Pregame Shootaround 12.13.12: Shockers’ trip to Knoxville headlines slate

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Each day, CollegeBasketballTalk brings you the “Pregame Shootaround,” which will 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. 23 Wichita State at Tennessee (7 PM) 

Just two Top 25 teams are in action tonight and the Shockers have the far tougher matchup of the two as they visit Tennessee. Gregg Marshall’s squad, while expected to contend in the Missouri Valley when the season began, has been a pleasant surprise to this point in the season. Forwards Cleanthony Early (13.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Carl Hall (13.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg) have led the way offensively and three other Shocker players are averaging between 7.4 and 7.9 points per game.

As for the Volunteers it’s been a struggle offensively, as they’ve failed to reach 40 points in either of their last two games (losses to Georgetown and Virginia) and on the season Tennessee is shooting just 42% from the field. Jarnell Stokes will need to lead the way for Tennessee, and their guards need to hit shots consistently if they’re to beat Wichita State.

Who’s Getting Upset?: Washington (at Seattle; 10 PM) 

This is a game the Huskies should win, even though the Redhawks are the home team at Key Arena. But the season hasn’t been a smooth one for Lorenzo Romar’s squad, as they’ve already lost to Albany and Nevada while also getting soundly whipped by Colorado State at home. Will Washington have enough scoring to supplement C.J. Wilcox’s 19.9 points per game? That’s the big question for Washington as they approach the start of Pac-12 play, and if the answer is “no” tonight Seattle has a shot at the upset. Forwards Clarence Trent (who began his college career at Washington) and Deshaun Sunderhaus need to play well if the Redhawks are to pull it off.

Mid-Major Matchup of the Day: Middle Tennessee at Belmont (7 PM)

This would be an excellent matchup of mid-majors even if it didn’t fall in the middle of finals. The Blue Raiders are coming off of a win over Ole Miss and have been solid defensively for much of the season, but they’ll have their hands full with Rick Byrd’s Bruins. Belmont is shooting 48.4% from the field and 43.6% from three, with senior guards Ian Clark (19.4 ppg) and Kerron Johnson (13.9 ppg, 4.8 apg) leading the way. For the winner this will be a good game to have on their resume when March rolls around, even if it’s simply to improve their NCAA tournament seeding.

Five Things to Watch For

1) No. 20 UNLV will be without Mike Moser (dislocated elbow) tonight when they take on La Verne, but the weak opponent gives Dave Rice the opportunity to ease freshman point guard Daquan Cook into the rotation. Cook was originally expected to redshirt, but not only is that no longer the case but he will get minutes too. If Cook performs well in these weeks leading into Mountain West play, that would allow Anthony Marshall to play more off the ball.

2) Florida Gulf Coast looks to move to 6-0 at home when they host FIU in Fort Meyers. Andy Enfield’s Eagles are led by guards Sherwood Brown and Bernard Thompson, who average a combined 30.0 points per game.

3) How many will Brock Motum score tonight? Motum’s averaging 19.7 points per game for Washington State, and with 0-6 Jackson State in town the senior could be poised to go off. He’s scored at least 23 points in each of the last four games, which includes a season-high 29 in a 72-60 win over Portland.

4) Speaking of Jackson State, they’re one of two winless SWAC teams in action tonight. The other is 0-7 Alabama State, which hosts Troy. The Hornets are playing just their second home game of the season, but getting off the schneid will be tough when considering the fact that they’re giving up 77 points per game.

5) Cal State Fullerton looks to end a three-game losing streak when they host Idaho State. The Titans have lost those three games, including a loss at Washington, by a total of eight points.

The Rest of the Top 25:

La Verne at No. 20 UNLV (10 PM)

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

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.