Pregame Shootaround 2.14.13: WCC rivals headline slate diehard hoops fans will love

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Game of the Night: No. 5 Gonzaga at Saint Mary’s (11:00 p.m.; ESPN2)

With BYU’s recent struggles the WCC has the look of a two-bid league with the Bulldogs and Gaels being the teams headed to the Big Dance. A Saint Mary’s win would not only go a long way towards making sure that is the case but also put the Gaels in position to win the WCC regular season title.

A key for Randy Bennett’s team: slowing down Kelly Olynyk, who has gone from being hailed as the nation’s most improved player to some national Player of the Year chatter. Brad Waldow has to hold his own in this matchup if the Gaels are to win, and the perimeter battle between Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos and Saint Mary’s Matthew Dellavedova will be worth the price of admission as well.

Who’s Getting Upset? VCU (-11.5) vs. Massachusetts (9:00 p.m., CBS Sports Network)

UMass may have one of the best weapons in the Atlantic 10 when it comes to taking on VCU’s “HAVOC” defense: point guard Chaz Williams. Williams may not be the biggest player on the floor but he’s jet quick with the basketball, and how well he plays will ultimately determine the outcome. UMass has the bodies inside needed to combat VCU’s Juvonte Reddic, led by Terrell Vinson and Raphiael Putney, and if Williams and Freddie Riley take care of the basketball the Minutemen are more than capable of leaving the Siegel Center with a statement victory.

Mid-Major Matchup of the Night: Montana at Weber State (9:05 p.m.)

The Big Sky expanded its conference schedule to 20 games after adding North Dakota and Southern Utah, which works out to put the Grizzlies in position to pull off arguably the greatest season in the history of the league if they get past Weber State in Ogden. Montana’s won 24 straight conference games (regular season), which is a league record, and at 14-0 Wayne Tinkle’s team has a two-game lead on the Wildcats. Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar are one of the best perimeter tandems in the western United States and they’ll have to play at that level in order to knock off Weber State. Scott Bamforth and Kyle Tresnak lead the way for Weber State, who leads the Big Sky in most of the major statistical categories.

Five Things to Watch For

1) The slate on Valentine’s Day also offers up a rematch of the most controversial game of the season thus far, with No. 9 Arizona visiting Colorado. Sabatino Chen’s three-pointer at the end of regulation was waved off, unfairly in the eyes of many, and the Wildcats went on to win 92-83 in overtime. The Wildcats haven’t played their best basketball of late, and Sean Miller needs those young big men to have a greater impact on the action.

2) Big Ten rivals on opposite paths meet in Minneapolis, as Wisconsin looks to stay on track against a reeling Minnesota. Tubby Smith’s team has lost six of its last eight games, and while the Golden Gophers have a decent resume it would be in their best interest to get back to playing as they did for much of the 2012 portion of the year.

3) Two of the best teams in the Summit League, Western Illinois and North Dakota State, meet in Fargo with the Leathernecks leading the Bison by a half-game atop the league standings. NDSU is 10-0 at home this season, and the matchup between WIU’s Terrell Parks and NDSU’s Marshall Bjorklund won’t disappoint.

4) Two of the three teams just a game behind Niagara in the MAAC standings, Canisius and Loyola (MD) meet in Baltimore with the winner likely having the best chance of catching the Purple Eagles. Canisius won the first meeting, 91-79, as all five starters scored in double figures and Jordan Heath accounted for 21 points and 11 rebounds.

5) Will Thursday provide any clarity when it comes to the Pac-12 race? UCLA needs to improve its rebounding if they’re to beat Cal in Berkeley, while in Palo Alto Stanford looks to avoid what would be considered a bad loss against a rejuvenated USC.

The Top 25

No. 5 Gonzaga at Saint Mary’s (11:00 p.m.; ESPN2)

No. 9 Arizona at Colorado (10:00 p.m.; Pac-12 Networks)

St. John’s at No. 12 Louisville (9:00 p.m.; ESPN)

Northwestern at No. 13 Ohio State (7:00 p.m.; BTN)

No. 20 Wisconsin at Minnesota (7:00 p.m.; ESPN)

Other Notable Games 

George Mason at Drexel (7:00 p.m.; CBS Sports Network)

Belmont at Tennessee State (7:00 p.m.; ESPNU)

Davidson at Charleston (7:30 p.m.)

Canisius at Loyola (MD) (7:30 p.m.)

Western Illinois at North Dakota St. (8:00 p.m.)

Arkansas-Little Rock at Arkansas St. (8:05 p.m.)

UCLA at California (9:00 p.m.; ESPN2)

San Diego at Santa Clara (10:00 p.m.)

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

Grand Canyon lands Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson

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Grand Canyon landed an important piece for its NCAA tournament push on Saturday night as Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson pledged to the Antelopes.

The 6-foot-3 Benson will be eligible right away as spent the past three seasons with the Ducks as a key reserve guard, helping Oregon to multiple deep NCAA tournament runs. Benson picked Grand Canyon over Wisconsin for his final season of college basketball as Benson’s brother, T.J., is an assistant coach with the Antelopes.

Benson shot 40 percent from three-point range last season while also being a steady ball handler over the course of his career at Oregon as he has only 81 career turnovers in over 2,600 career minutes with the Ducks. While Benson wasn’t asked to score a lot for a loaded Oregon team that featured multiple bucket-getters, he could be asked to do more at Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon is eligible for the NCAA tournament for the first time next season as the addition of Benson gives them an experienced guard who should be more of a factor in the WAC. The Antelopes are coming off of a 22-9 season in which they finished 11-3 in conference play.

With great facilities and a quickly-growing fan base, head coach Dan Majerle has the potential makings of a perennial mid-major conference contender if he continues to recruit well to Grand Canyon.

Colorado adds commitment from Class of 2017 point guard McKinley Wright

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Colorado landed one of the best available point guards for next season on Friday as Class of 2017 floor general McKinley Wright committed during an official visit.

A former Dayton commit who opted out of his recruitment after former head coach Archie Miller took the Indiana job, Wright was one of the best available point guards left as he played last weekend on the adidas Gauntlet in front of college coaches with D1 Minnesota.

The 6-foot-0 Wright gives the Buffaloes another ball handler and distributor as he was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball during this past season. As a senior, Wright averaged 22.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game.

It’s always hard to say if spring recruits who elevate a level in recruiting after decommitting are making the correct decision, but Wright looked the part of a high-major lead guard last weekend, and Colorado wasn’t the only high-major program that was pushing hard to add Wright at this late stage.

Oral Roberts to hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills

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Oral Roberts has found its new head coach as they will hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills, as first reported by NBCSports.com’s Rob Dauster.

Mills had been on staff with the Bears since 2003 as he’s been a big factor in why head coach Scott Drew has been able to turn around that program. A graduate of Texas A&M, Mills has been a full-time assistant at Baylor since the 2009 season.

“I am honored to accept this role of representing this historic institution, its students and its mission,” Mills said in a release. “Making this commitment today is a highlight of my career and I look forward with excitement to the basketball season directly ahead. Go Golden Eagles.”

Mills will replace former head coach Scott Sutton, who was relieved of his duties this offseason after 18 years at the helm.

 

Iowa commit Connor McCaffery to redshirt in basketball to pursue baseball

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Iowa commit Connor McCaffery is in a unique spot when he starts his freshman year in Iowa City next year.

Not only is the 6-foot-4 guard the son of basketball head coach Fran McCaffery, while being a four-star national basketball prospect, but Connor also has a bright future in baseball.

There was a lot of speculation as to what Connor might do for his future in athletics and he gave more clarification on what he might be looking to do on Friday.

McCaffery has decided to redshirt in basketball next season to focus on the beginnings of his baseball career at Iowa. A walk-on for both sports, the move enables Connor McCaffery to potentially play three years of basketball with his younger brother, Patrick, who is also a heralded basketball recruit for Iowa. This move also gives Connor the best chance to pursue both sports while he’ll also help out a young Iowa basketball team with its tough scholarship scenario.

Butler, Chris Holtmann agree to a contract extension

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Butler has agreed to a contract extension with head coach Chris Holtmann, the school announced on Friday, that will keep him under contract through 2025.

“Butler truly is a special place, and my family and I are thankful to be part of a great academic institution and an athletics department that is a source of pride for those who embrace Butler and The Butler Way,” said Holtmann. “Our student-athletes, our staff, and so many throughout our campus are remarkable at what they do, and I’m excited to continue to work alongside them.”

Holtmann was named Big East Coach of the Year after leading the Bulldogs to a 25-9 record and a spot in the Sweet 16. In three years with the program, Holtmann has a record of 70-31.

“Chris is a tremendous ambassador for Butler and the Butler Way, and his leadership has resulted in success both on and off the court for the talented young men in our program,” said Butler Vice President/Director of Athletics Barry Collier. “This commitment – both by our university and by Chris – allows the momentum within our program to continue.”

Holtmann was in the mix for a couple of jobs this spring, including N.C. State and Missouri.