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Mike Lopresti | | January 27, 2020

12 sneaky-good stories and what's next after that weekend of college basketball

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Mr. Second Half . . . the hero with the broken thumb . . . the little scorer who could . . .  the guard who never rests. They were all game-swaying parts of the past weekend. The color of college basketball comes not just from the teams, but the endless variety of faces on stage, and the roads they’re traveling.
Take Kentucky’s Nick Richards. In a program where freshmen phenoms get all the buzz, he has become indispensable as a late-blooming junior. The Wildcats won in overtime at Texas Tech, ending the Red Raiders’ 54-game non-conference home winning streak, largely because of his 25 points and 14 rebounds. It was his eighth double-double this season. His first two years in Lexington, he had one in 74 games. He drew nine fouls Saturday, from the Red Raiders trying to stop him.
Kentucky’s kids have had their erratic moments, and it’s become clear how badly the Wildcats need Richards’ savvy. Saturday at Auburn, for instance. “Everyone has their own story,” he said. “Just because I go to a school for being known as one-and-done doesn’t mean I have to be.”
A sampling of 11 other stories behind the victories in one weekend of college basketball.
1. When Butler outlasted Marquette 89-85 in overtime 
Kamar Baldwin had only two points at halftime. He scored 29 after that. Just like he was 0-for-9 at halftime against Creighton, then put up 20 points the second half. Just like he scored 19 of his 31 points after halftime at Mississippi. Just like 17 of his 22 points came in the final 8:34 against Stanford in the Hall of Fame championship, including the game-winner with five seconds left. Or the 18 points in the second half against Minnesota, or 16 against Villanova.
Hmmm, we may have spotted a trend here. Beware of Baldwin after the Frisbee-chasing dogs, or whatever the halftime show might be. What does that require from a player? “An extreme amount of courage, belief in himself, and an extreme amount of trust from his teammates, which he’s earned,” Butler coach LaVall Jordan said. The Big East player-of-the-year is supposedly a two-man race between Marquette’s Markus Howard and Seton Hall’s Myles Powell, but much more of this, and you wonder if any voters will be tempted by Baldwin? “Kamar’s a special person, a special player” Jordan said. “Guys around this league are really good, he’s just as good as any of them.
“There wasn’t much conversation (at halftime of the Marquette game). I think one of our assistant coaches said something about getting Kamar going. My response was, 'Hey, we don’t have to worry about Kamar.' He knows the situation, he’s a smart kid, a tough kid. He wants to win, he understands.”
2. When Rutgers edged Nebraska 75-72
The winning step-back 3-pointer with just over a second left came from Geo Baker, the team leader who has been fighting to regain form after a broken thumb. It had been slow going.  He was 4-for-18 his first three games back, and somewhere along the way ditched the splint he was wearing. He started 0-for-6 against Nebraska, but nobody remembers that now. “It definitely helped my confidence to see the ball go through the hoop,” he said of his winning show. And now 15-5 Rutgers, who with just one more win will reach its highest victory total in 14 years, has even more reason to look forward to the future.
3. When North Carolina’s unprecedented six-game ACC losing streak ended with a 94-71 win over Miami
Brandon Robinson scored 29 points as the ice age abated a bit in Chapel Hill. The offensively-challenged, injury-battered Tar Heels have had 57 games missed by scholarship players, already the most in eight years and third most in the Roy Williams era. North Carolina has gone through seven starting lineups and three different point guards. So when Robinson was out last week after a car accident, it was just more bad news. The other driver was charged with driving impaired. What next for the cursed Tar Heels, locusts? Robinson had just scored 27 in his last home game before the accident, so his return was like a booster shot for North Carolina. Which is unusual to say about a guy who didn’t start any of the 107 games he played in his first three seasons, while averaging 2.3 points. Now that he’s back, and if freshman flash Cole Anthony returns soon, the 9-10 Tar Heels might yet find some daylight.
Next week would be the time to get healthier, with Florida State on Monday and Duke on Saturday.
4. When San Diego State went to 21-0 with a 71-67 victory at UNLV
Malachi Flynn kept the record unsoiled with 21 points. The Washington State transfer who has become the main man for the unbeaten Aztecs — he’s led them in scoring in 14 of 21 games — has a rare flair for the road.  He’s averaging 13.9 points in 11 home games, but 19.9 away from San Diego. For a lot of players, it’s often the other way around. Flynn’s ability to travel well is one way for San Diego State to chase a perfect season through the tricky Mountain West road games to come. Including Wednesday at New Mexico.
5. When Kansas held off Tennessee 74-68
Udoka Azubuike once again ruled the paint like Britannia once ruled the waves.  Nobody has numbers this season quite like Azubuike. He leads the nation in field-goal shooting by a couple of laps, at 78.1 percent. He’s missed only 30 shots all season. He’s blocked 47.  But the biggest cheers in the Tennessee game might have come when he made four late free throws, since he’s infamously bad from the line – 42.4 percent at last check. What team chasing the Jayhawks in the final minutes wouldn’t adopt a Hack-a-buike strategy? So the chance to make some crucial free throws could help later.  “Maybe we made him get better today,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.
6. When Charleston Southern outlasted Gardner-Webb 92-83 in double overtime
Phlandrous Fleming Jr., a 6-4 junior guard, had one of the nation’s liveliest stat lines of the season for the winning Buccaneers: 31 points, 11 assists, nine rebounds, six blocked shots, four steals. And, alas, seven turnovers. One more rebound — he was stuck on nine the last six minutes — and he would have had only the third triple double in school history. Then, as is Charleston Southern custom after victories on the road, the team stepped for milkshakes on the way home. Fleming went for vanilla. Nothing vanilla about his performance Saturday, though.
Speaking of lively, notice what Gardner-Webb has been up to lately? In a recent 15-day stretch, the 7-12 Bulldogs lost in three overtimes at Winthrop, blowing a six-point lead in the last 18 seconds of the first overtime. They led Hampton 39-31 at halftime when the game had to be postponed because of a malfunctioning shot clock. They came from 14 points behind to beat High Point in overtime. Then the two-overtime Phlandrous Fleming Show.
7. When Delaware rallied from 16 points behind to beat Northeastern 76-74
Nate Darling led the way with 34 points, 28 after halftime. The UAB transfer has his average up to 19.7, and could become the first Blue Hen in 20 years to top 20 for a season. Not bad for a player who — since he was new — went unnamed on any pre-season all-Colonial Athletic Association teams; first, second or honorable mention. But the league is certainly seeing a lot of Darling now, since he rarely comes off the floor. He’s second in the nation at 38.25 minutes a game. He was on the court for 39 against Northeastern, that one idle minute his first in four games.
8. When Florida State got past Notre Dame 85-84
The Seminoles were led by 19 points from Wyatt Wilkes. Nothing surprising about that except Wilkes, a sophomore reserve, had scored 35 points all season and eight in the past 10 games. “I think you’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg,” coach Leonard Hamilton said of Wilkes.  So the deep and balanced Seminoles — they use 10 players at least 10 minutes, and they’re 17-2 with nobody scoring more than 13 points game — have yet another option. Just in time for trips to Virginia, Virginia Tech and Duke the next two weeks.
9. When Arizona State roared from 22 points back to clip Arizona 66-65
Remy Martin scored 24 points. The 6-foot junior guard with a 40-inch vertical jump has become a real pain-in-the-box score for Arizona. His last three games against the Wildcats: 31, 27 and 24 points. “We showed that we can play with anybody,” he said. The Sun Devils are playing better, anyway. Until beating No. 25 Arizona, they had been 0-4 against ranked opponents, including a 28-point pounding by the Wildcats in Tucson.
10. When Illinois edged Michigan 64-62
The winning shot at 0.5 seconds came from Ayo Dosunmu, who is as good a symbol as any of the Illini resurgence. Look at the Big Ten standings, there’s Illinois . . . at the top? Sharing it with Michigan State, anyway, the 7-2 league record the Illini’s best in 15 years. Dosunmu was a hot prospect out of Chicago who stayed in his home state and became the first true freshman to ever lead Illinois in scoring. Now the 15-5 Illini are making genuine noise his sophomore season, with the prove-they’re-for-real portion of the schedule coming up. In the first 18 days of February, they go to Iowa, host Maryland and Michigan State, then travel to Rutgers and Penn State. All are or have been recently ranked.
11. When Oregon crumpled UCLA 96-75
Chris Duarte had 24 points, six rebounds, six steals and five assists. Not to be confused with the 30 points. 11 rebounds and eight steals he had three nights before in a win over USC. He has become a bigger problem for the Los Angeles area than freeway traffic. According to the Oregon sports information office, no one in Division I has had a stat line like Duarte’s against USC in two decades. Payton Pritchard gets many of the Oregon headlines, and with reason. But Duarte — born in Montreal, raised in the Dominican Republic, last year a junior college star — is giving the Ducks a pretty ferocious 1-2 punch. With five of the next seven games on the Pac-12 road, they can use it.
Like Richards mentioned — is any sight rarer than a go-to junior at Kentucky? — everyone has their own story. One of the best things about college basketball, they’ll be more next week.

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