Saturday February 23rd, 2008

The First Five
UAB almost ruined this party last weekend, but fortunately Memphis managed to preserve its undefeated record. This game is the Tigers' last opportunity to lose before the NCAA tournament -- and I say it will happen. It's not just their suspect foul shooting (12 for 22 against UAB, including 4 for 12 in the last nine minutes). It's not just the questionable status of forward Shawn Taggart, who missed Wednesday's win at Tulane with a broken nose and bruised right knee and will be a game-time decision. (My guess: He'll play.) And it's not just because for the first time all year, Memphis will be playing a team that has just as much athleticism and even more depth. Mostly, I like the Volunteers because I believe they'll have the psychological advantage: They're a road underdog with nothing to lose while the pressure will be on Memphis not to lose. And that certainly won't help the Tigers' late-game free throw shooting.
Tennessee 85, Memphis 82
No. 16 Drake (23-3) at No. 8 Butler (25-2)
If Drake wants to prove it's legit, all it has to do is beat Butler in storied Hinkle Fieldhouse. Easy, right? You probably know all about Butler's talented guard tandem of A.J. Graves and Mike Green, but did you know that Drake has plenty of perimeter pop of its own in Josh Young and Leonard Houston (second and sixth, respectively, in the Missouri Valley in scoring) and senior point guard Adam Emmenecker, the brainiac former walk-on who leads the league in assists (6.0)? Besides being a dynamic slasher, Young is ninth in the nation in three-point field percentage (.469), though he chucked up a foolish three-pointer against Bradley on Tuesday night right after the Bulldogs had gotten a fresh shot clock from an offensive rebound with 36 seconds to play. That mistake helped Bradley to a one-point win. Butler and Drake both have efficient offenses and rarely commit turnovers, but besides owning one of the great homecourt advantages in the country, Butler will have a distinct edge inside with 6-7 senior Pete Campbell and 6-8 freshman Matt Howard.
Butler 71, Drake 65
You have to like all the subtle ways in which Louisville is improving. The Cardinals are attacking the rim more often instead of relying on threes, and they are ratcheting up their halfcourt defense. Those adjustments have spurred their current stretch of winning nine of their last 10, including six straight. The question here is whether they can do those things on the road against a good, physical team that is in dire need of a quality win -- Pittsburgh comes in having lost its last two to fall to 7-6 in the Big East. Junior point guard Levance Fields, who missed eight weeks with a broken foot, is still two or three weeks away from getting his old form back. He looked pretty sharp in Thursday night's loss at Notre Dame (10 points, five assists in 25 minutes off the bench). Now that he has a couple of games under his belt, I think he'll give the Panthers just enough of a lift to win.
Pittsburgh 68, Louisville 66
You don't often hear Arizona's name being lumped into the daily discussion of bubble teams, but you're going to. In fact, by the end of next week, the Wildcats will start creeping onto those "first teams out" lists. They lost a critical game at Washington on Thursday night, their fourth defeat in the last five games, and have now dropped them to 6-7 in the Pac-10. After facing Washington State in Pullman, they return home to play USC and UCLA. When a team is reeling, you need your stars to elevate their games, but against the Huskies Chase Budinger was beset by foul trouble and scored just 10 points on 3 for 10 shooting. The Cougars, meanwhile, have returned to their stingy defensive ways, allowing them to break out of a slump and put together a four-game winning streak. The last thing Arizona needs is to play a grind-it-out half-court game on the road against a disciplined team. If the Wildcats lose here, get ready for a Code Red in Tucson.
Washington State 69, Arizona 61
Don't look now, but the collar is getting tight in Columbus. After looking like an NCAA tournament team for most of the season, the Buckeyes have now lost three of their last five, including bad defeats at Iowa and Michigan. Their problem lately has been shot selection. They attempted just six free throws in the loss at Iowa and three in the loss to the Wolverines, yet they hoisted a total of 42 three-pointers (making nine) in those games. Unfortunately, Wisconsin is not the right opponent if you're looking to cure a toughness problem. Not only are the Badgers first in the Big Ten in scoring defense (55.4 ppg) and second in both field goal percentage defense (38.8 percent) and three-point D (32.0 percent), but they also only commit 12.7 turnovers per game. That means fewer transition opportunities for Ohio State. Normally I go with desperate home teams, but Wisconsin has a way of taking a punch and then delivering a knockout blow.
Wisconsin 69, Ohio State 64
The Second Five
Davidson (20-6) at Winthrop (18-9)
Catch Davidson guard Stephen Curry on the tube if you can. He is truly a gem. And his team's slim hopes of an at-large bid (if it needs one) would be extinguished with a loss here.
Davidson 77, Winthrop 71
No. 24 Kansas State (18-7) at Baylor (17-8)
The Bears' devastating loss to Oklahoma was their sixth defeat in seven games, putting them officially on life support. They need to press their perimeter advantage over the Wildcats.
Baylor 74, Kansas State 70
BYU (21-5) at San Diego State (17-9)
The Cougars may have won nine straight, but they beat the Aztecs by just three points at home and are a far less potent team on the road.
San Diego State 76, BYU 69
Arkansas (18-7) at Kentucky (14-10)
The Wildcats were so abysmal in that 41-point loss at Vanderbilt, it's easy to forget they've actually won seven of their last eight games.
Kentucky 77, Arkansas 74
Syracuse (17-10) at No. 21 Notre Dame (20-5)
Few teams in America have better chemistry and role definition than the Irish. What's more, this is the best defensive team Mike Brey has had in South Bend.
Notre Dame 79, Syracuse 64
LAST WEEK: 8-2 | SEASON RECORD: 70-30

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