Friday, February 1, 2008

Weekend Preview

Finally, February is upon us. The stretch run in college basketball. Conference title races, rivalries, bubble teams, RPI, quality wins – the best two-month stretch of the year starts now. From here until Selection Sunday, nearly every game matters – for seeding, conference standings, and for inclusion to the Big Dance. Since it’s only the midpoint for many conferences, most leagues are still up for grabs. There are plenty of games this week that will have a direct effect on the conference standings and potential postseason hopes; furthermore, all the games are over before the Super Bowl starts, so football’s last week won’t even interfere with the start of the hoops stretch run. However, there are only a few weeks left until conference tournaments, so it's time to make a move – either in or out of the NCAA Tournament.

Top Games

Seton Hall at Georgetown (Saturday, 12:00 PM, ESPN FullCourt/Regional TV):
A surprisingly decent Big East contest between one of the hottest teams in the league and the conference favorite. The young Pirates vs. the experienced Hoyas. Seton Hall has won five in a row to move to 5-3 in the league and the Pirates look like they are on the rise. Eugene Harvey and Brian Laing form one of the better scoring duos in the Big East, and freshman Jeremy Hazell has provided a consistent third option on the perimeter. Georgetown has looked vulnerable at times lately, but the Hoyas continue to find ways to win games late. They are coming off an absolute demolition of St. John’s in Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, in which they held the Red Storm to five points for most of the first half. Roy Hibbert should be able to have a field day inside against SHU, while Jessie Sapp is one of the more underrated guards around. Prediction: Georgetown 72, Seton Hall 61

Pittsburgh at Connecticut (Saturday, 1:00 PM, CBS): A classic Big East brawl between two of the perennial powers in the league. Pittsburgh has struggled somewhat lately, dropping two of its last four games, including a 13-point home loss to Rutgers last weekend. The Panthers bounced back with a decent win over Villanova on Wednesday. DeJuan Blair and Sam Young form an outstanding frontcourt duo, while Ronald Ramon is very solid in the backcourt. Connecticut is one of the hottest teams in the country, winning four in a row, including wins at Indiana and over Louisville. Moreover, the latter two were without suspended guards Jerome Dyson and Doug Wiggins. It is unclear if one or both will be back for this game, but the development of A.J. Price in the backcourt and Stanley Robnison and Hasheem Thabeet up front has made a huge difference for the young Huskies. Prediction: Connecticut 74, Pittsburgh 65

Baylor at Texas (Saturday, 1:45 PM, ESPN FullCourt/Regional TV): A very solid Big 12 matchup between two teams looking to keep pace with Kansas in the standings. Baylor started off 4-0 in the conference, including the five-overtime classic at Texas A&M, but then had a letdown loss at home to Oklahoma last weekend. Curtis Jerrells leads a very deep perimeter group that also includes freshman LaceDarius Dunn and senior Aaron Bruce. Kevin Rogers anchors the frontcourt for the Bears. On the other side, Texas is coming off a 17-point loss on the road at Texas A&M. The loss dropped the Longhorns to 3-2 in the Big 12. D.J. Augustin has been one of the best players in the country all season, while A.J. Abrams has continued to be a solid scorer in the backcourt. Sophomore forward Damion James has developed into one of the best scorers and rebounders in the conference. Prediction: Texas 76, Baylor 69

Dayton at Rhode Island (Saturday, 2:00 PM, Regional TV): Two Atlantic-10 teams that were rolling a couple of weeks ago, but have since struggled somewhat. Dayton had lost three in a row before beating Saint Louis at home on Wednesday. The Flyers have been without forwards Charles Little and Chris Wright due to injuries, but Little could be back this weekend. Senior guard Brian Roberts has been the catalyst all season for the Flyers, and he needs to carry them to a win. Rhode Island has won three in a row since dropped two of three earlier this month. It looks like the Rams are hitting their stride again. Jimmy Baron and Parfait Bitee are an outstanding backcourt, while forward Will Daniels is one of the best players in the Atlantic-10. Dayton won the first meeting between these two teams, beating URI by nine to open the conference season. Prediction: Rhode Island 83, Dayton 72

Stanford at Washington State (Saturday, 3:00 PM, FSN): Two of the best teams in the Pac-10 fight for second place in the standings. Neither team is likely to catch UCLA, but the Bruins have looked vulnerable at times, so there is always a chance. Stanford has caught fire recently, winning four in a row and six of its last seven. Brook Lopez is one of the best big men in the country, and his twin brother, Robin, is a supreme shot-blocker and defender. Anthony Goods is solid on the perimeter. Washington State is not a team that jumps out at you on paper as an impressive team, but the Cougars are one of the best teams in the country because they do everything extremely well. However, their loss at home to California – without DeVon Hardin – on Thursday night makes you worry a little bit. Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver form an outstanding backcourt, while Aron Baynes has developed into a go-to option on the interior for WSU.
Prediction: Washington State 63, Stanford 56

Florida at Arkansas (Saturday, 3:05 PM, ESPN FullCourt/Regional TV ): The SEC looked like a three-team race a couple of weeks ago – and neither of those teams were the Gators or Razorbacks. However, it would be tough to find two teams in the conference hotter than either squad right now. Florida is a two-point loss at Mississippi from being undefeated in the SEC, and the Gators have won seven of their last eight. Nick Calathes is becoming one of the best guards in the league, while Marreese Speights provides a dominant inside force. Arkansas is coming off a 20-point win over SEC West leader Mississippi State on Wednesday. The Razorbacks have won two in a row and four of their last six. Patrick Beverley is a very talented guard, while Sonny Weems has played very well lately on the wing. It is unclear whether Arkansas will be without forward Charles Thomas, who was suspended for the MSU game as a result of a violation of team rules. Prediction: Arkansas 84, Florida 79

Oklahoma at Texas A&M (Saturday, 4:00 PM, ESPN FullCourt/Regional TV): Although Kansas is the clear-cut favorite in the Big 12 (or are they, after Wednesday night?), the spots and NCAA bids behind the Jayhawks are wide-open. Both these teams will be in contention all season long. Oklahoma is a completely different team when forward Blake Griffin is healthy – the Sooners struggled without him, but went into Baylor and beat the Bears in his first game back. They followed that with a “Bedlam” win over Oklahoma State. Blake, his brother Taylor, and Longar Longar are a terrific frontcourt trio. Texas A&M seems to have righted its ship with back-to-back wins, including a 17-point victory over Texas, after dropping three straight in Big 12 play. Josh Carter is one of the best shooters in the country, but he has been inconsistent this year. Joseph Jones is a beast down low, while Dominique Kirk is a very solid all-around player in the backcourt. Prediction: Texas A&M 71, Oklahoma 65

Tennessee at Mississippi State (Saturday, 7:00 PM, ESPN FullCourt/Regional TV): Although Tennessee remains the SEC favorite in most circles across the country, a loss here would give them their second loss of the league and drop them back in the standings. It will be a match-up of contrasting styles, as Tennessee loves to push the ball in transition for fast-break baskets and force turnovers on the defensive end with its non-stop pressure. The Volunteers shoot a lot of three-pointers and don’t often score many back-to-the-basket points. They are also adept at getting to the basket when defenders overplay the three-pointer. Mississippi State is second in the nation in field-goal percentage defense and blocked shots per game, and is also in the top-30 in rebound margin. The Bulldogs don’t force many turnovers and would much rather play in the half-court than an up-and-down affair. They contest nearly every shot, both inside and outside the arc, and don’t allow many second opportunities. Prediction: Mississippi State 72, Tennessee 68

Arizona at UCLA (Saturday, 9:00 PM, ESPN): Yet another must-see Pac-10 contest. Arizona has come alive lately after struggling mightily without freshman guard Jerryd Bayless, who missed four games earlier this season – ‘Zona went 1-3 in those games. They are 5-1 since he returned, with the only loss coming at Stanford. The Wildcats were impressive in their double-digit victory at USC on Thursday. Bayless and Chase Budinger form one of the best scoring duos in the nation, let alone the conference. Jordan Hill has provided a go-to option down low, and Nic Wise has developed into a consistent point guard. UCLA is a Final Four favorite, and might be the safest bet to reach San Antonio of any team in the country. The Bruins have just two losses on the season, although both were at home, including a nine-point defeat to USC two weeks ago. Kevin Love is one of the best players in the country, while Darren Collison and Josh Shipp are a very good backcourt duo. Prediction: UCLA 70, Arizona 63

Arizona State at USC (Saturday, 10:30 PM, Regional TV): Two teams headed in opposite directions in the Pac-10. Arizona State started conference play as one of the hottest teams in the country, going 4-0 to move into the top-25 and extending its winning streak to ten games. However, the Sun Devils have lost five in a row since then, including two games at home. James Harden is one of the best freshmen in the country on the perimeter, while Jeff Pendergraph is a very efficient big man down low. On the other side, USC had won four in a row – including three consecutive road games – since beginning Pac-10 play with an 0-3 record. However, the Trojans fell by double-figures last night to Arizona after Daniel Hackett went down with an injury in the first two minutes. O.J. Mayo and Davon Jefferson form a dynamite freshmen duo, while Hackett and Daniel Lewis are solid all-around players on the perimeter and Taj Gibson is an imposing defender and rebounder inside. Prediction: USC 68, Arizona State 59

Other Games to Watch

Marquette at Cincinnati (Saturday, 12:00 PM, ESPN FullCourt/Regional TV):
Two inconsistent teams looking for a win to keep themselves back in the Big East race. Marquette has not looked overly impressive lately, despite winning two in a row. On the other hand, Cincinnati is coming off a 23-point road win at West Virginia. A win here would get the Bearcats back to .500 on the season. Prediction: Cincinnati 66, Marquette 63

Syracuse at Villanova (Saturday, 12:00 PM, ESPN): A rematch of a ten-point Villanova win two weeks ago. That game was at the Carrier Dome, one would assume ‘Nova should be able to complete the sweep, right? With the unpredictability in the Big East, nothing is certain. The Wildcats have lost three in a row since that game, while Syracuse is making a push at an at-large bid with back-to-back wins. Prediction: Villanova 75, Syracuse 68

Rider at Siena (Saturday, 2:00 PM, ESPN2): The two best teams in the MAAC go at it for conference supremacy. Rider, led by Wooden Award finalist Jason Thompson, has won eight in a row, including a 14-point road victory at previous conference leader Marist on Wednesday. Siena has won five of its last six, but the one loss was by 29 points at Loyola (Md.). Expect plenty of points as both teams have many weapons.
Prediction: Siena 88, Rider 82

Miami (Fl.) at Duke (Saturday, 3:30 PM, ABC): Heading into the conference season, this game might have seemed like a decent contest between two league contenders. However, since then, Miami has completely fallen apart, dropping four of its last five to move to 14-5 after starting the season 11-0. Duke has moved into the small group of elite teams in the country, and won’t give that label up against the Hurricanes. Prediction: Duke 85, Miami (Fl.) 67

Stephen F. Austin at Texas-Arlington (Saturday, 5:00 PM, Regional TV): The underrated Southland has some very solid teams that could potentially put a scare into a higher seed in March, and these are two of them. SFA has lost just two conference games, both of them on the road by a combined three points. UTA had won four in a row before falling at Sam Houston State on Wednesday.
Prediction: UT-Arlington 71, Stephen F. Austin 66

California at Washington (Saturday, 6:00 PM, Regional TV): A game between two teams looking to get back into the at-large race in the Pac-10. California was struggling before its road win at Washington State on Thursday night. Prior to that, the Golden Bears had lost five of six. Washington is coming off a home loss last night to Stanford, but the Huskies had won three of four before that. Prediction: Washington 73, California 63

Davidson at Chattanooga (Saturday, 7:00 PM): Battle at the top of the standings in the Southern Conference. Davidson has come alive in conference play after being left for dead by most analysts because of their six-loss non-conference showing. The Wildcats are 12-0 in league play. Chattanooga, at 9-2, leads the West Division but fell by 27 against Davidson just two weeks ago. They need a turnaround here. Prediction: Davidson 78, Chattanooga 75

West Virginia at Providence (Saturday, 7:00 PM, ESPN FullCourt/Regional TV): Another Big East battle featuring two teams in desperate need of a win to keep their at-large hopes alive. West Virginia rebounded from a heartbreaking loss to Georgetown with a…23 point home loss to Cincinnati? Providence has dropped three in a row since beating Connecticut on the road – the Friars are in trouble if they don’t win here.
Prediction: Providence 74, West Virginia 68

Boston College at Clemson (Saturday, 8:00 PM): Outside of Duke and North Carolina, the battle for the bids in the ACC is wide-open. There is a good chance these two teams are next in line after the top two. BC dropped its third in a row since starting ACC play 3-0 with its blowout loss at North Carolina last night. Clemson has struggled in conference play, similarly to the past two seasons when the Tigers collapsed late in the year.
Prediction: Clemson 83, Boston College 74

North Carolina at Florida State (Sunday, 2:00 PM, FSN): Too bad this game wasn’t a couple of weeks ago, when Florida State was actually playing well. However, FSU has lost five of its last six, including two home contests. The ‘Noles have talent and could pull the upset, but it will be very tough. UNC bounced back from its home loss to Maryland with back-to-back blowout wins over Miami and BC. Prediction: North Carolina 89, Florida State 78

Keep an Eye On

Maryland at Georgia Tech (Saturday, 12:00 PM, ESPN2):
Two of the hottest teams in the ACC collide. Maryland has won seven of its last nine, while Georgia Tech has won three in a row. Both teams are 3-3 in the ACC.
Prediction: Georgia Tech 82, Maryland 75

Virginia at Virginia Tech (Saturday, 1:00 PM, ESPN FullCourt/Regional TV): Two teams that are the opposite of what was expected in the preseason. UVA has lost six of seven and is 1-5 in the ACC, while Tech improved to 4-3 with a win over FSU. Prediction: Virginia Tech 69, Virginia 62

Kentucky at Georgia (Saturday, 1:00 PM, CBS): After Tennessee and Florida, the SEC East is wide-open and these two are battling for third. UK has won two in a row and is hot, while UGA has lost two consecutive SEC games. Prediction: Georgia 68, Kentucky 63

UMBC at Vermont (Saturday, 1:00 PM): Two of the best in the America East fight for first. UMBC has won two in a row, while UVM has won five in a row. UMBC won the first meeting by 18 at home on January 9 – Vermont’s last loss. Prediction: Vermont 71, UMBC 68

Kansas State at Missouri (Saturday, 1:30 PM, ESPN FullCourt/Regional TV): Can Kansas State build off its win over Kansas and continue to win? They have a great chance to pick up a road win against the depleted Tigers. Prediction: Kansas State 73, Missouri 70

Winthrop at UNC-Asheville (Saturday, 4:30 PM): Battle for first in the Big South and preview of the league final. Winthrop has won five in a row since dropping the league opener, while UNCA is undefeated in conference play at 6-0. Prediction: UNC-Asheville 62, Winthrop 60

UNC-Wilmington at William & Mary (Saturday, 7:00 PM): Two of the major surprises in the CAA; both teams are 7-3 and one game out of first. UNCW has won five in a row, while W&M has won seven of eight. Prediction: William & Mary 72, UNC-Wilmington 65

Nevada at Utah State (Saturday, 9:05 PM, ESPN FullCourt/Regional TV): Two of the perennial powers in the WAC go at it. Nevada has won four of five, while Utah State is coming off a 30-point loss at New Mexico State.
Prediction: Utah State 73, Nevada 63

New Mexico at UNLV (Saturday, 10:00 PM, Regional TV): The Mountain West is starting to get some separation, but a win here by New Mexico would get the Lobos back in the race. UNLV has won nine of 10 and four straight MWC games. Prediction: UNLV 77, New Mexico 69

CSU Fullerton at CSU Northridge (Saturday, 10:05 PM): Expect plenty of points in this Big West shootout for first. Northridge is undefeated in league play, while CSUF has won three in a row to get to 5-2 in the conference. Prediction: CSU Northridge 87, CSU Fullerton 80

Wake Forest at North Carolina State (Sunday, 12:00 PM, ESPN FullCourt/Regional TV):
Can either of these teams make a push for an at-large berth in the ACC? It looks unlikely, despite both teams showing signs of life.
Prediction: North Carolina State 75, Wake Forest 69

Wisconsin at Minnesota (Sunday, 2:00 PM, Big Ten Network): Whatever happened to Minnesota’s at-large hopes? The Golden Gophers had lost three in a row before beating Michigan. Wisconsin is 7-1 in the Big Ten. Prediction: Wisconsin 64, Minnesota 60

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