Game of the weekend: Sat. No. 3 Missouri @ No. 4 Kansas, 4 p.m. (CBS)
I’m giddy just thinking about this game. Seriously. I’m writing this sentence with a huge smile on my face. Games like this are what makes this sport incredible. Two top five teams playing their final regular season game for the foreseeable future in what is one of the most intense rivalries in college athletics with the Big 12 title on the line. If I could change anything, I would make this game, which could be the final regular-season matchup in the 105-year history of the Border War, played on the last day of the regular season. It feels like this is for all the marbles. It would be even better if it actually was.
The biggest difference between these two teams now as opposed to the last time these teams got together is Jeff Withey. He went scoreless in 22 minutes against Missouri. Since then, he’s played like an All-American. It’s not a stretch to say that in the last five games, all wins, Withey has been as good as, if not better than, Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson. Kim English was matched up on Withey the last go-round. Withey needs to make that mismatch go in the Jayhawks’ favor on Saturday.
The Tigers are coming off of a loss to Kansas State at home on Tuesday in which Phil Pressey played his worst game of the season and everything that has been mentioned as a potential issue for this team — perimeter defense, interior size, shot selection — became an issue. I am as high on Missouri this season as anyone, but it almost looks like teams have figured out the blueprint for beating the Tigers. Winning in Phog Allen is not going to be an easy thing for Missouri to do, so I’m not going to come down too hard on them for a loss. But I do want to see them but up a fight.
My pick: I’m going with Kansas. I think the duo of Withey and Robinson will be too much, and the fact the game is in Lawrence will make a difference. I do, however, think it will be just as close and entertaining as their last matchup.
Five more games you can’t miss
Sat. Vanderbilt @ No. 1 Kentucky, 12 p.m. (CBS): The last time these two teams got together, Vanderbilt tore apart Kentucky’s defense for much of the second half, erasing a 13 point deficit and coming as close as anyone to knocking off the Wildcats. But that was in Nashville. This is in Rupp, and that makes all the difference in the world. John Calipari as yet to lose in Lexington as the head coach of Kentucky, and I don’t see it happening on Saturday. That said, if Kentucky comes out like they did in the first half against Mississippi State and Vanderbilt’s shooters get going, we may have ourselves a ball game.
Sat. Iowa State @ Kansas State, 1:30 p.m. (ESPN3): Both Iowa State and Kansas State have all-but punched their tickets to the dance barring a late-season collapse. What makes this game so intriguing to me is that a) it is essentially a battle for who is the fourth-best team in the Big 12 and b) a terrific matchup of styles. The Wildcats are your typical Frank Martin club — tenacious defensively and on the glass, big up front and with a couple of talents in the back court. Iowa State, on the other hand, is a team that plays their 6’8″ power forward at the point (Royce White) and likes to spread the floor and let the threes fly.
Sat. No. 7 UNC @ Virginia, 4 p.m. (ESPN): Back in January, UVA got torched by the Tar Heels in the Dean Dome, losing by 18 points and getting manhandled in the paint by Tyler Zeller and John Henson. And frankly, its tough to picture something different happening on Saturday. I think the Cavs are a terrific team when they are healthy, but I think that until they get Assane Sene — their seven-foot center — healthy, this is a group that is going to continue to struggle. With Sene, they had lost one game since Thanksgiving, and that was by three at Duke. Without him, they are 6-4 with losses to Virginia Tech and Clemson.
Sat. No. 22 Temple @ St. Joseph’s, 7 p.m. (ESPNU): Temple is as underrated as any team in the country right now. With Michael Eric back, they have size up front and as much talent in the back court as you will find this season. They are playing at a much faster pace than we usually expect from a Fran Dunphy coached team. That said, St. Joe’s is probably a bit better than their record indicates. Like Temple, they have some size and athleticism up front and a very good perimeter attack. I can’t be the only one expected to see Juan Fernandez, Ramone Moore and Khalif Wyatt go up against Carl Jones and Langston Galloway in a Big 5 game were one team is playing at home with their backs up against the NCAA Tournament bubble, can I?
Sun. No. 16 Wisconsin @ No. 8 Ohio State, 4 p.m. (CBS): Thanks to Wisconsin’s inability to deal with Matt Gatens and Iowa, this game has lost a bit of its luster. The Badgers have lost three of their last five games and currently sit all alone in fourth place in the conference with almost no chance of actually making a run at the league title. That said, the Buckeyes aren’t exactly playing well, either. It was nice to see William Buford get back on track a bit for Ohio State against Illinois, but that was also against Illinois. He struggled against Michigan and Michigan State in recent weeks. Without Buford performing consistently, the Buckeyes are very beatable.