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December 1, 2008

SCS.comIt’s cold outside, the days are getting depressingly shorter and ESPN is showing hoops all night long.

Yep, it’s basketball season all right.

Feast Week featured some outstanding basketball, but I did feel a bit empty watching so many pre-season tournaments played in front of such sparse crowds. That won’t be the case this week, unless you consider an attendance of 65,000 at Ford Field a sparse crowd. We’re about to kick December off with the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and the Pac 10/Big 12 Hardwood Challenge, which features games such as Duke/Purdue, UNC/Michigan State and UCLA/Texas (the three Games of the Week). But, as always, we start by looking at the week that was:


North Carolina’s dominance in Maui: Thanks to Tyler Hansbrough’s 34 points in his return from injury, North Carolina rolled over Notre Dame 102-87 to win the Maui Invitational. The Tar Heels won their three Maui games by an average of 29.6 points, and the 8th ranked Irish could barely stay competitive against them. Notre Dame’s trip to Hawaii wasn’t all bad, however, as it did grab a win against Texas in a narrow 81-80 victory. The biggest losers of the Maui Invitational were St. Joseph’s and Alabama, who each won just one game. That is not a good start for two teams that hope to be included in post-season play.

Gonzaga gains respect with Old Spice title: I’ll be honest. I wasn’t sure what to think of Gonzaga’s top 10 pre-season ranking, but that was before watching the Bulldogs in the Old Spice Classic. The Zags took care of Oklahoma State and Maryland before an impressive performance against Tennessee, beating the Vols by nine points in the title game. Gonzaga’s one area of concern—the defensive end—looked decent enough, and the Bulldogs’ offensive firepower may even rival North Carolina’s. All five starters are scorers and Steven Gray is a sharpshooter off the bench. The other important results from the Old Spice Classic were Michigan State’s surprisingly awful loss to Maryland and Siena’s 0-3 record. The Terps looked fantastic in Round One but couldn’t have looked worse in the next two games, while Siena looked nothing like last year’s NCAA tournament team.

Wake Forest takes home 76 Classic hardware: In Sunday night’s championship, Wake Forest defeated a pesky Baylor team to win the 76 Classic in Anaheim. The Demon Deacons may be young, but they have a strong front line and look like a different team than last year’s 17 win squad. Baylor had a successful tournament, beating Providence and 15th ranked Arizona State before falling last night. Charlotte had the worst time of any in the 76 Classic, losing all three games and falling to 1-6 on the season. That is not a hole the 49ers wanted to be in heading into the Atlantic Ten, a conference they are expected to contend for.

Oklahoma edges Purdue for NIT championship: In a thrilling overtime finish, Oklahoma knocked off Purdue at Madison Square Garden 87-82 to capture the NIT Season Tip-Off title. Though the Boilermakers were red hot from behind the arc and opened up a comfortable lead midway through the second half, the Sooners were able to control the paint and used the free throw line to their advantage. Oklahoma shot 46 free throws, while Purdue shot only five—this was mostly due to the Sooners relentless attack of the basket.

Syracuse impressive in CBE Classic: Nobody can accuse Syracuse of not beating anybody in the non-conference this season. After two years of missing the NCAA tournament, partly because of a weak out-of-conference resume, the Orange look like a team that deserves to be included in the Big Dance. After dismantling Florida, Syracuse overcame a double digit second half deficit and beat Kansas in overtime. The Gators, by the way, looked unimpressive after entering this season with hopes of a turnaround after last year’s NIT trip. Defensively and on the boards, Florida needs a lot of work. In general, the Gators did not seem very tough in Kansas City this past week, which can partly be attributed to their youth.

Louisville, Marquette go down: So maybe the Big East isn’t invincible after all. Western Kentucky’s roster is almost completely different from last year’s Sweet 16 squad, but the Hilltoppers struck again by beating Louisville 68-54 in Nashville yesterday. Junior guard A.J. Slaughter scored 25 points to boost WKU, who outrebounded the larger Cardinals 48-34. As for Marquette, the Golden Eagles dropped a home game to Dayton by 14 points as well, the same margin as Louisville. The guard trio of Wesley Matthews, Dominic James and Jerel McNeal scored all but 12 of Marquette’s points. A top 25 team needs more depth—and more inside scoring—than that.


Duke at Purdue
Tuesday 8:00 PM ESPN

These two perimeter-oriented teams love to shoot the three, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see 50 three-point attempts between Duke and Purdue on Tuesday night. Plus, neither team has much of an inside game, so this may turn into a three-point shooting contest. The Paint Crew will be fired up for the visiting Blue Devils at Mackey Arena, a venue that does not get much publicity but makes for one of the best atmospheres in all of college basketball. The Boilermakers suffocating half-court defense will be the toughest Duke has faced all season, and this will be the first road game of the season for the Blue Devils.

Duke and Purdue are almost mirror images of each other. Both teams are weak on the interior but have tall guards and wings that create mismatches with smaller players. One of the match-ups to watch on Tuesday is the point guard position, a battle between Blue Devils’ sophomore Nolan Smith and Purdue junior Chris Kramer, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Smith has played well so far this season after winning the point guard job from Greg Paulus, but he has not played against a player of Kramer’s caliber on the defensive end. Kyle Singler and Robbie Hummel will also likely be guarding each other, and they are the two respective leaders of their teams. Both are similar players, with a wide range of skills at the forward position, and they will be the two best players on the court Tuesday night.

This game has a chance to be one of the most entertaining match-ups of the season. Duke and Purdue play similar styles, and both teams’ weaknesses—the frontcourt—can’t be exploited since they are playing against each other. The Boilermakers’ defense, coupled with the home court advantage at Mackey Arena, will make the difference. In a made-for-ESPN game, I see Purdue coming away with a close win over the Dukies.

Prediction: Purdue 74, Duke 72

North Carolina at Michigan State
Wednesday 8:15 PM ESPN

Why can’t we play more games at football stadiums? I’ve been waiting for this game at Ford Field, the site of the 2009 Final Four, for months now. With a packed house of 65,000 fans, North Carolina has an intimidating task ahead of it. Just yesterday, news broke that Tyler Hansbrough is questionable for Wednesday’s game due to his shin injury, which makes Wednesday’s game even tougher for the Tar Heels. Michigan State has injury problems of its own, as big man Goran Suton may also miss Wednesday’s contest as well. The injury status of those two frontcourt players will have an impact on the outcome of this game.

Even with Hansbrough’s injury, North Carolina has breezed through its season so far with little trouble. The Tar Heels have even played a respectable schedule and have beaten teams like Kentucky, Oregon and Notre Dame, all by double digits. Michigan State has struggled a bit more early on. Maryland drilled the Spartans by 18 points in the first round of the Old Spice Classic, and they looked shaky against Wichita State in the 5th place game. It’s obvious how much this team misses Suton, who is the only true center on the roster. If he’s not playing against North Carolina, I would be wise to pick the Tar Heels. With both Suton and Hansbrough’s status up in the air, I’ll make the safe pick and pick North Carolina anyway. Just don’t underestimate how much of a boost 65,000 screaming fans may give the Spartans on Wednesday.

Prediction: North Carolina 85, Michigan State 80

UCLA at Texas
Thursday 8:00 PM ESPN2

Something just isn’t right about UCLA right now. With so many new parts, especially up front, the Bruins look lost right now on the offensive end. Darren Collison can only do so much, and Josh Shipp’s production has fallen off. Texas, on the other hand, lost only D.J. Augustin and seems to be doing just fine. The Longhorns did lose to Notre Dame, but fell by just one point—and there is no shame in losing to the Irish on a neutral court. Without Augustin, who the offense ran through last season, Texas needs some time to adjust on offense, but the Longhorns seem further along than UCLA.

Rick Barnes’ team has a decided advantage in the frontcourt. Damion James looks even better than last season, and Gary Johnson has emerged as Texas’ top bench performer. The Longhorns have so many options up front—I haven’t even mentioned Connor Atchley, Dexter Pittman, Alexis Wangmene or Clint Chapman—which will overpower UCLA’s unproven frontcourt. The Bruins have the best guard on the floor in Collison, but Justin Mason and A.J. Abrams can hold their own for Texas. UCLA is going to need a great performance to notch this road win.

Prediction: Texas 70, UCLA 61


Wisconsin at Virginia Tech
Monday 6:00 PM ESPN2

After a disappointing trip to Puerto Rico, Virginia Tech has a chance to redeem itself against Wisconsin tonight. The Hokies lost a heartbreaker to Xavier in the tournament’s second round on a half court shot, and then dropped a game to Seton Hall in the third place game after leading for much of the contest. I don’t want to alarm any Hokies fans, but tonight’s game is extremely important for their season. Last year, Virginia Tech did not beat a single NCAA tournament team until the ACC tourney, which kept them out of March Madness. Wisconsin is the last marquee opponent on the Hokies’ non-conference schedule, so losing this game at home would be devastating. With that said, I think Virginia Tech can handle the Badgers. Wisconsin turned the ball over 20 times against Connecticut early this year and Bo Ryan’s offense this season is anything but dynamic. Despite losing both games, Virginia Tech looked formidable in the Xavier and Seton Hall games, and a similar effort against Wisconsin should result in a win.

Prediction: Virginia Tech 69, Wisconsin 63

Ohio State at Miami
Tuesday 6:00 PM ESPN

A year after missing the NCAA tournament, there are still a lot of question marks for Ohio State. After losing their three top scorers, where is the scoring going to come from for the Buckeyes? That’s been an issue early this year, as Ohio State has averaged 63 points in its first three games. Against subpar competition, that is a frightening stat. The Buckeyes only beat Bowling Green by four points, and B.J. Mullens has not been much of a factor. I haven’t seen Ohio State play, but I did see Miami lose to Connecticut in the Paradise Jam. The Hurricanes only lost by 13 points but never challenged the Huskies. Jack McClinton can win this game on his own for Miami and Dwayne Collins is much improved in the post, but the Buckeyes’ defense can slow down the Hurricanes’ offensive attack Tuesday night and grab a nice road victory.

Prediction: Ohio State 66, Miami 64

Clemson at Illinois
Tuesday 6:30 PM ESPN2

Very quietly, Illinois is undefeated this season with wins over Vanderbilt, Kent State and Tulsa. Just how different is this team from last year’s debacle? We’ll find out on Tuesday night against Clemson. The Fighting Illini have the guard play to handle the Tigers’ pressure defense, and their supposed weakness—the frontcourt—has looked fine with Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale leading the way. But enough about Illinois. Clemson is undefeated too at 7-0, and have impressive wins against Temple and at Charlotte. This game is also a good barometer for the Tigers, who lost two key players in James Mays and Cliff Hammonds. I still think Illinois is a year away from being an NCAA tournament team, and I like Clemson to win this game at Assembly Hall.

Prediction: Clemson 80, Illinois 74

Southern California at Oklahoma
Thursday 6:00 PM ESPN2

Blake Griffin has been unstoppable this season, but USC’s Taj Gibson may be the man that finally slows him down. The Trojans are off to a shaky start with two losses already, but Gibson has been a monster. USC lost to Missouri last Sunday partly because he played just 19 minutes due to foul trouble. If he can stay on the court, he’ll keep USC in the game by containing Griffin. The key to this game will be guard play. Missouri abused Daniel Hackett in that loss, as he turned the ball over eight times as USC’s point guard. Oklahoma freshman Willie Warren scored 22 points in a win against Purdue last Friday, and he is a player the Sooners need to step up to provide perimeter scoring. Many people will write off USC due to its slow start, but I think the Trojans will take Oklahoma to the wire on Thursday. But in the end, the Sooners will take care of business in Norman.

Prediction: Oklahoma 68, USC 65

Ohio State at Notre Dame
Saturday 3:00 PM ESPNU

I predicted earlier that Ohio State would knock off Miami on the road, but I’m not bold enough to pick the Buckeyes over Notre Dame in South Bend. The Irish have one of the best home court advantages in basketball and the type of offense that can overpower even Ohio State’s stout defense. The Fighting Irish are my pick on Saturday and they could even run away with this one.

Prediction: Notre Dame 77, Ohio State 66

Wisconsin at Marquette
Saturday 8:30 PM ESPNU

The Wisconsin/Marquette series is an underrated in-state rivalry, and the Golden Eagles enter this game looking to rebound after a loss to Dayton at home. Marquette’s main problem, which was especially exposed by the Flyers, is their lack of depth and inside scoring. The Golden Eagles’ senior guards make up the best trio in the Big East, but their frontcourt is undersized and outmanned. Lazar Haywood, at 6 foot 6, is forced to play power forward, and he is the only effective big man on the team. Wisconsin does not have a dominant inside game, which helps Marquette’s cause, but the Badgers play the type of defense that can contain Matthews, James and McNeal. The Golden Eagles’ guards are outstanding on the defensive end, however, and remember, Wisconsin turned the ball over 20 times against Connecticut. Marquette will win this game on the defensive end.

Prediction: Marquette 68, Wisconsin 64


Kent State at Kansas
Monday 8:00 PM ESPNU

Kent State has lost its past two games and now has to travel to Lawrence to take on Kansas at Allen Field House. In any other year, the Golden Flashes would be on the verge of a three game losing streak. The rebuilding Jayhawks, however, can be toppled by Kent State tonight. Al Fisher carried his team to a victory at Saint Louis by scoring 35 points, and he is capable of doing that again. Still, even with a young team, (rock) chalk this one up as a win for Kansas. It just might not be as easy as you would expect.

Prediction: Kansas 76, Kent State 68

Georgia at Western Kentucky
Tuesday 8:00 PM

Admittedly, I forgot about Western Kentucky this year because it graduated most of last year’s team. Maybe the Hilltoppers are back after beating Louisville yesterday. Georgia is the SEC team in this game, but Dennis Felton’s team is probably the underdog. Sure, the Bulldogs are 5-1, but they lost by 21 to Loyola Chicago and squeaked by Eastern Michigan, Presbyterian and Santa Clara. They will be very fortunate to leave Bowling Green with a win.

Prediction: Western Kentucky 77, Georgia 70

Michigan at Maryland
Wednesday 6:30 ESPNU

Michigan is the talk of college basketball after upsetting UCLA. But how many of you know that the Wolverines went to overtime with Savannah State, an independent, in Ann Arbor on Saturday? Maryland looked horrid against Gonzaga and Georgetown in the Old Spice Classic, but the Terrapins showed what they are capable of by blasting Michigan State in the first round.

Prediction: Maryland 65, Michigan 55

West Virginia at Mississippi
Wednesday 8:00 PM

Mississippi is ravaged by injuries, while West Virginia dropped a game to Kentucky in the Las Vegas Invitational finals. The Mountaineers looked anemic against the Wildcats on Saturday and it might be foolish to pick them to win this road game, but I haven’t lost faith in a team that I believe will represent the Big East in the NCAA tournament.

West Virginia 76, Mississippi 72

St. Mary’s at Kent State
Thursday 6:00 PM

After it decided not to show up against UTEP, St. Mary’s won its final two games in the 76 Classic over Cal State Fullerton and Providence. That’s great, but UTEP is by far the best of those three teams and the Gaels were blown out of the building in that one.

Prediction: Kent State 75, St. Mary’s 67

Oral Roberts at North Dakota State
Thursday 7:00 PM

Did you do a double take when you saw this match-up listed here? I don’t blame you. Good thing you’ve got me to explain this game—basically, Oral Roberts and North Dakota State are the two favorites to win the Summit League. And since that crazy conference decided to start conference play in early December, the two best teams in the Summit will face off on Dec. 4. Good luck finding this on TV, but the outcome of this game will have a huge impact on the conference race. Oral Roberts is a young team, but the Golden Eagles are used to winning their conference. New players won’t change that mindset.

Prediction: Oral Roberts 83, North Dakota State 80

Butler at Cleveland State
Thursday 7:00 PM ESPNU

I can understand the Summit League wanting to create a buzz by starting conference season ridiculously early, but why is the Horizon League caving in? This decent mid-major league does not need two conference contenders playing on Dec. 4. There’s nothing we can do, though, so we might as well enjoy the early conference season. Cleveland State is picked by many to win the Horizon, while Butler has lower expectations because it lost almost its entire team from last season. The Bulldogs are undefeated so far, but I think they lose their first game on Thursday, which will give the Vikings an early advantage in the Horizon.

Prediction: Cleveland State 70, Butler 66

Oklahoma State at Washington
Thursday 10:00 PM FSN

Both teams desperately need a win here. Oklahoma State went 1-2 in the Old Spice Classic and Washington is off to a horrid 3-3 start, including a loss to Portland. I like what I’ve seen from the Cowboys despite the two losses, but the Huskies do not look good at all. They played decently against Florida, but looked overmatched against Kansas in the CBE Classic.

Prediction: Oklahoma State 85, Washington 79

Arizona at Texas A&M
Friday 8:30 ESPNU

It hasn’t been a complete disaster for Arizona yet. The Wildcats only loss is to UAB, but the Blazers have been their only quality opponent. Texas A&M hasn’t played a team from a BCS conference but did get blasted by Tulsa, before defeating Kent State in its next game. This is a big game for both teams to gauge themselves early in the year. The Aggies have looked unpolished on offense but with a strong defensive effort, they can beat the Wildcats at home.

Prediction: Texas A&M 65, Arizona 64

Vanderbilt at Georgia Tech
Saturday 1:00 PM

Vanderbilt’s youth caught up with it in a rare home loss to Illinois a few weeks ago, and a road game may not be the best thing for this young squad. Amazingly, the Commodores have just two upperclassmen on the entire roster.

Prediction: Georgia Tech 80, Vanderbilt 70

Duke at Michigan
Saturday 2:30 PM ESPN

Rematch! Duke won by 15 in the 2k Sports Classic Nov. 21, but that was on a neutral court. Michigan did not shoot well in that game and at home, the Wolverines may scare the Dukies. A little scare is probably the only damage Michigan will do, however.

Prediction: Duke 77, Michigan 65

Miami (FL) at Kentucky
Saturday 4:30 PM ESPN

Suddenly, Kentucky isn’t so bad anymore after beating Kansas State and West Virginia to win the Las Vegas Invitational. They still don’t have a point guard and they turn the ball over at a frightening rate, but Billy Gillispie has this team playing scrappy. Unfortunately, scrappy won’t be good enough against a team like Miami.

Prediction: Miami 80, Kentucky 65

Vermont at Pittsburgh
Saturday 6:00 PM

Vermont took Maryland to overtime on the road and has two players, Marquis Blakely and Mike Trimboli, that are good enough to play with Pittsburgh from the Big East. The Catamounts may be able to keep this one close.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 76, Vermont 66

Baylor at Washington State
Saturday 10:30 PM FSN

This late-night, West-Coast battle is simple: Baylor’s offense versus Washington State’s defense. These two teams couldn’t be more different in that the aggressive Bears love to score on offense and need to work on their defense. The Cougars, on the other hand, are patient on the offensive end and win games with their defense. Baylor and Wazzu are similar in one area, though. They both love to shoot the three. The Cougars are too young to beat an experienced team like Baylor right now, but their defense will keep them competitive.

Prediction: Baylor 72, Washington State 63

California at Missouri
Sunday 1:00 PM ESPNU

Missouri already beat one Pac-10 opponent this year by dismantling USC in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Cal will be a challenge for the Tigers, as new coach Mike Montgomery has the Bears off to a decent 5-1 start with a win over UNLV. California’s guard play is strong but the Bears are at a disadvantage down low after losing Ryan Anderson and DeVon Hardin from last year. Missouri counters the Bears’ unproven frontcourt with seniors DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons, one of the more productive frontcourt duos in the Big 12.

Prediction: Missouri 79, California 73

Oklahoma at Tulsa
Sunday 3:05 PM CBS College Sports

For some reason, I really like in-state rivalries. I’ve even used the phrase “in-state rivalry” several times in my previews this year. I have a problem, I know. But this could actually be a good game. Oklahoma should win big, but Tulsa won’t be a pushover.

Prediction: Oklahoma 78, Tulsa 65

Florida at Florida State
Sunday 4:30 FSN

Yep, you guessed it. Another in-state rivalry! This should be a fun one though, I promise. Florida State is 7-0 and beat Cincy and California in Vegas, while Florida looked sluggish in November.

Prediction: Florida State 85, Florida 75

Last week’s prediction record: N/A
Overall prediction record: 10-6

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