Friday February 26th, 2010

This Weekend's 10 Best Matchups
 
Saturday, February 27
 
Noon ET (CBS)No. 2 Kentucky (27-1) at No. 19 Tennessee (20-7)
Once again, there is no reason to believe Kentucky will lose this game -- unless the Wildcats do not play their best. I keep waiting for UK to show a little more youthfulness, but despite being wrong before, I'll take one more stab at picking an upset. Tennessee is not fighting for an at-large bid at this point, but the Vols badly need to regain some mojo after losing at Florida on Tuesday night. The talented but inconsistent Scotty Hopson had 20 points off the bench in that loss, but the Vols are going to need a lot more production inside from Wayne Chism, who was limited to seven points in 15 minutes because of foul trouble. The best news for Kentucky is that Patrick Patterson has established himself the last few weeks as a very sturdy third leg of their stool, but this team is long overdue for a letdown. Might as well get it out of the way now. Tennessee will edge past the 'Cats in double-overtime.
 
3 p.m. ETArizona State (20-8) at California (19-9)
You knew the Pac-10 would eventually present us with a compelling matchup, so here it is. Cal comes in with a one-game lead in the conference standings, so a win here would clinch at least a share of its first Pac-10 title since 1960. More importantly, it would bolster the Bears' increasingly strong case for an at-large bid should they lose in the conference tournament. These teams largely mirror each other. Neither excels on the defensive end, both rely heavily on three-point shooting, and neither has great inside play (Eric Boateng's 24 points in ASU's win over Stanford notwithstanding). Since Cal has experience going against the Sun Devils' zone, and since they'll be playing in the friendly confines of Haas Pavilion, the Bears should make enough outside shots to prevail.
 
4 p.m. ET (CBS)No. 1 Kansas (27-1) at Oklahoma State (19-8)
During a time of year when teams that are assured of one of the top seeds in the NCAA tournament should be stumbling in trap games, the Kansas Jayhawks are still getting better. Coach Bill Self made the decision to re-install sophomore forward Tyshawn Taylor into the starting lineup, and Taylor responded by scoring 17 points in a thrashing of Colorado and had 11 points in Monday night's win over Oklahoma. Freshman guard Xavier Henry is also playing his best ball of the season, averaging 18 points in his last five outings. So while this could be viewed as a potential upset against a good team fighting for an at-large bid, I see it as another step forward for the Jayhawks on their way to a national championship.
 
9 p.m. ET (ESPN)No. 7 Villanova (23-4) at No. 4 Syracuse (26-2)
Here's the perfect illustration of the downside of conference expansion. These have been the best two teams in the Big East all season, yet this is their only meeting. Neither team has played particularly well of late. Syracuse lost at home to Louisville and almost blew a 23-point lead at Georgetown, while Villanova dropped back-to-back games against UConn and Pittsburgh before blitzing South Florida on Wednesday night. Villanova is known for its high-scoring guards while Syracuse's zone defense has been hailed as the reason for its success, but it's the matchup at the other end of the floor that will decide things. The Orange are ranked first in the nation in field goal percentage (52.2), seventh in scoring (81.3 ppg) and 11th in overall offensive efficiency. On the other hand, Villanova is ranked 10th in the Big East in both three-point percentage defense (33.5) and blocks (4.0), and nationally they're ranked 50th in defensive efficiency. The Cats are second in the league in steals (8.1) and they can win this game if they shoot the lights out from the perimeter, but Syracuse's zone is designed to shut down outside shooters. I also don't believe Brandon Triche, Andy Rautins and Scoop Jardine will cough up the pumpkin enough to allow Villanova to make up for its defensive vulnerabilities.
 
4 p.m. ET (Versus)No. 10 New Mexico (26-3) at No. 13 BYU (26-3)
Who could have imagined back in October that these teams would have these records and these rankings? New Mexico is the bigger surprise after losing its top three scorers from last season, but despite not having anyone in their rotation taller than 6-foot-8, the Lobos have climbed the rankings through cohesion, efficiency and the transcendent talents of juco transfer Darington Hobson. Unfortunately, their 12-game winning streak is going to come to an end in Provo, where BYU is 78-5 over the last five years. As a team, BYU is ranked 18th in the nation in defensive efficiency, but the Cougars will have to do a better job defensively on New Mexico point guard Dairese Gary, who had 25 points (including 12-for-17 on free throws) in the Lobos' victory over BYU in Albuquerque on Jan. 27.
 
2 p.m. ET (ESPN)No. 21 Texas (22-6) at No. 22 Texas A&M (19-8)
Was Jan. 16 really just five weeks ago? That was the day the Longhorns rallied in Austin to beat Texas A&M in overtime to remain undefeated and retain their No. 1 ranking. Two days later, Texas lost at Kansas State and proceeded to drop five of their next eight. Now they have to beat the Aggies in College Station without Dogus Balbay, who was lost to a season-ending knee surgery last week. Even worse, Texas A&M is playing terrific, smart, efficient basketball, thanks largely to sharp-shooting guard Donald Sloan, who is averaging 18.8 points per game in Big 12 play.
 
4 p.m. ETFlorida (20-8) at Georgia (12-13)
Despite Georgia's modest record, Stegeman Coliseum has not been an easy place to win this season. Just ask Illinois, Georgia Tech, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. I think the Bulldogs have one more home upset left in them. It's natural to expect Florida to suffer a letdown after its big upset over Tennessee on Tuesday. The Gators have been playing better lately because they're getting more production out of their big men, Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin. But the Bulldogs, not the Gators, will have the best frontcourt player in Trey Thompkins, who is second in the SEC in scoring (17.6) and fourth in rebounds (8.2).
 
Sunday, February 28
 
1 p.m. ET (ESPN2)No. 23 Richmond (22-6) at Xavier (20-7)
For a team that has won eight straight and just cracked the Top 25 for the first time this season, the Spiders are not generating much buzz. That would change if they could beat Xavier at the Cintas Center, but I don't think that's going to happen. Yes, the Musketeers would prefer to get out and run, but with their guard tandem of Terrell Holloway and Jordan Crawford, they should be able to score enough in the half court. Richmond is hard to play against because it runs the Princeton offense, but the Spiders are also very vulnerable on the interior, where they are getting outrebounded by 4.6 per game -- last in the Atlantic 10. That should mean lots of opportunities for Xavier's two-headed center of Jason Love and Kenny Frease, who are grabbing a combined 13.2 boards per game.
 
4 p.m. ET (CBS)No. 14 Michigan State (21-7) at No. 3 Purdue (24-3)
This might be the hardest game all season to pick. Clearly, Robbie Hummel's ACL injury is a devastating blow to Purdue's Final Four hopes. But often a team can rally itself and gut out some games in the short term after an important player goes out. (Remember how Tennessee managed to knock off Kansas after four players got suspended?) Eventually, the emotion wears off, and the team gets worse as the effects of the loss become manifest. I believe Purdue is capable of rallying itself in such a big game with the home crowd giving its full support. Moreover, the way to beat Purdue without Hummel is to go hard at center JaJuan Johnson and get him into foul trouble, but the Spartans' strength is on the perimeter, not the interior. It's strange to characterize a Purdue win as an upset, but that's exactly what I'm calling it.
 
2 p.m. ET (CBS)Louisville (18-10) at UConn (17-11)
Perhaps I should have included this in my list of punch-your-ticket games in my Mailbag, because whoever wins this game is going to be in terrific position for an at-large bid regardless of what happens the rest of the way. With that much incentive, plus the desperate need to keep building momentum following their midseason dive, you have to like the Huskies at home. No doubt the biggest impetus behind UConn's three-game win streak is Jim Calhoun's return, a close second is the fact that sophomore point guard Kemba Walker is playing the best basketball of his career. He had a career-high 29 points in UConn's upset at Villanova on Feb. 15, and against West Virginia on Monday night he repeatedly drove to the basket, which enabled him to attempt 17 free throws (making 14) en route to a 21-point, four-assist night. The way to throw Walker off is to force him to run UConn's half-court offense, but Louisville's penchant for full-court pressure should play right into his hands.
 
Record Last Week: 8-2               Overall: 62-38
 

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