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ONE FINAL WEEKEND TO SORT THIS MESS OUT
March 7, 2008

SCS.comAn entire regular season all comes down to this weekend, the final one of the 2008 college hoops campaign. Regular season conferences titles will be determined, bubble teams will make a final push to catch the attention of the NCAA tournament selection committee, and conference tournaments are finally underway in numerous leagues all around the country. It’s not March Madness yet, but it sure feels like it. Enjoy the final weekend before the true hoops madness sets in for good in the weeks ahead.

GAME OF THE WEEKEND

North Carolina at Duke
Saturday 8:00 PM CST ESPN

What could be better than a game between sports’ most bitter rivals, both ranked inside the top ten and fighting for the Atlantic Coast Conference’s regular season title? With North Carolina and Duke tied atop the conference with a 13-2 record, the ACC will be decided on Saturday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium. In the last meeting between the two teams Feb. 6, the Blue Devils prevailed in Chapel Hill, thanks to an outstanding display of perimeter shooting and the absence of North Carolina’s Ty Lawson. Although not completely healthy yet, the Tar Heels will have their point guard in the lineup on Saturday, and Lawson’s presence changes the entire complexion of his team.

Lawson will make a difference, but North Carolina’s advantage is in Player of the Year candidate Tyler Hansbrough, who simply dominated Duke in February. His 28 point and 18 rebound effort will likely be duplicated again on Saturday, because the Blue Devils have no interior presence to slow him down. The only true post players Mike Krzyzewski can use down low are Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek, and neither is reliable or skilled enough to play substantial minutes. Duke may be perimeter-oriented, but it is well-suited to play that style of basketball. Almost every player on the floor for the Blue Devils can knock down outside shots, which makes up for the complete lack of an inside game.

North Carolina, of course, has no problems matching up with Duke athletically. Even with all the guards the Blue Devils can throw at teams, and all the shooters they have on the court, Roy Williams has just as many weapons on the perimeter. Wayne Ellington has provided his team with a consistent outside shooting threat, which was a concern of North Carolina’s coming into the season.

In a game of this magnitude, comparing individual match-ups and the two team’s personnel can only analyze the game to a certain extent. In simpler terms, Duke must do what it did in February’s meeting and control the rebounding battle. While the Blue Devils actually were outrebounded by seven in that game, that margin is at least manageable. If they can also get hot from the perimeter and repeat their shooting performance from the first game in Chapel Hill, they are in fine shape to win this game in front of a boisterous home crowd. For North Carolina, Duke’s three-point shooting cannot be used as an excuse for losing to the Blue Devils. Defending the three has been a problem at times for the Tar Heels this season, and if they allow Duke to play to its strengths and fire from the outside, they may be the next top ranked team to fall.

Lawson’s return obviously makes this a different game than the first meeting, but he is still not at full strength and I see a similar result playing out at Cameron Indoor on Saturday night. Thanks to North Carolina’s struggles defensively, Duke should be able to light up the scoreboard and walk away with a close victory, bragging rights, a case for a top seed in the NCAA tournament, and a first place finish in the ACC.

Prediction: Duke 88, North Carolina 85

Louisville at Georgetown
Saturday 11:00 AM CST CBS

It may be less hyped than the Tobacco Road showdown, but the match-up between Louisville and Georgetown will also crown a regular season conference champion. Just like our first “Game of the Weekend,” both the Cardinals and the Hoyas sit at 14-3 in the Big East, with the winner of Saturday’s game claiming the top seed in the Big East tournament. Louisville recovered from a rocky patch in the middle of the season, largely caused by injuries and suspensions, to tear through the conference and enter the regular season finale with a nine game winning streak. This month long stretch included a win against Georgetown at home, a game in which the Hoyas shot a dreadful 4-22 from behind the arc. Instead of settling for the three, the Cardinals got to the free throw line 24 times compared to Georgetown’s four attempts, and Louisville shook off a rough first half to win by eight points.

It’s a different game at Georgetown’s house, but the Hoyas obviously cannot shoot 18 percent from three again. Those types of offensive struggles, coupled with Louisville’s outstanding defensive play, will result in another loss. The Cardinals also need to learn from their performance in the first game, because when this team takes good shots within the offense, takes the ball to the rim, and gets productive play from the perimeter, they can be a team that could make a run to the Final Four. The guard play in this game will be important for Louisville, and someone in the backcourt needs to step up as the playmaker. Jerry Smith did this in the first meeting, scoring 16 points in an efficient 5-6 shooting night, but Smith’s scoring has been inconsistent from game-to-game. Whether it is him, Edgar Sosa, or Andre McGee, Louisville cannot simply rely on David Padgett and the rest of its frontcourt to win games.

Guard play has plagued the Hoyas as well. With a game-changer down low in Roy Hibbert, there are no problems on the interior, but Georgetown does not have an impact player in the backcourt. There is nothing wrong with Jonathan Wallace, and he does a solid job running the Hoyas’ methodical offense. Jessie Sapp and Austin Freeman also can give their team a decent amount of scoring, but none of these guards can create their own shot. Even though Georgetown’s style of play makes up for this shortcoming a bit, an elite teams needs a star at the guard position.

Over the past month or so, Louisville has been one of the nation’s most impressive teams. No matter who or where the Cardinals play, they have dispatched of opponents left and right. Georgetown is next on the list.

Prediction: Louisville 65, Georgetown 64

OTHER GAMES OF INTEREST

Kansas at Texas A&M
Saturday 1:00 PM CST CBS (regional)

Kansas is fighting for another Big 12 title, and Texas A&M is fighting for an NCAA tournament bid. With a critical road victory over Baylor, the Aggies are still alive in the at-large conversation, but who knows which Texas A&M team will show up on Saturday? Will it be the team that beat Texas Tech by 40 points and Baylor in Waco, or the team that scored 37 points against Oklahoma a week ago? I’ll admit I doubted that the Aggies’ good side would show up against Baylor, but at this point nobody has any idea what to expect from this team on a nightly basis. I don’t know how they will play on Saturday, but no matter what, it probably won’t be good enough to beat Kansas.

Prediction: Kansas 70, Texas A&M 66

Stanford at USC
Saturday 1:00 PM CST CBS (regional)

Sometimes people forget just how young USC is. Tim Floyd’s entire rotation consists of freshmen and sophomores, and not a single impact player on this team is an upperclassman. Of course, the Trojans’ youth doesn’t get in the way of their talent, but playing on the road hasn’t stopped Stanford this year and the Cardinals will use hard-nosed basketball to beat USC in Los Angeles.

Prediction: Stanford 60, USC 59

UAB at Memphis
Saturday 1:00 PM CST

Although the tournament “bracketologists” have UAB either in the field of 65 or close to it, I’m not buying it. And I’m not buying another close call for Memphis like the first time it played UAB, because the Tigers do not have an undefeated record to worry about this time.

Prediction: Memphis 81, UAB 70

St. Joseph’s at Dayton
Saturday 1:00 PM CST

Finally, St. Joseph’s picked up that “signature” win against Xavier this week, and with a win at Dayton the Hawks should be feeling comfortable about their spot in the NCAA tournament. Dayton fell apart in Atlantic Ten play and needs this win to at least stay in consideration for an at-large.

Prediction: New Mexico 70, BYU 68

Marquette at Syracuse
Saturday 3:00 PM CST ESPN

It’s time to pull the plug on this team, right? Should we let Jim Boeheim and his team die the peaceful way and fade into the off-season, hoping for a better year next fall? Not so fast, people, a win against Marquette on Saturday might just give the Orange new life.

Prediction: Syracuse 80, Marquette 73

Florida at Kentucky
Sunday 11:00 AM CST CBS

Hey Gardner-Webb: who’s got the last laugh now! The little underdogs from the Atlantic Sun had their fun in November, but Kentucky is back in the at-large picture. Meanwhile, the Runnin’ Bulldogs (fantastic team nickname, by the way), are barely at .500 and will not be attending a post-season tournament. Without Patrick Patterson, Florida has a real chance in Lexington, but the loss of Patterson didn’t seem to slow down the Wildcats against Tennessee. And that was in Knoxville. The baby Gators will fall once again on the road.

Prediction: Kentucky 77, Florida 70

Michigan State at Ohio State
Sunday 11:00 AM CST

So Ohio State finally beats a good team and the Buckeyes are suddenly an at-large contender? I guess that’s how it works when the slate of bubble teams is so atrocious. After beating Purdue last week, if Ohio State can take out Michigan State, it may have a real case for the NCAA tournament. Saying the Buckeyes “should” win this game may be a stretch, but with the Spartans’ inconsistency this season, I would not classify an Ohio State victory as an upset.

Prediction: Ohio State 67, Michigan State 66

Kent State at Akron
Sunday 3:00 PM CST

Kent State, due to tiebreakers, has wrapped up the number 1 seed in the MAC tournament, but the two best teams in the conference will go at it on Saturday nevertheless. After finally gaining a national ranking, the Golden Flashes blew it with a loss to Bowling Green. Maybe they can regain the nation’s confidence, as well as the selection committee’s confidence with a road win at Akron.

Prediction: New Mexico 70, BYU 68

Baylor at Texas Tech
Saturday 12:30 PM CST

So what if Texas Tech couldn’t stay within 40 at Texas A&M, or within 50 at Kansas? The only thing that will matter on Saturday is that the Red Raiders rarely lose at home, which does not bode well for a Baylor team looking to lock up an at-large bid.

Prediction: Texas Tech 77, Baylor 75

CONFERENCES TOURNAMENTS TO WATCH THIS WEEKEND

NOTE: The tournaments included in this section will be holding their title games this weekend. Check back in Monday’s weekly preview for the tournaments concluding next week.

Atlantic Sun

A 10 game winning streak puts Belmont at the top of the conference as the heavy favorite to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Don’t forget about Gardner-Webb, of course, who just pulled of a mini-upset of Stetson to advance to the semi-finals.

Big South

North Carolina-Asheville swept Winthrop this season, but the Eagles will have a chance to redeem themselves when the two teams meet in the tournament finals. The championship game on Saturday (ESPN2 at 10:30 CST if you are interested) should be one of the most intense games of “Championship Week.”

Missouri Valley

I’ll be in attendance for this one and blogging about all of the action on SouthernCollegeSports.com. Shameless self-promotion, I know, I know. Anyway, the Missouri Valley Conference is traditionally one of the most competitive tournaments in the entire nation, and just three number one seeds in the past 17 years have won the tournament. Plus, it even has its own name, “Arch Madness.” How cool is that? Drake obviously enters the tournament as the favorite, but Illinois State and Southern Illinois could easily steal the automatic bid. The conference has finally figured out the Bulldogs, and they did lose three of their last five conference games. Although the Salukis have been the Missouri Valley’s elite program for several years now, even their vicious defensive effort cannot make up for their extreme inability to score. Illinois State lost to Drake twice this season, but the Redbirds are playing the best basketball in the conference right now. Still a possibility for an at-large bid, Illinois State could solidify its standing in the field of 65 if it wins just one or two games in St. Louis. I don’t think the Redbirds will have to worry about that, though, because I see them winning all three games in Arch Madness.

Ohio Valley

If I had to pick a deep sleeper in the NCAA tournament- and I mean DEEP sleeper- I’d go with Austin Peay. An at-large bid is out of the question, but if the Governors avoid an upset in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament, this could be a very scary 14 or 15 seed. Austin Peay has no inside game to speak of, but it loves to shoot threes and with the right match-up, it might at least put up a fight in the first round.

Daniel’s overall prediction record: 150-68
Last week: 6-5

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