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SEC Season Preview: Power Rankings, Preseason Awards and Florida taking down Kentucky?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2019-20 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the SEC.


The SEC is always going to be known as a football conference.

But the league’s basketball programs have done an adequate job of raising the bar over the last several years as an impressive seven SEC programs made the NCAA tournament last season.

Things continue to evolve in the SEC this season as seven McDonald’s All-Americans, a host of impact transfers and four new head coaches enter the fray. While some familiar faces are hovering near the top, the depth and overall quality of the SEC continues to get better each year.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Kentucky is as deep and talented as ever

It should come as no surprise that head coach John Calipari brought in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes to Lexington for this season. Kentucky continues to be one of the nation’s elite recruiting schools as Calipari added multiple five-star freshmen (Tyrese Maxey, Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks) and a top-flight graduate transfer (Bucknell’s Nate Sestina) to a roster that returns a lot from last season.

Losing P.J. Washington, Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson and Reid Travis won’t be easy to replace but if anyone is capable of moving on from multiple pros, it’s probably Kentucky. The good news for Wildcats fans is the return of some quality players from last year’s team to go along with the new guys.

Point guards Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley both remain in the mix as Maxey and his scoring pop should fit in nicely with that group. Former five-star recruits E.J. Montgomery and Nick Richards are also back on the interior for Kentucky as Sestina’s floor-spacing should help give the Wildcat frontcourt some versatility.

How Kentucky handles things on the wing will be intriguing with Whitney and Brooks expected to earn some minutes there. Finding go-to scorers to replace Washington and Herro won’t be easy. But the makeup and fit of this Kentucky roster is solid compared to some teams Calipari has put together as he has a solid mix of returnees and newcomers.

2. Florida emerged as a title contender when Kerry Blackshear Jr. transferred in

Expectations were already high for Florida as they entered the 2019-20 season. The return of promising sophomore point guard Andrew Nembhard and the addition of two McDonald’s All-Americans in Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann had a lot of Gator fans buzzing.

But it was the offseason graduate transfer addition of Kerry Blackshear Jr. from Virginia Tech that turned Florida into an overnight national title contender. Perhaps the best transfer in all of college hoops, Blackshear is the rare big man who you can play through on offense. Blackshear’s presence in the middle is massive for a Florida team that needed post scoring, veteran leadership and a safety valve if perimeter shooting isn’t working.

The Gators still need to see how their young pieces grow from last season if they want to truly be a title contender. But not many programs this offseason added a proven dude who can go out and get double-doubles against top-ten programs. The Gators will be must-see TV this season.

Kerry Blackshear Jr. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)

3. LSU gets Will Wade back as they remain a top-25 team

The return of head coach Will Wade along with many key ingredients from last season’s Sweet 16 team makes LSU one of teams to beat the SEC this season. Although Wade and the Tigers dealt with a bunch of controversy last season they overcame the odds to capture the regular season title despite suspensions to Wade and starting guard Javonte Smart.

Although Wade never returned to the sidelines for the postseason following his suspension, the Tigers still had the talent to make it to the second weekend as Smart, Skylar Mays, Emmitt Williams and Marlon Taylor all returned to school. Despite the departure of guard Tremont Waters and big man Naz Reid, the Tigers remain a credible threat in the SEC this season thanks to last season’s returning depth and the addition of McDonald’s All-American forward Trendon Watford.

It’s unclear how LSU and Wade will respond to the scrutiny of him being back on the sidelines. But on paper, LSU has all that you need to repeat as league champs again this season.

4. Auburn and Tennessee remain strong despite big losses

Even though Auburn and Tennessee lose a lot of core players from last season, both programs should still be counted on to return to the top half of the SEC.

After last season’s surprise Final Four appearance, Auburn has to replace its starting backcourt of Jared Harper and Bryce Brown while do-it-all forward Chuma Okeke moved on to the pros as well. Luckily for the Tigers, Bruce Pearl’s bunch returns five experienced seniors while a deep recruiting class should make Auburn a deep team once again.

Following another successful 31-win season and a Sweet 16 appearance, Tennessee starts fresh with a new-look team that won’t run through Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Much like Auburn, the Vols have the benefit of an all-senior returning backcourt as Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden are the key players to watch now for Tennessee.

While it doesn’t appear as though Auburn or Tennessee has the star power to match the SEC’s top teams in Kentucky, Florida and LSU, it’s difficult to count out two programs who have consistently been near the top of the league the past few seasons.

(Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

5. Four new coaches enter the SEC

The SEC’s coaching overhaul continued this offseason with the addition of four new coaches to the league. Three of the names should be immediately familiar to college basketball fans while the fourth name is a respected NBA veteran.

Nate Oats (Alabama from Buffalo), Eric Musselman (Arkansas from Nevada) and Buzz Williams (Texas A&M from Virginia Tech) all made the NCAA tournament with their respective programs last season as they are proven college coaches of former top-25 programs. Oats making the leap from the MAC to the SEC is perhaps the most enticing development to follow among the three “familiar” hires to the league but it will also be intriguing to see Musselman recruit at a bigger program and to see Williams run a program in his home state.

Vanderbilt’s hire of former NBA All-Star Jerry Stackhouse is one of the most fascinating decisions in the country. While some will scoff at the notion of another NBA guy attempting his hand at high-level college coaching, Stackhouse put in the work getting coaching reps in the G League and as an NBA assistant before taking the leap to Nashville. Stackhouse will have to learn the ropes of recruiting and NCAA life but he has a shot to be successful.

PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: KERRY BLACKSHEAR JR., Florida

A transfer from Virginia Tech who will start in the middle for the Gators right away, Blackshear might be the most productive big man in college hoops this season. Already a major presence for a Sweet 16 team last season, Blackshear was dominating title contenders like Virginia, Duke and North Carolina during his junior year as he put up monster double-doubles against all three programs. Blackshear’s consistent presence in the middle gives the young Florida offense someone to play through as the senior isn’t bothered by double teams or defenses geared to slow him down.

THE REST OF THE SEC FIRST TEAM

  • TYRESE MAXEY, Kentucky: A supreme backcourt scorer, the 6-foot-4 Maxey could be the most impactful of Kentucky’s five-star freshmen.
  • ANTHONY EDWARDS, Georgia: The mega-athletic 6-foot-4 shooting guard stayed home as the three-level scorer is potentially a top-five pick in the next NBA Draft.
  • JAVONTE SMART, LSU: This is Smart’s team now with Tremont Waters and Naz Reid bolting for the pros as he should increase his production from last season.
  • REGGIE PERRY, MISSISSIPPI STATE: The 6-foot-10 sophomore should take a leap this season as Perry could become a double-double machine.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • KIRA LEWIS JR., Alabama
  • SKYLAR MAYS, LSU
  • SCOTTIE LEWIS, Florida
  • ASHTON HAGANS, Kentucky
  • BREEIN TYREE, Ole Miss

BREAKOUT STAR: A.J. Lawson, South Carolina

Before a late-season ankle injury stunted his momentum, South Carolina wing A.J. Lawson was having a very good freshman season. The 6-foot-6 Lawson shot 38 percent from three against SEC opponents while averaging 13.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. As a sophomore, Lawson could grow into a dynamic offensive force as he has the size and skill to be among the SEC’s best players.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Will Wade, LSU

LSU’s Will Wade returns to the sidelines this season following a suspension at the end of last season. This will be a major storyline to keep tabs on this season. Wade not only faces the pressure of high expectations following the SEC regular season title and Sweet 16 appearance but he has the strange external pressure of the NCAA potentially looming. Even if the Tigers are successful once again this season, Wade will have detractors analyzing every move.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The SEC has multiple national title contenders among a deep field of six teams entering the field.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

I’m anxious to see if Florida can make the leap to national title contender. The addition of Kerry Blackshear makes the Gators such an intriguing team to watch.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Nov. 5, Kentucky vs. Michigan State (Champions Classic, New York City)
  • Nov. 10, Florida vs. Florida State
  • Dec. 21, Florida vs. Saint Mary’s (Sunrise, FL)
  • Dec. 28, Kentucky vs. Louisville
  • Jan 25, Tennessee at Kansas
(Elsa/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. KENTUCKY: Expectations will be high for Kentucky this preseason as they have perhaps the most talented roster in the country. While some Wildcat superteams of the past decade didn’t fit well together, the newcomers for this season’s team could fit nicely with the returning players. Finding go-to scoring will be something Kentucky has to figure out early as Washington’s incredible all-around play and Herro and Johnson’s toughness and bucket-getting will be tough to replace. But this Kentucky team has the length, depth and athleticism to be a defensive terror. It’s entirely conceivable that the Wildcats cut down the nets next Spring if things come together quickly.

2. FLORIDA: The Gators have a go-to post player (Blackshear), a stud lead guard (Nembhard) and Burger Boys (Lewis and Mann) who should make a major impact. It’s Florida’s other returning pieces that make them a more complete team. Sophomores Noah Locke and jack-of-all-trades glue guy Keyontae Johnson both return this season as the Gators have outstanding athleticism and defensive potential. Integrating the new guys into the mix and seeing how much of the offense flows through Blackshear in the post will be things to watch for early.

3. LSU: One of the true boom-or-bust teams of the 2019-20 season, it’s entirely conceivable that LSU repeats as SEC champions or completely bottoms out as Wade and company could continue to deal with NCAA issues. Regardless of off-court circumstances, the Tigers are really talented. Smart should adequately handle Waters’ responsibilities while replacing Reid will be handled by a committee of players. The late addition of Watford gives LSU a talented frontcourt piece who gives them a bit more offensive versatility than last season.

4. AUBURN: Following the Final Four run, the Tigers have to move on from some important players. While many programs would crumble after losing a first-round pick (Okeke) and starting backcourt (Harper and Brown) the Tigers still a lot of veterans back from the Final Four team. An all-senior backcourt of Samir Doughty and J’Von McCormick should stabilize the perimeter and the frontcourt of Austin Wiley, Anfernee McLemore and Danjel Purifoy have been through a lot of SEC battles. Auburn will need to figure out who will do the scoring this season, but at the very least, five returning talented seniors and some notable newcomers should put the Tigers back into the top-25 conversation.

5. TENNESSEE: The Grant Williams/Admiral Schofield era is over as the Vols need to forge a new identity without its frontcourt stars. Thankfully for Tennessee, senior guards Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden are both back while McDonald’s All-American guard Josiah-Jordan James should help right away. If Tennessee can get adequate production from its new frontcourt of Yves Pons and John Fulkerson then the guard play should be enough for the Vols to remain in the top half of the SEC.

6. MISSISSIPPI STATE: Featuring a roster still loaded with top-100 talents, Ben Howland’s group should make it back to the Big Dance this season. Replacing Quinndary Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters and Aric Holman won’t be easy. Once Reggie Perry returned to school from the NBA Draft process, Mississippi State’s chances for a strong season increased rapidly. The sophomore forward should make a leap this season. Perry is flanked by big man Abdul Ado, talented scoring guard Nick Weatherspoon and senior guard Tyson Carter while promising sophomore Robert Woodard II could act as a glue guy with big defensive upside. The pieces are all there but the Bulldogs have to figure out its new scoring hierarchy while also adapting to having a young and unproven bench.

(David Becker/Getty Images)

7. ALABAMA: Inheriting plenty of SEC-caliber talents from Avery Johnson, new head coach Nate Oats gets to work with some known talents. The return of sophomore guard Kira Lewis Jr. was a huge development for the Crimson Tide as one of the nation’s youngest players a season ago gets another year to expand his game. Alabama has been waiting on former four-star prospects John Petty and Herb Jones to be more consistent and productive as Oats tries to figure out which buttons to push. Figuring out a so-so frontcourt rotation of Alex Reese and Galin Smith will be something to watch for. The Crimson Tide have talent but some returning vets have to be more consistent.

8. GEORGIA: Tom Crean’s team has talent but how it all fits could determine the Bulldogs’ fate. Freshman guard Anthony Edwards was a monster coup for Crean and his staff as the 6-foot-4 scoring guard could be one of the best newcomers in college hoops this season. Edwards will receive plenty of help from returning pieces like Tyree Crump, Jordan Harris and Rayshaun Hammonds as all three have started. The unexpected loss of big man Nicholas Claxton to the NBA Draft puts a damper on Georgia’s ceiling. If Edwards lives up to the hype though then this could be a very dangerous team.

9. OLE MISS: After shocking the SEC and making the NCAA tournament in his first season last year, head coach Kermit Davis and the Rebels face unique expectations this season. The guard duo of Breein Tyree and Devontae Shuler are both All-SEC caliber talents who lead the way. The sophomore class also has some intrigue with guard Blake Hinson and forward K.J. Buffen. And Davis should be commended for a very good recruiting class that features a solid mix of JUCO standouts (big man Khadim Sy and guard Bryce Williams) and freshmen (Austin Crowley and big man Sammy Hunter). Replacing Terence Davis — one of the nation’s most underrated players last season — could be the difference between this team going NCAA or NIT in 2020.

10. SOUTH CAROLINA: The Gamecocks managed a notable 11-7 record and fourth-place finish in the SEC last year as they remain a tough out again this season. Sophomore A.J. Lawson could be a breakout star this season and there’s a lot to like about the South Carolina offense the running through him. Veteran center Maik Kotsar is also back in the middle. Major question marks loom for much of the rest of the roster, however, as replacing Chris Silva and Hassani Gravett (two of the last Final Four pieces left on the roster) will be key. Sophomore Keyshawn Bryant and freshman guard T.J. Moss are two to watch as their development could be key.

11. ARKANSAS: With the entire roster returning besides for Daniel Gafford, the Razorbacks have some talent in place for new head coach Eric Musselman to work with. The guard group will be led by promising sophomore Isaiah Joe and double-figure scorer Mason Jones. Arkansas will have to learn how to play without an NBA-caliber big man in the middle so Joe and Jones could be important. Of course, with any Musselman outfit, transfers are prominently involved. The Razorbacks get help from SMU guard Jimmy Whitt Jr. (who started his college career with Arkansas) and UNC-Wilmington forward Jeantal Cylla.

12. MISSOURI: There are no more Porters for Cuonzo Martin to rely on (healthy or not) for this roster as the Tigers seek out a new identity. The inside-outside duo of guard Mark Smith and big man Jeremiah Tilmon is back for Missouri as they will be the experienced leaders. Some promising younger players like sophomore shooter Torrance Watson are also back while Evansville transfer Dru Smith should make an impact. But it’s hard to love a Tigers team that doesn’t have a lot of star power or a true go-to presence.

13. TEXAS A&M: New head coach Buzz Williams has a habit of getting more out of his guys than anticipated but it’s hard to say how a roster of players he didn’t recruit take to his style. Veterans like guards Wendell Mitchell, T.J. Starks and Jay Jay Chandler return while wing Savion Flagg cold take an overall leap after nearly turning pro. And Williams has already helped retain or recruit six new pieces that should immediately help.

14. VANDERBILT: Following a disaster of a winless conference season and loss of Darius Garland and Simi Shittu to the pros, former NBA veteran Jerry Stackhouse takes over for Bryce Drew. The Commodores bring back two solid returning starters in guard Saben Lee and forward Aaron Nesmith. Besides for those two double-figure scorers Stackhouse’s program will be rebuilding.

Saturday’s Things To Know: Kentucky survives, Ayo Dosunmu’s on a tear, Roy and Huggs reach milestones

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It was actually a relatively slow day for a Saturday in late-January in college hoops, but there is still plenty to discuss. Here are the ten things that you need to know:

1. No. 15 KENTUCKY KNOCKED OFF No. 18 TEXAS TECH

Nick Richards went for 25 points, 14 boards and four blocks and Immanuel Quickley chipped in with 21 points of his own as Kentucky went into Lubbock and knocked off the Red Raiders in overtime. A full breakdown of that game can be found here.

2. TEXAS TECH IS IN REAL BUBBLE TROUBLE

I’m not sure people realize just how little their is on Texas Tech’s resume right now. They beat Louisville (11) on a neutral court. They beat Iowa State (70) at home. They beat Oklahoma State (83) at home. They won at Kansas State (89). Combined, that’s one Quad 1, two Quad 2 and a Quad 3 win. They have eight wins against sub-200 teams and have lost to seven Quad 1 opponents, including Kentucky (23) at home on Saturday. The Red Raiders will have plenty of chances to build on their profile — they get West Virginia (7) at home and play at Kansas (3) next week alone — but there is no doubt that this team has to start winning some games against teams that are not horrific.

3. AYO DOSUNMU CONTINUED HIS TEAR

In case you haven’t noticed, No. 21 Illinois is the hottest team in the Big Ten, sitting all alone in first-place in the conference standings and Ayo Dosunmu — who scored 27 points and hit the game-winner at Michigan today — has been the best player in the Big Ten this month. More on the Illini and their star here.

4. ROY WILLIAMS PASSED DEAN SMITH ON THE ALL-TIME WINS LIST

It’s ironic when you think about it: North Carolina was in the midst of their first five-game losing streak since 2003, and it just so happened to come after Williams had tied Smith on the all-time wins list. He finally broke the streak on Saturday, blowing out Miami, 94-71, to win his 880th game as a head coach. It is, quite literally, the first win for the Tar Heels in 2020.

5. BOB HUGGINS PASSED ADOLPH RUPP ON THE ALL-TIME WINS LIST

No. 14 West Virginia blew out Missouri in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge to give Huggy Bear is 876th career win, good for seventh on the all-time list, one better than Adolph Rupp, the legendary Kentucky head coach.

6. No. 1 BAYLOR UPSET UNRANKED FLORIDA

This might sound ridiculous, but if you subscribe to the theory that any underdog that wins a game is an upset happening, then No. 1 Baylor going into the O-Dome and knocking off Florida is, technically, an upset. The Gators entered the game as 2.5 point favorites, jumped out to a big league and then proceeded to watch as the nation’s best team proved that they are, in fact, the nation’s best team.

We have spent the majority of this season explaining away the reasons why there isn’t an elite team in college basketball, but I’m beginning to think that there’s a chance Baylor could be that team. They’re never going to be the darlings of the metrics and they don’t have much NBA talent, but they are so balanced, so effective in crunch time and elite on the defensive end of the floor.

7. MEMPHIS BLEW AN 11-POINT LEAD IN THE FINAL SIX MINUTES

This one was hard to do.

The Tigers were up 70-59 with less than six minutes remaining in the game and then never scored again. They would give up a 15-0 run in that stretch and go on to lose, 74-70, at home to an SMU team that is not very good. Penny Hardaway’s team has found themselves in a bad, bad spot this season.

8. ARIZONA BLEW A 22-POINT LEAD

The No. 22 Wildcats led Arizona State in Tempe by 22 points in the first half. With 1:40 left before the break, they were ahead 43-24. At halftime, they were up 43-30. With 16:30 left on the clock, the Sun Devils had cut that lead to 43-40, and after Alonzo Verge scored with 10 seconds remaining, the Sun Devils had a 66-65 lead and went on to win by that score.

The importance of this win for Bobby Hurley’s club cannot be overstated.

9. SAN FRANCISCO WORKED THEIR FOULING MAGIC AGAIN

Last weekend, San Francisco fouled a ball-handler at the end of the first half in order to get the ball back. It was a sneaky bit of math that gave the Dons an extra two points on their lead heading into the break.

On Saturday against BYU, Todd Golden drew up something similar. With 22 seconds left in the game and the Dons clinging to a 79-77 lead, he had his team intentionally foul Yoeli Childs, BYU’s star center who just so happens to be a 60 percent free throw shooter and coming off of a broken finger. The reasoning was simple: Since BYU was in the one-and-one, Childs shooting free throws meant that A) BYU’s xPPP for that possessions was 0.96, lower than the average possession for a team that had scored 77 points in 39 minutes and shot 15-for-27 from three on the night. If he made both, USF had a chance to win on the final possession. If he missed one, BYU’s best rebounder was shooting the free throws. Turns out, he missed the first, and USF hung on to win, 83-82.

10. SAMUELL WILLIAMSON MAY HAVE HAD HIS BREAKOUT GAME

Last weekend, it was freshman David Johnson that had his breakout game for No. 6 Louisville. He went for 19 points and seven boards as the Cardinals went into Cameron and beat Duke. This weekend, it was fellow freshman Williamson, who scored 14 points for the Cards as they blew out Clemson in the Yum! Center. Is this the start of his star turn?

No. 1 Baylor smothers Florida 72-61, 16th straight win

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — MaCio Teague and Devonte Bandoo scored 16 points apiece and No. 1 Baylor extended its winning steak to 16 with a 72-61 victory over Florida in the Big 12/SEC Challenge on Saturday night.

The Bears improved to 6-1 in the annual inter-conference series – the best record of any team in either conference – and themselves another week atop The Associated Press poll.

Baylor also gave the Big 12 an even split (5-5) in the daylong series.

The Bears (17-1) overcame an eight-point deficit early and led by 19 points in the second half before Florida mounted a minor rally. The Gators (12-7) had a chance to make it a single-digit game with a little more than 7 minutes to play, but they missed the front end of three consecutive one-and-ones. Kerry Blackshear Jr. misfired twice on back-to-back possessions and then Noah Locke did the same seconds later.

What could have been an eight-point game was still a comfortable lead for the Bears.

Florida eventually managed to whittle Baylor’s lead to 10 on Andrew Nembhard’s driving layup with 2:40 remaining. But the Bears answered on the other end thanks to their 13th offensive rebound, which led to two free throws for Bandoo.

Davion Mitchell finished with 11 points and six assists for Baylor, which was a slight underdog entering the game. Jared Butler chipped in 10 points.

Baylor’s length, athleticism and defensive prowess posed problems all night for Florida, which shot 44% from the field and 23.5% from 3-point range.

The Gators fell to 2-17 against the No. 1 team, including 10 consecutive losses.

Keyontae Johnson led Florida with 20 points. Nembhard added 16 points and eight assists, but he missed more shots (8) than he made (6), including all four 3-pointers. The Gators missed 13 of 17 from behind the arc.

Baylor took control of the game with a 13-2 run to close the first half, turning a tie game into a double-digit lead. The Bears hit six 3-pointers in the opening 20 minutes – twice as many as Florida – and had seven offensive rebounds.

They got help from an unlikely source. Bandoo, who averages 7.5 points off the benched, scored 11 in the opening half on 4 of 6 shooting.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: The Bears matched their best 18-game start in school history. They also started 17-1 in 2011-12 and 2016-17. They landed No. 3 seeds in the NCAA Tournament after those regular seasons and were eliminated both times by SEC teams (Kentucky in ’12, South Carolina in `17).

Florida: The Gators appeared to be taking strides while beating then-No. 4 Auburn last Saturday and nearly stunning LSU on the road earlier this week. But the team’s offensive woes returned against Baylor – no surprise given the Bears are one of the best defenses in the nation.

STILL HOBBLING

Florida forward Dontay Bassett missed his second consecutive game with a calf injury. Bassett averages 1.3 points and 2.1 rebounds.

UP NEXT

Baylor: Returns to Big 12 action and plays at Iowa State on Wednesday night. The Bears have won three of the last four in the series, but lost to the Cyclones in the conference tournament last March.

Florida: Returns to SEC play and hosts Mississippi State on Tuesday night. The Gators lost to the Bulldogs last year to end an eight-game winning streak in the series.

Richards, Quickley lead No. 15 Kentucky to OT win at No. 18 Texas Tech

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Nick Richards hit two free throws with 10 seconds left on the clock and Ashton Hagans managed to strip Davide Moretti on the ensuing possession as No. 15 Kentucky went into Lubbock and knocked off No. 18 Texas Tech, 76-74, in a thrilling overtime battle.

Richards finished the night with 25 pints, 14 boards and four blocks while shooting 7-for-10 from the floor and 11-for-14 from three. Immanuel Quickley chipped in with 21 points for the Wildcats, who shot 7-for-15 from three and won despite 15 combined turnovers from their three starting guards.

Kyler Edwards led the way for Texas Tech with 18 points and seven boards, but the Red Raiders shot just 3-for-19 from beyond the arc and never could figure out an answer to Richards’ in the paint.

Here are the three things that we can take away from this game:

1. KENTUCKY WON WITHOUT TYRESE MAXEY AND ASHTON HAGANS

Maxey and Hagans did, technically, play on Saturday night, but neither of them were any good. Maxey finished 2-for-10 from the floor with five turnovers and four fouls. Hagans finished with seven assists and three steals, but he shot just 2-for-6 from the floor and had four turnovers of his own. Combined, they scored 13 points, which is 14 points below their season average.

The reason this is relevant is that Kentucky has been, for much of the season, a four-man show. We’ve spent the majority of the season trying to figure out who they can plug into a lineup with those four to get an optimal performance out of the Wildcats. When half of that group is struggling, it’s not exactly a recipe for success.

But that didn’t matter on Saturday.

Kentucky still found a way to get a win against a top 20 team on the road.

And the reason for it was the play of Richards. This is notable, because if you look at Kentucky’s biggest wins of the season to date, they all happened to be a result of one of Hagans or Maxey going absolutely nuts. Maxey had 27 in the win over Michigan State. He had 26  against Louisville. Hagans went for 21 points, seven boards and seven assists against Georgia Tech. He had 13 points, six boards and six assists at Arkansas and 15 points, nine boards and nine assists against Alabama.

Point being, this is the first time that Richards has definitively been the best player on the floor while carrying Kentucky to a win like this on the road.

I also get it: He completely overwhelmed Texas Tech’s frontline — which, frankly, is not a new occurrence, if you have seen the Red Raiders play this season. But we’ve seen Richards play against frontlines he should dominate and, well, not dominate.

And Kentucky got themselves a win as a result.

2. KENTUCKY ISN’T LONG FOR MARCH IF THEY CANNOT GET THEIR LATE-GAME EXECUTION FIGURED OUT

As impressive as this win was for the Wildcats, we cannot talk about it without mentioning that Kentucky did get a little bit lucky. Davide Moretti is a 92 percent free throw shooter and missed one with 18 seconds left that gave Kentucky one more possession with the game tied.

Truthfully, it never should have gotten to that point. For the third time in four games, Kentucky blew a double-digit second half lead. They were up 14 in the second half at South Carolina in a game that they lost, 81-78. They were up by 11 in the second half at Arkansas and, after allowing the Razorbacks to get up by three, rallied after John Calipari was ejected from the game. And on Saturday, they were leading the Red Raiders by as many as 10 points. Texas Tech never once held the lead in the second half.

To put this into context, Kentucky scored six points in the final 9:30 of regulation. They made one field goal, and that came with 6:31 left on the clock. They went to the foul line four times and shot 1-for-2 on every trip. Now, part of that is due to Tech’s defense — spoiler alert, they’re really good — but this is becoming something of a trend for the Wildcats.

3. KYLER EDWARDS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER ON TEXAS TECH

Jahmi’us Ramsey is Texas Tech’s leading scorer, their most talented player and probably the best NBA prospect on the roster. Chris Clarke is the x-factor that Chris Beard likes to use to take advantage of mismatches. T.J. Holyfield is the guy that the Red Raiders need to play out of his mind because of their lacking interior depth.

But for my money, the most important player on Texas Tech is Kyler Edwards.

More than anyone else on this roster, including Ramsey, Edwards is the guy that can fill the role that was played by Keenan Evans and Jarrett Culver the last two seasons. He’s the big combo-guard that can be more than just a shooter. He’s the guy that can create for himself while also being capable of finding assists or creating shots for his teammates.

And this season, he’s averaging just 11.8 points and shooting 30 percent from three.

Now, he’s been better of late. He averaged 23 points in wins over Iowa State and Kansas State last week. And, yes, he had 18 points against Kentucky on Saturday.

The reason he’s so important is simple: Texas Tech is really limited offensively, particularly when it comes to guys that can create on their own. It’s why Moretti’s efficiency is down this year. It’s why they are so reliant on Chris Clarke trying to take advantage of mismatches. It’s why Ramsey turning into something of a three-point shooter is a bad sign longterm.

Tech needs Edwards to be awesome if they can to be able to make a run in March.

Dotson, Azubuike lead No. 3 Kansas past Tennessee 74-68

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Devon Dotson scored 22 points, Udoka Azubuike added 18 and No. 3 Kansas beat Tennessee 74-68 Saturday in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.

Azubuike was the lone big man for the Jayhawks (16-3) after Silvio De Sousa was suspended 12 games and David McCormack banned five for their roles in a brawl Tuesday against Kansas State.

After Azubuike went to the bench with two fouls early, Yves Pons hit consecutive 3-pointers to put the Volunteers (12-7) on a 14-2 run for a 20-13 lead. Kansas answered when Azubuike checked back in, stringing together a 12-0 run en route to a 37-30 lead at halftime.

Azubuike finished with 11 rebounds and four blocks.

Pons led the Volunteers with 24 points, and Jordan Bowden came alive early in the second half, knocking down three 3-pointers and finishing with 19 points after a scoreless first half.

Tennessee pulled within three late in the second half, but Azubuike had a block and hit four free throws late to keep the Volunteers in check.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas: The pressure will stay on Azubuike, whose early foul trouble stalled Kansas’ offense and allowed for a substantial Volunteer run.

Tennessee: Only three Volunteers – Pons, Santiago Vescovi and John Fulkerson – scored in the first half, and Tennessee turned the ball over 15 times. Despite the offensive struggles, the Volunteers were able to stay within arms’ length.

UP NEXT

Kansas: The Jayhawks head to Stillwater, Oklahoma, on Monday to take on Oklahoma State.

Tennessee: The Vols host Texas A&M on Tuesday.

Bubble Banter: It’s that time of year again!

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It’s getting to be that time of year.

Bubble Banter is back, baby!

Over the course of the next three days, we are going to be diving headlong into bubble chatter right here, breaking down every single team that is on or near the bubble for the NCAA tournament Field of 68. This, of course, is according to our Dave Ommen, who sent me a list of all the bubble teams. Our cut-off, at least for this conversation, is teams that currently sit as a No. 9 seed or better in the most recent bracket that we released.

Why?

Because — with the notable exception of Ohio State — it is difficult to see how any of those teams can end up out of the NCAA tournament before our next bracket projection gets published on Monday.

So, you know, they’re not currently on the bubble.

Anyway, come back throughout the weekend to see who the winners and the losers are and what it means for their standing in regards to the cut line.

WINNERS

PURDUE (NET: 37, NBC: Off the bubble): Purdue’s schizophrenic January continued on Friday with a blowout win over Wisconsin (30) at home. The Boilermakers have lost four of their last six, and the two wins were utterly dominant wins over the Badgers and Michigan State (10). Their 11-9 (4-5) record isn’t pretty, but three Quad 1 wins and just one Quad 3 loss — at Nebraska (165) — is enough to keep them in the mix.

NORTH CAROLINA (NET: 113, NBC: Off the bubble): The Tar Heels are still in the mix for the NCAA tournament for one, simple fact: All of their worst losses have come without Cole Anthony, and it appears that Anthony will be returning to the team at some point. After beating Miami, UNC is now 3-7 without him and 6-3 with him on the floor. They’ve beaten Alabama (38) on a neutral court, they’ve beaten Oregon (17) on a neutral court and all three of their losses with Anthony are Quad 1 losses. Remember, they still play four top ten teams during the regular season. They’ll have chances, and if they can get hot with Anthony back, they’ve got a shot.

ARIZONA STATE (NET: 62, NBC: Next four out): The Sun Devils landed just an enormous win on Saturday night, coming back from 22 points down to beat Arizona (9) at home in their last chance to take on the Wildcats during the regular season. Believe it or not, that is the first Quad 1 win for the Sun Devils, and given that they only have one Quad 2 loss — Virginia (64) on a neutral court — I think it’s pretty clear that this group is not all that far away from getting a bid. They just needed a couple big wins. Knocking off Arizona certainly qualifies.

OKLAHOMA (NET: 47, NBC: Play-in game): The Sooners have put themselves in a pretty good spot after knocking off Mississippi State (52) on Saturday. They’re 13-6 overall and all six of their losses are of the Quad 1 variety. Throw in a pair of Quad 1 wins — Minnesota (39) on a neutral and Texas (67) on the road — and five Quad 2 wins, and this is a good start. With six games left against Kansas, Baylor, West Virginia and Texas Tech, there are plenty of resume-boosting wins available.

SYRACUSE (NET: 66, NBC: Off the bubble): The Orange are starting to play like a top five team in the ACC this season. On Saturday, they knocked off Pitt in the Carrier Dome, pushing them to 6-3 in the league and 13-7 overall. They do have a questionable home loss to Notre Dame (79, Quad 3) but they’ve won four true road games in league play, two of which are Quad 1 wins. A 5-6 record in Quad 1 and 2 games is enough to keep them in and around the bubble for now.

ST. JOHN’S (NET: 81, NBC: Off the bubble): Since beating Arizona in California on Dec. 21st, St. John’s has now lost six of their last eight games. The only team that they have beaten in that stretch is DePaul, who they swept on Saturday with a road win. That’s the third Quad 1 win for this group, but with eight losses on the season — including a loss at home against Vermont (101) — the Red Storm have work to do.

ALABAMA (NET: 38, NBC: Next four out): The biggest problem that Alabama has right now is their losses. They dropped a home game to Penn (181) on the opening night of the season. They lost a game to North Carolina (113) in the Bahamas. They also lost to Iowa State (70) in the Bahamas. Those do not look good right now. The Tide have turned their season around — beating Kansas State (89) on Saturday was their fourth straight win and their seventh win in the last nine games — but they have just one win over a top 50 team. They get LSU (24) on the road on Wednesday and, in February, play at Auburn (18) and LSU again. I think winning two of those three games will be critical.

SAINT MARY’S (NET: 40, NBC: Last four byes): The Gaels hung on against Loyola Marymount on the road on Saturday, meaning that they avoided one of the landmines left on their schedule. They Gaels own wins over BYU (27) and Wisconsin (30) and while they have lost to Santa Clara (103) and Winthrop (137) at home, the Gaels are 6-2 against the top two Quads and still get BYU on the road and two shots at Gonzaga (4).

VCU (NET: 41, NBC: Play-in game): The Rams avoided one of the landmines on their schedule as they went into Philly and knocked off La Salle. VCU is now 15-5 overall with a Quad 1 (LSU, 24) and Quad 2 (at Charleston, 124) win. The Rams have a ton of work left to do, but the fact that their worst loss is against Tennessee (59) on a neutral court and that there are a number of potential Quad 1 wins left on their league schedule will help quite a bit.

RHODE ISLAND (NET: 53, NBC: First four out): The Rams avoided one of the landmines left on their schedule, winning at St. Bonaventure on Saturday, but they are not in a great spot at the moment. URI is on the wrong side of the bubble right now, and while every team in the power conferences are playing one or two Quad 1 games a week, URI has just two left on their schedule — their two games against Dayton (5).

UTAH (NET: 77, NBC: Off the bubble): The Utes are in the mix because they have a pair of Quad 1 wins on their resume — Kentucky (23) and BYU (27) on neutral courts. And if you ignore their trip to Myrtle Beach, where they lost to Coastal Carolina (185) and Tulane (126). On Saturday, they avoided another such loss by knocking off Washington State (102).

EAST TENNESSEE STATE (NET: 49, NBC: 12): The Buccaneers are in a pretty good spot right now thanks to a win at LSU (24) in December. They’re 17-3 overall with a pair of Quad 1 wins, but they do have one bad loss — at North Dakota State (159) — which means that they cannot take step on another landmine during league play. Winning out in the regular season is the only option here.

YALE (NET: 60, NBC: 12): The Elis are in this conversation because they don’t really have a bad loss to speak of. Their “worst” loss was a road game at San Francisco (!00), and if North Carolina gets Cole Anthony back, then that loss is not going to look nearly as bad by Selection Sunday. Their problem is a lack of quality wins. They won at Clemson (75), which is barely a Quad 1 win. That’s their only win that didn’t come against Quad 3 or 4 opponents. That’s not going to change in the Ivy. I think they need to win out and lose to Harvard in the Ivy title game to have a real at-large chance.

LOSERS

MEMPHIS (NET: 42, NBC: 10): Oh, Memphis. Two days after losing by 40 at Tulsa (65), the Tigers turn around and blow an 11-point lead in the final five minutes at home against SMU (68). They aren’t in real trouble yet, but it is worth noting that they have not beaten a single team in the top 45 in the NET and that their three best wins — N.C. State (45), Tennessee (59) and Cincinnati (56) — are teams that may not make the NCAA tournament.

TEXAS TECH (NET: 32, NBC: Play-in game): I’m not sure people realize just how little their is on Texas Tech’s resume right now. They beat Louisville (11) on a neutral court. They beat Iowa State (70) at home. They beat Oklahoma State (83) at home. They won at Kansas State (89). Combined, that’s one Quad 1, two Quad 2 and a Quad 3 win. They have eight wins against sub-200 teams and have lost to seven Quad 1 opponents, including Kentucky (23) at home on Saturday. The Red Raiders will have plenty of chances to build on their profile — they get West Virginia (7) at home and play at Kansas (3) next week alone — but there is no doubt that this team has to start winning some games against teams that are not horrific.

PITT (NET: 74, NBC: Off the bubble): On the one hand, the Panthers have a couple of really nice home wins — Florida State (12) and Rutgers (19). On the other hand, they have a couple of really ugly losses — Wake Forest (104) and Nicholls (180), both at home. If Cole Anthony returns and North Carolina wakes up it could end up being a game-changer for the Panthers, who have swept the Tar Heels.

TEXAS (NET: 67, NBC: Off the bubble): Texas rallied, and ultimately lost, at home against LSU (24) on Saturday, which is a tough blow for the Longhorns. LSU is a Quad 1 opponent, and the Longhorns have some ground they need to make up. They’ve now lost three in a row and five of their last seven games, and a November win at Purdue (37) does not look quite as good now as it did at the time.

VIRGINIA TECH (NET: 44, NBC: Last four byes): The Hokies may go down as the biggest loser of the weekend. Playing at Boston College (164), Virginia Tech suffered their first Quad 3 loss of the season despite the fact that the Eagles shot just 11-for-27 from the free throw line. That’s just brutal. Bubble teams need to avoid these landmines, and Mike Young’s team couldn’t. The good news? They have three Quad 1 wins — including Michigan State (10) on a neutral — and they all came away from home. It’s not all bad.

LIBERTY (NET: 50, NBC: 12): The Flames just killed their hope of getting an at-large. The Flames are 0-1 in Quad 1 games, 1-0 in Quad 2 games (Akron on a neutral) and 2-1 in Quad 3 games. They have 14 wins over Quad 4 opponents and just lost to Stetson (309). They’re frauds.

TENNESSEE (NET: 59, NBC: Next four out): Tennessee missed on a great chance to add a marquee win to their resume when they lost at Kansas (3) on Saturday. The Vols had won four of their last five prior to that game, and it looks like they’ve gotten their season turned around. They are 12-7 overall but just 3-7 against the top two quadrants and they have yet to beat a top 40 team. They still play seven Quad 1 games, and that doesn’t include Arkansas or Florida at home. The Vols are in a good spot if they can get hot.

BYU (NET: 27, NBC: 10): The Cougars have really good computer numbers, and they do have some quality wins to their name — at Houston (36), Virginia Tech (44) and Utah State (73) on neutrals — but after losing at San Francisco on Saturday, BYU now has three Quad 2 losses and a 4-7 record against the top two Quads. With games remaining against Saint Mary’s (40) and Gonzaga (4) at home, BYU should be OK if they can get one of those and avoid the landmines.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (NET: 52, NBC: Next four out): There’s not a lot to like about Mississippi State’s resume right now. They have one win over a top 75 team this season — Arkansas (34) at home — and their only road win came at Coastal Carolina. They’s lost to Louisiana Tech (91) at home and New Mexico State (109) on a neutral floor. What am I supposed to be impressed with?

N.C. STATE (NET: 45, NBC: Last four byes): The Wolfpack have a 14-6 record to go along with solid computer numbers and three Quad 1 wins, two of which came on the road. The issue with their resume, outside of a lack of elite wins, is a pair of losses to Georgia Tech (93). Today’s came on the road. N.C. State has four games left against top ten teams, including three at home. They’ll have their chances to add to this profile.

WASHINGTON (NET: 48, NBC: Off the bubble): Washington lost at Colorado (20) on Saturday, meaning they have now lost three in a row, five of their last six and seven of their last nine games. They’re 12-9 overall with a pair of Quad 3 losses, a 1-5 mark against Quad 1 and a 2-7 record against the top two Quads. But here’s the thing: They beat Baylor (2) on a neutral, and that will go down as arguably the best win in college basketball this season. With two more games against Arizona (9) and another shot against Stanford (16) at home, the Huskies are far from dead.

DEPAUL (NET: 57, NBC: Last four byes): Saturday’s home loss to St. John’s (81) is not going to do any favorites for DePaul, who now has as many Quad 3 losses (three) as they have Quad 1 wins. It doesn’t help matters that four of their next five are on the road, starting with a visit to Seton Hall (13) on Wednesday. The Blue Demons have lost six of their last seven games. The next two weeks will determine where they play in March.

RICHMOND (NET: 54, NBC: First four out): The Spiders lost to Dayton (5) on Saturday at home, a critical loss because it’s really the only game-changing opponent that they had left on their schedule. They do play VCU (41) twice, and picking them off in Richmond will be a Quad 1 win, but that’s not going to be enough to get them to leapfrog any high-major teams that play a dozen Quad 1 games in league play. Richmond is in a bad spot.

LEFT TO PLAY

SUNDAY

VIRGINIA at Wake Forest, 12:00 p.m.
No. 11 Michigan State at MINNESOTA, 3:00 p.m.
Fordham at SAINT LOUIS, 3:00 p.m.
XAVIER at Creighton, 4:00 p.m.
Loyola-Chicago at NORTHERN IOWA, 4:00 p.m.
OHIO STATE at Northwestern, 6:30 p.m.