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Adreian Payne, Gary Harris carry Michigan State over Texas

Adreian PayneAdreian Payne was too much for Texas as he dominated inside and out for Sparty. (Eric Gay/AP)

Michigan State may be ranked fifth in the country, but that’s only good enough for third-best in the Big Ten, trailing No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Wisconsin. As the daunting conference schedule looms, though, it may just be the Spartans who deserve to be the favorite thanks to something neither the Buckeyes nor Badgers have: the Adreian Payne-Gary Harris duo.

Payne dropped 33 points on 10-of-13 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds, while Harris scored 19, knocking down 10 of his 11 free throw attempts in a 92-78 win over Texas in Austin. The Spartans trailed by two at halftime, putting up 56 points and turning what was a nail-biter into a relatively comfortable victory. Since getting benched against Mount St. Mary’s a month ago because of what was called “classroom attendance issues,” Payne has scored 88 points, made 60 percent of his field goals and hauled down 34 rebounds in four games.

Harris, meanwhile, returned after missing two straight games and three of the last four with a sprained ankle. He didn’t start, but had his best game from the floor and showed no signs of injury. He attacked the basket with regularity, resulting in his frequent trips to the free throw line. Harris has struggled from three-point land this year, making just 27.9 percent of his attempts. On Saturday against Texas, he looked determined to get to the rack more often and put up only three shots from behind the arc, his fewest thus far this season.

The Big Ten may be the best conference in the country this year. It’s certainly among the toughest at the top. In addition to having three of the top five teams in the country, Iowa is ranked 25th and Michigan is as dangerous as any of them, though it has had trouble figuring things out in a post-Trey Burke world. Ohio State and Wisconsin may be undefeated, but the two best offensive players in the league may just call East Lansing home. If that’s the case, Tom Izzo and the Spartans will have another conference championship banner to raise next year.

It also helps when you get plays like this:

UMass can't solve Florida State defense, suffers first loss

UMass fell from the ranks of the unbeaten in a loss to Florida State is not cause for concern on its own. As well as the Minutemen have played this year, the first loss was coming sooner or later. The way the Seminoles completely shut down an offense that had averaged 83.9 points in its first 10 games, however, may bear some watching.

Leonard Hamilton’s bunch held UMass to 35.1 percent shooting, including 1-of-15 from behind the arc. Chaz Williams and Cady Lalanne went a combined 9-of-25 from the floor for 20 points. It was the team’s worst offensive performance to date, and they’ve played a relatively strong schedule. They boast wins over then-No. 19 New Mexico, lesser teams from power conference including Boston College, Nebraska, LSU and Clemson, and BYU, a solid mid-major. FSU’s defense completely suffocated them, and that could portend trouble for the Atlantic 10 season.

Three of their A-10 foes, Saint Louis, Virginia Commonwealth and Dayton, join the Minutemen in the top 50 of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. Saint Louis ranks third in KenPom.com’s adjusted defense statistic. UMass will still be the favorite in the A-10 once conference play starts early in 2014, but there’s no doubt teams will be dialing up what the Seminoles were able to do to hold them nearly 30 points below their season average.

While Florida State turned the ball over 17 times, just six of those were of the live ball variety. UMass has made a living this year out of getting easy points, evidenced by their knocking down 50.4 percent of their shots before Saturday’s loss. The Seminoles didn’t allow them many easy buckets, forcing them to consistently beat a half-court defense. That, more than any other factor, gave the Seminoles the big win.

UMass has an upcoming string of games where they’ll be heavy favorites. Their first real test in the conference doesn’t come until January 22, when they visit Richmond.

Randle elevates Wooden Award candidacy

Through 20 minutes of action in Lexington on Saturday, Belmont appeared to have a great chance to pick up its second huge win of the season. Then the Kentucky offense showed why this team was so feared heading into the year.

The Wildcats shot 16-of-26 in the second half, turning a two-point deficit into a 93-80 victory. Julius Randle posted his ninth double-double, scoring 29 points and pulling down 10 rebounds. He also may have finally entered his name in the Wooden Award watch.

Randle, currently projected to go second in next year’s draft by Draft Express, hasn’t generated the kind of Player of the Year buzz that players like Jabari Parker, Aaron Gordon, Shabazz Napier and Doug McDermott have this season.

Six weeks into the season, though, Randle looks like the key player if the Wildcats are to get back to the Final Four. After his huge performance against Belmont, he’s now averaging 18.2 points and 11.2 boards this season. John Calipari had to be encouraged to see his star freshman have quite possibly the best game of the season immediately after his worst game in Kentucky’s loss to North Carolina last week. He still has work to do to get into the Wooden Award class, but if he can maintain an 18 and 11 average and Kentucky wins the SEC, his resume will be hard for the voters to ignore.

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