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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.

(Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

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.

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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