Pregame Shootaround 2.7.13: No. 1 Indiana’s visit a major opportunity for Illinois

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Game of the Night: No. 1 Indiana at Illinois (7:00 p.m.; ESPN) 

With a 2-7 conference record the days of John Groce’s Fighting Illini being a Big Ten title contender are long over, but this is a group in desperate need of a resume-building victory at this stage in the season. While much as been made of Illinois’ offensive struggles in conference play (40.5% FG and 25.4% 3PT in conference games) the fact of the matter is that they’ve struggled defensively as well. Illinois ranks dead last in the Big Ten in both field goal and three-point percentage defense (in conference games), and they cannot afford to defend at this level if they’re to beat Indiana.

Look for Victor Oladipo to get the assignment of guarding Illinois guard Brandon Paul, and with one of the nation’s best defenders on the floor points will be tough to come by for the home team. If Illinois can limit Cody Zeller’s quality touches (cannot allow him to have both feet in the paint when catching entry passes) they’ve got a shot. But that’s far easier said than done.

Who’s Getting Upset? No. 19 Oregon (vs. Colorado; 10:00 p.m. ESPNU) 

The Ducks’ chances of ending their current two-game losing streak hinge on the health of freshman point guard Dominic Artis. Without Artis (foot injury) last week, Oregon averaged 53.0 points and 21.0 turnovers per game in losses at Stanford and California. Tonight Oregon hosts a Colorado squad that needs all the quality wins it can get in the games leading up to March, and this is a group talented enough to make a run at their second consecutive NCAA tournament bid. But Andre Roberson, Askia Booker and Spencer Dinwiddie need to be consistent, and freshman center Josh Scott has to show up defensively against Oregon’s experienced front line. Look for Tad Boyle’s team to escape with a hard-fought victory.

Mid-Major Matchup of the Night: Belmont at Murray State (8:00 p.m.; ESPNU) 

This is a game many within the OVC were anxious to see when the Bruins officially became a member of the conference this summer. And it’s safe to say that Rick Byrd’s team has not disappointed, as they’re off to a 10-0 start in conference play with just two wins being by single digits. The backcourt tandem of Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson is one of the nation’s best despite the lack of national publicity thrown their way, and the individual battle between Johnson and Murray State’s Isaiah Canaan may be the best of the night in college basketball. The key for Canaan and company: taking care of the basketball. Belmont forces an average of 17.6 turnovers per game, and if Murray State doesn’t keep their turnover count down they’ll be in serious trouble.

Five Things to Watch

1) There’s a strong possibility that NC State will once again be without the services of starting point guard Lorenzo Brown tonight when they visit No. 4 Duke, as reported by Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com. If that’s the case the Wolfpack will once again lean on freshmen Rodney Purvis and Tyler Lewis, both of whom were solid in Saturday’s close loss to Miami. But playing at Cameron is an entirely different animal, especially for young players.

2) Virginia won’t make national waves with a win over Clemson in Charlottesville, but a loss to the Tigers would be yet another dent in what has to be the nation’s most confusing resume. While the Cavaliers have some very good wins to their credit there are also glaring defeats, one of which being a 59-44 loss at Clemson on January 12.

3) The question of which team has the best shot of challenging Stephen F. Austin in the Southland will be answered tonight as Oral Roberts (9-1 Southland) visits Northwestern State (8-2). Warren Niles and Damen Bell-Holter lead the way for Scott Sutton’s Golden Eagles, who with a win tonight could be playing for a share of first on Saturday when they visit Stephen F. Austin. Forwards DeQuan Hicks and James Hulbin lead the way for Northwestern State.

4) In addition to the Colorado/Oregon tilt mentioned above there are two other key match-ups in the Pac-12: California visiting Arizona State and Washington taking on UCLA in Los Angeles. This weekend could go a long way towards sorting out the conference race with just over a month remaining in the regular season.

5) BYU and Saint Mary’s, two WCC teams who need to avoid stubbing their respective toes as they push towards a ticket to the NCAA tournament, have tough games on the road. The Cougars visit San Diego, who nearly knocked off No. 6 Gonzaga on Saturday, while the Gaels will need to slow down a Santa Clara squad led by guard Kevin Foster.

The Top 25 

No. 1 Indiana at Illinois (7:00 p.m.; ESPN)

NC State at No. 4 Duke (9:00 p.m.; ACC Network)

Pepperdine at No. 6 Gonzaga (11:00 p.m.; ROOT Sports)

Colorado at No. 19 Oregon (10:00 p.m.; ESPNU)

No. 21 Missouri at Texas A&M (9:00 p.m.; ESPN2)

Other Notable Games 

Clemson at Virginia (7:00 p.m.; ESPN2)

Jacksonville at Mercer (7:00 p.m.)

Oral Roberts at Northwestern St. (8:30 p.m.)

Washington at UCLA (9:00 p.m.; ESPN)

California at Arizona St. (9:30 p.m.; Pac-12 Networks)

Long Beach St. at Hawaii (12:00 a.m.)

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

Thursday’s Three Things To Know: Drexel’s historic comeback, Arizona survives, Houston doesn’t

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1. DREXEL COMPLETED THE BIGGEST COMEBACK IN DIVISION I HISTORY

Drexel trailed Delaware 53-19 late in the first half on Thursday night.

They won 85-83.

Both of those things are 100 percent true and 100 percent happened.

2. ARIZONA WON WITHOUT ALLONZO TRIER … BARELY

No. 14 Arizona was forced to play without Allonzo Trier on Thursday night at Oregon State after Trier tested positive for a banned substance again. The Wildcats led by 12 points in the first half, but Wayne Tinkle’s club slowly but surely chipped away at the lead. They were ahead with less than a minute left with OSU missed two wide-open threes on the same possession before a pair of Rawle Alkins free throws forced overtime.

Alkins — who finished with 16 points on the night — took over in the extra frame, but if there is anything that we learned in the 45 minutes that Arizona played without Trier available on Thursday, it’s that they are going to struggle to win games if they do not have their second-leading scorer available.

3. TUBBY SMITH FINALLY BEAT A RANKED TEAM

Tubby Smith has been crushed throughout his tenure with Memphis, and deservedly so. The Tigers are not selling tickets and are not competing at a level that is expected of that program in the post-John Calipari era. That said, they aren’t terrible. On Thursday night, Memphis beat No. 23 Houston in FedEd Forum — Smith’s first win over a ranked opponent since he took over the job — to alleviate some of the heat that has been directed his way this season.

Houston, on the other hand, is probably pretty safe when it comes to inclusion into the NCAA tournament at this point, but they sure have had a weird seven days. It started with a win over Cincinnati, then turned into a 21-point win at Temple and concluded with a loss to Memphis. Such is life in the AAC, I guess.

Ford leads No. 22 Saint Mary’s past Pepperdine, 75-61

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MORAGA, Calif. (AP) — Jordan Ford had 18 points and a career-high 10 rebounds, and No. 22 Saint Mary’s rolled to a 75-61 victory over Pepperdine on Thursday night.

Calvin Hermanson scored 14 points and Tanner Krebs added 12 for the Gaels (26-4, 15-2 West Coast Conference). Jock Landale scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds.

Ford shot 7 for 11 from the field and 4 for 6 from 3-point range and fell two points short of tying his career scoring high.

Saint Mary’s remained one game behind Gonzaga (26-4, 16-1), a 77-72 winner at San Diego, in the WCC with one regular-season game to play. The Gaels can earn a share of the WCC regular-season title with a victory at home against Santa Clara and a Gonzaga loss at BYU on Saturday.

Saint Mary’s point guard Emmett Naar, who injured his left ankle late in the first half against Portland on Saturday, started and had three points and six assists in 14 minutes, most of those in the first half.

Trae Berhow and Knox Hellums each scored 13 points for Pepperdine (4-25, 1-16).

Ford had 14 points and six rebounds in the first half, when Saint Mary’s built a 46-26 lead.

Pepperdine guard Eric Cooper Jr., who averages 13.2 points, did not make the trip because of a shoulder injury. Udenyi Amadi started in his place.

BIG PICTURE

Pepperdine: The Waves lost their eighth straight game and are locked into sole possession of last place in the WCC. Pepperdine will be the No. 10 seed in the upcoming conference tournament.

Saint Mary’s: The Gaels won their second straight after losing back-to-back games to Gonzaga on Feb. 10 and San Francisco on Feb. 15. Saint Mary’s had won a school-record 19 straight games before falling to Gonzaga.

UP NEXT

Pepperdine hosts Portland on Saturday in its WCC regular-season finale. The Waves fell 85-76 in overtime at Portland on Feb. 1.

Saint Mary’s hosts Santa Clara on Saturday in its final WCC regular-season game. The Gaels beat the Broncos 81-57 on Jan. 11 at Santa Clara.

Thornton, Rivers lead Memphis past No. 23 Houston

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Jimario Rivers and Raynere Thornton each scored 21 points, helping Memphis beat No. 23 Houston 91-85 on Thursday night.

Rivers also grabbed nine rebounds and Thornton made four 3-pointers as Memphis (17-11, 8-7 American Athletic Conference) earned its third straight victory.

Rob Gray had 30 points and seven assists for Houston (21-6, 11-4), which entered the Top 25 this week for the first time this season. Armoni Brooks and Corey Davis Jr. each scored 15 points.

The Cougars led 43-37 at halftime, but they shot 32.3 percent from the field in the second half. The Tigers made 54 percent of their shots while rallying for the victory.

Memphis went ahead to stay with a 22-8 surge that made it 76-68 on Mike Parks Jr.’s basket with 6:28 remaining. The Tigers closed it out at the line, making 29 of 36 attempts for the game.

Houston had won five in a row. It went 18 of 20 at the line.

BIG PICTURE

Houston: The Cougars, one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the conference, went 4 for 15 from beyond the arc in the second half. They also surrendered their most points this season.

Memphis: Leading scorer Jeremiah Martin left in the first half with a lower body injury. Thornton picked up the scoring after the break, scoring 19 points in the second half.

UP NEXT

Houston: Entertains East Carolina on Sunday.

Memphis: Travels to UConn on Sunday

No. 6 Gonzaga rallies to beat San Diego, 77-72

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SAN DIEGO (AP) — Killian Tillie scored 17 points, Rui Hachimura added 16 and No. 6 Gonzaga beat San Diego 77-72 on Thursday night to clinch at least a share of the West Coast Conference title.

The Bulldogs (26-4, 16-1 WCC) defeated the Toreros (17-12, 8-9) for the eighth straight game and for the 19th time in their last 20 meetings.

Olin Cater III led San Diego with 21 points.

After trailing at halftime and falling behind by eight points in the second half, the Bulldogs didn’t seize the lead until midway through the second half, when Tillie’s 3-pointer made it 52-51.

It was a back-and-forth affair from there, with the Toreros relying on their stingy defense to slow the up-tempo Bulldogs. But Gonzaga had too much firepower and was helped by four straight free throws from Hachimura when taking the lead for good with four minutes remaining.

Gonzaga demolished San Diego in last year’s visit by 58 points. The Bulldogs built an early six-point lead in this one but San Diego bounced back, tying the score at 27 with five minutes left on the first of three straight 3-point baskets by Carter. When he hit his second one, San Diego had a three-point advantage, its first edge since the game’s opening bucket.

Tyler Williams’ mid-range jumper gave San Diego a 35-30 lead and it was 37-34 at halftime. San Diego finished the first 20 minutes by converting 4 of 7 3-point shots.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: When Gonzaga fell behind early in the game, it was the first time it had trailed in four games. … The Bulldogs have earned at least a share of the WCC title in 17 of the past 18 seasons and 18 of the last 20. … Gonzaga is the only team in the nation with seven players to score at least 20 points in a game this season.

University of San Diego: The highest-ranked team the Toreros have beaten is No. 14 UCLA in the 2002-03 season. … Forward Cameron Neubauer was honored before the game on senior night.

UP NEXT

Gonzaga is at BYU on Saturday night.

San Diego is at San Francisco on Saturday night.

Carsen Edwards scores 40 points, No. 9 Purdue beats Illinois 93-86

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Carsen Edwards scored career-high 40 points and Dakota Mathias added 18 to help No. 9 Purdue outlast Illinois in a 93-86 victory on Thursday night.

The Boilermakers were without their second-leading scorer Vincent Edwards but had no problem scoring.

Purdue shot 58.3 percent from the field and 47.8 percent from beyond the 3-point line. Edwards and Mathias each had four from behind the arc.

There were eight lead changes in the first half, highlighted by two big runs. With just under 10 minutes left Edwards stole the ball and went down for a huge dunk to spark a 17-6 run for the Boilermakers. The Illini responded with a 10-3 run to close out the half trailing 43-38.

Illinois stayed within striking distance the rest of the game, but ultimately Purdue’s size and Edwards scoring were too much. The sophomore scored 25 of his points in the second half, including a monstrous dunk on Trent Frazier with just under seven minutes to play.

The Boilermakers also outrebounded the Illini 33-20.

Leron Black led Illinois with 28 points, notching his fourth-consecutive 20-point game.

BIG PICTURE

Illinois continues to struggle in close games. The Illini have now lost 10 games this season by single digits.

After losing three straight games, Purdue has reestablished itself in the Big Ten with two close victories over Penn State and Illinois. The Boilermakers are one win away from tying the second most victories in school history.