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SEC Reset: Has Tennessee usurped Kentucky as favorites?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason recaps to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy?

What is still left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the SEC.

MIDSEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Grant Williams, Tennessee

The reigning SEC Player of the Year now finds himself firmly in the National Player of the Year discussion after a stellar start. Williams is averaging 20.1 points, 8.3 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.8 blocks per game on the season as he’s improved nearly every facet of his game.

While the 6-foot-7 junior was mostly an interior force last season, he’s improved his range to become a decent perimeter shooter (41 percent from three on a small sample size). Passing has also been a revelation for Williams, as he’s made the Vols’ offense a lot better with his ability to create for teammates.

Zion Williamson still finds himself as the current NPOY favorite, but Williams is doing everything he can to close the gap.

THE ALL SEC FIRST TEAM

  • Grant Williams, Tennessee
  • Admiral Schofield, Tennessee: Schofield has been nearly just as good as Williams in a dominant Tennessee frontcourt. Putting up 18.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, Schofield is a matchup nightmare who can make plays all over the floor.
  • Daniel Gafford, Arkansas: The sophomore big man has become a force on the interior. The NBA Draft prospect is averaging 17.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game on 66 percent shooting.
  • Keldon Johnson, Kentucky: On a loaded Kentucky team, Johnson has emerged as the team’s best player as he’s now considered as a potential lottery pick. The freshman guard is averaging 16.4 points and 5.5 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the field and 43 percent three-point range.
  • Quinndary Weatherspoon, Mississippi State: The senior leader of a dangerous Mississippi State team, Weatherspoon has helped the Bulldogs to a strong start. Weatherspoon is averaging 17.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Tennessee, Auburn, Kentucky, Florida, Mississippi State, LSU
  • NIT: Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Alabama, Missouri
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: South Carolina, Texas A&M, Georgia
(AP Photo/Timothy D. Easley)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. The SEC race is wide open

Not that this should come as any sort of surprise, but the SEC race is wide open at this point in the season. Defending co-regular season champions Auburn and Tennessee have returned to top-15 form from last season. Kentucky is starting to figure things out while looking like the potential juggernaut many believed they could be.

Mississippi State, LSU and Florida also have the look of very dangerous teams who could be sleepers in the SEC race. And the second tier of the SEC (Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Arkansas, Alabama, and Missouri) are all off to decent starts.

Besides for Georgia, Texas A&M and South Carolina, seemingly every team is a threat in the league this year.

2. Auburn and Tennessee both have teams capable of repeating as SEC champions

Defending co-SEC champions Auburn and Tennessee have lived up to lofty preseason expectations so far as both teams find themselves ranked in the top 15 in the country.

The Vols and Tigers both sport top 35 offenses and defenses on KenPom and both have passed the all-important eye-test by playing well against elite teams. Tennessee has knocked off Gonzaga while hanging tough with Kansas while Auburn fought hard against Duke and knocked off teams they were supposed to beat like Washington, Xavier and Arizona.

Both veteran teams look like they’re well-positioned to be near the top of the SEC standings once again this season thanks to veteran teams that have won plenty of games.

3. Kentucky is starting to figure things out

After the opening night dominance of Duke over Kentucky in the Champions Classic, there were some serious questions about the Wildcats. More questions returned once Kentucky suffered a surprising loss to Seton Hall.

Over the last several weeks, the Wildcats have answered many of those concerns with notable results.

Kentucky is starting to figure out its rotation while also clamping down more on defense. The transfer of point guard Quade Green helped alleviate some perimeter logjams that have enabled sparkplugs like Ashton Hagans to come in and earn more minutes. That’s provided more stability for Kentucky overall while enhancing their perimeter defense quite a bit. Kentucky also has the luxury of having multiple guys who can take over a game as we’ve seen Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro have big recent outings against quality competition. The frontcourt play of Reid Travis and P.J. Washington remains solid as well.

Kentucky still has to get by Auburn and Tennessee to be the SEC’s premier team, but they’re in as good of a position as they could have hoped for given how embarrassing the season started.

(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. Can Auburn and Tennessee reintroduce key pieces into the rotation?

For as good as Auburn and Tennessee have been this season, both programs are still trying to reintroduce double-figure scorers back into their rotations.

Auburn finally gets forward Danjel Purifoy back into the lineup after his suspension for his alleged involvement in the FBI’s college basketball corruption scandal. The Tigers don’t need Purifoy to be great, but if he’s able to provide another lift in the frontcourt, then it adds another scary element to Auburn’s rotation.

Tennessee guard Lamonte Turner has also been sidelined most of this season as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery. The SEC’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year might be the Vols’ most important perimeter scorer as he would help the backcourt of Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden immensely by adding another playmaker.

It’s not a guarantee that either of these guys make a huge impact. Purifoy hasn’t played for a season and a half and Turner is clearly having issues with a surgically-repaired shoulder that has given him trouble before. But if either of these guys can regain previous form then it makes these two teams even more of a threat for the rest of the season.

2. Do any middle tier teams separate themselves from the pack and make the NCAA tournament?

At the start of 2019 the SEC had five teams ranked in the top 20 on KenPom with a sixth team, LSU, coming in at No. 40. Barring an extremely bad conference season, those teams should all be aiming to make the NCAA tournament.

It’s the second tier of SEC teams that will be intriguing to follow.

Ole Miss, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Missouri are all in the top 75 on KenPom after positive starts to the season. None of those teams are currently guaranteed NCAA tournament entry based on current standing. But all of them are going to have ample opportunities to earn huge wins since so many SEC teams are ranked and sitting in Quadrant 1 territory.

Last season saw the SEC create a basketball resurgence with eight NCAA tournament bids. Some work still needs to be done, but with the Pac-12 as down as it is, there is ample opportunity for the SEC to make another major push for the same number of NCAA tournament bids.

3. Can Mississippi State push the SEC’s elite?

Among the SEC’s four ranked teams, Mississippi State is by far the most unproven of the bunch.

Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee are all coming off of NCAA tournament appearances with deep and talented rosters. And although the Bulldogs have earned some notable non-conference wins over teams like Cincinnati and Clemson, they haven’t competed against elite national competition like the other top SEC teams.

Since the Bulldogs haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2009, they’ll need to earn the trust of everybody by proving themselves against top-flight teams. After years of building, it finally looks like Ben Howland has a veteran team who can take him back to the NCAA tournament. Quinndary Weatherspoon leads a team with five double-figure scorers. The Bulldogs have depth at multiple spots. Aric Holman has been tremendous in spurts. Mississippi State has a top-45 offense and defense. If this program is ever going to make a run for the top of the SEC, this is the time to do it.

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. The SEC gets seven teams in the NCAA tournament (and has a more successful March)

Last year was a banner year for the SEC when they had eight of its membership make the Big Dance. Although the SEC top-to-bottom doesn’t appear to be as strong as last season, it’s looking like the SEC should still have plenty of numbers in March. And more teams should also be poised for a deeper run.

The key will be if the middle-tier teams can pick off the ranked teams during conference play as happened last season. If the top SEC contenders run away with the league, and only lose to each other, then it significantly hurts the SEC’s chances for overall quality wins. But if the league is a bloodbath like last year, with no team clearly separating from the pack, then we should see plenty of SEC teams back in the field.

Either way, the SEC should fare better than only one Sweet 16 team from last season. Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Tennessee are all in potential position to earn great seeds and make runs and there are plenty of dangerous second-tier teams who could get hot at the right time.

2. Tennessee captures the SEC title

The SEC race is going to be a close one given how talented the league is at the top. But Tennessee has the difference of having arguably the two best players in the conference in Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield.

The key for Tennessee could come down to guard play. Jordan Bone has been better than last season but he’s still struggling to shoot from the perimeter. Jordan Bowden has actually been slightly worse than last year — particularly shooting the ball from deep. And the SEC’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Lamonte Turner, has only played in three games this season as he continues his recovery from shoulder surgery.

As long as Williams and Schofield keep playing at this level, and Tennessee’s perimeter attack can make some timely plays and shots, then the Vols should be in position to claim another SEC regular season title.

3. Florida makes a big push after a strange start

One of this season’s most perplexing teams has been the Florida Gators. Sitting at 8-4 with tremendous computer numbers thanks to a challenging non-conference schedule, it’s tough to get a read on Florida at this point in the season.

We know that Florida is one of best defensive teams in the country. The Gators turn you over and throw waves of bodies at you thanks to their depth and athleticism. It’s offense that’s the issue. Florida doesn’t have a go-to scorer and nobody on the roster seems like a natural takeover guy.

There are currently an astounding eight players averaging between 10.3 points and 6.6 points per game on this roster right now. If a veteran guard like KeVaughn Allen or Jalen Hudson starts to figure things out as a scorer, then Florida should elevate to another level.

Both Allen and Hudson have averaged at least 14.0 points per game over a full college season before, so it’s certainly possible. I believe that Florida gets one of those guys rolling and becomes a dangerous team heading into March.

NBC Sports Top 25: Duke is still No. 1

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I’m going to get crushed for this.

I know I am.

So before you do it, just listen to my reasoning: Duke, regardless of what happened on Monday night, is still the best college basketball team in the country — which, after all, is what rankings are supposed to determine, right? — largely due to the fact that they still have the two best players in the sport in Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. Those two, playing without the team’s starting point guard, combined to put 57 points on Virginia in a 72-70 win on Saturday. Virginia, I think it’s worth mentioning here, has the second-highest adjusted efficiency margin of any team in KenPom’s database. Kentucky’s 2015 team is the only team that rated higher.

I think it’s also worth mentioning that the No. 2 team in the country in my poll — and the team that is likely going to be No. 1 in the AP Poll come Monday morning — won a one possession game at home against an unranked Alabama on Saturday. They won that game because John Petty, who had 30 points on the afternoon, traveled with the Crimson Tide down 69-68 with 3.2 seconds left.

In just about the same scenario, Duke lost to an unranked Syracuse in an overtime game where Zion missed a free throw in the final seconds of regulation that would have won the game. If Zion makes his free throw and Petty doesn’t travel, we’re not even having this conversation.

That’s how close it is, and making concrete decisions about whom is better than whom based off of one missed free throw and a traveling call is probably sub-optimal.

And, lest we forget, that Duke’s loss came without two of their top four players. Would that game have played out differently if it was Cam “I hit the game-winning three at Florida State” Reddish chucking corner threes instead of Jack “I went 0-for-10 from deep” White?

I say all that to say this: I am not seeding NCAA tournament teams here. Our bracket projection gets updated every Thursday morning, and our Dave Ommen is the very best in the business when it comes to projecting the field. He has Duke as a No. 2 seed, and that is probably correct. If you are looking for someone to do rankings strictly based on accomplishment — if all you are looking for someone to tell you what team has amassed the most impressive array of results — that is the place to go.

There literally is nowhere better on the internet for it.

But this space is supposed to be about ranking the best teams in the country.

And Duke, for my money, is the best team in the country because as of today, I would pick them to beat any other team in the country on a neutral court.

Anyway, here are the full rankings:

1. Duke (15-2, Last Week: 1)
2. Tennessee (16-1, 2)
3. Gonzaga (18-2, 5)
4. Virginia (16-1, 4)
5. Michigan State 16-2, 6)
6. Michigan (17-1, 2)
7. Kentucky (14-3, 10)
8. Virginia Tech (15-2, 9)
9. Kansas (15-3, 7)
10. Texas Tech (15-3, 8)
11. Nevada (18-1, 11)
12. Marquette (16-3, 12)
13. North Carolina (14-4, 13)
14. Maryland (16-3, 20)
15. Ole Miss (14-3, 15)
16. N.C. State (15-3, 16)
17. Auburn (13-4, 17)
18. Mississippi State (14-3, 18)
19. Buffalo (17-1, 19)
20. Villanova (14-4, 21)
21. Houston (18-1, 22)
22. LSU (14-3, NR)
23. Louisville (13-5, 25)
24. Iowa State (14-4, NR)
25. Purdue (12-6, NR)

New Additions: 22. LSU, 24. Iowa State, 25. Purdue
Dropped Out: 14. Florida State, 23. Oklahoma, 24. Indiana

Saturday’s Things To Know: Four top ten teams go down

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PLAYER OF THE DAY: Ethan Happ, Wisconsin

Considering all of the context surrounding this game — Wisconsin having lost four of their last five, Michigan entering the day undefeated, the Badgers’ struggles on the offensive end of the floor, the tenacity with which the Wolverines defend — the performance the we got out of Ethan Happ on Saturday afternoon in the Kohl Center was one of the best individual performances of the year.

Happ finished with 26 points, 10 boards, seven assists and two steals against No. 2 Michigan, one of the nation’s top five defenses, to lead the Badgers to a 64-54 win that moved them to 4-3 in the Big Ten and ended Michigan’s best start to a season in program history. All told, Happ was responsible for 43 of Wisconsin’s 64 points, a fact made even more impressive by the presence of Jon Teske, who has morphed into one of the best defensive big men in the country.

This wasn’t a must-win game for Wisconsin — those don’t exist in January — but it was a ‘prove it’ game.

And Wisconsin did just that.

Thanks to Ethan Happ.

TEAM OF THE DAY: Baylor Bears

Freshman Jared Butler scored 14 of his 19 points in the second half to lead Baylor to an upset home win over No. 8 Texas Tech on Saturday evening. Butler also might have hit the biggest shot of the game, burying a three with 4:30 left in the game after Tech has reeled off an 11-0 run to cut the lead to two points. On the next Baylor possession, he finished a three-point play, and the Bears would go on to win 73-62.

This win is so important for Baylor because it not only adds a marquee win to their tournament resume, but it keeps them in the race for the Big 12 title.

Seriously.

Baylor isn’t in a tie for first right now, but that’s only because they haven’t played as many games as the four teams that are currently tied for first in the league. They are, however, tied in the loss column, and a win at last place West Virginia on Monday would get them there.

Should I mention West Virginia just beat Kansas?

ONIONS OF THE DAY: Tyler Herro, Kentucky

Tyler Herro was the star for Kentucky in their biggest win of the season.

The No. 12 Wildcats went into Auburn Arena and knocked off No. 14 Auburn, 82-80, to keep pace at the top of the SEC standings, and Herro was the reason why. He scored 10 of his team-high 20 points in the final 5:23, including a pair of free throws in the final minute to give Kentucky a lead they would never relinquish.

SATURDAY’S BIGGEST WINNERS

DUKE: I’ve written plenty on Duke’s win over Virginia. Read it all here.

BIG 12 PARITY: Goooooooood luck trying to figure the Big 12 out this year.

As of today, there are four teams in the league that are tied in first place with a 4-2 record in the league — Kansas, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Iowa State. That doesn’t include Baylor, who beat the Red Raiders on Saturday to move to 3-2 in Big 12 play, or Texas, who knocked off Oklahoma to get to 3-3 on the year in league play. TCU, who is in seventh place in the conference race, is just one game out of first in the loss column while Oklahoma, who is ranked 20th in the AP Poll, is sitting in a tie for eighth.

Should I mention that West Virginia — the team in last place in the league — beat the eventual league champs* Kansas today?

*We all know it’s happening. 

WEST VIRGINIA: You heard that right. West Virginia, who entered Saturday with an 0-5 mark in Big 12 play and have played the entirety of the league schedule to date without Sagaba Konate, knocked off No. 7 Kansas in Morgantown for the fourth time in the last five years. In the process, West Virginia exposed the fatal flaw in this Kansas program.

JA MORANT TRACKER: The Murray State superstar and future top five pick finished with 10 points and 10 assists in a win over SIU-Edwardsville. There are some real concerns about his shooting stroke moving forward, but it’s worth noting here: Morant was 21-for-21 from the free throw line. Sources say that’s pretty good.

SATURDAY’S BIGGEST LOSERS

TOP TEN TEAMS: Four of them lost today. Three of those four — No. 2 Michigan, No. 7 Kansas and No. 8 Texas Tech — lost on the road to unranked teams in league play. The fourth — No. 4 Virginia — lost on the road in league play as well, only they fell to … No. 1 Duke. That’ll happen.

UNDEFEATED TEAMS: Entering the day, there were two of them.

As of this very moment, there are none. Of the ten biggest leagues in the sport, only Michigan State, Tennessee, LSU, Villanova, Washington, Gonzaga and Saint Louis are still unbeaten in league play.

AAC OFFICIALS: Gregg Marshall, after getting ejected from a home game against Cincinnati, told reporters afterwards that, “I felt like the road team today.” This was the third time this week that an AAC officiating crew was in the headlines. On Thursday night, Tulsa coach Frank Haith and UConn coach Dan Hurley were both ejected at the same time after being given two technical fouls apiece for this dust-up. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin was also ejected earlier in the week.

It’s worth noting here — two of the officials that tossed Haith and Hurley (Pat Adams and Marques Pettigrew) also tossed Marshall.

SEC TEAMS IN ALABAMA: No. 14 Auburn did not have a good day. They dug themselves a 16 point second half hole against No. 12 Kentucky, came roaring back thanks to 25 second half points from Bryce Brown and then lost in the final seconds because a game-winning bucket from Jared Harper happened to roll off the rim. Brutal.

But Alabama might have had it worse. They had so many chances to put No. 3 Tennessee away in the final minutes, but they couldn’t run offense. They had a chance to win with 11 seconds left, but John Petty traveled. It was not ideal.

FINAL THOUGHT

No. 25 Indiana was embarrassed on Saturday.

They lost to rival Purdue 70-55, but it wasn’t the scoreline that really is the indicator here. It was Romeo Langford, who managed just four points in 22 minutes, getting bench with 3:19 remaining because Indiana was, frankly, better without him. His plus-minus was -16, meaning that Indiana actually outscored Purdue in the 18 minutes that Langford was glued to the pine.

It was the fact that the Hoosiers were once again beaten up in a game that they badly needed to win. This was their fourth straight loss. On Monday, they were beaten by 15 points at home against Nebraska.

And look, it should not be all that surprising that Indiana is working through some growing pains here. This is a young team with a freshmen backcourt and a roster that has dealt with some injury issues. They aren’t all that talented, and they don’t shoot it all that well, and, if we’re going to call a spade a spade, they have not gotten the best that Archie Miller has to offer has a head coach yet.

I think Archie would probably tell you that.

And I think he would also tell you that he’s about to learn, first-hand, just how much pressure there is being the coach of a program like Indiana.

Because the fans are not happy about this losing streak, not when one of their own, the one-and-done lottery pick that is supposed to lead Indiana to the promised, is seeing his only season go to waste. Now the media is starting to pile on. Look at the biggest names covering the team. Gregg Doyel ripped them. Dan Dakich (continues) to rip them. Rick Bozich ripped them. I’m sure there are more that I just haven’t noticed yet.

And it’s not going to stop there.

The Colts are out of the playoffs. The Pacers aren’t going to be winning any titles this year. College basketball is going to drive any and all conversation, and the Hoosiers getting humiliated by their in-state rival is all anyone is going to want to talk about.

It’s not easy being the coach of a blueblood.

There’s a reason that someone like Shaka Smart prioritized Texas and Billy Donovan loved it at Florida. It’s nice when the money is there and the pressure only comes after the football team plays a bowl game and before spring practices start.

That’s certainly not the case at Indiana.

And Archie is going to learn that the hard way this week.

RJ Barrett leads No. 1 Duke past No. 4 Virginia 72-70

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DURHAM, N.C. — No. 1 Duke and fourth-ranked Virginia kept trading baskets — and the lead — down the stretch of another classic at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Here’s the difference: The Blue Devils had RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson and a defense that -even without key on-the-ball defender Tre Jones- flipped the script on the Cavaliers.

Barrett scored 30 points, Williamson had 27 and Duke gave Virginia its first loss of the season by beating the Cavaliers 72-70 on Saturday night.

“We did a lot of switching tonight, and we were able to move their defense enough — just enough, not every time — to get some driving lanes,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

The Blue Devils (15-2, 4-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) bounced back from an overtime loss to Syracuse that could cost them their top ranking. They avoided their first two-game losing streak at home since 2016 and proved they can win without Jones.

DeAndre Hunter scored 18 points, and Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy had 14 apiece for the Cavaliers (16-1, 4-1), who entered as the nation’s last unbeaten after No. 2 Michigan was upset at Wisconsin earlier in the day. Virginia allowed Duke to shoot 63 percent in the second half — and hit 12 of 15 shots inside the 3-point arc — while giving up a season-high point total.

“We’re a solid defensive team,” coach Tony Bennett said, “but tonight, we were not solid enough.”

The fourth matchup of top-ranked teams in the sport’s history — Virginia entered at No. 1 in the coaches’ poll — was a tournament-caliber game throughout. There were 14 ties and 15 lead changes, and it was a one-possession game for a 14 1/2-minute stretch of the second half.

“If you scored, you beat good defense,” Krzyzewski said. “If you didn’t score, good defense beat you.”

After the Cavaliers missed 11 of 12 shots during a late nine-minute stretch, they pulled within 69-66 on Guy’s 3-pointer with 23 seconds left. Barrett hit two free throws with 20.9 seconds to play, and Virginia let too much time elapse before Braxton Key was fouled with 8.9 seconds remaining and hit both shots to make it 71-68.

Cameron Reddish hit a free throw to make it a four-point game before Hunter hit a jumper before the buzzer for Virginia.

BIG PICTURE

Virginia: The Cavaliers’ best start since opening 19-0 in 2014-15 is history, and they won’t wind up at No. 1 in the AP Top 25 on Monday. After winning a top-five matchup here last year, untimely cold shooting down the stretch — and their struggles to keep the Blue Devils from getting to the rim on defense — led to their first defeat. But circle the date on the calendar: The rematch in Charlottesville comes on Feb. 9.

“That was our game,” Jerome said. “We had that game. We lost it. We made mistakes that we can control.”

Duke: With one key freshman out — Jones — the Blue Devils rode the three other members of their freshman class to a significant victory. Williamson, Barrett and Reddish combined to take 47 of Duke’s 51 shots and score 66 of their 72 points.

“Coach K gives us the freedom to be us,” Williamson said. “When there’s movement for the three of us, no telling what we can do.”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Good luck to the voters who have to sort this out. It’s hard to punish the Cavaliers too much for losing at Cameron. The question surrounding the Blue Devils: Will the spoils of this victory weigh more than their overtime loss to Syracuse when they were down two starters?

STRATEGY

Bennett said Duke was the first team to switch on every screen set by the Cavaliers — a tweak to the game plan Krzyzewski said he made a couple of days before the game in an attempt to limit Virginia’s open 3-pointers, especially the catch-and-shoot 3s that are an integral part of Guy’s game. He compared Guy to former Duke star J.J. Redick, calling him “the closest that I’ve seen to J.J. in the league.” Guy was 2 of 7 from 3-point range, and Virginia finished 3 of 17 from beyond the arc.

INJURY REPORT

This was the Blue Devils’ first full game without Jones, who separated the AC joint in his right shoulder early on against Syracuse. Jones watched from the bench in a polo shirt but without a sling. Duke had just six assists on 26 baskets after averaging 18 assists in its previous 16 games. Krzyzewski said there’s still no timetable for Jones’ return.

Baylor wins 73-62 to hand No. 8 Texas Tech 2nd loss in row

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WACO, Texas — Baylor freshman Jared Butler scored 14 of his 19 points after halftime and the Bears beat No. 8 Texas Tech 73-62 on Saturday, handing the Red Raiders their second loss in four days.

After Texas Tech scored 11 in a row to get within a basket, Butler hit a 3-pointer with 4 1/2 minutes left before Tech’s Jarrett Culver then had a short shot roll off the rim no good. That led to Butler driving for a layup and making the free throw after getting fouled to stretch the lead back to 61-53.

The Red Raiders (15-3, 4-2 Big 12), coming off a home loss to Iowa State on Wednesday night, are still tied for the Big 12 lead after No. 7 Kansas lost earlier Saturday at West Virginia.

Makai Mason added 16 points for Baylor (11-6, 3-2), which beat a Top 10 team for the seventh time in the last three seasons. The Bears are 7-7 in such games during that span.

Culver led the Red Raiders with 19 points and nine rebounds. Brandone Francis had 14 points and Davide Moretti had 13.

After Texas Tech raced out to a 23-10 lead in the first 9 1/2 minutes, Baylor went ahead to stay with a 23-6 run. Four Bears, including Butler, made 3-pointers in that span while the Red Raiders went more than 10 1/2 minutes without making a field goal.

Baylor had a 33-31 halftime lead before Butler scored the first eight points for the Bears out of the break. It was 41-33 after King McClure stole the ball from Culver and passed ahead to Butler for a breakaway layup.

BIG PICTURE

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders had been the only Big 12 team without a conference loss before this week, and their only loss before that was against No. 1 Duke.

Baylor: This was the most lopsided Big 12 game so far for the Bears, whose first five conference games had all been decided by five points or less. Baylor also won at home against Texas Tech last season when the Red Raiders were a Top 10 team.

UP NEXT

Texas Tech plays on the road for the third time in four games Tuesday night at Kansas State. The Red Raiders play three of their four games after that at home.

Baylor plays Monday night at West Virginia, which is coming off its win over Kansas after a 31-point loss at TCU. It’s the second week in a row the Bears follow a Saturday home game with a Monday road game.

Four takeaways from No. 1 Duke’s win over No. 4 Virginia

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R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson combined to score 57 points as No. 1 Duke survived an off-night from Cam Reddish to take down No. 4 Virginia, the last remaining unbeaten in college basketball, 72-70.

De’Andre Hunter led Virginia with 18 points while Ty Jerome finished with 14 points, four assists and four boards, the majority of his damage being done in the second half. Duke led 37-32 heading into halftime, cut the lead to 40-39 by the first TV timeout. From that point until the Blue Devils used a 6-0 run to push their lead out to 67-60, the game was a thrilling, one possession battle between two of the best teams in the country.

For me, that was the most important factor on display.

These could very well be the two best teams in college basketball. On a different day — one where Kyle Guy or Braxton Key makes one or two of the handful of wide open threes they had in the second half — Virginia wins this game. At the same time, we can say that if Tre Jones is healthy for the return leg, Duke could go into John Paul Jones Arena and get a win and no one would be surprised.

Speaking of Jones, much was made of the importance of his absence in the buildup to this game, but Duke still managed to find a way to win.

Here are four things to takeaway from the result:

1. ZION WILLIAMSON IS SPECIAL

Breaking news!

The likely No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and the probably National Player of the Year is a great basketball player.

Shocking, right?

But in all seriousness, he was absolutely unstoppable on Saturday night in Cameron. There is no team in the country that is better than Virginia when it comes to stopping dribble penetration — that is the entire point of the Pack-Line — and Zion was able to get to the rim more or less at will. Virginia tried everything to slow him down, from using future top ten pick De’Andre Hunter, to Mamadi Diakite, to Braxton Key. By the end of the second half, Tony Bennett put Jack Salt on Zion, hoping that it would be more effective using the burly, 7-foot New Zealander to keep Zion from bullying his way to the basket while helping as much as possible.

(I know this is probably a different conversation for a different space, but in all seriousness, Virginia’s entire premise defensively is to force drivers to play with as little space as possible, and Zion got wherever he wanted. In the NBA — with the longer three-point line, shooters all over the floor and more space than anyone knows what to do with — how do you keep him out of the lane?)

With the loss to Syracuse on Monday night, Duke is going to fall out of the top spot in the AP Poll. That’s justified.

But it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that a team with Zion Williamson as the second-option offensively is not the best team in college basketball.

2. THE CHESS MATCH BETWEEN THESE TWO COACHES WAS AMAZING, BUT COACH K WON THIS ROUND

It was fascinating to watch these two coaching geniuses trade haymakers for 40 minutes on Saturday night.

Coach K landed the first blow. Virginia runs the blocker-mover offense, which is more-or-less a continuity offense where three guards (movers) are constantly running off of screens from the two bigs (blockers), and he was able to completely take UVA out of their offense by switching all exchanges, 1-through-5. Tony Bennett said at halftime that no one had done that against them before. Switching off-ball screening actions minimizes their effectiveness, especially when the bigs aren’t good enough to overpower the guards that are switched onto them:

This through Virginia for a loop early on, but they adjusted. This is when Bennett gets on the scorecard for the first time, because he totally scrapped his offense and started doing exactly what Duke does: He ran screen after screen after screen until he got the matchup he wanted — usually, Marques Bolden on Ty Jerome or De’Andre Hunter. Then he would lift the defense, send the big out to set a ball-screen and let the dribbler attack the space in the paint since Duke wasn’t leaving shooters:

Duke’s response?

They switched to a 2-3 zone for a number of possessions late in the second half, and it got Duke the win, but I do think that it’s important to note than Virginia entered this game as the nation’s seventh-best three-point shooting team and they missed three or four really good looks from three against that Duke zone. If those threes — the shots that Virginia wanted to get, mind you — go down, maybe I’m writing something different here.

They didn’t.

And Duke was able to land themselves the two-point win.

(One point that I think is important to add here: One of the things that people love to cite when they say that Tony Bennett will never be able to coach in the NBA is the offense that he runs. Well, in the second half, Virginia essentially ran the same offense that was run for the entirety of the 2018 Western Conference Finals. He simply moved players into screens to force switches into advantageous matchups, then he let his stars go and make a play. Oh, and should I mention that the Portland Trailblazers run the blocker-mover offense? Because they do.)

Anyway, the more important point about the Wahoos is that …

3. … DE’ANDRE HUNTER AND TY JEROME ARE DIFFERENCE-MAKERS

After watching that game and rewatching much of the second half, I am more sold on the idea that this Virginia team is the team that can finally get to the Final Four.

No one is going to defend Virginia this season as well as Duke did on Saturday night. The Blue Devils schemed UVA out of everything they wanted to do offensively, and Virginia still gave Duke a fight in Cameron.

The point here isn’t to celebrate a moral victory — remember, Virginia won in Cameron last year and lost in the first round to UMBC. The point is that Hunter and Jerome are as good as any 1-2 punch in college hoops this side of Duke. They can create outside of the confines of Virginia’s system. They can take games over, as Hunter did for a stretch in the first half and as Jerome did for much of the second half. They are NBA players that are hidden by the slowest pace in the sport.

The point is that the concern people have about Virginia winning in March is that they are susceptible to losing to teams that can take them out of what they want to do. Duke did that, and Virginia came a couple of missed threes away from picking them off in Cameron.

Maybe Virginia is more matchup-proof than we realized.

4. DUKE DEFINITELY MISSED TRE JONES

It’s easy to hide flaws in a roster when the top two picks in the draft are able to put up  combined 57 points on 21-for-35 shooting against one of the best defenses in college basketball, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t chinks in the armor.

Part of the reason that Duke had to switch as much as they did on Saturday night, and part of the reason they were eventually forced to go to zone, is that Tre Jones’ defense wasn’t on the floor. Part of the reason that Duke had to play Marques Bolden for 33 minutes despite the fact that he was the guy that Virginia targeted every time they switched was because Tre Jones was on the bench. Part of the reason that Cam Reddish struggled to get things going was because there was no true point guard on the floor to initiate offense.

Duke is better with Tre Jones.

I don’t even think there is a question.

But when you have two dudes that are as good as Zion and RJ are, there are going to be a lot of games where it just doesn’t matter.