College hoops weekend preview: BracketBusters and more

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source: AP

Game of the Weekend: Sat. Ohio State @ Michigan, 9 p.m.

While the rivalry between these two schools isn’t quite as intense on the basketball side as it is for football, that doesn’t mean that this game isn’t carrying a ton of weight in the Big Ten standings. The Buckeyes are currently sitting in a tie with Michigan State for first place in the conference, one game in front of Michigan. A loss would put the Spartans in the driver’s seat for a league title, as OSU still has to go to East Lansing this year.

The first time these two teams met, OSU won 64-49, but it was far from a pretty affair. Jared Sullinger spent much of the game in foul trouble and William Buford was still mired in a slump. The Buckeyes used a dominating performance on the glass — lead by 17 points and 12 boards (eight offensive) from Lenzelle Smith — in the win. Aaron Craft did a solid job slowing down Trey Burke, who finished with 13 points and five assists but turned the ball over five times and shot 5-11 from the floor. As a team, Michigan only shot 8-25 from three and 35.8% from the floor. That is going to have to change for Michigan to win.

There are basically going to be two things that Michigan has to do if they want to win this game. The first is that they must put up more of a fight on the glass, particularly if Sullinger doesn’t spend the entire game in foul trouble. They cannot allow second chances to a better team, particularly if it is Lenzelle Smith that is creating those opportunities. The Wolverines are also going to have to shoot better from the floor. Burke is going to have a tough day going up against Craft, who is arguably the best on ball defender in college basketball right now. He’s not going to be able to carry Michigan to a win. If their threes are dropping, then that takes the pressure off of Burke to have to try and create.

My pick: Ohio State. I think William Buford, who has played very well in two of his last three games, snaps out of his funk and Michigan struggles to find an answer for Sully inside.

Five more to watch

Sat. UNLV @ New Mexico, 1 p.m.: I’m becoming a bigger and bigger fan of Mountain West basketball. Not only is the quality of the basketball being played very high — that’s what happens when seemingly every roster is made up of top 100 recruits that couldn’t “latch-on” at a Pac-12 school — but the games are intense, the arenas are raucous and the players are respectful. I watch San Diego State lose to both UNLV and New Mexico the past week, and I have to admit, I’ve never seen so many opponents helping each other off of the floor as I do in the MWC.

Anyway, back to the point, New Mexico — who most had pegged as the favorite in the conference heading into the season — has finally found their stride. They are stalwart defensively, they get on the offensive glass and they have a number of shooters on the perimeter that make them a very dangerous and explosive offensive teams. The surge of Kendall Williams of late has been a good thing to see. A win puts the Lobos up two games on UNLV and a game on SDSU. A loss for the Lobos means that, once again, we have a three way tie atop the conference.

Sat. Arizona @ Washington, 3 p.m.: All of a sudden, it looks like three teams have separated themselves from the Pac-12 pack. After losing Kevin Parrom for the season and now playing without Jordin Mayes, Arizona has gone on an unlikely streak, winning five in a row to move to 10-4 in the league, just a game off of the pace set by Cal and Washington. The Wildcats are also coming off of road wins against Cal and Stanford, but the Huskies are a tough team to beat in at home.

Sat. St. Mary’s @ Murray State, 6 p.m.: This is easily the most entertaining BracketBuster game of the weekend, even if it has lost some of its luster. St. Mary’s has lost two of their last three games while Murray State is no longer undefeated thanks to a loss to Tennessee State. That doesn’t mean that the game should be any less entertaining. Both teams can score a lot of points, both teams get up and down the floor, both teams play a bit undersized and both teams have an entertaining star in the back court. I’ll watch Isaiah Canaan and Matthew Dellavedova. Any day of the week.

An added wrinkle has been thrown into this game: both teams really need this win to avoid putting themselves in more bubble danger. If Murray State loses and falls in one of their last four league games, they may actually have to worry about winning the OVC Tournament. The exact same thing can be said about the Gaels. That should make this matchup all the more fun to watch.

Sat. Long Beach State @ Creighton, 10 p.m.: Like St. Mary’s and Murray State, this game lost some of its pizzazz when Creighton lost three games in a row. But that doesn’t change the fact that we will have two teams on the court than can score with anyone in the country. LBSU has one of the nation’s best kept secrets in Casper Ware, a dynamic point guard that is capable of putting up 30 points. He’s got talent around him, but not the kind of shooting the Bluejay’s do. Creighton, whose losing streak was the result of a stretch of poor-shooting, hit 77.5% from the field on Tuesday against Southern Illinois and shot 12-14 from three.

Sun. Michigan State @ Purdue, 1 p.m.: Thank to Purdue taking advantage of the Illinois collapse, the Boilermakers are right back into the mix in the race for an NCAA Tournament bid. They aren’t defending the way that we normally expect a Purdue team to and they are likely going to get crushed on the glass by the much bigger and more physical Spartans. But their is something about this Boilermaker team. They have some scorers and they can get hot in a hurry. Most of all, they are competitors, and while that does sound so corny and cliche, it matters. Purdue doesn’t quit, especially not when they are going to be looking for revenge for the beatdown they received from the Spartans in East Lansing.

Who’s getting upset?: Sat. Florida @ Arkansas, 6 p.m.

This was just too easy. Florida struggles on the road. Arkansas is awesome at home — they haven’t lost at Bud Walton Arena and haven’t won away from it. Florida doesn’t like to get pushed around. Arkansas is back to playing the 40 Minutes of Hell style that won them a national title back in 1994. Everything about this matchup screams upset.

Except for one thing: Florida’s got the kind of guards that can flourish in a game like this. The Razorbacks are going to press all over the court, which means that this is going to turn into an uptempo, back-and-forth game. Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker — and, to an extent, Mike Rosario and Brad Beal — already play like they are on the playground. What happens when they play a team whose style is to turn this into an AAU game? I think Arkansas wins, but I don’t think its going to be as easy as it looks on paper.

Five more teams on upset alert

Sat. Marquette @ UConn, 12 p.m.: I know UConn lost by 18 at Syracuse last Saturday, but that was not an 18 point game. They were down two with five minutes left, fighting and scrapping and playing the way we’ve been hoping the Huskies would play all season long. They followed that up with a 26 point win over DePaul, which gives some credence to the thought that UConn is back. That may just be wishful thinking, but with UConn’s size advantage in the paint — Davante Gardner and Chris Otule are still out — if they can handle Marquette’s pressure they should have a pretty good chance to pick up a much-needed win at home.

Sat. Florida State @ NC State, 1 p.m.: I’m officially off of the Florida State bandwagon. I think this is a good basketball team, but they aren’t anywhere near great and they certainly aren’t on the same level as Duke and UNC this season. They needed a 13-1 run in the final 73 seconds against an injury-depleted Virginia Tech team at home — a run that saw more scoring that Florida State’s entire second half up to that point — to win. NC State is going to be steaming about the way they lost to Duke on Thursday night. I got the Wolfpack.

Sat. Georgetown @ Providence, 7 p.m.: Providence is still trying to work out the kinks with their new head coach, but the Friars are a tough team to play at The Dunk. They always seem to pick up a win or two there over teams they have no business beating. Ed Cooley does have four talented scorers at his disposal, so if they get hot, watch out.

Sat. Mississippi State @ Auburn, 8 p.m.: This is more about Mississippi State than about Auburn. Simply put, I do not trust this team. At all. Road games. Home games. Neutral site games. The talent is there, but somewhere along the line there is a disconnect. In no way, shape or form should a team with Dee Bost at the point and Arnett Moultrie in the middle be in the middle of the SEC pack this season.

Sat. Gonzaga @ San Francisco, 8:30 p.m.: San Francisco threw a scare into BYU on Thursday night, missing two shots on their final possession that would have won the game. The Dons have already beaten Gonzaga at home recently, upsetting them last season, and hung with them earlier this season. The Bulldogs will have a share of the WCC regular season title on the line, but if this group doesn’t come out ready to play, USF will catch them sleeping.

Mid-major matchup of the weekend: Sat. Nevada @ Iona, 4 p.m.

We put together a fairly extensive BracketBuster’s breakdown here when the matchups were announced, so for more detailed previews of these games you should head that way.

I still want to talk about them, however. It seems unlikely that either of these teams will have a shot at getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be an entertaining game to watch. Iona gets up and down the floor and scores points as quickly as anyone in the country. Nevada may have more talent on their roster top to bottom, headlined by WAC player of the year candidate Deonte Burton.

Five more to watch

Sat. Drexel @ Cleveland State, 11 a.m.: Where Nevada-Iona will be a run-and-gun affair, this will be a heavyweight bout. Both the Dragons and the Vikings pride themselves on their defense. If you aren’t tough, you won’t be seeing minutes in this game.

Sat. Wichita State @ Davidson, 12 p.m.: All of a sudden Wichita State looks like they may be the best team in the country outside of the Power Six conferences, which makes it a bit disappointing they ended up heading to Davidson.

Sat. Akron @ Oral Roberts, 2 p.m.: The best team in the MAC will be a good test for Oral Roberts, a talented, experienced and balanced team that can score with the best of them.

Sat. UNC-Asheville @ Ohio, 7 p.m.: You like back court stars? We got back court stars. Ohio’s DJ Cooper is one of the best point guards in the country you’ve never heard of while Matt Dickey and JP Primm just may form the best mid-major back court in the country.

Sat. Dayton @ Xavier, 8 p.m.: All of a sudden this game looms very large. Both the Flyers and the Musketeers sit squarely on the bubble, although pride may be a more important factor. Dayton has collapsed this season after a terrific start to the year. And Xavier? They are a shell of their pre-brawl selves.

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

Walker struggles in return home, No. 11 Miami beats La Salle

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READING, Pa. (AP) — Prized freshman Lonnie Walker IV struggled in his return home, but Dewan Huell scored 16 points and No. 11 Miami did just enough to get by La Salle 57-46 on Wednesday night and remain unbeaten.

Part of Miami’s recruiting pitch for the projected NBA lottery pick was a game in his hometown. Walker was held to five points and 2-of-8 shooting, and his woes were contagious. Miami (4-0) shot 37 percent from the field and the Explorers were 0 of 15 from 3-point range.

B.J. Johnson scored 16 points on 6-of-20 shooting and Pookie Powell added 15 on 5-of-15 from the field for La Salle (3-3) in its third straight loss.

La Salle traveled about 60 miles from campus, but it was a Miami home game and the crowd was solidly behind their local hero’s team. Walker has provided a needed boost to a struggling city northwest of Philadelphia.

Once a bustling railroad and mill town of 120,000, Reading has been in a steady decline for decades. It ranked as the poorest city in the nation in the 2010 Census based on median household income. Population has plummeted to under 88,000.

Walker and his Reading High School team had given the city something to be proud of in March, winning its first state title.

Many in the crowd wore red Reading High state champion T-shirts and sweatshirts, with sprinkles of Miami orange and La Salle blue and gold sprinkled in.

Walker didn’t start — he hasn’t yet this season — but the crowd roared as he got off the bench and walked to the scorer’s table 4 minutes in.

While Walker didn’t appear to have any issue with the left ankle he turned in a win over Florida A&M last week, it was a struggle. He missed his first three shots before finally bringing the crowd to its feet with a nifty crossover dribble and bank shot in the lane in the final seconds of an ugly first half that made it 19-19.

Walker couldn’t get it going in the second half, either. But he fed Bruce Brown Jr. for a 3-pointer with 3:23 left to put Miami up 49-39 during an 8-0 run.

Huell hit 8 of10 shots and added seven rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

La Salle: The Explorers dropped their third straight game to a Power 5 team (Northwestern, Boston College), but this was one they could have won with a decent shooting performance. They shot 29 percent from the field.

Miami: It was tough to tell if Walker was 100 percent with his ankle. He likely had some nerves. It was far from the performance he would have liked. Walker has been held to single digits in three straight games.

UP NEXT

La Salle hosts Big 5 rival Temple on Sunday before departing for a two-game tournament in Northern Ireland next week.

Miami returns home to face North Florida on Saturday before traveling to No. 14 Minnesota next Wednesday.

No. 5 Villanova beats Western Kentucky 66-58 in the Bahamas

BUFFALO, NY - MARCH 16: Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats drives against Elijah Long #55 of the Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers in the first half during the first round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at KeyBank Center on March 16, 2017 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Fifth-ranked Villanova failed to speed up Western Kentucky’s controlled tempo and struggled to make shots through the first half of its Battle 4 Atlantis debut.

In the second half, the Wildcats looked far more like the high-scoring bunch that had cracked 100 points in each of their past two games.

Jalen Brunson scored 18 points while Villanova finally got loose in transition after halftime, helping the Wildcats beat the Hilltoppers 66-58 in Wednesday’s opening round.

The Wildcats (4-0) found themselves in a close game until early in the second half. That’s when they ran off a 13-2 burst to push ahead by double figures, part of a hot-shooting stretch that had them picking up the pace and scoring off turnovers.

“They usually play a little faster than that, but I think they were smart knowing they’ve got three days here,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They controlled the tempo. … Offensively they had us out of whack, and I think that had a lot to do with our poor shooting in the first half.”

Villanova didn’t get many easy scores in the first half and had just two fast-break points by the break, but had 14 in the second half while also scoring 16 of their 23 points off turnovers.

Villanova made 15 of 24 shots (63 percent) after halftime after shooting just 33 percent to lead 27-24 at the break. The Wildcats ultimately led by 18 points late.

“They find ways to have spurts and make runs,” Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury said. “And they were able to find a way to spurt out the second half a little bit on some turnovers.”

Darius Thompson scored 16 points for the Hilltoppers (2-2), who shot 44 percent but struggled to maintain control with Villanova converting easy baskets off turnovers in the second half.

“I think our turnovers were kind of self-inflicted,” Thompson said. “Just trying to do a little too much in the wrong times.”

BIG PICTURE

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers kept Villanova close through the first half and trailed just 34-33 early in the second. Still, the Hilltoppers fell to 1-13 in their last 14 games against ranked opponents.

“I’m really proud of our team’s effort,” Stansbury said, “but I think it’s the way we kind of let the game get away from us in the second half that I’m most disappointed with.”

Villanova: The Wildcats came in putting up big offensive numbers, including 113 points against Nicholls State and 104 more against Lafayette in their last two games. They didn’t find that same roll here, though they ultimately built a big lead and cruised to the final horn.

“We still have to get a lot better,” Brunson said. “We’re still a work in progress.”

BRIDGES’ ROLL

Brunson is a preseason Associated Press All-American, but Mikal Bridges is leading Villanova in scoring. The junior guard had set career scoring highs with 23 points against Nicholls and then 24 against Lafayette, and he followed with 17 points and eight rebounds in this one.

BENCH SPARK

Sophomore Donte DiVincenzo scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half for Villanova off the bench. He finished a tough layup through contact for a three-point play at the 5:11 mark.

DiVincenzo has scored in double figures in three of four games this season.

“He’s really an unselfish guy,” Wright said. “We really have six starters, you can tell by the minutes. And he’s a guy that just said, ‘I don’t care, I’ll do whatever you need me to do.’

“And he comes in off the bench and he’s incredible, and brings great energy. He was awesome in the second half.”

UP NEXT

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers will face No. 18 Purdue in Thursday’s consolation bracket.

Villanova: The Wildcats advanced to play Tennessee on Thursday.

Tennessee tops No. 18 Purdue 78-75 (OT) in Battle 4 Atlantis

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PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Tennessee kept attacking the glass and playing aggressive defense on No. 18 Purdue’s shooters.

Once Grant Williams got going, the Volunteers had enough scoring punch, too.

Williams scored all 22 of his points after halftime and hit the go-ahead shot with 14.5 seconds left in overtime to lift Tennessee past No. 18 Purdue 78-75 in Wednesday’s opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis.

The Volunteers (3-0) trailed by 11 points in the first half, needed to make a late 3-pointer to force overtime and fell behind by five in the extra period before rallying for the win.

“I thought we really showed the toughness we’ve been looking for from them,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said, adding: “I thought our guys just kept finding ways to fight back.”

After P.J. Thompson missed a jumper for the lead, James Daniel hit two free throws with 2.0 seconds left to push the margin to three. The Boilermakers had one more chance to tie, but Kyle Alexander intercepted Dakota Mathias’ long inbounds heave to end it.

Williams, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, missed both of his first-half shots and had one rebound while playing eight scoreless minutes with two fouls. But he made 8 of 16 shots with seven rebounds from there while the Volunteers kept running their offense through him at the top of the key and in the post.

“Just keep playing, because when you’re in foul trouble you tend to get out of your mind a little bit,” Williams said. “You’ve just got to stick to it and be yourself, because I knew guys were going to hit shots.”

Tennessee shot just 36 percent but dominated the boards (50-41), finished with 21 second-chance points and scored 20 points off turnovers.

The Volunteers also got a huge lift when Lamonte Turner buried a tying 3-pointer from near his bench with 5.1 seconds left in regulation. Purdue called a timeout, but Carsen Edwards’ 3 for the win hit the front rim as the horn sounded.

Edwards scored 21 points to lead the Boilermakers (4-1), who never got their high-scoring offense rolling.

“We have a skilled team, but we’ve got to win the possession wars,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “We’ve got to outrebound our opponent. We have to have fewer turnovers. When you do, now that skill is really going to help you. I thought tonight we gave Tennessee a lot of help.”

BIG PICTURE

Tennessee: The Volunteers were trying for their first 3-0 start since the 2010-11 season, along with earning their fourth win against a ranked opponent under their third-year coach. They certainly found a thrilling way to do it, from Turner’s 3 to Williams’ huge effort after a scoreless first half.

Purdue: Offense sure didn’t come easily for a team that entered as one of the nation’s best offenses. The Boilermakers were averaging 102 points per game and shooting nearly 57 percent from the field. They also were shooting roughly 49 percent from 3-point range after making a school-record 19 3s against Fairfield on Saturday. But Purdue shot just 37 percent and had 18 turnovers.

“We’ve got to do a better job with decision-making,” Painter said. “We’re a good offensive team, we’ve got to allow ourselves to be a good offensive team. When we go too quick or we force things and we turn it over, now we’re not rewarding ourselves.”

BIG SHOTS

Tennessee came up with two huge 3s late, the first from Turner to force overtime.

“Up until that point, I felt like I was losing the game for us,” Turner said.

Then Alexander hit one after Purdue had raced out to a 70-65 OT lead. The 6-11 junior was 1 for 6 from behind the arc in his career before that shot.

LATE REVIEW

There was a bit of end-game confusion and a review with Alexander’s steal and whether he traveled just before the horn. Ultimately, it stood as the final play.

UP NEXT

Tennessee: The Volunteers will play the Western Kentucky-Villanova winner Thursday.

Purdue: The Boilermakers will play the Western Kentucky-Villanova loser Thursday.

Vanderbilt lands five-star forward Simi Shittu

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Vanderbilt continues to build a monster recruiting class under head coach Bryce Drew as five-star 2018 forward Simi Shittu pledged to the Commodores on Wednesday.

The second five-star commitment for Vanderbilt in the Class of 2018, Shittu joins top point guard prospect Darius Garland to form one of the best freshman combinations in the country for next season. The Commodores also have a top-150 forward in Aaron Nesmith.

The 6-foot-9, 220-pound Shittu is coming off of a monster summer in which he became a major problem and top-ten recruit. The No. 8 overall prospect in the Rivals national Class of 2018 recruiting rankings, Shittu is a huge get and an instant starter for Vanderbilt next season.

By landing prospects like Garland and Shittu, Drew is also becoming a major player in a short amount of time as a high-major coach. Always a noted recruiter at the mid-major level at Valparaiso, now Vanderbilt is seeing Drew’s hiring workout as he’s bringing top talent to the program.

If Drew can continue to recruit like this then Vanderbilt could be in position to be in the top half of the SEC as the league has seen some of its rebuilds go poorly over the last few years.

Kansas still without freshman Billy Preston

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Kansas freshman Billy Preston has yet to make his debut for the Jayhawks and it appears he’ll have to wait a bit longer before that happens.

Head coach Bill Self met with media earlier this week to discuss the Preston situation, saying that nothing has changed about his status quite yet. Preston was previously suspended for violating a team rule when he missed the game against Tennessee State. Before Preston was set to debut against Kentucky in the Champions Classic he was also withheld from the contest after the revelation that Preston had been in a single-vehicle accident the previous weekend.

“I have actually been out, until I just pulled back in, so as of this morning, there was no movement. The last time you guys asked me was Friday and so you don’t work on Saturday or Sunday, so there is nothing new on that situation,” Self said.

“Sure, I’m worried,” Self also added. “I’m concerned and I do think that it can work itself, based on what I’ve been told. I also think that it obviously hadn’t happened yet.”

It’s uncertain when the next step in any of this will play out but Self doesn’t appear to be too concerned over it. Kansas has won without Preston so far but they could definitely use his size, scoring punch and overall depth to a team that isn’t very deep right now.

A matchup nightmare, Preston could help the Jayhawk offense while also giving Udoka Azubuike additional help on the glass and protecting the rim.

(H/t: Jesse Newell, Kansas City Star)