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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.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.