Pregame Shootaround 12.8.12: Loaded Saturday features 21 ranked teams in action

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Each day, CollegeBasketballTalk brings you the “Pregame Shootaround,” which will be posted at 2 p.m. ET and lay out a preview for the slate of games that night. We’ll take a look at some key match-ups and important games, as well as make some predictions and point out what you need to watch for. Take a look below at today’s edition:

Note: The weekend editions of Pregame Shootaround will be published half an hour prior to tip-off of the day’s first game.

Game of the Day: No. 13 Illinois vs. No. 10 Gonzaga (10 p.m. ET)

This is Saturday’s only match-up between ranked teams and also happens to be one of only two match-ups between undefeated teams. Much of the focus will likely be on the contrast between coaches, with Mark Few leading his Gonzaga team to another strong start and continuing the program’s mid-major legacy, and John Groce in his first year at Illinois with a team he inherited from now-Kansas State coach Bruce Weber.

Statistically Gonzaga has been one of the most impressive teams in the nation. The Bulldogs are ninth in the country in scoring (83.7 ppg), first in field goal percentage (53.1 percent), 26th in rebounding (41.1 rpg), and 19th in assists (17.0 apg). Prior to their two-point win over Washington State this week, they had won their first eight contests by an average of nearly 28 points per game.

Elias Harris leads the attack, but Gonzaga has benefited greatly from the return of seven-footer Kelly Olynyk, who returned from suspension Nov. 22. He is averaging 13.8 points and 7.0 rebounds.

For Illinois, early season success goes back to the player who led the team in scoring last season, Brandon Paul. He has upped his scoring average by three points per game year-to-year, and is the centerpiece of the Illini’s high-powered scoring front. Expect a high-scoring game in this one.

Who’s getting upset?: No. 18 New Mexico against Valparaiso

There aren’t many evenly matched Top 25 games on Saturday, so it looks like Valpo is one of the few schools with a decent shot at pulling an upset. If the Crusaders are going to do it, it will be in large part due to senior Ryan Broekhoff. The 6-7 Australian is averaging 16.7 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, including a double-double of 20 points and 13 rebounds in a win over Northern Illinois during the 24-hour Tip-off Marathon.

Valpo doesn’t score a lot of points, but typically doesn’t give up many either, meaning they’ll be keying in on New Mexico’s Kendall Williams and Tony Snell. Those two together average just over 26 points per game.

Mid-Major Matchup of the Day: Northern Iowa vs. George Mason (6:00 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network)

George Mason came within one point of beating New Mexico earlier this season and within seven points of beating Maryland this week. They match up Saturday with a Northern Iowa team that had to face a string of high-major competition in Atlantis and is likely better off for it.

The Panthers, led by sophomore Deon Mitchell, lost by just five points to Louisville in a grind-it-out game, then had to come right back to face Stanford and Memphis.

Sherrod Wright and Erik Copes will be key, as usual, for George Mason. Also keep an eye on freshman Patrick Holloway, who went off for 17 points against Maryland, but struggled in the Patriots’ latest game against UMBC.

It should be a low-scoring game Saturday evening, but is the best mid-major match-up on the slate.

Five Things to Watch For

1) Temple upset Duke last season in Philadelphia, so the No. 2 Blue Devils get another shot Saturday in New Jersey. Both teams are undefeated, adding to the depth of this one. Mason Plumlee has transformed himself into a threat on a nightly basis, aided by Seth Curry becoming a legitimate scoring threat after the departure of Austin Rivers. Scootie Randall has been Temple’s biggest asset after returning from injury, and he, along with Khalif Wyatt, should work to counter the Curry/Quinn Cook Duke backcourt.

2) Arkansas might be 4-3, but you know that they’re going to push the basketball and score a lot of points. No. 3 Michigan, with its trio of stars, needs to be ready for that. The Wolverines do a good job of holding on to the basketball for the most part, but if point guard Trey Burke has a bout with turnovers, the Razorbacks could capitalize.

3) Colorado has been a pleasant surprise in the Pac-12 so far this season, and they face their toughest test Saturday. They already beat then-No. 16 Baylor, but the Bears have been plagued by inconsistency this season. Kansas, on the other hand, has been Kansas. It will be interesting to see how the Buffs try to work their offense with center Jeff Withey in the paint for the Jayhawks.

4) No. 11 Cincinnati, as seems to be the case so often, has flown under the radar once again this season and is creeping toward the Top 10. They should win handily over an 0-8 Maryland-Eastern Shore team Saturday, but keep an eye on Mick Cronin’s Bearcats going forward.

5) Clemson will get a chance to see exactly where they are when they take on No. 8 Arizona Saturday. The high-powered Wildcats have now become the clubhouse favorite to win the Pac-12, and the Tigers will be able to see if they are NCAA tournament-worthy against top-tier opponents.

The Rest of the Top 25:

No. 1 Indiana vs. Central Connecticut State (6:00 p.m. ET)

No. 2 Duke vs. Temple (3:15 p.m. ET)

No. 3 Michigan vs. Arkansas (12:00 p.m. ET)

No. 4 Syracuse vs. Monmouth (7:00 p.m. ET)

No. 5 Louisville vs. UMKC (2:00 p.m. ET)

No. 7 Ohio State vs. Long Beach State (12:00 p.m.)

No. 8 Arizona vs. Clemson (8:00 p.m. ET)

No. 9 Kansas vs. Colorado (2:00 p.m. ET)

No. 10 Gonzaga vs. No. 13 Illinois (10:00 p.m. ET, See Above)

No. 11 Cincinnati vs. Maryland-Eastern Shore (2:00 p.m. ET)

No. 12 Missouri vs. Tennessee State (3:00 p.m. ET)

No. 14 Minnesota vs. USC (10:30 p.m. ET)

No. 15 Georgetown vs. Towson (12:00 p.m. ET)

No. 18 New Mexico vs. Valparaiso (9:00 p.m. ET)

No. 19 Michigan State vs. Loyola (Ill.) (2:00 p.m. ET)

No. 20 North Carolina vs. East Tennessee State (7:30 p.m. ET)

No. 22 Notre Dame vs. Brown (7:00 p.m. ET)

No. 23 Oklahoma State vs. Missouri State (4:00 p.m. ET)

No. 24 Wichita State vs. Northern Colorado (8:00 p.m. ET)

No. 25 NC State vs. Cleveland State (1:00 p.m. ET)

Other Notable Games 

Kentucky vs. Portland (12:00 p.m. ET)

Memphis vs. Austin Peay (1:00 p.m. ET)

Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia (4:00 p.m. ET)

UCLA vs. Texas (5:15 p.m. ET)

Wisconsin vs. Marquette (6:00 p.m. ET)

Villanova vs. Penn (8:00 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network)

Nevada vs. Washington (8:00 p.m. ET)

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

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.