Game of the Weekend: Sat. 4:00 pm: No. 14 San Diego State @ No. 16 UNLV:
By now you should all know what happened the last time these two teams got together. Playing on a bum ankle, SDSU’s Jamaal Franklin had 22 points and 10 boards, including a tough, driving layup with just 0.3 seconds left on the clock as the Aztecs knocked off league favorite UNLV in Viejas Arena. That was the win that catapulted the Aztecs into the national consciousness and, frankly, to their spot at the top of the MWC standings.
But if you know anything about college basketball, you know that the Rebels are itching to get their shot at redemption in the Thomas and Mack Center on Saturday. UNLV is a different team playing in their own arena, which is a scary proposition considering that the Rebels are already considered arguably the most dangerous team on the west coast. With the taste of a last-second defeat still lingering on their palate and possibly their last shot to keep themselves within reach of a Mountain West regular season title on the line, you better believe that Dave Rice’s club is going to be ready to play.
The matchup alone is juicy enough. UNLV is one of the most entertaining teams in the country to watch. They are loaded with athletes, they love to get up and down the floor, they shoot — and make — quite a few threes and they have one of the country’s best kept secrets in Mike Moser. From a talent perspective, the Rebels should run away with this game. But SDSU is a poor man’s Missouri. They are well coached, they have a crop of talented perimeter players and they win games because their whole is greater than the sum of their parts. Getting a chance to see talents like Anthony Marshall and Franklin share a court is worth tuning in for.
But, as I mentioned, the intensity of this game is going to be ratcheted up by the importance of it. SDSU is currently sitting at 6-1 in the league, with a one game lead on both UNLV and New Mexico. With the MWC having just eight members this season, it means that there are only going to be 14 games played. Falling two games back with just six to play is a huge hole for UNLV to try and dig out of, especially when SDSU has already won both matchups.
My pick: I think UNLV gets it done on their home floor, and I think that the final isn’t going to be as close as the first meeting was.
Seven more you need to watch:
Sat. 1:00 pm: No. 20 Virginia @ No. 5 UNC: As the saying goes, ‘styles make the fight’, and no game this weekend is going to have a more intriguing contrast of styles than this one. Where UNC likes to get out and run the floor at every opportunity, UVA is as deliberate as teams come. They want to pack in their defense and turn this into a half court game. Think Wisconsin. And when UNC played Wisconsin, the Badgers nearly knocked off the Tar Heels despite playing far from their best game. UNC is coming off a dreadfully disappointing loss to Duke on Wednesday night. Unfortunately for the Cavs, they may have caught UNC at the exact wrong time. Of note: it should be interesting, especially for NBA scouts, to see Mike Scott work against the front line of Tyler Zeller and John Henson.
Sat. 1:47 pm: No. 6 Baylor @ No. 4 Missouri: Why the weird start time? Because somehow one of the best games of the season ended up getting stuck in the awkward time slot that the big 12 utilizes on every Saturday. So instead of being able to watch two top ten teams battle — one trying to regain some of the national respect they lost in an embarrassing performance against Kansas on Wednesday and the other trying to prove to the country that they, in fact, deserve to remain in the Big 12 race with Kansas — on that flatscreen HD you have, you better hope and pray that your internet service provider has ESPN3.
Sat. 3:00 pm: Cincinnati @ No. 19 Marquette: Cincinnati is reeling a bit. After picking up road wins against Georgetown and UConn, there was chatter that the Bearcats were actually the second-best team in the Big East. The inability to keep up that kind of play knocked the Bearcats back to the pack, however. Now Marquette is one of the teams that is getting put into that conversation, but they are coming off of a recent loss to Notre Dame. Of note: the Bearcats are one of the best road teams in the Big East, if not the country.
Sat. 6:00 pm: No. 12 Michigan State @ No. 3 Ohio State: The best basketball games always seem to be the ones where the individual matchup involves the coaching staff. With Tom Izzo going up against Thad Matta, there is little doubt in my mind that both teams will end up with perfectly drawn-up scouting reports. On the court, I see three keys to the game: how well Ohio State is able to keep the Spartans off the glass, how Jared Sullinger does against a defense that you know is going to be prepared and how William Buford plays.
Sat. 9:00 pm: Xavier @ Temple: Its a shame this game didn’t happen back in November, because in the events since then, neither team has been quite like themselves. Xavier is still reeling from the brawl, unable to get back into the kind of rhythm they had earlier in the season. Temple, on the other hand, seems to finally be hitting their stride with Michale Eric back in the lineup. I don’t care what the standings say, I still think these are the two best teams in the Atlantic 10.
Who’s getting upset?: Sat. 9:00 pm: No. 1 Kentucky @ Vanderbilt
Here’s my theory: the way that you beat Kentucky is by getting physical with their big guys. The Wildcats don’t have much depth up front and the big men that they do have (Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones) can get pushed around by bigger opponents. Enter Festus Ezeli. Ezeli is a big, strong, first-round pick that is going to do nothing if not try to get Davis into foul trouble. If he succeeds in using his physicality inside — and John Jenkins and Jeff Taylor get into a rhythm shooting the ball, Vandy has a shot to win this game at home.
Three more teams who should be on upset watch:
Sat. 12:00 pm: No. 23 Louisville @ West Virginia: The Mountaineers are heading into what many would probably terms a must-win. WVU has now lost four of their last five games, which assuredly is making West Virginia fans fret. They are getting dangerously close to being back towards the wrong side of the bubble. But with league player of the year favorite Kevin Jones anchoring their lineup and a mad Bob Huggins, this is the kind of game that is primed for the picking.
Sat. 1:00 pm: Miami @ No. 17 Florida State: I thought that I was convinced by Florida State after they won against UNC and knocked off Duke in Cameron. And then FSU had to go and lose to Boston College. I officially have no idea what to make of that team, but I do believe that Miami is going to be one of the nation’s late-risers. With an upset of Duke in Cameron already under their belt as well and a roster with a ton of firepower — including matchup nightmare Kenny Kadji — the Canes just may have the pieces to beat the Noles.
Sat. 4:00 pm: No. 21 Harvard @ Princeton: Princeton is down a bit this season. Heading into the weekend, the Tigers are sitting at 2-3 in conference play. But with Harvard coming to town, you know that team is going to be ready to play.
Mid-major matchup of the weekend: Sat. 5:00 pm: Wichita State @ No. 15 Creighton
Well, this was pretty obvious, wasn’t it? Do I even need to set the stage? Creighton went into Wichita and knocked off the Shockers a month ago, but that win and public sentiment made it difficult to convince people that the Shockers may actually be the best team in the Missouri Valley. They don’t have the same kind of high-powered that the Bluejays do, but they have a much better defense. WSU has a slew of talented perimeter players, but no one in the Valley — hell, very few players across the country — have been playing as well as Garrett Stutz over the last three weeks. The question is whether or not WSU will have an answer to Doug McDermott.
Five more mid-major matchups worth keeping an eye on:
Fri. 7:00 pm: No. 21 Harvard @ Penn: If it wasn’t for Creighton-Wichita State, I would have put this game up at the top of the evidence. In this one, you will get a chance to see one of the best point guars in the country — Scott Machado.
Fri. 7:00 pm: Iona @ Loyola (MD): First place in the MAAC is on the line. With how many points Iona is capable of putting up, why wouldn’t you check in for this game.
Sat. 1:00 pm: Arkansas-Little Rock @ Middle Tennessee State: The Sun Belt’s division leaders square off. If you have still not seen MTSU play, this may be a good game to sneak in on them. The Blue Raiders may not have the profile to earn themselves an at-large big, but this is certainly a group that can win in the tournament if need be.
Sat. 2:00 pm: VCU @ Old Dominion: Both VCU and ODU are down, which could actually be better news for this. The CAA is wide-open, with four teams all within a game of that first.
Sun. 12:00 pm: Vermont @ Stony Brook: First place in the America East is on the line.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.