Pregame Shootaround 2.15.13: Cincinnati looks to bolster NCAA tournament resume

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Game of the Night: No. 15 Georgetown at Cincinnati (9:00 p.m.; ESPN) 

Mick Cronin’s Bearcats are in good shape to return to the NCAA tournament, but a win over the visiting Hoyas would not only add to their resume but also keep Cincinnati in the Big East title race. Georgetown arrives in Cincinnati with an opportunity to move into sole possession of first place, something that few people would have expected when conference play began.

Otto Porter Jr. is one of the nation’s best wings but guard Markel Starks will be just as important given the strength of Cincinnati’s backcourt. Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright lead the way offensively for Cincinnati with the steady Jaquon Parker being a solid third option on the wing. Keep an eye on Cincinnati’s offensive rebound total, as the Bearcats manage to rebound nearly 40% of their missed shots.

Who’s Getting Upset? Iona (-2.5) at Manhattan (7:00 p.m.; ESPNU) 

After a loss at Siena dropped the Jaspers to 4-7 in MAAC play, Steve Masiello’s team has won three straight and have a legitimate chance of avoiding finishing in the bottom four of the conference standings (those teams have to play in the first round of the MAAC tournament). Manhattan’s had to change how they play due to injuries, most notably losing leading scorer George Beamon for the year back in December, so while they will pressure defensively don’t look for the Jaspers to actively try to play at a high tempo.

The opposite can be said for Iona, who looks to run at every opportunity with guards Sean Armand and Lamont Jones leading the way and David Laury controlling things inside. If Manhattan can control the tempo, look for them to upset their rival at Draddy Gymnasium.

Mid-Major Matchup of the Night: Vermont at Stony Brook (7:00 p.m.; ESPN3) 

Stony Brook (9-2) leads Vermont (9-3) by a half-game in the America East standings, but given the fact that the Catamounts won the first meeting the Seawolves need this one for tiebreaker purposes. Clancy Rugg was outstanding for Vermont in their 81-73 victory on January 18, scoring 19 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. That helped make up for an off night from Brian Voelkel, who accounted for five points, six assists and four rebounds before fouling out. Stony Brook will counter with veterans Tommy Brenton and David Coley, and freshman forward Jameel Warney is one of the best freshmen in the conference.

Five Things to Watch For

1) Harvard hosts Princeton on Saturday night in a game that will go a long way towards determining the Ivy League champion. Both have business to attend to tonight, with the Crimson taking on Penn and Princeton visiting Dartmouth.

2) The middle of the Atlantic Sun standings could get a lot tighter tonight if North Florida wins at Jacksonville. The Dolphins need a win to move into a tie for third with Stetson at 8-6, but a loss would drop them into a three-way tie for fourth.

3) Green Bay finds itself in a situation similar to that of Jacksonville, as a win would move the Phoenix into a tie for third in the Horizon League and keep them from dropping into the middle of the pack. Green Bay visits Cleveland State, who has struggled offensively for much of the season due to the season-ending injury suffered by Anton Grady.

4) Niagara looks to remain atop the MAAC standings as they visit Marist, but this game could be trickier than it looks to be on paper. Chuck Martin’s team beat both Iona and Loyola (MD) last week, and they’re capable of doing the same to the Purple Eagles.

5) Which team has the best shot of catching Harvard and Princeton in the Ivy League race? The chances are minuscule for both Cornell and Yale but the winner of their meeting in New Haven will give the winner a sliver of hope.

Other Notable Games 

7:00 p.m. Penn at Harvard

7:00 p.m. Princeton at Dartmouth

8:00 p.m. Niagara at Marist (ESPN3)

9:00 p.m. Green Bay at Cleveland St. (ESPN3)

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

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.