NCAA Final Four Kentucky Louisville Basketball

Weekend Preview: Five storylines to follow

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Kentucky and Louisville, tables turned?: I don’t think there’s really an argument that, right now, Kentucky and Louisville have the fiercest rivalry in the country. Let’s ignore, for a second, that this rivalry has been built across socioeconomic and geographic lines, or that it is a battle for supremacy in the state where college basketball happens to reign king. The Wildcats and the Cardinals were both in the Final Four last season. They compete for the same recruits. They have head coaches that hate each other. There are other rivalries that are full of hatred, but based on the recent history between these two programs, it gets no better than this right now.

The best part, however, is that Louisville has flipped the tables on Kentucky. The Wildcats are the ones coming off of a national title and the ones that can land seemingly any recruit in the country that they set their sights on, but it’s Louisville that is currently top five in the country and Louisville that is considered a real threat to do something more than reach the tournament’s second weekend this season. Kentucky may have had more recent success, but it’s Louisville that is the healthiest program in the state right now.

Let’s see how long that lasts.

Disappointing matchups this weekend: It’s tough to take the luster off of a matchup between Louisville and Kentucky, but one of the things that made this game the most anticipated of the season was that it not only featured a great rivalry, but that great rivalry was a rematch of the Final Four between two teams ranked in the top three. Well, that’s not the case anymore. Kentucky needed to pick up a couple of wins over the last two weeks just to climb back into the bottom of the top 25 poll. Louisville is still a top five team, but I’m not sure how many people consider them the favorite to win the national title anymore.

That’s not the only game this happened to, either. North Carolina’s struggles have made their matchup with UNLV less appealing (although with the way that both teams like to get up and down the floor, I think it will be easy to convince people to tune in). Baylor has fallen off the map after looking like a real contender to Kansas in the Big 12, which means that their trip to Spokane to take on Gonzaga has been dulled. UCLA has won a couple games of late, but their early-season issues have dampened the expectations for their season. Missouri, on the other hand, is still a top ten team, but without Michael Dixon, they aren’t the same kind of national threat.

Missouri Valley action kicks off: While everyone else is excited about the Mountain West race this season, I’m looking forward to seeing the competition in the MVC as much as anything. The action kicks off on Saturday, which Wichita State hosting Northern Iowa playing the featured role.

Last chance to turn around a disappointing non-conference season?: There haven’t been many teams in the country more disappointing that USC this year. The Trojans brought in all kinds of talent on the transfer market and managed to get all of the players they lost last season back and healthy, yet they are still sitting at 4-8 on the season with the New Year right around the corner. The Trojans will have a chance to get themselves headed in the right direction when they host Dayton on Saturday.

USC isn’t the only disappointment looking to right their ship with conference play coming. Memphis will take on a pair of quality mid-major foes in Oral Roberts and Loyola (MD). St. Joe’s will get a chance to notch a solid win when they take on Iona. Even West Virginia will be looking to close out their non-conference schedule with a win over Eastern Kentucky.

Kwamaine Mitchell is back: The best player on St. Louis will return to the lineup on Saturday when the Billikens take on SIU-Edwardsville. St. Louis has been a bit of a disappointment this season, but disappointment is a harsh word when you consider that Mitchell was out of the lineup and the team was trying to adjust to playing under a new coach as the late Ric Majerus could not coach this season. Butler, Temple and VCU and the popular picks to win the league this season. Can Mitchell get St. Louis back into that conversation?

UNLV’s Stephen Zimmerman out with a knee injury

UNLV forward Stephen Zimmerman Jr. shoots against San Diego State during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Las Vegas. (L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Sun via AP)
(L.E. Baskow/Las Vegas Sun via AP)
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The injury Stephen Zimmerman suffered on Saturday will keep the star UNLV freshman out for at least a week, a source told NBC Sports.

The injury is not thought to be serious, however. Zimmerman may be kept out for longer as a precaution, but that’s a result of the Runnin’ Rebels being in a situation where the rest of their regular season is relatively meaningless.

They’re not getting an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament regardless of how they finish out league play. With back-up center Ben Carter out with a torn ACL, it’s more important to make sure that Zimmerman, who is averaging 10.6 points and 9.1 boards this season, is totally healthy for the Mountain West tournament.

That tournament, mind you, will be played at UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center.

So the Runnin’ Rebels, regardless of how poor they’ve played this season, will always have a chance to land an automatic bid.

Anyway, the more interesting aspect of this story is how Zimmerman injured the knee. It was a completely avoidable play that came after the whistle, but I’m not sure it was what you would call a “dirty play”. You tell me:

VIDEO: Buddy Hield is ‘all money’ on game-winning three vs. No. 24 Texas

Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield (24) takes a shot over Oklahoma State forward Chris Oliver during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Stillwater, Okla., Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)
(AP Photo/Brody Schmidt)
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With a little more than three minutes left on Monday night, No. 24 Texas held a 57-51 lead on No. 3 Oklahoma in Norman as Jordan Woodard struggled again and Buddy Hield failed to find the rhythm that he had throughout the first three months of the season.

At that point in the game, Hield was 4-for-14 from the floor with 15 points and four turnovers. He had just missed a pair of wide-open threes

“I couldn’t make a shot,” Hield said after the game. But that changed down the stretch. First, Hield finally got a three to drop. On the next possession, he got all the way to the rim and scored. On the following two possessions, he was fouled on a drive to the rim and hit four free throws. And after missing a pull-up jumper, Hield did this:

“I told coach I wanted the ball,” Hield said, “I saw Lammert coming to bite, so I pulled up.”

“It’s all money.”

Hield is already the favorite to win National Player of the Year, and this performance is only going to help his cause further. Think about it like this: Buddy was not good on Monday night, at least according to his (admittedly lofty) standards. But he still finished with 27 points and shook off a cold shooting night just in time to take over down the stretch.

Now think about this: Hield’s head coach has enough confidence in him to hand him the keys in the final minutes despite the fact that he’s struggling and on a team that has two other players that Lon Kruger trusts on game-winning possessions. Think about it. When Oklahoma beat West Virginia at the buzzer, it was Jordan Woodard that the play was drawn up for. When they beat LSU, it was Isaiah Cousins that got the rock on the final possession while Hield was used as a decoy. .

Want to talk about coaching luxuries?

Kruger has three guards that can shoot, penetrate and score, and penetrate and kick, and one of them is the National Player of the Year that doesn’t mind being used as a decoy.