Indiana enjoys balm of victory

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The past two weeks have been nothing shy of misery at Indiana.

An accident that left Devin Davis with a serious brain injury partnered with the suspensions of Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson pushed the Hoosiers to what seemed like another season on the brink.

There were more than a few cries for Tom Crean’s head, and almost a universal outcry that the current crop of Hoosiers were sullying the candy-striped pants.

Those same naysayers stood in full-throated unison on Thursday night. Some wore their own red-and-white-striped knockoffs; most sported IU logos somewhere on their wardrobe. Instead of screaming in anger, they cheered.

There is no balm like the aloe of victory, and, for at least one night, Indiana basked in it, beating No. 22 SMU 74-68.

Wins buy coaches a pass and players forgiveness for their transgressions.

[+] EnlargeNick Zeisloft
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesNick Zeisloft and Indiana, at least for a night, got a break from the troubles surrounding the Hoosiers with a 74-68 victory over No. 22 SMU.
Losses, or at least less successful results, deliver impatience and intolerance.

The off-court issues have been a black eye, but they are exacerbated by the on-court failures. The Hoosiers were 17-15 last season and lost to Syracuse in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed two years ago.

So when Williams and Robinson returned to the lineup, (Emmitt Holt was eligible but did not get into the game) it wasn’t about being pardoned. It was about delivering a much-needed victory.

“That was a very important win against a very good team," Crean said.

Ultimately, whether this season comes off the ledge or teeters over it won’t be decided by the fans’ reaction. Crean really has only a marginal say so. It comes down to the players and what they’ve learned, whether their words of apology and contrition are real or empty.

They’re saying they’ve figured it out, that the mess of the past two weeks has been both a cold bath of reality and an impetus to change.

On Wednesday, before they were eligible to play their first game of the season, Robinson, Williams and Holt talked about little things they believe will bring big results.

Where once they went to dinner just in pairs, now they go in big groups. They cut off the outside voices that had turned their locker room into Babel, listening to each other instead and blocking everyone else out. Practices have been tougher and more focused. They’ve circled the proverbial wagons so tightly that there isn't room for anyone else.

“Since everything happened, everybody wants to be inside our program and know what’s going on," Williams told me on Wednesday, the day before the Hoosiers hosted SMU. “We’ve separated ourselves. It’s just us now. It’s about us."

Added Holt, who was driving the car that struck Davis, “It was like a reality check. It really impacted all of us."

Fans are understandably holding off on going all-in. Three home games isn't enough of a sample size to declare the problem solved. Even Crean admitted he’s not ready to proclaim things are resolved.

“The thing with adversity, you’re going to go one of two ways," Crean said. “It’s either going to break you or it's going to bond you. It’s too early to have an answer to either one of those. I’d be foolish to say that."

But the SMU game offers promise toward that goal. This was a game that took moxie and guts to win. Larry Brown’s team, even without Emmanuel Mudiay and Markus Kennedy, is a good team. SMU is long and active and obviously well coached.

It had extra size where the Hoosiers have virtually none. For a while, it looked like size ultimately would matter. Midway through the first half, SMU led 20-8, killing Indiana on the boards and in the paint.

It was a gap that seemed ominous, one that would fuel the existing fire.

Then the Hoosiers rallied. After starting 2-of-9 from behind the 3-point arc, they hit five of their next seven, opening up a five-point halftime lead.

SMU went on another run in the second half, this time 10-0, but the Hoosiers shrugged it off to even up the game.

Up just two, Hanner Mosquera-Perea, the only player that really qualifies as a big man for Indiana, stepped up. All of 6-foot-9, he had been overmatched for much of the night. Yet when Ryan Manuel came in for a posterizing one-handed dunk, Mosquera-Perea stood firm and took the charge.

The crowd and Brown both erupted, and the Hoosiers then hit back-to-back threes to go up by eight. SMU never led again.

“Oh my goodness, that might have been the loudest the building was all night, and deservedly so," Crean said.

So what happens next? While it has been tested off the court, Indiana hasn't really gotten that test on it. All three of its first games have been at home, as are its next five. The first real challenge doesn’t come until Dec. 9, when the Hoosiers face Louisville in the Jimmy V Classic.

The arduous Big Ten season follows, and only then will these first two weeks be labeled as a bad patch or a sign of bad things to come.

But at least for one game, there seemed to be progress -- and the sweet salve of victory.

Afternoon Links: The UK question

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
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What we're reading while we ponder the utopian benefits of a 3-hour work week. Submit links via Twitter.
  • As of this writing, 52 percent of SportsNation respondents believe the Kentucky Wildcats would beat the Philadelphia 76ers in a game of basketball. In case you're among that 52 percent, Rob Dauster is here to set you straight.
  • That said, Mike DeCourcy has some interesting thoughts on the topic, not so much a counterpoint as a dash of appropriate context:
    Here was my plan: Fed up with the constant assertions the Kentucky Wildcats could defeat an NBA team, and prompted by my editors to address this particular nuisance, I was going to search through the D-League and find a group of players not even good enough for the NBA who would defeat this UK squad. The hitch was, I’m not sure I could find 5 — or, given the whole two-platoon biz, 10 – D-League guys I could comfortably argue would defeat this Kentucky squad. … And thus we have the central problem with the debate over, “Could the Kentucky Wildcats defeat an NBA team?” — What constitutes an NBA team? If it’s merely that they wear the uniforms of an NBA team and are paid relatively handsomely to play the game, even if they bear no particular resemblance to any competitive team ever fielded in the NBA – in other words, if we’re talking about the 2014-15 Philadelphia 76ers – then it’s not ridiculous to assert Kentucky would have a chance to beat that team. It’s far more ridiculous to assert that these Sixers are, in fact, an NBA team.
  • Last week, Myron brought you the story of J.P. Honsinger, an 11-year-old member of Albany's 2014 recruiting class. Honsinger, a sixth-grader from Clifton, New York, is diagnosed with Niemann-Pick Type C disease, a extremely rare form of childhood Alzheimer's afflicting just 500 known sufferers worldwide. The program's release made Honsinger's dream come true, and Albany coach Will Brown's effusive praise ("As our point guard of the future, we are going to rely on his exceptional leadership qualities. Nobody in the country will be signing a player with JP’s toughness.") was enough to make at least one writer's apartment unusually dusty. On Thursday, DePaul unveiled a similar gesture, inking 11-year-old Brendan McMahon, who was diagnosed with Duchene Muscular Dystrophy when he was six, to a national letter of intent. "We are tremendously excited about announcing the addition of Brendan McMahon to our program," coach Oliver Purnell said in a release. "We have every confidence that bringing Brendan on board will strengthen the grit, the determination and the heart of our team." This is the best signing day trend in decades.
  • In advance of tonight's Indiana-SMU matchup Indiana freshman Emmitt Holt spoke exclusively to ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil about the Nov. 1 accident that left IU forward Devin Davis hospitalized with a traumatic brain injury: "It was just an awful night, to be honest, that probably changed my life forever. It did actually change my life forever. When I went to visit him in the hospital for the first time it was like ... it was ... crazy. Then when we talked the first time, I don't want to go into great detail, but he was trying to comfort me, telling me it wasn't my fault. But deep down, I'll always feel like it was my fault. It was one of those moments where you realize you have to be a better person."
  • The best game on Thursday night's schedule is undoubtedly No. 10 Texas's matchup with a deep, experienced and -- thanks to last season's collapse -- probably underrated Iowa team. Our old friend Ryan Clark may not be in Madison Square Garden, but he's still got a totally thorough preview for your pregame consumption.
[+] EnlargeKeifer Sykes
Mary Langenfeld/USA TODAYSykes soared, but was ultimately unsuccessful in his dunk attempt.
Have you heard of Keifer Sykes? If not, get to know the name.

As a junior last season, he averaged 20.3 points and 4.9 assists for a 24-win Green Bay team that beat eventual NCAA tourney 1-seed Virginia and lost to eventual Final Four participant Wisconsin by just three.

He's also one heck of dunker, as our C.L. Brown documented in the preseason. Even Sykes' missed slams are spectacular -- as was the case Wednesday night in a rematch with the Badgers at the Kohl Center.

During the opening minutes of the Phoenix's 84-60 loss to UW, the 6-foot guard took off from halfway down the free-throw lane and leaped right over the shoulders of 7-foot Wisconsin center Frank "The Tank" Kaminsky, who was recently named the No. 1 player in college basketball in ESPN.com's #CBBrank survey.

OK, so the attempt clanked off the back of the rim. Those are mere details. The effort was insane and Kaminsky certainly took notice, using his Twitter feed after the game to thank his lucky stars.



Sykes quickly responded, which led to a cordial exchange about the professional futures of both players. Well done, fellas.

3-point shot: Steve Fisher's contract extension

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
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Andy Katz discusses Steve Fisher's contract extension, a huge hoops showcase event in 2017 and a warm gesture from Indiana fans.

#Top10Thursday: Matchup nightmares

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
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You don’t sleep well when you know you have to deal with these guys the following night.

It’s difficult to stop any elite Division I player. These athletes, however, are nightmare matchups for any individual or team in the country.

Agree? Disagree? Tell us on Twitter by using the hashtag #Top10Thursday.

1. Jahlil Okafor, Duke

OkaforAP Photo/Michael Conroy
What can you do with him? Okafor (17.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.7 blocks per game) has been one of the most dominant players in the country, regardless of seniority. He’s tough to front and he can score with layups, dunks, baby hooks and the occasional jumper. Okafor is a problem for every team outside Durham, North Carolina.

2. Georges Niang, Iowa State

Oklahoma State/Iowa StateNelson Chenault/USA TODAY Sports
He’s never the fastest player on the floor. The Iowa State star doesn’t play above the rim. But the 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward can score from outside (33 percent from the 3-point line last season), bring the ball up the floor, lead the break, collect from midrange and score in the post.

3. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville

Montrezl Harrell Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY Sports
When he wasn’t shattering high school backboards this offseason, Harrell was reportedly working on his range. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound monster forward is 3-for-7 from beyond the arc in Louisville’s first two games this season. Harrell hitting 3s is like the Incredible Hulk learning how to fly. It’s just not right.

4. Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky

Karl-Anthony TownsAndy Lyons/Getty Images
He’s both mentally and physically mature for a freshman. The 6-foot-11 center has range and he’s tough in the paint, too, which is why he’s such a hot pro prospect. But Towns is also a handful because you have to find a way to score against him. And that’s not easy to do against the guy who is the top shot-blocker (2.3 blocks per game, 22nd in block percentage, per kenpom.com) on a Kentucky squad that’s swatting everything.

5. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

Frank KaminskyRobert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports
Frank the Tank is 7 feet tall. That always helps in basketball. But unlike the bulk of the 7-footers who’ve excelled, he’s capable of hitting 3-pointers and jump shots. So whom do you put on this Wooden Award candidate? Kaminsky (37.8 percent from the 3-point line in 2013-14) sets hard screens that create chaos for defenders. If you help a teammate on the pick, you’ll lose him. And that’s not good. Ask last season’s NCAA tournament field.

6. Myles Turner, Texas

Myles TurnerChris Covatta/Getty Images
The 6-foot-11 forward was the No. 2 prospect in the 2014 class, per RecruitingNation. His size and skill could help Texas compete for the Big 12 crown and possibly a national title. He’s comfortable outside the lane. But he can also run the floor and exploit defenders in transition. Hard to stop a guy with that length and agility.

7. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona

Arizona/OregonScott Olmos/USA TODAY Sports
The sophomore could be a star for Sean Miller’s squad this season. He has already produced some impressive highlights. He has a quick first step, he’s long, he’ll soar over anyone in his way and he’s a good rebounder. You’ll need an energy drink and a cup of coffee to track Hollis-Jefferson all night.

8. Ron Baker, Wichita State

Ron Baker Jamie Squire/Getty Images
The Wichita State wing is a true combo guard. Baker (18.5 PPG through two games this season) is dangerous from the perimeter. He can take you off the dribble and slash. He can score with a hand in his face. And he’s a solid and shifty ball handler, too. Off a screen, you can’t do much with him, either.

9. Keifer Sykes, Green Bay

Keifer SykesMary Langenfeld/USA TODAY Sports
The 6-foot, 180-pound point guard is one of the quickest guards in the country. But don’t let his size fool you. He’ll catapult in a second and dunk on the biggest man on the floor. That’s what makes Sykes such a challenge. His stat line last season was just ridiculous: 20.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 81 percent from the free throw line.

10. Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga

Kyle WiltjerAP Photo/Young Kwak
He didn’t really fit in with Kentucky’s fleet of talented big men. But Gonzaga is the perfect spot for Wiltjer. The Zags have one of America’s best offenses. You can’t just zone them because they’ll shoot the lights out. And you can go man-to-man if you want, but you’ll have to deal with the 6-foot-10 Wiltjer and his appetite for the arc.

Early signing period winners and losers 

November, 20, 2014
Nov 20
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Over the past few years, college basketball's early signing period has clearly taken precedence over the spring period. Nearly every committed player signs his letter of intent during the fall period, while several available top-100 prospects usually make their decisions within the seven-day stretch.

This season is a bit different. While the wide majority of top-100 players are signed and sealed to their future school, 11 of the 18 five-star prospects are still on the board. As a result, we're going to have far more drama moving forward than we've had in recent years.

Of course, that doesn't mean the early signing period was without interesting storylines. Five ESPN 100 prospects made their decisions, and several schools had to go back to the drawing board to reassess their 2015 classes.

WINNERS

Kentucky


Well, this was easy. The Wildcats went into the early signing period with one commit and a borderline top-40 class and exited with two five-star pledges and the No. 1 recruiting class in the country. With Charles Matthews (No. 44 in the ESPN 100) already in tow, Kentucky went to work, landing Skal Labissiere (No. 11) and Isaiah Briscoe (No. 13) in a 45-minute span last Thursday. Labissiere has perhaps the most pro potential of any prospect in the country, while Briscoe is the best point guard in the 2015 class. As always, the lesson is to never underestimate John Calipari. A month ago, it wasn't a lock that Kentucky was going to get Labissiere or Briscoe -- let alone both of them, back-to-back, on the same day. Calipari closed with both prospects, though, and now the Wildcats are back in a familiar position atop the recruiting rankings.

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Top-ranked Kentucky may not always overwhelm teams the way it did in its 72-40 win over No. 5 Kansas on Tuesday night. But after that pummeling, the rest of college basketball knows full well what the Wildcats are capable of doing.

Which brings us to Wednesday. If you just glanced at scores: No. 2 Arizona over UC Irvine 71-54; No. 3 Wisconsin 84-60 over Green Bay; No. 13 Gonzaga 94-42 over Saint Joseph's; and if you only caught No. 18 Oklahoma's second half lead of 42-24 over Creighton, it would appear every ranked team presents the same fear factor as Kentucky.

That is not the case.

It was certainly not the case with Arizona and UC Irvine. The Wildcats' 17-point win over the Anteaters would suggest they breezed by their Big West foe.

On the contrary.

The Anteaters were leading 46-45 with 7:53 left when their 7-foot-6 game-changer Mamadou Ndiaye picked up his fourth foul. Although the sophomore from Senegal only scored nine points and had five rebounds to go with one block, his presence in the lane changed how Arizona ran its offense.

It wasn't until sophomore forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson challenged Ndiaye in the lane and threw down a left-handed dunk that Arizona ignited its offense.

[+] EnlargeUC Irvine's Mamadou Ndiaye
Bert Thomas/J and L Photography/Getty ImagesUC Irvine and its 7-foot-6 center Mamadou Ndiaye put a scare into No. 2 Arizona deep into the second half.
Once Ndiaye left the game, the Wildcats quickly reeled off an 11-0 run and never let their lead dip below nine points. Hollis-Jefferson, who is coming off the bench, scored a game-high 19 points and went 11-of-13 from the free-throw line.

Arizona did nothing to quell the doubts surrounding its perimeter shooting. It shot just 39.6 percent -- including just 28.6 percent (4-of-14) from behind the arc.

No. 18 Oklahoma, bolstered by the NCAA granting Houston transfer Tashawn Thomas a waiver to play immediately, proved that many teams ranked farther down in the Top 25 don't possess Kentucky's intimidation factor.

The Sooners led Creighton by 18 early in the second half. The Bluejays didn't blink. They rallied behind 17 points, 11 rebounds and six assists from senior guard Austin Chatman to pull a 65-63 upset.

Saint Joseph's clearly isn't the same team that nearly ended Connecticut's NCAA title run last season -- losing in overtime in their second-round matchup. The Hawks lost three key players from that squad and opened the season with a loss to Fairleigh Dickinson.

The Zags' 52-point win was nothing more than a sure sign that they can flex at home against a lesser-talented team. The Bulldogs were impressive in beating No. 22 SMU at home on Monday, but their real test awaits Dec. 6 at Arizona.

Green Bay was hardly fazed playing at Wisconsin, a point Keifer Sykes spent the opening minutes establishing. The 5-foot-11 senior guard got clearance in the lane and nearly landed a one-handed dunk on the All-American face of Badgers center Frank Kaminsky, but the ball bounced high off the back of the rim.

No matter, the next possession Sykes threw an alley-oop, completed by Greg Mays, as the Phoenix played with the Badgers through the first half before foul trouble sabotaged their efforts.

Wisconsin did as Wisconsin does by methodically adding to its lead with multiple players contributing until it was unsurmountable.

Kaminsky: He got his 20 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocks.

Sam Dekker: He chipped 19 points on an efficient 6-of-12 shooting from the floor.

Nigel Hayes: He scored a career-high 25 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.

Were they efficient?

Of course.

Were they precise?

Absolutely.

Were they intimidating?

Well, not exactly.

The message from watching ranked teams play on Wednesday was quite different than what Kentucky displayed on Tuesday. Instead of instilling fear in their opponents, they may have emboldened more challengers.

Tipoff Live, 2:30 p.m. ET

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19
11:45
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To watch on your smartphone click here.

Kentucky made it look easy in drilling Kansas. Duke was impressive against Michigan State. ESPN.com college basketball reporters Myron Medcalf, Eamonn Brennan and C.L. Brown recap the Champions Classic, the Tipoff Marathon and the opening weekend of the college basketball season.

3-point shot: Duke, Kentucky impressive

November, 19, 2014
Nov 19
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Andy Katz discusses the impressive performances by Duke and Kentucky at the Champions Classic, the lack of depth in the SEC and the issues for Harvard in an early loss.
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INDIANAPOLIS -- They had one of those dress-up contests during the first media timeout of the second half here. You know, where the little kids run down the court and put on shorts 10 times too big and sneakers meant for grown men?

The young Kansas fan was late to the shooting part, struggling to get his shoes on. But in a spurt, he launched an off-kilter jumper from just inside the free-throw line.

It didn't go in but it goes down as the best look a guy in a Jayhawks' uniform got all night.

Here's essentially how this version of the State Farm Champions Classic, a 72-40 Kentucky romp, went: Early in the second half, Frank Mason III got out on a fast break, soaking up the space around him for an easy bucket … until Alex Poythress blocked his shot, meeting the ball at the backboard. But wait! There came Kelly Oubre with the follow-up for surely the easy lay-in. Except no, Trey Lyles got him, too.

It was borderline cruel, really, with the Kentucky faithful on their feet cheering for Kansas blood like thirsty Romans at the Coliseum.

And then, just when the Jayhawks thought they might get a breather, there came the next platoon. As Kansas players tugged on their shorts, you could almost envision the thought bubble above their heads, ‘What the … there's more of them?'

"I thought this was vodka," Kansas coach Bill Self joked, swigging from his water bottle on the postgame dais.

[+] EnlargeKansas/Kentucky
AP Photo/Darron CummingsMarcus Lee collects one of his four blocks against Kansas. As a team, the Wildcats had 11 blocks.
Understandably. The Wildcats are everything we thought they were -- ridiculously long, incredibly talented and unfairly deep.

But that's about all the proclamations anyone should and can make on Nov. 18.

So let's stop the hyperbole in its tracks right now.

Will Kentucky go undefeated? Who knows, but it's doubtful. Why? Because it's hard. Because the Cats play a pretty loaded schedule, and mostly because they're kids and they will invariably have a bad night (witness the first half all of two days ago against Buffalo) where their shots don't fall or the effort isn't realized.

Could they beat an NBA team? Do the Sixers qualify? They're about the same age, after all. If they do, well then, maybe.

"No, we're not that good," Kentucky coach John Calipari said as he took his seat at the postgame news conference. "Next question."

Usually sandbagging coaches are about as believable as politicians three weeks before an election.

But Calipari isn't sandbagging. His was a hard sell after his team all but annihilated Kansas, blocking 11 shots, forcing 11 turnovers and limiting the Jayhawks to just 19.6 percent shooting for the game. The effort, coming after a less than inspiring first half against Buffalo, was so ferocious that freshman Karl-Anthony Towns had to catch himself when describing it in the postgame.

"It was a chance to go …," he said before restarting. "It was a chance to go hard to the wall."

So yes, the Wildcats are good, rhymes-with-halls-to-the-wall good, but we can't possibly know how good, not yet.

At the risk of sucking the joy of what makes sports so joyful in the first place -- the chance to pontificate, proclaim and prognosticate with abandon -- it would be wise right now to take a deep inhale.

Because let's face it, the Wildcats themselves have been down this road before. Frankly, they've been down it annually since Calipari took over. This team can definitely go undefeated, people say, until it can't. This team is the greatest. No this one … until Joe Mazzulla happens or Christian Watford or Shabazz Napier.

As Calipari accurately pointed out, some team sometime somewhere will play a zone against them. How will Kentucky, which shot just 6-of-18 from the arc, respond then? What if there's a team that has more size on the interior? What if Kentucky gets on the road and finds itself down 10, what then?

What if, for heaven's sake, the Champions Classic this season pitted the Wildcats against Duke?

"We've got a long way to go," Calipari said.

That thought might send shivers down the spines of everyone from Boston University, the Cats' next opponent, to Florida, their last, but it's true not just of Kentucky but, more importantly, of the season. The end of the Tipoff Marathon is merely the start of the basketball marathon and a lot can and will happen in between.

Maybe a better way to drive that point home is to consider Self. It's easy to be philosophical about your team after it just finished playing like some collegiate dream team. It's tougher when it looked like a CYO jayvee squad.

Self's team got drilled, the fourth-worst loss in the storied history of Kansas basketball. The third platoon even scored against the Jayhawks.

He wasn't happy, certainly, but he wasn't turning in his whiteboard. Instead he was cracking jokes, marveling that the same team that shot an abysmal 24 percent in the first half managed to out-awful itself in the second, by connecting on only 13 percent.

"It's too early in the season to be discouraged," he said. "We're embarrassed but it's way too early."

Way too early to throw in the towel, and way too early to make any bold proclamations.

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Michigan State was worked up. The Spartans had struggled to stop Duke all night, but they had rebounded well enough to keep things within reach. And now here they were, eight minutes into the second half, the lead cut to three points, playing defense like maniacs.

Switches on ball screens. Rotations and help. Thirty-second possessions of textbook defense, with Duke pulling out of every set, forced to try something new. It was 51-48 Blue Devils. The game had never been closer. Here was a corner to be turned.

"If we could have taken the lead there, we would have gotten the whole place on our side," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "That would have been pretty cool."

Instead, at the end of another of those long, intense, desperate defensive stands, Duke freshman Justise Winslow whipped the ball behind his back, sent Branden Dawson lunging, and shot across the lane for a left-handed finish between flailing Michigan State defenders.

53-48. The Spartans never sniffed that corner again.

There was much to be impressed by in Duke's 81-71 win over Izzo's team in the first leg of Tuesday night's State Farm Champions Classic. Freshman center Jahlil Okafor, the consensus favorite in the national player of the year race, lived up to billing, and then some, on the biggest stage of his young career. So did his much-hyped classmate, guard Tyus Jones, who took over for huge stretches in the second half. Senior guard Quinn Cook was every bit as good as Jones, and the two were incisive in tandem. Duke's offense was fluid. It was all there.

[+] EnlargeJustise Winslow
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Duke freshman Justise Winslow posted 15 points, six rebounds and three assists against Michigan State in the Champions Classic.

But none of the above were quite as impressive -- both in obvious bursts and in the overall flow of the game -- as Winslow, the Blue Devils' 6-foot-6, 225-pound jack-of-all-positions.

Winslow put up 15 points, six rebounds and three assists in 36 minutes, and yet his line only hints at the strength of his performance. Winslow played the four. He played the three. He made a 3. He overpowered Michigan State on the offensive glass, bulling his way to fouls. He led Duke on the break. He flew from rim-to-rim with imposing force. He slid bounce passes between double-teams. He ran pick and rolls as both ball handler (with Okafor) and screener (with everyone else). He blocked out Michigan State's bigs. He erased open corner 3s with perfectly timed closeouts.

Late in the second half, as the Blue Devils wound down the rest of what had long since become a blowout, Winslow even became Duke's de facto point guard. Why not, right?

"He plays like a veteran," Cook said. "And he's so versatile."

Beyond the versatility, Winslow's performance impressed because it startled. For weeks -- for years, really -- recruiting analysts have touted Okafor's polish in the post. Some have called Jones the best guard in the country. We saw them coming. Okafor is already living up to every effusive scouting report, and Jones isn't far behind. When folks talked about Duke in the preseason, they talked about their star freshman center and those guards. Winslow, a touted recruit in his own right, was almost an afterthought.

On Tuesday, Okafor was an almost robotic picture of efficiency. He finished with 17 points and five rebounds on 8-of-10 shooting. He has missed just five of his 30 shots in three games as a collegian. Krzyzewski stopped short of calling Okafor "iconic," as one reporter suggested, but said he had a chance to be the best center he'd ever coached -- better than Elton Brand or Carlos Boozer. That nothing about the description seems particularly hyperbolic is a testament to just how good Okafor has looked thus far. More simply: Save for Tuesday's foul trouble, he's looked unstoppable.

Duke's coach was almost as effective in his praise for Cook and Jones, who combined for 34 points, 10 assists, zero turnovers and a host of big plays -- Jones' second-half four-point play among them -- that helped Duke pull away. There was a time not so long ago when people wondered whether Cook and Jones could coexist and whether Cook might be displaced. The Blue Devils' offense scored nearly 1.3 points per trip Tuesday night. So, yeah, never mind.

"[Cook's] leadership has been off the charts," Krzyzewski said.

Indeed, it's strangely easy to imagine this Duke team without Winslow. Okafor would still catch the ball wherever he wanted in the post, and he would still score or swing to shooters, and Jones and Cook would still wear defenders out on screens, and Duke would still be really good.

Even at this early date, though, Winslow looks like the connective tissue uniting those disparate pieces. His mix of skills is a weapon in isolated situations -- how many players in the country are both big enough to rebound with Dawson and skilled enough to blow by him off the dribble? -- but more importantly give Krzyzewski an unusual degree of flexibility in his lineups. On offense, Winslow provides aggression and rebounding without pushing into Okafor's space on the low block. On defense, he can switch onto guards without stretching his team's shape. (He also can protect Okafor from having to play behind too many screens, which is how coaches will try to attack the Blue Devils' big man going forward.) The defensive holes that sank a smaller, speedier group last season don't apply here.

In other words, when he needs to, Winslow can play like a guard, or like a forward. Or both. Often on the same possession.

"How many guys can do that?" Cook said. "He complements me and [Jones], but he also complements [Okafor]. It's a blessing to be able to play with him."

It's still early in the season, and it's just one -- or, OK, three -- games. But for a team with Final Four expectations and the top-line talent to match, Winslow's all-of-the-above ambitions might be exactly what the Blue Devils need.

"Whatever we need," Winslow said. "Block out, block a shot, knock down a shot. Get in the post, feed the post.

"I just try to do it all."

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Tip-Off Marathon continues its run

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
3:51
PM ET

Kyle Terada/USA Today Bonnie Samuelson (left) and Karlie Samuelson after Stanford’s win.
The seventh annual Tip-Off Marathon began its 29-hour, 22-game run of basketball Monday night. Here are some of the notable achievements, stats and notes.

Streak-busters: The fourth-longest win streak in women’s Division I history ended, and it fell victim to a familiar opponent: Stanford. The sixth-ranked Cardinal beat No. 1 Connecticut 88-86 in overtime Monday, ending the Huskies’ 47-game winning streak.

This was the second time Stanford has ended a UConn winning streak of 45 games or more. In late December 2010, the Cardinal snapped UConn’s Division I-record 90-game winning streak. Of the six longest win streaks in Division I women’s history, the Cardinal have ended three.

Stephen F. Austin had its 34-game home win streak snapped. That was the second-longest active streak in Division I men’s basketball behind Duke (35).

Florida’s 33-game home winning streak came to an end in a 69-67 loss to Miami (FL). That home winning streak was the third-longest active streak. This game was the first all-Sunshine State matchup in Marathon history, and the result dropped Florida’s record to 0-4 in Marathon games.

More on the Stanford-UConn game:
•  The Cardinal beat a No. 1 Huskies team for the second time in eight games. When facing a No. 1 team that is not UConn, Stanford is 5-7 (7-13 all-time against No. 1 teams).
• Stanford’s win came two years, one day after its last win over a No. 1 team. On Nov. 16, 2012, the Cardinal beat Brittney Griner and No. 1 Baylor, ending the Bears’ 42-game win streak.
• The loss was the Huskies’ fifth in a row in an overtime game.

On the mark: Massachusetts shot 27-for-29 at the free-throw line, including 12-for-12 in overtime, in its 77-68 victory over Manhattan. The Minutemen’s 93.1 percent shooting was the best this season by any Division I team with 20 or more free throw attempts.

Tip-Off Marathon quick hitters:
•  Gonzaga has won its Marathon game in each of last four years (2011-14), the longest active Marathon streak
•  Hawaii is the only school to participate in all seven Marathons (4-3 after loss to High Point)
•  This is the first Tip-Off Marathon to have 3 overtime games: No. 6 Stanford women 88, No. 1 UConn 86; Northern Iowa 79, Stephen F. Austin 77; UMass 77, Manhattan 68
What we're reading as we enjoy that parquet court in South Dakota. Submit links via Twitter.
  • The ESPN Tip-Off Marathon has already featured some fantastic action. Miami's upset at Florida was keyed by a brilliant Angel Rodriguez performance (and back-to-back game-winning plays on both ends of the floor). Gonzaga blew out SMU, and looked really good doing it. But maybe the best game -- or at least the best ending -- of the day came thanks to UMass-Manhattan this morning. With just 0.8 seconds left in regulation, Manhattan ran an absolutely picture perfect inbounds play to find a slashing Emmy Andujar for an alley-oop dunk to force regulation. UMass went on to win, but the Jaspers can walk off as hoop-nerd critical darlings; it's unlikely we'll see another inbounds set run that well all season.
  • Meanwhile, if you thought playing a collegiate basketball game at 7 a.m. ET was brutal, Wofford, which got a solid win over Iona this morning, had it much worse than that this week. By a lot.
  • Oh, and speaking of good mid-major wins, and thrilling marathon games to boot, how about Northern Iowa coming away from Stephen F. Austin with an OT victory? You think an early morning flight is safe territory, that you'll land in time for all of the best games? Wrong again, Brennan. Wrong again. Anyway, that might not be a resume-maker for UNI, but it's a strong early push in a two-bid direction for the much-maligned Valley.
  • This isn't marathon-related, and I don't have much to add, but Syracuse's case in front of the Committee on Infractions apparently includes a rogue representative of the local YMCA, reports to the Syracuse Post-Standard.
  • Where do Kansas and Kentucky fans stand on their teams in advance of Tuesday night's monster showdown? The folks from Rock Chalk Talk and A Sea of Blue got together to answer each other's questions therein. What follows is a totally polite and rational discussion between people on the Internet, which seems awfully fishy, if you ask me.

Enjoy the rest of the marathon, kids.
The college basketball season began last week with the Pitino Bowl anchoring the first day of 2014-15 campaign. But Tuesday's Champions Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis is regarded as the true tipoff to the season as Duke faces Michigan State and Kansas jousts with Kentucky.

Duke seems to be the only team in the field that has everything figured out. Michigan State struggled in its debut against Navy. Kentucky's platoon concept is a work in progress. And Kansas has a couple of young talents that Bill Self can't trust with big minutes yet.

But that's what makes this slate so intriguing. So many possibilities.

Here are my predictions:

No. 18 Michigan State vs. No. 4 Duke, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Before Friday's win (barely) over Navy, Tom Izzo admitted that he still had some questions about his team. The Spartans failed to answer most of them. Denzel Valentine has to be a catalyst, and he went 2-for-10. Travis Trice and Branden Dawson were impressive, but Izzo's bench added only 16 points. Michigan State is facing a Duke team that annihilated its first two opponents with tallies that topped 100 points. Yeah, the Blue Devils are young, but Tyus Jones (4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio), Justise Winslow (33 points in first two games) and Jahlil Okafor (early national player of the year front-runner) have shown a lot of maturity. Duke is the best team in America right now. But the Blue Devils are still facing a Michigan State team with a bunch of veterans who have been in this spot before. The win won't come easily.

Prediction: Duke 84, Michigan State 77

Popcorn Level: 9 Bags

No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 5 Kansas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: No, the sky isn't falling for either team. Kentucky weathered a halftime deficit against UCLA on Sunday with John Calipari's Great Platoon struggling in spurts. Wait a minute. … That stat sheet says "Buffalo"? OK, OK. Kentucky's issues, however, aren't related to personnel. It's about finding the proper rotation. Kansas is still wrestling with a point guard battle between Devonte Graham and Frank Mason. The duo had six of the team's 16 turnovers in a win over uber-efficient Alan Williams and UC-Santa Barbara. But Graham definitely looked like "the man" and the best player on the roster. Kelly Oubre, a McDonald's All American last year, played just four minutes, and Cliff Alexander came off the bench. But the Jayhawks will be ready to go in Indianapolis. The bottom line is that two teams that will both get better by the end of the season as legit national contenders are in a state of flux. Since we have to judge now, expect the Wildcats to top the Jayhawks because they are clearly the better squad in mid-November.

Prediction: Kentucky 77, Kansas 72

Popcorn Level: 10 Bags

My Record (3-0)

3-point shot: Future Final Four sites

November, 18, 2014
Nov 18
9:22
AM ET
video
Andy Katz discusses the NCAA's selections regarding future regional and Final Four sites.

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