Troy Daniels, Jordair Jett

Pregame Shootaround 2.22.13: Saint Louis visits No. 15 Butler in critical A-10 battle

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Game of the Night: Saint Louis at No. 15 Butler (7:00 p.m.; ESPNU) 

Friday’s schedule may be light, but the battle between the Billikens and Bulldogs more than makes up for it. Jim Crews’ team currently leads the Atlantic 10 and is coming off of an impressive beating of VCU earlier this week. Forward Dwayne Evans leads a balanced offensive attack for SLU, and just as important is their work on defense. Opponents turn the ball over an average of 15.2 times per game, and their turnover margin currently ranks second in the A-10.

Rotnei Clarke leads the way offensively for Butler with an average of 17.1 points per game, and the Bulldogs (9-3 Atlantic 10) trail SLU (9-2) by a game in the loss column entering tonight’s contest. SLU won the first meeting 75-58, forcing a staggering 23 turnovers on the night. Clarke had six of those turnovers, and if Butler is to even the score they have to take care of the basketball.

Who’s Getting Upset? Princeton (-2) at Columbia; 7:00 p.m. 

This wouldn’t be a huge upset given the numbers (for entertainment purposes only, of course), but the Lions are more than capable of knocking off Princeton. Columbia handed Harvard its lone Ivy League loss in stunning fashion a few weeks ago, shooting 50.9% from the field and hitting nine three-pointers in the 78-63 victory.

Princeton defends the three well and overall the Tigers allow just 0.95 points per possession, and forwards Ian Hummer and Denton Koon form a quality tandem inside. Columbia will need Brian Barbour and Steve Frankoski to lead the way for a team that’s balanced offensively (five players average between nine and twelve points per game) in order to win.

Mid-Major Matchup of the Night: Stephen F. Austin at Long Beach State (9:00 p.m.; ESPNU) 

The Lumberjacks, at 22-3 on the season, are faced with a major test but it’s also an opportunity for a team that’s flown under the radar outside of the Southland Conference. The reason why: four non-Division I wins and a strength of schedule that ranks 313th nationally. Danny Kaspar’s team limits teams to 49.7 points per game, and the Lumberjacks have allowed just one opponent to scored 60 points or more in their last seven games.

Doing so against Long Beach State will be a challenge, with the 49ers having five players averaging nine points per game or more. Senior wing James Ennis is averaging 17.3 points per game for Long Beach State, who currently leads the Big West. And keep an eye on SFA’s Taylor Smith, who currently leads the team in both points (15.8) and rebounds (8.9).

Five Things to Watch

1) Harvard looks to retain control of the Ivy League race as they visit Brown, who has a win over Providence on its resume. Wesley Saunders and Siyani Chambers have been two of the league’s best players and are a big reason why Tommy Amaker’s team is on track to return to the NCAA tournament, and Kenyatta Smith has also played well of late.

2) With Mercer winning last night, Florida Gulf Coast needs a win at Stetson to avoid falling two games behind the Bears in the loss column atop the Atlantic Sun. Two of the league’s best front court players, FGCU’s Chase Fieler and Stetson’s Adam Pegg, will be on display as well guards Sherwood Brown (FGCU) and Chris Perez (Stetson).

3) Akron puts its 17-game win streak on the line as North Dakota State visits the JAR. The Bison are without leading scorer Taylor Braun, who is out with a broken foot.

4) The chances of someone other than Harvard or Princeton winning the Ivy League are slim to say the least. Cornell is 5-3, and with home games against Penn tonight and Princeton tomorrow the Big Red have an opportunity to claw their way into the discussion.

5) Yale has won 21 of the last 25 meetings in its series with Dartmouth, but the Big Green ended a seven-game losing streak to the Bulldogs with a 71-62 win back on February 2. Center Gabas Maldunas led four Dartmouth players in double figures with 16 points in the first meeting.

Other Notable Games 

North Dakota State at Akron (7:00 p.m.; ESPN2)

Harvard at Brown (7:00 p.m.)

Florida Gulf Coast at Stetson (7:00 p.m.; ESPN3)

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

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.