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_

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.