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Duke and Arizona advance to Preseason NIT final; Syracuse wins Maui Invitational

Jabari Parker (1) was masterful yet again with 27 points and eight rebounds in Duke's win over Alabama. (Jason DeCrow/AP)Jabari Parker (1) was masterful yet again with 27 points and eight rebounds in Duke's win over Alabama. (Jason DeCrow/AP)

Wednesday night's action was highlighted by the Maui Invitational Championship and the Preseason NIT semifinals.

No. 4 Arizona, No. 6 Duke advance to Preseason NIT championship game 

With the exception of Drexel and Alabama fans, most who watched Wednesday night’s Preseason NIT semifinal games wanted Arizona and Duke to win. The possibility of a Blue Devils-Wildcats championship game – and, more specifically, a matchup between Duke freshman Jabari Parker and Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon – was so tantalizing, it was impossible to watch Arizona beat Drexel, 66-62, and Duke beat Alabama, 74-64, without eagerly anticipating the two top-10 teams eventually squaring off.

After falling behind 27-8 in the first half, Arizona ripped off a 25-4 run, opening up a lead less than five minutes into the second half, before topping the Dragons. Junior guard Nick Johnson scored 20 points, dished out four assists and grabbed five rebounds, while seven-foot center Kaleb Tarczewski had 15 points and 10 boards. Gordon finished with 10 points and added 13 rebounds. This wasn’t Arizona’s best effort of the season, but the Wildcats’ resilience is nothing to overlook. Down double-digits against a veteran team (one ranked 58th in Ken Pomeroy’s database) with a skilled backcourt, Arizona never backed down. The Blue Devils should provide an even stiffer test on Friday.

The Jabari Parker show visited Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night. Duke’s super frosh blitzed Alabama with a dizzying blend of mid-range jumpers, layups and drives to the basket, tallying 27 points on 9-of-12 shooting. Parker wasn’t target="_blank">quite as spectacular as he was during Duke’s Nov. 12 loss to Kansas in the Champions Classic. The Blue Devils, despite struggling at times with Alabama’s full-court press, were in control most of the game.

By now, we’ve come to expect Parker will put up 20 + points and deliver at least one highlight every game.

https://twitter.com/MattNorlander/status/405899358992080896

More encouraging for Duke was how it defended. The Blue Devils limited Alabama to just 64 points after giving up 90 in a near loss to Vermont on Sunday. This defensive performance might be a bit deceptive, as Alabama appears to lack the offensive firepower necessary to beat elite teams like Duke. The Blue Devils will likely have a much tougher time containing, say, Arizona.

(8) Syracuse 74, (18) Baylor 67

As Syracuse built up a double-digit lead in the second half of Wednesday night’s Maui Invitational championship game, the final outcome seemed inevitable. Baylor had the talent and firepower to mount a comeback, it seemed, but whenever the Bears tried to narrow the deficit, Syracuse always had an answer. And most of the time, one of three Orange delivered it: senior forward C.J. Fair, sophomore forward Jerami Grant or freshman point guard Tyler Ennis.

Fair led the Orange with 24 points on 10-of-17 shooting and made a number of key shots in the second half to keep the Bears at bay. Grant nearly replicated his stat line from Tuesday night’s win over Cal, hitting 8-of-12 shots for 19 points (he made 7-of-11 for 19 against the Golden Bears). Ennis, meanwhile, calmly operated the Orange offense in the halfcourt – slinging crisp passes around the perimeter, handling the ball with the utmost control, and evincing a mature presence uncommon in first-year players.

Given coach Jim Boeheim’s comments about the freshman in the Sports Illustrated college basketball preview issue, we probably should have expected this from Ennis, who finished with 11 points, nine assists on Wednesday and committed just two turnovers over three games in Maui. “He plays more like a veteran,” Boeheim told SI’s Pete Thamel. Ennis’ strip of Baylor forward Ish Wainwright and subsequent possession recovery inside the final minute, with the Bears trailing by just six points, essentially killed Baylor’s hopes of a comeback.

Over the course of three games in Maui, Syracuse watched two pivotal young rotation players – Jerami Grant and Tyler Ennis – blossom. Grant showed he’s plenty capable of serving as a reliable, double-digit complementary scorer, while Ennis looked more calm and collected than any freshman point guard on a top-10 team has a right to be. If Ennis and Grant continue to develop – and sophomore guard Trevor Cooney continues to diversify his offensive game -- there’s no reason Syracuse can’t push Duke, North Carolina and whoever else emerges for the ACC championship this season. This is a dangerous team, and the frightening part for the rest of the ACC is that it’s likely to improve in the coming months.

Oregon agrees to contract extension with coach Dana Altman

Oregon announced on Wednesday that it has agreed to a three-year contract extension with coach Dana Altman. “Dana has been masterful at elevating Oregon basketball and generating renewed excitement for our program,” Director of Athletics Rob Mullens said in a statement. “We have high expectations at Oregon to regularly compete for PAC-12 championships coupled with deep NCAA tournament runs and Dana is the right coach to lead us there. He and his family are a great fit at Oregon and we are pleased to extend our commitment to them.”

Altman, the 2013 Pac-12 coach of the year, has guided the Ducks to a 77-37 record in three-plus years at the school. After winning the College Basketball Invitational in 2011 and advancing to the quarterfinals of the National Invitational Tournament in 2012, Oregon reached the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time since 2008.

Altman has improved the Ducks’ win total every year he’s been at the school – from 21 in 2010-11 to 24 in 2011-12 to 28 in 2012-13. A key component of Altman’s success in Eugene has been his use of transfers; the list of players he’s brought in during his tenure includes forwards Arsalan Kazemi (Rice), Mike Moser (UNLV) and Olu Ashaolu (Louisiana Tech), and guards Joseph Young (Houston) and Jason Calliste (Detroit).

When at full strength, the Ducks were arguably the best team in the Pac-12 last season (Four of their nine total losses came while point guard Dominic Artis was sitting out with a foot injury). After winning the Pac-12 Tournament, Oregon knocked off Marcus Smart and 12-seed Oklahoma State, as well as 4-seed St. Louis, a trendy Final Four Pick, in the NCAA Tournament.

Notes

- On Tuesday, Dayton fell one bucket short of knocking off its second top-20 opponent in as many days (it beat No. 11 Gonzaga Monday) when it lost to Baylor after forward Devin Oliver’s tip-in attempt rimmed out in the final seconds. The Flyers responded in a big way on Wednesday by handling Cal, 82-64, in the Maui Invitational third-place game. Coach Archie Miller’s team might not be leaving Maui with a tournament championship, but the two wins it picked up there over major conference opponents could be crucial come March.

- After knocking off Saint Louis on Tuesday, No. 10 Wisconsin got 21 points and 12 rebounds from sophomore forward Sam Dekker to edge West Virginia (70-63) in the championship game of the Cancun Challenge. Few teams in the country have looked as impressive as Wisconsin so far this season. The Badgers now count wins over Saint John’s, No. 11 Florida, Green Bay, Saint Louis and West Virginia. They face a tough test at Virginia on Dec. 4 in the Big Ten/ACC challenge – a matchup that will pit two of the game’s most esteemed X’s and O’s coaches (Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan and Virginia’s Tony Bennett) against one another.

- No. 3 Kentucky shook off an ugly home win over Cleveland State on Monday to blow out previously undefeated Eastern Michigan, 81-63. The victory was Kentucky’s 500th in Rupp Arena. Freshman guard Aaron Harrison made 9-of-11 free throws for 22 points, and sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein added 15 points, eight rebounds and seven blocks. John Calipari’s team will take on Providence (6-1) Sunday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

- Preseason All-West Cost Conference selection Kevin Pangos shot 10-of-15 from the field and 7-of-8 from three for 34 points to lead No. 11 Gonzaga to a 10-point win (91-81) over Arkansas in the fifth-place game of the Maui Invitational. Despite the win, the Zags will probably leave Maui feeling like an opportunity was squandered. Their loss to Dayton on Monday robbed coach Mark Few’s team of potentially valuable non-conference wins against Baylor and Syracuse.

- Purdue transfer Kelsey Barlow sank 17 free throws and five threes for 38 points while adding eight rebounds and five assists in UIC's 94-76 win over Wagner.

- Junior guard Deandre Mathieu scored 17 points to pace Minnesota in its win (83-68) over D-II Chaminade. Coach Richard Pitino’s team had suffered consecutive losses to Syracuse and Arkansas before beating the Silverswords on Wednesday. Next up for the Gophers is a tough matchup with Florida State on Dec. 3 in the Big Ten/ACC challenge.

- Junior guard Derrick Marks scored 39 points in Boise State’s nine-point win over Idaho (98-89). The Broncos (5-0), who are expected to push New Mexico in the Mountain West this season, should get to 8-0 before facing Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Dec. 10.

Statistical support for this post was provided by Kenpom.com.

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