Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, March 8, 2013 at 9:08 AM
This weekend's College Basketball menu is chock full of goodies ...Now whether or not any of these high-profile/marquee teams winds up winning it all in Atlanta next month must be left up to higher powers than us!
The fact remains that this is a wide-open field for talking champions and it wouldn't necessarily shock us if a third- or fourth-place team in one of the so-called "power conferences" made a major march (we're thinking perhaps N.C. State or Pittsburgh or maybe even Wisconsin) to the crown or perhaps #1 Gonzaga will finally have its "one shining moment" after so many disappointing tourney finishes in recent years.
One thing that almost appears certain is that - just as we wrote a couple of weeks back here in a Jim Sez column - you can pretty much expect an even or very close-to-even split of NCAA Tournament berths between the power conferences teams and the so-called mid-majors or smaller conferences/leagues.
Note that in recent days some of the country's most well-respected hoops writers such as the New York Daily News' Dick Weiss had 35 power conferences teams in his projected 68-team NCAA Tournament field with some 33 non-power conference teams getting into the mix - again, sounds good to us and sounds fair to us too!
Just watch: This year it will be the mid-major "bubble teams" that don't get an NCAA Tournament invitation that will be screaming foul as the likes of Detroit and/or Temple could be in a very agitated state come the evening of March 17th (see Selection Sunday).
For now we'll keep our focus on a bevy of topnotch regular-season games this weekend but first this key reminder:
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Now, here's our marquee matchups for this very important March weekend ... enjoy:
On Saturday, it's:
#17 SYRACUSE (23-7, 11-6 Big East) at #5 GEORGETOWN (23-5, 13-4 Big East) - 12 p.m. ET, ESPN
No doubt that much is being made over the fact that this is the final Big East regular-season showdown between these long-time archrivals that - without a doubt - boast the right to call Orange vs. Hoyas the single-best rivalry in the league's rich 30-plus year history - although something tells us we may just see 'em paired off against one another next week/weekend in the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden.
The deal with Syracuse is you never quite know what you're gonna get - the club that can transition itself to 25-or-more fast-break points in a game or the club that stagnates badly in a half-court set and doesn't always get the best use of guys like C.J. Fair and guard star Michael Carter-Williams. Jim Boeheim's crew steps into this bash having lost six of its last 11 games in all and that includes the humbling 57-46 home loss against Georgetown back on February 23rd when National Player of the Year candidate Otto Porter poured in 33 points on 12-of-19 field-goal shooting for G-town - and don't forget the Hoyas held the Orange to 17-of-50 FG shooting (that's 34 percent).
If this is the last hoedown between these Big East behemoths than shouldn't it get a finish like so many other matchups in the past?
#11 FLORIDA (24-5, 14-3 SEC) at KENTUCKY (20-10, 11-6 SEC) - 12 p.m. ET, CBS
Gotta admit we've taken to scratching our head every time we've seen the Kentucky Wildcats on those lists of "Last Four In" and/or "First Four Out" that ESPN keeps flashing every nano-second ... you're in the NCAA Tournament, coach John Calipari, don't sweat it.
However, it sure would be a major statement to beat the best team in the Southeastern Conference and especially when you consider that Kentucky comes off a rather flat showing in last night's 72-62 loss at 2 ½-point underdog Georgia and afterwards there was the aforementioned "Coach Cal" blaming himself for having done a "bad job" with this bunch that hasn't had shot-blocking star Nerlens Noel for weeks now.
In the loss in Athens, the 'Cats nailed a mere 6-of-26 three-point attempts - and they also missed 8-of-18 free throws and so things have headed South but how can the NCAA keep a 20-win Kentucky team out of the party ... it can't!
Meanwhile, Florida vaunts into this SEC clash in Lexington knowing it has lost at both Arkansas and at Tennessee - now the outright conference champs want the "W" so maybe it can land a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and check out the shot selection here of Gator guards Mike Rosario and Kenny Boynton.
P.S., both guys can get a little wild-and-crazy if Florida boss-man Billy Donovan doesn't cool their heels.
#9 KANSAS STATE (25-5, 14-3 Big 12) at #13 OKLAHOMA STATE (22-7, 12-5 Big 12) - 1:45 p.m. ET
Okay, so have you noticed lately just how many folks on "jumping on the bandwagon" when it comes to this K-State crew?
Let's face it ... the Wildcats have come on strong in the season's final few weeks as the "Little Apple" gang has won six in a row since mid-February and now they look for the regular-season sweep against Okie State following the 73-67 home triumph way back on January 5th.
Note that K-State has held each of its last six opponents to below 70 points and - surprise, surprise - the 'Cats have won each of their last nine games when holding folks below 70 points but that won't be easy here. The Pokes - who average nearly 73 points per game - have three players who average 14 points or better and Markel Brown, Marcus Smart and Le'Bryan Nash all are quite capable of manufacturing their own shots and so maybe keeping a safe distance from shot-blocker Jordan Henriquez is the real key here.
Meanwhile, Kansas State's shooting star G Rodney McGruder (14.8 ppg) can "go off" at a moment's notice but let's see how Okie State fares in the paint while going up against the aforementioned Henriquez (55 swats this year). If he rejects four or five shots here, than K-State could swipe another road win ... and climb in the standings/seedings even more.
#4 KANSAS (26-4, 14-3 Big 12) at BAYLOR (17-13, 8-9 Big 12) - 6 p.m. ET, ESPN
You better believe one thing regarding this year's NCAA Tournament and its seeding process: If the Kansas Jayhawks win here and than cop yet another Big 12 Tournament next weekend in Kansas City than Bill Self's crew will be a #1 seed ... no ands, ifs or buts about it. Folks!
The Jayhawks - who rank second in the Big 12 in both offense (75.2 ppg) and defense (60.6 ppg allowed) - have answered the bell following that truly uncharacteristic three-game losing streak in early February and now Kansas comes into this clash riding a healthy seven-game winning streak and take note that KU's beaten these seven foes by a per-game average margin of 22.7 points a game - talk about your late-season dominance, why don't you!
Check out freshman phenom G Ben McLemore who scored a modest 17 points in Kansas' 61-44 home triumph against Baylor back in mid-January and one other footnote to be taken from that tilt in Lawrence was the fact that Baylor shot a woeful 23.2 percent from the floor - that's 13-of-56 FGs - with G Pierre Jackson nailing just 2-of-12 shots from the floor. Another faulty shooting night here for the Bears not only officially boots 'em from contention from any/all NCAA Tournament talk but puts them right at the head of the class for college basketball's "most disappointing team" this 2012-13 campaign.
#3 DUKE (26-4, 13-4 ACC) at NORTH CAROLINA (22-8, 12-5 ACC) - 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Nope, this Tobacco Road rivalry never does get old even when one of these clubs comes into play unranked and even though the other team has experienced a pair of relatively recent "mis-steps" (see losses at Maryland and at Virginia since mid-February).
The fact of the matter is Duke - the ACC's highest-scoring team while averaging a haughty 78.7 points per game - still could snag a #1 NCAA Tournament seed if it wins here and than cops next week's ACC Tournament in Greensboro but in order to bang out the regular-season sweep against the hated Tar Heels look for "role players" Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Tyler Thornton to make major contributions as was the case in the 73-68 non-cover win against Carolina in early February. Cook finished with 18 points and Sulaimon had 13 points that night plus Thornton fired up three made triples when Duke overcame Mason Plumlee foul woes to win.
Remember, sharpshooter Ryan Kelly - who has played in just 17 games this year - missed that tilt with his bad foot and so he's a major X-factor here following that epic 36-point game against Miami last weekend.
On Sunday, it's ...
ILLINOIS (21-10, 8-9 Big 10) at #14 OHIO STATE (22-7, 12-5 Big 10) - 1 p.m. ET
The free-for-all that is this year's Big 10 race for the top spots is coming right down to the last night and - guess what - here's the Ohio State Buckeyes one of four teams in this league with either 4 or 5 losses and still alive for the numero uno seed in next week's Big 10 Tourney in Chitown ... go figure!
Ohio State's earlier week win at Indiana surely raised eyebrows around the land but how about the fact the 'Eyes have won their last four games in a row - beating Minnesota and Michigan State in Columbus while scoring road wins at Northwestern and Indiana? Now, Thad Matta - maybe one of the country's two or three most-underrated game coaches come the month of March - gets to go for some sort of share for top prize in the Big 10 against a desperate Illinois team that slammed Ohio State 74-55 way back on January 5th.
The truth is John Groce's gang is just 3-5 SU (straight-up) in conference road games this year and snagging this upset will entail a real hot-shot night from G Brandon Paul (16.2 ppg) who must shoot it better than his current 40.4 field-goal percentage.
Here's the skinny on Illinois: Lose here and drop an opening-round Big 10 Tourney game and you're headed to the N-I-T!
#2 INDIANA (25-5, 13-4 Big 10) at #7 MICHIGAN (25-5, 12-5 Big 10) - 4 p.m. ET, CBS
Try, try again? No doubt that's what the Indiana Hoosiers must be thinking here as Tom Crean's club couldn't nail down an outright Big 10 regular-season title this past Tuesday night when IU came up 67-58 losers as 7 ½-point home favorites and so it's back to the drawing board for this mega-important game with the maize-and-blue. In the Indiana loss earlier this week, the Hoosiers were out of whack on offense - the 21-of-53 FG night just told part of the tale as Indy never did look comfortable against a "long" Buckeyes defense - and that could again be a problem here as Michigan sports plenty of length.
True, Indiana did notch an 81-73 home win against the Wolverines back on February 2nd - that's when Michigan was the nation's top-ranked team - and the Hoosiers did can more than half of their field-goal tries (see 26-of-50) with all five starters getting double-digit scoring totals led by F/C Cody Zeller's 19 points and Player of the Year candidate G Victor Oladipo (15 points).
There has been some real magic to all the top-flight Big 10 games this year - and plenty of the elite squads taking turns knocking off one another - but here's a shot for Indiana to make up for its Senior Night loss to Ohio State - can they corral Michigan PG Trey Burke who works lots of his own magic late in close games?
In that first meeting versus Indiana, Burke connected on just 9-of-24 FGs for 25 points but note the Wolves had just 13 total assists on 30 buckets.
Is it magic time again for Burke and friends? Stay tuned.
NOTE: More College Basketball Conference Tournament Previews coming all next week right here at Jim Sez!