So now you’ve had a taste of conference play. There have been upsets (DePaul knocks off Villanova), near upsets (Ellington and UNC beat Clemson at the buzzer, Purdue just three points from Michigan State upset), and outstanding basketball games (Mississippi takes Tennessee to the wire, Stanford beating USC in a test of physicality). Luckily for you and me, we’ve still got two months left of this stuff. A full slate of college hoops this weekend, mainly on Saturday, will provide a few blowouts, some upsets, and some fun finishes. Saturday’s meeting between 4th ranked Washington State and 5th ranked UCLA is a prime example of a game that may come down to the final possession, as it is easily the highlight of the weekend.
GAME OF THE WEEKEND
Washington State at UCLA
Suffocating defense and hot three point shooting allowed Washington State to pull away from USC Thursday night, as the Cougars were in control for the better part of the contest. UCLA had no problems in its recent win over Washington, rolling to a double digit half time lead and an eventual 14 point victory. On Saturday, the two top five teams clash in what should be one of the season’s best games to date.
The pace of Saturday’s game will not be as methodical and slow as Washington State’s win over USC was, but the game will be won on the defensive side, an area where both teams shine. Both teams have players that can score, though, so it will not be an ugly game to watch. In fact, it should end up being one of the most entertaining games of the year. As I said on Monday in the weekly preview, basketball at a slower pace does not equal a boring game.
Although UCLA has the edge athletically, Washington State plays extremely smart and disciplined. The Cougars’ shot selection is fantastic, their offensive attack is balanced, and they run Tony Bennett’s system to perfection. Playing a team with a great deal of talent in USC, Wazzu found a way to pull away by the end of the game and thoroughly outplayed the Trojans on their home floor. UCLA is considerably better than USC, however. The Bruins have been clicking lately, winning their first three Pac-10 games against Stanford, California, and Washington. Things seem to be finally falling in place after dealing with so many injuries early in the season. With everybody back at full strength and at home at Pauley Pavilion, look for the Bruins to barely edge Washington State in this one.
Prediction: UCLA 56, Washington State 53
North Carolina State at North Carolina
Somehow, after trailing for the better part of the game, North Carolina, kept its undefeated record intact with an overtime victory at Clemson last week. Thanks to a game-winning three pointer by Wayne Ellington, the Tar Heels were able to escape on the road and now come back home to play what could possibly be a tough game against North Carolina State. Losses to New Orleans and East Carolina and a blowout against Michigan State is not what Sidney Lowe had in mind for his team when it opened the season ranked in the top 25. The Wolfpack may be rebounding though after reeling off six straight victories, including modest wins against Davidson, Cincinnati, and Seton Hall.
UNC will want to avoid another close and nerve-wracking game like it endured against Clemson. If you have watched Roy Williams’ team play this season you have surely noticed just how fantastic the Tar Heels can be. The ideal situation for Williams and the Heels is to blow N.C. State right out of the building from the opening tip-off. Michigan State was able to do this to the Wolfpack en route to an embarrassing, lopsided loss, so N.C. State must find a way to stick around for awhile in this game. If it can, this could be a ballgame.
Prediction: North Carolina 89, North Carolina State 75
Notre Dame at Marquette
How good is Notre Dame exactly? Coming into the conference season, Mike Brey’s team seemed to be an unknown. With its only win of note coming against Kansas State and the middle of the Big East wide open, nobody quite knew how high the Fighting Irish could finish. After impressive home victories over West Virginia and Connecticut, Notre Dame could make a push toward the top of the conference. A win at Marquette Saturday is the first step for the Irish.
Marquette’s guards may overwhelm Notre Dame, but Luke Harangody has been unstoppable at times this season. Leading his team in both scoring and rebounds, Harangody could prove to be the difference against a weaker Golden Eagles’ frontcourt. Until recently, I wasn’t a believer in the Irish, but this could be the game that vaults the Irish into consideration as one of the Big East’s best teams in 2008.
Prediction: Notre Dame 76, Marquette 74
Connecticut at Georgetown
The Huskies still have not proven it can win a game against a big-time opponent. With Pittsburgh ailing due to injuries, Villanova’s inconsistency, and Louisville’s poor play, there are no guarantees regarding this year’s Big East conference. Connecticut may not seem like one of the conference’s powers, but after Georgetown, not one team has separated itself from the pack. UConn has a similar opportunity to Notre Dame this weekend, with a chance to knock off one of the Big East’s elite teams. Having failed against Memphis and Gonzaga, the Huskies may stick around in this one but would need some luck to pull off an upset.
Prediction: Georgetown 69, Connecticut 61
Virginia at Duke
Dave Leitao probably wishes his next game wasn’t against Duke. Not only do the Blue Devils serve as Virginia’s first opponent, but the Cavaliers are also coming off a humiliating 30 point loss to Xavier. Now, they deal with Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Last season, the Cavaliers upset the Blue Devils in a thrilling overtime finish but this season will most likely prove to be different. Playing on the road, after the Xavier debacle, with a team already at a disadvantage talent-wise, Virginia will be lucky to just stay in the game.
Prediction: Duke 85, Virginia 77
Texas at Missouri
After two victories over Tennessee and UCLA early this season, Texas seemed to be making a push toward the top tier of elite teams in college basketball. Back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Wisconsin humbled the Longhorns though, who now begin Big 12 play on the road against an underperforming Missouri team. Even at 10-5 with some issues to work out, the Tigers are still a dangerous team for the Longhorns to face, especially since the game is in Columbia. Wisconsin’s win in Austin showed Texas is a beatable team, but still expect the Longhorns to open conference play with a road victory.
Prediction: Texas 79, Missouri 71
Kansas State at Oklahoma
Most likely, neither Kansas State nor Oklahoma will be challenging for a Big 12 crown. Both teams expect to be in the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid in March, however, making this conference opener critical for both teams. The Sooners avenged a stunning loss to Stephen F. Austin by winning five straight games, the first three coming against Arkansas, Gonzaga, and West Virginia. Even with Michael Beasley, Kansas State has been a real disappointment at 10-4, including a recent blowout loss at the hands of Xavier (who seems to be killing everyone right now). The Wildcats will want to get out in the open floor and run, and the Sooners will want to slow it down. This one should be close, competitive, and right down to the wire, with both teams needing an early Big 12 win.
Prediction: Oklahoma 64, Kansas State 60
Stanford at Oregon
Oregon has recovered from a rough start to win two straight Pac-10 games over Arizona and California. It has not been the type of start the Ducks wanted, but they have now have a chance to play their way back into contention for an upper-half finish in the conference standings. Boding well for Oregon in its game against Stanford is that the Ducks were able to overcome California’s powerful frontcourt, and the Cardinal will provide a tough test up front as well. If Maarty Leunan can once again play as well as he did against Cal, Oregon has a real shot in this one. No matter what happens, this should be a back-and-forth battle for 40 minutes.
Prediction: Stanford 75, Oregon 74
Syracuse at West Virginia
It is hard to gauge Syracuse at this point. A road win at Virginia was impressive, but losses to Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and the most recent loss to Cincinnati, by far the worst for the Orange, has fans wondering whether or not Jim Boeheim will miss the NCAA tournament for the second straight season. Same goes for Bob Huggins and West Virginia. Which is more indicative of Huggins’ team: a 13 point loss at Notre Dame, or a 15 point win at home over Marquette? Sunday’s game should provide us with more information on the state of both teams.
Prediction: West Virginia 81, Syracuse 75
OTHER GAMES OF INTEREST
Auburn at Florida
After making fun of its weak non-conference schedule as much as possible, Florida surprised me last week with a road win over Alabama. The Gators need to win at home against Auburn now, whose 9-3 record is extremely misleading, with the Tigers winning zero games against quality opponents.
Prediction: Florida 82, Auburn 70
Georgia Tech at Miami (FL)
The Yellow Jackets’ tough early season schedule took its toll, as they stumbled to a 7-6 non-conference record a loss to Florida State at home in its ACC opener. Although Miami (FL) jumped into the rankings and into the spotlight after a 12-0 start, the Hurricanes may not be as good as everyone originally thought. Winthrop beat them at home, and now Georgia Tech may be the next team to beat them on its home floor.
Prediction: Georgia Tech 78, Miami (FL) 77
Seton Hall at Pittsburgh
Decimated by injury and still looking to find a way to win without Mike Cook and Levance Fields, Pittsburgh could struggle with an average (at best) team in Seton Hall. At 0-2 in the Big East, the Pirates face an early “must-win” game. Falling to 0-3 could put them in a hole they never recover from.
Prediction: Seton Hall 77, Pittsburgh 76
Ohio State at Purdue
With a team as young as Purdue, who starts four freshmen and a sophomore, you never quite know what you’ll get in a given game. Maybe it turns out to be a performance so bad it ends in a loss to Wofford (as the Boilermakers did earlier). Or maybe it’s a performance that almost beats Michigan State on the road, in one of the toughest venues in the nation. The young squad is starting to gain confidence after hanging with the Spartans, and Mackey Arena will be filled to capacity and ready to rock. The Buckeyes are pretty young themselves and might wither under the pressure.
Prediction: Purdue 61, Ohio State 57
Florida State at Clemson
How can Clemson, who was so close to beating North Carolina last week, fall at home to Charlotte? The Tigers must get back on track against Florida State, who needs a win of its own to continue to build a resume for the NCAA tournament committee.
Prediction: Clemson 81, Florida State 71
Kansas at Nebraska
Last year, the Cornhuskers had the opportunity to host the Jayhawks on a nationally televised, Big Monday game. The fans had waited all day to get in, the place was rocking, and it looked like the Huskers may be able to use all the energy to hang with Kansas. Then, reality set in and Kansas beat Nebraska so bad it’s amazing the Huskers didn’t call off their season right then and there. The final 20 point margin is nowhere near indicative of the game- with two minutes to play in the first half, Kansas led by 35 points. That probably will not happen again, as Nebraska has shown signs of improvement this season, but the Jayhawks should roll easily to a win once again.
Prediction: Kansas 81, Nebraska 69
Duquesne at Rhode Island
This one should be high scoring and very entertaining. Both teams score a lot, and this game should be no different. Even though Duquesne has not really beaten any notable opponents, the Dukes still enter the game with an 11-3 record and will be looking to knock off a ranked opponent on the road in Rhode Island. The Rams cannot lose this game at home, especially after losing to Dayton last week.
Prediction: Rhode Island 94, Duquesne 85