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January 12, 2009

SCS.comI think last night I had an epiphany, if you want to call it that. After watching Wake Forest/North Carolina and USC/UCLA on Fox Sports Net, I realized I had just seen two of the better basketball games of the entire season. It was almost a perfect doubleheader. The first game in Winston-Salem featured some of the most gifted athletes in college basketball. Wake and UNC went back and forth, from fastbreak to fastbreak, with no time for anyone to catch their breath—fans included. The Demon Deacons’ led for most of the second half and held on for a victory. After that, I was treated to an old Los Angeles rivalry. UCLA and USC battled each other for 40 minutes, with neither team gaining much of an advantage. The pace of the game was a far cry from that first game on Fox Sports Net, with both teams slugging it out in the half-court. The defensive effort was stellar, and UCLA eventually claimed a narrow road victory.

The reason I mention this epiphany is to inform you, the reader, that you too can reach self-actualization if you tune into ESPN tonight. It’s Big Monday, and first Notre Dame and Louisville will play at Freedom Hall. Then, Oklahoma will host Texas in Norman. I’d advise you to tune in tonight, assuming you have nothing better to do, and I guarantee you’ll be happy you listened to me.


Texas at Oklahoma
Monday 8:00 PM ESPN

The first edition of the Red River Rivalry tips-off early in Big 12 play, as Oklahoma and Texas will face off in just their second conference game. The two teams won’t meet again until late February, so the winner of tonight’s game will own bragging rights for more than a month. That’s not the important part of this game, though. These are the two favorites to win the Big 12 regular season title, and even though it’s just January, tonight’s match-up has huge implications.

Though A.J. Abrams and Blake Griffin are the stars of this show, expect tonight’s battle to be a defensive-minded slugfest. Oklahoma and Texas are both prolific on offense at times, but it’s nothing like their football offenses. These two squads win with their defense, and whoever can figure out how to crack its opponent will come away with the victory. Griffin is a load for everybody to handle, and he’s coming off a 29 point, 15 rebound performance in which Kansas State decided not to double team him. Texas probably won’t employ that strategy. The Longhorns have a variety of capable post players, but they don’t have a shutdown defender in the bunch. Dexter Pittman’s wide body may be able to limit Griffin’s production to an extent, but Damion James, Connor Atchley and Gary Johnson are a bit undersized. When Texas decides to double Griffin, it’ll be the rest of the Sooners’ responsibility to take advantage of open looks. Willie Warren is showing flashes of becoming the go-to guard scorer, but he’s still a bit inconsistent. Oklahoma is a much better team when Tony Crocker shoots well from the perimeter, so he will need to look for his shot.

For Texas, A.J. Abrams is the key. Arkansas held Abrams to seven points on Tuesday, and he’s had a hard time over the past several days. In that Arkansas game, he shot 3-16 from the field, and against Iowa State on Saturday, he shot just 3-10. Abrams hasn’t even cracked double figures in three games. Texas will never win if that happens again. Damion James has solidified himself as a threat on the offensive end, and his outside game is improving. He has helped keep the Longhorns competitive during Abrams’ cold streak, but these are Texas’ two main offensive threats. They both have to be clicking to keep it close in Norman.

As one of college sports’ top rivalries, the Oklahoma/Texas game is always highly anticipated. This year, with the two teams going head-to-head for the conference championship, the stakes couldn’t be higher. It’s not going to be a pretty ballgame, but it’s going to be physical. And the winner is going to gain a huge advantage in the race for the Big 12. I’d be surprised if the game isn’t won in the final few minutes, and it’s almost a “too close to call” situation. Oklahoma is my pick here, due to Abrams’ shooting woes and the Sooners’ home court advantage.

Oklahoma 65, Texas 63


Notre Dame at Louisville
Monday 6:00 PM ESPN

I said in the last Weekend Preview that Louisville might be able to “get back on track” with a win over Villanova. The Cardinals needed two missed shots in the waning seconds by Dante Cunningham to secure the 61-60 win, but the victory has to be encouraging for Rick Pitino. After such a struggle in the non-conference, Louisville is now 2-0 in the Big East and welcomes Notre Dame to Freedom Hall. Riding the wave of some positive emotion, I expect the Cardinals to come out fired up in this one. The only problem is, I am discouraged by the way this team shoots from the perimeter. Louisville forces too many threes and needs to throw the ball inside more. Part of the problem is the lack of reliable guards, and Edgar Sosa has suffered a shooting slump that has lasted more than a full season. Terrance Williams occasionally gets hot from the perimeter, but he shouldn’t be Louisville’s primary shooting threat.

Notre Dame loves to shoot the three, too. And you’ll rarely find the Irish on a cold shooting night. They have so many shooters, led by Kyle McAlarney, and Luke Harangody demands attention in the post, meaning he can pass out of double teams and find open shooters. I’m going to give the Cardinals the advantage in this one though. Louisville does a great job on the boards, which will help them limit Harangody’s offensive putback total. I’m expecting the Cardinals to play with a lot more confidence after a road victory at Villanova.

Louisville 75, Notre Dame 71

Syracuse at Georgetown
Wednesday 6:30 PM ESPN2

We’re just now starting to realize that Syracuse could very well win the whole Big East. After missing the NCAA tournament the past two years, it was hard to gauge the Orange in the pre-season. They’ve made their case as a Big East contender so far. Jim Boeheim isn’t going to miss the tournament again, and his team’s only loss so far came on that improbable shot by Cleveland State. An easy early schedule has led to a 4-0 Big East start, but things are about to get tougher. Way tougher. How does nine of ten games against top 25 teams sound? The impossible stretch starts in Washington, D.C., where Georgetown is coming off a much-needed home win over Providence.

Georgetown’s complete inability to rebound had been the problem so far this season, but the Hoyas are improving in that area. They’ve now won the rebounding battle in the past two games, against Notre Dame and Providence, though they are still struggling to shoot from three-point land. Georgetown’s first-shot defense is as good as anyone’s, so Syracuse’s prolific scorers might run into some trouble on Wednesday. The Hoyas will be ready for Jonny Flynn and the rest of the Orange’s offensive attack, and Syracuse has not yet beaten a team currently in the top 25. Georgetown is battle-tested and desperate to get above .500 in the Big East.

Georgetown 73, Syracuse 71

Michigan at Illinois
Wednesday 7:30 PM Big Ten Network

Two of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten will meet in Champaign on Wednesday, just more than a week after the first meeting Jan. 4. In that first game, Michigan prevailed 71-61, though the game was closer than the double digit margin. Illinois did not shoot particularly well, and once Michigan went on a run in the second half, the Illini had no answer. Maybe Illinois just needs to figure out that pesky 1-3-1 zone employed by John Beilein. The Illini did take care of the basketball in that first game, turning the ball over just eight times, but they could not find a way to make shots against Michigan’s defense. At Assembly Hall, I’d expect a better performance out of Illinois. Michigan also struggles on the road, as the Wolverines have lost at Maryland and went to overtime at Indiana.

Illinois 67, Michigan 61

Baylor at Texas A&M
Wednesday 8:00 PM ESPN2

Texas A&M must be glad to be home. The Aggies’ trip to Stillwater was a disaster, as they lost by 11 points to Oklahoma State. A&M fell behind big early but battled back by half time, before the Cowboys turned up the heat and opened up a large second half lead. Josh Carter, the team’s leading scorer and unquestioned leader, scored 0 points. His team already struggles to score, and with Carter’s goose egg, it’s a wonder Texas A&M even stayed within 20.

Baylor has no such scoring problems. The Aggies may be able to exploit the Bears’ rather soft defense, and they will have the advantage inside with more depth and bulk in the frontcourt. Kevin Rogers is no slouch down low for Baylor, though, and if A&M lets the Bears speed up the tempo, it could be in trouble again.

Baylor 75, Texas A&M 69

Minnesota at Wisconsin
Thursday 8:00 PM Big Ten Network

The Kohl Center is an intimidating venue for opponents, and Minnesota doesn’t have a lot of road experience. Tubby Smith has taken his team to Colorado State and Iowa—two inferior opponents—and the Gophers barely won those games. Playing in Madison will be a whole new environment for some of Minnesota’s youngsters, who play an integral role on the team in terms of depth. Wisconsin will be motivated as well, coming off a whooping at Mackey Arena yesterday. The Badgers won’t let Minnesota march into the Kohl Center and steal a win.

Wisconsin 69, Minnesota 61


Kentucky at Tennessee
Tuesday 8:00 PM ESPN

Billy Gillispie has his team playing strong defensively, but Kentucky simply cannot hold onto the ball. The Wildcats turn the ball over at an unbelievable rate, and against Tennessee’s all-out press, they will total at least 20 turnovers. That leads to easy buckets for the Volunteer’s excellent transition offense. Kentucky could very well be an NCAA tournament team by March, but Tuesday’s match-up couldn’t be more disadvantageous.

Tennessee 83, Kentucky 70

Michigan State at Penn State
Wednesday 8:00 PM Big Ten Network

Penn State, an irrelevant basketball program for several years now, may be revitalized. A win over Purdue last week at home reenergized the fan base, but don’t be too fooled by that result—Purdue was playing without two of their top players, Chris Kramer and Robbie Hummel. Michigan State will be at full strength, and the Spartans have the toughness to win on the road in conference.

Michigan State 80, Penn State 70

Drake at Illinois State
Wednesday 7:05 PM

Just one week ago, Illinois State was one of the four undefeated teams in college basketball at 14-0. The Redbirds quieted critics of their soft schedule by dominating Evansville and Creighton, two Missouri Valley contenders. That hot streak fell apart this week. First, Bradley handed ISU a loss in Peoria, but the real eye-opener was a road loss to 4-12 Indiana State. With the Redbirds’ confidence drained, Drake is my pick in this one.

Drake 68, Illinois State 66

Wake Forest at Boston College
Wednesday 8:00 PM Raycom

At a rocking Joel Coliseum, Wake Forest handed North Carolina its second loss last night—and looked like the best team in the country in the process. Wake’s defense impressed me, with its big men inside blocking shots and the guards forcing the Heels into turnovers. Offensively, the Demon Deacons basically got any shot they wanted. Jeff Teague lit up the arena with 32 points, and Chas McFarland continued his improved play with 20 points of his own. Boston College is the other team that beat UNC, but since then, the Eagles have dropped two home games to Harvard and Miami. Wednesday’s game is a game Boston College sorely needs, but I’m not sure they’ll get it with the way Wake is playing.

Wake Forest 83, Boston College 71

Maryland at Miami
Wednesday 8:00 PM Raycom

Three early losses dropped Miami from the top 25, but the Hurricanes have done enough this season to reenter the polls. Maryland’s wins over Michigan State and Michigan could help them make the NCAA tournament, but the Terps have to take care of the ACC slate. They are currently 1-0, but did lose to Morgan State at home last week. Miami’s Dwayne Collins will be too much for Maryland to handle in the paint, and the Hurricanes depth up front will be the difference against the Terrapins’ weak inside game.

Miami 74, Maryland 63

Cleveland State at Wisconsin Green-Bay
Thursday 7:00 PM

Cleveland State is famous for that 60 foot game-winner against Syracuse, but this is also one of the better teams in the Horizon League. Wisconsin Green-Bay is coming off an emotional overtime victory over Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and though the Phoenix own the better league record at 4-1, Cleveland State has proven itself in some close non-conference losses. The Vikings competed with Kansas State and West Virginia, lost on a buzzer-beater to Butler and, of course, beat Syracuse. This is an experienced team with a senior leader in J’Nathan Bullock. I’m going to pencil in the Vikings for a road win in Green Bay.

Cleveland State 70, Wisconsin Green-Bay 60

Xavier at Rhode Island
Thursday 7:00 PM CBS College Sports

It seems like an eternity ago (it was actually November) that Rhode Island battled Duke to the wire in Durham, thanks to a heroic effort by Jimmy Baron. The sharpshooting Baron is still performing, but his team is losing a lot of close games against good competition. At home, this is a game Xavier should be really worrying about. Baron has the ability to go bananas from three-point land and the Rams are a decent enough rebounding team to keep the Musketeers off the glass. I have too much respect for Xavier’s program, so I will pick them to win… but just barely.

Xavier 75, Rhode Island 73

Middle Tennessee at Western Kentucky
Thursday 7:00 PM

These are the top two teams in the Sun Belt East Division, and probably the two best teams in the whole conference. Western Kentucky’s roster looks a whole lot different than last year’s Sweet 16 team, but new head coach Ken McDonald at least has his team competing within the conference. Middle Tennessee’s Desmond Yates is enjoying a monster junior season, shooting 61.5 percent from the field. I can’t find any leaders for field goal percentage, but Yates has to be near the top. He’s a match-up problem for Western Kentucky, though Hilltoppers’ forward Jeremy Evans did shut down Samardo Samuels earlier this season in the Louisville win. Western Kentucky has been inconsistent this year, but it has protected its home court well. In an even match-up like this, that will make the difference.

Western Kentucky 77, Middle Tennessee 70

Arizona State at USC
Thursday 9:30 PM

I keep believing USC will turn the corner. Sure, there were some questionable early-season losses, and the Trojans just lost to Oregon State last weekend. But Tim Floyd is a genius, Taj Gibson is a beast in the middle and USC will eventually get some positive momentum. Thursday night’s game against a ranked Arizona State team will be the game that changes USC’s season.

USC 70, Arizona State 66

Arizona at UCLA
Thursday 11:00 PM Fox Sports Net

UCLA doesn’t look invincible anymore, but Darren Collison is keeping this team under control. The Bruins are a bit limited offensively with not much of an inside game and a tendency to rely on jump shots, but Ben Howland will always have his team playing great defense. Arizona’s Chase Budinger shook his recent shooting problems in the Wildcats’ two wins over Oregon and Oregon State, but the shots won’t come so easily against UCLA.

UCLA 72, Arizona 63

Last week’s prediction record: 8-3
Overall prediction record: 70-46

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