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REGULAR SEASON FINALES MIX WITH LEAUGE TOURNEYS
March 6, 2009

SCS.comThere might be too much basketball on this weekend. It’s overwhelming.

Even for me.

Never mind that numerous conference tournaments conclude over the next few days. Pittsburgh and Connecticut will meet to decide the Big East title, North Carolina and Duke will battle for ACC supremacy and dozens of teams on NCAA tournament life-support will fight for the right to party in the Big Dance. No human could possibly catch all of the college hoops action on tap this weekend. My head is spinning.

GAMES OF THE WEEKEND

Connecticut at Pittsburgh
Saturday 11:00 AM CBS

Forget about Duke/North Carolina. This is the game I’m really looking forward to, mostly because I’m a sucker for grinding, physical basketball. Three weeks ago, Pittsburgh won at Connecticut in what DeJuan Blair called “the most physical game I ever played in my entire life.” Blair played a key role in that 76-68 victory by making Hasheem Thabeet look silly on both ends of the floor, and he set the tone of the game in the first half by slamming the over-anxious Thabeet to the ground— legally, mind you (a foul was called on Thabeet for over-the-back). Jim Calhoun seemed to think the game was called a little too lose by the officials, but I hope the men in stripes let Pitt and UConn go at each other tomorrow morning.

Thabeet couldn’t have played worse in the last meeting as Blair forced him into foul trouble and outworked him in all aspects of the game. A quick glance at the box score will give you an idea of just how much Blair dominated, despite an eight-inch size disadvantage. Blair finished with 22 points and 23 rebounds in 38 minutes, while Thabeet spent half the game on the bench due to fouls and logged five points and four rebounds on 1-5 shooting from the floor. Thabeet did play extremely well against Luke Harangody and Notre Dame this weekend, blocking eight shots to go along with a double-double. If Thabeet has the maturity to rebound from his embarrassing performance three weeks ago, I wouldn’t expect Blair to have nearly as much success.

One good sign from Pitt’s win over Marquette Wednesday night was Levance Fields’ play. He finally found his shooting touch after a nasty slump, which will help compliment Blair and Sam Young, the team’s unquestioned offensive leader. Fields did not contribute much in the first meeting against Connecticut until nailing two critical three-pointers in the final minutes. He did however commit two costly turnovers as the Panthers attempted to close out the game, which was uncharacteristic of the careful point guard.

Thabeet will play a huge factor in the outcome of Saturday’s game. Another no-show from the 7 foot 3 NBA prospect will lead to an easy Pittsburgh victory. I think he will be back to his old self tomorrow to get revenge on Blair, but UConn has nobody to match-up with Young defensively. Pittsburgh will handle the Huskies’ stout defense and protect its home floor.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 75, Connecticut 71

Duke at North Carolina
Sunday 3:00 PM CBS

I relish my role as Obnoxious Underappreciated Midwest Sports Fan, so please forgive my degrading comment about the Tobacco Road rivalry earlier in this column. I truly do enjoy any basketball game between North Carolina and Duke, especially with ACC title implications. It’s just that any game between these two teams turns into a media frenzy. Case in point: CBSSportsline.com ran a count down to Sunday’s game earlier this year, which would have been fine—had it not been November.

So as you can see, I’m writing like an especially Obnoxious Underappreciated Midwest Sports fan when it comes to Duke/UNC. But as I mentioned in the above paragraph, the action on the court this Sunday is nothing to scoff at. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels have already met, of course, with UNC leaving Cameron Indoor with a 101-87 road victory. Duke put up 52 points in the first half and led by eight, but North Carolina’s offensive prowess proved too much for the Blue Devils to overcome. Still, the Heels showed their vulnerability defensively. Their lackadaisical tendencies on defense are the famous flaw of this team, but Duke did go cold in the second half of that game, partly due to North Carolina’s adjustments. I say it basically every week, but Duke needs the three-pointers to fall to stay in this game. Coach K doesn’t have the perfect personnel, including the lack of a post presence, so his team relies a great deal on the outside jump shot. Things couldn’t look better when the threes drop, but offensively Duke becomes stagnant when it can’t make its perimeter shots.

Tyler Hansbrough didn’t put up staggering numbers against Duke in February, but that was just fine because Ty Lawson certainly did. His strong second half led the Heels to victory. As the playmaker of the team, Lawson’s performance often dictates North Carolina’s success—or failure. Duke currently holds a five game winning streak, but I believe that will end on Sunday in Chapel Hill, unless the Blue Devils catch fire from three (as they did last season at the Dean Dome).

Prediction: North Carolina 88, Duke 82

CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT PREVIEWS
Includes conferences with title games this weekend

Atlantic Sun
March 4-7 ESPN (Finals)

The four top seeds advanced to the semi-finals today, although Belmont, the reigning Atlantic Sun champ, needed a buzzer-beater to beat Mercer in the quarterfinals. Jacksonville, East Tennessee State and Belmont are clearly the three best teams in this conference, so I’ll go ahead and eliminate Lipscomb and make a very bold prediction that one of those other teams is going to win this thing. I’ve got a 75 percent chance at getting this one right.

Big South
March 3, 5, 7 ESPN2 (Finals)

VMI gained notoriety for taking down Kentucky at Rupp Arena this November, and now the Keydets will try to score an automatic bid on national television against 1st seeded Radford. The Highlanders won at VMI two weeks ago but lost at home in January. The game should be competitive, which is enough of a reason to tune in, but VMI’s unique style of run-and-gun offense will also reward you for watching.

Ohio Valley
March 3, 6-7 ESPN2 (Finals)

Like the Atlantic Sun and Big South, the Ohio Valley Conference also sent its four top seeds to the semi-finals. Tennessee-Martin is the easy pick to win this thing because it has a future pro on the team named Lester Hudson, but look out for Murray State. The Racers have won 10 of 12 games and beat UT-Martin by 15 points two weeks ago.

Missouri Valley
March 5-8 CBS (Finals)

I’m in the process of covering Arch Madness for SCS.com. Thursday night’s play-in action wasn’t especially enticing. Indiana State held off a Drake comeback while Wichita State grinded out a victory against hapless Missouri State. The Valley is a bit down this season, and Creighton is the only team with any type of shot to gain an at-large bid. The Bluejays haven’t lost since January 24th and look nearly unbeatable these days, so they may not need to worry about an at-large anyway.

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

Syracuse at Marquette
Saturday 1:00 PM Big East Network

You just have to laugh when Marquette can now breathe easy because the nation’s 25th ranked team is coming to town. The Golden Eagles are wrapping up a brutal four game stretch. The first three games consisted of a home date with Connecticut and road games at Louisville and Pittsburgh (all top 10 teams). Luckily Marquette took care of business against its easy Big East schedule early on, because this recent slide will only affect tournament seeding—not tournament inclusion.

Prediction: Marquette 72, Syracuse 66

California at Arizona State
Saturday 1:00 PM FSN

Arizona State’s recent trip to Washington was miserable after it left the state with two overtime losses. The Sun Devils must have still had The Evergreen State on their minds, because Stanford dealt them a surprising loss in Tempe last night. California is an even better team than Stanford and just won at Arizona, so this three-game losing streak could turn into a four-game skid.

Prediction: California 67, Arizona State 66

Louisville at West Virginia
Saturday 8:00 PM ESPN

Credit College Gameday for making a trip to Morgantown, West Virginia. The Mountaineers’ fans are some of the most passionate around but never seem to get much recognition. Bob Huggins has his hometown team reflecting the personality of its coach. This team plays tough, gritty and resilient basketball. West Virginia has lost some games—nine, to be exact— but it will play well tomorrow night for a revved-up fan base.

Prediction: West Virginia 77, Louisville 75

Purdue at Michigan State
Sunday 11:00 AM CBS

Michigan State has the conference wrapped up already, so that takes the luster out of this game. I always look forward to competitive basketball though and the Spartans aren’t completely out of contention for a top seed. Purdue finally has everyone in the lineup again after injuries rocked the Boilermakers earlier. Robbie Hummel might as well have been injured on Saturday against Northwestern. The star of Purdue took just six shots in 34 minutes.

Prediction: Michigan State 72, Purdue 62

Clemson at Wake Forest
Sunday 5:00 PM FSN

After demolishing Duke, Clemson seems to have lost some of its swagger. The Tigers’ energy and emotion have helped them win all year, but that has been lacking recently. To grab a road win on Sunday, Clemson will need to get Wake Forest’s big men into foul trouble and speed up the tempo in its favor. For the Demon Deacons, the game plan is simple: let Jeff Teague score 24 points again, like he did in the first meeting between these teams, and take care of the ball, something they did not do last time.

Prediction: Wake Forest 82, Clemson 72

BUBBLE BURSTERS
Features teams that need to bolster their resumes

Michigan at Minnesota
Saturday 11:00 AM

I always get these two teams confused. You know, both schools start with M, both started off hot in the non-conference and have since cooled, and both states are really, really cold most of the time.

Prediction: Minnesota 59, Michigan 55

Missouri at Texas A&M
Saturday 1:00 PM ABC

An early win at LSU looks nice for A&M, and even a victory over Arizona isn’t bad. Another one over Missouri would send Mark Turgeon to his second NCAA tournament in two years at College Station.

Prediction: Missouri 76, Texas A&M 70

Oklahoma State at Oklahoma
Saturday 2:30 PM ABC

Like its Big 12 South buddy Texas A&M, Oklahoma State needs to beat a ranked opponent to solidify its at-large status. Without a win tomorrow, I think the Cowboys’ resume will be relatively weak. Despite outstanding computer numbers due to a strong schedule, OSU’s one decent win came against Texas last week.

Prediction: Oklahoma 80, Oklahoma State 77

Texas at Kansas
Saturday 3:00 PM CBS

I like Texas’ chances, but it isn’t completely safe for an NCAA tournament bid. If the Longhorns pull off a miracle and snap Kansas’ 40 game home winning streak, their spot in the field of 65 will be sealed.

Prediction: Kansas 76, Texas 65

LSU at Auburn
Saturday 3:00 PM

Auburn is a team that pretty much everyone forgot about, including me. Somehow, the Tigers have now won seven of eight games to run their SEC record to 9-6. Granted, this streak has been completed in a legendarily bad conference, but good for Jeff Lebo. He’s finally showing signs of breaking through at Auburn, and a win over LSU would make an NCAA tournament appearance possible with some work in the SEC tournament.

Prediction: LSU 72, Auburn 62

Virginia Tech at Florida State
Sunday 1:00 PM

Here’s one last chance for Virginia Tech to find a way into the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, the Hokies are going to need a win at Florida State, where only Pittsburgh, Duke and North Carolina have won this season—by an average of just six points.

Prediction: Florida State 75, Virginia Tech 62

Northwestern at Ohio State
Sunday 4:00 PM Big Ten Network

Stop looking at the name in front of Northwestern’s jersey. All of these so-called “upsets” in the Big Ten really aren’t upsets anymore. If the Wildcats win in Columbus, they would amazingly be in position for an at-large bid while likely knocking Ohio State out of consideration.

Prediction: Northwestern 62, Ohio State 60

DESPERATION GAME
Someone who really needs a win

Kentucky at Florida
Saturday 1:00 PM CBS

Since Kentucky disgraced itself with a home loss to Georgia and Florida failed to beat Mississippi State on the road, this game is barely a “Desperation Game” anymore. Sure, it’s important for NIT seeding, because that’s where both teams seem destined. At the very least, the winner of this game holds onto slim hope of the Big Dance.

Prediction: Florida 85, Kentucky 69

Last week’s prediction record: 7-8
Overall prediction record: 243-156

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