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Pregame Shootaround 2.24.13: Big Ten rules the day with Michigan State-Ohio State

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Game of the Day: No.4 Michigan State vs. No. 18 Ohio State (4:00 p.m. ET, CBS)

The heavyweight bouts in the Big Ten have been a Sunday treat throughout conference play and it continues today. Ohio State got a key win over Minnesota on Wednesday, but now welcomes a Michigan State team that had won five straight before falling to No. 1 Indiana earlier this week.

The biggest positional matchup Sunday will be at the point guard spot. Michigan State’s Keith Appling was bothered by the different types of pressure that Indiana placed on him on the defensive end and he struggled because of it. It gets no easier Sunday, as Appling meets one of the best defenders in the country, Aaron Craft. To compensate, Appling will need to get others involved, including Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix down low, as well as Gary Harris and Branden Dawson on the perimeter.

For Ohio State, it will be the same as it always is. Turn defense into offense and provide support for Deshaun Thomas offensively so he doesn’t have to shoulder all of the scoring load. If Thomas can settle in and have a comfortable 25% stake in the overall scoring output and the Buckeyes are efficient with the ball, they are tough to beat.

Who’s Getting Upset?: No. 20 Pittsburgh (-7) vs. St. John’s (12:00 p.m. ET, ESPN3)

St. John’s has made it tough for quality teams to come into Madison Square Garden over the past few seasons under Steve Lavin and Pittsburgh will face that Sunday. The scoring duo of D’Angelo Harrison and JaKarr Sampson has emerged as one of the better young combos in the Big East, plus junior college transfer Marco Bourgault is providing quality minutes and a three-point threat to stretch the defense.

Pittsburgh will be limited on the interior if shot-blocking freshman Chris Obekpa and his 4.1 blocks per game can stay out of foul trouble on Sunday. Ultimately, though, it will come down to whether St. John’s is making shots. If they struggle from the field, Pittsburgh has enough to win. If the Red Storm are hot, we could have an upset in New York City.

Mid-Major Matchup of the Day: Lehigh vs. Lafayette (12:00 p.m. ET)

Even without C.J. McCollum for much of the season, Lehigh has powered on. The Mountain Hawks still trail Bucknell by a game in the Patriot League race and face a tough matchup against Lafayette Sunday. Even with a win, though, it is unlikely that Lehigh pulls into a tie for the lead because Bucknell takes on Holy Cross today, but the Mountain Hawks need a win to keep pace.

Five Things to Watch For

1) There’s a trap game awaiting No. 6 Duke Sunday. Prior to a key back-to-back stretch against Virginia and Miami, the Blue Devils face Boston College. The Blue Devils are heavily favored, but this BC team is riding high after upsetting Maryland earlier in the week and winning two of their last three games.

2) St. John’s sits squarely on the bubble and could use another quality win. There’s no better place to get it than at home. The Red Storm meet No. 20 Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden.

3) Illinois will make the NCAA tournament if the wheels don’t fall off down the stretch here, but a win over No. 4 Michigan on Sunday would go a long way toward improving its seeding.

4) With California’s recent run and Oregon slipping back a bit, the Pac-12 is getting interesting. That means UCLA is in a “can’t lose” situation if wants to stay in the race for the conference regular season title. USC is a winnable game and the Bruins need to capitalize.

5) Temple is another team on the NCAA tournament bubble. Their final four games, with Charlotte included Sunday, is both difficult and favorable. The Owls still have to meet Detroit in a rescheduled non-conference game, plus VCU to end the season, but also get Rhode Island and Fordham in the middle. Point being, Temple needs a win Sunday against Charlotte.

The Top 25

No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 18 Ohio State (4:00 p.m. ET, CBS)

No. 6 Duke vs. Boston College (2:00 p.m. ET, ESPN3)

No. 7 Michigan vs. Illinois (1:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)

No. 20 Pittsburgh vs. St. John’s (12:00 p.m. ET, ESPN3)

No. 25 Notre Dame vs. Cincinnati (2:00 p.m. ET, CBS)

Other Notable Games

Lehigh vs. Lafayette (12:00 p.m. ET)

Georgia Tech vs. Virginia (2:00 p.m. ET, ESPN3)

UCLA vs. USC (3:30 p.m.  ET, Fox Sports Net National)

Temple vs. Charlotte (4:00 p.m. ET)

LIU Brooklyn vs. Wagner (8:00 p.m. ET, ESPNU)

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

Four-star 2017 shooting guard commits to Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams celebrates a play in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Virginia, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, in Blacksburg, Va. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP) LOCAL STATIONS OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT; LOCAL PRINT OUT (SALEM TIMES REGISTER; FINCASTLE HERALD; CHRISTIANSBURG NEWS MESSENGER; RADFORD NEWS JOURNAL; ROANOKE STAR SENTINEL; MANDATORY CREDIT
Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP
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Recruiting, and on-court results, have picked up at Virginia Tech since Buzz Williams took over as head coach. In his second year at the helm the Hokies won ten conference games, and in reaching the Postseason NIT made their first postseason appearance since 2011.

Thursday night Virginia Tech landed its first verbal commitment in the Class of 2017, as four-star shooting guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker made his pledge.

The 6-foot-5 Alexander-Walker, who’s ranked 91st in his class by Rivals.com, also took official visits to Maryland and USC before making his pledge to the ACC program. Alexander-Walker attends Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but as a native of Canada plays his grassroots basketball for the Canada Elite program on the Under Armour Association circuit.

Good with either hand, Alexander-Walker can play either on or off the basketball. And that versatility should serve him well in a system that places a high value on “switch-ables,” or players who can fill multiple roles.

The Canada connection paid off for Virginia Tech in the recruitment of Alexander-Walker, with assistant coach Jamie McNeilly being a native of the country himself and having a connection to the Walker family. The Hokies will lose two perimeter players at the end of the 2016-17 season in Devin Wilson and Seth Allen, which will give Alexander-Walker the opportunity to earn minutes as a freshman.

Oakland lands former Oklahoma State guard Clark

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When point guard Stevie Clark began his career at Oklahoma State in 2013, the Top 100 prospect was expected by many to be an impact player for the Cowboys. Things didn’t go as planned however, as off-court issues ultimately led to Clark’s dismissal from the program before his sophomore season. Add in a lawsuit filed by Clark in which he alleged that he was forced by the school to take psychotropic drugs, and it’s safe to say that his time in Stillwater was anything but smooth.

Clark ultimately landed at Arkansas Baptist College, and on Thursday it was reported by the Detroit Free Press that he’s committed to Oakland University to play for head coach Greg Kampe. Clark joins a program with an immediate need at the point, with All-American Kahlil Felder having entered the NBA Draft and hired an agent as well.

The obvious question regarding Clark is whether or not he’s managed to take care of business off the court, and in an interview with Mark Snyder of the Free Press the Oklahoma native made note of the benefits of getting away from home for college.

Playing in Rochester, far from his home, will serve him well, he said.

“Anywhere away from home is the best thing,” Clark said. “It’s just hard balancing everything being close to home.”

Clark will be one of the options Kampe has to choose from at the point, with incoming freshmen Brailen Neely and Billy Thomas also among the new arrivals, and sophomore Jaevin Cumberland looking to earn more playing time than the 5.6 minutes per contest he averaged as a freshman.

Creighton point guard Watson Jr. to return for senior season

Creighton's Maurice Watson Jr. (10) reacts after scoring during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Xavier in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016. Creighton won 70-56. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
AP Photo/Nati Harnik
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Creighton’s chances of moving up the Big East standings and returning to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014 improved a great deal Thursday, as starting point guard Maurice Watson Jr. announced that he will be returning for his senior season. Watson, who began his college career at Boston University, entered his name into the NBA Draft pool without hiring an agent but decided that another year in Omaha would be best for him.

Watson was one of the most impactful transfers in the country last season, as his play at the point was a major factor in the Bluejays winning 20 games and going 9-9 in conference play after being picked to finish eighth in the Big East preseason poll. Watson averaged 14.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game last season, earning second team All-Big East honors.

With Watson’s return the Bluejays will welcome back three of their top four scorers from last season, with center Geoffrey Groselle being the lone departure. Head coach Greg McDermott adds a talented shooting guard in Marcus Foster, who sat out last season after transferring in from Kansas State. With Watson and Foster working together, Creighton will have a formidable perimeter tandem leading the way in 2016-17 with the likes of forward Cole Huff and guard Isaiah Zierden also being key contributors.

In addition to what Watson can provide in games he’ll also serve as a good mentor for Kaleb Joseph, who will have to sit out next season after transferring in from Syracuse. Joseph, who will have two seasons of eligibility remaining, fell out of the rotation as a sophomore so the year in residency should benefit him as he works towards grabbing the reins in 2017-18.

h/t ESPN.com

UConn, four-star 2017 big man Brown part ways

Brown, Zach
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Back in mid-January UConn made waves on the recruiting trail by securing a verbal commitment from 7-foot-1 center Zach Brown, a player seen by many as one of the top prospects in the Class of 2017. That partnership came to an end Thursday, as the two parties decided to part ways. News of the mutual decision was first reported by Scout.com.

The Miami native is currently ranked 28th in the Class of 2017 by Rivals.com, and Thursday’s news opens up a spot in the front court that UConn head coach Kevin Ollie and his staff will now have to fill. Amida Brimah, who’s currently going through the NBA pre-Draft process, will be a senior next season should he return to Storrs as will Kentan Facey.

Among the interior options who will have eligibility remaining beyond next season for the Huskies are sophomore Steven Enoch and incoming freshmen Mamadou Diarra and Juwan Durham.

UConn was in the running for 2016 power forward Taurean Thompson, but multiple outlets have the Brewster Academy product considering Michigan State (which added UNLV grad transfer Ben Carter Wednesday), Seton Hall and Syracuse at this point in his recruitment.

UCF lands commitment from transfer Terrell Allen

New UCF men's NCAA college basketball coach Johnny Dawkins speaks at his introductory press conference Thursday, March 24, 2016 in Orlando, Fla. (Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel via AP) MAGS OUT; NO SALES; MANDATORY CREDIT
Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel via AP
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Having already landed one transfer in former Michigan guard Aubrey Dawkins (the new head coach’s son), UCF landed a second Thursday afternoon as former Drexel guard Terrell Allen announced that he’ll finish out his college career playing for Johnny Dawkins.

Allen, a CAA All-Rookie Team selection in his lone season at Drexel, announced the news by way of his Twitter account. After sitting out the 2016-17 season per NCAA transfer rules, Allen will have three seasons of eligibility remaining.

On a team that struggled throughout the 2015-16 season, winning just six games, Allen averaged 9.8 points, 3.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 32.5 minutes of action per game. The 6-foot-2 point guard finished the season ranked in the top ten in the CAA in both assists and assist-to-turnover ratio, with his assist tally ranking eighth and his A/T ratio of 1.9 placing him seventh.

With B.J. Taylor entering his junior season and Jeremy Carter-Sheppard joining the ranks this summer, the addition of Allen gives UCF another option at the point for the 2017-18 campaign.