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February 9, 2009

SCS.comI wrote last Friday that this past weekend of college hoops was going to be uneventful. For the most part, I was right. The ESPN primetime game between Gonzaga and Memphis was a bust, and in the only other match-up of ranked teams, Villanova slapped Syracuse silly. I urged patience, however, because I knew what was coming. Four the next four days, clear your night schedule. That’s all I need to say before we head into the “Weekly Preview.”


North Carolina at Duke
Wednesday 8:00 PM ESPN

About two months ago, CBS Sports’ website had a countdown to this game. As a Midwestern traditionalist raised to hate the East Coast bias of sports, that ticked me off. Now that it’s finally arrived, though, I’ve backed off my stance a little bit. This game is huge, and there’s no way around that. Even if this weren’t a heated rivalry, it’d still be the Game of the Week. North Carolina and Duke are tied atop the ACC standings at 7-2, so the winner takes control of the conference. With the whole rivalry thing and top 10 rankings, this game takes on an even greater meaning.

Duke rebounded nicely in a comeback win against Miami this Saturday, but this Blue Devils team is easily shaken. Clemson jumped on them and never let up, and the Hurricanes took it to them for 20 straight minutes by playing physical basketball. To its credit, Duke bounced back, fueled by Gerald Henderson’s 18 point second half. David McClure also gave Coach K a spectacular effort on the front line, helping the Blue Devils enjoy a rare rebounding advantage. McClure’s 13 rebound performance seemed to come out of nowhere, but he’s done it before. Against Wake Forest, he grabbed 12 boards and helped keep Duke in the game against a powerful Demon Deacons’ front court. Even if McClure can hang with Tyler Hansbrough, Deon Thompson and Ed Davis, Duke has to find a way to generate more offense besides three-pointers. When the threes aren’t falling, the Blue Devils seem to have no other options.

North Carolina isn’t as physical of a team as Clemson or Miami. The Tar Heels aren’t soft by any means, but defensively they are not going to bring the same kind of toughness. Duke will still be overmatched in the rebounding department, and I could see Wayne Ellington go off like Jack McClinton, who scored 34 points for Miami. Duke just better pray its threes fall and hope its home crowd gives it a lift.

Prediction: North Carolina 79, Duke 77

Kansas at Missouri
Monday 8:00 PM ESPN

Forget about Wednesday night. Tonight’s the real rivalry! You may know this if you’ve read this column before, but I’m a full-fledged Missouri enthusiast. They say in journalism that you’re supposed to be impartial, but that’s just not possible for me. So I figure I’ll let you know up front that I’ve got a rooting interest in this game, and that it may subconsciously affect my prediction and comments. Still, I’ll try my best to stay unbiased.

The Border War will be heated tonight. Missouri hasn’t beaten Kansas since 2005, and incidentally that win was Quin Snyder’s last as head coach. Mike Anderson also hasn’t beaten the Jayhawks—in fact, he’s 0-5 vs. Bill Self during his career—but he’s never had a Tigers team this good. Mizzou has won three straight, including a win at Texas last Wednesday. At 7-2 and third place in the Big 12, a win over Kansas could vault the Tigers into the conference title picture. The Jayhawks are currently undefeated at 8-0, as Self has done a masterful job after losing the entire starting five from that National Championship team.

Missouri’s chances tonight largely depend on its defense. Everyone knows that Mike Anderson wants to use his patented press, but the Jayhawks have the type of guards that can shred a full court defense. But the Tigers are a more athletic team this year and have played improved defense. At Mizzou Arena, Missouri’s defensive energy goes to another level. If Kansas does figure out how to break the press, Anderson may need to scale back his full-court pressure. He’s done that in the past two years against Kansas and often plays a more conservative defense on the road or against top-notch opponents.

Kansas’ Cole Aldrich will be the strongest player on the court, so he will be a tough match-up for Missouri. DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons always present problems for opponents, however, with their speed and quickness. Despite having their own respective advantages, in the end these are two teams of similar caliber. I give the edge to Missouri because of its undefeated home record and depth. But that prediction came from the head, not the heart. I swear.

Prediction: Missouri 83, Kansas 77

Games you might see in the NCAA tournament

Marquette at Villanova
Tuesday 6:30 PM ESPN2

A fairly easy Big East schedule helped Marquette race out to a 9-0 start, but a surprising loss at South Florida means that record is no longer unblemished. With a brutal final stretch, that’s a game that could cost the Golden Eagles a shot at the Big East title. Perhaps they can make up for that loss on Tuesday. Villanova is playing as well as anyone in the conference right now, but Marquette beat these guys on New Year’s Eve. In that first meeting, the Golden Eagles’ forced the Wildcats to shoot from the perimeter, a strategy that paid off, considering Villanova shot 30 percent from three. Marquette’s guards are so good on defense, which is a main reason for its success so far, and they do such a great job scoring in the lane off the dribble. Just like the last game, I’m expecting a defensive battle. Dante Cunningham will be the difference for the Wildcats. He was unstoppable against Syracuse on Saturday and as long as he stays out of foul trouble, the Buzz Williams’ small team won’t have an answer.

Prediction: Villanova 66, Marquette 62

Syracuse at Connecticut
Wednesday 6:00 PM ESPN

It might be time for Syracuse to be a bit worried. The Orange are now 2-5 in their past seven and can’t seem to stop anyone on defense. Connecticut, on the other hand, stops just about everyone. The only way you beat UConn is by launching threes, so Paul Harris and Arinze Onuaku will be almost useless against Hasheem Thabeet. Yes, he’s that good. Syracuse has something going for it though—the zone. Connecticut always wants to attack the basket with its guards and draw fouls, and the Huskies don’t love to shoot the three. Jim Boeheim has played a lot of man-to-man this year, but his zone defense is his trademark. The Orange might be able to pull an upset if they stop penetration from Jerome Dyson and A.J. Price and make them shoot from the perimeter.

Prediction: Connecticut 83, Syracuse 69

Xavier at Dayton
Wednesday 6:00 PM ESPN2

This game was supposed to be between the two teams tied for first in the Atlantic Ten. Dayton ruined that with a loss at Charlotte yesterday. The defeat also destroyed the Flyers’ hopes of a top 25 ranking, which they surely would have received with a win. That doesn’t mean Wednesday’s game isn’t important. I don’t know if this game has a name, but it doesn’t need one. People in the state of Ohio know all about the Xavier/Dayton rivalry. The Musketeers may be coming off a road loss at Duquesne, but if anything that serves as motivation. I admittedly have not been able to see Dayton play this year. I have seen Xavier several times—and Sean Miller has yet another group of gems. The Flyers have lost eight of the past nine games in this series, and they’ve been losing a lot of close games in A-10 play. That’s partly a sign of toughness, but also a sign that they might be in for a stumble. Xavier has to toughen up defensively though and use its size and depth in the post.

Prediction: Xavier 73, Dayton 70

UCLA at Arizona State
Thursday 8:00 PM FSN

There’s nothing like a weekend trip to Oregon for Pac-10 teams this year. Arizona State was swept by the Washington schools and got revenge on Oregon and Oregon State. The competition gets a whole lot tougher now against a UCLA team that is playing its best basketball of the season. In its past four games, the Bruins have dismantled California and USC and sent Notre Dame home crying on national television this weekend. Don’t forget that Arizona State did win in Pauley Pavilion three weeks ago, so UCLA may cool down on Thursday. The Sun Devils’ match-up zone held the Bruins scoreless for several minutes at the end of regulation, and that kind of dry streak will equal an Arizona State victory in Tempe. I think UCLA is a different and more mature team now. That kind of debacle won’t happen again.

Prediction: UCLA 67, Arizona State 63

Features teams that need to bolster their resumes

West Virginia at Pittsburgh
Monday 6:00 PM ESPN

Who doesn’t love the Backyard Brawl? Pittsburgh will love it tonight and keep its 15-0 home record intact.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 73, West Virginia 62

Michigan State at Michigan
Tuesday 6:00 PM ESPN

Michigan picked up a sorely needed win over Penn State before losing to Connecticut, but the Wolverines still have some work to do to get into the NCAA tournament. The UCLA and Duke wins sure look nice right now.

Prediction: Michigan State 77, Michigan 66

Florida at Kentucky
Tuesday 8:00 PM ESPN

Surprised this game is in the Bubble Bursters category? Florida is looking good for a bid but Kentucky’s recent three game losing streak better not turn into four.

Prediction: Kentucky 80, Florida 70

Clemson at Boston College
Tuesday 8:00 PM

Boston College is somehow one game back of North Carolina and Duke. I don’t get it either, especially because this team has lost to Saint Louis and Harvard this year.

Prediction: Clemson 82, Boston College 72

Penn State at Purdue
Wednesday 5:30 PM Big Ten Network

Penn State is hanging around, ready to steal an NCAA bid. A season sweep of Purdue might help with the theft.

Prediction: Purdue 70, Penn State 58

LSU at Mississippi State
Wednesday 7:00 PM

Trent Johnson has this team playing very well though, and wins vs. South Carolina and at Tennessee show that the Tigers are for real. Don’t count out Mississippi State for an at-large bid it if it finds a way to win 12 or 13 SEC games. The computer numbers are killing the Bulldogs right now though.

Prediction: LSU 76, Mississippi State 69

USC at Arizona
Thursday 9:30 PM FSN

I am not sure how they did it, but the Arizona Wildcats have won five in a row. Maybe more people need to step on Chase Budinger’s face.

Prediction: Arizona 66, USC 65

Gonzaga at St. Mary’s
Tuesday 10:00 PM ESPN2

Without Patty Mills, St. Mary’s isn’t even close to the same team. And this game isn’t nearly as interesting without him playing either.

Prediction: Gonzaga 74, St. Mary’s 66

Please, no hate mail about the term “mid-majors,” just be happy I’m writing about your team

Boston University at Vermont
Wednesday 6:30 PM

With eight straight wins, Boston U has actually taken the lead in the America East conference. We’ll see how long that lasts after a trip to Ben and Jerry’s country.

Prediction: Vermont 76, Boston U 70

Tulsa at Memphis
Wednesday 7:00 PM CBS College Sports

Sorry for putting this under mid-majors. Hopefully the disclaimer under the title was enough, but I’m guessing it wasn’t for Memphis fans. The Tigers should roll here but Tulsa will put up a fight.

Prediction: Memphis 68, Tulsa 62

Nicholls State at Sam Houston State
Wednesday 7:00 PM

The Southland Conference has been intriguing this year to say the least. With four clear teams at the top in Nicholls State, Sam Houston State, Stephen F. Austin and Texas A&M CC, every week a critical match-up appears.

Prediction: Sam Houston State 73, Nicholls State 70

San Diego State at Utah
Wednesday 9:00 PM The Mountain

Here’s another important battle for sole possession of a conference. This game’s a little less glorified, but if I got The Mountain channel I’d surely try to catch some of it. San Diego State and Utah are also fighting for at-large bids.

Prediction: Utah 78, San Diego State 72

Someone who really needs a win

Oklahoma State at Texas
Tuesday 7:00 PM Big 12 Network

Something has happened to Texas’ mojo. Two home losses to Kansas State and Missouri and a road loss to Nebraska means the Longhorns are at .500 in the Big 12 and in desperate need of some confidence. They aren’t in danger of falling out of the NCAA tournament picture yet, but a fourth straight loss would put them closer to that territory.

Prediction: Texas 85, Oklahoma State 74

Last week’s prediction record: 10-9
Overall prediction record: 174-103

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