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Predictions for Michigan St.-Minnesota, Syracuse-Notre Dame and more

Weekend Picks
 
Friday, December 31
 
Noon ET (ESPN2)Northwestern (9-1) at No. 12 Purdue (12-1)
Yes, it came against a team that will probably not make the NCAA tournament, but it takes something to win a conference road game by 23 points. That's what Purdue did at Michigan Tuesday afternoon behind senior center JaJuan Johnson, who had 22 points and eight rebounds in the victory and has been playing like an All-American. That means Northwestern forward John Shurna will only be the second-best player on the floor in this game, which is a problem considering how porous the Wildcats have been on D.
 
Noon ET (CBS)No. 11 Kentucky (10-2) at Louisville (11-1)
Rick Pitino knew he had a young team, so he set up a relatively easy nonconference schedule. The Cardinals' two toughest games were both at home (they beat Butler and UNLV), but they also suffered a careless loss at home to Drexel. John Calipari also knew he had a young team, but he challenged his guys like they were veterans. The Wildcats have lost a couple along the way (to Connecticut in Maui and by a field goal at North Carolina), but they have emerged a better, tougher team. Lots of attention has been lavished on Kentucky freshmen Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb, but my favorite UK player is junior forward DeAndre Liggins, who has really matured into a tough, smart glue guy.
 
4 p.m. ET (Big Ten Network)No. 14 Minnesota (11-2) at No. 20 Michigan State (8-4)
If you're a team lacking a blue-collar attitude, the last thing you want is to see Tubby Smith's Gophers come to your gym. Thanks to their big, strong front line (Ralph Sampson III, Trevor Mbakwe, Colton Iverson), the Gophers are ranked first in the Big Ten in both blocks (5.5 per game) and offensive rebound percentage (39.8). Unfortunately, their prowess is not matched on the offensive end, which really hurt them in their loss at Wisconsin Tuesday night, when Minnesota shot 39 percent from the floor and made just 3-of-12 from three-point range. The Spartans, meanwhile, will have had eight days to stew on that embarrassing drubbing at home by Texas. They have plenty of problems (turnovers!), but they are in dire need of a good win. And you all know how much I love desperate home teams.
 
2 p.m. ET (ESPN2)Charleston (8-4) at Tennessee (9-3)
You've got to hand it to Bruce Pearl. Even when he's scheduling mid-major opponents, he stays away from patsies. Since beating Villanova and Pitt to get to the top five of the rankings, the Vols have lost to Oakland at home, Charlotte on the road and only beat Belmont by one point in Knoxville. (They also lost at home by one point to USC.) Now here come Bobby Cremins' Cougars, whose four losses have all been by single digits to power-conference teams. Charleston guard Andrew Goudelock is ranked sixth in the country in scoring at 23.5 points per game, but Tennessee has proven itself to be a very good perimeter defensive team when it's committed. (Which hasn't been often enough.) On the flip side, the Vols really need to rediscover their long-range touch. Since making 7-of-11 from behind the arc against Pitt, Tennessee has made 22 out of 80 (27.5 percent) in its last five games.
 
4 p.m. ET (Fox Sports Net)Washington (9-3) at UCLA (9-4)
It's a shame this game is being played in early January instead of late February. In another six weeks or so, I believe the Bruins will be the kind of team that could knock off the conference favorite at home. If nothing else, freshman center Josh Smith might learn how to stay out of foul trouble by then. The Bruins looked good knocking off Washington State in Pauley Pavilion Wednesday, but they are facing a wilier and more balanced team in Washington. Moreover, the Huskies, who are third in the nation in scoring (89.1) and eighth in three-point percentage (41.9 percent), know how to win on the road, as evidenced by the way they dominated the boards in Wednesday's overtime win at USC.
 
4 p.m. ET (ESPN2)Florida (9-3) at Xavier (8-3)
This game presents the Gators with a rare opportunity to play a team that is even more anemic from three-point range than they are. Florida is ranked 261st nationally at 31.5 percent, but Xavier is 334th (out of 344 teams) at 27.2 percent. Florida sophomore guard Kenny Boynton, who was a much-acclaimed prospect in high school, is one of the main culprits, shooting just 26.3 percent from downtown. In a stunning loss to Jacksonville last week, Boynton shot 1-for-6 from three (5-for-13 overall). If I had faith that the Gators would compensate for this shortcoming by attacking the rim and crashing the offensive glass, I would pick them to win. But I don't, so I won't.
 
6 p.m. ET (Fox Sports Net)Washington State (10-3) at USC (8-6)
Washington State has the same issues with respect to Klay Thompson that UConn has with respect to Kemba Walker: not enough help from their friends. Thompson is ranked 10th in the U.S. in scoring (22.6) and he is second in the Pac-10 in both assists (4.2) and steals (2.08), but junior guard Faisal Aden is the only other player averaging double figures. USC, meanwhile, specializes in slowing the tempo, taking care of the ball and muddying up a game. That's how the Trojans almost beat Kansas and did beat Tennessee, both on the road.
 
10 p.m. ET (ESPN2)Oklahoma State (11-1) at Gonzaga (8-5)
Here's another game between two teams that have played drastically different schedules. While Gonzaga has slogged through a murderer's row that included five ranked teams, Oklahoma State's toughest game was on a neutral court against Virginia Tech -- which it lost. If this game were taking place in Stillwater, I might view it as a trap game and go with the Cowboys, but with the Zags playing at home, they should prevail. It's also a good sign for Gonzaga that sophomore forward Elias Harris has been more productive of late, averaging 14.6 points and 7.8 rebounds over his last five games.
 
Saturday, January 1
 
3:30 p.m. ET (ESPNU)No. 15 Notre Dame (12-1) at No. 5 Syracuse (14-0)
The Fighting Irish thumped Georgetown Wednesday night by 14 points doing what they do best: winning the free-throw battle. As I noted in Hoop Thoughts column last week, no team in America utilizes the stripe better than the Irish. They outscored Georgetown 22-5 from the line. It's a lot harder, however, to drive against a zone, and nobody plays better zone defense than Syracuse. That D is also designed to lock down three-point shooting (the 'Cuse is ranked 23rd nationally in three-point defense), which is Notre Dame's other main weapon. Those factors, combined with Syracuse's home-court advantage and superior athleticism, make this a pretty easy pick.
 
11 a.m. ET (ESPN2)West Virginia (8-3) at Marquette (9-4)
We see Bob Huggins on the sideline, we remember that just nine months ago West Virginia was in the Final Four, and we assume that this is a good team. But we're wrong. The Mountaineers did beat Vanderbilt by three points on a neutral court six weeks ago, but every other time they have had a chance to prove themselves, they've come up short, including their 10-point loss to St. John's in Morgantown on Wednesday night. What's most remarkable is that West Virginia is playing such poor defense, especially when it comes to shutting down dribble penetration. St. John's only attempted six three-pointers, but the Red Storm shot 61 percent from the floor and attempted a whopping 39 free throws. This is par for the course for West Virginia, which is ranked 261st nationally in defensive free-throw rate and 326th nationally in steals. Marquette, which almost won at Vanderbilt Wednesday before falling by one, has a similar profile to St. John's -- can't make threes but shoots a high percentage on twos and takes a ton of free throws. Plus, the Eagles are playing at home. No brainer.
 
Record Last Week: 7-3               Overall: 19-11
 
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