The Week Ahead: What to Watch in College Basketball (2/7-2/13)

The Week Ahead: What to Watch in College Basketball (2/7-2/13)
Feb 06, 2009, 11:18 am
Predictions seem pointless after awhile in the world of college basketball. Right after Duke solidified itself as one of the top teams in the NCAA, they were blown out by Clemson, which symbolized a week in college basketball filled with surprise, excitement, and just a hint of intrigue. This week, however, the theme is redemption, as the likes of Notre Dame, Kentucky, Michigan try desperately to get their seasons back on track. Don’t miss any of the action, particularly a matchup of Big East backcourts when eighth seeded Marquette travels to seventeenth ranked Villanova. And, those “Off the Beaten Track” games aren’t half bad either. Its crunch time in the Atlantic 10 again, and it would be a shame to miss out on some of the top mid-major action in the country. Last but not least, tune in to see if the Memphis Tigers, led by blossoming freshman phenom Tyreke Evans, are for real, as they take on Gonzaga and Tulsa in one of their toughest weeks thus far this season. It’s time for another big week in college basketball and here’s what we’re going to be watching.

Marquee Matchups:

Notre Dame at #15 UCLA (Saturday, February 7th: 1 p.m. on CBS)

Since winning 12 of their first 15 games, Notre Dame has gone on to drop six straight games on their way to a 12-9 record and twelfth place in the Big East. Their schedule doesn’t get any easier, either, and on Saturday, they head to Pauley Pavilion to take on 15th ranked UCLA. Notre Dame has their backs against the wall, as they absolutely must win this game in order to keep their names relevant come March. The Irish’s inside-outside tandem of Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlarney must get involved early on, even if they have slumped badly as of late. In the past nine games, Harangody and McAlarney are shooting an alarming 43% and 35% from the field.

While UCLA’s defense has not been anywhere near as good as in years past, Coach Ben Howland will look to contain the slumping superstars. The Bruins are going to look for another big contribution from star point guard Darren Collison, who is averaging 14.6 ppg (54% FG, 40% 3FG, and 94% FT) and 5.2 apg, but has shot just 37% from the field in UCLA’s four losses this season. It will be up to backcourt mate, freshman Jrue Holiday to continue to translate his versatile talents into offensive production to go along with his consistently solid defensive contributions, however, to ease Collison’s offensive load.

For UCLA, this game could give them momentum going into a rough road stretch against the Arizona schools and boost their resume going into the postseason. Notre Dame, however, cannot afford to lose, and with eight losses already in the book and barring a strong postseason run, winning this game might be the difference between an at-large bid and a disappointing end to a once promising season.

Arkansas at Mississippi State (Saturday, February 7th: 3 p.m. on Raycom Sports Network, ESPN Full Court)

Once again, watch Mississippi State shot blocking star Jarvis Varnado take on fellow SEC star Michael Washington in a rematch of the January game that saw Varnado post 16 points, 9 rebounds, and 5 blocks in a victory alongside Washington’s 18 points, 15 rebounds, and 1 block. Who will come out on top this time around? From a scouting perspective, can Washington score inside against an elite shotblocker? Varnado has proven his stripes defensively this season, but can he produce offensively against a big man with NBA caliber size and athleticism? Needless to say, in what has been a disappointing season in the SEC, this is a match up not to be missed and one that scouts will be watching.

#14 Memphis at #18 Gonzaga (Saturday, February 7th: 9 p.m. on ESPN)

Memphis has now won thirteen straight games since losing at home to Syracuse, and has run the table on what was initially thought to be an improved Conference USA slate. The Tigers will get a chance to test their record on Saturday, however, in a match up at Gonzaga. At this point in the season, Memphis is looking for a consistent go-to player, which at different points throughout the season has been either freshman Tyreke Evans or senior Antonio Anderson. Scouts will want to see if the two can work together on and off the ball in an otherwise weak Memphis backcourt. Evans will need to take care of the ball and play under control if Memphis is going to have a shot at knocking off Gonzaga on their home floor.

The real question in this game for Memphis, however, seems to be who else will step up to the plate and produce. Flashes of potential have yet to coalesce into the breakout season scouts and fans desperately want from the 6’10 combo-forward Robert Dozier. He needs to continue to build on his 19 point, 10 rebound, 3 steal, and 2 block performance against Houston to get his draft stock up and moving this spring.

In the other corner, Gonzaga is also coming off of an eight game winning streak since losing on the road to Utah, and have shot back up the top 25, though their conference slate hasn’t exactly been that impressive. The Zags have four players capable of dropping 20 points on any given night in Austin Daye, Josh Heytvelt, Matt Bouldin, and Steven Gray, all of who could use a big game with the bright lights shining and scouts across the country in town. The key for Mark Few’s team, however, is consistent play from starting point guard Jeremy Pargo, who is sporting a nearly even assist/turnover ratio in the New Year, but went off for 22 points at Portland on Thursday.

Consider this game a heat check for both teams. This game matters because both teams are elite teams in weak conferences, but Gonzaga, who struggled in the latter half of their non-conference slate, losing four out of five games during a particularly rough stretch in December, could really use a resume win this time around.

#13 Michigan St at Michigan (Tuesday, February 10th: 7 p.m. on ESPN)

Both Michigan squads are coming off of blowout home wins and while Michigan State looks to have the upper hand, they would be wise not to underestimate the upset-minded Wolverines. Michigan State has looked good all season, but has run into an obstacle since star wing Raymar Morgan was diagnosed with walking pneumonia and relegated to bench duty. In his absence, the Michigan State backcourt of point guard Kalin Lucas and shooting guard Durrell Summers have willed Tom Izzo’s team to victory.

Lucas has been one of the top point guards in the country all season, as well as an underrated scorer, but the surprise has been Summers, who has stepped up to the challenge, averaging 19.3 ppg over his last four games while shooting 61% from the field and 50% from beyond the arc. They will have their hands full on the other end of the floor, however, with Michigan’s 6’5 combo-guard Manny Harris.

Harris has struggled with his shooting touch at times this year, especially from beyond the arc, but there are few players in the NCAA who can stop him once he catches fire. Another concern for Michigan State comes in the form of power forward DeShawn Sims. Sims can score inside and outside and though his production has slowed down a lot since the Wolverines entered conference play, he is always a factor when he is on the floor.

#8 Marquette at #17 Villanova (Tuesday, February 10th: 7:30 p.m. on ESPN2)

Few teams in the country are as hot as the Marquette Golden Eagles. They have won twelve straight games and sit undefeated in second place in the stacked Big East conference. Keep your eyes on the backcourt during this game, as Marquette sharp shooters Jerel McNeal (49% FG and 48% 3FG) and Wesley Matthews (53% FG and 39% 3FG) look to let loose their offensive onslaught on a Villanova team that they beat at home once this season.

They face an unpredictable, but still deadly Villanova backcourt that has multiple players capable of stepping up on any given night. The focal point, however, is Scottie Reynolds, who is averaging 15.1 ppg, but came up cold the last time these two teams met.

Another interesting matchup is in the paint as undersized warrior Lazar Hayward of Marquette matches up against Dante Cunningham, Villanova’s 6’8 senior power forward who is averaging 16.5 ppg and 7.3 rpg on the season. Scouts will be particularly interested as to whether or not Cunningham can handle the perimeter-friendly Hayward when he steps away from the basket.

This is a game not to be missed, a meeting of two Big East power houses and two of the nation’s finest backcourts.

Florida at Kentucky (Tuesday, February 10th: 9 p.m. on ESPN)

As unranked Florida has learned, life at the top of the SEC standings isn’t what it used to be. The 19-4 Gators escaped with a win against upset-minded South Carolina on Tuesday and have a chance to deliver the SEC an entry into the top 25 if they can survive what looks to be their toughest remaining test of the season: a trip to Rupp arena.

While Florida’s 6’5 sophomore PG Nick Calathes is likely the star of this show for most scouts, do not sleep on Kentucky scoring sensation Jodie Meeks, who has struggled in Kentucky’s three game losing streak, but has topped 30 points six times this season. Scouts will be interested to see if Calathes can slow Meeks down or, at the very least, counter with a spectacular offensive showing of his own. The post features an interesting matchup, as well. Kentucky big man Patrick Patterson is still in the midst of an incredibly efficient season, shooting 65% from the floor on the way to averages of 18.3 ppg and 9.2 rpg. He will square off against Florida big man Alex Tyus, a player who has quietly emerged as the Gators’ go-to option in the post and has the potential to slow down Patterson on the blocks.

This is a must win game for a Kentucky team that has slumped to a 16-7 record and a game that would solidify chances of a Florida run back up the top 25.

#20 Syracuse at #1 Connecticut (Wednesday, February 11th: 7 p.m. on ESPN)

Connecticut has performed a rare feat during the past couple of weeks. They have held onto the coveted number one spot and do not look like they are interested in giving it up without a fight. After demolishing seventh ranked Louisville on the road, the Huskies return back to Storrs for a tune up against Michigan and a match up against conference rivals Syracuse, who have cooled off a bit, but are still a formidable foe.

Despite being overmatched by the size and athleticism that Connecticut brings to the table, Syracuse has a lot of talent to offer for this match up, primarily point guard Jonny Flynn, a quick and athletic player who can score and distribute with ease and is slowly proving to be one of the best point guards in the NCAA. He will be matched up against another one of the NCAA’s finest point guards in A.J. Price, who has found his stride lately, averaging 17 ppg over his past eight games, all wins for the Huskies.

Another player to watch is Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet, who is fresh off of his first career triple double and has continued to dominate the best big men that the Big East has to offer. He will have a chance to prove himself against the Syracuse frontcourt, primarily the ultra efficient Arinze Onuaku.

Assuming Connecticut gets through Michigan, this is the perfect opportunity for the Huskies to prove themselves against another one of the nation’s top teams and further legitimize their place atop the NCAA standings.

#3 North Carolina at #4 Duke (Wednesday, February 11th: 9 p.m. on ESPN, Raycom Sports Network)

North Carolina has assumed their old form, winning their last six games by an average of 16 points and streaking to a 20-2 record. Duke, on the other hand, suffered their worst loss of the season on the road against Clemson and has the misfortune of taking on the red hot Miami Hurricanes at home before they meet the Tar Heels.

Duke’s problem is that nobody outside of Gerald Henderson and Kyle Singler is producing consistently, especially guards Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer. Singler and Henderson, however, are going to make life difficult for a UNC team that is not known for particularly tight perimeter defense, especially now that stopper Marcus Ginyard is done for the season.

The Tar Heels, though, have a plethora of offensive weapons, which might prove to be too much for the Blue Devils. First and foremost, the perimeter trio of point guard Ty Lawson, shooting guard Wayne Ellington, and small forward Danny Green are averaging 43.7 ppg and are developing more chemistry by the day, showing scouts why their pre-season draft hype was not a fluke.

In the middle, Duke will have to find an answer for Tyler Hansbrough, who, like him or not, is still one of the most dominant big men in the NCAA. This game is always a death match, no matter where or when it’s played. In Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke always has an advantage, but whether or not they can stop their red-hot rivals remains to be seen. Tune in and catch one of the most anticipated games of the year.

Southern California at Arizona (Thursday, February 12th: 10:30 p.m. on FSN)

Despite standing at 15-7 and 15-8 respectively, there is no reason to count Southern California or Arizona out of the post-season hunt just yet. A win here could be just what the doctor ordered for these two teams on the cusp of success, but lacking the depth to take a step to the next level. There are some intriguing match ups, including a marquee post battle between Arizona’s projected lottery pick Jordan Hill and junior Taj Gibson, who is quietly recording an improved season on both ends of the floor. If Gibson can contain Hill, especially with scouts watching, don’t be surprised if his stock finally begins to rise after languishing all fall and winter.

On the perimeter, it’s a duel between Arizona’s sharp shooting junior Chase Budinger, who is averaging 17.4 ppg while shooting 40% from beyond the arc, and freshman phenomenon DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan has improved just about every time he has stepped on the court thus far this season and, while he still cannot hit a perimeter jumpshot to save his life, expect him to step up to the challenge when facing off against one of the finest wing prospects in the collegiate ranks. All of this said, it would be unwise to miss this PAC-10 showdown.

Off the Beaten Track:

#9 Xavier at Duquesne (Saturday, February 7th: 7 p.m. on FSOhio, FSN Pittsburgh, The Atlantic 10 Conference Network)

Xavier has passed every test thrown at them since dropping two games in a row to Duke and Butler. They have won eleven games since and through a balanced perimeter attack, have run the table on an always-challenging Atlantic 10 conference schedule. Against Duquesne, however, the Musketeers must develop an offensive scheme that takes into account the Dukes’ multitude of versatile scorers. Starting with slashing 6’4 point guard Aaron Jackson, who is averaging 17.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg, and 5.7 apg as well as versatile big man Damian Saunders, who at 6’7 can play and defend three positions on the floor, the Dukes can score in a variety of different ways, inside and out. All of this said, however, count on ninth ranked Xavier to have an idea of what is going on and to unleash their own onslaught of perimeter shooting and smart, efficient offensive in what could be one of the marquee match ups in the Atlantic 10.

Tulsa at #14 Memphis (Wednesday, February 11th: 8 p.m. on CBS College Sports)

As we mentioned earlier, Memphis has now won thirteen straight games since losing at home to Syracuse and has a chance to run the table on what was initially thought to be an improved Conference USA. The Tigers will get a chance to test their record in a rematch against a Tulsa team that was less than a second away from victory before Antonio Anderson beat the buzzer with a clutch layup.

Tulsa, however, won’t go quietly. Behind the efforts of rapidly improving seven-footer Jerome Jordan and combo-guard Ben Uzoh, the Golden Hurricane is a tough team to beat and are trailing Memphis by just two games in the Conference USA standings. Memphis has had problems with consistency in their frontcourt and if Jordan can get the better of his match up on the block, either against Shawn Taggart or Robert Dozier, the Golden Hurricane have a chance to topple the Tigers. Tune in to this one if you get the chance to watch the two titans of Conference USA square off in a game that could matter a lot come March. It’s also a great opportunity to get an in-depth look at Jerome Jordan, who could very well be headed for the draft this spring.

Temple at St. Joseph’s (Thursday, February 12th: 7 p.m. on ESPN2)

No Philadelphia team wants to lose against a cross-town rival. With the post-season looming around the corner, this game is no exception. After all, it is a rematch of last year’s Atlantic 10 tournament final. The question is, will Dionte Christmas light up the scoreboard despite facing one of the Atlantic 10’s most feared defenders in St. Joseph’s combo-guard Garrett Williamson? Christmas’s averages of 20.5 ppg on 44% shooting from the field and 39% shooting from beyond the arc would suggest that the answer is yes, but do not be surprised if St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli has a few tricks up his sleeves.

For St. Joe’s to win, however, they are going to need consistency out of point guard Tasheed Carr, who has rebounded from a disappointing non-conference slate to average 15.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg, and 4.9 apg all while maintaining his reputation as a good perimeter defender. At center, 6’9 Hawks big man Ahmad Nivins has established himself as the best big man that the Atlantic 10 has to offer and must prove his reputation against a big Temple frontcourt. If these two players produce and Martelli can find a way to slow down Christmas, St. Joe’s could escape with a win and the momentum to make a deep run in the Atlantic 10 tournament, just like they did last year. Regardless, this will make for an excellent game and a rare opportunity to see two programs on the rise, resume a storied rivalry.

#25 Utah State at Idaho (Thursday, February 12th: 9 p.m. on Altitude Network)

Last but not least, be sure to check out 22-1 Utah State as they take on an Idaho team that may be better than their 10-11 record indicates. Idaho has no answer for Utah State’s loaded frontcourt, particularly senior center Gary Wilkinson’s 17.3 ppg and 7.3 rpg, but they do have one of the better guards in the WAC, former Washington State starting point guard, Mac Hopson, who is quietly putting up 16.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, and 6.9 apg while shooting 49% from beyond the arc. Hopson has a long way to go, many areas of his game to work on, and just one more year to prove himself worthy of discussion in the draft conversation. Nevertheless, he is a player to watch this season, perhaps even a fringe prospect down the road. This is a rare televised opportunity to catch a Utah State team that could make some noise in the postseason.

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