Friday December 19th, 2008

The First Five
UConn Gonzaga
Saturday, 4 p.m.

We've been hearing a lot about how Gonzaga, perenially one of the best offensive teams in the country, has toughened up on D. Well now it's time to start hearing about how UConn, which routinely leads the nation in field-goal percentage defense and blocks, is putting up some major offensive numbers this season. The Huskies' 51.1 field-goal percentage is ranked seventh nationally, and they have five players averaging double figures. The sixth, 6-2 senior point guard A.J. Price, is still getting his mojo back after offseason surgery on a torn ACL. (Price is fully recovered physically, but he is not as aggressive as he was before the injury.) I chalk up Gonzaga's loss at a better-than-you-realize Arizona club last Sunday to a great team having an off night amidst a brutal schedule. Still, the Zags are playing this one less than 48 hours after facing Texas Southern at home on Thursday night. And if Arizona's Jordan Hill can beat up Gonzaga inside, imagine what Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien (not to mention the recently returned Stanley Robinson) will do.

UConn 82, Gonzaga 76
Duke xavier
Saturday, 4 p.m.
No. 7 Xavier (9-0) vs. No. 6 Duke (9-1)

When the Blue Devils lost at Michigan four days after their big win at Purdue, it seemed understandable. Well, Mike Krzyzewski is not as understanding as I am. He ripped into his players during a two-hour meeting, and he benched all five of his starters for Wednesday's win over UNC Asheville. It's only December, but Coach K is pushing buttons, and that, combined with the fact that it was Duke's first game in 11 days, should have this team ready to peak on Saturday. Xavier will be the toughest defensive team Duke has played all season, especially up front with C.J. Anderson, Derrick Brown and Jason Love. (They own a +8.2 rebound margin, best in the Atlantic 10.) The question is, can the Musketeers score enough points? Against most teams, the answer is yes. Against a focused, well-rested Duke team playing on another one of its de facto homecourts, the Meadowlands, the answer is no.

Duke 77, Xavier 70
Michigan State Texas
Saturday, 2 p.m.

Tom Izzo said earlier this week that he was hoping, but not expecting, that Goran Suton, the Spartans' senior center who missed six games because of a knee injury, might suit up for this game. So it came as a pleasant surprise to see Suton play 17 minutes in Michigan State's win over The Citadel on Wednesday night. Suton isn't exactly the second coming of George Mikan, but he is a big, skilled veteran whose presence allows Michigan State's other pieces to fall into place. More to the point, he has the size and savvy to keep Texas big men Dexter Pittman and Gary Johnson from dominating on the offensive glass. If Michigan State can do that, then the game would turn over to the guards. Texas will of course have the best perimeter player in A.J. Abrams (20.9 ppg on 47.4 percent from three-point range), but I have a feeling that Michigan State point guard Kalin Lucas, who scored 18 points off the bench last year in a win over Texas in Detroit, is due for a breakout game. I'd feel more confident about this pick if Suton had a few more games under his belt and it wasn't being played in Austin, but Michigan State is a proud program still smarting from its humiliation against North Carolina. Time to rebound, boys.

Michigan State 74, Texas 72
Davidson Purdue
Saturday, 4 p.m.

Purdue coach Matt Painter doesn't need to go Patsos on Stephen Curry and stick two defenders on him. He has years of tutelage under Gene Keady and an established track record at Southern Illinois and Purdue for being a great defensive coach. (Of course, by slowing Curry down, I mean holding him below 30 points.) After the loss to Duke two weeks ago, Painter juggled his lineup, inserting freshman point guard Lewis Jackson as a starter so he can bring Keaton Grant, a 6-4 junior, off the bench. The Boilermakers are susceptible against teams with a strong inside game, but Davidson, which only has one player in its rotation taller than 6-8, definitely does not fit that bill.

Purdue 76, Davidson 67
Arizona UNLV
Saturday, 3 p.m.
Arizona (7-2) at UNLV (9-2)

For all the drama that has unfolded around the coaching situation in Tucson over the last year, it's easy to forget the program still has some pretty good players. Both of the Wildcats' losses this season came by a point, but until their five-point triumph over Gonzaga on Sunday, they had yet to notch a signature win. They have a chance to prove that win was no fluke by taking on an experienced UNLV team on the road, followed by a date at home with a very beatable Kansas squad. Arizona does not have much depth -- Chase Budinger and Nic Wise played all 40 minutes against Gonzaga -- but this team is defending pretty well, ranking second in the Pac-10 in three-point defense (30.7 percent) and fourth in field-goal defense (41.1 percent). UNLV, meanwhile, is last in the Mountain West in both field-goal and three-point shooting. If the Rebels lost by 18 at home to California, then a newly confident Arizona squad should dispatch them as well.

Arizona 83, UNLV 71
The Second Five

The Tigers couldn't pull off the win over Georgetown, but they're starting to build an identity around defense and offense rebounds. If they ever get some of their veterans playing like veterans (paging, Mr. Dozier, Mr. Robert Dozier), then they could really be dangerous.

Memphis 74, Syracuse 69

This game is part of something called the Stadium Shootout and will be played in the University of Phoenix Stadium. Which raises a question: Do we really need another college basketball game being played in a big football stadium in front of a ton of empty seats? As for the game, Minnesota is undefeated, but it hasn't played anybody.

Louisville 75, Minnesota 64
Kansas (7-2) at Temple (5-3)

If what goes up must come down, then that which lands hard usually bounces back up. So if Temple just upset Tennessee, and Kansas just got embarrassed by UMass, and the two are meeting in Lawrence ... well, you get my drift.

Kansas 80, Temple 68
LSU (8-0) at Texas A&M (9-1)

I keep hearing that LSU is the big sleeper team in the SEC. This is a good time to start proving it.

LSU 74, Texas A&M 71
No. 25 Clemson (11-0) at Miami (7-2)

As usual, Clemson, which is an NCAA Tournament-worthy team, has built an early undefeated start around a suspect schedule. The ACC is interrupting that pattern by sending the Tigers to play a tough early road game against a dangerous Hurricanes squad.

Miami 78, Clemson 71

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