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November 17, 2008

SCS.comHopefully you enjoyed Week One, because Week Two is about to get a whole lot better. Surely you can’t honestly tell me you enjoyed watching the preliminary 2k Sports or CBE Classic games, unless you take pleasure in seeing lowly mid-majors get blown out of the building. This week, the pre-season tournaments are starting to heat up and we may even see our first top five match-up of the season on Friday. Before we look ahead to Week Two, let’s take a look back at our first week of college basketball. There were some highlights during the past seven days— several name opponents dropped home games against inferior opponents, Duke squeaked by Rhode Island in a thriller and Nick Calathes got his name in the papers for playing poker on the internet (the nerve!).


Upsets galore: The major storyline of the week was Kentucky’s loss to Virginia Military Institute at Rupp Arena. After giving up 111 points and trailing by 23 at one point, the Wildcats’ defeat last Friday was probably more embarrassing than even the Gardner-Webb fiasco in November 2007. At least Kentucky had some company—Providence, Alabama and Washington all dropped home games to lesser teams during the first week of the season, and it seemed like just about everybody was struggling with their supposed early-season cupcakes. And, let’s not forget that Oregon State lost to Howard, but after watching that team go 0-16 in the Pac-10 last year, can we even consider that an upset?

UCLA’s close call: Miami (OH) played its ugly brand of basketball to perfection, and the RedHawks stayed with the Bruins all the way until the final minute of the game. Led by Michael Bramos’ 22 points, Miami took advantage of an inexperienced UCLA team and trailed by just a point with 51 seconds to play. In the end, All-American candidate Darren Collison sealed the game at the free throw line and the Bruins came away victorious. The near-loss does show that UCLA has a lot of young players at several positions—especially in the frontcourt—and it may be awhile before the Bruins show their Final Four capabilities.

Duke’s close call: I wasn’t planning on watching the Rhode Island/Duke game this Sunday, but since my beloved St. Louis Rams forced me to change the channel with their disgraceful play, I turned to ESPNU. I couldn’t have made a better decision. Although the Atlantic Ten coaches picked the Rams to finish near the bottom of the league, Rhode Island played like a conference championship contender by outplaying Duke for nearly the entire game. In the first half, the Rams built a 12 point lead, thanks to sluggish offensive play by the Blue Devils and strong performances from several role players. Duke cut the lead to a point right before halftime, but Jimmy Baron single-handedly kept his team in front during the second half by nailing contested threes left and right. Eventually, the Blue Devils overcame Baron’s memorable three-point shooting barrage and escaped with a victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Rhode Island proved that it may be a lot better than people expected, but Duke did not look like a top five team at all. We will find out more about them in the upcoming 2k Sports Classic semi-finals.

Mid-major battles: Although the BCS conference teams may refuse to play each other early in the non-conference season, the mid-majors are fearless with their scheduling. Last week, several important games took place between teams that could be NCAA tournament squads come March. The biggest of these games included two teams that would likely be offended by the mid-major label, considering both won NCAA tourney games last spring. San Diego, devastated by suspensions to a few key players, came up just short on the road against UNLV. Both teams are likely to make the NCAA tournament again, and UNLV’s 65-60 win could prove very important later in the season. In addition to that game:

-- Illinois State notched a big road win at Wright State
--George Mason beat Vermont in overtime
-- Butler defeated Drake 58-48, getting revenge for last February, when a Keno Davis-led Drake team beat Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse
-- Southern Illinois rallied to beat Massachusetts in a battle of two NCAA tournament hopefuls

So, as you can see, a lot of these early games could be huge when the NCAA selection committee makes its decisions. Now, let’s leave the past and look ahead to what should be a fantastic week of hoops (and please note, all times are central standard time):


Puerto Rico Tip-Off
All rounds: Thursday, Friday and Sunday (ESPN network)
Teams of note: Xavier, Missouri, USC, Memphis, Virginia Tech, Seton Hall

This island competition will feature the most loaded field of any tournament this week, with six NCAA tournament hopefuls participating. The most highly anticipated match-up is a possible second round game between USC and Memphis. Both ranked in the top 20, the Trojans have a new star in DeMar DeRozan and the Tigers are in the process of figuring out all of their new personnel. The freshman DeRozan scored 14 points in his debut, but Memphis has a frosh of its own in Tyreke Evans, who tore up Fairfield in his first game for 19 points. John Calipari has a deeper team, but after losing such integral players in Derrick Rose, Joey Dorsey and Chris Douglas-Roberts, it will be interesting to see how much progress players like Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggart have made. Of course, USC suffered some key losses as well, as the Trojans no longer have Davon Jefferson and O.J. Mayo. Like any early season game, mistakes will be plentiful, but this potential match-up will be a blast to watch.

The other side of the bracket has some great competition as well. Missouri and Xavier are pitted against each other in the first round of the Tip-Off, and that game should be closer than many would expect. You should probably know that I am a rabid Tigers fan, but that bias isn’t affecting my outlook on this game. Xavier is the superior program coming off an Elite Eight appearance, but no team can easily replace standouts such as Stanley Burrell, Drew Lavender and Josh Duncan. The Muskateers do return a dangerous frontcourt, led by Derrick Brown, but their young backcourt may be vulnerable to Missouri’s pressure defense. Whichever team comes away victorious will then face Virginia Tech, who lucked out and drew Fairfield in its first round game.

2K Sports Classic (Coaches vs. Cancer)
Thursday Semi-Finals: Duke vs. Southern Illinois (ESPN, 6 PM) and UCLA vs. Michigan (ESPN2, 8 PM)
Friday: Consolation (ESPN2, 4 PM) and Finals (6 PM, ESPN2)

Thankfully for college basketball fans everywhere, all four favorites advanced to the final rounds, meaning we won’t have to endure another Gardner-Webb situation like we did in last year’s 2k Sports Classic. The semi-final games aren’t especially interesting, as I expect Duke and UCLA to advance to the finals fairly easily. Southern Illinois did beat a decent Massachusetts team last week and Michigan should be improved from last year, but both teams have a lot of issues to work out before they can expect to compete with top five teams. However, Duke and UCLA both looked unimpressive last week and need to step up their play to avoid an upset.

If we do get to see our marquee match-up between the Bruins and Blue Devils, the game will be a battle of strong guard play and struggling interiors. The two squads are nearly mirror images of each other, as they are both looking for offensive threats in the paint. I expect to see a fairly ugly game, and we’ll probably see some defensive breakdowns, missed shots and careless turnovers. Whichever team can shake the early-season rustiness will get a win in this one. Since UCLA is relying on a large group of newcomers, a more experienced and seasoned Duke team will have the upper-hand at Madison Square Garden.

NIT Tip-Off
Monday and Tuesday Regionals (select games on ESPN network)
Teams of note: Boston College, Purdue, Oklahoma, Davidson, Arizona, UAB

The first two rounds of the NIT Tip-Off will get underway the next two nights, with the championship rounds to be played the following week. The game you need to see is Oklahoma and Davidson, which should take place on Tuesday night assuming no upsets happen. The battle of two top 25 teams will feature two of the best players in the nation in Stephen Curry and Blake Griffin. Last season, the Wildcats played a brutal non-conference schedule, but they didn’t win any of those games. Had they not won the Southern Conference tournament, their Elite Eight run may have never happened, because their non-conference resume was not strong enough to warrant an at-large bid. That places some extra importance on Tuesday’s game for Davidson.

Arizona and UAB is another interesting game. On paper, the Wildcats’ stacked roster, which includes a couple of future pros, should be able to handle the Blazers. With all of the turmoil in Tuscon right now, UAB may be able to notch a win over a Pac-10 opponent. Late in the season, when Mike Davis’ team is on the bubble for an NCAA tournament bid, it may point to Tuesday’s game as a deciding factor for an at-large bid. Although we’re a long way away from March, these November games are imperative, especially for teams from non-power conferences like the C-USA. Boston College and St. John’s will most likely face off in the Chestnut Hill regional, while the probable match-up in the Lafayette regional is Purdue and Georgia. The Boilermakers, ranked in the top 15 after an outstanding 2007-08 season, are the heavy favorites to advance to the semi-finals.

Paradise Jam
First two rounds: Friday and Sunday (championship to be played next Monday, Nov. 24)
Teams of note: Miami, Connecticut, San Diego, Wisconsin

As a newer tournament, the Paradise Jam has done a good job of creating a competitive tournament. Though the championship will not be played until Nov. 24, the first three rounds are this weekend. The two most notable games (as always, assuming no upsets), will be in the second round, between Connecticut and Miami and San Diego and Wisconsin. The Huskies will face their first test of the year against the Hurricanes, who enter this season with increased expectations after their surprising 2007-08 success. After losing Anthony King to graduation, Miami is a bit thin up front, and Connecticut’s duo of Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien should be able to take advantage of that. On the other side of the tournament, Wisconsin may run into trouble with San Diego. Long Beach State took the Badgers to the wire on Sunday, and San Diego is an upgrade from LBSU. The Torero’s lost a close game to UNLV with several players suspended, and although Trumaine Johnson and Clinton Houston will still be out for the Paradise Jam games, starting forward Gyno Pomare will be back in uniform.



Massachusetts at Memphis
11:00 PM, ESPN

Christmas Day for college basketball junkies kicks off with this game at 11:00 PM central, as a part of ESPN’s NCAA hoops marathon, which will last all day on Tuesday. The game has a few intriguing storylines. First, UMass head coach Derrick Kellogg not only played under Memphis coach John Calipari, but also coached under him for the past several years as an assistant. Plus, Calipari coached Kellogg when he played for the Minutemen, which means Coach Cal is facing off against his former team. Although Massachusetts has the potential to finish in the upper half of the A-10, it will be no match for Memphis. Don’t watch this game for the basketball, watch it for the storylines. That is, if you’re into that kind of sentimental stuff.

Prediction: Memphis 90, Massachusetts 75


Fresno State at St. Mary’s
1:00 AM, ESPN

Please don’t actually watch this game. It’s at one in the morning. That’d be crazy. But if you’re an insomniac, work odd hours or just don’t sleep in general, then I guess you deserve to read a little bit about this match-up. Basically, St. Mary’s is the superior team and should dominate Fresno State, who finished 13-19 last year and is predicted to finish almost dead last in the WAC. It’s basketball, though, and it’s in the middle of the night, so maybe it’s worth a look.

Prediction: St. Mary’s 72, Fresno State 55

Kentucky at North Carolina
8:00 PM, ESPN

This game was being tabbed as the first big college basketball game of the year, but expectations changed after Kentucky dropped an embarrassing game to VMI last Friday. Now, even with injuries to Tyler Hansbrough, Marcus Ginyard and Bobby Frasor, it looks like North Carolina may have an easy victory to look forward to on Tuesday. The day before Kentucky’s season opening loss, I wrote in the SEC preview that the Wildcats were underrated. I still believe that Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks, who scored 39 points in the loss, can lead this team to an NCAA tournament. Right now, Billy Gillispie has to get his team to defend better. VMI’s up-tempo style creates more possessions and naturally makes for higher scoring games, but giving up 111 points is inexcusable. Things could get ugly on Tuesday at Chapel Hill, but Kentucky has a lot of time to improve before the season ends.

Prediction: North Carolina 87, Kentucky 66

Nevada at San Diego
9:00 PM

A home date with the favorites to win the WAC will be a good test for San Diego, who will get Gyno Pomare back from a one-game suspension (though Clinton Houston and Trumaine Johnson will not be back until next week). The Torero’s are already 0-1 and need to avoid dropping too many early November games. At home, this is a winnable game, even against a tough opponent in Nevada. Mark Fox’s star freshman, Luke Babbitt, scored 20 points in a win at Montana State this past week, and he is the reason why the Wolfpack are the hands-down choice to win their conference. Tuesday’s West Coast battle won’t be on television anywhere, but I will keep an eye on the score, as this is an important early season game for both teams. Still rattled by suspension, I think San Diego will drop another close game.

Prediction: Nevada 70, San Diego 66


Illinois at Vanderbilt
8:00 PM, ESPN

As one of the youngest teams in the SEC, Vanderbilt will have its share of highs and lows this year. The Commodores can rely on the anchor of their team, big man A.J. Ogilvy, and he’s the type of player that can carry a team to an NCAA tournament. Illinois is questionable up front and the Illini are still trying to rebuild their program after a horrid 2007-08 season. They do have a deep backcourt filled with promise, but Illinois will need to play almost a perfect game to win at Vandy.

Prediction: Vanderbilt 77, Illinois 64


Winthrop at Davidson
6:00 PM

Two Carolina schools with a great deal of recent success will battle each other in this match-up, which should feature hard-nosed defense by both teams. Winthrop has made a name for itself playing nasty on the defensive end, but the Eagles will be overwhelmed by Davidson, just as they were against South Carolina on Sunday.

Prediction: Davidson 72, Winthrop 53

Vermont at Maryland
7:00 PM

After losing a heartbreaker to George Mason in overtime this weekend, Vermont will now look to upset an ACC team with a lot of uncertainty. Maryland’s program has taken a downward turn since winning a national title, but the Terrapins did look good in their season opener, beating Bucknell by 29 points. Vermont is a quality opponent and the Catamounts are capable of stealing a victory. After all, Maryland did lose to Ohio and American at home last year. I think Vermont will pull off the win in somewhat stunning fashion.

Prediction: Vermont 69, Maryland 68


Oral Roberts at Creighton
2:05 PM

Creighton trailed New Mexico for most of the game Sunday, until the Bluejays battled back and won in the final minutes. Oral Roberts may provide CU with a challenge in Omaha as well, as the Golden Eagles are always dangerous as a consistent mid-major winner. They only lost by seven points on the road against a good Tulsa team this weekend, but in the end Creighton should seal a victory in this game.

Prediction: Creighton 67, Oral Roberts 61

Virginia Commonwealth at Rhode Island
6:00 PM

After seeing Rhode Island’s tailspin in Atlantic Ten play last season, I assumed the Rams would struggle this year, especially after losing star forward Will Daniels. That’s why I was shocked to see URI take Duke all the way to the buzzer on Sunday. Now, Saturday’s date with Virginia Commonwealth could be a lot more interesting than I originally thought. I picked VCU to win the Colonial Athletic Association, but I do think a confident Rhode Island team will be tough to take down on its home floor. Still, I’m going with the VCU Rams in this game, mostly because I don’t think Jimmy Baron will make seven threes in one half again.

Prediction: VCU 80, Rhode Island 75

Last week’s prediction record: 5-2

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