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Zion Williamson Era, unfortunately, peaked on first day of season

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Duke never got better.

They peaked, quite literally, on the first day of the season, a 118-84 beatdown of then-No. 2 Kentucky that many of us, myself included, just could not get out of our heads.

That team was the best team in the country on that day, and there isn’t a soul on the planet that would argue that fact rationally. But the reason that a roster featuring Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones got bounced in the Elite Eight — after they should have been bounced in the second round and could have been bounced in the Sweet 16 — is because the team they were that day is the team they were on Sunday, when Michigan State sent them back to Durham, 68-67.

Duke never got better.

College basketball caught up.

It’s not the first time that head coach Mike Krzyzewski has struggled to find a way to make a roster full of uber-talented freshmen work. Early exits from the NCAA tournament have become fairly common for the Blue Devils, but I’ll stop short of criticizing the man for losing by one point to the team that won both the regular season and tournament titles in the toughest conference in the country. It’s the same reason I refused to criticize Duke for failing to get to the Final Four last year, when Grayson Allen’s game-winning jumper pulled an Aubrey Dawkins and rolled off the wrong side of the rim.

In a one-game knockout events, the margins really are that fine.

That said, Coach K is not beyond reproach for the way that he managed this team and this season.

I will go to my grave saying that the best lineup that Duke could have put out on the floor featured Zion Williamson at the five. He can protect the rim. He’s not going to get beaten on the block by many, if any, college bigs. He’s a terrific defensive rebounder that can grab-and-go with the best of them. Would that have put him at risk of getting into foul trouble? Probably. Would he have worn down more quickly playing the five? Maybe. But it is frustrating that we didn’t end up getting more of Williamson at the five.

And, frankly, there is a reason for that.

Duke’s perimeter options never showed up the way Duke needed them to. the 0-for-10 performance that Jack White posted against Syracuse damaged his confidence so badly that he wouldn’t hit another three for nearly seven weeks, and he was the guy that could have made a difference. He was big enough to help shoulder the load in the paint. He could protect the rim. He was a better perimeter defender than some folks realize. And, in theory, he could shoot. His regression was another part of the long-term problem for this group.

And if we’re being honest, “in theory, he could shoot” is more or less a perfect way to sum up everyone on this Duke team.

Because the whole they-can’t-make-threes conundrum never went away. Duke finished the season 327th nationally in three-point percentage. Cam Reddish, who frustrated everyone until the final seconds of the season, ended the year with a lower three-point percentage than Williamson. R.J. Barrett ended the year shooting 30.8 percent, which was significantly higher than either White or Tre Jones shot. Their best shooter, Alex O’Connell, wasn’t strong enough with the ball or good enough defensively to earn consistent minutes. For him to see the court, one of the star freshmen had to sit or Duke had to roll with a frontline of Williamson, Barrett and Reddish, and Coach K wasn’t having that.

Perhaps the biggest indictment was that Williamson, once again, went the final three possessions without getting a shot off. It’s the same thing that happened in the loss to Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational.

Like I said, Duke never got better.

It wasn’t all bad for Coach K.

For the majority of the year, he actually schemed up some pretty good sets to create just enough space to allow Barrett and Williamson to get downhill going left. He won a couple of games by the timely switching of defenses. He had everyone in the program on the same page, playing together and playing hard and caring about each other. In the one-and-done era, that’s not the easiest thing to do.

But this season will be remembered for the fact that Duke never figured out an answer to their flaws.

And they never changed the things that needed changing.

That, unfortunately, falls on Coach K.

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.”