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.

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.