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Pregame shootaround: Monster doubleheader dominates Saturday’s action

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GAME OF THE DAY: No. 8 Villanova at No. 2 Syracuse (2 p.m., CBS)

I mean no disrespect to one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports, but when you have a matchup of two unbeaten, top-10 teams on December 28th, it takes precedence. It should be a good one as No. 8 Villanova (11-0) travels to the Carrier Dome to face No. 2 Syracuse (11-0) in a matchup of old Big East foes. This is a big non-conference tilt that will test each team before conference season and Syracuse is in for its biggest game of the season — so far — after winning the Maui Invitational while Villanova won the Battle 4 Atlantis earlier this season. How will Syracuse’s young backcourt of freshman Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney handle a big game and a big test against Villanova?

THE OTHER GAME OF THE DAY: No. 6 Louisville at No. 18 Kentucky (4 p.m., CBS)

If you’re up for more college hoops after the matchup of unbeatens — and of course you are — then you’ll want to stick around for one of the best rivalries in sports. Although No. 6 Louisville (11-1) and No. 18 Kentucky (9-3) aren’t both in the top ten, they’re still the last two national champions and this is a rivalry game unlike many others. Can Kentucky finally get over the hump and earn a marquee victory heading into SEC play? The young Wildcats have fallen in their previous tests against Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina, but this time, they’ll have Rupp Arena and Big Blue Nation behind them. And how will Louisville handle its most talented opponent so far this season in a big rivalry game on the road? Louisville’s only test this season was against North Carolina, and, like Kentucky, they fell to the Tar Heels as well.

WHO’S GETTING UPSET? No. 25 Missouri at North Carolina State (8 p.m., ESPN2)

North Carolina State (9-2) is playing very well after a bit of a rocky start and sophomore T.J. Warren is playing at an All-American level for the Wolfpack. Today the Wolfpack will host No. 25 Missouri (10-1) after the Tigers are fresh off their loss in the Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois and Missouri could be in for a letdown. Warren is averaging a team-leading 23.9 points and 7.3 rebounds — on 55 percent shooting — and poses a major challenge for Missouri’s defense. The Wolfpack have won seven straight games since the return of 7-foot-1 center Jordan Vandenburg and freshman point guard Anthony “Cat” Barber has also played better much better since the 2-2 start, as he’s registered at least four assists in all seven of those wins. One thing to monitor in this one: How will Missouri handle its first true road game of the season?

MID-MAJOR GAME OF THE DAY: Belmont at Indiana State, (1:05 p.m., ESPN3)

This is an interesting match-up between Ohio Valley contender Belmont (8-5) and Missouri Valley contender Indiana State (8-3), in-part because they already played earlier this season and Belmont won 96-95 at home on November 14th. Since then, Belmont has won at North Carolina, but has lost four of five games and they’ll look to right the ship against a good Indiana State team. The Sycamores have won five of six games entering this rematch and are trending in the opposite direction.

FIVE THINGS TO KNOW

1) How about the matchup between senior guards Chaz Williams and Bryce Cotton in the matchup between No. 23 UMass and Providence? That should be a fun one as Providence (10-2) will look to hand UMass (10-1) its second loss of the season.

2) Duke (9-2) will be in for an interesting non-conference matchup at Cameron Indoor Stadium with 7-3 Eastern Michigan. The Eagles have already traveled to Rupp Arena and faced No. 21 UMass this season and own sold mid-major wins over Green Bay and Cleveland State and won’t be scared to face No. 9 Duke.

3) Wake Forest is off to a solid 10-2 start, but how will they react to their first true road game of the season at Xavier? The Demon Deacons went 1-2 at the Battle 4 Atlantis and would love to pick up a quality road win before ACC play. Xavier, meanwhile, has rebounded nicely with four straight wins after an 0-3 trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis. Although both teams played in the Battle 4 Atlantis, they have yet to play each other.

4) An interesting doubleheader at the Brooklyn Winter Hoops Festival kicks off today as Tulane (7-6) faces Kansas State (8-3) and Boston College (4-8) takes on VCU (10-3). Tulane has lost six of seven and will look for an upset against red-hot Kansas State and their six straight wins, while Boston College hasn’t beaten a Division I opponent in the month of December and will look to rebound against the Rams.

5) Although Michigan lost Mitch McGary indefinitely due to back surgery, they can’t hang their head for too long, as they’ll face Holy Cross and senior center Dave Dudzinski. Dudzinski is one of the top mid-major big men in the country so far this season as he’s averaging 17.1 points and 7.6 rebounds per game on 50 percent shooting from the field and 45 percent shooting from three-point range.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25:

  • Prairie View A&M at No. 4 Wisconsin, 2:00 p.m., ESPNU
  • New Orleans at No. 5 Michigan State, 4:15 p.m., BTN
  • Eastern Washington at No. 15 UConn, 1:00 p.m., ESPN3
  • Jackson State at No. 17 Memphis, 12:00 p.m., ESPNU
  • Georgia at No. 21 Colorado, 10:00 p.m., Pac 12
  • Santa Clara at No. 24 Gonzaga, 8:00 p.m., ESPNU

NOTABLES:

  • Nebraska at Cincinnati, 12:00 p.m., ESPN2
  • Florida International at Georgetown, 12:00 p.m., Fox Sports 1
  • UIC vs Illinois, 2:00 p.m., BTN
  • Samford at Marquette, 2:00 p.m., Fox Sports Net
  • Columbia at St. John’s, 2:30 p.m.
  • Harvard at Fordham, 4:00 p.m.
  • Akron at South Carolina, 4:00 p.m., ESPNU
  • BYU at Loyola Marymount, 4:00 p.m.
  • Old Dominion at Richmond, 6:30 p.m., NBCSN
  • Alabama at UCLA, 10:00 p.m., ESPN2

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

AP
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File
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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.