Saturday January 26th, 2008

The First Five
These two teams have played some memorable games, but they have always taken place in December. This year, John Calipari wanted to move the game later in the season because he knew his Tigers wouldn't face this caliber of opponent in Conference USA. Regardless of the in-conference competition, Memphis is getting better; on Wednesday, the Tigers got 14 points off the bench from 6-foot-10 sophomore Shawn Taggart in a 15-point win at Tulsa. People like to point to Memphis' poor free-throw percentage (.585 as a team) as a potential weakness, but that's misleading since it is brought down by Joey Dorsey's 35.8-percent clip. Gonzaga is also getting better -- freshman guard Steven Gray and junior center Josh Heytvelt are finally healthy and productive -- but aside from Jeremy Pargo, the Zags don't have anyone who can break down defenders off the dribble. That will spell doom against a team with so many athletic wings who love to pressure the ball.
Memphis 84, Gonzaga 71
Arizona State primarily plays a zone defense and runs a Princeton-style offense, but both teams prefer to limit possessions and maximize efficiency. The difference here will be toughness and experience. Washington State's offense is anchored around junior center Aron Baynes, who is 6-foot-10, 270 pounds of brute force. The Sun Devils counter with a four-guard lineup and a forward, junior Jeff Pendergraph, who does his best work facing the basket. And unlike Wazzu, which starts three seniors and two juniors, Arizona State is a young team that is still cutting its teeth in the Pac-10. ASU can win if it's able to generate some easy baskets, but that will be hard to do against a team that commits just 10.7 turnovers per game, fewest in the league.
Washington St. 67, Arizona St. 62
For all you Internet geeks who are obsessed with recruiting rankings, turn your lonely eyes to Chris Warren and Jarvis Varnardo. Warren is the 5-10 freshman guard who is leading Ole Miss in scoring (15.9 ppg) while ranking second in the SEC in assists at 5.3 a game. Vanardo is Mississippi State's 6-9 sophomore forward who is leading the nation in blocks (5.17) and is second in the SEC in rebounding (8.7). Not only were both players not ranked by any recruiting service, but they were also not recruited by any other high-major schools. They both also have solid tag-team partners in Ole Miss senior center Dwayne Curtis and MSU junior guard Jamont Gordon. I'm going with Mississippi State in this one because it is playing at home and it's the better defensive team. If Ole Miss can allow a mediocre Auburn squad to shoot 47.4 percent at home (52.6 percent from three), then the Bulldogs should be able to put enough points on the board to prevail.
Mississippi State 74, Ole Miss 69
No. 14 Vanderbilt (17-2) at Florida (17-3)
Even though the Gators are playing at home, I see this as a must-win for Vanderbilt. The Commodores have only played four true road games this season, and they lost the last two to Kentucky and Tennessee. After Florida, they face another very loseable game at Ole Miss on Tuesday. The Gators are making steady improvements (Marrese Speights went for 20 and 22 points, respectively, in wins over Kentucky and South Carolina), but they are still playing with the youthful inconsistency that proves costly against good teams. The Commodores are pretty soft defensively and they turn the ball over too much on offense, but at least they're experienced in all the right places. And like I said, they need this one very, very badly, and I don't envision Florida playing with quite the same sense of urgency.
Vanderbilt 78, Florida 74
No. 23 Xavier (16-4) at UMass (13-5)
If games were only played at one end of the court, the Minutemen would be the best team in the Atlantic 10. They're second in the league in scoring offense (84.9 ppg) and last in defense (78.5). They're first in threes made per game (9.4) but last in field goal defense (43.9 percent). Xavier, on the other hand, is more balanced and is much better than the Minutemen at the foul line as well. (The Musketeers make 76.1 percent to UMass' 65.6 percent). Xavier doesn't have a post player quite like Ahmad Nivins of Saint Joseph's, who scored 51 points in the Hawks' sweep of UMass, but it can score from a variety of positions and will also have the best guard on the floor in senior point guard Drew Lavender. Normally it takes a lot for me to go against the home team in an important conference game, but coming off their trouncing of Dayton on Thursday night, I think the Musketeers are ready to start separating themselves from the rest of the Atlantic 10.
Xavier 84, UMass 79
The Second Five
UConn (13-5) at No. 7 Indiana (17-1)
If this one was in Gampel Pavilion, I might be inclined to pick the improving Huskies in an upset. However, the Hoosiers have won 29 straight at Assembly Hall, and since they're the better team you have to like their chances to make it 30.
Indiana 79, UConn 70
No. 9 Georgetown (15-2) at West Virginia (15-4)
Joe Alexander is back in the lineup, the Hoyas are running in sand, the Mountaineers are fighting for their NCAA tourney lives and the game is in Morgantown. All the makings for an upset.
West Virginia 74, Georgetown 71
No. 11 Wisconsin (16-2) at Purdue (14-5)
The Badgers have won 10 straight to climb to No. 11. In other words, this is the perfect time for a reality check.
Purdue 67, Wisconsin 62
Notre Dame (13-4) at No. 18 Villanova (13-4)
The Irish are a completely different team on the road, while 'Nova should be in a nasty mood after allowing Rutgers to claim their first Big East win Wednesday night.
Villanova 82, Notre Dame 73
No. 4 Duke (16-1) at Maryland (14-2)
Maryland might have an advantage in the paint, but the Terps' guards are young and tend to be careless. That spells trouble against a team that plays arguably the best perimeter defense in the country.
Duke 78, Maryland 70
LAST WEEK: 5-5 | SEASON RECORD: 42-18

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