Friday January 11th, 2008

The First Five
This would be a classic trap game for most teams -- but Kansas is not most teams. After all, the Jawhawks have six players in their rotation who lost to Bradley in the first round of the NCAA tournament two years ago. These guys know not to take anyone lightly, especially on the road against a team that is 11-2 and has won six straight. Nebraska senior center Aleks Maric is this week's best player you never heard of. He is seventh in the Big 12 in scoring (16.2 ppg), fourth in rebounding (8.4 rpg), second in blocks (2.0 bpg) and first in field goal percentage (.612). The Huskers also have an exciting freshman in 5-foot-7 point guard Cookie Miller, who's fifth in the conference in assists (4.46 per game) and seventh in steals (2.08). This is a classic tempo game; Nebraska wants to walk it up, Kansas wants to sprint. The problem for Nebraska is the Jayhawks are bigger, deeper and play unrelenting defense. Not exactly the ideal situation to be going into with a 5-7 freshman point guard playing in his first Big 12 game.
Kansas 82, Nebraska 71
Did you ever notice that when teams play UCLA, they have an off shooting night? Last year, when the Bruins swept Washington State, the Cougars shot a combined 4 for 22 from three-point range. It's hard to see Washington State improving on that since the Cougars are ranked ninth in the Pac-10 in three-point percentage. They do have a better center this year in Aron Baynes, but the Bruins also have a better center in Kevin Love, who is averaging a double-double even though he has only played more than 30 minutes in three games. UCLA obviously needs Darren Collison to be healthy (he left Thursday's win over Washington with a hip bruise), but I like Ben Howland's decision to bring Russell Westbrook, who leads the team in assists (5.4 per game) and three-point field goal percentage (.423) off the bench. Washington State will probably be able to keep possessions to a minimum, but the Bruins know how to win a grind-it-out game, and they seem to have Washington State's number.
UCLA 62, Washington State 55
You look at Cincinnati's statistics and you have to wonder how this team beats anyone. The Bearcats are 15th in the Big East in scoring (65.1 ppg), 15th in field goal shooting (41.7 percent), 12th in rebound margin (+2.3) and last in steals (5.3), blocks (2.3) and turnover margin (-2.2). So how is it that Cincinnati, after a 4-7 start, has won three of its last four, including at home over Louisville and Syracuse? Well, for one thing the Bearcats have a great player in 6-1 sophomore guard Deonta Vaughn, who is leading the team in scoring (16.8) and assists (4.3) while making 42.0 percent from three-point range. They also know how to limit possessions and play scrappy D; they held Syracuse's explosive offense to just 66 points. Villanova did well to hold off Pitt at home, but the Wildcats are without their best big man, 6-10 sophomore Casiem Drummond, who is sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot. They also reminded us in losing at DePaul last week that young players have a hard time winning league games on the road.
Cincinnati 64, Villanova 60
No. 23 Stanford (13-2) at Oregon (11-4)
Even though we're now easing into mid-January, these are two mystery teams. Stanford is 13-2 and ranked 23rd, yet the Cardinal's best wins were at Texas Tech (9-6) and at home against USC (9-5). Oregon has won at Arizona and Kansas State, but the Ducks also lost to Oakland. One thing that has worked well for the Ducks is coach Ernie Kent's decision to move freshman point guard Kamyron Brown into the starting lineup. Brown had 23 points and 13 assists combined in the wins over Arizona and Cal, which has given the team a lift with 6-6 sophomore Joevan Catron lost to injury. You know about Stanford's imposing Lopez twins up front (the Cardinal leads the Pac-10 in blocks and rebound margin), but Oregon center Maarty Leunen, who is averaging 15.2 points and 10.3 rebounds, is quietly having a great season, too. Oregon is more dependent on making three-pointers than I'd like, but you've got to figure playing in one of the best home court environments in the country, the shots are will be falling.
Oregon 84, Stanford 79
No. 12 Texas (13-2) at Missouri (10-5)
The biggest thing Texas has going for it in this one is the week of rest since its last game. Even in the 19-point rout of St. Mary's last Saturday, D.J. Augustin, A.J. Abrams and Damian James played 110 out of a possible 120 minutes. Depth has been a problem for this team and so has post play, which is why the return of freshman power forward Gary Johnson is so critical. Johnson was diagnosed with a heart ailment before the start of the season and has only competed in two games since being cleared to play on Dec. 29. He had 15 points and six rebounds in 26 minutes against the Gaels, and he gives the Longhorns some badly-needed swagger in the paint. It's tempting to pick Missouri -- the Tigers are at home, after all, and they will ensure the game is played at an exhaustive pace. But every time Mizzou has played a decent team this season, it stays close and loses. (Case in point: an 86-83 loss to Michigan State and a 59-58 defeat to Illinois.) Against a better team with fresh legs, I see the same thing happening here.
Texas 84, Missouri 80
The Second Five
UConn (11-3) at No. 7 Georgetown (12-1)
The Huskies tease you when they go up against quality competition: They play well enough to win, yet always find a way to lose.
Georgetown 77, UConn 70
No. 13 Vanderbilt (16-0) at Kentucky (6-7)
I'm throwing caution to the wind here. I simply refuse to believe the Wildcats, who are finally healthy but have lost six of their last eight, are really this bad.
Kentucky 73, Vanderbilt 72
No. 15 Marquette (12-2) at Notre Dame (12-2)
Notre Dame has the better stud inside in forward Luke Harangody, but Marquette's perimeter defense will smother guards Tory Jackson and Kyle McAlarney.
Marquette 79, Notre Dame 70
Texas Tech (12-2) at Oklahoma State (9-5)
I can't think of a better place for Bob Knight to get win number 900 than Stillwater, where his idol and mentor, Henry Iba, cemented his legend.
Texas Tech 68, Oklahoma State 65
San Diego State (11-4) at New Mexico (14-2)
After flaming out at Kansas, J.R. Giddens is finally rounding into a team player in Albuquerque.
New Mexico 82, San Diego State 74
LAST WEEK: 9-1 | SEASON RECORD: 30-10

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