Indiana v Purdue

10 tidbits to know: Saturday night showdown in Bloomington, the A-10 and more

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Vin Parise is a former assistant college coach and the college basketball insider for NBC Sports. Look for his Top 10 Tidbits every week.

1. It doesn’t get much better than No. 1 Michigan at  No. 3 Indiana this weekend. Not only can this be a preview of the Big Ten Championship Game — it can also be a possible preview of the Sweet 16, Elite 8 or Final 4. If you’re not watching live at 9:00 pm ET Saturday night…you better have a good excuse.

2. Speaking of the Big Ten, remember when Illinois was one of the top 15-20 teams in the nation? It’s amazing what a few weeks of conference play reveals. Illinois is 3-7 in their last 10 games and is currently 2-6 in Big Ten play.

3. The A-10 has taken the slogan ‘middle of the pack’ to another level. After VCU and Xavier as the top 2 teams, Butler, Charlotte, St. Louis, UMass, George Washington and La Salle all own a 4-2 conference record. And St. Joe’s and Temple are currently at 3-3 in league.

4. I thought the leader in Blocked Shots conversation would always be between Chris Obekpa from St. John’s and Jeff Whithey from Kansas. But freshman Nerlens Noel from Kentucky now leads the nation in rejections. Noel’s school record 12 blocks in the win over Ole Miss helped his cause.

5. Speaking of St. John’s, Steve Lavin’s Red Storm are rolling right now. After losing back to back games to Rutgers and Georgetown, St. John’s has now won 5 straight conference games. It was a great stretch of the schedule for Lavin – the 5 games were DePaul twice, Rutgers, Seton Hall and an upset home win vs Notre Dame. 3 of the next 4 are on the road for St. John’s – and those road wars are at Georgetown, at Louisville and at Syracuse. The Red Storm are in 3rd place by themselves in Big East standings.

6. After good non-conference wins vs Western Michigan and West Virginia, the reality of how much rebuilding needs to actually be done has hit Jim Ferry at Duquesne. The Dukes are the only A-10 team that hasn’t earned a conference win. But expect Ferry’s program to make a significant jump the next few years.

7. Do you think Marshall Bjorklund from North Dakota State gets and takes high percentage shots? The 6-8, Bison Junior leads the nation in Field Goal Percentage – shooting 70.7% from the floor this season.

8. The CAA didn’t forecast the season well at all this year. Northeastern was picked to come in 5th — they are 8-1 in 1st place. Townson was picked 10th — they are tied for 5th. Drexel was picked 1st — they’re in 7th. Old Dominion was picked 4th — they’re in last place at 0-8.

9. MAAC Coach of the Year right now has to be Joe Mihalich from Niagara. The Purple Eagles are 10-1 in MAAC play and sit at 1st place all by themselves. The scary part for MAAC opponents is how many young players Mihalich has. The future is bright in Niagara Falls.

10. Take Belmont in your March Madness brackets when the time comes. The Bruins are 18-4 overall and undefeated in Ohio Valley conference play. The year started with Belmont winning at Stanford and they haven’t looked back. Rick Byrd’s team is currently 14th in RPI rankings.

Follow Vin on Twitter @VinParise and check him out in studio for NBC Sports Network and SNY.

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.