Finally, the SEC and the Big East made the decision to expand to an all-out, full-fledged conference battle.
But the leagues did mess up. For starters, both Kentucky and UConn are playing teams from the bottom of the opposing conference. St. John’s and Arkansas appeared to be on the rise a year ago, but let me give you schedule-makers a tip — when you are manufacturing a competition, it’s best to pit two of the best teams taking part against each other.
Who doesn’t want to see the Huskies play the Wildcats in a rematch of last year’s Final Four? Um, everyone.
Miss this game for a wedding, but only if you’re getting married:
No. 1 — Friday 7 p.m.: No. 9 Florida at No. 3 Syracuse
In a week that gave us three games pitting top 10 teams, Syracuse and Florida may actually have the most intrigue. For starters, there is the obvious — the Bernie Fine scandal. With the speed at which this story has transformed, who knows what will happen between now and Friday night. And, making the story all the more interesting, who knows what questions are going to have to be asked of coach Jim Boeheim in the press conference after the game? Given his history with the media, the postgame may have more fireworks than the game itself.
For Florida, this will be the first time that they take the court against a real opponent without Erik Murphy. Murphy was the x-factor entering the season. Through four games, he looked like he was primed to be a serious weapon for the Gators. There aren’t many 6-9 forwards that can shoot the ball and spread the floor like he can. He would have been especially valuable against a team like Syracuse that plays strictly zone.
In terms of who will actually be on the court, we get one of the most exciting back court matchups that we’ve seen this young season. Florida boasts three upperclassmen in Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker and Mike Rosario, but the best of the bunch may be freshman Brad Beal. It feels like we are saying this every year about the Gators, but keep an eye on the way that Boynton and Walker play. The knock on them throughout their career has been mediocre shot selection. Walker’s making better decisions, and Boynton has hit 22-45 from beyond the arc. Watching them attack the 2-3 zone should be fun.
For Syracuse, their back court starts with Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche and continues with the dynamic Dion Waiters coming off of the bench. But the key for the Orange in this one will have little to do with their guard play. Boeheim’s team is loaded up front with size and athleticism, something that the Gators lack behind Patric Young. Players like CJ Fair and James Southerland will be a tough matchup for Florida. Also keep an eye on Kris Joseph. Florida is going to have difficulty dealing with his length on the wing.
No. 2 — Friday 8:30 p.m.: No. 19 Vanderbilt at No. 6 Louisville
Injuries have diluted what could have been one of the season’s best matchups. Vandy is without their hoss in the paint, as Festus Ezeli is still battling his eye back from a sprained knee. Louisville? We may be better off listing the players that are healthy with the number of injuries that Rick Pitino’s team has had to deal with already this year. Peyton Siva is banged up. Rakeem Buckles and Stephen Van Treese are out. Elisha Justice has a broken nose. Mike Marra and Wayne Blackshear are out for the season. Roll call — did I miss anyone?
Louisville has thrived this season thanks to defense, though Pitino has kept the team in check to prevent further injuries. Against Long Beach State, Pitino finally let the reins out a bit, and the Cardinals ran LBSU off the court, at least until their legs caught up to them. The biggest issue for Vanderbilt is going to be how they defend Louisville’s back court. Siva, Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith are an impressive trio, and Russ Smith has been a pleasant surprise for Louisville fans. (Card Chronicle has the best line I’ve read on Russ Smith this year, referring to the Smith’s questionable shot selection as “Russ things”.)
I’m concerned about Vanderbilt’s ability to defend Louisville’s perimeter attack, but I am also worried about how Vandy is going to be able to break the Louisville press. Brad Tinsley and John Jenkins can both shoot the heck out of the ball, but they have a tendency to struggle against pressure defense. Kevin Stallings is going to want to take advantage of the mismatch that Jeff Taylor creates. He is too big and too athletic for any of Louisville’s perimeter players.
These games are worth TiVoing the season finale of “Sons of Anarchy:”
No. 3 – Thursday, 9:30 p.m.: Georgetown at No. 12 Alabama
This one should be fun. Alabama defense features a physical and athletic frontline in JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell. Georgetown, on the other hand, has been one of the surprises of the young season. Jason Clark and Hollis Thompson have both been terrific, while Henry Sims will get a real test going up against the bigs of the Crimson Tide. I like Alabama’s young perimeter attack, but the key to this game is where it’s being played — Alabama doesn’t lose in Tuscaloosa.
No. 4 – Saturday, 9 p.m.: West Virginia at Mississippi State: The frontcourt matchup will be entertaining. Renardo Sidney and Arnett Moultrie, for all of the effort and conditioning issues that are present, are as big and as talented as anyone in the country. But West Virginia has their own pair of quality big men in Kevin Jones and Deniz Kilicli. The rebounding battle is going to be important, but it will be interesting to see how West Virginia’s freshman point guard Jabarie Hinds will handle Mississippi State’s Dee Bost.
Pick: Mississippi State
No. 5 – Saturday, 5:15 p.m.: No. 17 Pitt at Tennessee
Last year, Tennessee went into Pittsburgh and knocked off the Panthers in impressive fashion. This year, however, both teams are way down. Pitt is struggling mightily on defense, while Tennessee is plain old struggling. After losing to both Duke and Memphis in Maui, Tennessee dropped a roadie to Oakland this week. But the Vols have a talented pair in Trae Golden and Jeronne Maymon, the latter of which will get a chance to showcase his skills against one of the country’s biggest frontlines.
Watch the “Sons of Anarchy” finale, but TiVo the “Law and Order” reruns:
No. 6 – Thursday, 7:30 p.m.: St. John’s at No. 1 Kentucky
Kentucky is probably the country’s most talented team. But its point guard, Marquis Teague, has turnover issues. St. John’s loves to press, and it could cause some issues for the Wildcats. That said, St. John’s is very, very young. And heading into Rupp. This could easily turn into a massacre.
No. 7 — Saturday 3:15 p.m.: Arkansas at No. 10 UConn
The Huskies have major question marks: When will Alex Oriakhi show up? Is Andre Drummond ever going to become consistent? Will Shabazz Napier or Jeremy Lamb ever take the reins of this team? How good is Ryan Boatright? UConn has much more talent than Arkansas, but they also had much more talent than Central Florida.
Follow a beat writer on twitter for the game:
No. 8 – Friday, 7 p.m.: Cincinnati at Georgia
The Bearcats were supposed to be a contender to finish in the top five of the Big East. But they’ve already lost to Presbyterian and Marshall. When will Yancy Gates become the star he was supposed to be this year? Georgia does have some talent, in particular guard Gerald Robinson.
No. 9 – Thursday, 9 p.m.: Ole Miss at DePaul
This game looks ugly on paper, but there is some intrigue. Ole Miss has some talent on their roster — they just knocked off Miami in overtime — and DePaul has been impressive thus far. Can Brandon Young, Cleveland Melvin and company pull of the win?
Pick: Ole Miss
Checking the box score in the morning may be too much:
No. 10 — Friday, 9 p.m.: Auburn at Seton Hall: Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore are finally playing up to their potential. Auburn is improved, but they had nowhere to go but up.
Pick: Seton Hall
No. 11 – Saturday, 7 p.m.: LSU at Rutgers: LSU has been awful. That’s enough for Rutgers.
No. 12 – Thursday, 7 p.m.: Providence at South Carolina: South Carolina is terrible. Providence looks to be better this season, and guys like Vincent Council and Gerald Coleman has been putting up some impressive performances.
And the winner is? The Big East, 8-4.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.