Monday, January 7, 2008

The Week Ahead

As we enter the first full week of 2008, conference play is already beginning to separate some of the pretenders from the contenders. Last week featured several marquee match-ups with teams attempting to send a message to the rest of the country that they are going to be in their respective conference race for good. This week continues that trend, with plenty of quality intra-conference battles as well as a couple of non-conference games. Additionally, two of the biggest games of the season so far will be played on Wednesday.

Top Games

Rhode Island at Dayton (Wednesday, 7:00 PM, Regional TV):
Two of the best teams in the country go head-to-head. Despite the fact neither was expected to reach the NCAA Tournament, both would be in line for top-four seeds if the field was selected today. Rhode Island owns wins at Syracuse and over Providence, and its only loss was at Boston College by four. Will Daniels is one of the best players in the Atlantic-10, while guard Jimmy Baron is one of the top three-point shooters in the country. Three other players average at least 9.5 points per game, including double-double threat Kahiem Seawright. Dayton is one of the biggest surprises this year, as the Flyers sit at No. 7 in the RPI with wins over Louisville and Pittsburgh. Their only defeat was at the hands of George Mason. Brian Roberts is one of the best guards in America and he has the ability to carry Dayton, while freshman forward Chris Wright is supremely athletic.

Mississippi at Tennessee (Wednesday, 8:00 PM, ESPN FullCourt/Regional TV): One of only six unbeatens left takes on the conference favorite. Mississippi lost a lot from last season and was expected to finish near the bottom of the conference, but the Rebels are 13-0 with a win over Clemson highlighting their schedule. Many experts from across the country still think that they are more of a pretender than a contender in the SEC. Chris Warren is a very solid freshman point guard, while big man Dwayne Curtis provides a go-to presence inside. Tennessee came into the season as the odds-on favorite to win the SEC and the Volunteers might be in line for a No. 1 seed if the field was chosen today. They have bounced back from a blowout loss to Texas to pick-up back-to-back road wins at Xavier and Gonzaga. Chris Lofton has struggled with his shot all season, but forward Tyler Smith and guard JaJuan Smith have stepped up and picked up the slack.

Arizona at Arizona State (Wednesday, 9:30 PM, Regional TV): Intrastate match-up in the Pac-10. Arizona has fought through a variety of distractions this season, including coach Lute Olsen taking a leave of absence and now star freshman guard Jerryd Bayless’ sprained knee. Despite that, the Wildcats are still 10-4 against one of the toughest schedules in the country. Forwards Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill have stepped up in place of Bayless. Nic Wise has played well in the backcourt. Arizona State was projected as a sleeper in the Pac-10 and it has lived up to that status. The Sun Devils are 2-0 in the conference and have won eight in a row, including one over Xavier. James Harden is one of the best freshmen in the country, while Jeff Pendergraph is an underrated big man inside. Freshman guard Ty Abbott also averages in double-figures for a surprising ASU team.

California at Oregon (Thursday, 9:00 PM, ESPN FullCourt):
One of several big-time Pac-10 games on Thursday. California is coming off a home loss to UCLA on Saturday, its third loss in seven games. The Golden Bears had started 6-0 prior to the struggle; they are 1-1 in the conference with a win over USC. Despite that, big men DeVon Hardin and Ryan Anderson form one of the best frontcourt combos in the country, while guards Jerome Randle and Patrick Christopher can score very well. Oregon is without big man Joevan Catron, but the Ducks picked up a huge road victory at Arizona over the weekend. The Ducks had been relatively disappointing so far this season, with losses to Nebraska and Oakland. They are led by wing Malik Hairston, who can do everything, and guards Tajuan Porter and Bryce Taylor. Double-double lock Maaty Luenen is an underrated big man up front; he can score inside and outside.

Washington State at USC (Thursday, 11:00 PM, FSN): A very interesting game to look at. Both teams play outstanding defense, although USC does it more with athleticism and length, while the Cougars simply play outstanding man-to-man defense even though they don’t look overly impressive on paper. WSU is one of only a few unbeatens left in the country, with its best wins at Baylor and at Gonzaga. Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver form a terrific backcourt duo, while Aron Baynes has provided balanced up front. USC has started the conference season 0-2 with losses at California and Stanford. It needs to bounce back. O.J. Mayo is a tremendously talented guard, while Davon Jefferson and Daniel Hackett are very difficult players to match-up with. Taj Gibson needs to find his offensive game.

Other Games to Watch

Florida at Alabama (Tuesday, 9:00 PM, ESPN):
Two teams looking for a win to kick off SEC play and start their run at an at-large bid. Florida is 13-2 but has zero good wins and has lost to the two toughest teams it has played. Alabama is struggling without starting point guard Ronald Steele again, but the Crimson Tide have won seven of their last eight.

Georgetown at DePaul (Tuesday, 9:00 PM, ESPNU): Sure, this doesn’t seem like an overly competitive game on paper. However, Georgetown didn’t look that impressive in its dispatching of Rutgers on the road over the weekend, while DePaul notched back-to-back wins over Villanova and Providence. I’m not predicting an upset, just pointing it out.

Purdue at Michigan State (Tuesday, 9:00 PM, Big Ten Network): Is Purdue a true contender for a postseason bid out of the Big Ten? Is Michigan State the favorite to win the conference title? The Spartans have won 10 in a row but struggled somewhat with Minnesota over the weekend. Purdue has won three in a row.

Saint Joseph’s at Massachusetts (Wednesday, 7:30 PM): Can the Atlantic-10 get four or five bids to the Big Dance this year? If so, these would be the two teams fighting for the bids. St. Joe’s has won three in a row since struggling to open the season, while Massachusetts is coming off of a loss at unbeaten Vanderbilt, in a game where the Minutemen were leading for a good portion of the game.

Washington at UCLA (Thursday, 10:30 PM, Regional TV): Another very solid Pac-10 game, although not on the same level as the aforementioned three. Washington nearly knocked off Washington State over the weekend, while UCLA played very well to open conference play, beating Stanford and California on the road.

Keep an Eye on These

Robert Morris at Boston College (Monday, 7:00 PM): Arguably the best team in the Northeast Conference takes on a BC team needed to bounce back after its blowout loss to Kansas.

Bradley at Southern Illinois (Tuesday, 7:00 PM, ESPNU):
The two Missouri Valley preseason favorites are now both below .500 and need a win to right the ship. It might be too late, though.

BYU at Wake Forest (Tuesday, 7:00 PM): An interesting yet random non-conference game. BYU is still one of the Mountain West favorites, while Wake has won five in a row.

Indiana at Michigan (Tuesday, 7:00 PM, ESPN): Could be a mismatch, although the Hoosiers struggled with Iowa to open Big Ten play. Michigan has struggled mightily all season long.

St. John’s at Connecticut (Tuesday, 7:00 PM, ESPN FullCourt/Regional TV): A decent rivalry in the Big East. St. John’s knocked off Cincinnati over the weekend, while UConn fell to Notre Dame.

Wichita State at Missouri State (Tuesday, 7:05 PM, ESPN2): Battle in the Missouri Valley. Wichita State has lost two of three and four of six, while Missouri State has dropped four of five.

Holy Cross at Maryland (Tuesday, 8:00 PM, Regional TV): Holy Cross is the clear favorite in the Patriot League, while Maryland has won three in a row after starting just 6-6.

Northern Iowa at Illinois State (Tuesday, 8:05 PM): Two of the better teams in the Missouri Valley so far. Northern Iowa is 2-1 in the conference, while Illinois State has won six in a row.

Seton Hall at Marquette (Tuesday, 9:00 PM, ESPN FullCourt/Regional TV): Expect plenty of points and plenty of good perimeter play. Both teams have already dropped a Big East game.

Saint Mary’s at Fresno State (Tuesday, 10:00 PM): Interesting game on the west coast. Saint Mary’s could be the West Coast favorite by now, but it lost to Texas on Saturday. Fresno State has lost two of three.

Iowa at Ohio State (Wednesday, 7:00 PM, Big Ten Network): Iowa played well despite its three-point loss to Indiana last week, but looked worse at Wisconsin. Ohio State has won seven in a row.

Duke at Temple (Wednesday, 7:00 PM, ESPN):
This game is going to feature more wings than the local BBQ restaurant. Temple has Dionte Christmas and Mark Tyndale; Duke counters with DeMarcus Nelson, Taylor King, Gerald Henderson, etc.

George Mason at Delaware (Wednesday, 7:00 PM, ESPN FullCourt/Regional TV): One of the two preseason favorites in the CAA (George Mason) takes on the current conference leader (Delaware at 3-0).

Pittsburgh at South Florida (Wednesday, 7:30 PM, ESPN2): Possible upset in the works? Doubtful, but don’t be overly surprised if it’s close. South Florida is better than expected and Pitt is hampered by injuries.

Georgia Tech at Georgia (Wednesday, 7:30 PM): Intrastate rivalry game between two teams unlikely to make much noise in their respective conferences. Sundiata Gaines vs. Lewis Clinch could be fun to watch, though.

Syracuse at Cincinnati (Wednesday, 8:00 PM, ESPN FullCourt/Regional TV): Syracuse is still keeping pace with the top of the Big East despite the loss of Eric Devendorf, while Cincy has already beaten Louisville on the road.

Mississippi State at LSU (Wednesday, 8:00 PM): Is anyone from the SEC West going to separate themselves from the pack? Miss. St. has won four in a row, while LSU has talent despite its 6-6 record.

South Carolina at Vanderbilt (Wednesday, 8:00 PM): Vanderbilt is going to lose sometime this season and break its perfect record, but this won’t be it. There is plenty of individual talent on display here, though.

West Virginia at Louisville (Thursday, 7:00 PM, ESPN): Two teams that were trending downwards but picked-up a big win over the weekend, with WVU beating Marquette and Louisville winning at Kentucky.

Illinois at Wisconsin (Thursday, 9:00 PM, ESPN): Two of the perennial contenders in the Big Ten go at it. However, Illinois has lost three in a row and is struggling. Wisconsin has won six consecutive games.

Arkansas at Auburn (Thursday, 9:00 PM, ESPN2):
SEC West contest. Arkansas pulled off a surprising road win at Baylor over the weekend, while Auburn was blown out at home by Xavier.

New Mexico State at Boise State (Thursday, 9:00 PM, ESPN FullCourt/Regional TV): Battle for first place in the WAC. Boise State has won five in a row and 10 of 11, while NMSU has won three in a row.

Siena at Niagara (Friday, 9:00 PM): The last two undefeated teams in the MAAC go head-to-head for first place. Siena has lost two of four overall, while Niagara has run off six consecutive victories.

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