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What You’ve Missed: Now that football is over, get caught up on college hoops

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Football is finally over.

It took two weeks for the Super Bowl to get here, and after a defensive snooze-fest that made UConn’s 53-41 title game win over Butler in 2011 seem like a thriller, it’s time for basketball to take centerstage.

In between the massive trade, petty squabbles and reality television drama that is the NBA these days, we have a college basketball season to play out and the Madness of March to look forward to. 

Here is everything you need to know about college basketball if today is the day that you are getting caught up on everything. 

1. DUKE IS LIVING UP TO THE HYPE

Prior to the season, all anyone could talk about was just how good Duke had a chance to be. They were bringing in three of the top five prospects in the class and, potentially, had the top three picks in the 2019 NBA Draft on their roster.

Of course we were going to go overboard with the hype train.

And you know what?

It’s worth it. Zion Williamson has proven to be an absolute revelation, becoming a lock to the the National Player of the Year and a near-lock as the first pick in June. R.J. Barrett has had his ups-and-downs, but at the end of the day he is a lethal scoring that leads the nation’s No. 2 team in scoring. Tre Jones has emerged as a star as a floor leader and a potential lottery pick himself, and all of this is happening as Cam Reddish is still fluctuating between a slump and trying to figure out how to thrive in his role.

Love them or hate them, the incessant hype that Duke is getting this year is, unlike years past, earned.

2. ZION IS NOT THE ONLY MUST-SEE ATHLETE

Zion is the headliner when it comes to highlights, and that’s because the things that he does on a nightly basis are just absurd.

But he’s not the only must-see athlete in college basketball this season.

Let’s start with Murray State’s point guard Ja Morant, a 6-foot-3 lead guard averaging 24.1 points, 10.3 assists and 5.6 boards. He could end up being the No. 2 pick in the draft, and not just because he can do this:

And then there is Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke, who is responsible for the best block that I think I have ever seen:

SPEAKING OF BRANDON CLARKE, GONZAGA IS LEGIT

Here is the scary thing about the Zags: We learned how good they can be in November, when they beat Duke in the title game of the Maui Invitational. They’ve lost to North Carolina and Tennessee since then, but no one that watched that performance against the Blue Devils will forget it.

The reason that’s scary is because the Zags played the entirety of their non-conference schedule without Killian Tillie, who is such an important piece for them given his ability to pass the ball and the fact that he’s a 6-foot-10 shot-blocker than can make threes. He’ll bring a different dimension to this team, and while there will be tape of him playing available, only Mark Few is going to know how Tillie will be used against elite competition. Can you say x-factor?

SPEAKING OF JA MORANT, HE’S NOT THE ONLY SUPERSTAR MID-MAJOR PLAYER

There are always fun player in the mid-major ranks, but I think this year there is a particularly high number of stars at smaller schools. Campbell’s Chris Clemons is going to end up as one of college basketball’s all-time great scorers and is coming off a week where he went for 39 points twice. Detroit’s Antoine Davis is a freshman and averaging 27.1 points for Detroit. Hofstra’s Justin Wright-Foreman is the nation’s third-leading scorer and has led the Pride to a two-month winning streak. Wofford’s Fletcher Magee. Buffalo’s C.J. Massinburg. South Dakota State’s Mike Daum.

We need these guys in the NCAA tournament.

SPEAKING OF SUPERSTARS, MARQUETTE’S MARKUS HOWARD

Howard leads all of the high-major programs in the country in scoring, and it’s his ability to take over a game that has turned the Golden Eagles into a top ten basketball team. He had 53 points in a game earlier this year. He has gone for 45 points twice. The only player on the planet that is more dangerous as a step-back three-point shooter is James Harden. He’s lethal — and absolutely enthralling to watch — when he gets into a rhythm. It’s why the Golden Eagles have a very real shot to win the Big East.

SPEAKING OF THE BIG EAST, VILLANOVA’S BACK

If all you know about Villanova is that they were embarrassed by Michigan (and Furman, and Penn) early on this season, you haven’t been paying attention of late. As veterans Phil Booth and Eric Paschall have started playing like all-americans in recent weeks, the Wildcats have turned back into the favorite to win the league. They are undefeated in conference play through the first half of the season, and once against look like a threat to get to the Final Four.

3. THE BIG 12 TITLE IS TOTALLY UP FOR GRABS

Kansas has some real problems that they are working through that stem from the fact that seven-foot center Udoka Azubuike is injured and his backup, Silvio De Sousa, was ruled ineligible to play this season by the NCAA.

That’s created a situation where the Big 12 is the weirdest conference in college basketball. The two teams currently in first place in the league are Baylor and Kansas State, the former who lost to Texas Southern and Stephen F. Austin in November and the latter who spent the first two months of the season totally incapable of scoring. Kansas and Iowa State who might be the two best teams in the league, are both a game out of first place in the loss column. Texas Tech, who might be the third-best team in the league, is two games back in fifth place.

I have no idea.

But seeing this thing play out is going to be fun.

4. TENNESSEE IS THE SEC’S BEST

The Vols are the best team in the SEC. They might be the best team in college basketball — they are, after all, ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll. Grant Williams is a legit superstar at the college level, while Admiral Scholfield is one of a handful of Tennessee players that could end up having an NBA future.

Tennessee is one of college basketball’s elite offensive teams, and with the way that this group of tough, physical veterans can defend when they want to, the idea that this could be a national title-winning team is very real.

BUT KENTUCKY IS BACK AFTER BEING EMBARRASSED

The first time we saw Kentucky play this season, they lost by 34 points to Duke on a night where they gave up 118 points.

Since then, things have changed. Quade Green transferred out of the program, Ashton Hagans took over as the starting point guard, P.J. Washington has turned into a legitimate all-american candidate and Reid Travis seems to finally have a feel for what his job is on this team. They’ve turned into one of college basketball’s elite defensive teams, and with the way their bigs can overpower opposing frontlines, I feel very comfortable saying the Wildcats are back as one of the five-best teams in college basketball.

5. THE PAC-12 SUCKS

The Pac-12 sucks.

(AP Photo/Steve Helber)

6. VIRGINIA IS BETTER THAN THEY WERE LAST YEAR

As it stands, the Cavaliers are sitting in sole possession of first place in the ACC and are proud owners of the No. 1 ranking in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency margin, the NET and Torvik’s efficiency rankings.

But more importantly, I think the difference with the Wahoos this season is their versatility. They can play big. They can play small. They can play with three guards. They can play with two combo-forwards and a five-man that can switch onto anyone. They are as good defensively as they’ve always been, and this year they are shooting the cover off the ball.

They are better than they were last season, and this is going to be the year they finally get to the Final Four. Can you think of a better story than that?

BUT THE ACC IS LOADED

Duke is awesome.

We all know that.

But North Carolina, while having their moments of insanity, has turned out to be really, really good, especially on the nights when Coby White gets it going and despite the fact Roy Williams is still trying to find the best way to work in Nassir Little. Virginia Tech has been arguably the nation’s most dangerous three-point shooting team, and as long as Justin Robinson’s health isn’t a major concern, the Hokies have one of the best backcourts in the country. Syracuse is figuring out how to score. Louisville has been drastically better than anyone expected.

There are legitimately six Final Four contenders in the ACC.

That is tough.

7. THE BIG TEN MAKES NO SENSE, BUT IT SURE IS A ROLLER COASTER RIDE

The two favorites in the league are the Michigan schools, which is not exactly unexpected.

What we didn’t necessarily expect was Purdue developing into a team that, entering February, who be keeping pace with Michigan and Michigan State atop the league. We didn’t expect Iowa to be 17-5 and coming off of a 15 point beatdown of the Wolverines. And we certainly did not see Indiana taking a nosedive, losing seven straight games and then going into East Lansing without one of their best players and beating Michigan State.

And I haven’t even gotten to Wisconsin and Maryland playing well or Ohio State and Nebraska falling off cliffs.

What a wild league.

8. KEEP AN EYE ON HOUSTON

We all know about Nevada and how good they can be this year, but Houston is in the same boat. They were the first team to 20 wins this season, they have super-talented guards and a coach in Kelvin Sampson that has proven over and over again to be one of the best in college basketball. They are legit.

Women’s Wednesday: Kobe Bryant’s impact on women’s basketball

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“His legacy will live on. You’ll feel Kobe Bryant.”

Dawn Staley’s words ring true as the world continues to mourn the untimely and tragic passing of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, as well as his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna.  

Staley, the head coach for the South Carolina women’s basketball team, is a Hall of Fame coach and player and a three-time Olympic gold medalist. She was also a friend of Kobe’s, growing up in Philadelphia and sharing a gym with him under the watch of the 76ers’ John Lucas. The two also participated in the Olympic games together. 

The Laker legend is known worldwide for his impact on the NBA, with five championship titles, two Finals MVPs, and more.

While his resume is endless, Staley also remembers “The Black Mamba” for the father he was to four daughters, and the impact he had on women’s basketball. 

“Kobe was like no other when it came to supporting women’s basketball,” Staley expressed.

“He single-handedly took women’s basketball to another level by showing up at the games, by giving interviews and expressing what he felt was in his heart about women’s basketball. Once you’re able to see women’s basketball in that light, it helps grow the game, especially when it’s someone as powerful as Kobe Bryant, and as thoughtful, as detailed, as he was.”

Staley stressed the impact that Gianna’s love of the game had on her father being a fierce advocate for women’s basketball, saying, “I think Kobe would have been like this in whatever his daughters chose to have a passion about.”

“He thought long term and expressed things that no other professional men’s basketball player would ever say, that there are players in the WNBA that could play in the NBA,” the Gamecocks coach explained. “Kobe saw what he was instilling in his daughter. He probably wanted to say those things about Gigi… that she could one day play in the NBA.” 

After his retirement, Kobe could be found sitting courtside with his daughter, affectionately nicknamed “Gigi,” but he could also be found coaching at Mamba Sports Academy, where he was the head coach for Gigi’s team, the Los Angeles Lady Mambas.

Gigi dreamed of playing for UConn, and the pair frequently went to Husky games together, as well as championed other top women’s programs, such as Oregon. 

“If you look at every single player that he has touched — Sabrina Ionescu, or the entire Oregon women’s basketball team,” Staley said, with emotion evident in her voice. “You look at UConn. Gigi wanted to go to UConn, she was fascinated with what accomplishments and traditions UConn stood for. We feel [her loss], there is a big void.”

Kobe’s passion for basketball, paired with the love he had for Gigi, has left many thinking that he would have become more involved in the WNBA in years to come. 

“I think women’s basketball would’ve grown to the point where Kobe would’ve put more of his money into it, because I know he put money into the Mamba Academy,” Staley said. “I’m sure he eventually would’ve gotten around to maybe even buying a team or buying into the league in some form or fashion.”

The devastating helicopter crash that took nine lives — including two other young girls, GiGi’s teammates, taken far too early — reminds us all of the fragility of life, and how quickly it can be taken away from us. 

In the wake of this tragedy, people are turning towards love and one another. 

Timelines are flooded with stories and anecdotes about Kobe, his relationship with his wife, Vanessa, and four daughters. Buildings and memorials all over the country are lit up in purple and gold, while tributes for the all-star pour in from as far away as the Philippines. 

Kobe has left a lasting legacy, one that Staley won’t forget.

“I hope with several of the NBA players, when they speak on keeping Kobe’s legacy alive, they will bring the women’s game along with it.

“Because that’s what Kobe Bryant was doing.”

WEDNESDAY’S NEWS AND NOTES

UConn faced off against the U.S. national team on Monday night, putting up impressive show but ultimately falling short of an upset in a 79-64 loss. Fiver former Huskies dressed for the national team’s exhibition game.

Alongside many NBA teams, UConn and Team USA took honorary shot clock violations to start the game as a tribute to Kobe Bryant. 

The Huskies set up a stunning memorial for the late Gianna Bryant, who dreamt of playing for UConn one day, on their bench:

– The top teams in the county took care of business this weekend, with not a single ranked team upset by a lower-ranked team on Saturday or Sunday. 

– South Carolina maintained its No. 1 spot atop the polls, with 26 first-place votes from the AP panel, after an 88-53 rout of Georgia on Sunday. Baylor is No. 2 once again as well. 

– The rest of the top-10 reflects the talent among the top teams, with UConn and Oregon swapping spots as Oregon notched two back-to-back wins over rival Oregon State to take No. 3 in the rankings from the Huskies. The Ducks beat the Beavers 76-64 on Friday, outscoring Oregon State 45-29 in the first half, and then again on Sunday, 66-57.

When asked about her mentor and friend Kobe Bryant after the game, Sabrina Ionescu replied that “this season’s for him”:

Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu continued on her record-breaking rampage, toppling Gary Payton’s passing record as the all-time leader for Pac-12’s men and women’s assists. She is now No. 7 on the women’s career assists list.

– In another in-state rivalry, then-No. 18 Arizona secured the 59-53 upset over then-No. 16 Arizona State. The Wildcats jumped up to No. 16 while the Sun Devils dropped to 19.

– No. 7 N.C. State continues to impress with a 76-68 win over rival North Carolina. 

– And in the Play Of The Week: Anna Makurat goes behind the back to Christyn Williams for the layup in STYLE:

“I trust the SEC office will do the right thing,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes says after bump from official

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Tennessee 63-58 loss to Texas A&M wasn’t without some controversy.

In the final seconds of the game, official Mike Nance appeared to bump into Vols coach Rick Barnes, who was standing stationary on the sideline, and the two exchanged words.

“I really have a lot of confidence in the SEC office that they are going to look at that,” Barnes said after the game about the incident, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. “I believe they will look at this game and take it apart. I just think they will do that. That shouldn’t happen in any way shape or form. I would like to say what I want to say, but I won’t because I trust the SEC office will do the right thing.”

Nance was headed to the monitor to review a call when the bump occurred, and Nance appeared to ask Barnes if the coach initiated the contact.

“Coach (Bob) Knight told me a long time ago that in a game officials are going to miss seven to nine or 10, 11, 12 calls,” Barnes said. “He kept going up every year. He said, ‘You just hope things aren’t egregious at any point in time.'”

Coach K screams at Duke fans, defending Jeff Capel

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In one of the stranger things that we’ve seen in college basketball this season, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski went off on the Cameron Crazies for what he believed was a shot they were taking at former Duke player Jeff Capel.

The crazies were chanting, “Jeff Capel sit with us.” Coach K thought he heard something else.

Check out the video:

After the game, Coach K acknowledged that he misheard what the fans said, adding that he will apologize for the mishap.

“I made a mistake,” he said. “But I’d rather make a mistake for the protection of my guy.

“I love Jeff. I erred on that side. I just hope the ACC doesn’t fine me like they did [Mike] Brey.”

He ended the back and forth with this: “Jeff can sit with me anytime.”

 

Tuesday’s Things to Know: Villanova gears up for big stretch, Auburn wins ugly in 2OT and Rutgers keeps rolling

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The headliner of Tuesday night was Virginia regaining an NCAA tournament pulse with a win over No. 5 Florida State, but there were plenty of other developments on the bubble across the country.  Here’s what else you need to know:

1. Villanova runs streak to seven ahead of grueling stretch

Jay Wright’s team had little trouble winning its seventh-straight Tuesday with a 79-59 victory at Madison Square Garden over St. John’s. Saddiq Bey was brilliant, scoring 23 points on 8 of 14 shooting, including 5 of 9 from deep. Collin Gillespie was equally great, going for 17 points, 13 boards and six assists while Jeremiah Robinson-Early had 13 points and 14 rebounds. Cole Swider and Justin Moore both had 11 to put all five Wildcat starters in double-figures to help offset the absence of the injured Jermaine Samuels.

The victory, while unremarkable given St. John’s mediocrity, keeps momentum for Villanova heading into a huge stretch that very well could decide the Big East. They’ve got Creighton at home Saturday before a trip to No. 16 Butler and then back-to-back home games against No. 10 Seton Hall and Marquette, which handed the ‘Cats their lone conference loss this season.

How Villanova emerges from this four-game stretch – and subsequently what the Big East landscape looks like – will likely be determined by a couple of things. If the ‘Cats are going to make it through in the conference driver’s seat, it’ll probably because Villanova’s defense proves for real. The Cats’ defense this season on the whole has been fine, ranking 60th nationally on KenPom, but it’s been the best in the Big East during conference play. They’ve been stingier both inside and outside the arc while improving on the glass. They’ve kept opponents from launching a lot of 3s and have mostly kept them off the line.

Wright’s team is going to be fine offensively, even if they haven’t been elite in Big East play yet. If the defense holds up, the ‘Cats are going to be sitting pretty come March.

2. No. 17 Auburn comes from behind to win in 2OT

Things were looking pretty dire for Auburn. The Tigers narrowly avoided a third loss in four games over the weekend when they blew a big lead to a sub-.500 Iowa State team, and then they fell behind by 19 in the second half Tuesday at Ole Miss.

It turned out to be nothing to be worried about, unless you were on your couch hoping to watch good overtime basketball.

The Tigers narrowly escaped, 83-82, against the Rebels, overcoming a huge deficit and mistakes of their own making that could have negated their comeback but instead will be footnotes.

Auburn shot 56 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from 3-point range in the second half to mount its comeback while Ole Miss shot just 33 percent. They nearly gave the game away, though, after taking a two-point lead in the final seconds of overtime. The Tigers missed a jumper that would have put them up four with 25 seconds left, but the shot missed and they inexplicably fouled on the rebound to allow Ole Miss to tie the game with 22 seconds left on free throws. After a missed 3 in a tie game by Danjel Purifoy, Ole Miss gave Auburn a gift it just wouldn’t accept. Devontae Shuler’s inbounds pass under the basket with 2 seconds left went astray and was headed out of bounds, which would have resulted in no time coming off the clock and Auburn getting the ball on the baseline, but Isaac Okoro, for some reason, grabbed the ball, waited a second and called timeout. Samir Doughty’s forthcoming 3 out of the huddle as time expired miss to send things to 2OT.

Ole Miss led by as many as four in overtime, but Auburn took the lead with 1:41 left. The two teams traded missed opportunities for the remainder of the game, leaving the Tigers with a win.

College basketball: Not always pretty, but rarely boring.

3. Rutgers continues to build its case

It’s been 29 years since Rutgers last made the NCAA tournament. It’s been 13 since the Scarlet Knights even finished above .500 in a season. Both those streaks seem incredibly likely to fall in just a handful of weeks.

Rutgers ran its overall record to 16-5 and its Big Ten mark to 7-3 with a 70-63 victory Tuesday at home against Purdue.

Steve Pikiell’s team is building a bulletproof resume after losses to St. Bonaventure and Pittsburgh in the first month of the season made it seem as the status quo would be very much in place in Piscataway this winter. Since then, the only three losses Rutgers have taken have all been on the road to high-quality opponents, with Michigan State, Illinois and Iowa the only teams able to get the best of them.

Rutgers is doing it o the strength of a top-10 defense that overcomes an offense that can be clunky at times, especially at the 3-point line. Defense as stout as the Scarlet Knights are playing, though, makes up for a lot of deficiencies on the other end.

Bubble Banter: Virginia, Mississippi State the biggest winners of the night

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It was a wild night on the bubble on Tuesday night, as 12 teams with their NCAA tournament hopes still up in the air were in action.

A full bubble watch breakdown can be found here. Here are tonight’s winners and losers:

WINNERS

VIRGINIA (NET: 58, NBC: Off the bubble): It is impossible to overstate just how big a win over Florida State (15) for a Virginia team that entered the night without a top 50 win to their name. They had one Quad 1 win on their resume — at Syracuse (64) — to go along with wins over Virginia Tech (50) at home and Arizona State (56) on a neutral floor. That’s it. When combined with a pair of Quad 3 losses — South Carolina (89) at home and at Boston College (153) — there’s a reason that the Wahoos were completely out of the NCAA tournament picture entering the day.

And to be honest, I’m not sure that a win over a top 20 team at home is really going to change all that much. But with just three more games against the top of the ACC left on their schedule, this was an opportunity that could not slip through their fingers.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (NET: 48, NBC: Off the bubble): The Bulldogs added a critical road win on Tuesday night, going into Gainesville and knocking off Florida (37). It’s the second Quad 1 win in six days for Mississippi State, who needs to add some pop to the top of a resume that includes a pair of Quad 3 losses. This will help.

MICHIGAN (NET: 35, NBC: 10): Michigan entered Tuesday night having lost four games in a row and five of their last six and were playing without Isaiah Livers and Zavier Simpson at Nebraska (158). They could not lost this game. They did not.

RHODE ISLAND (NET: 47, NBC: First four out): Rhode Island is in a spot where they probably cannot afford to take a loss to anyone other than Dayton (5), who they play twice, the rest of the season. On Tuesday night, the Rams beat George Mason. Next up: VCU (39) on Friday night.

UTAH STATE (NET: 62, NBC: Off the bubble): Utah State absolutely could not lose at Wyoming (299) on Tuesday, and they didn’t. The Aggies have neutral site wins over LSU (25) and Florida (37), which is enough to keep them in this discussion despite road losses at Boise State (102), UNLV (130) and Air Force (184). They make the trip to Viejas Arena to take on San Diego State (2) on Saturday, and that feels like a must-win for Utah State at this point.

LOSERS

TENNESSEE (NET: 55, NBC: Next four out): The Vols took a loss that they just could not afford to take on Tuesday, falling to a bad Texas A&M (149) at home. It’s their first Quad 3 loss, meaning that now half of their eight losses are outside the Quad 1 level. With just two Quad 1 wins, neither of which came against a top 35 opponent, Tennessee is backing themselves into a corner. The good news? They still play eight Quad 1 games, and that doesn’t include Florida at home. The Vols can survive this if they get hot.

SYRACUSE (NET: 64, NBC: Off the bubble): The Orange saw their five game winning streak come to an end on Tuesday as they fell at Clemson (81). This is not a terrible loss, but for a team that is already trying to make up ground on the field, these are the kind of losses that really hurt.

RICHMOND (NET: 54, NBC: First four out): Tuesday’s visit to the Siegel Center was Richmond’s last shot at getting a Quad 1 win dueing the regular season. They lost to VCU (39) by 17 points. For my money, the Spiders’ at-large hopes are more or less dead.

ST. JOHN’S (NET: 67, NBC: 10): The Johnnies lost for the seventh time in their last nine games when Villanova (14) waltzed into MSG and beat the Red Storm by 20. That’s not ideal. St. John’s is still in the mix because of wins over West Virginia (7) and Arizona (10), the latter of which came on a neutral court. But with road games left against Villanova, Seton Hall (12) and Butler (9), Mike Anderson’s club has backed themselves into a corner.

PURDUE (NET: 36, NBC: Next four out): The Boilermakers dropped to 11-10 on the season with a 70-63 loss at Rutgers (23) on Tuesday night. That means Purdue has dropped five of their last seven games. They’re 2-7 against Quad 1 opponents with a 29 point win over Michigan State (8), but there are a lot of losses on their resume already and the Big Ten is a bear.

VIRGINIA TECH (NET: 50, NBC: First four out): The Hokies did themselves no favors by losing at Miami (106) on Tuesday night. In the last three days, they’ve suffered their two worst losses of the season. The Hokies also have a non-conference SOS that ranks 341st, which eliminates much of their margin for error. The good news? They still have pair of Quad 1 wins — including Michigan State (10) on a neutral — and four of their five Quad 1 and 2 wins came away from home. It’s not all bad.

GEORGETOWN (NET: 52, NBC: Next four out): The Hoyas lost their third straight game on Tuesday night and have now dropped six of their last eight. Making things worse is that they were up by 13 points on Butler (9) late in the first half. This was their best chance to land an elite win this season. They still get Villanova (14) and Seton Hall (12) at home, but the biggest issue with Georgetown’s tournament chances is that they are trending in the wrong direction with just seven scholarship players.