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TEAMS LOOK TO START FAST IN CONFERENCE PLAY
January 7, 2008

SCS.comWhen college football’s national championship concludes Monday night, the 2007 season will finally come to an end, which is a bit of a depressing thought. After all, for the past four months, college football has been a staple of our Saturdays. The good news is that even though football may be over, college basketball now enters the best part of the entire season. Conference play begins in full force this week, with games on all week that will make you forget about football.

Starting this week, ESPN is back with its patented Big Monday, Super Tuesday, ACC Wednesday, and Throwdown Thursday matchups. Maybe it’s a bit ridiculous, but what basketball fan doesn’t love to watch hoops every night of the week? Although through November and December this column covered games spanning the entire week, including the weekend, with college basketball entering the spotlight, I’ll now be splitting the preview into two weekly portions. Today, find out what to watch Monday through Thursday, and check back on Friday for a preview of the weekend’s games.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Washington State at Southern California
Thursday 10:00 PM CST Fox Sports Net

Fans love basketball games played at a high-tempo, with full court action and a score in the 90s. It’s simply an exciting style of basketball to watch. This game will have a different type of excitement to it, but do not mistake these two teams’ methodical, slow-it-down styles with boring basketball. In fact, when Washington State and USC get together, the two teams will produce a game as electric as a fast-paced game between North Carolina and Memphis would. Don’t expect a lot of offense in this one, but it is not because neither team can score. The defensive intensity will be incredibly high, and it would be stunning if either team scores more than 60 points. Stifling defense and 35 second possessions may not be the type of style fans associate with exciting basketball, but Thursday’s game will be a whole lot of fun.

Southern Cal’s non-conference schedule was brutal. The Trojans went on the road and beat a solid Miami (OH) team, beat Oklahoma at home, and then faced two of the nation’s top teams in Kansas and Memphis, suffering extremely close losses in both of those games. Still, USC entered Pac-10 play with a 9-3 mark, battle tested and prepared for one of the nation’s toughest conferences. The conference season has not started of well for Tim Floyd, though, whose team has now dropped two straight road games to California and Stanford. Both teams should be competing for an NCAA tournament bid in March, so neither loss is a disaster, but the Trojans certainly do not want to begin 0-3 in their conference.

On the other side, Washington State finds itself ranked inside the top five, the highest ranking in school history. Tony Bennett, against all odds, has created a powerhouse in Pullman, something that seemed unattainable until last season’s success. The Cougars are doing it with physical play and fantastic guard play. Even though their non-conference schedule was modest, Washington State remains undefeated at 14-0, thanks largely to the consistent play of guards Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver. Big man Aron Baynes is making the most of more playing time this season, teaming with Robbie Cowgill to provide balance between the backcourt and frontcourt.

The game will be physical. Possessions will be long. But this one will be a 40 minute battle, and most likely very close until the end of the game. Washington State proved with last season’s results and this season’s 14-0 start that its top five ranking is no fluke. You will not find many teams as balanced, disciplined, and tough as the Cougars. USC does have an advantage playing at home and boasts more firepower than Washington State, led by freshmen O.J. Mayo and Davon Jefferson. Southern Cal’s youth will be to their detriment against the experienced Cougars, however.

Prediction: Washington State 56, USC 50

MUST-SEE MATCHUPS

Rhode Island at Dayton
Wednesday 6:00 PM CST

In November, who could have predicted this game would be a match-up of two ranked squads? Two Atlantic-10 teams garnering little to no attention in the pre-season are now battling each other in one of the week’s best games, and both teams deserve their lofty rankings. Rhode Island has lost just one game this season, against Boston College, and claimed wins over three Big East opponents in South Florida, Syracuse and Providence. Dayton has terrorized the Big East as well, taking a game from Rick Pitino and Louisville at Freedom Hall, and crushing Pittsburgh at home in a complete blowout. Dayton’s only loss game to George Mason, and the Flyers have reeled off 11 straight victories.

Both teams are led by a few star players. Dayton’s Brian Roberts has enjoyed a fantastic season, and Rhode Island is led by forward Will Daniels and sharpshooter and coach’s son Jimmy Baron. In addition to the star power, both teams have great depth and a strong supporting cast. The Atlantic 10 looks like it may be nearly as strong as even a traditional power conference, with Xavier and Massachusetts also competing for the conference’s top spot. The conference is wide open at this point, and a win here for either team would be a great start to the conference season. If you watched Dayton’s game against Pittsburgh, you may have noticed the raucous atmosphere. With a ranked conference foe coming in Wednesday, the same fans will be out in full force again at University of Dayton Arena. With such an evenly matched contest, it could prove to be the difference for the Flyers.

Prediction: Dayton 76, Rhode Island 74

Mississippi at Tennessee
Wednesday 7:00 PM CST

Mississippi validated its hot start with a win against Clemson, vaulting it into the top 25 and setting up a showdown with the Tennessee Volunteers. Rebels’ guard Chris Warren is quietly putting together a fine freshman campaign, but fans have likely heard more about Tennessee’s players, which include All-American Chris Lofton. The Volunteers have not been mentioned as one of the nation’s elite teams, but besides a loss to Texas, Tennessee has been superb. At 12-1 with wins over West Virginia, Xavier, and Gonzaga, Bruce Pearl seems to have a team capable of exceeding last season’s accomplishments. Mississippi’s only notable victory came against Clemson, but beating Tennessee in this game could change people’s perception of the Rebels.

Tennessee’s athleticism and explosiveness is the reason it is ranked in the top 10. Mississippi has some talent of their own, though, and this game should be a blast to watched. With two of the SEC’s top teams facing off, this early conference game is critical for both teams. UM has been a nice surprise and a great story, but the Volunteers are the better team. But that doesn’t mean the Rebels will go down without a fight.

Prediction: Tennessee 85, Mississippi 79

California at Oregon
Thursday 8:00 PM CST

Just when you thought Oregon was down after losing early games to St. Mary’s, Nebraska, Oakland and Arizona State, the Ducks stunned Arizona on its home floor this past weekend. Tajuan Porter has not broken out of his slump yet, but Malik Hairston went off for 29 points against the Wildcats. Before the season began, the question was whether the Ducks could win without departed point guard Aaron Brooks. The answer seemed to be “no,” until Saturday’s win, which has spawned new hope for the Oregon faithful this season. California could be a surprise in the Pac-10 this season, and the Bears recently notched a big win against USC to open the conference season.

California’s powerful frontcourt tandem of Ryan Anderson and Devon Hardin may prove to be too much force in the paint for Oregon, whose only real presence down low is Maarty Leunan. Even he is more of a versatile big man instead of a physical player. The Ducks have some fantastic guards though, and even if Porter is still struggling, Hairston and fellow senior Bryce Taylor can pick him up. Oregon has new life after stealing a road win against Arizona, but the Ducks need to win this game on their home court. It will not be easy though, and in the end, Oregon will not have an answer for Anderson and Hardin.

Prediction: California 75, Oregon 64

OTHER GAMES OF INTEREST

Washington at UCLA
Thursday 9:30 PM CST FSN Prime Ticket

UCLA’s one loss to Texas pushed them below the top tier of teams consisting of North Carolina, Memphis, and Kansas. This team was my pre-season number one team and I still believe the Bruins should be in the conversation as one of the top teams in the country. After I announced in my last column that Stanford had no shot of beating UCLA, the Bruins made me proud and allowed me to avoid an embarrassment by beating the Cardinal. To its credit, Stanford battled UCLA for most of the game. Washington suffered a rough non-conference season but surprisingly competed with Washington State, nearly knocking them off at home, so at least a glimmer of hope exists for this team to pull off a colossal upset. Most likely though, UCLA will roll at Pauley Pavilion.

Prediction: UCLA 74, Washington 59

Georgetown at DePaul
Tuesday 8:00 PM CST ESPNU

The Blue Demons’ non-conference season could not have gone any worse. Not only did they go 4-9, but they also dropped games to North Carolina A&T and Illinois-Chicago. It was this performance that made DePaul’s recent two game Big East winning streak even more surprising. These two wins were not against the depths of the conference, either, but instead against Villanova and Providence. So which team is the real DePaul? The last two games, or the previous 13 games? If the Blue Demons even compete at all with Georgetown, it may be a sign Jerry Wainwright’s rebuilding job may be completed more quickly than originally thought. Villanova and Providence are not on the level of Georgetown, and the Hoyas should dispatch of DePaul with ease.

Prediction: Georgetown 70, DePaul 56

Seton Hall at Marquette
Tuesday 8:00 PM CST

Seton Hall finds itself in a similar position to the several middling Big East teams, looking desperately for something to separate itself from the pack. The Pirates’ non-conference season did not produce any quality victories besides a win against Virginia, so Seton Hall needs to finish above .500 in the Big East and pick up a few marquee wins along the way to be considered for the NCAA tournament. Winning on the road against Marquette would be a huge resume-builder. Last week, Marquette destroyed Providence, which seems to be about on the same level as Seton Hall. The Golden Eagles could not win at West Virginia though, losing by double digits, so they are certainly beatable.

Prediction: Marquette 87, Seton Hall 77

Purdue at Michigan State
Tuesday 8:00 PM CST Big Ten Network

Had Tom Izzo’s team not allowed UCLA to come back after facing a large deficit in the CBE Classic Championship, Michigan State would be undefeated right now. As one of the favorites to win the Big 10, along with Indiana, the Spartans’ Raymar Morgan has taken over as one of the team’s best players. Along with Morgan, the Spartans have a lot of talent at the guard position, and as Izzo’s teams always do, they play tough defense and rebound very well.

Purdue’s chances of going into East Lansing and coming out victorious are slim, especially considering how young the Boilermakers are. Matt Painter’s starting lineup consists of four freshmen and one sophomore, making them the youngest starting lineup in Division I basketball. They may not have much experience, but these freshmen were some of the most highly touted players in the country coming out of high school. As the season progresses, Purdue will continue to improve, and this team will have its high points and low points. Their trip into the Izzone on Tuesday most likely won’t be one of Painter’s high points this season, but his team may at least provide a little resistance to Michigan State.

Prediction: Michigan State 72, Purdue 60

Florida at Alabama
Tuesday 8:00 PM CST ESPN

The Gators 13-2 start is severely misleading. The only two good teams on Florida’s schedule, Ohio State and Florida State, beat the Gators by double digits. Alabama’s 11-4 record is also not indicative of the type of team it is, with its best win coming against Iowa State, one of the Big 12’s lesser teams. Both teams would love to start SEC play with a win, and whichever team wins will have its best win to date. Alabama has at least played tough competition, which is more than Florida can say. Billy Donovan brought in a lot of fine players this season, but this team is too young to seriously compete in the SEC this season. The Crimson Tide really miss point guard Ronald Steele, but their roster is more experienced than Florida’s. Even though this game does not feature the best the SEC has to offer, the game should still be competitive, with the game coming right down to the wire.

Prediction: Alabama 81, Florida 78

West Virginia at Louisville
Thursday 6:00 PM CST ESPN2

Congratulations, Louisville! You avenged a home loss to Cincinnati by beating up on the mighty Kentucky Wildcats! This would have meant a lot in the past, but it means nothing this year. What usually is a great out-of-conference match-up was a snoozer, with both Louisville and Kentucky struggling so far this year. The Cardinals are in a much better position than Kentucky, and even though their season has not gone as planned, there is still a lot of basketball left. Getting a win at home against West Virginia Thursday is critical for Rick Pitino’s club. An 0-2 start would put Louisville, a team that was expected to challenge for the Big East regular season title, in an early hole.

While the Cardinals have not met expectations, Bob Huggins and West Virginia were the surprise of the league through the first two months. Two straight losses to Oklahoma and Notre Dame knocked the Mountaineers back to earth, but they came on strong with a big win over Marquette Sunday afternoon. Although this game may not be as important to Huggins as it is to Pitino, following the Marquette win with a loss would not be encouraging to the Mountaineers. Louisville is better than it has played thus far. At Freedom Hall, look for the Cardinals to use the momentum from the Kentucky game to get back on track.

Prediction: Louisville 68, West Virginia 65

Illinois at Wisconsin
Thursday 8:00 PM CST ESPN

Never underestimate Bo Ryan. After losing so much from last year’s team, he has somehow found a way to crack the polls again and create a buzz around the program. Now 2-0 in the Big 10, Wisconsin put itself back on the map with an upset of Texas. After Indiana and Michigan State, the conference is wide open, which means the Badgers may be able to finish as high as third in the Big 10. Illinois’ season has been a nightmare so far. It was bad when the Illini lost to Duke, Maryland, Arizona, and Miami (OH). It got worse when they lost to Tennessee State, and the spiral continued when Illinois lost to Ohio State last week. On Sunday, Penn State put the Illini in an even deeper hole with a 68-64 victory. The Nittany Lions are probably one of the Big 10’s weaker teams, so imagine what Wisconsin may do to Illinois at the Kohl Center.

Prediction: Wisconsin 68, Illinois 51

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