team staggered with less than 10 minutes to play at home but couldn’t close the deal. The good news for them is they’ve already got a couple of nice wins on the resume, but most importantly the B1G isn’t the wasteland it was last year, leaving them with bountiful opportunities to pick up meaningful victories before March. To do that, though, they can’t have James Palmer, Jr. going 6 of 21 from the floor like he did against the Spartans. To Palmer’s credit, though, he got to the line 11 times and made every attempt to finish with 24 points while grabbing eight rebounds and recording three assists. Shooting 5 of 26 (19.6 percent) from 3-point range won’t win you too many games, either.

 

STAY OUT OF JA MORANT’S WAY

If you wanna jump with Ja Morant, God bless you, but it ain’t going to work out well for you. Eastern Illinois learned that lesson Thursday as Morant unleashed yet another must-see dunk.

On top of that, the future lottery pick had 27 points and nine assists while shooting 11 of 16 from the floor and 4 of 5 from 3-point range. He’s an unsolvable problem for the OVC.

 

WASHINGTON IS ALONE IN FIRST IN THE PAC-12

Congratulations to the Washington Huskies, the last remaining undefeated in Pac-12 play. It may not be an honor, but it’s something, at least.

Mike Hopkins’ team blasted Stanford (80-64) while Arizona lost at home to Oregon (59-54) and Oregon State was behind big before making things tight in Tempe and eventually losing to Arizona State (70-67), which has now won three of four. There’s been plenty written about the Pac-12, but the league continues to do itself damage, most notable with the Wildcats taking a loss in Tuscon to a depleted Ducks team. That’s not going to do much for the conference’s reputation or their own NCAA tournament resume.

Zach Norvell leads No. 5 Gonzaga over Loyola Marymount 73-55

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SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Zach Norvell Jr. scored 17 points and No. 5 Gonzaga used a stout defense to beat Loyola Marymount 73-55 on Thursday night, the eighth consecutive win for the Bulldogs since a pair of losses knocked them out of the top spot in The AP Top 25.

Brandon Clarke added 13 points, Corey Kispert 12 and Rui Hachimura 10 for Gonzaga (17-2, 4-0 West Coast), which beat Loyola Marymount for the 20th straight time. The Zags have won 18 straight games at home.

James Batemon led Loyola Marymount (13-5, 1-3) with 12 points.

Loyola used a slow-down offense and stingy defense to keep the scoring low, and it mostly accomplished that goal.

Gonzaga, which averages 92 points a game, led just 17-16 midway through the first half.

The Zags went on a 19-6 run the rest of the half to take a 36-22 lead at halftime. The Lions shot only 36 percent in the first and committed 11 turnovers.

A 3-pointer by Norvell highlighted a 14-2 Gonzaga run to open the second half that lifted the Bulldogs to a 50-24 lead. Meanwhile, the Lions were missing eight of their first 10 shots.

Loyola Marymount made just five of its first 20 shots in the second half, and fell behind 61-35 with less than 8 minutes left.

BIG PICTURE

Loyola Marymount: The Lions opened the season 11-1, but have dropped off since … The Lions ranked 13th in the NCAA in defense at 61.2 points per game … Their last win in this lop-sided series was in 2010. They have not won in Spokane since 1991 … The Lions have already surpassed last season’s 11 wins.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs are cruising toward another WCC title, outscoring conference foes by nearly 30 points per game… The Zags suffered back-to-back losses to No. 3 Tennessee and at No. 13 North Carolina in mid-December and have not lost since … They lead the nation in field goal shooting at 52.6 percent and are second in scoring at 92.2 points per game … Gonzaga and Marquette are the only programs with both men’s and women’s teams in the Top 15.

UP NEXT

Loyola Marymount hosts Pepperdine on Saturday.

Gonzaga plays at last place Portland on Saturday.

Cassius Winston’s career-high 29 lifts No. 6 Spartans over Huskers

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Four nights after Tom Izzo called out Cassius Winston for his poor play in Michigan State’s previous game, the Spartans’ star point guard responded better than his coach would have expected.

Winston scored a career-high 29 points to go over 1,000 for his career, had six assists and played tough defense on Glynn Watson Jr. while leading No. 6 Michigan State past Nebraska 70-64 on Thursday night.

“I told him before the game, ‘You’re going to get measured on how you bounce back,’ ” Izzo said.

Winston more than passed the test.

“Cassius, the way he ran that whole thing, he was like a quarterback dissecting a defense,” Izzo said.

In a win at Penn State on Sunday, Winston had seven turnovers, and his 11 points were his fewest since Florida held him to 10 on Dec. 8. Izzo told reporters it was one of the worst games Winston had played in his three seasons.

Of the Spartans’ first 18 field goals against Nebraska, Winston scored eight of them and had assists on five others. He held Watson, the Huskers’ hottest player the last week, to 3-of-13 shooting from the field and eight points.

Izzo’s criticism motivated him, he said.

“Just get back on track, playing at the level I was playing at,” Winston said. “I want to play at the highest standard, my best ability. I’ve got to do that for this team and put us in the best situation.”

Michigan State (16-2, 7-0) won its 11th straight game overall and extended its school-record Big Ten winning streak to 19 games. The Cornhuskers (13-5, 3-4) had their school-record 20-game home win streak end.

Nick Ward added 15 points and 10 rebounds for his second straight double-double. He also made his first 3-pointer of the season and second of his career.

“That should keep him happy for a week or 10 days,” Izzo said.

The Spartans led by 12 points in the final 2 minutes, but Nebraska cut the lead to four twice before Matt McQuaid made a pair of free throws for his first points with 14.2 seconds to put the game away.

Nebraska shot a season-low 32.8 percent and was just 5 of 26 on 3-pointers, 1 of 12 in the second half.

“I wasn’t very pleased with our offense in any way, shape or form,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said.

James Palmer, who led Nebraska with 24 points, struggled mightily from the field, going 6 of 21, but he made all 11 of his free throws.

“Palmer’s a good player, and I feel like I did a pretty good job on him,” McQuaid said. “I just tried to do what I could. He’s a bigger, more physical guard. I tried to get a couple charges, but things weren’t going my way. So I had to figure out different ways to guard him.”

Nebraska had hoped to build off its win at No. 25 Indiana on Monday night but couldn’t get going. The Huskers were trying for their first win over a top-10 opponent in nine tries.

“You need to build and play from the front against these teams,” Miles said.

He found no consolation in playing the Spartans close for most of the game, which had 11 lead changes and six ties.

“There are no moral victories,” Miles said. “I’m utterly mad and disappointed.”

BIG PICTURE

Michigan State: This was a gut-check win for the Spartans, who were without Joshua Langford (ankle) for a fifth straight game and Kyle Ahrens (back) for a second in a row.

Nebraska: The Huskers were feeling pretty good about themselves after an impressive win at No. 25 Indiana on Monday, and they had an amped standing-room crowd on hand. But they could never find rhythm until it was too late against the nation’s No. 3 team in field-goal defense.

HE SAID IT

“We were paranoid of this game. They didn’t make shots tonight. Those things happen sometimes. Tim’s got a great team that’s going to be an NCAA Tournament team, and I hope they keep on winning now.” — Izzo.

UP NEXT

Michigan State hosts No. 19 Maryland on Monday.

Nebraska visits Rutgers on Monday.

WATCH: Ja Morant can’t be stopped

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The Ohio Valley Conference is just not equipped to deal with Ja Morant.

The Murray State guard just keeps dunking on anyone and everyone that stands in his way, the latest victim coming Thursday night at Eastern Illinois.

There’s just so much to love about this dunk. The athleticism. The explosiveness. The aggressiveness. The ferocity. It’s thunder meeting lightning at the rim.

If there’s someone who can stop Morant, a likely top-10 pick in June, it sure ain’t in the OVC.

UCLA, USC meet amid rocky seasons for crosstown rivals

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — A fired coach. A transfer. Suspensions. Injuries. UCLA and Southern California have experienced it all barely halfway through the season.

Things began promisingly enough for the Bruins. They were an AP Top 25 team and were predicted to finish second in the Pac-12 before early consecutive losses to ranked Michigan State and North Carolina knocked them out. Then came stunning defeats at home to mid-majors Belmont and Liberty. Those precipitated the biggest shocker of all: coach Steve Alford’s firing on New Year’s Eve.

Murry Bartow was quickly tabbed as interim coach for the Bruins (10-7, 3-1 Pac-12). They’ve won three out of four games under him.

“We had a lot of ups and downs,” UCLA freshman Moses Brown said, “but I think we caught our stride and the sky is the limit for us.”

USC was predicted to finish fifth in a weakened Pac-12. The Trojans got off to a 5-2 start before dropping four in a row. They regrouped to reel off four straight wins, including a home sweep to open conference play. But they dropped a pair on the road, where freshman Kevin Porter Jr. got suspended last weekend.

In the midst of rocky seasons, the crosstown rivals meet Saturday at Galen Center. The Bruins have won four in a row in the series and are 8-4 at USC’s arena since it opened.

“Coming off a two-game losing streak, we’re kind of hoping this is a game that we can bounce back,” USC’s Nick Rakocevic said. “We want to be put in a good position for the rest of the Pac-12.”

Both teams would likely need to win the Pac-12 tournament title to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Last March, the Bruins played in the First Four for the first time in school history and lost. The Trojans were snubbed by the selection committee despite finishing second in the Pac-12 for the first time in 25 years after losing twice to UCLA.

“We play UCLA twice, but there’s 16 other games. You have to do well the rest of the league,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “Whether you win or lose these games, yes, it’s great for a rivalry, it’s great for another win in your conference, but it’s a long Pac-12 season. We try to keep that in perspective no matter who we play even if it’s UCLA.”

The Trojans (9-8, 2-2) have played over half their games with eight or fewer scholarship players because of injuries and the recent transfer of Jordan Usher, who was suspended before he left.

“Nothing surprises us at this point,” Enfield said. “The injuries and distractions have had a significant impact on our team.”

Porter was back practicing with the Trojans this week, but he hasn’t been cleared to play in games.

“He’s working on some things off the court. He has very clear expectations that he has to meet,” Enfield said. “As he progresses, we will reevaluate his status.”

Bartow said the Bruins will prepare as if Porter will play Saturday. Before his suspension, Porter missed time with a leg injury.

USC’s Bennie Boatwright, a local product who was recruited by UCLA, has been on an offensive tear in his last seven games. He scored a career-high 37 points in an overtime loss at Oregon State and is averaging a team-leading 17.1 points. The Bruins are led by Kris Wilkes at 17.3 points a game.

“Inside, they’ve got some really, really good players,” said Bartow, who has the Bruins playing at a faster pace and zipping the ball around.

One of the intriguing matchups on Saturday will be the 6-foot-11 Rakocevic and Brown, who at 7-1 is the tallest player at UCLA in decades. Rakocevic averages 14.9 points and a league-leading 9.5 rebounds. Brown averages 11.9 points and 9.0 rebounds

“It’s going to be fun going against somebody like that,” Rakocevic said.

A famous name associated with the rivalry won’t be on the court.

USC’s Chuck O’Bannon, the son of former UCLA star Charles O’Bannon, is expected to seek a medical redshirt. The sophomore broke his pinky finger in practice in November, had surgery, got the cast off in December and it hasn’t healed properly. He’s still has pain, too, Enfield said.

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