Pregame Shootaround 1.11.13: Can Missouri State continue its improbable turnaround?

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Game of the Day: No. 13 Creighton at Missouri State (8:00 p.m.; ESPN3) 

After going 2-10 in non-conference play Paul Lusk’s team has proven to be a headache for their Missouri Valley foes, as the Bears are off to a 3-1 start. But tonight brings on an incredibly difficult task: slowing down Doug McDermott and a Creighton team that’s averaging 80.2 points per game. On the season Creighton is shooting 51.9% from the field and 44.9% from beyond the arc, and the many quality looks that the Bluejays find offensively make them one of the tougher matchups in the country. Guards Anthony Downing and Marcus Marshall lead the way offensively for Missouri State but it would be unrealistic for them to have any thoughts of winning a shootout with Creighton. Can they slow down the Bluejays? Doubtful, but few had them getting off to a 3-1 start either.

Who’s Getting Upset? Utah State (vs. San Jose State; 9:05 p.m. ESPN3) 

The Dee Glenn Smith Spectrum is one of the toughest environments for a road team to deal with, thanks not only to the fans but also the fact that Stew Morrill’s program is 219-19 during his tenure. Led by shooting guard Preston Medlin the Aggies have won 12 games in a row, but with San Jose State having a perimeter marksman of its own there’s a chance the Spartans can pull the upset. His name: James Kinney. Kinney, who casual fans may not have seen since he scored 30 in a loss at Kansas in late November, is averaging 20.6 points per game and has scored 20 points or more in eight of the 14 games in which he has played. If he can get hot don’t be surprised if San Jose State hangs around.

Mid-Major Matchup of the Night: Fairfield at Loyola (MD) (7:00 p.m.; ESPNU) 

With wins over Rider and Saint Peter’s last week more than a few pundits were quick to make Loyola (MD) the clear favorite to win the MAAC. But the conference race is a wide-open affair and that’s something the visiting Stags hope to prove tonight. Fairfield (2-2) trails Loyola (3-1) by a game in the standings but they’ve won three of their last four games on the road, which includes wins at Saint Joseph’s and Canisius. The perimeter matchup between Fairfield’s Derek Needham and Loyola’s Dylon Cormier should be fun to watch, but the key for the Stags will be whether or not their front court can neutralize Loyola forward Erik Etherly (15.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg).

Five Things to Watch For 

1) Siena has lost 11 straight games entering tonight’s game against Canisius and at first glance it would be safe to assume that Billy Baron and company will make short work of the Saints. But Siena has won 13 of the last 14 games in the series and they own a 13-2 record against the Golden Griffins at the Times Union Center. Is this weekend a “last stand” of sorts for forward O.D. Anosike and company? It just might be.

2) Wright St. looks to move to 4-0 in Horizon League play tonight with a win at Loyola (IL). Billy Donlon’s Raiders are off to the program’s best start since the 1989-90 season and they’ve done so thanks in large part to their work on the defensive end. Opponents are shooting 39.7% from the field and 29.5% from beyond the arc, and junior forward Cole Darling leads the way offensively with an average of 10.6 points per game.

3) Northern Kentucky and Lipscomb meet for the first time since the 1971-72 season, and strangely enough all three prior meetings in the series took place during that season (Lipscomb winning two). Both teams are 1-3 in Atlantic Sun play, and if they’re to defend their home floor the Norse have to hold their own on the boards (minus-4.2 rebounding margin).

4) Niagara swept the season series with Saint Peter’s last season and have won eight of the last 12 meetings entering tonight’s game in Jersey City. With high-scoring guards Antoine Mason and Juan’ya Green at his disposal Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich will look to crack the Peacocks’ tough half-court defense.

5) San Jose State’s James Kinney is averaging 20.6 points per game on the season but he’s coming off of a 3-of-18 outing in the Spartans’ 71-64 win over New Orleans on Tuesday night. It’s safe to say that San Jose State can’t afford a similar performance if they’re to win at Utah State.

Other Notable Games 

7:00 p.m. Lipscomb at Northern Kentucky

7:00 p.m. Canisius at Siena

7:00 p.m. Niagara at Saint Peter’s

9:00 p.m. Wright St. at Loyola (IL) (ESPNU)

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

No. 15 Xavier’s win over Wisconsin should, and will, be rewarded by Selection Committee

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This Wisconsin team is probably not going to end up being quite as good as past Wisconsin teams.

That’s inevitable when you lose the players that they lost to graduation, but it also doesn’t change the fact that No. 15 Xavier went into the Kohl Center and snagged a win that is going to look quite good on Selection Sunday.

The Musketeers took care of the Badgers, 80-70, thanks to 25 points and nine boards from Trevon Bluiett and 20 points from J.P. Macura. Bluiett struggled to find a rhythm for much of the game, but he hit a pair of critical jumpers midway through the second half to stem a Wisconsin run and, with the game tied and just over a minute left on the clock, buried three-pointers on back-to-back possessions to lock up the win.

For a stretch midway through the second half, it looked like Wisconsin was getting ready to run away with this game. Ethan Happ – who finished with 21 points and eight assists and who Xavier head coach Chris Mack referred to as “one of the best post players in the entire country” – was in the midst of taking the game over and Wisconsin’s sold out Kohl Center was in full voice. That’s when Bluiett went into takeover mode, quieting the crowd and getting Xavier out of Madison with a win.

That shouldn’t be overlooked, and if there is any justice in the world, it will be the kind of thing that the Musketeers get rewarded for come Selection Sunday.

I enjoy the neutral site tournaments that pop up every year. They create some drama every November, and there are always some fun matchups over the weekend and afternoon basketball during the week. That’s great. But the best part of college hoops is the environment of playing a big game on campus. The crowd, the student section, players like Macura doing the Gator Chomp at the Wisconsin fans – the Badgers lost to Florida in the NCAA tournament last year – after they spent the entire second half bombarding him with ‘a******’ chants every time he touched the ball.

It was great.

And it will be better if that kind of a win, even against a Wisconsin team that is probably closer to being top 40-good than top 25-good, is something that the Selection Committee values. Those changes are supposedly coming, and it will be a good thing for the sport. Give top 15 teams an incentive to play road games in November.

Because Thursday night’s clash in the Kohl Center was everything that is great about college hoops.

Kentucky finds an answer in Kevin Knox while questions about point guards still linger

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CHICAGO – The most interesting part of Kentucky’s 65-61 loss to Kansas came after the game, in the press conference, as the Wildcats publicly projected an air of satisfaction.

John Calipari, Kevin Knox, they spoke as if hanging with Kansas, as if pushing the No. 4 team in the country, a team with 6.5 scholarship players available on Tuesday night, was a moral victory.

And no one batted an eye.

Kentucky had struggled in their season-opening win over Utah Valley, trailing by as much as 12 points early in the second half before coming alive and winning by ten. They only beat Vermont by four, as the Catamounts slowly and methodically chipped away at a Kentucky lead in the second half, missing two shots to tie the game in the final minute.

It wasn’t a surprise, not with the overwhelming amount of youth on the Kentucky roster and the simple fact that none of those youngsters fall into the same class as Michael Porter Jr., Deandre Ayton or Marvin Bagley III. We all knew that Kentucky was going to go through growing pains this season, that the product they put on the floor in March will be markedly different than the one we’ve seen through the first week of the season, but it is still odd to see a program the caliber of Kentucky qualifying a loss with ‘we played hard.’

“We were just fighting. I give it to my teammates. We really fought,” Kevin Knox, the most celebrated member of Kentucky’s freshman class, said. “A lot of people ha us losing this game by 20, 30 points, but we said before the game that we’re not having it. They’re a veteran team, we’re a real young team. A lot of people thought they’d have the advantage, but tonight we really fought our butts off. We played really hard in the second half, and we could have won the game. We only lost by four points.”

I couldn’t agree with that statement more, and there were a lot of positives to take out of that game.

And it may have answered one of the two biggest questions hanging over the program this season: Who is Kentucky’s closer? Who is Kentucky’s go-to guy?

Kevin Knox, or so it seems.

Knox struggled through the first two games of the season. He was 6-for-23 from the floor, he was 2-for-8 from three and he was averaging 11.5 points. Against Kansas, however, Knox was terrific, finishing with 20 points, banging how three threes and showing off a perimeter game that I wasn’t sure that he had in his arsenal yet; he made a couple pull-ups and he was able to create offense off of the dribble.

He’s not where he needs to be yet, but I left the United Center feeling much better about where Kentucky stands this season than I did entering.

“I still don’t know how we’re going to play late in a close game,” head coach John Calipari said, adding that “late in the game, that’s not on those kids. We haven’t worked on late-game situations.”

“I knew it was going to be tough, but I need to put these kids into those situations. I need to see who can make a shot, who can make a free throw. You can only learn about your team in games like this.”

They’ll get there eventually.

The bigger concern is at the point guard spot. Kentucky has two on their roster this season, and neither of them appear to be the answer. Quade Green, who has started the last two games after coming off the bench, is better on the offensive end of the floor but struggles defensively. Vermont’s Trae Bell-Haynes ate him up in the second half of Kentucky’s win. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a much better defender, but when he’s on the floor and Green isn’t, Kentucky’s only effective means of generating offense comes in transition or on the offensive glass. Against Kansas, Gilgeous-Alexander turned the ball over six times.

The way Calipari wants to run his program is clear: Go get one of the best incoming freshman point guards to run his team. Whether it’s Tyreke Evans or Derrick Rose or John Wall or De’Aaron Fox or Marquis Teague, the trend is clear. This year, he didn’t get a player on that level. Green and Gilgeous-Alexander both fall in that second tier of point guard, and the only other year where that was the case for Cal was back in 2012-13, when N.C. State transfer Ryan Harrow ran the show and Kentucky ended up in the NIT.

I don’t think the Wildcats are in danger of repeating that season, particularly if Knox keeps growing into that go-to guy role. They’re still going to be very good defensively and they’re still going big enough to get to dominate the glass on most nights, which should help them mitigate the fact that their perimeter shooting is not quite where it needs to be.

But the difference between Kentucky being good and Kentucky genuinely being considered among the nation’s best teams is at the point, and unless Calipari can find a way to fuse Green’s ability on the offensive end of the floor with Gilgeous-Alexander’s skill as a defender, I’m not quite sure what the answer is going to be.

Michael Porter Jr.’s injury growing more concerning, misses trip to Utah

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The injury to Michael Porter Jr., Missouri’s star freshman and a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, seems to be a little more concerning that many initially believed.

The 6-foot-10 forward will not play tonight as the Tigers visit Utah, and he reportedly did not even travel with the team.

“I think it’s day-to-day,” head coach Cuonzo Martin told reporters when asked about Porter’s injury on Monday night. “That’s the best assessment for me to say right now. It’s day-to-day.”

According to Missouri, the injury was suffered during warmups prior to Missouri’s first game. Porter played the first two minutes of that opener against Iowa State last week so as to avoid a technical foul – he was already listed in the starting lineup – but he did not return to the game, sitting with an icepack on his hip on the bench. Porter was not on the bench when Missouri beat Wagner by 44 points earlier this week, but Porter was not on the bench during the game. Missouri said that was due to the fact that is was more comfortable for Porter to sit elsewhere.

Thomas’ career-high 24 leads Creighton over No. 20 Northwestern

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ROSEMONT, Ill. (AP) — Khyri Thomas had a career-high 24 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, Martin Krampelj added a career-high 17 points and Creighton beat No. 20 Northwestern 92-88 on Wednesday night in a Gavitt Tipoff Games matchup.

Ty-Shon Alexander had 14 points and Marcus Foster had 12 for the Bluejays (3-0).

Vic Law had a career-high 30 points and Bryant McIntosh added 24 for Northwestern (2-1).

Creighton senior Toby Hegner went down in the first half with a high ankle sprain and was on crutches at the end of the game.

The Wildcats rallied from a 15-point first-half deficit to take the lead in the second half, but couldn’t maintain the momentum as Creighton answered the run and took the lead for good with 14 minutes to go.

Law scored 12 straight Northwestern points early in the second half to lead a furious comeback from a 51-43 halftime deficit. Included in that run was a four-point play 3 minutes into the half to put the Wildcats on top 56-55 — their first lead since early in the first half.

Creighton is 12-1 against teams from the Big Ten since November 2011. The Bluejays had four wins over teams ranked in the Top 25 last season.

THE BIG PICTURE

Creighton: The Bluejays scored 109 points in their previous game against Alcorn State and were on a pace for 120 or more in racing out to a 44-29 lead 15 minutes into the game. But after Northwestern picked up its defensive intensity, they managed just 11 points over the next 8 minutes in losing the big lead. The players, though, responded and reclaimed control.

Northwestern: The Wildcats are coming off their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament last season and were ranked in the AP preseason poll for the first time. But Wednesday night showed that nothing is going to come easy this season just because expectations are high — especially if they don’t play with the same intensity on the defensive end as last season.

UP NEXT

Creighton: The Bluejays face No. 23 UCLA on Monday night in the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City.

Northwestern: The Wildcats face La Salle on Saturday in the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn.

Berry struggles in return, but North Carolina tops Bucknell

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If Joel Berry was playing a videogame Wednesday as Joel Berry, he may have wanted to break his other hand.

The North Carolina senior struggled mightily in his return from injury into the Tar Heels’ lineup as UNC narrowly outlasted Bucknell, 93-81, to improve to 2-0 on the season.

The final result and Berry’s actual performance probably matters less than simply getting him back on the court after his infamous injury, but it was a difficult night for the 6-foot senior guard. Berry made his first shot of the game, but missed his next 10 to finish 1 of 11 with eight points in his return to the lineup.

Berry missed North Carolina’s season-opening win against Northern Iowa because he broke his hand in frustration while playing videogames against teammate Theo Pinson and a UNC manager in what was surely an embarrassing – not to mention painful – moment for Berry, but that will undoubtedly be enshrined in Tar Heel lore for a generation or nine. You’ve also got to give him credit for working his way back from injury early, even if the rust was incredibly apparent.

Still, it ended up only costing Berry, who averaged 14.7 points and 3.6 assists in UNC’s national championship season, a game and North Carolina nothing as they’re off to a 2-0 start, though the Tar Heels’ showing against Bucknell wasn’t exactly inspiring. UNC struggled to get any kind of separation from Bucknell until very late. The Bison shot 46.8 percent from the floor and 40.7 percent on 28 3-point attempts. Luke Maye had a big night for the Tar Heels, putting up 20 points while Pinson added 19 (besting Berry like, presumably, he did to provoke the injury in the first place).

It wasn’t pretty, but getting Berry back is huge for the Tar Heels. They maybe just need to let him win in 2K or whatever to keep him healthy and on the floor.