Friday February 19th, 2010

This Weekend's 10 Best Matchups
Friday, February 19
7 p.m. ET (ESPN2)Old Dominion (21-7) at Northern Iowa (23-3)
If you're looking to scout for Cinderellas to help you win your NCAA pool, this is a game you should TiVo. UNI has been ranked for most of the season, and Old Dominion has proven it can win on the road against good teams like Georgetown, Northeastern and VCU. Northern Iowa will not be at full strength, though, as the Panthers' 7-foot senior center, Jordan Eglseder, UNI's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, is suspended following a DUI arrest. That should leave the Panthers a little vulnerable. But Northern Iowa, which doesn't have any player that averages 13 points a game, will be very comfortable playing the Monarchs' grind-it-out style. Old Dominion is third in the nation in scoring defense (55.8 ppg), but the Monarchs only put up 66.7 themselves. That won't be enough to win on the road against a team that -- like Old Dominion -- needs this win to bolster its at-large case.
Saturday, February 20
6 p.m. ET (ESPN)No. 2 Kentucky (25-1) at No. 17 Vanderbilt (20-5)
If there is one chink in Kentucky's armor, it is the Wildcats' perimeter defense. UK is ranked seventh in the SEC in three-point D, which will be a problem against a Vanderbilt squad that leads the league in three-point shooting. But it's not just that challenge that leads me to pick Vanderbilt, nor is it the Commodores' home-court advantage. It's my simple belief that Kentucky is due for a loss. The Cats were fortunate to escape Starkville this week, but the Commodores are older, stronger and more poised than Mississippi State. The one thing that gives me pause about this prediction is the fact that Kentucky's game was Tuesday night, while Vandy had to dig out a win at Ole Miss on Thursday night. A little home cookin' ought to help the Commodores keep their legs strong enough to pull off the upset in overtime.
4 p.m. ET (ESPN)Illinois (17-9) at No. 4 Purdue (22-3)
When these two teams met in Champaign on Jan. 19, they played what will forever be known as the John Hart Game. Purdue's seldom-used guard entered the game late in the first half (without having been entered in the official scorebook) and scored 14 points to help the Boilermakers snap a three-game losing streak. Now Purdue comes in as one of the hottest teams in the nation, with an eight-game winning streak capped by Wednesday's win at Ohio State. I suppose Purdue is due for a letdown at some point, but I think this team likes the surge that it's on, and junior center JaJuan Johnson, who had 24 points and seven rebounds in the win over the Buckeyes, is playing the best ball of his career.
11 a.m. ET (ESPN2)Siena (22-5) at No. 18 Butler (24-4)
This is the best of the BracketBuster games, but only one of these teams truly has something to play for. While Butler has essentially locked up an at-large bid, the Saints are in worse shape. They don't have a single win against a team ranked in the top 50 of the RPI, and this contest represents their last chance to get one. Unfortunately they will be going up against a talented team that has really found its rhythm during its current 16-game winning streak, tied for the nation's longest. Gordon Hayward remains one of the most talented and versatile players on any team (though he has not shot the ball well from three-point range this season), and Matt Howard has finally rounded into form, as well.
2 p.m. ET (ESPN)No. 15 Texas (20-6) at Texas Tech (16-9)
Is it time to start entertaining the possibility that Texas might not make the NCAA tournament? It is highly doubtful considering their 20-6 record includes wins over Pittsburgh and Michigan State, but if the Longhorns fall too much further in the Big 12 standings they are going to put themselves in serious jeopardy. Seeing as they still have to play road games at Texas A&M and Baylor, they need to win this game to feel assured they will at least finish .500 in the conference. The Red Raiders lost some close games at home to Texas A&M and Missouri (in overtime), but at this point I think they know they're pretty much out of the running for an at-large bid. Texas Tech is ranked last in the Big 12 in scoring defense and three-pointers made, so they are having their problems at both ends of the floor.
Noon ET (CBS)Florida (18-8) at Mississippi (17-8)
This is gonna be one of those really fun, bubblicious late-February games. Both teams are on the outside looking in right now, but a win here might change that. Florida does not have any inside player the quality of Vanderbilt's A.J. Ogilvy, who torched the Rebels for 27 points on Thursday night, but Chandler Parsons has similar inside-outside ability. Plus, the Gators have done better of late by running their offense through Alex Tyus. I have been on Erving Walker all season to shoot more free throws and fewer three-pointers, so I'll tip my hat to him for going 14-for-16 from the foul line in the Gators' win over Auburn. It won't be easy for Florida to create a lot of steals off its press (the Rebels commit fewer turnovers than any team in the SEC), but when Florida shoots it well, it is tough to beat.
2 p.m. ETXavier (18-7) at Charlotte (18-7)
If you haven't been tuning in to the Atlantic 10 lately, you're missing out. The teams at the top of the standings are smart, entertaining, guard-oriented squads that can do damage in the NCAA tournament. Xavier proved as much by winning at Florida last weekend, thanks to a combined 32 points from its men in the middle, Jason Love and Kenny Frease. Charlotte has a pretty good big fella inside in Shamari Spears, a 6-6 transfer form Boston College who is sixth in the league in scoring (16.6 ppg), but the Musketeers are one of the few teams in the Atlantic 10 who have the big bodies inside to neutralize him. They also have the best guard tandem in the league in Jordan Crawford (first in scoring, eighth in field goal percentage) and Terrell Holloway (fourth in assists).
Sunday, February 21
Noon ET (CBS)No. 3 Villanova (22-3) at No. 19 Pittsburgh (19-6)
So, did UConn expose Villanova on Monday night? Well, sort of. It's hard to detect a pattern when a team has only lost three games, but it's worth noting that in all three losses, the Wildcats were beaten by a hot-shooting guard: Temple's Juan Fernandez (33 points), Georgetown's Austin Freeman (25) and UConn's Kemba Walker (29). Pittsburgh has a guard who can do the same in Ashton Gibbs, who tied his season-high with 24 points in the triple-OT win over West Virginia last Friday. That, combined with the home-court advantage, should be just enough to put the Panthers over the top in this one. I know Villanova doesn't want to lose two in a row, but that's not going to give them that much motivation. The tournament is still a few weeks away, and the Cats will have to slog their way through.
7:45 p.m. ET (FSN)Virginia Tech (21-4) at No. 6 Duke (22-4)
This game features the top two candidates for ACC player of the year. Virginia Tech's 6-3 junior guard Malcolm Delaney leads the league in scoring (20.2), is second in free throw shooting (84.3 percent) and sixth in assists (4.1). Duke's Jon Scheyer is second in scoring (19.1), fourth in assists (5.4), sixth in steals (1.62) and first in both three-point percentage (40.5) and free throw shooting (88.8 percent). Advantage, Scheyer, and advantage, Duke -- especially the way big men Brian Zoubek and Mason Plumlee have been playing the last few weeks.
Noon ET (CBS)No. 9 Ohio State (20-7) at No. 11 Michigan State (21-6)
The art of picking games is all about deciphering momentum swings. Since these teams are very evenly matched, you have to look at the bigger picture. Michigan State is coming off a downswing in which the Spartans lost three straight games before rebounding to win on the road at Penn State and Indiana. Ohio State was riding high during a six-game win streak, but that was snapped with Wednesday night's heart-wrenching loss at home to Purdue. Evan Turner may be cementing his status as the front-runner for national player of the year, but I have a hard time believing the Buckeyes will bring the requisite emotional energy to win in the Breslin Center against a Michigan State team in dire need of a statement win.
Record Last Week: 4-6               Overall: 54-36

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