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No. 2 Arizona poised to grab top spot after holding off UNLV

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With No. 1 Michigan State suffering a surprising home loss to North Carolina on Wednesday night, there were many Arizona fans who looked towards Saturday’s contest against UNLV with excitement. The renewal of a series that delivered some great moments during the time when Jerry Tarkanian and Lute Olson roamed the sidelines was something folks looked forward to. But the fact that a win would move the Wildcats to the top of the national polls for the first time in nearly a decade was what fired up the fan base.

Despite an off night from freshman Aaron Gordon (2-for-10, four points) four other Wildcats reached double figures and a fifth, freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, flirted with a double-double as Arizona beat the Runnin’Rebels 63-58. Brandon Ashley and T.J. McConnell scored 13 points apiece to lead the way, with the point guard adding seven rebounds and six assists. However, even in victory there are concerns for a team that come Monday should see its name atop the major polls.

There were questions regarding who the shooters would be for Arizona, and Saturday’s game didn’t provide a positive answer. As a team the Wildcats shot 3-for-16 from beyond the arc, and one possible answer (Gabe York) saw just six minutes of action. In fact, head coach Sean Miller went with a six-man rotation for much of Saturday’s contest with Hollis-Jefferson (nine points, seven rebounds and six assists in 28 minutes) being the sixth man. Clearly that nucleus is talented enough to win a lot of games, but who within that group can consistently make perimeter shots?

Nick Johnson was responsible for nine of Arizona’s 16 three-point attempts but he made just two, and McConnell missed both of his shots. That puts the onus on a reserve like York to do what it takes to earn more playing time in games of this magnitude, with UNLV having the athletes needed to make things difficult for Arizona. Bryce Dejean-Jones led three Runnin’ Rebels in double figures with 16 points, and as a team UNLV shot 46% from the field. But Arizona’s rebounding (41-29 edge, and they rebounded 42.9% of their missed shots) and ability to score in the paint (44-22 margin) proved to be too much to overcome.

The question: will that six-man rotation be enough for Arizona as the season wears on, especially when facing some of the top teams in the Pac-12 (the NCAA tournament as well)? The Wildcats may have been able to do enough to hold off UNLV, but at some point down the line someone else’s name will be called. And how prepared that player is to contribute could make the difference between a good season and a special one.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: Some conference matchups play out before football

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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GAME OF THE NIGHT: Utah at No. 16 Oregon, 4:00 p.m.

From Rob Dauster’s Weekend Preview:

Utah suffered one of the worst losses I’ve seen in a while on Thursday night, when Brandon Taylor, for some unknown reason, decided to foul an Oregon State player firing up a half court prayer at the buzzer. The Utes, who are arguably the second-best team in the Pac-12, will look to bounce-back on Sunday against the best team in the Pac-12, No. 16 Oregon at 4:00 p.m.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR:

1. No. 12 SMU will attempt to stay atop the American standings as they travel to South Florida. While the Mustangs won the first matchup between these two teams at home by 14, they’ve dropped their last two games on the road.

2. A few more American contests are going down as East Carolina travels to UConn and Houston heads to Tulsa. The game between the Cougars and Golden Hurricane is especially interesting because both teams are sitting two games back of SMU and trying to make a move on the postseason.

3. No. 5 Iowa continues the soft part of the schedule as they face Illinois on the road. The Hawkeyes posted recent easy victories over Northwestern and Penn State and will be heavily favored again on Sunday.

4. Could be an intriguing game as No. 17 Miami travels to Georgia Tech. Although the Yellow Jackets aren’t a major contender in the ACC, they’ve been tough this season, especially at home. The Hurricanes fell victim to Georgia Tech last season while they were ranked by Marcus Georges-Hunt has to get back on track after a recent slump for that to happen.

5. There is an Atlantic 10 game that will be featured on NBCSN on Sunday: Saint Louis at St. Bonaventure (2:00 p.m.).

CLICK HERE to watch these games on NBC Sports Live Extra Sunday afternoon.

Illinois State ends No. 21 Wichita State’s 12-game win streak

Fred VanVleet
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
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Having won 12 straight games, No. 21 Wichita State entered the weekend one of the hottest teams in the country. And with a four-game lead atop the Missouri Valley standings, clinching the regular season title was more a matter of “when” as opposed to “if.” But none of that mattered Saturday night at Illinois State, as the Redbirds managed to hand the Shockers their first conference loss by the final score of 58-53.

In addition to the 12-game win streak, which was second to Stony Brook (15 straight wins), Wichita State also saw its 19-game win streak in Valley regular season games come to an end. Illinois State was the last Valley team to beat Wichita State, eliminating the Shockers in the Arch Madness semifinals last March, and they played with the confidence of a team that believed it could win.

And after a rough first half the Redbirds found a way to come back, erasing a 16-point second half deficit in the process.

Wichita State’s issue in the second half was the fact that they couldn’t make shots. The Shockers shot just 26.7 percent from the field and 1-for-14 from three in the second half, with Fred VanVleet going scoreless and Shaq Morris scoring just one point. And just two players, Ron Baker and Conner Frankamp, managed to make multiple field goals in the game’s final 20 minutes. Illinois State certainly deserves credit for that, as they took away the quality looks Wichita State was able to find in building its lead.

And on the other end of the floor Paris Lee took control of the game during Illinois State’s comeback, scoring 13 of his 19 points in the second half with Deontae Hawkins adding 11 second-half points. Illinois State was even worse from the field, finishing the game shooting just over 27 percent from the field. But they were able to attack the Wichita State defense and get to the foul line, outscoring the Shockers 22-9 from the charity stripe. And in a game in which neither team could get much going offensively, the ability to get points from the line proved to be the difference.

This defeat doesn’t help Wichita State, but did anything really change? Maybe the margin for error when it comes to an at-large bid gets a little smaller with the loss in the eyes of some. But when considering injuries to the likes of VanVleet and Anton Grady in non-conference play, those early season losses are understandable. Saturday was a rough night for Wichita State, but given the maturity and talent on at Gregg Marshall’s disposal the Shockers will be fine moving forward.