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Missouri Valley showdown headlines biggest bubble games of weekend

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With the calendar flipping to March it’s crunch time for teams whose NCAA tournament prospects aren’t locked in stone. Here are the five games that fans of teams on the bubble need to keep track of this weekend.

1) Wichita State at Creighton (Saturday, 2:00 p.m. on ESPN2) 

There will be a lot on the line when the Bluejays host the Shockers in Omaha. The winner grabs the Missouri Valley regular season title and the top seed in next weekend’s conference tournament, and there’s also the matter of neither team in position to feel completely satisfied with their respective NCAA tournament resumes. The two teams are separated by six spots in the RPI (Wichita State ranked 47th and Creighton 41st according to warrennolan.com) with each team having three Top 50 wins this season.

Wichita State won the first meeting by three despite having twice as many turnovers (14) as Creighton, due in large part to Bluejays other than Doug McDermott and Grant Gibbs shooting a combined 8-of-27 from the field. Carl Hall scored 17 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to lead four Shockers in double figures, and they’ll need that kind of balance on Saturday if they’re to complete the sweep of the season series.

2) Iowa State at Oklahoma (Saturday, 1:30 p.m.)

Iowa State had a major resume-building victory in their grasp on Monday night, only to see Kansas leave Ames with a 108-96 overtime win. That makes their trip to Norman all the more important, and the Sooners did their part with a stunning collapse at Texas on Wednesday night. Oklahoma has the better RPI (25) and one more Top 100 victory (seven) than the Cyclones, and their computer numbers are due in part to smart scheduling (they’ve played just five games against teams ranked 201 or worse; Iowa State’s played ten such games).

Iowa State rolled in the first meeting (83-64), shooting 51% from the field and knocking down 11 three-pointers at Hilton Coliseum. Will Clyburn scored 19 points and in total ten Cyclones managed to score. Oklahoma has to keep ISU from running their sets if they’re to return the favor in Norman.

3) No. 22 Butler at VCU (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. on ESPN2)

Brad Stevens’ Bulldogs have done enough in both the non-conference and Atlantic 10 to feel good about their NCAA tournament prospects. This one’s all about the Rams, whose overall resume doesn’t exactly match their standing within the A-10. The Rams have wins over Memphis, Belmont and Alabama to their credit, but the resume lacks wins over teams considered to be “locks” to reach the Big Dance.

This is the only regular season meeting between the two A-10 newcomers, and the key for both teams will be turnovers. If VCU can harass Butler and force them to cough up the basketball the Rams will be in good shape. But if Butler can take care of the basketball and control tempo as Saint Louis did (the Billikens are a bad matchup for both teams), Rotnei Clarke and company may leave Richmond with a valuable result.

4) Alabama at No. 8 Florida (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. on CBS)

Speaking of teams lacking wins over NCAA tournament locks, Alabama visits Gainesville with hopes of picking up a much-needed victory. Anthony Grant’s team has won 11 SEC games, but a closer look at their schedule reveals the fact that they have just one Top 50 victory (Kentucky) and they also have losses to Dayton, Mercer, Tulane and Auburn on the resume.

Is Florida in the conversation for a one-seed? At this rate who really knows, but at the very least they’ll have Will Yeguete back in the rotation. The Gators will be fine regardless of the outcome, but Alabama has a lot of work to do (and that likely includes a run in the SEC tournament) if they’re to return to the NCAA tournament.

5) Villanova at No. 23 Pittsburgh (Sunday, 12:00 p.m.)

The Wildcats suffered a damaging road loss to Seton Hall on Monday night, dropping a game they led by four with 27 seconds remaining. But this week gives Jay Wright’s team a shot at two quality wins before the Big East Championship, beginning with a trip to Pittsburgh to take on the Panthers. Villanova gets No. 7 Georgetown at home on Wednesday night but a win of this caliber would look very good on a resume that currently has just one quality road victory (at Connecticut).

Pittsburgh limited Villanova to just 43 points in the first meeting (neither team shot well; Villanova simply shot worse), and the Panthers also attempted 12 more free throws. Ryan Arcidiacono will need to exercise smart shot selection while also slowing down Pitt senior guard Tray Woodall, who scored 25 points in a win at St. John’s on Sunday.

Other Games of Note

– Colorado State at Boise State (Saturday, 8:00 p.m.)

Boise State’s profile is better than many think, and with their schedule to end the season the Broncos will have opportunities to make their case for inclusion in the NCAA tournament.

– No. 19 Memphis at UCF (Saturday, 1:00 p.m. on FSN) 

The Tigers have an impressive record but their loss at Xavier may have put them in position to need an undefeated run through Conference USA to feel comfortable in regards to an at-large bid.

– Connecticut at Cincinnati (Saturday, 2:00 p.m.) 

The Bearcats are reeling and need to turn things around before they end up on the wrong side of the bubble.

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

No. 3 Gonzaga improves to 20-0 with win over Portland

SPOKANE, WA - DECEMBER 07:  Nigel Williams-Goss #5 of the Gonzaga Bulldogs drives against the Washington Huskies in the first half at McCarthey Athletic Center on December 7, 2016 in Spokane, Washington.  Gonzaga defeated Washington 98-71.  (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
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PORTLAND, Ore. — Zach Collins had 13 points and No. 3 Gonzaga remained the nation’s only undefeated Division I team with an 83-64 victory over Portland in a game Monday night that was rescheduled because of a winter storm earlier this month.

The Bulldogs have won 20 straight games, their longest streak since winning that many in the 2005-06 and 2003-04 seasons. Gonzaga is now 8-0 in West Coast Conference play.

Silas Melson and Jordan Mathews each added 12 points for the Zags, who led by as many as 33 points and had four players in double-digits.

Rashad Jackson and D’Marques Tyson had 15 points apiece for Portland, which won its first two games in conference but has lost six straight since then. The Pilots (9-11, 2-6 WCC) are playing their first season under former NBA player and coach Terry Porter.

The game was originally scheduled for Jan. 7, but a winter storm in Portland forced it to be postponed. Portland opened up extra seats and Gonzaga’s fans outnumbered the home team’s crowd.

The two teams had met just two days ago in Spokane, with Gonzaga leading from the start to win 73-52. But Portland, playing without top scorer Alec Wintering, out-rebounded the Zags 41-33 and held them to 45 percent shooting.

The Zags fared better on Monday, out-rebounding Portland 41-36 and shooting 42 percent.

Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who left the game against Portland because of a left hip injury with about five minutes left, was questionable against Portland but started.

But freshman forward Killian Tillie appeared to injure his right leg under Portland’s basket with 9:38 to go in the game, and teammates helped him from the floor. The 6-foot-10 Tillie, who is from France, is averaging 4.8 points this season.

Wintering, a senior, was hurt in last Thursday’s game against San Francisco and the Pilots announced this weekend that his college career was over because of a torn left ACL.

Wintering averaged 19.5 points and 5.6 assists a game this season. He was on Portland’s bench in street clothes, but during warmups before the game and at the break he was on the court, offering his teammates advice and encouragement.

Gonzaga jumped out to a 9-0 run but the Pilots closed within 9-8 following Philipp Hartwich’s dunk. Portland was competitive, answering Melson’s 3-pointer for Gonzaga with Jackson’s 3 that got the Pilots within 22-19.

But the Bulldogs responded with an 8-0 run to go up 30-19 and went into halftime with on a 16-4 run for a 38-23 lead. Melson and Jonathan Williams led Gonzaga at the break with eight points apiece. Jackson’s 13 first-half points for Portland were a new career high for a game.

Gonzaga extended the lead to 50-26 on Przemek Karnowski’s layup with just under 16 minutes to go, the Bulldogs were on the way to their 20th straight win.

THE BIG PICTURE:

Gonzaga: The Zags have won eight straight against Portland. … The Bulldogs’ longest winning streak was 22 games, set in the

Portland: Portland Trail Blazers President Neil Olshey was at the game. … The game, originally scheduled to be played over winter break, was sold out. So despite school being back in session, the usual student section wasn’t as large for the televised game.

POLL IMPLICATIONS: Gonzaga rose a spot from No. 4 and only trails No. 1 Villanova (19-1) and No. 2 Kansas (18-1) in the AP rankings released earlier in the day. The Bulldogs were also ranked No. 3 in the Feb. 23, 2015 poll.

VIDEO: Andrew Jones nails deep three to give Texas win over Oklahoma

AUSTIN, TX - DECEMBER 27: James Banks #4 and Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns react during the game between the Texas Longhorns and the Kent State Golden Flashesat the Frank Erwin Center on December 27, 2016 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images)
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Texas freshman Andrew Jones nailed one of the most heroic game-winners of conference play with a dagger against Oklahoma on Monday night.

The Longhorns put together an 84-83 win over the Sooners as Jones took the final possession off of a missed free throw to dribble across the floor and fire an NBA-range bomb over a defender.

This win isn’t going to save a struggling Texas season, but it’s a nice win and a confidence-boosting shot for a McDonald’s All-American who has the potential to be a big-time player with some more seasoning. Jones finished with 16 points in the win as the Longhorns are now 8-12 and 2-6 in the Big 12.

(H/t: Mike Leslie)

VIDEO: Dennis Smith Jr. caps N.C. State win with thunder dunk

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 23:  Dennis Smith Jr. #4 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack drives in for a dunk as time expires during their win against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 23, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. North Carolina State won 84-82.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Dennis Smith Jr. showed why he is a potential top three pick in this year’s draft and why he was the reason many thought that the Wolfpack could be an Elite 8 team coming into the season on Monday, popping off for 32 points and six assists as N.C. State won at No. 17 Duke, 84-82.

He capped off the performance with the perfect exclamation point, a dunk contest-worthy throwdown:

Let’s get another angle of that dunk, shall we?:

Three Takeaways from N.C. State’s win over No. 17 Duke

DURHAM, NC - JANUARY 23:  Head coach Mark Gottfried talks to Dennis Smith Jr. #4 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack during their win against the Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 23, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina. North Carolina State won 84-82.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
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Freshman Dennis Smith Jr. had a monster performance as he scored 32 points and had six assists to lead the Wolfpack past No. 17 Duke for an ACC road win.

Here are three takeaways for an important win for N.C. State.

1. This is the Dennis Smith Jr. (and N.C. State) that we envisioned 

Before this season N.C. State received a lot of hype with some pundits — including NBCSports.com — because people knew that freshman Dennis Smith Jr. was a lottery pick talent and there were other pieces around him that could be productive. Smith has mostly lived up to his top-five hype this season but Monday night’s game saw the North Carolina native go to another level.

Smith comes from a family of N.C. State fans. It is part of the reason he selected the Wolfpack even though they aren’t a one-and-done factory like some other schools. The Wolfpack hadn’t won in Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1995 and this year’s N.C. State had lost four of five ACC games entering Monday.

And Smith went completely bonkers. He finished with 32 points and six assists as he was 4-for-6 from three-point range.

At the end of the first half when it looked like Duke might take a double-digit lead into the break, Smith converted a three-point play and followed it up with a tough, contested three to make it a six-point game. The second half saw more of the same from Smith as he nailed pull-up threes, got to the rim and finished through traffic. It was the type of mesmerizing performance that gets casual basketball fans excited about a player before March Madness begins.

Smith wasn’t the only good player for N.C. State on Monday. Freshman big man Ted Kapita gave crucial minutes inside as he registered his first career double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Abdul Malik-Abu was a great secondary option for Smith as he contributed 19 points and nine rebounds. Maverick Rowan (nine points) hit a key late three and some important free throws.

When this team has all of its pieces going you can see why so many people believed N.C. State was capable of the Sweet 16. It feels like this team could be in for a run and the road game at Louisville on Sunday is another major test.

2. Duke is still figuring out its ideal rotation (while getting some answers)

Interim coach Jeff Capel went to some interesting lineup choices on Monday night. Capel started the game by using the lineup that jumpstarted Duke’s second half against Miami. That meant increased minutes for freshman center Marques Bolden as he was paired with Jayson Tatum (16 points) and Frank Jackson.

Seniors Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson were the interchangeable parts who played the most minutes in the first half for the Blue Devils and the second unit included Grayson Allen (13 points), Luke Kennard (20 points) and Harry Giles.

The Blue Devils still have some disjointed sets and scorers are still struggling to play with Tatum at times but there were some promising signs. Giles (eight points, seven rebounds) continues to improve his natural timing and he knocked down a face-up jumper from 17 feet with ease that could help keep defenders honest on him.

There was some good but there was also some bad. Bolden regressed to being a non-factor once again and Allen struggled to find a consistent scoring touch with a 4-for-13 performance.

We still have yet to see the (mostly) full strength Blue Devils that make us believe they are a national title contender. It’ll be interesting to see which lineup ultimately plays the best for Duke but they’re struggling to figure out a consistent rotation.

3. Can N.C. State sustain this kind of effort on a nightly basis?

Monday night was N.C. State’s first road win of the season. So for as big as this win is, the Wolfpack still have a long way to go to becoming a consistent factor in a ridiculously deep ACC. Smith is going to get tested quite a bit by Louisville’s length and athleticism on Sunday and playing in front of that Cardinal crowd is one of the hardest things to do in college basketball.

It doesn’t get any easier for N.C. State and they can’t have a major letdown after the high of a road win like this. That losing stretch of four out of five games included some really bad losses. Boston College, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest are the kind of losses that tournament teams can’t sustain on a regular basis so the Wolfpack have to take care of  business against teams like that for the rest of the season.

Success on the road will also help N.C. State’s tournament cause. This Duke win is nice but now the Wolfpack get two more cracks at top-15 teams away from home with Louisville and Florida State in the next two weeks. If N.C. State can somehow split those road games and stay strong at home they’ll be in good shape the rest of the way.

PHOTO: Nevada wearing pink jerseys to honor Coaches vs. Cancer this week

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Nevada announced that they’ll be wearing special pink uniforms for the next two games to promote cancer awareness.

The Wolf Pack will wear the jerseys on Wednesday (Jan. 25) on the road against Boise State and at home on Saturday (Jan. 28) against New Mexico.

“We are extremely excited and honored to release our new Pink “Cancer-Awareness” Jerseys. It was apparent very early in our time here, that many members of our Nevada Wolf Pack Basketball Program and in our Pack community have been affected or are currently being affected by cancer,” Nevada head coach Eric Musselman said in the release. “We could not be more proud to help support the cause and unite to fight this horrible and devastating disease.”