The Big Ten is No Longer “Big”

Week after week there is talk about the No. 1 team in the nation (Villanova this week), the Big East, the ACC, and Grayson Allen. No one is talking about the Big Ten. There is a reason for that.

Maryland leads the conference with a 4-1 record, ranked No. 25 in the country. The Terrapins might be 16-2 overall, but they haven’t played one ranked team this year. They also have yet to play Wisconsin, Purdue or Minnesota. One might remember that Maryland is relatively new to the Big Ten Conference along with Rutgers, who is 0-6 in conference play. Minnesota has recently dropped out of the top 25 ranking after losing to Michigan State this past week. Wisconsin is sitting at No. 17 and Purdue is ranked No. 21. Neither team holds the top spot in the conference.

(Photo courtesy of impact89fm.org)

The Big Ten simply is not the hard-hitting, nitty-gritty conference that it used to be. There is not a single team that dominates. Any team could lose on any given day, which sounds like March Madness. However, it isn’t the exhilarating type of March Madness where teams are upsetting high-ranked ball clubs. It is a lot of average teams beating and losing to mediocre teams, with respect to the rest of the nation.

For a girl who grew up watching Drew Neitzel shoot threes consistently with both hands, and heard about Isiah Thomas and his two years at Indiana, it is obvious that the Big Ten isn’t what it used to be. All of the teams have at least one loss in conference play and teams are struggling to get wins on the road.

The only true press that the Big Ten is receiving currently is from select standout players in the Midseason top 25 ranking for the Wooden Award this year. Those few are Melo Trimble (Maryland), Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin), and Caleb Swanigan (Purdue). Now this article is not to denounce the Big Ten but rather to breakdown the conference and its struggles this year.

What happened to the hoosiers?

Indiana is one of those teams that could make a great tournament run, but will the Hoosiers even make it to the tournament?

The Hoosiers started off the season with a four-point victory over Kansas. Then the team proceeded to lay an egg at IPFW in its fourth game of the season. They also beat North Carolina, but lost to Butler.

If their season continues at this pace, it will be the season that “missed it by that much.” Losing has been more of a theme this year than Tom Crean ever thought possible. The Hoosiers lost to Butler by five, Nebraska by four, Wisconsin by seven and Maryland by three. They are that close.

Indiana is typically a team that gets by. The past two years they have made it to the tournament and last year they made it to the Sweet 16. They have scorers and they have a great coach. They just need to finish.

Sparty on or Sparty off?

The Spartans are sitting near the top of the conference despite losing key players Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Deyonta Davis to the draft last year.

Freshman Miles Bridges (ncaabasketball.com)

The freshmen are clicking at the perfect time. Miles Bridges is coming off an ankle injury that sidelined him for the end of the preseason and beginning of conference play. Nick Ward is contributing 6.5 rebounds per game and has been named Big Ten freshman of the week twice. Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston are maturing into great role players for the Spartans, which will be key in March.

This might sound like a lot of positive conversation, but let’s not forget some key losses this season. The Spartans lost to Northeastern, Baylor, Duke, Penn State, Kentucky and Arizona. More recently, Michigan State got the job done against No. 24 ranked Minnesota, but lost to Ohio State on Sunday. This puts them at 4-2 in conference play with a tough week ahead.

Wisconsin is now the consistent leader

Wisconsin is just about the only team that has been consistently competing over the last few years. This year itself has not been stellar, yet the Badgers find themselves on a 16-game home winning streak.

The Badgers are similar to West Virginia in the way that they have multiple players averaging good numbers and are balanced in their scoring. Sophomore Ethan Happ is a 6’10” forward pulling down 9.2 rebounds per game and shooting 62.3 percent from the field. Everyone else on the team is shooting good percentages, but nothing stellar for Division I basketball.

They also only allow 60.2 points per game (ninth in the country). It is the Badgers’ defense that keeps them in games. The seniors also demand an intensity from each other and their standout sophomore Happ. Bronson Koenig, Nigel Hayes and Zak Showalter know what it means to get wins and make a run in the tournament. They made it to the Sweet 16 last year before losing to Notre Dame and the National Championship in 2015 (but lost to Duke). They are a good ball club, but to compare them to UCLA, Oregon, or Villanova is another story.

Purdue

The Boilermakers got a win over Wisconsin, but have losses to Iowa and Minnesota. Sophomore Caleb Swanigan is ranked first in the country in rebounds per game, pulling down 12.6 on average. This was key against Wisconsin when Swanigan had 18 points and 13 rebounds to secure the win. The let down is they turned around and took a five point loss to Iowa soon after, despite being ahead by nine at the half.

Caleb Swanigan of Purdue (News-Sentential.com)

This has been the trend for all of conference play thus far in the Big Ten. A team might come out and get a key win, but then come out flat the next game. There is no domination and as a fan, it’s been a tough year to watch so far.

The Boilermakers do have a couple things going for them. They start mostly juniors with the exception of Swanigan. Next year they will be a year smarter and more experienced, which can’t hurt. Purdue also lost to Villanova by only three points at the beginning of the season. They have hope.

 

What does this mean?

Some people might chalk it up to rebuilding years. Others might say some coaches need to make an exit. As someone who has grown up respecting Thad Matta, Matt Painter, Tom Izzo and Tom Crean, I hope the latter is not the truth.

The Big Ten will bounce back. For all my fellow Big Ten fans, there is hope and March isn’t here quite yet. The tournament will see fewer Big Ten teams this year, but no one can predict what they might do.

 

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Baylor vs. West Virginia: Best Matchup of Week 10?

Game time is at 7PM ET tonight on ESPN2 and this is not a game you’ll want to miss. However, before we can discuss the matchup between No. 1 Baylor and No. 10 West Virginia tonight, there needs to be some discussion about Villanova.

Perfect Season Out of reach for Villanova

Last week I discussed the tough week that the Wildcats would have to endure, and if they would still come out on top (Who Will Stop Villanova?). If you haven’t heard, Butler put an end to Wildcats’ perfect season.

Villanova did what was expected, as they limited Kelan Martin to 12 points. However, Andrew Chrabascz put up 13 points, and freshman Kamar Baldwin added 10 points.

But it was really the senior, Kethan Savage, that came up big for the Bulldogs. Savage (laughing at the irony of his name) scored 13 points, five of which were on a critical, late run in the second half.

The Wildcats were their own worst enemy. Mikal Bridges played 28 minutes but neglected to make a field goal, and he is averaging 9.7 points on the season. Everyone has their bad games, but Bridges shoots at 58.9% (the highest field goal percentage on the team). Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart were a combined 7-22 from the field despite Jalen Brunson going off for 23 points.

Baylor vs West Virginia

Jalen Brunson of Villanova (USA TODAY)

Villanova will still be a top contender for the national title. They defeated Marquette pretty handily with a 93-81 victory. Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart were back to their point-machine selves. Jenkins added a season high 23 points, Hart chipped in 19, and Mikal Bridges had a quick turnaround from Butler. Bridges scored 15 points and the Wildcats overall shot 65.3% from the field and 60.9% from behind the arc. Yes, you read that right. Villanova shot the lights out.

Big East action continues this week, as the Wildcats take on Xavier at home and travel to St. John’s this Saturday.

Number one falls, next man up

Villanova no longer has a perfect record, but the Bears do. Baylor is one of the two unbeaten teams left in Division I college basketball. Respect, am I right?

It has not been a cake walk for the Bears. Louisville, Xavier, and Oregon are just a few of the teams that Baylor had to get past to be where they are now. They are also one of the few teams to reach the number one ranking, despite not being ranked in the preseason.

How do they do it?

Let’s talk about the junior class. Johnathan Motley, Manu Lecomte, Al Freeman, Jo Laul-Acuil Jr., Terry Maston, and Nuni Amot are all juniors. They are also the top six scorers for the Bears based on point averages. This combination of juniors allows Baylor to be as successful as they are. Without them, who knows where they would be? The best part is, it means Baylor will have this experienced class next year as seniors. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though.

Baylor vs West Virginia

Johnathan Motley, a forward for Baylor University (baylorlariat.com)

Motley pulls down 9.4 rebounds per game and Lecomte can distribute the ball well (averaging 4.9 assists per game). Jo Laul-Acuil Jr. defends the paint like any 7’0” center should. He has 52 blocks this season.

It is not just about the juniors though. Senior Ishmail Wainright is a leader on the team, vocally and with experience. He also leads the team in steals, averaging 1.7 per game and 25 on the season. He has a defensive prowess that one should watch out for.

The question is: Will the Bears remain at the number one spot as they take on West Virginia this week at their place?

West virginia has what it takes

This game is very similar to the Villanova/Butler matchup this past week. Once again the top team in the nation on a large win streak is headed to scrappy team’s home court.

West Virginia is unique to most top-ranked teams in the nation. They don’t have a single standout player. They are are deep and have production from many players.

When comparing all of the statistics, Baylor and West Virginia are pretty evenly matched. Except for one category, points per game. The Mountaineers are averaging 90.1 points per game, but Baylor only averages 77.1. West Virginia is also coming off a close overtime loss to Texas Tech, which will only propel them for this game.

They also have the personnel to get the job done and fans to back them up. WVU’s Coliseum supports 14,000 people and it will be loud tonight. Coach Bob Huggins has a team that sits down and defends. Their full court pressure has bothered a lot of teams and allowed them to go on important runs in games. They have many offensive weapons including sophomore Esa Ahmad, Junior Jevon Carter, Junior Daxter Miles Jr., and senior Nathan Adrian to name a few.

In order for West Virginia to pull off the upset against the Bears, they have to come out with energy. Sounds simple, but it could be a make or break factor to the game. Once they get the lead, they can’t let the Bears hang around like they let TCU do this past week.

 

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Who Will Stop Villanova?

It is no secret that Villanova is the number one ranked team in the country and rightfully so. The Wildcats are 14-0 overall and 2-0 in Big East play. They have a full head of steam heading into conference play. Who will be the one to beat them?

What makes Villanova Tick

They have confidence, plain and simple. We are talking about the reigning national champions. They haven’t lost a game since March 12, 2016 when they lost to Seton Hall by two points in the conference tournament. Winning has become the name of the game for Villanova. Jalen Brunson is coming off the best game of his career. He had 27 points against Creighton on Saturday while playing in front of the third-largest crowd the CenturyLink Center has ever seen.

Sophomore Jalen Brunson of Villanova (Getty Images)

Villanova has the three things that any team needs to succeed. They have experience, leadership, and the ability to finish. As mentioned in my past article, A Blue Christmasthe Wildcats are led by two seniors that know what it takes to finish a game.

Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart have consistently contributed good numbers, especially this weekend against Creighton when they got themselves out of a 10-point deficit. Jenkins scored 21 points and Hart added 18 points against the Bluejays.

In addition, Darryl Reynolds was a solid player last season and he continues to be a strong senior presence. Together, these seniors provide the leadership that this teams needs.

Let us not forget about head coach Jay Wright, who simply said “bang” when Jenkins hit the game-winning shot to win the national title last year. Calm, cool, and collected define Wright’s coaching style. He has 30 years of experience in college basketball. Kentucky offered him a job in 2009, which he turned down. Needless to say, he knows what he is doing and the players respond to him.

The Wildcats run a four-out one-in offense that utilizes all of their offensive weapons to the best of their ability. Coach Wright stresses team basketball. The Wildcats use a lot of high ball screens from Reynolds and sophomore Eric Paschall so Hart and Jenkins can create off the separation from their defenders. This has given a lot of teams trouble and allowed for a lot of open jumpers for the Wildcats.

Sophomores Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges cannot be neglected either. Brunson had a big game on Saturday as previously mentioned which has been a trend this season. He is shooting 43.8 percent from behind the arc. He also has the ability to put it on the hardwood and get to the rack.  Bridges is shooting 59.1 percent from the field and pulling down about 5.1 rebounds per game.

Does Butler have what it takes?

Butler has a decent shot. The Bulldogs have a few things working in their favor. They have the home court advantage, which is often overlooked. Hinkle Fieldhouse is a smaller arena that supports 9,100 fans that are nothing other than loud to say the least. Butler is also relatively even in all of the statistical categories. Villanova averages 79.9 points per game, 14.4 assists per game, and shoots 50.4 percent from the field. Butler is averaging 78 points per game, 14.7 assists per game, and shoots 49.2 percent from the field. However, statistical data only goes so far.

Kelan Martin of Butler University (Indianapolis Star)

The Bulldogs are going to have to pull out all the stops. Junior Kelan Martin will need to put up at least his average of 18.1 points per game. The following highest scorers are Andrew Chrabascz with 11.9, Tyler Wideman with 9.1, and Avery Woodson with 8.4.

All of these players will need to step up because the focus will be on stopping Martin from adding big numbers. Senior Tyler Lewis will be a large factor, based on his sheer ability to create for his teammates. Lewis is averaging 4.8 assists per game and has the senior experience with big time games like this one.

If the Bulldogs cannot get the job done, who is next in line? The fact is, the Big East Conference will not give the Wildcats any breaks. Villanova will take on Marquette on Saturday at home. The Golden Eagles are coming off a loss to Seton Hall by a margin of three points. They will be hungry for a win.

The Wildcats passed the test of winning at Creighton, but now they look ahead to Butler. The Bulldogs have been known for their upsets (recall Indiana in the 2012 Crossroads Classic). If the Wildcats can come out on top of the week at 16-0, it is no doubt that they are made for March. I know it is only January, but bring on the madness!

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Can the Flying Ducks Keep Their Streak?

Oregon basketball has started a streak. They have won their past nine games of this season and have a 33-game win streak at home. The last time the Ducks lost at home was on March 14, 2015, against Arizona, who was ranked fifth in the nation at the time.

Since their last loss at home, winning has been a commonplace for Oregon. The Ducks finished their 2015-2016 regular season at 14-4 in conference play and earned a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. They knocked off Holy Cross, Saint Joseph’s, and Duke to make it to the Elite Eight. The moral of the story is that this team knows what they are doing.

This raises two new questions: Who got them to this point? More importantly, what is to come?

PERSONNEL


Oregon has five players putting up double figures as they enter conference play. First on the stat sheet is senior Chris Boucher, who is averaging 14.1 PPG while playing 26.4 MPG. However, Boucher currently has a boot on his right foot (ankle injury) and is not expected to return until later in conference play. He leads the team in blocks with 35 on the season, which ranks 10th in the nation overall.

The void of Chris Boucher being gone has been filled quite well by Jordan Bell. He had a career-high 23 points against Fresno State last Tuesday. He also chipped in 16 points against UNLV (the first game Boucher was out). Bell is averaging 10.3 PPG, 8.3 RPG and has 33 blocks in total this season.

The absence of Boucher also allowed Dillon Brooks to make his first start of the season against UNLV and contribute 20 points to the victory. He also added nine points against Fresno State. He is a 6-7 threat who averaged 16.7 PPG last season and as a junior, he has the experience and knowledge to impact the game greatly.

Scorers for the Ducks are coming from all classes in addition to Brooks and Bell. Tyler Dorsey is a sophomore and he is averaging 13.5 PPG just behind Chris Boucher. Senior Dylan Ennis distributes the ball well and averages 3.3 assists per game. Finally, Payton Pritchard, who is playing 27.5  MPG, a rather large amount for a freshman on an experienced team.

Experience is the name of the game for the Ducks. However, the UCLA Bruins’ combination of fresh talent and experience could be road block to this long home win streak.

UPCOMING OPPONENTS


Oregon opens conference play against the UCLA Bruins on Wednesday. They do not get a “warm-up” game. They are taking on the second team in the nation that is led by freshmen. TJ Leaf averages 17.5 PPG and Lonzo Ball is adding 13.7 PPG in addition to 8.3 APG. Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford provide the experience for the team and contribute major points as well as high free-throw percentages, which will be key in late-game situations.

Oregon basketball

UCLA Bruins forward TJ Leaf (USA TODAY Sports)

UCLA has the personnel to end this streak. The meeting of these two teams is a rivalry with some bad blood in the past. From 1970 to 1976, UCLA had a home-game win streak of 98 games which included four National Championships. This streak was ended by the Ducks.

This however, is what great games are made of. First, there are two teams with history. Second, both teams have a lot at stake. UCLA puts up 95.8 points a game and leads the nation with 23.6 APG. Their untarnished record for this season would also dissipate. The Ducks risk a 33-game win streak and a win could would be tremendous for their overall ranking.

A win against UCLA does not mean the road gets any easier. After UCLA, the Ducks will take on USC just two days later. USC and Oregon are relatively close in many of the statistical areas. The Trojans are averaging 83.2 PPG while the Ducks average 78.3 PPG. Field goal percentage, rebounds per game, and assists per game are relatively the same. The teams are quite evenly matched and the Trojans are also on a 13-game win streak.

The Ducks can keep their streak if they can contain the Bruins’ large scoring margins by limiting the damage done by impact players like TJ Leaf and Isaac Hamilton. If they can handle UCLA at home and gain some confidence going into USC, then the Ducks should maintain their streak for another week.

 

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A Blue Christmas: College Basketball is Being Dominated by Teams in Blue

We all know how the lyrics to Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas go: “I’ll have a Blue Christmas without you, I’ll be so blue thinking about you.” After watching a thriller this weekend between two of the top blue teams in the nation, how could one not be thinking about the game between North Carolina and Kentucky? If we are discussing true blue, Duke is definitely in the conversation as well, and let us not forget about Villanova, the #1 team in the nation.

Kentucky Wildcats

Malik Monk takes on Kenny Williams III (review journal.com

Malik Monk takes on Kenny Williams III (review journal.com

Let’s start with the Kentucky Wildcats. There is one name we all need to be concerned with: Malik Monk. If you have not heard, he put up 47 points for the Wildcats with a 64% field goal percentage on the night. He made his final three-pointer to win the game against Coach Calipari’s wishes, who wanted Monk to drive on the last play. He shot it anyway, and Kentucky came away with the win. How is that for some freshman guts?

However, Monk is not the only talent that deserves recognition. De’Aaron Fox added 24 points on Saturday and he is averaging 15.9 PPG on the season. Isaiah Briscoe also added 10 points and Edrice Adebayo contributed 13 points before fouling out.

Kentucky is 10-1 on the season and still has a lot to prove. This is only their second win against a ranked team this year. They beat #13 Michigan State (who is no longer ranked) early on in November and lost to UCLA by 5 points who is led by standout Freshman Lonzo Ball. This is a key win on their resume as they head into conference play in January.

On Wednesday, the Wildcats will take on Louisville which will be another test of their abilities. Kentucky has won the last three in the series against the Cardinals, but the great part about basketball is that anyone can be beaten on any given day.

North Carolina Tar heels

North Carolina's Joel Berry II (goblueridge.net)

North Carolina’s Joel Berry II (goblueridge.net)

Now for the North Carolina Tar Heels, who were equally as impressive, but came up short. Joel Berry II was one point shy of a career high with 23 points. Josh Jackson put up a staggering 34 points and Kennedy Meeks also added 12 points. UNC played a great game, despite the outcome.

The name of the game was free throws and foul trouble. Berry and Meeks fouled out, and the Tar Heels missed seven free throws overall, which would have been the game right there. This is not a large worry for the Tar Heels though. Joel Berry II is just coming back from an ankle injury and they still had good production from their bench (Tony Bradley and Luke Maye added a combined 19 points).

Kentucky’s bench only had five points to add. It also could have been a very different outcome if Kenny Williams’ last second three-pointer hadn’t missed the mark.

This game was March Madness material, so one can only wonder what March will bring and if Malik Monk will be able to create similar performances in the games to come. Joel Berry II will hopefully continue to impress and Josh Jackson has been nothing short of thrilling. I know I will be counting down the days until February 9th when the Tar Heels take on Duke, another top team in blue.

Duke Blue Devils

Our third team up for discussion, the Duke Blue Devils, are 10-1 and the ACC is not going to be a walk in the park this year. Duke will have to take on Florida State, Louisville, Notre Dame and of course North Carolina before they can talk about dancing on the big stage come March. Luckily, the combination of Luke Kennard, Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson has been sufficient to top Michigan State, Florida and Rhode Island early on. They also have Jayson Tatum, Frank Jackson and Matt Jones who are making an impact, and are some names to definitely keep in mind.

I am reminded that the color blue often symbolizes depth and stability. The Blue Devils embody these characteristics and Coach Mike Krzyzewski brings in some of top recruiting classes each year. The point is, Duke is consistently above average and sports fans can look for that to continue this season as well. They are firing on all cylinders and they have depth that should logistically carry them far into the NCAA tournament.

Villanova Wildcats

Josh Hart of Villanova (fox sports.com)

Josh Hart of Villanova (fox sports.com)

This article would not be complete without mentioning the top-ranked team in the nation, Villanova. They sit at 11-0 and one man is doing most of the dirty work. They are led by Senior, Josh Hart who is averaging 20.1 PPG, 6.5 RPG and 3.7 APG while shooting 45.3% from behind the arc. Hart is aided by senior Kris Jenkins who is averaging 13.4 PPG and sophomores Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges are contributing good numbers as well.

Recall Jenkins is the player who hit the game winning shot against UNC last year to win the National Championship game. Needless to say, these Wildcats have talent and the experience. They also have key wins over Temple and Notre Dame that will only add to their resume when discussing bracketology.

As we approach Christmas, these teams in blue have gotten our attention and will continue to be all the talk leading up to March. It would be a very “blue” Christmas without these teams putting on the performance that they have in preseason matches.

And with that, Merry Christmas to all my fellow college basketball fans, and happy holidays!

 

 

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Are Freshmen running the College Basketball scene?

Division I college basketball has always been set apart from other collegiate athletics for obvious reasons. However, it is the single sport where freshmen athletes can make an impact and leave after one year. Which brings me to the question: are the Freshmen the ones who are running the show and what does this mean for the sport?

Let’s look at the top five Freshman in the 2016 recruiting class. Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum at Duke University, Bam Adebayo at Kentucky, Josh Jackson at Kansas, and Lonzo Ball at UCLA. Ball contributed 19 points, seven rebounds and four assists in the win over Michigan this past weekend. He is averaging 15 points and 8.8 rebounds on the season. Their team remains 10-0 overall coming out of the weekend.

It is not just the current players either. Take a look at past Freshman who have stayed for a year and left for the NBA. The first name that comes to mind is Anthony Davis, who was drafted as a first round NBA draft pick following his freshman season at Kentucky. Davis led the team to a National Championship, was a first team All-American, and received Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament. In the 2012 title, Davis’ teammates Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (two other freshman) were the second and third highest scorers with 14 points and 11 points.

Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, and Justise Winslow were all freshman from the 2014 class that had a stellar year and left for the NBA. They combined for 1,610 points over the course of the season. The other major contributor was Quinn Cook, a senior who added 598 points. They essentially ran the team.

I realize that I have only noted the major power houses in college basketball thus far. So finally I think of Carmelo Anthony. In his 2002-2003 season with Syracuse he averaged a double-double (22 points and 10 rebounds), ranking 1st for freshmen in the NCAA. His professional career has not disappointed either.

There are a lot of stats. However, they are all to make a point. Freshmen run the game of college basketball regardless of the year. The best players and their performance will always be how on-lookers view each successive season.

I could sit here and list off statistics of players like Andrew Wiggins, Kevin Durant, John Wall, or Deyonta Davis, who all dominated their respective years and left. However, the more important question is: what does all of this mean?

This trend is the result of the one-and-done rule. The draft rule is as follows: you must be 19 years of age before the calendar year of the draft and be one year removed from high school athletics. This rule has stood for ten years now. It has allowed the greatest players to make their mark and leave to make money with their talents.

It has irrevocably changed the game.

The level at which players compete is incredible to watch as a fan. This draft rule is a blessing to college basketball, which would lack the finesse without these freshmen bringing fresh talent (pun intended) each year.

In an essence, freshmen run the game of college basketball every single year. This is not a new theme. It has impacted the game greatly and will continue to as long as the one-and-done rule stays.

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