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BIG EAST SLUGFEST TIPS OFF THE NEW WEEK
February 16, 2009

SCS.comItís hard to believe that weíre about four weeks away from Selection Sunday. That means weíre getting pretty close to baseball season, nice weather, more sunshine and all that good stuff. But Iím going to enjoy the doldrums of winter for now. Mostly because tonight, Iíll be able to turn my television to one of the yearís most anticipated match-ups. Long live college hoops season!

GAMES OF THE WEEK

Pittsburgh at Connecticut
Monday 6:00 PM ESPN

Tonightís game will look more like a boxing match and less like a basketball game. Pittsburgh and Connecticut have embraced the classic Big East style of basketball, which consists of relentless defense and perhaps a couple of punches to the throat. Hasheem Thabeet, of course, is part of the reason why the Huskies are so good defensively. Every coach in America has said itónobody impacts a game like Thabeet. Pittsburgh does have a beast of its own in the middle. DeJuan Blair is only 6 foot 7, and he may look like a midget compared to his counterpart, but his intensity will test Thabeet. There are a couple of things to watch from this Blair/Thabeet match-up. First, can Thabeet keep Blair from crashing the offensive boards, which is where most of his scoring comes from? And will Pittsburgh move Blair away from the basket to free up space in the middle of UConnís defense? Also keep an eye on how Pittsburgh attempts to defend those lob passes to Thabeet. I say ďattemptsĒ because it seems nearly impossible to stop those alley-oops.

Pittsburghís defense often overshadows its offense, but just take a look at what the Panthers have done recently scoring-wise. In this recent five game winning streak, theyíve score 85 or more points four times. Against Cincinnati on Saturday, Pitt shot a blistering 67 percent from the field. The Panthers take good shots, give Blair his touches and allow Sam Young and Levance Fields to go to work. Pittsburgh also has received important production from its bench. Gilbert Brown is an unheralded reserve that adds versatility with his combination of size and speed, and junior college transfer Jermaine Dixon has been a nice surprise in his first season.

Connecticut isnít exactly inept on offense, but the Huskies have struggled in a few areas lately. Luckily, Thabeet has added more scoring lately, but UConnís guards are struggling from three-point land. Perimeter shooting isnít what Jim Calhoun stressesóConnecticutís approach is to attack the basket and get to the free throw line. However, teams will play zone against the Huskies to stop dribble penetration and slow down Thabeet, so the outside shooting will need to improve. Of course, Iím nitpicking here, because Connecticut dismantled Louisville two weeks ago without making a three-pointer. With a consistent scorer like Jeff Adrien in the frontcourt and guards that carry out Calhounís offense to perfection, Connecticutís shaky three-point shooting isnít much of a detriment.

With both teams playing extremely well, itís difficult to pick a winner here. I canít wait to see how this game plays out, and I suggest you drop what youíre doing at 6 pm central. I have a feeling that Blair wonít back down from Thabeet and that Young will provide a match-up problem when Stanley Robinson isnít in the game. Iíll take Pitt in a squeaker, but boy is this one going to be fun.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 72, Connecticut 70

MIGHT AS WELL BE MARCH
Games you might see in the NCAA tournament

Michigan State at Purdue
Tuesday 6:00 PM ESPN

Tomorrow night will mark the first of two meetings between Michigan State and Purdue, which means the Boilermakers are very much alive in the Big Ten race. A win by Matt Painterís team would drop the Spartansí lead to just one game. Weíll never know how Purdue would have fared had Robbie Hummel been healthy all year, but he is back now, which is bad news for Michigan State. Tom Izzo has his own injury troubles, as his team is playing without star forward Raymar Morgan. Iím surprised that the Spartans were able to beat Minnesota and Michigan without Morgan, but Purdue will be too tall of a task if heís not playing.

Prediction: Purdue 68, Michigan State 65

Washington at UCLA
Thursday 10:00 PM FSN

Last week went very differently for these two teams. Washington welcomed the Oregon schools to town and had little trouble. UCLA, on the other hand, made a trip to Arizona and left the state with two blowout losses. Without a traditional back-to-the-basket post player, UCLA is struggling offensively. The Bruins rely too much on their outside shooting and Darren Collison is simply not getting enough help right now. UCLA could do nothing to slow down Jordan Hill on Saturday, and Iím afraid Jon Brockman may replicate Hillís double-double.

Prediction: Washington 77, UCLA 72

BUBBLE BURSTERS
Features teams that need to bolster their resumes

Texas at Texas A&M
Monday 8:00 PM ESPN

Texas A&M is probably toast, but Texas needs every win it can get. With wins over UCLA, Villanova and Wisconsin in non-conference play, the Longhorns are in decent shape to make the NCAA tournament, but a couple more bad losses would send them to the bubble.

Prediction: Texas 75, Texas A&M 69

Miami at Florida State
Wednesday 6:00 PM ESPNU

Florida State easily has the credentials of an NCAA tournament team. At the moment, Miami cannot say the same. Despite a competitive showing against North Carolina yesterday, the loss dropped the Hurricanes to 4-7 in the ACC. Their schedule gets much easier from here, but a losing record in conference play would not look good to the selection committee.

Prediction: Florida State 79, Miami 66

Penn State at Illinois
Wednesday 6:00 PM Big Ten Network

In a league that has beat itself up this winter, Penn State has survived the mess. The Nittany Lions are above .500 at 7-6 in the Big Ten and kept its tournament chances alive with a home win against Minnesota on Saturday.

Prediction: Illinois 64, Penn State 59

South Carolina at Mississippi State
Wednesday 7:00 PM

Can you believe the leader of the SEC East is still on the bubble? South Carolina doesnít have many impressive wins, but credit the Gamecocks for taking care of inferior opponents, besides one loss to Alabama. If they keep winning games, it will be hard to leave them out of the field of 65.

Prediction: South Carolina 86, Mississippi State 81

Minnesota at Michigan
Thursday 6:00 PM Big Ten Network

Michigan may have saved its season by edging pesky Northwestern in overtime yesterday. Minnesota isnít completely safe, but Michigan is the team that needs this game.

Prediction: Michigan 66, Minnesota 65

MID-MAJOR GLORY
Please, no hate mail about the term ďmid-majors,Ē just be happy Iím writing about your team

New Mexico at BYU
Tuesday 9:00 PM The Mountain

The winner of this contest will be tied at second in the Mountain West Conference. The post-season tournament is going to be a mess, thatís for sure. And I mean that in a good way.

Prediction: BYU 72, New Mexico 66

Western Kentucky at Arkansas Little-Rock
Thursday 7:00 PM

Possibly a preview of the Sun Belt Championship Game? Itís looking like the Sun Belt is going to come down to Western Kentucky, Arkansas-Little Rock and Troy.

Prediction: Western Kentucky 77, Arkansas-LR 69

Weber State at Montana
Thursday 8:00 PM

Iím surprised that Portland State has basically fallen out of the Big Sky race. That just means that itís Weber State and Montana battling it out for the top spot from here on out.

Prediction: Montana 72, Weber State 68

DESPERATION GAMES
Someone who really needs a win

Notre Dame at West Virginia
Wednesday 6:00 PM

West Virginia can breathe a little with that win over Villanova. Notre Dame is still suffocating, even after a decisive victory over Louisville. This game means a lot to the Mountaineers, but the Irish absolutely cannot drop this one.

Prediction: West Virginia 76, Notre Dame 69

Last weekís prediction record: 11-9
Overall prediction record: 201-114

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