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Late Night Snacks: Minnesota helps solidify its tourney spot by knocking off No. 1

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Game of the Day: Minnesota 77, No. 1 Indiana 73

Indiana has now lost three times this season as a No. 1-ranked team, but the story is more about Minnesota. Coach Tubby Smith brought in a sports psychologist to talk to his team prior to Tuesday’s matchup and it paid off. The Gophers were focused and played with energy, led by senior Trevor Mbakwe’s 21 points and twelve rebounds.

The defense was able to disrupt Cody Zeller, Yogi Ferrell, and Christian Watford for most of the game and seal it down the stretch. Minnesota is No. 1 in strength of schedule for a reason. Being in the Big Ten adds to that. But Tuesday’s win is a big boost to a team that was likely already in the NCAA tournament, thus helping to solidify their spot.

Important Outcomes

1. Tennessee 64, No. 8 Florida 58

The Volunteers needed a signature win on their resume and got it Tuesday. By getting a win over a Top 10 team, Cuonzo Martin’s squad now shifts to sit squarely on the bubble. Their final three regular season games are favorable, too. Tennessee plays Georgia and Auburn on the road before returning home to host Missouri.

2. Xavier 64, No. 19 Memphis 62

Memphis has looked impressive against Conference USA this season. The key there is “against Conference USA.” As soon as Josh Pastner’s team got an opportunity against a non-conference for the first time in nearly two months, we saw shades of the Memphis team that dropped out of the Top 25 early in the year. Going 6-of-18 from the free throw line certainly did not help.

3. No. 17 Wisconsin 77, Nebraska 46

Wisconsin is taking care of business. The Badgers are currently tied for second in the Big Ten with Michigan State and have Purdue and Penn State in their final three regular season games, along with the Spartans. Those are two very winnable games, plus another that will be a battle. Or, as we say, par for the course in the nation’s best conference.

Starred

1. Trevor Mbakwe, Minnesota (21 points, 12 rebounds) 

From the opening minutes, Mbakwe was beating up Indiana on the interior. His vicious block on Cody Zeller set the tone and his energy was sustained throughout, helping his team to a big win. It’s the kind of lead-by-example display that you might come to expect from a senior leader.

2. Jordan McRae, Tennessee (27 points, seven rebounds, four assists) 

Tennessee, much like Minnesota, had a chance for a signature win Tuesday and got it. What Mbakwe was to the Gophers, McRae was to the Volunteers. He had a stellar first half with 17 points, but kept his foot on the pedal for another 10 in the second to help Tennessee close out and get the win.

3. Jerrelle Benimon, Towson (31 points, seven rebounds, four assists)

Benimon will be the CAA’s Player of the Year and deservedly so. In a game that his team needed to retain second place in the conference, he came up big. Twenty-two of his 31 points came in the first half and he led the Tigers to an 85-81 overtime victory.

Struggled

1. Cody Zeller, Indiana (9 points, 2-of-9 FG)

Zeller was tentative against Minnesota and that could be a cause for concern for Indiana as the Hoosiers come down the back stretch of the Big Ten schedule and into the postseason. He was bothered inside by the energy from Minnesota’s Trevor Mbakwe, as well as the length of Rodney Williams. Simply put, the Hoosiers need Zeller to be an elite complement to swingman Victor Oladipo if they want to win in March.

2. Memphis from the Free Throw Line (6-of-18)

In a game that ended up coming down to two points, shooting 33 percent from the free throw line is the easiest problem to highlight. The Tigers typically shoot around 69 percent from the line, but Tuesday night was abysmal. The result is a team without a big-time win who got exposed by a non-conference opponent.

3. Florida’s Depth Issues

The Gators essentially played with a six-man rotation in their loss to Tennessee on Tuesday night. Added to that, swingman Casey Prather had to leave the game late in the second half after a collision left his head bloodied. This will continue to be a major concern for Florida moving into March, especially against teams that can work the interior and wear down the Gators inside.

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

Report: Dillon Brooks to return to Oregon

Oregon forward Dillon Brooks, left, reacts after scoring a basket against Utah during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016. Oregon defeated Utah 77-59. (AP Photo/George Frey)
(AP Photo/George Frey)
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Dillon Brooks will be returning to Oregon for his junior season.

Brooks, a 6-foot-6 forward that averaged 16.7 points, 5.4 boards and 3.1 assists as a sophomore, went through the NBA Draft process without hiring an agent. He did not receive an invitation to the NBA Draft combine, however, and that is as good of a sign as any that he was not likely to get drafted.

According to a report from ESPN, he has heeded the advice he received and will be returning to Eugene.

Brooks is a versatile player whose role for the Ducks is similar to what Draymond Green plays for the Warriors, but he’s not the athlete that Green is. Returning to school, tightening up his shooting stroke and getting into better shape could help him play his way into a spot where he can get a guaranteed contract after next season.

The Ducks are still awaiting word on whether or not rising sophomore Tyler Dorsey will return to school as well. With both players back in the fold, Oregon is a potential top five team next season.

Malik Newman to return to school, considering transfer

Mississippi State guard Malik Newman (14) dribbles past a Northern Colorado player during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
http://espn.go.com/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/15712769/mississippi-state-malik-newman-withdraw-draft-transfer
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Malik Newman will withdraw his name from consideration and return to school for his sophomore season.

Newman was a top 10 recruit in the Class of 2015, a high-scoring combo-guard that opted to stay home and play for Mississippi State instead of enroll at one of the blue bloods that was recruiting him. He averaged 11.3 points as a freshman, but it was a largely disappointing season as he spent the year off of the national radar playing inefficient basketball.

Put another way, the fourth-leading scorer on a 14-17 SEC team isn’t exactly a lock for the lottery.

But here’s the catch: he may not be returning to Mississippi State, as Newman is considering a transfer, according to a report from ESPN. That report quotes a source close to the situation saying “unhappy with his role and how he was utilized.”

It will be interesting to see what happens from here. Newman would have to sit out a year if he transferred to another Division I program, and for a kid that thought he was destined to be a one-and-done star, locking himself into a three-year college career would be an odd move.

Seton Hall’s Isaiah Whitehead to stay in NBA Draft

Seton Hall guard Isaiah Whitehead (15) shoots past Xavier forward Sean O'Mara (54) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Feb. 28, 2016, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
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Seton Hall sophomore guard Isaiah Whitehead has signed with an agent and will remain in the NBA Draft.

Whitehead announced his intention to stay in the draft last night on his Twitter account.

Whitehead averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game last season for Seton Hall, which went 25-9 and reached the NCAA tournament. He likely projects as a second-round pick with a bit of a shaky shot, but a high usage and assist rates. His strong finish to the season likely lifted him on some draft boards, but his inefficiency will cap his ceiling in June’s draft.

The loss is significant for the Pirates as Whitehead was so much of their offense, but they’ll bring back Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Angel Delgado and Ismael Sanogo. It’s a group that will miss Whitehead’s playmaking, but is still a solid enough foundation that Seton Hall will still likely be competitive in the Big East and vying for another NCAA tournament berth.

Hart returning for Villanova’s title defense

LOUISVILLE, KY - MARCH 26:  Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in the second half against the Kansas Jayhawks during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional at KFC YUM! Center on March 26, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Villanova’s title defense just got a whole lot stouter.

Josh Hart, the leading scorer of the Wildcats’ national championship team, will return for his senior season, he announced on Twitter.

The decision for Hart to return is a major boost for Villanova in its quest to become the first back-to-back champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007. Hart, a 6-foot-5 guard,  averaged 15.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while shooting 51.3 percent from the floor and 35.7 percent from 3-point range.

Most draft pundits had him pegged as a potential end-of-the-first-round pick in next month’s draft though he could have certainly slid into the second should he had decided to forego his senior season. Instead, Hart will be a potential first-team All-American exhausting his eligibility in Philadelphia.

The 2016-17 season is taking shape nicely, and Hart returning to Villanova only increases the strength of the field at the top. Title game hero Kris Jenkins as well as Jalen Brunson, Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges are also back for the defending champs while the super recruiting classes of Duke, Kentucky and Michigan State, Kansas’ returning core along with Josh Jackson and a solid group of teams including North Carolina, Arizona, Louisville and Wisconsin make for an intriguing upper-tier of teams that could very well make for a top-heavy season following last year’s free for all.

College basketball isn’t the NFL. Parity doesn’t equal strength and quality, and when the sport has a handful high-quality teams, it is at its best. It’s looking like that is a possibility for the 2016-17 campaign.

UConn duo returning to school

brimah
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Connecticut may have lost its 6-foot-7 wing scorer but it is keeping its defensive stalwart and leading scorer.

Center Amida Brimah and guard Rodney Purvis have withdrawn their names from NBA Draft consideration and will return to the Huskies for another year, the school announced Tuesday.

The decisions from Brimah, a 7-foot center, and Purvis, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard, help soften the blow dealt by Daniel Hamilton’s decision to sign with an agent and leave school despite having some shaky draft stock. The Huskies may not open the season as a top-25 team, but they won’t be far behind and will be one of the AAC’s favorites, along with Cincinnati.

Brimah averaged 6.5 points per game last year, but blocked 2.7 shots per game. He missed 11 games last season with a broken finger. Purvis registered 12.8 points per game while shooting 43.4 percent from the floor.

Neither Brimah or Purvis were among those invited to this month’s NBA Draft combine nor were either expected to be drafted should they have kept their names in the draft.