Friday February 1st, 2008

The First Five
Too bad for UCLA this one is in Pauley Pavilion. The better scenario would be to hit the road and face a crowd that hates Kevin Love. After Love responded to the fan abuse at Oregon last week by going for 26 points and 18 rebounds in a five-point win, Oregon athletic director Pat Kilkenny should have apologized to Ernie Kent, not Ben Howland. Arizona, meanwhile, has had less success on the road (though the Wildcats did pick up an important win at USC on Thursday night), but the Wildcats don't suffer from a lack of talent. Their problem is a lack of depth. When they scored their biggest win of the season at home against Washington State last week, the Wildcats had four players on the floor for 37-plus minutes, and a fifth, Nic Wise, played 30 minutes. Five guys played 33-plus against USC. I think Arizona can hang with UCLA for a while (especially if Jerryd Bayless is hitting shots, which he usually does), but I don't think the Cats have enough bodies to pull it out down the stretch.
UCLA 76, Arizona 69
All season, we?ve been wondering just how good Tennessee would be when (or if) Chris Lofton regained his long-range touch. Now we know: Loften has scored 22, 27 and 23 points in the Vols' last three games and made 17 of 32 from three-point range. Yet, if Lofton and JaJuan Smith didn't scorch the nets at Alabama on Tuesday, it's likely Tennessee would have lost. That's how hard it is to win on the road in conference play. Mississippi State, meanwhile, needs a win here in the worst way. The Bulldogs are the best defensive team in the SEC (ranked first in scoring defense, field goal defense and blocks), but after getting blown out at Arkansas on Wednesday night they are fighting for the NCAA tournament lives. This is a golden opportunity to beat a highly-ranked team. Throw in the homecourt advantage, and you've got the perfect formula for an upset.
Mississippi State 79, Tennessee 76
No. 18 Pittsburgh (17-4) at UConn (15-5)
Don't look for the guys at Pitt to feel much sympathy for UConn. The Huskies are hoping to get sophomore guard Doug Wiggins back for this game following his citation for underage possession of alcohol, but Jerome Dyson will be suspended for another four weeks because he failed a drug test. Pitt, however, has lost senior forward Mike Cook for the year and it is still another week or two away from getting point guard Levance Fields back from his broken foot. The Panthers also lost two other players to season-ending injuries before the first game. So the question becomes, which team is better equipped to win a physical conference game with a thin bench? Well, Pitt out-rebounded Villanova by eight in its win on Wednesday night, but I doubt that will happen against UConn. My sense is the Huskies have turned the corner in terms of understanding how tough they need to be and how smart they need to play. That, plus the two days of additional rest and preparation they had this week after beating Louisville on Monday, should be the difference.
Connecticut 74, Pittsburgh 71
No. 25 Baylor (16-3) at No. 10 Texas (16-4)
By one metric, Baylor should be favored here. The Bears won at Texas A&M last week (though it did take them five overtimes), while the Longhorns got waxed in College Station by 17 on Wednesday night. But since picking games is all about anticipating the swing of the pendulum, I suspect Texas will come home on the heels of that loss and play well. What?s more, unlike Texas A&M, Baylor does not have the big men to take advantage of the Longhorns' deficiencies in the paint. The Bears' two centers, Mamdou Diene and Josh Lomers, have a total of two double-digit scoring games between them. If Texas isn?t getting high-percentage shooting from D.J. Augustin and A.J. Abrams, it can lose to just about anyone, but those guys don't have too many off nights in the Erwin Center.
Texas 84, Baylor 75
It was one thing for Washington State to drop games at Arizona and UCLA, but when the Cougars lose to Cal in Pullman, you know something is up. As the Jigsaw Man so sagely pointed out this week, Washington State is sublimely efficient in its halfcourt offense but the Cougars do not generate enough easy baskets in transition. That leaves them vulnerable when Derrick Low and Daven Harmeling shoot a combined 3 for 16, as they did in the loss to Cal. Then again, that's probably bad news for Stanford, winners of four in a row, since Washington State will come into this game with an added sense of urgency. Brook Lopez is having a fabulous season, but I have to be a little bit suspicious when he can score 31 points, as he did in the win over Washington on Thursday, while nobody else on the team reaches double figures. Wazzu's starting center, Aron Baynes, is not as good as Lopez, but he is big and mobile enough to at least keep Lopez in check. That will turn the game over to the guards, where Washington State has the clear advantage.
Washington State 68, Stanford 65
The Second Five
Arizona State (14-6) at USC (13-7)
Neither team is exactly setting the world on fire these days, but Arizona State, which is riding a four-game losing streak, will continue to be exposed as not quite ready for prime time.
USC 74, Arizona State 69
No. 17 Marquette (15-4) at Cincinnati (10-11)
The Bearcats have been tough to beat at home, but they don't have the personnel man to take advantage of Marquette's lack of size. That means the game will be decided on guard play, and the Eagles have better guards.
Marquette 67, Cincinnati 63
No. 20 Florida (18-3) at Arkansas (15-5)
The athletic Razorbacks, with their high-scoring backcourt of Sonny Weems and Patrick Beverley, are well-suited to handle the young Gators' pressure.
Arkansas 79, Florida 70
Oklahoma (15-5) at No. 23 Texas A&M (17-4)
Coming off the big win over Texas, the Aggies could be susceptible to an upset. But it's hard to imagine a team that endured a three-game losing streak in mid-January getting complacent.
Texas A&M 74, Oklahoma 68
Nevada (13-7) at Utah State (15-6)
Two of the best players out west will be on display ?- Nevada's Marcelus Kemp and Utah State's Jaycee Carroll ?- but Utah State is also getting stellar play from Carroll's backcourtmate, senior point guard Kris Clark, who is leading the WAC in assists at 6.4 per game.
Utah State 84, Nevada 78
LAST WEEK: 6-4 | SEASON RECORD: 48-22

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