Weekend Preview: Five games between ranked teams on Saturday

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Game of the Weekend: No. 6 Syracuse at No. 1 Louisville (Sat. 4:00 p.m. ESPN)

Were you wondering who the best team in the Big East is this season? Well, you may be getting your answer on Saturday, as Syracuse heads down to Louisville to take on the Cardinals. At full strength, this would be a tough matchup for the Orange. As good as Michael Carter-Williams has been this season, he’s a bigger, slightly slower guard that is turnover prone. He’s going to have Russ Smith and Peyton Siva and Kevin Ware up in his jock for 40 minutes. That’s not exactly ideal for anyone, especially a guy whose dribble is that much higher than a standard point guard.

The other issue for Syracuse is that they will be playing without James Southerland, their best shooter and a key piece in their zone defense. What makes him so valuable is that not only can be be a zone buster and help get the Cardinals out of their 2-3, but he had the length and athleticism to be a threat defensively in the Syracuse zone. It will be interesting to see how Syracuse responds, but until Southerland returns to the lineup, Syracuse is going to be behind the 8-ball, especially on the road.

Six more games you have to watch

  • No. 17 Missouri at No. 10 Florida (Sat. 2:00 p.m. ESPN): The big news here is that it looks like Laurence Bowers will be out on Saturday, meaning that the Tigers are going to be going up against one of the nation’s toughest defensive teams without their best offensive player. That doesn’t mean they won’t have a fighting chance, mind you; if Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross are hitting their threes, Phil Pressey is playing under control and the Tigers are defending, they are still a dangerous club.
  • No. 12 Creighton at Wichita State (Sat. 4:00 p.m. ESPN2): Wichita State is getting closer to being back to full strength as they just got Carl Hall back from his broken thumb. He joins Cleanthony Early along the front line, meaning that the Shockers have the mismatch they can exploit against the Bluejays. Last season, with Creighton and Wichita State in similar situations from a nation perspective, the Shockers smacked Creighton around. If the Bluejays truly want to be the favorite in the Missouri Valley and prove they are a threat in March, they need this win.
  • No. 21 Oregon at No. 24 UCLA (Sat. 4:00 p.m. CBS): Can you believe this? Two top 25 teams in the Pac-12, and they’re playing each other? For my money, these are the two best teams in the league. And while both like to get up-and-down the floor, the Bruins don’t play nearly as much defense or rebound nearly as well as the Ducks. That said, Oregon doesn’t have the same kind of talent on their roster. The key matchup: Kyle Anderson vs. whichever big man Oregon puts on him.
  • No. 11 Ohio State at No. 18 Michigan State (Sat. 6:00 p.m. ESPN): The Buckeyes are coming off of a stellar win over Michigan on Sunday, but so much of that win had to do with the fact that Ohio State simply matched up well with the Wolverines. Will that be the case against the Spartans? OSU doesn’t have nearly the same amount of size, and if the Spartans go small and put Branden Dawson at the four, they can nullify Deshaun Thomas.
  • UNLV at Colorado State (Sat. 7:00 p.m. NBC Sports Net): UNLV picked up a huge win at San Diego State on Wednesday night, but does this mean that they’ve gotten past their road woes? CSU is a tough team at home and they have a big, physical front line. If the Rams are truly going to make noise in the Mountain West this season, these are the kind of games they need to win.
  • No. 9 Gonzaga at No. 13 Butler (Sat. 8:00 p.m. ESPN): This game took a bit of a hit last weekend when Rotnei Clarke took a nasty fall against Dayton and sprained his neck in a scary incident that required his to be taken off the court on a stretcher. But that doesn’t mean this won’t be an entertaining matchup. How about this: Kelly Olynyk matching up with the most physical defender he will have faced this season in Andrew Smith? Remember the job Smith did on Cody Zeller? If he can slow down Gonzaga’s Big Canadian, Butler will have a chance.

And the mid-majors?

  • Stony Brook at Vermont (Fri. 7:00 p.m. ESPNU)
  • La Salle at Xavier (Sat. 2:00 p.m.)
  • Wagner at Bryant (Sat. 4:00 p.m.)
  • Charleston at Davidson (Sat. 7:00 p.m. ESPN3)
  • Tennessee State at Belmont (Sat. 8:00 p.m.)

You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.

VIDEO: Mixtape for North Carolina-bound Nassir Little

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Nassir Little is one of the most improved players in the high school basketball ranks, going from being a guy that was a borderline five-star prospect to being a potential No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

At 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and athleticism to burn, he has all the makings of being one of the switchable wing defenders that are en vogue in the modern era of the NBA.

Former UNC star Phil Ford has surgery for prostate cancer

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina says former point guard Phil Ford has had surgery for prostate cancer.

Team spokesman Steve Kirschner said Wednesday that Ford underwent the procedure Tuesday after he was diagnosed during his annual physical. Dr. Eric Wallen, the UNC physician who is treating Ford, says the cancer was caught early because Ford “has been proactive regarding his health.”

Ford played for Dean Smith in the 1970s and scored 2,290 points, a mark that stood as the school record until Tyler Hansbrough broke it in 2008. Ford also spent 12 seasons as an assistant to Smith after a seven-year NBA career in which he was the rookie of the year in 1979.

Bruce Pearl: ‘Good chance’ Auburn returns four players testing the waters

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Bruce Pearl told reporters on Monday that there is a “good chance” that his Auburn program will return all four of the players that are currently testing the waters of the NBA draft.

“I think there’s a good chance they’re all going to consider coming back,” Pearl said. “There’s a chance they’re all going to come back, but that’s been the case since the beginning.”

“I just feel as we get closer to the deadline and they gather more and more information, I think that chance improves. It would not surprise me, still, to see a couple of them stay in.”

Those four players are Mustapha Heron, Austin Wiley, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. Brown was the leading scorer for the Tigers last season, while Heron was arguably their best player and Harper a steady floor general that is the piece that holds everything together. Wiley did not play after he was ruled ineligible as a result of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. If he returns he will be eligible to play the 2018-19 season.

Heron will be the most interesting decision of the four. A former McDonald’s All-American, when he declared for the draft last month, he announced that he intended to sign with an agent. But he has told reporters in the last week that he never actually signed and is still “50-50” on whether or not he will return. He was not invited to the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last week. Wiley was, but he did not make enough of an impression to earn himself a first round guarantee. Brown and Harper are very unlikely to be drafted, but both juniors will get feedback from NBA teams on what they might need to do to play their way into the league.

Auburn is coming off of a year where they shared the SEC regular season title with Tennessee, but they struggled down the stretch of the season after Anfernee McLemore suffered a gruesome ankle injury. As it stands, under the assumption that Heron and Wiley are gone, we currently have the Tigers ranked as a top 15 team in the country in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

With Heron and Wiley back, however, Auburn will have the pieces to make a case as one of college basketball’s five best teams next season.

Forward Lance Thomas transferring from Louisville

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With Anas Mahmoud out of eligibility and Ray Spalding having made the decision to enter the 2018 NBA Draft, new Louisville head coach Chris Mack had some holes to fill in the front court ahead of his first season at the helm. There’s now another departure to account for, as it was announced Tuesday afternoon that 6-foot-8 forward Lance Thomas has decided to transfer.

Thomas, who will have three seasons of eligibility remaining at his next school, appeared in 12 games for the Cardinals last season and averaged 2.2 points and 1.3 rebounds in 4.2 minutes per game.

Losing Thomas may not appear to be a big deal based upon his production as a freshman. But, given the combination of player departures and misses on the recruiting trail this spring it can also be argued that Louisville is not in a position where it can afford any more personnel losses.

Louisville is now down to four scholarship players in the front court, wings V.J. King and Jordan Nwora and forwards Malik Williams and Steven Enoch, with Enoch eligible after sitting out last season after transferring in from UConn.

Williams made 12 starts as a freshman, averaging 3.8 points and 2.4 rebounds in 10.6 minutes per game, with King averaging 8.6 points per game and Nwora 5.7 points per game. Enoch played in 29 games at UConn during the 2016-17 season, averaging 3.4 points and 2.3 rebounds in 12.1 minutes per appearance.

Four-star wing Romeo Weems commits to DePaul

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DePaul landed its first verbal commitment in the Class of 2019 Tuesday afternoon, as four-star small forward Romeo Weems announced that he will be a Blue Demon. Weems, who attends New Haven HS in New Haven, Michigan, picked DePaul over Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Oregon and is considered by most major scouting services to be a Top 50 prospect in the 2019 graduating class.

The 6-foot-6 Weems plays his grassroots basketball for The Family on the Nike EYBL circuit, averaging 15.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game this spring. Weems also has experience playing for USA Basketball, as he was part of the Under-16 team that won the FIBA Americas U16 title last year. Weems will also be part of the training camp from which the Under-17 team will be selected next month in preparation for this summer’s FIBA Under-17 World Championships.

DePaul managing to land a commitment from a prospect of Weems’ caliber, a versatile wing who can defend multiple positions while also being productive offensively, could be the shot in the arm that Dave Leitao’s program so desperately needs if they’re to improve their standing within the Big East.

Since making the move from Conference USA in 2005, DePaul has finished above .500 in a season just once (20-14 in 2006-07) with that also being the only time in which the Blue Demons finished above .500 in Big East play (9-7). Since Leitao, who led DePaul to its most recent NCAA tournament in 2005, returned for his second stint at the school the Blue Demons have gone 29-65.

Getting out of Allstate Arena and moving to the new Wintrust Arena ahead of last season was an important move for the DePaul program, but it’s been clear that the rebuild won’t be a “quick fix.” Bringing in a talent of Weems’ caliber should help DePaul moving forward, with the key now being to recruit well enough to ensure that the talented wing has ample help when he arrives on campus next year.

Among the players currently on the roster who will have eligibility remaining in 2019 are guards Devin Gage and Justin Roberts and wing Darious Hall, who will sit out the 2018-19 season after transferring to DePaul from Arkansas. Hall appeared in 35 games for the Razorbacks this past season, averaging 5.1 points and 3.1 rebounds in just under 15 minutes per game.