Friday’s Pregame Beat: Previewing your college hoops weekend

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UPSET ALERT

Sat. 6:00 pm: No. 6 SDSU @ New Mexico: With Duke’s loss to Florida State on Wednesday night, there are now just four undefeated teams left in the country — Ohio State, Kansas, Syracuse, and SDSU. And while, on paper, SDSU seems to be the outlier in this group, don’t be fooled by their non-BCS conference affiliation. This team is legit.

They have arguably the best, and most versatile, front line in the country with Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas, Billy White, and Brian Carlwell. DJ Gay is an underrated point guard, and the addition of a shooter in James Rahon on the perimeter has given the Aztecs another dimension. But do not sleep on this Lobo team, especially at the Pit. They have a high-major front line with Drew Gordon and Emmanuel Negedu complementing Alex Kirk and AJ Hardemann. Dairese Gary, Kendall Williams, and Philip McDonald one of the best back courts out west.

Steve Alford’s crew has struggled early in the season, but this is a group that is still coming together with the addition of Gordon that will be playing in front of a raucous home crowd. This is a better game than the records indicate, and New Mexico has a real chance to beat the Aztecs and get a win they really need on their resume.

UPSET SPECIAL

Sat. 11:00 am: Marquette @ No. 17 Louisville: These two teams matchup really well with each other. Both are heavy on talented guards, both shoot a lot of threes, and neither is afraid to play an uptempo game. As Notre Dame found out on Monday, this Marquette club — as they seemingly are every season — is much better than their record indicates. The key for Marquette? Defend the three — which the haven’t done all that well this season — and get the ball to Jae Crowder and Jimmy Butler.

Sat. 1:00 pm: Northwestern @ No. 24 Michigan State: Northwestern has to get a win against a few of the big boys in the Big Ten if they are serious about making a run at their first NCAA Tournament bid. I think this is a pretty good matchup for the Wildcats. They spread the floor, they execute a difficult offensive to defend, and they are going against a team that has not defended the three point line all that well through two months. Shurna had 24 points in a win over Iowa on Tuesday. Is he finally healthy?

Sat. 5:00 pm: No. 22 UCF @ Southern Miss: UCF has played as well as anyone in Conference USA this season, but with Memphis slowly fading out of the picture, USM may actually be the most talented team in the league. The Golden Eagles have a couple of good perimeters to throw at Marcus Jordan, but the most intriguing matchup in this one is between Gary Flowers and Keith Clanton.

Sat. 6:00 pm: Baylor @ Iowa State: This would seem silly at first glance, but hear me out. Baylor is not as good as we all expected them to be this season. In the same way Kansas State has struggled, Baylor has as well. They have an all-american guard and a loaded front court. But do the Bears have anyone that can get LaceDarius Dunn or one of Baylor’s big men an open look? ISU hasn’t been terrible this season. They gave Kansas a bit of a scare on Wednesday night. Diante Garrett and Scott Christopherson deserve some national pub, as well.

Sat. 8:00 pm: Loyola Marymount @ Gonzaga: In terms of raw talent, there might not be a team in the WCC better than the Lions not named the Zags. With guys like Vernon Teel and Drew Viney, this LMU group was picked second in the preseason. They’ve lost a few games here early, but that talent is still on the roster. Teel-Viney going against Stephen Gray and Elias Harris? That’s worth it back ground noise as you pregame for your Saturday night.

Sun. 12:00 pm: No. 11 Notre Dame @ St. John’s: Notre Dame is 14-3 on the season. Their three losses? To Kentucky at Freedom Hall in Louisville, to Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, and to Marquette at the Bradley Center. They are 14-0 in home and neutral site games. Just like the Irish need to get a win on the road, the Johnnies need to get a win, period. They are in the midst of a tough eight game stretch, and coming off of a 15 point shellacking at the hands of the Irish in South Bend last Saturday. Now’s the time to turn around this losing streak.

Sun. 1:30 pm: No. 8 Purdue @ West Virginia: I made the decision to slot this game into the Upset Special category before I saw the Boilermakers nearly knock off Minnesota on the road despite getting poor performances out of, well, everyone except JaJuan Johnson. Johnson, on the other hand, torched a big Gopher front line for 29 points and 11 boards. That said, Bob Huggins has started to quiz his team on their scouting reports, and the difference is noticeable, as the ‘Eers are finally playing like they are capable of. They just beat Georgetown in Georgetown on Monday and on Thursday they mollywhopped Providence by 30 points. Morgantown is usually a great environment when West Virginia is good. Let’s hope that trend continues.

BEST MATCHUPS

Sat. 12:00 pm: Cincinnati @ No. 4 Syracuse: Actually, if I’m being truthful, I think that the Bearcats are going to get smoked against the Orange. Just like St. John’s got smoked on Wednesday night. This year’s version of the Syracuse zone just keeps getting scarier and scarier. Cincy is a bigger team that lacks a bit in the playmaking and shooting departments. Based on Syracuse’s size this season, and with Kris Joseph turning into the elite slasher we expected him to be and James Southerland providing just that much more versatility, Bearcat fans should be nervous.

Sat. 12:00 pm: Vanderbilt @ Tennessee
: Two games in, and the Tony Jones experiment has gotten off to a pretty poor start. Vanderbilt looks like they could end up being the second best team in the SEC East with Tennessee’s recent struggles, but remember, this is a Tennessee team that has beaten both Villanova and Pitt this year. The matchup of Jeff Taylor and Scotty Hopson could be the best individual matchup of the weekend.

Sat. No. 12 Missouri @ No. 13 Texas A&M: You cannot get two more differing styles than the Tigers and the Aggies. Mizzou likes to pressure for 40 minutes, push the tempo, force turnovers, and shoot threes. Texas A&M wins with ball control, half court defense, and rebounding. Kansas seems to be the best team in the conference with these two, and Texas, fighting for that second spot. Mizzou lost their first conference road game to Colorado, but the Aggies are relatively unproved. This should be a good gauge for both teams.

Sat. 1:00 pm: Maryland @ No. 7 Villanova: This Terrapins team has a bit of Marquette in them. What I mean is that they are now 11-5 on the season, but they aren’t your typical 11-5 team. All five losses have come to likely tournament teams, none by more than nine points. This is a tough, scrappy team that is still learning how to win. That said, Nova is a tough team to learn against. The Terp’s back court will have their work cut out for them against the likes of Maalik Wayns and My Two Corey’s. The key to this one? Jordan Williams staying out of foul trouble.

Sat. 3:00 pm: No. 16 Illinios @ No. 21 Wisconsin: I can’t imagine two teams with as similar a roster composition playing such different styles. Two talented points guard in Demetri McCamey. Nary a physical big man in sight, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better front court matchup than Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil going against Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis. Quality role players all over the place. The Kohl Center is a tough place to win, but this should be a dandy.

Sat. 7:00 pm: Seton Hall @ No. 5 Pitt: I don’t necessarily believe that the Pirates can win this game. The Peterson Events Center is not a place where road warriors win battles. But the storyline in this game deserves elaboration. Just a few days before Thanksgiving, Jeremy Hazel broke his wrist. He had surgery on Dec. 2nd to repair the wrist. On Christmas day, he was shot in an attempted robbery. On Wednesday night, he played against DePaul and had 23 points on 10-17 shooting. Tough kid.

BEST STORYLINES

Friday

  • 7:00 pm: Valpo @ Wright State; 9:00 pm: Butler @ Detroit: All four of these teams are tied atop the Horizon League standings at 4-1.

Saturday

  • 12:00 pm: No. 23 Temple @ Duquesne: Duquesne is a good team, but Temple looks to be the hands down favorite to win the A-10 this season.
  • 12:00 pm: No. 19 Georgetown @ Rutgers: No one in the country needs a win as badly as Georgetown does. But remember, they lost at the RAC last season.
  • 12:00 pm: Marshall @ Memphis: Can the Tigers snap out of their funk without Wesley Witherspoon?
  • 1:30 pm: Oklahoma State @ Colorado: The battle of the “we just upset Kansas State” teams.
  • 1:30 pm: Texas Tech @ No. 20 Kansas State: Well, maybe Kansas State needs a win as badly as Georgetown.
  • 1:30 pm: South Carolina @ Florida: If it seems like the SEC East is giving us a good game daily, its because they are.
  • 2:00 pm: Virginia @ No. 1 Duke: Virginia will be playing their first game without Mike Scott, while Duke will be taking the floor for the first time since their loss to FSU.
  • 2:00 pm: Nebraska @ No. 3 Kansas: With Wednesday’s performance by the twins, I must ask — are they the Morri, the Morrii, or the Morii? I’ve always gone Morrii.
  • 2:00 pm: No. 9 DePaul @ UConn: Cleveland Melvin originally committed to UConn. He parted ways, ended up at DePaul, and is averaging 13.5 ppg as a freshman.
  • 2:30 pm: Arizona State @ Arizona: Derrick Williams against a front line of … Kyle Cain? Pick him up for your fantasy team.
  • 4:00 pm: Oklahoma @ No. 14 Texas: The Red River rivalry doesn’t have much sizzle on the hardwood this year.
  • 4:00 pm: LSU @ No. 15 Kentucky: LSU has a better record in the SEC than Kentucky does. Enjoy it while it lasts.
  • 4:00 pm: NC State @ Florida State: The Seminoles can beat anyone when they are shooting well. They can lose to anyone when they aren’t. The Wolfpack really need this win.
  • 4:00 pm: Old Dominion @ Hofstra: This might be the best mid-major matchup of the day.
  • 4:00 pm: Austin Peay @ Tennessee State: The Governors have a chance to extend their lead on one of the teams chasing them in the OVC.
  • 5:00 pm: Georgia @ Ole Miss: Renardo Sidney has his best game of the season against Ole Miss on Thursday. Trey Thompkins is what Sidney would be if he actually cared.
  • 5:30 pm: Penn State @ No. 2 Ohio State: Note to the Buckeyes — all Penn State does is upset ranked teams. You’ve been warned.
  • 6:00 pm: UNLV @ Air Force: UNLV cannot afford to lose a game like this if they want to compete in the MWC, but Air Force has been a bit of a surprise this year.
  • 6:00 pm: Boston College @ Miami FL: You probably won’t find a better back court matchup than Reggie Jackson going against Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant.
  • 6:00 pm: UCLA @ Oregon: Have fun watching a game on Matt Court.
  • 7:00 pm: Oakland @ IUPUI: A matchup of the Summit favorites.
  • 8:00 pm: Washington State @ Stanford: After knocking off Washington, Stanford all of a sudden is in second place in the conference.
  • 8:00 pm: Wake Forest @ Virginia Tech: If Virginia Tech loses to Wake, the Hokies might as well pack in their season.
  • 8:00 pm: Dayton @ Xavier: This game looked much better before the season started.
  • 11:00 pm: Utah State @ Fresno State: The Aggies are already head and shoulders above the rest of the WAC, but this is a chance to further distance themselves from the pack.

Sunday

  • 1:00 pm: Valpo @ Detroit; 7:00 pm: Butler @ Wright State: Those Horizon League games from Friday? Butler goes from Detroit to Wright State while Valpo heads the other way.
  • 6:00 pm: Iowa @ No. 25 Minnesota: The Gophers must take care of business coming off of a big win against Purdue.
  • 7:45 pm: North Carolina @ Georgia Tech: The Tar Heels and the Yellow Jackets are probably doing the least with the talent on their respective rosters.
  • 10:00 pm: Washington @ Cal: Cal seems to be handling the loss of Gary Franklin better than U-Dub is the loss of Abdul Gaddy. The Huskies struggle on the road, and they cannot afford to get swept in their northern California trip.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.