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MUCH TO BE DECIDED IN COLLEGE HOOPS' FINAL WEEK
March 3, 2008

SCS.comThe last week of college basketball’s regular season is here. There is just one more week to finalize conference tournament seedings, and one more week for bubble teams to make their cases for at-large bids. Several conferences will hold their tournaments this weekend, but for the rest of the nation, this is the final week to sort everything out. Of the six power conferences, we can only safely bet on Tennessee and Mississippi State to win the SEC East and West, respectively. Nothing has been decided at the top of the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, Pac-10 or Big East. The upcoming weekend features more critical games than Monday-Thursday does, but out west, there aren’t many games more important than Stanford at UCLA, who will face off late Thursday night.

GAME OF THE WEEK

Stanford at UCLA
Thursday 10:00 PM CST Fox Sports Net

With one week left in the season, Stanford sits just one game back of UCLA for the top spot in the Pac-10 conference, creating a showdown between the two on Thursday night. Although the Bruins began as the heavy favorites to win the regular season title, Stanford has been the team that has challenged them all season. While the rest of the conference beat up on each other, resulting in a complete mess in the middle of the league, the Cardinals consistently have performed well throughout the Pac-10 season, tripping up only against UCLA and in two games on the road at Oregon and Arizona State.

It has been two months since the first meeting between these two teams, when the Bruins prevailed in Palo Alto, burying the Cardinals after they hung around for most of the game. Stanford couldn’t get it done on that night, but Trent Johnson’s team has looked every bit as impressive as UCLA has over the course of this Pac-10 season. Guard Anthony Goods has played especially well lately, averaging more than 15 points per game over his last three games, and after a bit of a scoring slump, Goods is beginning to provide his team with the scoring it needs from the guard position. Mitch Johnson is taking care of the basketball and creating opportunities for his teammates, and he does not need to score; Goods and the Lopez brothers can take care of that. Guard play has been a reason for the Cardinals’ success, but Brook Lopez obviously is the team’s star and playmaker. Since the first meeting against UCLA, Lopez has elevated his game, and he has scored 20 or more points in four of his last five games. With so many weapons up front and solid backcourt play, the Cardinals could definitely make a Final Four run.

Of course, UCLA already knows all about the Final Four, and will be looking to make a third straight trip there. The Bruins can deal with Stanford’s physical style of basketball, but UCLA is also effective in a faster pace and in transition. That’s what could cause problems for the Cardinals, who are bothered by a quicker tempo and would prefer to slow the game down drastically. Russell Westbrook’s strong play at guard has allowed Bruins’ fans to forget about Arron Afflalo, and he can get out and run in transition, penetrate and drive to the basket, and even knock down the occasional jumper. Westbrook is doing everything a two-guard needs to do, and the loss of Afflalo was supposed to be the downfall of UCLA this season. There have been no problems replacing him, and with the help of Darren Collison, Josh Shipp, Kevin Love, and a deep bench, the Bruins are more athletic and more versatile than Stanford.

No matter what pace the game is played at, UCLA can deal with it. Stanford needs to slow the tempo, because the Cardinals get in trouble when their opponents force them to play fast. Stanford doesn’t really hold any advantages over UCLA, and I believe the Bruins deserve to enter the game as a substantial favorite. Still, I also don’t see any area of the game where the Cardinals are severely outmatched, so there is no reason to expect Stanford to get run out of Pauley Pavilion. In fact, I don’t think many people would be surprised if the Cardinals stole a win in Los Angeles. I certainly wouldn’t, but I have enough confidence that UCLA will play well enough to notch a critical victory in its quest for the Pac-10 title.

Prediction: UCLA 71, Stanford 69

MUST-SEE MATCHUPS

Texas A&M at Baylor
Wednesday 8:00 PM CST ESPN2

Just a few days removed from embarrassing Texas Tech in a 98-54 victory, Texas A&M turned in a Saint Louis-like performance with a ten point first half against Oklahoma, two more than the eight points SLU scored against George Washington in January. The Aggies failed to score for more than 16 straight minutes, including the last 12 minutes of the first half, and ended up with 37 points. Excluding the Texas Tech game, Mark Turgeon’s team has been struggling offensively in Big 12 play. In the months of January and February, the Aggies scored less than 60 points seven times, and this offensive ineptness may cost them an NCAA tournament berth.

Maybe the Baylor Bears will provide Turgeon with a cure for his team’s scoring woes. Scott Drew has turned around his program by recruiting an explosive group of guards, and his team can score as well as any team in the Big 12. But defense has been a problem lately, and the Bears have had to rely on their offensive firepower to win games. This will be a game of complete opposites- the methodical, frontcourt-led Aggies against the high-scoring, backcourt-led Bears. Both teams need this to move up the cluttered Big 12 standings and more importantly, to improve their chances for an NCAA at-large bid. Texas A&M may not be held to 37 points again, but the Aggies are not a strong road team and will not be able to keep up with Baylor.

Prediction: Baylor 75, Texas A&M 65

Mississippi State at Vanderbilt
Wednesday 7:00 PM CST

Maybe it’s the elevated floor, or the odd placement of the benches behind the baskets. Whatever it is, Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym terrorizes opponents, as we saw recently with Tennessee losing to the Commodores in Nashville last week. Mississippi State is now the next team to enter Memorial Gym, but the Bulldogs showed some toughness with a road win at Florida, another one of the SEC’s top venues. After a shaky start to the season, Mississippi State has clinched the SEC West and has all but assured itself an at-large berth. Jamont Gordon still turns the ball over at an alarming rate, but he offsets that with his versatility and triple-threat ability of passing, scoring, and rebounding. He’s easily one of the nation’s top players in my mind, but the emergence of Jarvis Varnardo as a powerful paint presence on defense and the improved play of guards Barry Stewart and Ben Hansbrough have helped the Bulldogs in SEC play.

While Mississippi State is a different team since the non-conference, Vanderbilt has reverted to its superb non-conference form after struggling at the beginning of conference play. After starting 2-4, Vandy won seven in a row before a road loss to Arkansas this weekend. I am still not completely sure how good the Commodores are, because they still have not been impressive away from Memorial Gym. How well they play away from home won’t matter on Wednesday though, and I see Vandy protecting its home court once again.

Prediction: Vanderbilt 76, Mississippi State 70

UNLV at New Mexico
Tuesday 8:00 PM CST

I don’t envy the NCAA tournament committee’s job this year. The committee already has the tough task of comparing teams with subjective criteria, but this season the slate of bubble teams is the weakest it has been in recent history. You know it’s a crazy year when New Mexico is garnering heavy consideration for an at-large bid. The Lobos best win came against Texas Tech at home, and that win is their only RPI top 50 victory. A win against San Diego State is New Mexico’s only other top 100 victory, and its RPI is just 53. Plus, it also has lost two games to sub-100 squads. This is not the type of resume that should be considered by the NCAA tournament committee, but this season, there is just nobody else to put in the field. Thus, New Mexico is playing for an at-large bid out of the Mountain West Conference. UNLV seems to be solidly in the field at this point, even though its resume is not the strongest either. Unlike New Mexico, a few aspects of the Runnin’ Rebels do warrant at-large consideration. A strong RPI of 27, several top 100 wins, and a win against BYU are reasons to put them in the field. Having just one top 50 win is a reason to keep them out, though. But once again, there aren’t many other options, and UNLV is in the field almost by default.

While the Runnin’ Rebels could use this win, this is a much more important game for New Mexico. As I mentioned earlier, the Lobos have very few quality wins, and a win against UNLV would easily be its best win to date. New Mexico runs under the leadership of former Kansas Jayhawk J.R. Giddens, who nearly single-handedly beat BYU last week with a 30 point effort. Casual hoops fans may not be familiar with The Pit, but that’s the nickname of New Mexico’s arena- and it truly is a pit. Like Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym, The Pit has an odd layout, and the floor is actually underground. Add a raucous home crowd and winning at The Pit, no matter the team, is never easy. BYU did the impossible last week with a win there, which bodes well for UNLV. Unfortunately for the Runnin’ Rebels, I’m encouraged with the way New Mexico played against BYU at home, and I see it getting a critical victory on Tuesday for its at-large hopes.

Prediction: New Mexico 70, UNLV 66

OTHER GAMES OF INTEREST

Xavier at St. Joseph’s
Thursday 8:00 PM CST ESPN

Losing consecutive games to Saint Louis and Temple puts St. Joseph’s in a dire situation, and the Hawks must beat both Xavier and Dayton to even be considered for the NCAA tournament. The loss to Temple on Sunday, a game in which they it blew a double digit second half lead, was a nightmare loss that may end the Hawks’ hopes at an at-large.

Prediction: Xavier 80, St. Joseph’s 69

Tennessee at Florida
Wednesday 8:00 PM CST

Florida’s push for an at-large will likely fall short this season, but a win against Tennessee could keep the Gators in the conversation. The only reason Florida is even alive for an at-large berth is because of the weak SEC, and the Gators have beaten up on the lesser teams in the conference. The Volunteers should be able to take care of business at Florida and send the Gators to the NIT.

Prediction: Tennessee 86, Florida 77

Pittsburgh at West Virginia
Monday 6:00 PM CST ESPN

Backyard Brawl: Part II. Part I featured Ronald Ramon’s three-pointer at the buzzer beater for a Pittsburgh win. Part II should be just as fun. With an emotional comeback victory at the Carrier Dome against Syracuse, the Panthers are not in any real danger of missing the NCAA tournament, but West Virginia must have this victory. The Mountaineers have an identical conference record to Pitt at 9-7, but lack the marquee victories Jamie Dixon’s squad has. This wouldn’t be a marquee victory, but it would at least put them at 10 conference wins.

Prediction: West Virginia 72, Pittsburgh 66

Purdue at Ohio State
Tuesday 6:00 PM CST ESPN

It looks like Ohio State will be joining Florida, its opponent in last year’s National Championship game, in the NIT. The Buckeyes coasted through the Big Ten at first, but once they faced the conference’s top competition, they faltered. Purdue obviously needs this road win in its race for the Big Ten title, and if the Boilermakers can win at the Kohl Center, they can win in Columbus.

Prediction: Purdue 69, Ohio State 60

Arkansas at Mississippi
Tuesday 8:00 PM CST ESPN

A promising start by Mississippi was just a tease, because the Rebels have fallen apart in the SEC and will have to wait until next year to compete for the NCAA tournament. Arkansas is still right on the bubble, but playing away from Fayetteville has not been fun for John Pelphrey.

Prediction: Mississippi 80, Arkansas 72

La Salle at Massachusetts
Wednesday 6:30 PM CST

La Salle is causing all kinds of problems in the Atlantic Ten. With wins against St. Joseph’s and Dayton, the Explorers are perfectly executing their role of spoiler. Massachusetts may be the next victim, and the Minutemen cannot lose this game. La Salle has improved over the course of the season, but Massachusetts should be able to win this one at home.

Prediction: Massachusetts 89, La Salle 80

Oklahoma at Oklahoma State
Wednesday 7:00 PM CST ESPN Plus

In the last meeting in the Bedlam Series in January, Oklahoma State entered the game at 1-4 in the Big 12, left Norman with another conference loss, and went on to start the Big 12 season 2-7. Five consecutive wins later, the Cowboys have the same 7-7 record that Oklahoma has, setting up what should be a very entertaining Bedlam Series game.

Prediction: Oklahoma State 69, Oklahoma State 63

Daniel’s overall prediction record: 144-63
Last weekend: 10-6

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