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Saturday Takeaways: AJ Griffin Shines for Duke, Kansas Caps a Weird Week With a Win

Six insights from a frenetic slate of college basketball.

February is here, and with it comes the return of the college basketball Saturday. This weekend’s slate was, on paper, perhaps the best of the season, featuring high-level matchups across the board and can’t-miss rivalry games to go with them. Unfortunately, college hoops fans were treated to very few highly competitive games, as showcase games—Baylor vs. Kansas, North Carolina vs. Duke, Alabama vs. Kentucky—were all decided by double figures.

Still, there’s plenty to learn from a huge Saturday in college hoops as we inch closer to Selection Sunday. Here are some of the biggest takeaways.

AJ Griffin Emerging as Duke’s Second Star

There’s a strong case to be made that Duke was the most talented team in the country even when Blue Devils freshman wing AJ Griffin was playing single-digit minutes off the bench in November after a preseason knee injury. But Saturday’s blowout rivalry win over North Carolina made it obvious that Griffin is Duke’s x-factor, a legitimate second elite scorer next to Paolo Banchero who can exploit mismatches and make defenses pay.

Griffin, who played a combined 17 minutes and scored two points total in November wins over Kentucky and Gonzaga, looked the part of a lottery pick and a high-level scorer in Chapel Hill. He made three triples and used his elite size and length to get downhill to the rim. The New York native tallied a career-high 27 points in his first Tobacco Road rivalry game, building on an impressive 13-point, nine-rebound performance earlier this week against Notre Dame. A Duke team with a legitimate No. 2 scorer to go with Paolo Banchero is a scary sight for the rest of college basketball, especially since Wendell Moore and Trevor Keels aren’t going anywhere. With his elite physical tools and great touch around the basket, Griffin makes this offense even more challenging to slow down.

Kansas’s Weird Week

A week ago Saturday, Kansas was utterly embarrassed on its home floor by Kentucky in a game that wasn’t even as close as the 80–62 final score indicates. It led me to question the Jayhawks’ talent level compared to the elite teams in the sport, a title the Wildcats earned in their win at Allen Fieldhouse. So for the Jayhawks to not just win but dominate against Baylor, really from the opening tip, left me wondering yet again what this team is.

The Jayhawk defense that looked porous against Kentucky was stout against Baylor, albeit against a Bears team without Adam Flagler and LJ Cryer. Add in an 0-for-11 shooting night by point guard James Akinjo and the Bears essentially got nothing from their guards Saturday. Still, it was an impressive performance by the KU defense to limit Baylor to under 0.8 points per possession, Baylor’s worst offensive performance since a 20-point loss to South Carolina in the 2017 NCAA tournament. Add in an efficient day from a Kansas offense led by stars Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun and the Jayhawks again looked like the best team in the Big 12. But can we trust Kansas after the ups and downs of these last eight-plus days?

Kansas Jayhawks guard Jalen Coleman-Lands (55) passes to forward K.J. Adams (24) during the second half against the Baylor Bears at Allen Fieldhouse.

Pac-12’s Balance of Power Shifts

Arizona is now fully in the driver’s seat in the Pac-12 title race. After earning a hard-fought season series split with UCLA earlier this week, Arizona found a way past USC in an ugly game Saturday. Those wins, plus UCLA’s shocking 3OT loss against Arizona State, leaves Arizona two games clear of the Bruins in the loss column for the Pac-12 lead with a month to go until conference tournament time.

Those results don’t just have Pac-12 title implications; they could also have a major impact on NCAA tournament seeding. UCLA’s hopes of a No. 1 seed feel all but gone after an 0–2 week, particularly with few remaining opportunities to bolster their résumé before Selection Sunday. Arizona’s, meanwhile, have been revitalized, The Wildcats will inevitably have fewer elite wins than champions from other high-major conferences, but the team’s win at Illinois in December is aging well and the UCLA win is a résumé-topper without question.

Auburn’s Close Call

For the second time in two weeks, Auburn was taken to the wire by one of the worst teams in the SEC. The No. 1 Tigers flopped Saturday and needed a late bucket by Wendell Green Jr. to seal a win against Georgia in Athens, a shaky performance for a team looking to hold on to the No. 1 spot in the polls for another week.

So how did the Bulldogs hang around for 40 minutes and make an upset bid? It started with slowing Tigers star freshman Jabari Smith Jr. Smith posted just 7 points in the win on just 2-for-7 shooting and was largely a non-factor in this. So while it’s encouraging for Auburn’s sake that the Tigers have found a way to win games without their star clicking on all cylinders, it’s still obvious that Auburn needs more from its future top pick if it wants to cut down the nets in San Antonio.

Kentucky Wins With Its Defense

Of late, it has been Kentucky’s explosive offense that keeps passing tests. Saturday, the WIldcats proved they could also be elite when they need to be on the defensive end. A UK team that has looked ready to win shootouts won Saturday in Tuscaloosa on the back of its defense, holding the Tide to just 55 points in a stifling defensive effort on the road. Kentucky limited Bama to just 3-for-30 shooting from deep and made life difficult for the Tide’s wide array of weapons on the offensive end of the floor.

For Kentucky to win a national title, the Wildcats needed to prove they could win games in multiple ways. Saturday’s grinder of a win illustrates that well. Get into a battle against a tough, athletic team that stifles Oscar Tshiebwe inside? The Wildcats can handle that. Fly up and down the court in a battle of playmaking guards? Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington are ready to make plays. At their best, it’s hard to argue there are five better teams in America right now than the Wildcats.

Vanderbilt Commodores forward Jordan Wright (4) handles the ball against LSU Tigers guard Brandon Murray (0) during the first half at Memorial Gymnasium.

LSU’s Free Fall Continues

It’s hard to believe that LSU was one of the final six undefeated teams in the sport a little more than a month ago, but the wheels have come off in Baton Rouge. And while offensive struggles in the face of Xavier Pinson’s knee injury make sense, Saturday’s loss to Vanderbilt proved that even the Tigers’ vaunted defense isn’t what it was just over a month ago. The team gave up more than 1 point per possession for a third straight game in a 75–66 loss to Vanderbilt. With that loss, the program’s sixth in seven games, LSU fell to 4–6 in SEC play.

The bottom line is this: Even if Pinson were in the lineup, this team isn’t built to win when the defense can’t get stops. And with the Tigers’ elite defensive personnel (great positional size, length and athleticism at every spot and multiple high-level defensive playmakers), there’s no excuse for them to be getting torched like they are right now. LSU will go dancing, but the Tigers desperately need to turn this around fast to avoid dropping further down the seed list.