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TOUGH WEEKEND TASK FOR SUDDENLY VULNERABLE HEELS
January 9, 2009

SCS.comThere was a question as to whether or not North Carolina would even lose a game this season. Boston College put an end to that talk (and then promptly lost at home to Harvard on Wednesday), and there’s a chance the Heels could lose again in Winston-Salem this weekend against Wake Forest in the “Game of the Week.” We’ll have to wait until Sunday night for that tip-off, but in the meantime, there are several important Big East and Big Ten battles to pay attention to. The Big 12 and SEC finally open conference play on Saturday, and Kansas will play Michigan State at Allen Field House for one last marquee non-conference match-up.

GAME OF THE WEEK

North Carolina at Wake Forest
Sunday 7:00 PM Fox Sports Net

Last Saturday, a notable feat took place in college basketball. Wake Forest marched into BYU’s Marriott Center, with a sold out crowd of more than 26,000 fans, and handed the Cougars its first home loss in 53 games. BYU isn’t exactly trash, either—it entered the game 11-1, with a sole loss to Arizona State by a point after a buzzer-beating shot was waved off. The Demon Deacons certainly caught my attention with the win. Wake’s non-conference schedule was soft for the most part, with Baylor and UTEP providing the only real tests. A top 10 ranking seemed a little excessive for a talented but young team, but Wake Forest deserves its spot in the polls after winning on the road at BYU.

North Carolina isn’t coming off a landmark road win. The Tar Heels lost their first game of the season on Sunday against Boston College at the Dean Dome, and the Eagles dominated for much of the second half. The consensus number one team in the land lacked energy, especially on the defensive end, and the Heels weren’t able to withstand their first adversity of the season. Still, it’s just one loss, and there is no reason to panic. Wake Forest doesn’t have the type of experience North Carolina does, with just one contributing senior and a slew of sophomores and freshmen. This is still a balanced team, and though the Deacons don’t have great depth at the guard position, they have two full rotations of big men to throw at Hansbrough and company. That means foul trouble won’t be an issue up front for Wake Forest, who will be able to take risks against the Heels in the paint.

The key to any team playing North Carolina is to handle the Tar Heels in transition. Boston College executed its game plan perfectly on Sunday and limited UNC in the open court. Wake Forest can get out and run too, but it might be better served to slow the tempo and use its size to crash the offensive glass in half-court situations. North Carolina also needs a better shooting performance this weekend. Against BC, it shot 38 percent from the floor, and Wayne Ellington is really starting to struggle. And of course, the Tar Heels need to defend better. This was their one concern heading into the season, and for some reason they were slacking defensively against Boston College. Wake Forest does not have great shooters, but this is a team that can put a lot of points on the board.

A loss on Sunday would drop North Carolina to 0-2 in the ACC and put it at a severe disadvantage against Duke and Wake Forest to win the league. Boston College proved that the Tar Heels are not invincible, and that will give confidence to the rest of the nation. They are no longer a team on the pedestal, and they aren’t even ranked number one in the nation anymore. I’m taking Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, because the Demon Deacons are playing with confidence and won’t back down against UNC.

Prediction: Wake Forest 88, North Carolina 85

MUST-SEE MATCH-UPS

West Virginia at Marquette
Saturday 11:00 AM ESPN Plus

Using a favorable early Big East schedule, Marquette has rolled to a 3-0 start in conference play. After a difficult home win against Villanova, the Golden Eagles defeated Cincinnati and Rutgers, two of the lower-tier teams in the league, and their next two games are against Providence and DePaul. That means a win against West Virginia on its home floor could equal a 6-0 Big East start, which would be miles ahead of the rest of the beat-up conference. Marquette’s lack of size has been a problem against teams like Tennessee, who abused the Golden Eagles in the post with Wayne Chism. When it played Villanova and Dante Cunningham a few weeks ago, however, Marquette actually won the rebounding battle and looked stronger inside.

West Virginia isn’t an especially big team, which bodes well for Marquette, but 6 foot 7 forwards Da’Sean Butler and Wellington Smith will be mismatches in the paint. Smith did a fine job against Hasheem Thabeet last week. Alex Ruoff especially shoots well from three-point land, and as a team the Mountaineers are decent from the perimeter. I’ve been impressed by Marquette’s defense though, and its guard trio is tough to score against. The Golden Eagles’ quickness and stout defense will be the difference at home.

Prediction: Marquette 66, West Virginia 63

Louisville at Villanova
Saturday 11:00 AM ESPN

I’m not sure how, but Louisville is still ranked in the top 25. I guess a win against Kentucky still means something. The Cardinals even almost choked that game away with two boneheaded turnovers near the end of regulation, allowing their arch-rival to tie the game after trailing by seven in the final few minutes. Edgar Sosa bailed out his team with a long three-point bomb, but once against Louisville looked lost on the court. This team is playing with no confidence, and it will be facing a Villanova team coming off an emotional overtime win at Seton Hall.

One of Louisville’s problems is its lack of a reliable guard. Sometimes it seems like all Rick Pitino has are a bunch of small forwards. This could be the game the Cardinals get back on track, but Villanova’s guard play is too strong. Dante Cunningham has had a big senior season already in the post, and Scottie Reynolds teams with the two Coreys (Stokes and Fisher) in the backcourt. All four of those players average double-figures in scoring, and the guards are ferocious defenders as well.

Prediction: Villanova 69, Louisville 60

Kansas at Michigan State
Saturday 12:00 PM CBS

Kansas plays like a typical inexperienced team. One day the Jayhawks will lose to Massachusetts, and the next day they’ll beat Tennessee. On the road against Michigan State, which has clearly proven itself as the best team in the Big Ten, Kansas may run into some trouble. Bill Self has a lot of skilled young players to work with, and Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich have provided the necessary veteran leadership as the only returning players. But the Jayhawks also have had problems on the defensive end, and Michigan State will exploit that on Saturday.

Prediction: Michigan State 77, Kansas 69

Wisconsin at Purdue
Sunday 12:30 PM CBS

Purdue’s season hasn’t gone as planned so far. Most programs would be happy with a top 25 ranking, but the Boilermakers have already lost four games this season and have now fallen to 0-2 in the Big Ten. Now, Purdue’s reward is a visit from Wisconsin, who is continually underrated but has now won three in a row in the Big Ten. In its most recent loss at Penn State, Matt Painter did not have either Chris Kramer or Robbie Hummel, meaning the Boilermakers were without their best defensive player and one of their leading scorers. Their status is up in the air for Sunday. If they don’t play, Purdue probably has no chance. Also, rebounding was a huge problem against Penn State, who cleaned up on the boards. There are no excuses there for Painter’s crew, who was at full strength in the post. Though I think a healthy Purdue team would protect its home court against Wisconsin, there are too many question marks to pick the Boilermakers.

Prediction: Wisconsin 67, Purdue 60

GAMES TO KEEP AN EYE ON

Providence at Georgetown
Saturday 12:00 PM ESPNU

Even though Providence has played St. John’s, DePaul and Cincinnati, 3-0 is still 3-0. Easy street didn’t last long for the Friars though, who will now travel to the nation’s capital to play Georgetown. Now 1-2 in the Big East, the Hoyas are a desperate team and will not let an inferior team beat them at home.

Prediction: Georgetown 73, Providence 60

Duke at Florida State
Saturday 1:00 PM ESPN

Florida State has a history of upsetting Duke, and the Seminoles actually match-up pretty well in this game. Up front, Florida State’s size will be tough for the Blue Devils to handle, but Duke owns the advantage in the backcourt. Leonard Hamilton could really use a big win to fire up an apathetic fan base, but I don’t think this team has enough at the guard spot to compete with Duke. But look out if Blue Devils’ threes aren’t falling and Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas can’t handle all of that power in the post.

Prediction: Duke 82, Florida State 77

California at Washington
Saturday 5:00 PM

After passing a gut check by outlasting Washington State in Pullman 57-50, California is now 3-0 in the Pac-10 and heading toward a top 25 ranking. Washington has more firepower on offense, but its defense is considerably worse. With the best three-point shooting team in the country coming to town, the Huskies better tighten up on D.

Prediction: California 74, Washington 72

Miami (FL) at Boston College
Saturday 6:00 PM ESPNU

Now that Boston College responded to a win over North Carolina with a home loss to Harvard, let’s see how it plays against Miami. Who knows which team will show up? The Eagles rely so much on Tyrese Rice, so if he has an off game they are probably going down. It’s easy to see why Harvard was a trap game though, in the middle of ACC play after a huge win in Chapel Hill. I’m going to still go with Miami, who can’t afford to fall to 0-2.

Prediction: Miami 78, Boston College 77

Texas A&M at Oklahoma State
Saturday 8:00 PM ESPNU

As a Big 12 enthusiast, this is probably the most interesting conference game on the schedule this weekend. Gallagher-Iba Arena is one of the most difficult places to play in the league, and Oklahoma State is good enough to cause problems for opponents at home. The Cowboys have not had a bad loss yet, but they also have not beaten a good team either. At least they played somebody—Texas A&M’s non-conference schedule wasn’t too challenging, though to the Aggies’ credit they did beat Arizona, Alabama and LSU. Oklahoma State has a lot of athleticism, but Travis Ford just kicked off his only reliable big man, Ibrahima Thomas. Texas A&M’s physicality in the paint will be the difference.

Prediction: Texas A&M 68, Oklahoma State 60

UCLA at USC
Sunday 9:30 PM Fox Sports Net

It’s an overlooked rivalry, but UCLA/USC is always fun. USC just lost at the road against Oregon State after blowing a large second half lead, and Sunday’s game is critical for the Trojans. DeMar DeRozan has been a bit disappointing during his freshman campaign, and Taj Gibson has been the only constant. Gibson will have his way against an inexperienced frontcourt of UCLA, but that won’t be enough.

Prediction: UCLA 66, USC 62

Last week’s prediction record: 7-4
Overall prediction record: 62-43

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