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Recapping college basketball season to date

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Fantasy football season is officially in the books and we are still a week away from actually seeing the college football playoff happen.

Just about every meaningful non-conference games has been played, conference play is right around the corner and the most interesting part of the NBA right now is whether or not Lebron will actually be able to get Anthony Davis to Los Angeles.

There couldn’t be a more perfect time to catch everyone up on what is happening in a fun, crazy and wide open college basketball season.

So here we go …

ALL THOSE DUKE FRESHMEN ARE ACTUALLY AMAZING

It’s an annual tradition at this point. Duke enrolls a recruiting class that is stuffed to the gills with future lottery picks and players with endless amounts of hype. The Blue Devils get ranked at the top of the polls in the preseason, and then once the games are actually played, the product doesn’t match the hype.

That’s not the case this year.

Zion Williamson is must-see TV, an absolutely dominant force at the college level that has gone from being looked at as nothing but a dunker to being the clear-cut No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. R.J. Barrett is the second-best player on the Duke roster, and he’s averaging 24 points, seven boards and four assists. Duke is so good that Cam Reddish, himself a top five pick, can barely find a role in this offense while Tre Jones has been turned into Patrick Beverly.

Who knows if this Duke team will actually win the national title — weird things happen in March — but I will say this: They are going to be the favorite to win it all as long as they stay healthy for the next three months.

(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

BUT THEY ARE NOT GOING TO GO UNDEFEATED

That ship sailed less than three weeks into the season thanks to a Gonzaga team that is loaded in their own right.

I know we say this a lot, but this might be the best Gonzaga team that we have ever seen. Rui Hachimura is a sensation with an incredible back story — he is to Japanese basketball what Yao Ming was to Chinese hoops. Brandon Clarke has become the best defensive player in college hoops. Zach Norvell Jr. has stones that bigger than Sam Cassell’s.

Should I mention that Gonzaga has been playing without Killian Tillie this year?

ZAGS GOT TRIPPED UP BY TENNESSEE

But even that Gonzaga team found themselves getting picked off twice before WCC play even started. Losing at North Carolina is one thing, but the Zags took an L playing against Tennessee on a neutral court in a game that proved to just about everyone that the Vols are probably the best team in the SEC this season.

I didn’t see it happening, not with what Kentucky was supposed to be this year and not with a roster that already seemed to max out its talent. But what do I know. Admiral Schofield has turned into an NBA player, Grant Williams expanded his shooting range and ability to pass and the Tennessee guards have been terrific even though they are playing without Lamonte Turner right now.

I hope you got your futures odds in on Tennessee early.

I did.

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KENTUCKY, HOWEVER, IS GOOD AGAIN

The Wildcats were utterly humiliated by Duke on the opening night of the season, getting beaten by 34 points in a game that wasn’t even that close. John Calipari’s club then proceeded to look unimpressive in a bunch of wins over mid-major opponents on their home floor before falling to Seton Hall in MSG.

But when Kentucky took the floor against North Carolina in Chicago over the weekend, they looked like the team that we all saw play in the Bahamas in August. And while Keldon Johnson and P.J. Washington and Ashton Hagans finally played like the players we expected to see all season long, the truth is that the reason to buy into Kentucky right now is that they are (finally) playing defense at a level we expect.

When they do that, we know Kentucky is good.

WE DON’T ACTUALLY KNOW IF KANSAS IS GOOD

The Jayhawks have the best resume in college basketball. They have wins over Michigan State, Villanova, Marquette and Tennessee. They have five more wins over top 150 teams on KenPom. Their only loss on the season came by four points on the road against an Arizona State team that is the best team in the Pac-12. That’s impressive.

What’s less impressive is the fact that Kansas has not looked all that good in each individual game. They trailed Vermont in the second half. They trailed Louisiana by 12. They were down big at the half against Marquette. They needed overtime to beat Stanford at home. They beat New Mexico State by three. They are playing without Udoka Azubuike right now, and they might as well be playing without Quentin Grimes.

Right now, the Jayhawks are Lagerald Vick, Dedric Lawson and a bunch of guys. I think they’ll figure it out eventually, but right now, this is not Kansas at their best.

WE DON’T KNOW IF THE BIG EAST IS GOOD

Villanova certainly isn’t, at least not by their standards. They are 9-4 on the season with a home loss to Furman and a 27 point home loss to Michigan to their name. St. John’s is undefeated, but they literally don’t have a single win that I care about. Butler, Creighton and Seton Hall have looked good, but they are a combined 26-10 on the season. Providence is young and banged up. Xavier is young and not all that good.

At this point, Marquette is carrying the flag in the league, but a major reason for that is Markus Howard going absolutely bonkers twice in the last three weeks. They’ve won seven straight, with wins over Louisville, Kansas State, Wisconsin and Buffalo thrown in the mix.

(AP Photo/Darren Hauck)

WE DO KNOW THAT THE PAC-12 IS BAD

The league is just not good.

Outside of Arizona State, no one in the league finished non-conference play in a way that would make them feel good about getting an at-large bid to the tournament. And Arizona State? They blew a 12 point lead in a loss to Nevada, they lost by 16 at Vanderbilt despite the fact that Vanderbilt’s best player is done for the season and they needed a miracle rally to erase an 18 point deficit at Georgia.

If they didn’t get that win over Kansas on Saturday, we might be sitting here talking about whether or not this is a one-bid league.

AND WE DO KNOW THAT THE BIG TEN IS LOADED

The Big Ten, however, could end up getting ten teams into the NCAA tournament. That has as much to do with the fact that there are a lot of bad leagues around the country right now that will struggle to produce at-large candidates, but the Big Ten does have 11 teams in KenPom’s top 50 and 12 teams in the top 60.

Michigan is the headliner you need to know about. They are, once again, one of college basketball’s very best defensive teams, but the development of Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews as well as the addition of Ignas Brazdeikis has turned the Wolverines into a juggernaut. Wisconsin is loaded again, mainly because Ethan Happ is a certified beast. Michigan State is really good. Indiana is getting wins despite being young and banged up. Ohio State is apparently going to be a top 20 team regardless of who is on their roster for as long as Chris Holtmann is head coach. Nebraska is the real deal.

This league is going to be an absolute nightmare on a nightly basis, and that is going to be a good thing for the teams that finished 8-10 in the league. They’ll still have a shot at a bid.

AND, AS SHOCKING AS THIS IS, VIRGINIA MIGHT BE BETTER THIS YEAR THAN LAST

They really might be. De’Andre Hunter has taken a step forward, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome are one of the best guard tandems in the country and this freshman Kihei Clark is everything you could possibly want out of a Tony Bennett point guard.

I think the Cavaliers are Villanova circa 2015. At that point in time, we all knew Jay Wright was a handsome man that happened to be a terrific basketball coach, he just had a reputation for choking in March. That’s exactly how people feel about Bennett and Virginia right now, but you can’t win the Big One until, you know, you do.

Is this the year Virginia finally breaks through and gets to the Final Four?

I think it is.

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

FIVE TEAMS I DIDN’T MENTION YOU NEED TO KNOW

NEVADA: We knew about Nevada heading into the season. With the Martin twins and Jordan Carolina back, they are old, talented and dangerous. They are also going to be the team that makes a run at an undefeated season.

TEXAS TECH: Chris Beard did it again. The Red Raiders are the nation’s best defensive team, Jarrett Culver is a certified star and Tech will be the favorite to unseat Kansas in the Big 12 this season.

ARIZONA STATE: This is the only team in the Pac-12 you need to pay attention to at this point. The Hurley brothers have a way of staying relevant.

BUFFALO: Coming off of a year where they upset No. 4 seed Arizona in the NCAA tournament, the Bulls are primed for another tournament run. This is the best mid-major team in college hoops by a good stretch.

OKLAHOMA: Trae Young is gone, but the Sooners might actually be better this year. I’ll let you guys argue about whether or not that is a result of Young leaving the program or everyone else on the roster being one year older.

Cassius Winston addresses Michigan State crowd: ‘I lost a piece of my heart’

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Michigan State guard Cassius Winston spoke publicly for the first time since his younger brother died by suicide nine days ago.

He thanked the crowd at the Breslin Center:

Can Kentucky cure what is ailing them?

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For the second straight game against mid-major competition, the Kentucky Wildcats looked like everything but the team that beat No. 1 Michigan State in the season opener.

On Tuesday night, the Wildcats blew a 14-point second half lead and allowed Mark Madsen’s Utah Valley Wolverines to have a couple of shots to take the lead in the final three minutes of what eventually turned into an 82-74 win. This came just six days after the Wildcats, as the No. 1 team in the country, found a way to lose to Evansville, who turned around and lost to SMU at home Tuesday.

So things have been better in Lexington.

Much better.

But panicking over anything would be silly right now.

Because the thing that this Kentucky team needs more than anything else is the only thing that cannot be rushed: Time.


What’s wrong with Kentucky? We broke it down last week.

One of college basketball’s most annoying bits of coachspeak and cliche is the saying, “This will be a different team come March.”

Sometimes it’s accurate. Sometimes it’s a coach or a columnist trying to explain away the dumb mistakes that a team keeps making.

And sometimes, it’s said in regard to this iteration of the Kentucky Wildcats, who will be a completely different team in, what, two weeks? A month? Surely not much more than that. Right now, Kentucky more closely resembles a MASH unit than it does a college basketball. Look at this seemingly ever-growing list of injuries:

  • E.J. Montgomery has missed the last three games with an ankle injury he suffered in the opener against Michigan State.
  • Ashton Hagans has been dealing with some kind of leg injury that John Calipari hasn’t specified but that had limited him early on this season.
  • Nick Richards is still battling an ankle injury that has kept him out of practices.
  • Immanuel Quickley missed the Utah Valley game with what was termed a chest injury.
  • Dontaie Allen is still recovering from a torn ACL.
  • Kahlil Whitney appeared to dislocate a finger with three minutes left before popping it back in himself. He did not return to the game.

Do the math, and the Wildcats finished this game with six scholarship players, two of whom are not at 100 percent.

That’s rough for any team to deal with, especially when three of the opening night starters are on that injured list.

But the issue is magnified for Kentucky.

The Wildcats are not only incredibly young, but they also lack the kind of elite talents we typically associate Big Blue with. There is no surefire lottery pick on this roster. More importantly, there may not be a college All-American on this roster. Tyrese Maxey is the most dangerous scorer they have, but he’s shooting 28 percent from three, has eight assists and nine turnovers in four games and has looked far from the star guard he played like against Michigan State. Ashton Hagans and Nick Richards were terrific on Tuesday, but if they’re the two best players on this team that’s a far cry from Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns, or John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis.

Hell, there isn’t anyone on this roster that is as good as P.J. Washington or Tyler Herro were last season.

At least right now. That’s the important part here.

Because, if you remember, neither P.J. Washington or Tyler Herro were as good in November as they were in February and March. They got better as the season went on, just like the guys on this roster will get better (and healthier) as the season goes on.

So when you put it all together, what you have is a team that we knew was going to need time to gel dealing with injuries to half their roster that is keeping key pieces out of games and, perhaps more importantly, out of practice. Don’t gloss over that. If injuries are keeping these guys from practicing, it’s keeping them from getting better, from learning their roles, from growing into the player they will hopefully be once league play begins. That is in no way insignificant.

Frankly, Maxey going absolutely bonkers in Madison Square Garden while Michigan State paired foul trouble with 5-for-26 shooting from three papered over a lot of these cracks.

We knew Kentucky was going to take their lumps early on these season and we ranked them where we ranked them anyway.

They are taking their lumps.

And if you are patient, they’ll look like Kentucky again soon enough.

No. 9 Kentucky gets another scare, holds off Utah Valley

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Ashton Hagans scored a career-high 26 points, and No. 9 Kentucky survived another close game against what should have been a lesser opponent, beating Utah Valley 82-74 on Monday night.

The Wildcats (3-1) dropped out of the No. 1 spot in The Associated Press Top 25 after losing at home to Evansville last week, and they had to overcome a late surge to hold off the Wolverines.

Kentucky led by 16 points early in the second half, but Utah Valley steadily chipped away until T.J. Washington’s 3-pointer got the Wolverines (3-2) within one at 68-67 with 3:26 remaining. Nate Sestina responded with a three-point play that helped the Wildcats pull away.

Kentucky was without second-leading scorer Immanuel Quickley, who sat out because of a chest injury. Quickley has scored 16 points in each of the last two games.

The Wildcats also have been without forward EJ Montgomery, who has missed the past three games because of an ankle injury. Coupled with Quickley’s injury, Kentucky’s roster has dwindled to seven scholarship players, leaving the Wildcats short-handed in practice.

Nick Richards had 21 points and 10 rebounds, while Tyrese Maxey added 14 points.

Washington led the Wolverines with 22 points, followed by Trey Woodbury with 17 and Jamison Overton with 10.

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats are used to shooting free throws and averaged 29.7 attempts per game in their first three. Kentucky made 31 of 34 from the line against the Wolverines, including 14 of 15 in the first half. The Wildcats held a 46-27 edge in rebounding, including 34 on the defensive end.

Utah Valley: Just as Evansville did in its upset, the Wolverines spread the floor and forced the Wildcats to play defense in the open court. The Wolverines made 11 3-pointers to keep the game close.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The Wildcats play two more games this week and could move up a spot or two with three victories, although games like this will surely give voters pause. The Wildcats don’t play a ranked opponent again until they take on No. 10 Ohio State at Las Vegas on Dec. 21.

UP NEXT

Utah Valley hosts Lamar on Thursday.

Kentucky hosts Mount St. Mary’s on Friday

Villanova’s Antoine medically cleared for game action

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Freshman guard Bryan Antoine has been medically cleared for game action, Villanova announced on Monday.

Antoine is a former five-star prospect that has missed the first two weeks of the season. He underwent surgery on his shoulder on May 31st.

“Bryan has been fully cleared to play in games and we’re happy for him,” head coach Jay Wright said in a statement. “He’s worked extremely hard in his rehab with Jeff Pierce and John Shackleton to get to this point.

“Our plan is to bring Bryan along slowly. He’s only just returned to practice and the learning curve is steep for any freshman. Bryan’s working hard to catch up and we’re going to do all we can to help him in this transition.”

UConn guard charged with evading police is granted probation

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VERNON, Conn. — UConn guard James Bouknight was accepted Monday into a probation program designed to leave him without a criminal record in connection with a September traffic accident.

The freshman, who was charged with evading responsibility, interfering with police, driving without a license and driving too fast for conditions, was approved by a Connecticut Superior Court judge for admission into the state’s accelerated rehabilitation program for first-time offenders.

Police say Bouknight smelled of alcohol and fled from an officer after driving another student’s car into a road sign near campus early in the morning of Sept. 27.

Under the terms of his probation, the 19-year-old from New York City must stay out of trouble for a year and pay the car’s owner for the damage to the vehicle.

“I made a terrible mistake,” Bouknight told Judge Hope Seeley. “I would like to apologize to my family, my coaches and my team.”

The car’s owner initially told police that about 20 people were in her apartment the night of the accident and her keys had been taken from a counter without permission.

She amended her statement Oct. 13 to say she had been drunk, does not remember giving Bouknight permission to drive the car but did not want to pursue theft charges.

Her family submitted a letter to the court saying it supported accelerated rehabilitation for Bouknight.

Bouknight turned himself in to police Oct. 3 and gave a statement acknowledging responsibility for the crash and saying he had been given permission to drive the car.

The 6-foot-4 guard served a three-game suspension and is expected to play Thursday when UConn (2-1) faces Buffalo in the Charleston Classic.

Outside the courtroom, Bouknight apologized and told reporters he’s learning to be “the student, best athlete, best citizen I can be.”