The Week Ahead: What to Watch in College Basketball (1/31-2/6)

The Week Ahead: What to Watch in College Basketball (1/31-2/6)
Jan 30, 2009, 09:13 am
There was another heart stopper in Winston-Salem last week and another number one team fell. Only this time, it was Wake Forest providing the upset. If January was the rise of the ACC, it looks as if February may belong to the Big East, with Connecticut, Louisville, and Marquette storming up the top 25, even if Georgetown and Notre Dame have taken off a few possessions too many. Keep your eyes peeled, though, because nothing is certain, especially this early on. This week in college basketball, you’ll get to see all six players we profiled in our last “NCAA Weekly Performers” piece and take in the match ups scouts across the United States and the world will be watching. We have recommended some good ones in the past, and this week should be no exception. Here is what we’re going to be watching during this coming week in college basketball.

Marquee Matchups:

#4 Oklahoma at Iowa St (Saturday, January 31st: 1:30 p.m. on Big 12 Network, YES, ESPN Full Court)

Iowa State looks at least a year away from returning to the NCAA tournament, but that is not to say that #4 Oklahoma should sleep on the Cyclones when they meet in Ames on Saturday. The reason is because of Iowa State power forward Craig Brackins, who is averaging 19.6 ppg and 9.1 rpg on the season and will be one of the toughest match ups Oklahoma superstar Blake Griffin, who is averaging a 22.3 ppg and 140 rpg, has seen this year. Since neither player known for their defense, scouts will be looking to see if either player can stop each other. With inconsistency still a problem in each team’s respective backcourt, the game likely comes down to the aforementioned match up. That said, there are still plenty of other reasons to watch. Oklahoma’s freshman shooting guard Willie Warren is proving to be an excellent supporting cast member, shooting 41% from beyond the arc in conference play. Also, don’t forget Diante Garrett. Iowa State’s 6’4 sophomore PG has seemingly hit a wall since his solid performance against Texas, but has intriguing length and talent for a primary ball-handler.

#23 Georgetown at #8 Marquette (Saturday, January 31st: 2 p.m. on Big East Network, MSG, ESPN Full Court)

Since beating Syracuse handily on January 14, Georgetown has dropped four straight games, including one at Seton Hall and an overtime loss to Cincinnati, and now sit 12-7, good for tenth place in the loaded Big East. They have another tough game on their hands against eighth ranked Marquette, who are undefeated at home this season and have won ten games in a row.

The key to this game lies in the Georgetown zone’s ability to stop Marquette’s three guard attack, led by point guard Dominic James and flanked by combo-guard Jerel McNeal and wing Wesley Matthews, two of the nation’s deadliest scorers. The trio average 50 ppg, 13.8 rpg, and 11.3 apg and have taken apart some of the Big East’s top backcourts this season.

Georgetown clearly has more size, though depending on how often DaJuan Summers shoots from beyond the arc, you might not realize the discrepancy. Though the 6’8 combo-forward is shooting over 39% on the year from three, he has shot just 4/18 in his past three games. Scouts still want to see him utilize his size off of the dribble and in the paint ,and for Georgetown to exploit the size advantage, they’re going to need a big performance out of Summers inside as well as outside. Freshman phenomenon Greg Monroe needs to have a big game, too, which means not turning the ball over at such a high rate (3.25 TOpg in his last four games) and continuing to score efficiently in the post.

Marquette’s junior combo forward Lazar Hayward has to find a way to contain the Georgetown frontcourt while staying out of foul trouble. At just 6’6, he gives up a lot of height, especially to Monroe, but Hayward’s inside-outside game has the potential to open up the lane for the trio of slashing guards. Jerel McNeal’s outside shooting has been a revelation this season, and it will be interesting to see if he can continue to make 3-pointers in a slower, more packed in setting than he might prefer.

Marquette is on fire, but Georgetown has their backs to the wall. This is a match up for fans and scouts alike, a chance to see some of the Big East’s best teams and players in action.

Virginia Tech at Boston College (Saturday, January 31st: 8 p.m. on Raycom Sports Network, ESPN Full Court)

When Boston College visited Blacksburg, Virginia Tech, held on for the win. This time, however, the Hokies travel to Boston College with the stakes raised for both sides, a battle between two of the ACC’s on-the-cusp teams. This game will likely come down to the performance of Virginia Tech point guard Malcolm Delaney, who had a great performance on both sides of the ball in an upset win at Wake Forest, and one of the ACC’s top point guards in Boston College’s Tyrese Rice, who has shown throughout his career that he can score the ball at will against anybody on any given night.

On the perimeter, look for a slugfest between Virginia Tech A.D. Vassallo, one of the ACC’s premier gunners, and Rakim Sanders, who can step up and be a lockdown defender on the perimeter. The match ups on the perimeter are fairly even, but Virginia Tech has the advantage in the middle with 6’7 Jeff Allen, a likely first rounder if he were two inches taller, but one of the NCAA’s most underrated and versatile post players. His ability to score inside and hit the spot-up jumpshot might be too much for the Boston College frontcourt to handle. He went off for 30 points and 9 rebounds the last time the two met and could be the X-factor this time around.

Florida at Tennessee (Saturday, January 31st: 9 p.m. on ESPN)

Last season, Florida started 18-3 and ended up 21-11, out of the NCAA tournament. This time around, they are an older and deeper team, looking to make a statement in the SEC and enter the Top 25. Since losing to South Carolina, the Gators have blown away Vanderbilt and Georgia and travel to Tennessee to take on a reeling, but still incredibly talented, team. The Volunteers have lost two in a row, adding to their previous five losses, emerging 12-7 and fourth in the SEC. Beating Florida won’t be easy, even on their home court, but Tennessee needs to win this game to right the ship on what has otherwise been a disappointing season.

The key to this game is for Tennessee to stop Florida point guard Nick Calathes, who has found his stride on and off of the ball, averaging 20.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg, and 6.4 apg over his last 10 games, including a triple double against Georgia on Wednesday. He will need help from combo-forward Chandler Parsons, however, who has also started to find his legs after a somewhat disappointing season thus far, shooting 65% from the field and 50% from three in his last four games.

Strictly based on match ups, Tennessee has the advantage, particularly in terms of size and athleticism, but they’ve yet to translate their up-tempo style of play into wins on a consistent basis this season. One of the reasons is that junior point-forward and go-to player, Tyler Smith is in the middle of a significant slump. He is too valuable to be shooting 28% from the floor, as he has done in Tennessee’s last two losses.

Assuming that Smith can bounce back and freshman gunner Scotty Hopson can regain his perimeter shooting touch (31% from beyond the arc over his past 10 games), then Tennessee has a chance of winning. Scouts, in particular will be looking to see if these two players can bounce back from slumps. In addition, this game is important for both team’s respective confidence heading into the final stretch of conference play. ESPN’s Gameday crew will be in town, and Thompson Boling Arena will surely be rocking for this game.

# 2 Connecticut at #7 Louisville (Monday, February 2nd: 7 p.m. on ESPN)

This is a match up between two of the hottest teams in the country, who have proved their mettle in conference play and are tied for first in a loaded Big East. This game will be a heat-check for Connecticut, who are undefeated on the road this year, but have to travel down to Freedom Hall, arguably one of the nation’s toughest home courts, to take on the red-hot Cardinals, who have now won eight straight games since falling to UNLV.

Scouts will be out in full force for this game. They’ll be looking for big games out of multi-faceted stars Earl Clark and Terrence Williams, both of whom have elevated their play accordingly in January. An interesting match up however, will be how well Connecticut’s Stanley Robinson can stay in front of Clark inside and outside. Similarly, it is up to Hasheem Thabeet to have a big game, matched up against the undersized Samardo Samuels with scouts watching to see if he can score efficiently in the post, as well as dominate on the defensive end.

One area where Connecticut has a clear advantage, however, is in the backcourt, as Louisville still lacks consistent play at the point guard position and Connecticut point guard A.J. Price is in the midst of breakout stretch of games after slumping offensive for much of the earlier season. If Price, and backcourt mates Jerome Dyson and Kemba Walker, can spread the floor with their perimeter shooting as well as attack the basket, Connecticut could make their bid for the top ranking in both the Big East and NCAA that much stronger.

#17 Purdue at Ohio State (Tuesday, February 3rd: 7 p.m. on ESPN)

Ohio State survived a rough game against Michigan to snap their two game losing streak, and after taking on the hapless Indiana Hoosiers, will head back home to face Purdue. The Boilermakers are a team that nobody in the Big 10 should want to play, deep, versatile, and undefeated since losing at Penn State.

Their star is E’Twaun Moore, an athletic combo-guard, who has gotten back on track after struggling from the field against Northwestern and Wisconsin. Sophomore Robbie Hummel isn’t half bad either, proving again to be a solid inside and outside option with good basketball IQ. It will be interesting to see how he matches up defensively, however, and whether or not he stays on the wing against Ohio State’s star Evan Turner or if he slides over to a more favorable match up.

Turner has proven to that he can handle most Big 10 defenses and is versatile enough to make an impact elsewhere if things are not shaping up for him offensively. The biggest story on Ohio State, however, may be the emergence of big man B.J. Mullens, who is still coming off of the bench, but having a break out of sorts, with seven straight games in double figures and what looks to be growing confidence.

We’ve written about the challenges that Mullens has faced at the collegiate level thus far, so this game will be an important one for scouts to see whether or not he can handle JaJuan Johnson’s size and contribute on both ends of the floor. A win could mark a turning point in what has been an up and down season thus far for the Buckeyes and for Purdue, stealing a game in Columbus will likely look pretty solid come March.

Mississippi State @ #24 Kentucky (Tuesday, February 3rd: Raycom Sports Network, FSSouth, Sun Sports, ESPN Full Court)

Kentucky, having just lost at Mississippi, looks to leave the SEC without a contributor to the Top 25, unless, of course, they can return to their winning ways during their three game home stretch. While they have to get through South Carolina first and Florida is no walk in the park, their biggest challenge may be taking on Mississippi State. Why? Jarvis Varnado just happens to be one of the most feared interior defenders in the country. The last time these two teams met in conference play, Varnado posted a triple double of 10 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 blocks. This year, Varnado is even better.

So is Kentucky big man Patrick Patterson, who has been held below 50% shooting just three times this year and has 11 double-doubles to go along with averages of 18.0 ppg and 9.3 rpg on the season. Needless to say, scouts will be looking to see if Patterson can come out on top in this one and whether or not Varnado can deal with a strong and athletic player on the offensive end of the court.

Mississippi State’s biggest challenge, however, is to see if they can slow down Jodie Meeks, who is averaging 25.8 ppg on 48% FG, 45% 3FG, and 91% FT. Meeks is going to get his points one way or another, but if Varnado does his job in the middle and the Bulldogs study the tape of the Mississippi game, where Meeks was “held” to 21 points on 4/15 shooting from the field, this match up could live up to its potential.

#6 Wake Forest at Miami (FL) (Wednesday, February 4th: 7:30 p.m. on ESPN2)

After an ugly upset loss at home against Virginia Tech, sixth ranked Wake Forest stormed back and toppled top ranked Duke. Miami, on the other hand, has yet to get out of their funk since getting blown out against UNC, losing their last two games against Virginia Tech and Maryland. It is needless to say that a win at home against Wake Forest would bring the Hurricanes back into the national consciousness.

The key match-up scouts will be watching is between combo guards Jeff Teague of Wake Forest and Jack McClinton of Miami. McClinton has been a scoring machine lately, putting up 24 ppg in his last four games, though perhaps not always in the most efficient of ways. He will be facing his most significant challenge of the season in Jeff Teague, an equally dynamic scorer and a player who should be able to stick with him defensively on the perimeter. If Teague fails, McClinton will likely have to deal with defensive specialist LD Williams. Needless to say, if McClinton passes this test, we will will learn a lot about his potential at the next level.

Wake Forest has advantages everywhere else on the court, however, with outstanding size and athleticism in the post and a pair of versatile forwards in Al-Farouq Aminu, who has really come on strong lately, and James Johnson, who bailed the Deacons out against Duke. If these two players can improve their decision making in the clutch and maybe knock down a perimeter jumper once in awhile, Wake Forest could be even better than they already are. To get a win at Miami, though, they’ll need to be at the top of their game: Miami is a team hungry for a win to separate themselves from the rest of the ACC pack, and solidify their NCAA tournament resume, and this would not be a bad place to start.

#1 Duke at #12 Clemson (Wednesday, February 4th: 9 p.m. on ESPN)

After getting beaten by Wake Forest at home and pounded at North Carolina, Clemson turned around nicely with a win against Georgia Tech and a road win against upstart Virginia Tech. Now, Clemson must prove that they can win a big game at home.

Duke will have played a home game since losing a thriller on the road to Wake Forest and should be ready to play Clemson’s up-tempo game. Duke has more depth than Clemson, but that depth mattered little in the second half against Wake Forest. Clemson’s immediate keys are to find a way to stop Gerald Henderson, who has blossomed into a star during the past month, and Kyle Singler, a player who’s multiple dimensions might prove to be too much for the Clemson defense. These two players, in addition to almost single-handedly deconstructing Wake Forest’s defense, have won over scouts and fans alike, who will surely be tuning in to see what they can do in an up tempo offense against a scrappy defense.

For Clemson, they will need another outstanding performance out of Trevor Booker, who struggled for a three game stretch before returning for 21 points and 13 rebounds at Virginia Tech. Duke has no low post threat on defense and Booker should have a tremendous game. On the wings, Clemson will need scoring from wing K.C. Rivers and shooting guard Terrence Oglesby, who can be dynamic scorers on any given night, but are also prone to shooting slumps. Needless to say, if Clemson plays as well as they are capable of playing, this could be quite a game.

#17 USC at UCLA (Wednesday, February 4th: 10:30 p.m. on FSN Regional)

We’ve written about this matchup in its first go-around, but any time these two teams meet, it’s worth noting. UCLA won the last battle of Los Angeles, with a 64-60 win against the Trojans. This time, the Trojans travel over to UCLA to attempt to steal a game on the road and get their season back on track with a three game winning streak.

As was true last time, the stories of this game are the freshman phenoms: USC’s DeMar DeRozan and UCLA’s Jrue Holiday. DeRozan looked like he was having a break through offensively before scoring in single figures during his past two games and continuing his shooting slump from beyond the arc to a ghastly 6%. Holiday has made an impact as the starting shooting guard, but has had trouble translating his efforts into offensive productivity and has shot the ball miserably from beyond the arc recently.

This game will have scouts on their toes, watching two tantalizingly good young prospects, looking to see whether they’ll be able to bounce back from tough stretches and continue to improve.

Off the Beaten Track:

Temple at #10 Xavier (Thursday, February 5th: 7 p.m. on ESPN2)

Temple likely doesn’t have the depth this year to get past tenth ranked Xavier, especially on the road, but that doesn’t mean they won’t try. The player to watch is Temple’s 6’6 shooting guard Dionte Christmas, who is shooting 40% from beyond the arc this year and, on any given night, is one of the NCAA’s top scorers. He will be facing off against Xavier’s C.J. Anderson, one of the most feared defenders in the Atlantic 10. Another player to watch on Temple is 6’9 big man, Lavoy Allen, a versatile scorer and developing defender. For Xavier, be sure to watch combo-forward Derrick Brown, who constantly dazzles crowds with his athletic plays around the rim, and 7’0 freshman center Kenny Frease, who has had an up and down year, but has come off the bench to play significant minutes in Xavier’s last two wins.

St. Joseph’s at Dayton (Sunday, February 1st: 12 p.m. on The A-10 Conference Network, Comcast Sportsnet Philadelphia)

Dayton and St. Joseph’s are neck and neck atop of the brutal Atlantic 10 conference and finally meet, in Ohio, to settle the score. Dayton lacks the depth of St. Joe’s, but has jumped out to an 18-2 record with wins over Marquette and George Mason, in addition to being undefeated in league play. From an NBA Draft perspective, Chris Wright, the 6’8 combo forward is the only Flyer of note, but never underestimate a team that plays like a team, especially in the A-10.

St. Joseph’s sports some of the conference’s best perimeter defense from the likes of combo-guards Garrett Williamson and Tasheed Carr and a standout big man, Ahmad Nivins, covered in our NCAA Weekly Performers this week, who might be the difference maker in this game. It is tough to win at Dayton, but this St. Joseph’s squad, battle-tested in their non-conference schedule, looks ready to make some noise. If you’re looking to watch some high quality, mid-major basketball with a couple of prospects that may become relevant in the post-season, be sure to check this game out.

Houston at Central Florida (Wednesday, February 4th: 7 p.m. on CBS College Sports)

Central Florida shooting guard Jermaine Taylor is one of the nation’s most dynamic offensive players. We wrote about him last week and, if you haven’t seen him yet, this is a perfect opportunity. He will face off against Aubrey Coleman of Houston, a 6’4 wing who should provide a solid match up. Also, Houston big man Marcus Cousin has struggled at times this year, but after good games against Arizona, UTEP, and Eastern Carolina is back on the radar as a fringe prospect.

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