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Middle Tennessee clinches second straight C-USA title

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — If earning a national ranking for the first time in school history put extra pressure on Middle Tennessee, it doesn’t show.

The No. 24 Blue Raiders posted their second straight double-digit win since cracking the Top 25 last week with an 82-64 victory over archrival Western Kentucky on Thursday night.

That gave Middle Tennessee its second consecutive Conference USA title in front of the season’s biggest crowd (11,307) at the Murphy Center.

“It was electric,” MTSU coach Kermit Davis said. “I’ve said it ever since we’ve been ranked — and I don’t say it boastfully, I just say it honestly — that we look and play and prepare like a Top 25 team. And everybody asks me the question, how are your guys going to handle it? The more success, the more motivation.”

The Blue Raiders (24-5, 16-1), beat UAB by 25 points in their first game after getting ranked before adding an 18-point win over second-place Western Kentucky (22-8, 15-2).

Middle’s Brandon Walters, a 6-foot-10 redshirt senior, recorded his third double-double of the season with 18 points and 11 rebounds.

“Brandon Walters is playing like an elite center in college basketball,” Davis said. “When Brandon plays like that, we can play with a lot of people in college basketball.”

Nick King, a leading candidate for C-USA Player of the Year, scored 18 points and had nine rebounds for the Blue Raiders.

“I feel like the bigger the crowd we have here, the more amped up we play,” said King, an Alabama transfer. “Top 25 team, top 25 crowd. That’s a great combination.”

Antwain Johnson added 17 points and Giddy Potts had 11 as Middle Tennessee shot 55 percent from the field, extending its winning streak to 11.

“I think the difference in their team has been Johnson in the last four or five weeks,” WKU coach Rick Stansbury said. “He went from a non-starter to a starter. And a guy that gives them another shooter out there, another ballhandler, a guy who can make tough plays.”

The Blue Raiders swept the regular-season series with the Hilltoppers, including a 66-62 win on Jan. 20. Middle Tennessee has won 13 of the last 15 against Western Kentucky.

Lamonte Bearden led the Hilltoppers with 24 points and Justin Johnson had 14.

The loss ended Western Kentucky’s six-game winning streak.

The Hilltoppers shot at least 55 percent from the field in their previous five games, but they dropped to 44 percent against the Blue Raiders.

After a close first half, Middle Tennessee began to pull away early in the second half. The Hilltoppers never got closer than nine in the last 20 minutes.

Middle Tennessee shot 60 percent from the field during the first 20 minutes, including a 7-of-11 showing from 3-point range, to take a 43-34 halftime lead.

Several prominent bracketologists predict the Blue Raiders will earn a seed in the Nos. 9-12 range at the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

The Blue Raiders improved to 11-1 at home.

BIG PICTURE

Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers, who upset then-No. 18 Purdue in November, were held to their lowest scoring output since a 66-62 loss to Middle on Jan. 20.

Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders look comfortable with their new-found ranking.

MOMENTUM CHANGER

Johnson’s 3-pointer at the first-half buzzer energized the near-sellout crowd and the Blue Raiders. “We knew it was a big shot,” Bearden said. “That put them up nine.”

BACK IN ACTION

Middle guard Tyrik Dixon, who missed the previous game due to concussion protocol, returned and played 12 minutes.

UP NEXT

Western Kentucky visits Alabama-Birmingham in its regular-season finale Saturday.

Middle Tennessee hosts Marshall in its regular-season finale Saturday. Marshall handed Middle its only conference loss in January.

Elite Class of 2020 point guard to reclassify

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Nico Mannion, a five-star point guard from Arizona, announced on Friday that he will be reclassifying into the Class of 2019.

Mannion was a top 20 player in 2020 but, according to 247 Sports, he will be ranked No. 11 in 2019. The athletic, 6-foot-3 Mannion was long-rumored to be considering a move up a class because of his age. He’ll turn 18 in March of next year, meaning that he’ll arrive on campus the same age as a typical college freshman.

Mannion cut his list to ten schools in June — Duke, Arizona, Villanova, Kansas, USC, UCLA, Oregon, Vanderbilt, Marquette and Utah — but Duke and Arizona appear to be the favorites at this point.

Mannion plays his high school ball for Pinnacle High School in Phoenix and with West Coast Elite on the Under Armour Association circuit. He played for Team USA’s youth ranks, but his mother is Italian and, in June, he was called up to the Italian men’s senior national team, scoring nine points in 29 minutes of a FIBA World Cup Qualifier.

Nebraska to lose junior big man to transfer

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Nebraska’s frontcourt depth took a blow on Thursday as junior big man Jordy Tshimanga informed the program that he will be transferring.

“Jordy called me tonight and asked for his release,” head coach Tim Miles said in a statement that was given to the Lincoln Journal-Star. “The University of Nebraska and our program wish Jordy and his family the best.”

Tshimanga averaged 4.0 points and 4.6 boards in 13 minutes this past season, and a source close to the program told NBC Sports he wasn’t expected to play much more than that this season.

Miles’ has spent the better part of the last two seasons on the hot seat, and this certainly doesn’t make his job easier, but with the talent the Cornhuskers have on their roster, they look like an NCAA tournament team already. They bring back their top four scorers, including former five-star prospect Isaac Copeland and potential first-team all-Big Ten wing James Palmer. With or without Tshimanga, Nebraska has a shot to finish top four in the Big Ten.

North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan State part of Las Vegas event

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — North Carolina, UCLA, Michigan State and Texas will play in an early season basketball tournament in Las Vegas.

The Las Vegas Invitational will include games at campus sites, then the final two rounds on Nov. 22-23 in Las Vegas. North Carolina takes on Texas in one semifinal, and Michigan State faces UCLA in the other.

UNC, UCLA and Michigan State are all top 20 teams in the NBC Sports preseason top 25.

The championship is Nov. 23, and the semifinal losers also play each other that day.

NCAA to study possible effects of widespread legal wagering

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The NCAA plans to study how the expansion of legalized betting could affect college athletics and member schools.

The NCAA announced Thursday it will create a working group of “subject matter experts” to assess areas such as officiating, NCAA rules, federal and state laws, and the use of integrity services. NCAA leadership has already called for federal regulation on sports betting. NCAA rules prohibit sports wagering by athletes and athletic department employees.

The Supreme Court opened the door for states to have legal wagering on sporting events when it struck down a federal ban in May. Schools in some states such as West Virginia, Mississippi and New Jersey are already exploring the possibility of collecting integrity fees in anticipation of legal sports books opening in their states.

“While we certainly respect the Supreme Court’s decision, our position on sports wagering remains,” said Donald Remy, NCAA chief legal officer. “With this new landscape, we must evolve and expand our long-standing efforts to protect both the integrity of competitions and the well-being of student-athletes.”

The NCAA Board of Governors has already suspended the association’s ban on holding championships in states with legalized sports betting, a policy that only affected Nevada.

“Legalized sports gambling across the country is rather new, but the NCAA and its members have committed significant resources over the years to policy, research and education around sports wagering,” said Joni Comstock, senior vice president of championships and alliances. “With student-athlete well-being as the centerpiece, we will continue to build upon these efforts to assist members as they adapt to legalized sports wagering in their states and regions.”

Arizona releases non-conference schedule

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A trip to Maui, a home date against Baylor and trips to UConn and Alabama highlight Arizona’s non-conference schedule, which the school released Thursday, this season.

Despite losing nearly the entirety of last year’s talented-but-troubled group, Sean Miller still scheduled aggressively. The first test will come the week of Thanksgiving in Hawaii at the Maui Invitational. It’s an extremely competitive field with Duke, Auburn, Gonzaga, Iowa State, Illinois, San Diego State and Xavier. The bracket for the event has yet to be released.

The Wildcats travel to Storrs to face UConn in Dan Hurley’s first season on Dec. 2, and then a week later visit Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

The marquee home game will be Saturday, Dec. 16, when Scott Drew and Baylor come to Tucson.

Here’s the full schedule:

Day Date Opponent Location

Sunday Nov. 11 Cal Poly Tucson, Ariz.

Wednesday Nov. 14 UTEP Tucson, Ariz.

Monday Nov. 19 vs. TBA Lahaina, Hawai’i

Tuesday Nov. 20 vs. TBA Lahaina, Hawai’i

Wednesday Nov. 21 vs. TBA Lahaina, Hawai’i

Wednesday Nov. 28 Texas Southern Tucson, Ariz.

Sunday Dec. 2 at UConn Hartford, Conn.

Thursday Dec. 6 Utah Valley Tucson, Ariz.

Sunday Dec. 9 at Alabama Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Saturday Dec. 15 Baylor Tucson, Ariz.

Wednesday Dec. 19 Montana Tucson, Ariz.

Saturday Dec. 22 UC Davis Tucson, Ariz.