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FINALLY, THE GAME WE'VE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR
February 22, 2008

SCS.comIt’s finally here. We’ve been waiting for weeks. On Saturday night at precisely 8 p.m. central, the game of the year will finally tip-off at FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tennessee. But while you wait for that, there’s a whole lot of other basketball to pay attention to. Mainly, some of the top mid-major teams in the nation will be facing each other in ESPN’s BracketBuster Saturday. And as we head toward the conference tournaments and the post-season, conferences couldn’t be more jumbled, especially in the middle.

GAME OF THE WEEKEND

Tennessee at Memphis
Saturday 8:00 PM CST ESPN

Could a college basketball fan dream of a better game than the one that will take place Saturday night? The game’s storylines are endless. #1 vs. #2. In-state rivalry. Memphis going for the undefeated season. Frenetic pace. It just may be the most entertaining basketball game we’ve seen in awhile.

Of course, now that we have all pumped this game up so much, one team will probably run away with the victory in the first half. Hopefully that does not happen, and looking at this game on paper, it shouldn’t happen. The one advantage Memphis does have is in the post, where the Volunteers lack bulk, but Tennessee has handled teams with size plenty of times this season. But Tennessee is a far better shooting team than Memphis, and if the Vols get hot from behind the arc, they could bury the Tigers from deep.

The type of basketball that will be played in Memphis on Saturday will be fast, explosive, and more than just a little exciting. Both teams will benefit from playing such an important game in February, and the game will be close to a Final Four atmosphere. For as much as people talk about Memphis’ weak Conference USA schedule, let’s not forget that the SEC rivals the Big Ten as the worst power conference. The SEC may be considerably better than the C-USA, but Tennessee hasn’t played a ranked team since it faced Vanderbilt more than a month ago.

Games like these are what make college basketball what it is. Even for fans outside of the state of Tennessee, this game is becoming a must-see event, even for non-college basketball fans. There are so many reasons to watch, and the game should be so entertaining, that it seems nobody wants to miss this one. For everyone’s sake, I hope this one comes down to the buzzer. People may automatically write off the Tigers in a close game due to their atrocious free throw shooting. But Memphis’ percentage from the line increases dramatically at the end of games and there is a reason it is undefeated this season. John Calipari might actually start talking about the chances at an undefeated regular season after Saturday.

Prediction: Memphis 90, Tennessee 87

MUST-SEE MATCHUPS

Drake at Butler
Saturday 4:00 PM CST ESPN2

Butler doesn’t need to prove itself. Despite the weak schedule- Drake will be its first ranked opponent this season- the Bulldogs’ Sweet 16 run last March needs no explanation. The other Bulldogs from the Missouri Valley Conference have been one of the season’s most surprising teams. The fact that Drake won 22 of its first 23 games and stayed undefeated in conference for the first 13 games is downright amazing. Remember, this is the same program that until last season had not finished above .500 in 20 years. Drake fans are having a dream season so far, but outsiders, like me, are skeptical of how it will fare against real competition. The only test of the season for Drake was St. Mary’s in November, which resulted in a six point loss. Other than that, the Bulldogs have not faced a single team inside the RPI top 50. After Saturday’s game, Drake will no longer be an unknown heading into the NCAA tournament. Both teams are extremely perimeter-oriented and will jack up threes all day on Saturday. But Butler is better at what it does, and I am more confident in picking a team that has actually shown me it is worthy of its lofty ranking.

Prediction: Butler 70, Drake 61

Oklahoma at Texas
Saturday 2:30 PM CST ABC (regional coverage)

I guess it really is better to be lucky than good. Oklahoma would sure seem to think so, because the Sooners probably should not have won their past two games. Last Saturday, David Godbold drained an insanely deep three-pointer with just milliseconds left on the clock to beat Texas Tech. Then, on Tuesday, Tony Crocker saved the Sooners with the rare four point play inside the final minute of overtime against Baylor. Thanks to that shot, two missed free throws by Curtis Jerrells in the waning seconds and a missed tip-in at the buzzer, Oklahoma hung on in Norman. Jeff Capel may need a little more luck this weekend, against a red-hot Texas team coming off a three game stretch in which it beat Kansas at home, notched a road win at Baylor, and destroyed Texas A&M in Austin. After surviving a few close calls, Oklahoma at least managed to get itself above .500 in the Big 12, so Saturday’s game is no longer a must-win situation. The Longhorns have dominated at home this season, and now that D.J. Augustin is over his brutal shooting slump, Texas should win fairly handily.

Prediction: Texas 82, Oklahoma 72

Arizona at Washington State
Saturday 9:00 PM CST Fox Sports Net

Suddenly, Arizona’s strong RPI and strength of schedule may not be enough to get them into the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats are slipping, and a road loss to Washington on Thursday night couldn’t have come at a worse time. Now under .500 in the Pac-10, Arizona finds itself stuck in the middle of the conference, fighting the likes of Oregon, USC, Arizona State, Washington and Cal for position in the Pac-10 and a spot in the NCAA tournament. I still think the Wildcats are in good shape, but only if they can find a way to finish strong. A loss in Pullman on Saturday would drop Arizona to 6-8 in the conference. Unfortunately for interim head coach Kevin O’Neill, missing the NCAA tournament could become a real possibility with a loss to Washington State.

Prediction: Washington State 63, Arizona 59

Kent State at St. Mary’s
Saturday 11:00 PM CST ESPN2

ESPN’s BracketBuster series has been so successful over the years because of games like these. Fans that follow college basketball closely may know that Kent State leads the MAC and that St. Mary’s has been in and out of the top 25 all season. But the opportunities to see these two teams play are scarce, and the opportunities to see these teams play decent competition are even sparser. Saturday night’s late-night game has major NCAA tournament seeding implications. St. Mary’s is a virtual lock, and it would take a substantial upset for Kent State to lose in the MAC tournament. There is a chance for either team, with a win, to impress the tournament committee and gain a higher seed. The Golden Flashes may be a team to watch if they get a favorable match-up in March, but St. Mary’s has exceeded the underdog role this season. A win in the NCAA tournament would not be considered an upset for the Gaels.

Prediction: St. Mary’s 72, Kent State 68

OTHER GAMES OF INTEREST

California at Stanford
Sunday 9:00 PM CST Fox Sports Net

Why shouldn’t we be talking about California as an at-large out of the Pac-10? The Golden Bears don’t seem to make it into the NCAA tournament conversation often, but if Cal can finish with just a .500 conference record, it could garner some serious consideration. A strong finish could vault California over the logjam of teams in the middle of the Pac-10, but the road may just be too tough for the Golden Bears. It will certainly be tough Sunday night against Stanford, who has the power inside to rival California’s Ryan Anderson and DeVon Hardin.

Prediction: Stanford 67, California 62

Oregon at UCLA
Saturday 2:30 PM CST ABC (regional coverage)

Oregon missed a chance at a road win at USC on Thursday night, so now the Ducks need to beat UCLA to avoid a sweep by the Pac-10’s Los Angeles schools. There may not be a team that fits the definition of the “bubble team” as much as Oregon. There are as many reasons to keep the Ducks in the field than to keep them out of the field. Now, they are on life support. And a loss at UCLA, which looks likely, may just be the dagger.

Prediction: UCLA 71, Oregon 60

Kansas State at Baylor
Saturday 7:00 PM CST

Baylor was closing in on “lock status” for the NCAA tournament until they encountered a horrid stretch in Big 12 play. Now having lost six of seven games, the Bears are fighting for their lives. Kansas State is not fighting for an at-large berth, but a Big 12 title, which seems almost out of reach after a loss to Nebraska on Wednesday. The Wildcats’ energy level drops off dramatically in games against lesser teams, evidenced by losses at Missouri, Texas Tech, and Nebraska. After the recent embarrassment against the Cornhuskers, Kansas State should be ready to go in Waco.

Prediction: Kansas State 80, Baylor 72

Davidson at Winthrop
Friday 6:00 PM CST

This is a meeting between last season’s most celebrated NCAA tournament underdogs. The difference is, Winthrop actually won a game last March. I like Davidson to win this game, though. The Eagles aren’t the same team after losing three starters from last year’s team. Of course, Winthrop still leads the Big South, but the dominance shown last season is no longer there. Davidson couldn’t dominate the nation’s elite in the non-conference this year, but the Wildcats are destroying the competition in the Southern Conference.

Prediction: Davidson 75, Winthrop 72

Syracuse at Notre Dame
Sunday 1:00 PM CST CBS

It’s desperation time for the ‘Cuse. The Orange have a brutal stretch ahead, closing out the season at Notre Dame, vs. Pittsburgh, at Seton Hall, and vs. Marquette. Syracuse better win two of those games if it wants to participate in the NCAA tournament in March. If that doesn’t happen, it’s off to the NIT again. Notre Dame has no such problems and I expect it to overpower an undermanned Syracuse team that played with just seven players on Monday against Louisville.

Prediction: Notre Dame 69, Syracuse 60

Wisconsin at Ohio State
Sunday 3:00 PM CST CBS (regional coverage)

The Badgers still have a chance to win their conference, as they sit atop the Big Ten. Ohio State can’t win the Big Ten but could still make the NCAA tournament. But right now, the Buckeyes’ resume is not in great shape. Few quality wins and a few bad losses could be the reason Ohio State heads for the NIT.

Prediction: Wisconsin 65, Ohio State 57

Maryland at Miami
Saturday 1:00 PM CST

After blowing a huge lead against Duke on Wednesday night, Miami held on for a critical victory that gives it a chance for an NCAA tournament bid. Maryland’s loss to Virginia Tech has it slipping, but the Terrapins are still in good position for an at-large berth. Whichever team wins this game won’t automatically become a lock for the NCAAs, but the loser will have a lot of work left to do.

Prediction: Maryland 77, Miami 75

Daniel’s overall prediction record: 128-50
Last week: 7-4

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