Night Line: Michigan, Indiana Set Stage For Game of the Season

Posted by BHayes on January 30th, 2013

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Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.

For those of you who noticed the basketball game scheduled for 9:00 PM Saturday night in Bloomington, Indiana, Wednesday night followed script in a most beautiful way. All too often, we watch as titanic clashes are lessened by careless losses in the days leading up to the big one, but tonight, both Indiana and Michigan made sure they would not be caught looking ahead. Top-ranked Michigan went out and pounded Northwestern by 22 at home, while the third-ranked Hoosiers one-upped the Wolverine dominance by going into Mackey Arena and hanging 97 on a Purdue team that before tonight had a winning Big 10 record. Two impressive efforts that stood to only further whet the appetite of basketball fans across the country, because let’s be real: Saturday night’s match-up is shaping up to be the game of this college basketball season.

Good Luck Finding A Louder Gym Than Assembly Hall This Saturday

Good Luck Finding A Louder Gym Than Assembly Hall This Saturday

Purdue’s solid start to the conference season was in part due to a friendly early schedule, but the Hoosiers still went on the road and beat an average team by 37 tonight. The IU depth was there for all to see again this evening, as all five starters scored in double figures led by Cody Zeller’s 19. Much has been made of Zeller’s reticence to dominate games this year, but what many have considered a lack of production simply hasn’t been needed most of this campaign. Zeller is but one of a number of skilled offensive players Tom Crean has at his disposal – this luxury best evidenced by a stunning four Hoosiers ranking in Ken Pomeroy’s top 125 nationally for offensive rating. This may (and focus on the may here!) be the best offensive team in the land (#3 right now according to KenPom’s metrics), and their efficient outburst in West Lafayette tonight has to have them feeling ready for Michigan.

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Night Line: Schizophrenic Wolfpack Fail to Keep Momentum… Again

Posted by BHayes on January 30th, 2013

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Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.

For NC State fans that thought the rollercoaster may have finally been headed for level ground, Tuesday’s nights’ 58-55 loss to Virginia was yet another reminder that the seat belts should never come off when riding with this Wolfpack team. Consistency has eluded Mark Gottfried’s club all season but especially of late, as the Pack have now alternated wins and losses over their past six contests. Included in the trio of wins were seismic victories over Tobacco Road rivals Duke and UNC; but like many a college student after a momentous Saturday night, the Pack watched as each high subsided into a full-blown hangover. Little seems to have been learned by either coach or team along the way, and State fans have to be wondering whether the inconsistency might ultimately derail a season that has quite frequently felt immensely promising.

Much Like His Team All Season, CJ Leslie's Performance Tuesday Night Included Both Good And Bad: 20 Points and 14 Rebounds For The Pack Star, But He Also Turned The Ball Over Seven Times

Much Like His Team All Season, CJ Leslie’s Performance Tuesday Night Included Both Good And Bad: 20 Points and 14 Rebounds For The Pack Star, But Also Seven Turnovers

Nobody can deny that the talent and capability to be not just good but great are there for this team. We knew about the collection of talent all the way back in the preseason, when the paper version of the Wolfpack was impressive enough to net the team a top-five preseason national ranking and the grandiose title of ACC favorite. Unfortunately, we have seen that talent mesh and deliver on all its potential far too infrequently for the Pack to maintain those lofty preseason standards, but is there time yet to bounce back? Are we silly for believing that it isn’t too late, for thinking that Mark Gottfried can find a way to get his team to sustain that energy and emotion ALL the time, and not just when they take the floor with college hoops titans like Duke, UNC, and Michigan?

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Night Line: Butler the Latest Casualty of an Unpredictable Atlantic 10

Posted by BHayes on January 24th, 2013

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Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.

Last weekend belonged to the Butler Bulldogs. With College Gameday in town and the national spotlight shining brightly on Hinkle Fieldhouse, the Dogs delivered as dramatic a victory as you will ever see when Roosevelt Jones coaxed in a floater at the horn to defeat Gonzaga. It was a transcendent moment that will stand alone well after this season ends, but it also vaulted Butler into the top 10 of both polls – rarefied midseason air, even for Butler. But the intoxicating high was short-lived in Indy, as Butler dove back into A-10 play tonight, coming up short in a 54-53 loss to La Salle. The Bulldogs weren’t the only team to be smacked in the face with the reality of this rough-and-tumble version of the A-10; St. Joseph’s fell at home to St. Bonaventure, while Xavier’s first Atlantic 10 loss came at the hands of surprising Charlotte – all further evidence that nights off aren’t an option in one of the deepest conferences in America.

LaSalle And Ramon Galloway Showed Butler That Life On The Road In The Atlantic-10 Is Rarely Easy

LaSalle And Ramon Galloway Showed Butler That Life On The Road In The Atlantic-10 Is Rarely Easy

A chaotic night in the conference indeed, but don’t mistake the happenings at La Salle as any sort of major upset. The Explorers were actually favorites in Vegas for this one, although an available Rotnei Clarke may have altered that. Either way, this has to be John Giannini’s most significant win at La Salle, and it adds some real legitimacy to his team’s at-large case. Lots of wins still need to come his way, but at 13-5 overall and 3-2 in the conference, this team undoubtedly will have the opportunity to play their way into the field.

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Night Line: Jayhawks Escape Octagon of Doom Victorious — Is Perfect Big 12 Season Possible?

Posted by BHayes on January 22nd, 2013

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Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.

At some point during the nine-year Bill Self era, we stopped being surprised by another year of Kansas dominance. Offseason after offseason of KU stars leaving Lawrence for the NBA seem to never be remembered by the time the next January rolls around, and this first month of 2013 has been no exception. Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor posted brilliant individual campaigns a year ago, as both earned All-America honors in leading Kansas all the way to the national championship game. Neither has taken the floor at Allen Fieldhouse in almost a full year, but looky, looky – Kansas is 17-1 and a perfect 5-0 in Big-12 play. A ninth consecutive Big 12 regular season title is beginning to look like a mere formality, as the Jayhawks dispatched rival Kansas State tonight in Manhattan en route to their 16th straight victory. Self has accomplished almost everything there is to accomplish in his near-decade at KU, but this group of Jayhawks still has a chance to do something that none of the previous nine could do – run the table for a perfect Big 12 season.

Travis Releford Locked Down Rodney McGruder In What Was Another Stifling Jayhawk Defensive Effort

Travis Releford Locked Down Rodney McGruder In What Was Another Stifling Jayhawk Defensive Effort

Robinson and Taylor may be gone, but these Jayhawks have their own pair of potential All-Americans. We all became well-acquainted with Jeff Withey and his menacing defense a year ago, but meet freshman Ben McLemore, who, in the estimation of many, has been both the best newcomer in the country and the top player in the conference. Less is more for the silky-smooth wing, as he has needed just 11 field goal attempts to score his 16 points per game. He has played well within the Kansas system to this point, but do not doubt that McLemore will be ready to shoulder more of a load if and when the situation demands it.

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Night Line, Weekend Edition: Oregon Hard Pressed To Avoid National Radar Now

Posted by BHayes on January 20th, 2013

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Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.

Well, well, well — how about those Oregon Ducks? Dana Altman and company flew under the radar for a good long while, but they can now rest assured that they will be the ones wearing the target from here on out. Blame an East-Coast bias, recent years of mediocrity, or the resurgence of fellow Pac-12 powers Arizona and UCLA if you want, but for one reason or another, this team has been overlooked for the past three months. A win over previously unbeaten Arizona on January 10turned some heads, but yesterday’s road win at red-hot UCLA should have everyone’s, and I mean everyone’s, attention. This may be news to much of the college basketball world, but the Oregon Ducks are all alone at the top of the Pac-12, and (gasp!) should now be considered favorites to win the league.

Dana Altman Has The Ducks Pointed In The Right Direction

Dana Altman Has The Ducks Pointed In The Right Direction

We know what you have done lately Oregon (knock off both conference favorites in the span of 10 days), but why have we not heard about you before? College basketball fans around the country are asking the question, and the Ducks’ body of work over the first two months of the season has no answer for you. The early schedule was relatively weak, but Oregon went 11-2 in the non-conference, which included a dazzling scalp of UNLV in Vegas. Their only losses were to Cincinnati on a neutral court (no shame there) and in triple-OT at UTEP (not a good loss but far from crippling). The rest of the slate featured too many teams with astronomically high RPIs (computer numbers would be much better if the wins had come over moderately bad teams and not the true cellar of Division I), but Oregon did win each of those 10 games by double-digits.

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Night Line: Rams Continue To Wreak Havoc in Basketball-Crazy Richmond

Posted by BHayes on January 18th, 2013

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Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.

The word entered the college basketball lexicon long enough ago for it to be a household term nowadays, but there is still something very fresh about the “havoc” being created down in Richmond. Shaka Smart coined the term years ago to describe the manic brand of hoops his VCU teams employ, and Thursday night proved the catchy maxim apt once again, as St. Joseph’s couldn’t stand up to the “wide and general destruction” (the definition of havoc, per Merriam-Webster) caused by the Rams.

Shaka Smart Continues To Build VCU Into A National Power

VCU’s Fan Base Is Only Getting Larger…

If havoc doesn’t do it for you, we can just go with relentless. VCU found a way to come back from four down with 15 seconds to play, tying it with seven ticks left, and then forcing Carl Jones (21 points, five assists) to cough it up on the final St. Joe’s possession. There was no doubt that momentum was on the Rams side entering the extra period, and overtime was a five-minute display of everything Shaka Smart prides himself and his players on. St. Joseph’s had more turnovers than field goals in OT and looked completely out of gas, to the point where Phil Martelli’s bunch simply stood and watched as VCU, up eight with a minute to go, dribbled out the entire shot clock. Standard game theory would have suggested an early foul in an effort to extend the game, but too many hands on knees dictated action here — the Hawks simply couldn’t stand any more of the havoc.

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Night Line: A Productive Kyle Wiltjer is Necessary For Kentucky to Succeed

Posted by BHayes on January 16th, 2013

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Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard. Youth and inexperience weren’t supposed to matter to John Calipari, to Kentucky. After all, there was still a lot of talent in Lexington, and it felt quite natural when nobody doubted the defending national champions in the preseason. But the two and a half months since have created a college basketball specimen that has been as rare in recent years as a senior superstar – the Kentucky skeptic. Their arrival is understandable, as Kentucky has already dropped five games here in 2012-13, the talented youngsters having yet to find the cohesiveness of UK’s past Calipari teams. There’s still plenty of time to get there, and all four of the key freshmen (Archie Goodwin, Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, and Willie Cauley-Stein) will surely need to display growth for the wins to roll in, but the player who serves as the finest barometer for UK success is not a newcomer. Kyle Wiltjer has been about as consistent as his team this season (i.e., not very), and his off nights have frequently coincided with Kentucky failures. But when Wiltjer has it going like he did Tuesday night against Tennessee, the Cats looked a lot closer to being a complete team.

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Kentucky Fans Agree That The “Three Goggles” Are A Good Look For Kyle Wiltjer

Wiltjer finished with a team-high 17 points in the 85-75 victory over the Vols, also chipping in with five rebounds and a pair of blocks. Quite a dramatic shift for both sophomore and team from a game ago, when Texas A&M walked into Rupp Arena and knocked off the Cats, holding Wiltjer scoreless in the process. Wiltjer struggling in a UK loss is not a new storyline this year; he is averaging just 5.6 PPG in losses, about half of his season average. He has also only scored seven or fewer points in six of the Cats’ 16 games this season, but four of the five UK losses have also happened to occur on those nights. One final measure of the value of Wiltjer’s involvement: He has gone for 19 and 17 points, respectively, in Kentucky’s sole two victories over top-100 teams (two top-100 wins, yikes!).

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Hokies End Skid, Take First Step Back Towards Bubble

Posted by BHayes on January 13th, 2013

Bennet Hayes is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from Saturday’s game in Atlanta between Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.

One of the beauties of the college basketball winter is that the NCAA Tournament picture is constantly changing; teams that felt like January locks can find themselves sweating the bubble in March, and clubs trying to forget their non-conference campaigns can do so with a torrid couple of pre-Tournament months. This year, more than ever, might find a slew of teams in the latter category; fewer teams have built Tournament-ready resumes at this juncture than in past years.  Pair that with year two of an expanded field of 68 teams and it is no stretch to imagine this year’s bubble as the weakest in NCAA Tournament history. While many will lament the relative quality of the last few teams in the field, this dynamic should create a wide open final two months, and many teams currently left for dead could find their way back into the mix by March. Two of those teams resting below ground (at least for the moment), Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, faced off Saturday afternoon in an ACC battle for that first step towards March relevancy.

Erick Green Continued His Brilliant Senior Season Saturday Afternoon

The Hokies, led by the relentless Erick Green, found a way to pull out a game they really had no business winning, escaping from McCamish Pavilion with Coach James Johnson’s first ACC victory, in overtime nonetheless. Having dropped five of their last six games entering this one, the Hokies win will hardly register on the national consciousness, but make no mistake—this one was big.  “Winning in the ACC is hard,” Coach Johnson noted after the game, adding that his group “deserved a reward for all their hard work.” Hard work alone will not earn you respect in this conference, but getting road wins is a good start. Give a shorthanded Virginia Tech team credit for putting their last month behind them and finding a way to get out of Atlanta with ACC win number one.

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Night Line: In Wake of Majerus Passing On, His Billikens Push On

Posted by BHayes on January 11th, 2013

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Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.

No team endured a more difficult first month of the season than the Saint Louis Billikens. November was a struggle on the court, as they listlessly stumbled to a 3-3 beginning. Not the opening that the preseason Atlantic 10 favorites had hoped for, but all that mattered little on December 2 when news came that former coach Rick Majerus had passed away. The controversial Majerus’ legacy is still being sorted out, but what cannot be denied is the SLU basketball revival he oversaw. More importantly, as he had done at each of his previous coaching stops, the charismatic Majerus profoundly impacted many of his players’ lives along the way. His passing left this Saint Louis basketball season at a crossroads; a disappointing year could easily head into complete freefall, or a core that Majerus brought to SLU could use their old coach’s passing as inspiration for a turnaround. Nine wins and zero losses later, it appears quite clear which direction the Billikens have chosen.

Saint Louis Is Happy To Have Kwamain Mitchell Back

Saint Louis Is Happy To Have Kwamain Mitchell Back

Majerus’ death will be a motivator for St. Louis right up until the moment their season ends, but there are practical reasons for the turnaround as well. For starters, none of the three early season losses look especially bad anymore, now that Santa Clara has surprisingly continued its winning ways (12-5 on the year) with the Broncos even giving Duke a scare at Cameron Indoor Stadium at the end of 2012. The December schedule also relented somewhat for the Billikens, as their next six games came in the friendly confines of Chaifetz Arena, and only one pitted St. Louis against a top-200 team (Valparaiso). Six straight wins had to help their confidence before the Billikens’ next real test, and SLU responded against a solid New Mexico team, delivering a resounding 60-46 New Years’ Eve victory. Also making things easier against the Lobos was the return of senior guard Kwamain Mitchell, who had made his season debut just three days earlier. Mitchell may not have been his sharpest self against New Mexico (or even tonight against UMass), but SLU head man Jim Crews has to feel better with his star player back on the floor.

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Night Line: Wednesday Night Just the Beginning of Mountain West Drama

Posted by BHayes on January 10th, 2013

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Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.

Aaaaand exhale. For those taking in the action from the first night of conference play in the Mountain West this evening, there was hardly a moment to catch a breath. The eight teams in action (Colorado State was the lone conference member to sit out tonight) gave audiences across the Mountain West, from Fresno to Laramie, competitive, inspired basketball in a mesmerizing first act for the MW – a conference that has the potential to produce one of the most competitive and entertaining conference seasons we have seen in quite some time. Highlight reels were spun (you are not from this world Jamaal Franklin), early claims of conference supremacy submitted (yet another statement W from the Lobos at the Pit) and the shot heard ‘round the Mountain West was fired on a wild Wednesday night you should not soon forget.

There Were Zeroes On The Clock After Jeff Elorriaga Delivered The Dagger That Ended Wyoming's Perfect Start

There Were Zeroes On The Clock After Jeff Elorriaga Delivered the Dagger That Ended Wyoming’s Perfect Season

The Mountain West may have shifted more than a few pairs of eyes out West this evening, and be forewarned college basketball fans – those peepers may not be turning away anytime soon. In this age of the mega-conference, the nine-team Mountain West feels like a vestige of a bygone era, a league filled with teams that know each other a little too well, a full home-and-home schedule for all league members, and a slew of cozy, but treacherous home courts. Only the Ivy and Patriot leagues have fewer members among automatic-bid conferences, and the limited size of the MW is a big reason for the competitive balance we are witnessing this season. The conference is currently fourth in Ken Pomeroy’s conference rankings, but the league boasts a whopping six top-50 squads. Yes, six of the nine conference members currently rest in Pomeroy’s top-50, and while that number surely will change as the nine teams brutalize their own over the course of the next two months, the MW currently has more top-50 clubs than both the 15-team Big East (second in Pomeroy’s rankings) and the 12-team ACC (third). Only the Big Ten, the undisputed top conference in America this season, has more top-50 teams than the Mountain West, with eight.

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Night Line: Buckeyes Hold Serve at Purdue, But Plenty Left To Prove

Posted by BHayes on January 9th, 2013

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Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.

Any Big Ten road win accrued this season holds value, as the conference is an especially treacherous version of its normally solid self here in 2012-13. So kudos Ohio State; you went into West Lafayette tonight and gave the home team only a few sniffs of the upset they sought, and in the process earned your first Big Ten road victory of the year. Purdue may be young and a year or two away from Big Ten relevancy, but good teams will exit Mackey Arena losers this winter; this game was far from an automatic W. Praise the workmanlike effort tonight from Thad Matta’s bunch, but do not mistake it for a cure-all to the recent ails of the Buckeyes. For Ohio State to live up to both preseason expectations and the standard set by Buckeye squads of years past, the performances in the statement games must improve – beginning on Saturday, when arch-rival and undefeated #2 Michigan arrives in Columbus. But does this Ohio State team have it in them?

Deshaun Thomas Is Averaging 20 A Game, But Are Other Buckeyes Ready To Help Shoulder The Load?

Deshaun Thomas Is Averaging 20 PPG, But Are Other Buckeyes Ready To Help Shoulder The Load?

Like it or not Buckeyes, the recent success of your program has created a standard of significant height, one that can really only be matched by a handful of programs across the country. That recent excellence, combined with the returns of starters Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas, and Lenzelle Smith prompted pollsters to rank Ohio State fourth this preseason, and few blinked an eye. The Buckeyes have done nothing that ranks as truly cringe-worthy thus far, but they also can’t lay claim to a victory over a team likely to make the NCAA Tournament field (unless you are bullish on Washington winning some games in the Pac-12). Ohio State has also whiffed on their three big-time chances for statement Ws (at Duke, Kansas, at Illinois). The polarizing nature of the schedule is partially to blame here, as Craft and company have had no opportunities to prove their worth against solid Tournament teams (giving Illinois the benefit of the doubt here as “elite,” partially because that game was in Champaign). Still, we are comfortably into the New Year and Ohio State, a team some still consider to be among the nation’s best, has absolutely nothing of major substance on that resume.

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Night Line, Saturday Edition: Don’t Look Now, But Terps Quietly Taking Care Of Business

Posted by BHayes on January 5th, 2013

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Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.

It’s January 5 and there is an ACC team boasting a 13-1 record, a deep, talented roster, and a likely top five pick in next June’s draft (should he elect to leave early). No, we aren’t talking about Mason Plumlee and Duke’s sizzling start. Nor are we discussing their Tobacco Road compatriots UNC and NC State – two teams that, despite uneven beginnings, have still found their share of national attention. Instead, we shift our eyes further north, to College Park, Maryland, where at the beginning of 2013 Mark Turgeon has the Terps buzzing along – and ever so quietly.

Alex Len Has Been The Man At The Center Of Maryland's 13-Game Win Streak

Alex Len Has Been The Man At The Center Of Maryland’s 13-Game Win Streak

Maryland kept things rolling today with a 94-71 victory over Virginia Tech, posting its 13th consecutive victory in the process. College basketball fans likely haven’t heard a whole lot about the Maryland surge, as their opening loss to then-#3 Kentucky seemed to have removed the little buzz that surrounded the program in the preseason. But whether it’s being discussed nationally or not, make no mistake about it – behind Duke, Maryland is as likely an ACC runner-up as any team. The 13-game winning streak has not come at the expense of any sort of murderer’s row, but it includes a solid 20-point thrashing of Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan arena (I know, Trey Burke and company might tell you this is no great feat). But still, Maryland has been efficient in ripping through the fluff of their schedule, defeating opponents by an average of 19 points per game during the streak. Let’s also not forget they only fell to Kentucky in that opener by three, and I’m not so sure Kentucky would be a favorite if the two teams played again tomorrow on a neutral court.

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