Pregame Shootaround 1.3.13: Pac-12 showdown highlights first Thursday of 2013

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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: Colorado at No. 3 Arizona (8 PM) 
The Buffaloes and Wildcats met three times last season, with Colorado’s win in the Pac-12 title game punching their ticket to the NCAA tournament and sending Arizona to the NIT. The Wildcats enter this meeting in far better condition across the board, as they have a point guard in Mark Lyons who they can rely on despite the occasional adventures with the basketball and three young big men who are a vast improvement over what the Wildcats had last year.

The key for Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski will be to match the energy level of Colorado’s Andre Roberson, who is the conference’s best rebounder and has posted six double-doubles this season. Spencer Dinwiddie is one of the conference’s best perimeter defenders, but it remains to be seen if he draws the assignment of Lyons or Nick Johnson, and Askia Booker can put up points in a hurry if allowed to go off. Arizona’s Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom will figure prominently in Sean Miller’s game plan, and Colorado will need solid performances from both Xavier Johnson and Josh Scott if they’re to leave Tucson with a victory.

Who’s Getting Upset?: No. 2 Michigan (at Northwestern; 7 PM) 
John Shurna’s graduated and Drew Crawford is done for the season, but in recent years Bill Carmody’s program has been good for at least one home victory that few expect them to get. This could be that game, because for as well as the Wolverines have played this season this is only their second road game of the season (Bradley being the first). After scoring nine points in the season opener Northwestern’s Reggie Hearn has reached double figures in 11 straight games, scoring 18 and grabbing seven rebounds in a 70-68 loss to Stanford (Hearn didn’t play against Brown).

He, David Sobolewski and Tre Demps (12.0 ppg, 9-of-12 3PT over his last four games) need to be at their best in order to combat what Michigan’s Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas bring to the table if the Wildcats are to win. Another key for Northwestern: keeping Michigan off the offensive boards. The Wolverines are grabbing nearly 36% of their misses, and if Northwestern can limit that they can win.

Mid-Major Matchup of the Day: Belmont at Jacksonville State (8 PM) 
The Bruins make their OVC debut and it won’t be easy either, as the Gamecocks enter with a 2-0 conference record  and have won seven of their last eight games. But there is the strength of schedule factor to address, as Rick Byrd’s team has been tested by teams such as Stanford, Middle Tennessee (Belmont won those), VCU and Kansas. Jacksonville State’s toughest opponent was Oregon, and overall their strength of schedule ranking is down in the 300’s. Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson are one of the better backcourts in college basketball much less the OVC, and if Jacksonville State can’t slow those two down it’s going to be a long night for the home team.

Five Things

1) On Friday it was UCLA that needed a solid victory and the Bruins came through, beating Missouri 97-94 in overtime. Ben Howland’s team opens conference play against a California team that lost to Harvard last week, and with a DirecTV Classic title that doesn’t look all that impressive at this point (they beat Georgia Tech in the semis, but Saint Mary’s losing to Pacific robbed Cal of a marquee matchup in the title game) Mike Montgomery’s team could use a good resume-builder. Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs are averaging 37.3 points per game, but given how much attention they’ll draw Richard Solomon needs to step up.

2) Wisconsin looks to win its Big Ten opener for the 10th consecutive season tonight as they host Penn State. Patrick Chambers’ team has won four straight since being blown out by La Salle, but having to navigate conference play without their best player (Tim Frazier) will prove difficult for Penn State.

3) Canisius puts its 2-0 MAAC record on the line as they host Fairfield, who has won five straight (including a win at Saint Joseph’s). The individual matchup between the Golden Griffins’ Billy Baron and Fairfield’s Derek Needham will be worth the cost of admission.

4) Arkansas State looks to separate itself in the West Division of the Sun Belt tonight, but to do so they’ll have to beat a Middle Tennessee squad that’s one of two undefeated teams in the East. Both teams are good when it comes to offensive rebounding but the Blue Raiders are one of the nation’s best when it comes to defending the three. Opponents are shooting just 27.5% from beyond the arc, and Middle Tennessee’s perimeter defenders will be paying close attention to Edward Townsel (16.2 ppg, 40% 3PT).

5) How good is 8-5 Pepperdine? We’ll find out tonight as they host No. 10 Gonzaga in the WCC opener for both. Marty Wilson’s Waves have been a pleasant surprise to this point in the season with senior guard Lorne Jackson and freshman forward Stacy Davis leading the way, but the Bulldogs are an entirely different animal when compared to the teams Pepperdine has played to this point.

The Top 25 

No. 2 Michigan at Northwestern (7 PM)

Colorado at No. 3 Arizona (8 PM)

No. 10 Gonzaga at Pepperdine (9 PM)

Other Notable Games

Northeastern at George Mason (7 PM; NBC Sports Network)

Fairfield at Canisius (7 PM)

Middle Tennessee at Arkansas State (8:05 PM)

Penn State at Wisconsin (8:30 PM)

Loyola Marymount at BYU (9 PM)

California at UCLA (11 PM)

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

As good as they’ve been, No. 3 Michigan State has yet to play their best

Bryn Forbes, Ryan Fazekas
Associated Press
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Sunday night’s Wooden Legacy title game matchup between No. 3 Michigan State and Providence was billed as a matchup of the nation’s two best players, and rightfully so. Michigan State senior Denzel Valentine (17 points, six rebounds, five assists), who already has two triple-doubles to his credit this season, and Providence redshirt junior Kris Dunn (21 points, five rebounds, seven assists) have more than lived up to the preseason expectations and more of the same was expected in Anaheim.

And while both had their moments, it was Michigan State’s supporting cast that made the difference in their 77-64 victory. The scary thing for future opponents on Michigan State’s schedule is that Tom Izzo’s team is nowhere near being a finished product.

With Valentine dealing with first-half foul trouble Bryn Forbes stepped up, scoring 13 of his 18 points to help the Spartans take a two-point lead into the half. As for the 11-0 run that Michigan State produced to take control of the game late, a host of players stepped forward in regards to scoring, rebounding and defending.

Freshmen Deyonta Davis and Matt McQuaid combined to score nine points over the final 5:32, with transfer guard Eron Harris adding six of his 12 points during that stretch. The Spartans outscored the Friars, who aren’t as deep, 22-7 during that stretch to close out the game, hunting for quality shots and hitting the offensive glass while making things difficult for Providence on the other end of the floor.

The end result was a final margin that does not indicate just how close the game was. While Providence seemed to run out of steam Michigan State received contributions from multiple players, which is undoubtedly a good sign for this group moving forward.

The Spartans will return the currently injured Gavin Schilling later this season, giving them another big man alongside Davis, Matt Costello and Colby Wollenman. He was a player they missed Sunday night, as he can defend opposing big men both in the post and on the perimeter. His absence was a main reason Michigan State didn’t have an answer for Providence’s Ben Bentil (20 points, seven rebounds) defensively.

The key for this group is going to end up being role definition, which is especially true in the case of Harris. A transfer from West Virginia, Harris came to East Lansing with the reputation of being a big time scorer. He’s struggled through the first two weeks of the season, but he got on a roll on Sunday night, finishing with 12 points, three boards and three assists. He showed he’s capable of doing a variety of things on the perimeter, and fitting into a “Swiss army knife” kind of role would make Michigan State that much more dangerous.

There’s no denying that Michigan State has been one of the nation’s best teams thus far.

But there’s also no denying that the Spartans have yet to hit their ceiling, which is definitely a positive moving forward.

Wichita State’s Anton Grady returns home with team

AP Photo/Willie J. Allen Jr.
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Wichita State forward Anton Grady was released from a hospital in Orlando on Sunday afternoon in time to return home with his Shocker teammates.

Grady suffered a spinal corn concussion on Friday when he collided head-first with an Alabama defender, snapping his head sharply to the side. He lay on the court motionless for 10 minutes after the injury and was taken off the floor on a stretcher.

[RELATED: Can WSU still make tourney?]

“I want to send out a big thank you to Shocker Nation and all of my friends and family for of the love and encouragement that I have received the past few days,” Grady said in a statement on Sunday morning. “I’ve been reading your tweets and posts and appreciate every last one of them. I have a lot of work to do to get back on the court, but with the help of such a great support system, I’m ready for the challenge.”

By Friday night, Grady had feeling in all of his extremities, but he has a long road of rehab ahead of him.