Monday Overreactions: Isaac Okoro, Baylor’s win, the Big Ten battle royal

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Isaac Okoro, Auburn

If you wanted to know what makes Isaac Okoro a guy that has NBA scouts salivating, look no farther than what he did this week.

On Tuesday night, he scored 23 points on 6-for-9 shooting in a win over Vanderbilt. He got to the line 14 times and threw down this absolutely gargantuan dunk that nearly put Ejike Obinna in the hospital. He’s a freight train when he puts the ball on the floor and gets a step, and when — not if, when — that jumper finally comes around, there are going to be so many more chances for him to get a step on a defender.

But the best part of Okoro’s game is what he can do defensively, and that was on display on Saturday when he did the heavy lifting as Auburn slowed down Anthony Edwards and beat Georgia by 22 points. Edwards did finish with 18 on the afternoon, but the majority of those points game in garbage when the game was already decided.

When asked what he did to slow Edwards down, Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said, simply, “The easiest answer was Isaac Okoro.”

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Baylor Bears

It’s hard to go against the team that went into Allen Fieldhouse and knocked off No. 3 Kansas just four days after going into Lubbock and picking off No. 22 Texas Tech.

That is impressive in and of itself.

But when you put those wins into context, they are an even bigger deal.

Baylor had never won at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. Heading into this weekend, Scott Drew was 0-12 playing Kansas in Lawrence. And while the streak is nowhere near as long as his losing streak against Bill Self, it is worth noting that, prior to Tuesday, Drew was 0-3 against Chris Beard in Lubbock.

He got both of those monkeys off of his back in the span of four days.

That’s impressive.

We will have much more on Drew and Baylor in the coming weeks. You have my attention, sir.

MONDAY’S OVERREACTIONS

1. BUTLER AND SETON HALL ARE THE BEST TEAMS IN THE BIG EAST

As much as I love Villanova, I think it is time to admit that they are the third-best team in the conference this season.

By now, there should be no one questioning Butler. The Bulldogs are currently sitting at No. 2 in the NET ratings, and the only loss they have this season came by a single point on the road against the team sitting directly above them. Kamar Baldwin has had some incredible moments, Sean McDermott has grown into a really effective wing scorer and LaVall Jordan has proven his mettle as a coach. For my money, the Bulldogs are as good and well-prepared defensively as any team in the country.

They can absolutely win a national title this season. There is no question in my mind.

Which leads me to Seton Hall, who struggled through the early part of the season but has found their groove over the course of the last three weeks. They are tough, they are athletic, they can really get out and pressure defensively, they have more size around the rim than the Monstars, and not only are they going to have the best player on the floor in just about every game they play (Myles Powell), but his supporting cast has really started to come on strong during this recent six-game winning streak.

And here’s the kicker: On Wednesday, Butler will host Seton Hall.

Buckle up.

2. THE BIG TEN IS GOING TO BE A BLOODBATH …

The depth of the Big Ten is absolutely insane this season. As of this moment, 12 of the 14 teams in the conference are rated somewhere between 12th and 41st in the NET. In KenPom, those same teams are ranked between fifth and 38th. Road teams are just 5-32 in the 37 conference games that have been played to date. Ohio State, who ranks 16th in the NET and 17th in KenPom, is currently sitting at 13th in the league standings despite losing four straight games because none of those four losses comes even remotely close to being a bad loss.

What this means is that evaluating and differentiating between these teams is going to be a nightmare. They are all good. They are all going to win a lot of home games because winning on the road in league play is something that only elite teams do and there may not be a single elite team in the entire country, let alone in the Big Ten.

So what you are going to see are a lot of weeks where things like this happen: Minnesota beats Michigan at home after losing at Michigan State, who got blown out in Mackey Arena by Purdue just three days after the Boilermakers lost at Michigan.

If all of these teams defend their home court and avoid too many losses to Nebraska and Northwestern, I don’t think it’s crazy to think that 12 Big Ten teams can get to the NCAA tournament.

3. … BUT THE LACK OF ELITE POINT GUARD PLAY IS GOING TO DOOM THEM IN MARCH

There are so many good big men in the Big Ten that it is astounding.

Xavier Tillman. Luka Garza. Kaleb Wesson. Daniel Oturu. Jon Teske and Isaiah Livers. Kofi Cockburn. Jalen Smith. Micah Potter and Nate Reuvers. Matt Haarms and Trevion Williams. Mike Watkins. Myles Johnson.

That’s insane.

almost as insane as the fact that there really isn’t much in the way of elite guard play in the league. Cassius Winston is a beast, we all know this, but beyond that, who scares you? Zavier Simpson is a solid player. Anthony Cowan is what he is. Ayo Dosunmu isn’t really a point guard. Is there anyone else that I’m missing?

The point is that if you look at all of the teams that won titles in the last decade, only one of them didn’t start two point guards — the 2012 Kentucky team that had the top two picks in the NBA Draft, including Anthony Davis.

Does anyone in the Big Ten has that kind of lead guard play outside of Sparty?

4. THE COACH OF THE YEAR RACE IS ABSOLUTELY ELECTRIC

There are so many really, really good candidates for Coach of the Year this year.

Take, for example, Scott Drew, who lost three starters from last year’s team, has yet to get Tristan Clark back to full health and may end up having the best team in college basketball. Bob Huggins has a chance to go from worst to first in the Big 12, and he’s the clear No. 2 in that league’s Coach of the Year pecking order. LaVall Jordan, who was picked eighth in the Big East and is trending towards a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Anthony Grant has done wonders at Dayton, as has Brian Dutcher at San Diego State. Bruce Pearl deserves serious consideration for the award considering what he lost this offseason. Leonard Hamilton has surprised everyone with how good Florida State has been. Mark Few lost four pros from last year’s team and has a chance to win a national title this year.

I cannot remember a season with this many really good Coach of the Year candidates.

5. THE ACC MIGHT BE A THREE-BID LEAGUE

We have reached the point where the bottom has fallen out of this year’s ACC.

Duke looks awesome. Florida State and Louisville are legit. But beyond that there are so many question marks surrounding every other team in the conference.

Like, for example, who is the fourth-best team in the conference? Virginia cannot score and is coming off of back-to-back losses to Boston College and Syracuse, the latter of which came at home. North Carolina is a train wreck and Roy Williams is asking to be fired. Georgia Tech has looked pretty good, but they aren’t eligible for the postseason. Virginia Tech beat Michigan State. N.C. State beat Wisconsin. Have we reached a point where those two teams are the two teams that can keep the league from getting just three teams into the NCAA tournament?

In our latest bracket projection, five ACC teams were in the field, but that came because UVA’s home loss to Syracuse. N.C. State is a No. 10 seed.

Alabama coach Nate Oats gets new 6-year, $30 million deal

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama coach Nate Oats has agreed to a new six-year, $30 million contract amid the program’s best regular season in decades.

Oats will average $5 million plus incentives over the deal running through the 2028-29 season under a deal approved Friday by the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees Compensation Committee.

It makes him the fourth-highest paid basketball coach in the Southeastern Conference and among the Top 10 nationally, athletic director Greg Byrne said.

Oats, who is in his fourth season, will make $4.5 million for the first year with $200,000 annual raises. The fourth-ranked Crimson Tide (19-3, 9-0 SEC) has the team’s highest ranking this deep into a season since 1976-77.

“I am honored and humbled to receive a contract extension from the University of Alabama,” Oats said in a statement. “As I have said many times, my family and I love this community, the city of Tuscaloosa and the university.

“I am incredibly proud of what we have been able to build during our time at UA which is a direct reflection of the student-athletes, coaches and staff who have all played a big part in our success. I am excited for what’s happening in the future of our program and the direction we are heading.”

Alabama has gone 80-39 under Oats, winning the 2021 SEC regular season and tournament championships.

“Coach Oats has done an outstanding job leading our men’s basketball program, and we want him to continue doing so for many years to come,” Byrne said in a statement. “He and his staff have lifted the program back to national prominence and built a product that is exciting to be a part of for our team and for our fans.

“We were confident Nate was going to be an outstanding coach for us when we hired him, and he is not only that, but also a great leader of our young men.”

The new contract comes nearly three weeks after Alabama basketball player Darius Miles and another man were charged with capital murder following a fatal shooting near campus. Miles, a reserve forward, was removed from the team and suspended from the university following his arrest.

Duke women’s coach Kara Lawson says men’s ball used vs. FSU

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Duke coach Kara Lawson said her team played with a men’s basketball for the first half of a loss to Florida Stated.

The 16th-ranked Blue Devils lost to the Seminoles 70-57 in Tallahassee, Florida – the team’s second Atlantic Coast Conference loss of the season.

After her team beat Pittsburgh 53-44 , Lawson ended her news conference by speaking animatedly.

“This would never happen in a men’s game. This would never happen. It’s embarrassing for our sport,” she said.

The circumference of a women’s ball is about an inch smaller than a men’s ball and it is typically 2 ounces lighter. While it may not seem like a lot, that’s a big difference.

Lawson said throughout the first half, Duke players were “complaining about the ball.” The Blue Devils were 7 for 34 from the field in the opening 20 minutes of that game. They were 12 for 38 in the second half. Florida State made 10 of its 30 shots in the first two quarters and 14 of 31 in the second half.

“To have a game that, at the end of the season, could be the difference between a seed, between a title, my players don’t deserve that and neither do their players,” Lawson said. “It’s a complete failure. And you can figure out who the people I’m talking about that failed the sport and our players and both teams.”

Lawson said assistant coach Winston Gandy went to the scorer’s table at the half to check on the ball when he realized what the problem was. She said the game officials changed the ball to start the second half.

“We have concluded through our investigation that it was a men’s ball,” Lawson said. “The conference and Florida State is saying that it wasn’t.”

The ACC said it did a comprehensive review talking with game officials, administrators, the table crew and both schools.

“Following the thorough and objective review process, there was no evidence found to support the claim,” the conference said in a statement. “Per NCAA playing rules, there is no appeal or protest process.”

The ACC has instituted a procedural change that the game ball will be brought to the pregame meeting with the captains for approval.

“It’s very frustrating that (the game) … was not treated with the utmost respect that players on both teams deserve,” she said.

This wasn’t the first time this has happened in women’s basketball. In 2017, the College of Charleston played home games and practiced with men’s balls for most of its season until the error was was discovered.

“Let me be clear: Florida State beat us. They beat us playing with a men’s ball in the first half and a women’s ball in the second half. But I can’t say if we’d have played with a women’s ball in the first half and the second half that we would have won. But they can’t say that either,” Lawson said.

No. 1 South Carolina wins 28th straight 87-69 over ‘Cats

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Dawn Staley’s pleased South Carolina had made its once-lopsided series with UConn more competitive the past few years.

She hopes her top-ranked team can accomplish another milestone when the teams meet for a top-five showdown on Sunday.

“It still stands true that we haven’t won up there,” Staley said.

Aliyah Boston had 14 points and 14 rebounds as South Carolina prepared for the top-five showdown with an 87-69 victory over Kentucky on Thursday night.

The Gamecocks (10-0 Southeastern Conference) improved to 22-0 and won their 28th straight, a run that included a 64-49 victory over the Huskies in Minneapolis last April to win the national championship.

Staley had lost her first seven games as South Carolina coach against UConn. The Gamecocks have won three of the past four matchups since.

“This particular class committed to each other,” Staley said. “When you have that type of commitment and you just want to win, you find yourself winning some games that you haven’t won before.”

Against Kentucky, reigning AP player of the year Boston extended her school mark with her 75th career double-double and moved within 11 of the SEC record of 86 games with a double-double held by LSU great Sylvia Fowles.

Things weren’t perfect for South Carolina, which fell behind early, then had its 15-point halftime lead cut to 54-48 midway through the third quarter.

Still, its dominant inside game – South Carolina outscored the Wildcats 62-14 in the paint – was more than enough to shut down Kentucky (10-12, 2-8), the last team to defeat the defending national champions at the SEC Tournament last March.

The Wildcats went on top 16-15 after a pair of baskets by Adebola Adeyeye.

That’s when South Carolina, fueled by its bench, took control with a 17-2 run. Ashlyn Watkins had three inside shots and Kamilla Cardoso scored four points during the surge.

The Wildcats used a 13-4 burst to start the third quarter to give South Carolina a few uncomfortable moments. But the Gamecocks got going once more with an 11-0 run to extend their margin.

Cardoso, the 6-foot-7 reserve, had 14 points and five of South Carolina’s 14 blocks. Defensive ace Brea Beal had 10 including both of the Gamecocks’ 3-pointers.

Beal thought the team held together well to blunt Kentucky’s runs and regain control. “I think it’s our mental aspect of the game and us believing in each other,” she said.

Robyn Benton had 24 points to lead Kentucky, which has lost three of its past four games.

Wildcats coach Kyra Elzy said South Carolina is difficult to match up with because of its deep bench. “They have depth after depth after depth,” she said. “They keep coming.”

BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats are the not the same team that featured two-time SEC player of the year Rhyne Howard the past few seasons. They have 10 newcomers – and six freshmen – who are still learning how to play against the SEC’s top teams like South Carolina.

South Carolina: Forgive the Gamecocks if their focus wasn’t fully on this one at first with a big week ahead. In an eight-game span, South Carolina will face No. 5 UConn and No. 3 LSU, a pair of high-profile games could expose any flaw – or show how powerful the Gamecocks are in chasing a second straight NCAA crown.

UCONN KARMA

South Carolina has opened 22-0 twice under coach Dawn Staley, in 2014-15 and the following year. Both runs ended against UConn. Next up for Gamecocks are the Huskies, although South Carolina has won three of the past four games over UConn including last April’s 64-49 victory to win the NCAA Tournament title.

UP NEXT

Kentucky returns home to face Alabama on Feb. 9.

South Carolina heads to No. 5 UConn on Sunday.

Miles, Citron lead No. 9 Irish past Boston College 72-59

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BOSTON — Olivia Miles and Sonia Citron had already scored 10 straight points to put away Boston College when they turned their attention to other things.

“I told Sonia I needed two more assists for the double-double. And she was like, `All right, I’ve got you,”‘ Miles said after helping No. 9 Notre Dame beat BC 72-59 on Thursday night.

“That’s just kind of our communication on the court,” said Miles, who found Citron for baskets on the next two Irish possessions to complete a 14-0 run – with all 14 points from Miles and Citron. “We just really play off each other really well.

Miles scored 22 points with 10 assists and eight rebounds, and Citron scored 23 for the Irish (18-2, 9-1 Atlantic Coast Conference).

Maria Gakdeng scored 16 points, T’Yana Todd had 13 and Andrea Daly scored 10 with eight rebounds for BC (14-11, 4-8). The Irish beat BC at home 85-48 on New Year’s Day but hadn’t won in Chestnut Hill since 2019.

“This is such a tough place to play,” said Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey, whose team faces No. 16 Duke next. “We’ll celebrate it until about 12:30, and then we’ve got film. Tomorrow we start focusing on Duke.”

BC came within five points, 55-50, before the Irish ran off 14 points in a row – nine by Citron, and five by Miles. That put an end to what had been a back-and-forth game in which the Irish opened big leads and then frittered them away.

“I always feel like we’re close,” BC coach Joanna Bernabei-McNamee said. “They’re young; I think consistency comes with experience.

“I think it’s a big improvement from the first time we played Notre Dame,” she said. “I still want to see more, and I want to see us grow up as fast as humanly possible because I think we do have a dangerous team when we going well.”

Notre Dame led by 11 in the first quarter and held a 38-30 lead with two minutes gone in the third. BC scored 13 of the next 18 points, capitalizing on back-to-back Irish turnovers to tie it 43-all with three minutes left in the quarter.

But Natalija Marshall put back the rebound of her own miss, Miles drove to the basket, Maddy Westbeld added a pair of baskets and then Miles stole the ball and found Citron on the fast break to make it 53-43.

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame bounced back from their first league loss of the season, a 69-65 defeat at North Carolina State on Sunday. Now they face No. 16 Duke.

The Eagles, who beat Pittsburgh on Sunday to snap a five-game losing streak, were looking for their second victory over a Top 25 team this season, having also beaten then-No. 10 N.C. State on Jan. 5.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: Hosts No. 16 Duke on Sunday.

Boston College: Visits Syracuse on Sunday.

No. 16 Xavier beats No. 17 Providence 85-83 in OT thriller

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CINCINNATI — Jack Nunge had 23 points and 14 rebounds as No. 16 Xavier held off No. 17 Providence 85-83 in an overtime thriller Wednesday night.

Colby Jones and Souley Boum each scored 20 for the Musketeers, who won a first-place showdown in the Big East without injured forward Zach Freemantle.

Noah Locke had 22 points and Ed Croswell added 21 for Providence (17-6, 9-3), which had beaten Xavier three straight times.

A layup by Boum put the Musketeers (18-5, 10-2) ahead 82-79 with 51 seconds remaining in overtime. A turnover by the Musketeers led to a layup by Devin Carter that cut Xavier’s lead to one with 24 seconds left.

Boum hit one of two free throws, and Jared Bynum’s 3-point attempt from the left corner rimmed out at the buzzer as the Musketeers held on.

Xavier played its first game without Freemantle, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. He is expected to miss four weeks with a left foot injury, the same foot that required surgery in 2021.

Jerome Hunter, who has excelled off the bench for the Musketeers, made his first start of the season and scored nine points with eight rebounds. Xavier had used the same starting lineup in each of its previous 11 Big East games.

Things started well for the Musketeers. who went on a 12-1 run to build a 25-11 lead.

With Boum on the bench with two fouls, the Musketeers didn’t have a field goal in the final 4:18 of the first half and the Friars pulled to 39-35 at halftime.

Providence outscored Xavier 8-2 to start the second half and took its first lead, 43-41, with 17:41 left.

There was a frantic finish to the second half, with Adam Kunkel’s 3-pointer putting Xavier ahead 76-73 with 55 seconds left. But then Bynum banked in a tying 3 and Boum missed two long shots to send the game to overtime.

BIG PICTURE

Providence: The Friars, who won their first Big East regular-season title last year, entered the night tied atop the conference standings with Xavier and No. 14 Marquette, which hosted Villanova later. Providence was picked fifth in the preseason.

Xavier: Hunter, who averages 14 minutes, left with three minutes remaining in OT with an apparent cramp in his right leg. With Freemantle out, Hunter played 36 minutes.

UP NEXT

Providence: Hosts last-place Georgetown on Wednesday.

Xavier: Will host St. John’s on Saturday.