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Pregame Shootaround 12.20.12: McCollum vs. Mitchell matchup one to watch

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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: Lehigh at North Texas (8 PM) 

With the pickings slim following an action-packed Wednesday slate, two players that NBA draft gurus have had their eyes on will be on the same floor in Denton, Texas. Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum is currently leading the country in scoring with an average of 24.9 points per game, and the Mountain Hawks have done little to invalidate the preseason chatter that they would be right there with Bucknell atop the Patriot League.

The same cannot be said for either Tony Mitchell or North Texas, as the Mean Green limp into tonight’s game with a 5-6 record and the “man child” has been rather inconsistent thus far. Mitchell’s averaging 13.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game but his field goal percentage has dropped ten points from last year’s mark of 56.7%, and in a 45-40 win over Southeast Louisiana the preseason Sun Belt Player of the Year shot 1-of-9 from the field (eight points). Given their start this is a big game for North Texas; can they deliver?

Who’s Getting Upset?: Arkansas (vs. Robert Morris; 8 PM) 

With this game sandwiched in between games against Alcorn State and Alabama A&M for Arkansas, there’s a chance that the Razorbacks could get caught looking ahead to Christmas with the Colonials in town. To do so would be a mistake, as Andy Toole’s squad is capable of pulling off the upset. Robert Morris averages just over 67 points per game and they aren’t the best rebounding team either, but the Colonials are forcing an average of 16.9 turnovers per game. With guards Velton Jones and Karvel Anderson leading the way RMU has the experience needed to avoid folding in such an environment.

Mid-Major Matchup of the Day: Iona at La Salle (7 PM)  

The Gaels will finally have the services of junior college transfer David Laury, who is expected to give Iona a much-needed scorer in the frontcourt. But the best action in this one will come on the perimeter, as Iona’s Sean Armand and Lamont Jones will face La Salle’s Tyreek Duren and Ramon Galloway. The Explorers will also have a mid-year addition of their own, as Virginia Tech transfer Tyrone Garland gives Dr. John Giannini another perimeter piece to rely on.

Six Things to Watch

1) In a preparation for the quick turnaround they’ll see in March, top-ranked Duke is playing its second game in as many nights as they host Elon. After a slow first half against Cornell the Blue Devils caught fire in the second half, closing the game on a 60-21 run.

2) The other ranked team in action is No. 2 Michigan, who hosts Eastern Michigan in their final game before Christmas. The Eagles are limiting opponents to 57.5 points per game thanks in large part to their zone defense, but with Michigan having shooters such as Nik Stauskas and Tim Hardaway Jr. EMU has to identify the shooters if they’re to have any chance of pulling off the upset.

3) With three key players out of the lineup Wichita State looks to move to 10-1 as they host Charleston Southern. Carl Hall (broken thumb), Ron Baker (stress fracture in foot) and Evan Wessel (broken pinky) are all sidelined for this one, and the Shockers enter hoping no one else goes down just as much as they’re hoping for the win.

4) USC takes on another Big West opponent tonight, hosting a UC Irvine squad that will give them a far stiffer challenge than UC Riverside did on Saturday (70-26). Irvine, who took UCLA to overtime earlier this season before losing by one, is limiting opponents to 35% shooting from the field.

5) Boise State is back on the floor for the first time since their 89-70 whipping of LSU, taking on Idaho. Stephen Madison and Kyle Barone have the ability to challenge the Broncos inside, but it won’t matter much if their guards aren’t capable of slowing down Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks.

6) Decision day for Jabari Parker. Many have Duke and Michigan State leading the way for his services, with BYU, Florida and Stanford rounding out his final five. He’ll make his announcement at 4 PM EST.

The Top 25 

Elon at No. 1 Duke (7 PM)

Eastern Michigan at No. 2 Michigan (8:30 PM)

Other Notable Games

Rider at Princeton (7 PM)

Lipscomb at Memphis (8 PM)

Pepperdine at Tulane (8 PM)

Cal Poly at Washington (9 PM)

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

Johnson, Paige help No. 9 Tar Heels roll past Panthers 85-64

North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks (4) dunks against Pittsburgh during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
AP Photo/Gerry Broome
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) Brice Johnson scored 19 points to lead a dominating offensive performance that helped No. 9 North Carolina beat Pittsburgh 85-64 on Sunday.

Marcus Paige added 15 points for the Tar Heels (21-4, 10-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 59 percent to stay atop the league ahead of the next renewal of their fierce rivalry with Duke.

UNC had plenty of balance, shared the ball and got out in transition in arguably their best performance in weeks, using a 13-0 second-half burst to blow the game open. UNC finished with 26 assists on 32 baskets, 24 points off turnovers and scored 16 fast-break points after managing a combined five in the past two games.

Michael Young and James Robinson each scored 15 points to lead Pitt (17-7, 6-6). But the Panthers shot 37 percent and committed 19 turnovers, and a strong effort on the glass did little to offset their troubles.

The Tar Heels were playing their first home game in two weeks after a difficult three-game road trip that started with losses at Louisville and Notre Dame. Then came Tuesday’s game at Boston College, where the Tar Heels struggled against a winless league team then had a scare when Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams briefly collapsed in a second-half huddle after an attack of vertigo and had to leave the sideline for the rest of the game.

Williams was back in the office on Wednesday’s off day, returned to practice Thursday and told reporters Friday he was fine and even cracked jokes about a two-decade history with vertigo dating to his Kansas years.

Getting back home certainly helped everyone feel better. After wrestling with shooting struggles for much of the past month, UNC’s offense kicked back into an efficient and balanced gear, while Paige – the player the Tar Heels are practically begging to jolt free from a prolonged shooting slump – looked more like his old self against the Panthers.

That included one second-half play in which he caught a crosscourt pass from Theo Pinson in transition and made sure to step back behind the arc before burying a 3-pointer.

The Panthers had lost three of four since a 5-2 league start coming in, including 65-63 on a late tip-in at No. 12 Miami on Tuesday. And Pitt again had trouble getting their offense going, failing to crack 70 points for the third straight game.

TIP-INS

Pittsburgh: Second-leading scorer Jamel Artis scored five points on 2-for-8 shooting. … Pitt finished with a 41-29 rebounding advantage. … Pitt made 9 of 21 3-point attempts.

UNC: Justin Jackson scored 14 points. … UNC made 8 of 15 shots from 3-point range and 13 of 15 free throws. … Jackson and Pinson had six assists each. … UNC managed just one offensive rebound.

UP NEXT

Pittsburgh hosts Wake Forest on Tuesday.

UNC hosts Duke on Wednesday.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap and the AP’s college basketball site at http://collegebasketball.ap.org

Denzel Valentine dominant as No. 8 Michigan State whips Indiana

Michigan State's Denzel Valentine (45) shoots over Indiana's Kevin Yogi Ferrell during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)
AP Photo/Al Goldis
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Trailing by one point at the half, Indiana appeared to be in good shape at No. 8 Michigan State. However the fact that they were unable to slow down Denzel Valentine, who scored 15 first-half points, was a major concern for Tom Crean’s Hoosiers. Sure enough the national Player of the Year candidate continued on his tour de force in the second half, scoring another 15 points and dishing out seven assists as the Spartans rolled to an 88-69 victory.

For the game Valentine finished with 30 points, five rebounds, 13 assists and just one turnover. Of Michigan State’s 48 second half points, Valentine had a hand in 29 of them with all seven of his assists resulting in Michigan State layups. It was a dominant performance from one of the nation’s best players, a versatile guard whose four games missed due to injury may have led to some overlooking him when it comes to those national Player of the Year conversations.

When Valentine’s on everything else flows smoothly for Tom Izzo’s team, as his ability to both score and create results in quality looks for teammates who would struggle if they had to get that part of the job done themselves.

The biggest beneficiary Sunday afternoon was forward Matt Costello, who finished the game with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Of Costello’s ten made field goals (10-for-12 FG) five were assisted by Valentine, and he accounted for 13 points and seven rebounds in the second half. As a team Michigan State shot 63.3 percent from the field and assisted on 16 of their 19 made field goals in the second half, turning a tight contest into a blowout.

Tum Tum Nairn returned the court for the first time in seven games, but he played just two minutes and his time on the court will be managed carefully by Izzo moving forward. For many teams not having your point guard at full strength would represent a crippling blow, but that hasn’t been the case for Michigan State thanks in large part to Valentine. Michigan State went 4-3 in those seven games without Nairn, but the three losses were by a total of three points.

Valentine’s ability to make his teammates better will be a key factor down the stretch for Michigan State, and that skill was what led to the Spartans blowing out Indiana on Sunday.