The Hardcourt Shuffle: This Weekend’s Top 10 College Basketball Games
I’m having a hard time believing it’s already February, gang. I know it’s a bad weekend to complain, since the football fans of the world are just hours from hearing the last Super Bowl whistle and confronting the awful offseason, but I can feel March approaching, and it’s happening too fast. Once it arrives, we’ll all be too deep in the Madness to get nostalgic or fixate on the end, but the start of February is a dirty little reminder by whoever invented the calendar (Ben Franklin, probably) that college basketball is streaking past like UCLA on the break, even while winter plods on like the UVA offense. It’s also a reminder that we’ve already failed to uphold our New Year’s resolutions, and our lives are spiraling into failure and poverty. But as long as there’s a game on, I can live with that.
Luckily, the shortest and supposedly most depressing month of the year is stocked with college basketball, and the first weekend kicks off with what might be the best regular season game of the season. Let’s count it down.
10. No. 22 San Diego State at Air Force, Saturday, 3 p.m., Time Warner Sports Network
Humor me while I pretend to be an Aztecs homer trying to make a case that my team is on the fringe of college basketball’s elite. What would I do? First off, I’d talk about the quality wins. On the road at USC (ehhh), on a neutral floor against UCLA (better), on a neutral floor against a very strange Indiana State team who keeps beating good teams (hmmm), and at home against New Mexico, where they held the Lobos to 34 points (now we’re talking). Next, I’d try to rationalize the four losses. The first one, to Syracuse? It was on an aircraft carrier in windy conditions on a day when even Jim Boeheim admitted it was impossible to make jump shots. The second, to Arizona? Neutral floor, one-point loss, would’ve won if it wasn’t for a miracle block by Nick Johnson. At home to UNLV? Fair enough, tough loss, and maybe it exposed a lack of height, but UNLV isn’t a bad team. And finally, you can write off the 29 percent shooting night in Wyoming because it’s a crap shoot when you get up in the mountains and have to fight against the elevation all night.
Is the case convincing? It’s not bad, and I like that the New Mexico win vaulted SDSU into the top 10 in KenPom’s defensive ratings. But things have to keep trending positive, and the Aztecs have to prove they can win “tough” games on the road. Air Force sort of fits the bill; the Falcons shoot a lot of 3′s (which is good, because how can a team called Air Force not bomb from afar?), and they’ve reeled off four straight wins against iffy competition, but if both teams play their best, SDSU should run them off the floor. As a big Jamaal Franklin fan, I’m ready to get excited about the Aztecs, but these are the must-win games.
9. No. 18 Kansas State at Oklahoma, Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN2
Count me as one of the misled who thought KSU would beat Kansas at home last week, and also count me as a fool who thought Oklahoma would give the Jayhawks a better game in Lawrence last Saturday. Basically, I’ve been caught underrating Kansas one game after another, which is a big mistake since the Big 12 lacks a second elite team; it’s an even bigger mistake because Bill Self’s squads always improve as the year goes along. So neither team is Kansas-caliber yet. Instead, what we have here is a clash for second place in the conference between two 5-2 teams. The Wildcats won the first meeting in Manhattan, and now Oklahoma has a chance to turn the tables. Romero Osby (6-8) is the guy to watch for the Sooners, leading the team in points and rebounds, and he’ll have a chance to run rampant on a smaller Kansas State team led by 6-4 guard Rodney McGruder.
8. Iowa at no. 23 Minnesota, Sunday, 1 p.m., Big Ten Network
On Monday, I talked about Minnesota’s schedule and how a number of close losses to good teams led to a 3-4 start in conference play. The confidence crisis became clear in a road setback to Northwestern, but the schedule is clearing up, and it’s worth noting that the Gophers are still in KenPom’s overall top 10. This is a team who, by the metrics, should be among the best in the country, but have been just barely underachieving so far. With Trevor Mbakwe still playing despite his wrist injury, you have to expect that they’re due for some big wins. Iowa will be a challenge, even at home — the Hawkeyes nearly beat Indiana and Michigan State, and got their big win against Wisconsin — but this should be the moment when Minnesota rediscovers its identity — very efficient offensively, competent on defense, producing tons of second chances on the offensive glass, getting big 3′s from Andre and Austin Hollins, and grinding underneath with Rodney Williams and Mbakwe — and starts reeling off wins.
7. Oklahoma State at no. 2 Kansas, Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN3, YES Network
Can we talk for a moment about the golden age of televised college hoops? How amazing is it that stations like the YES Network, ROOT TV, the new Time Warner Sports Network, a billion regional Fox Sports affiliates, the ESPNs, the CBS and NBC Sports Networks, the Big Ten Network, and CBS all carry games and are available to any cable customer who doesn’t mind paying five extra dollars for a sports package? Not to mention the excellent online packages offered by ESPN and the BTN. (Speaking of which, what’s with no live or delayed Internet coverage, CBS? Yes, I’m being greedy.) A resourceful fan can dig deep and find just about any game he wants. These truly are the days of plenty.
Moving on. I’m being stubborn about Oklahoma State this year, because I really love Marcus Smart as a point guard and think he and Le’Bryan Nash should be a scary offensive core. But while the Cowboys play great defense, things haven’t quite clicked on the other end. My hope is that the Iowa State win on Wednesday was the start of a transformation, and that they’ll give Kansas a game. Unfortunately, the fact remains that OKSU hasn’t won a true road game all season, and the Phog Allen Fieldhouse probably isn’t the likeliest place to start. Also, Ben McLemore is a golden god who will reliably rescue the Jayhawks from any and every jam. So there’s always that.
6. No. 25 Marquette at no. 12 Louisville, Sunday, 2 p.m., ESPN
Look, I get it. When a team loses three straight games, as Louisville did, you have to shoot them down the rankings. But we all know Louisville is way better than no. 12, right? RIGHT?
The funny thing about this game is that both teams do everything well — everything except shoot 3’s. That’s been the Achilles’ heel for the Cardinals, who would be almost unstoppable if they had even one guy who could shoot over 35 percent from deep. But they don’t, and it’s cost them games. Marquette is even worse, but they’ve done well enough with that deficiency to run up a 6-1 Big East record, including a super impressive road win against Pittsburgh. I’m really, really looking forward to this game. It’s the perfect Super Bowl appetizer. Other than chicken wings, and chanting Eli Manning’s name until I have a vision where he floats down from the clouds and assures me that he’ll be back next year.
5. No. 6 Syracuse at Pittsburgh, Saturday, Noon, ESPN
Speaking of Pittsburgh, it might be time to give them the Ken Pomeroy Underachiever Award. Let me list nine of the top 10 teams in his rankings, and you tell me what they all have in common: Florida, Indiana, Michigan, Louisville, Duke, Kansas, Syracuse, Minnesota, Ohio State. The answer is, they’re all nationally ranked. Minnesota is fairly low at no. 23, but the other teams are no. 12 or better. The Pittsburgh Panthers, ranked sixth by Pomeroy when you take all the important metrics into account, are nowhere to be seen. That’s because they’ve managed to lose four Big East games already, one of which came at the hands of lowly Rutgers. But what about those other three losses: Louisville on the road by three, Cincinnati at home by nine, Marquette at home in overtime? Not a shameful one in the bunch. Before that, the Panthers’ only loss came to Michigan. The problem is, the only good win on the schedule so far is Georgetown, a team prone to scoring in the 30s on an off night.
What I’m saying is that Pittsburgh has the all-around numbers and the balanced scoring necessary to beat very good teams. They should be ranked, and probably will be by season’s end. Talib Zanna and Steven Adams are two of the best rebounders in the country, Tray Woodall and Lamar Patterson can both light it up from deep, and although it’s easy to forget, Jamie Dixon is a good coach with a reputation for building tough teams. They’ll be a nightmare for a high seed if they make the tournament. I’m convinced that this is their weekend to prove something, and I think they’ll do it convincingly.
4. No. 5 Duke at Florida State, Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN
Here’s what FSU’s Michael Snaer did to Maryland on Wednesday:
Here’s what he did to Duke last year in Cameron:
Here’s what he did to to Virginia Tech last year. Here’s what he did to Clemson a week ago. My point, I think, is that Duke will probably have a struggle on its hands in almost every road game left on the ACC schedule (sorry, Boston College), FSU might slowly be getting less terrible, and Michael Snaer is the clutchest player in the game. I still think Duke will win (the defense ain’t what it used to be in Tallahassee), but it will be hard.
3. No. 16 Ole Miss at no. 4 Florida, Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPNU
No team in the country is better than Florida. Ole Miss and Marshall Henderson captured our wild hearts with a 6-0 start in the SEC, but the reckoning came in the home loss to Kentucky this week, and now Henderson’s dark side is starting to become less amusing to everyone. The Gators are going to win this game in a blowout, but I’m putting it at no. 3 because watching Florida dominate is really, really fun.
2. No. 14 Miami at no. 19 NC State, Saturday, 4 p.m., CBS
I’ve been negative on NC State this year because their mediocre defense unequivocally dooms them to an early tournament exit (scroll to the bottom of that page for evidence), and the loss at Virginia isn’t confidence-inspiring, but the one thing I’ll say for the Wolfpack is that they’ve defended their home turf against Duke and North Carolina. In a triangle basketball scene where they’ve been typecast as the bullied younger brother, that’s not irrelevant. The only way State can beat good teams is by outscoring them — they sure as hell aren’t going to defend them for an entire game — and credit goes to them for pouring it on against their rivals in Raleigh.
But Miami is unlike any team State has seen this year. (Yes, including post-Kelly Duke.) The Canes are red-hot at the moment, and they have the fifth-best defense in the country. Shane Larkin, the sophomore point guard, is one of the few at his position who can stop Lorenzo Brown, the linchpin to State’s offense. Between Reggie Johnson and Kenny Kadji, Miami should be able to slow down C.J. Leslie … if he doesn’t slow himself down by pouting. (And if the game’s close, he probably will.) After a rocky beginning, Jim Larranaga has his team playing top-notch basketball. They haven’t just been winning; they’ve been dominating. If they can beat State, they’ll have established at least a two-game lead on everyone else in the conference at the halfway mark, and all but guaranteed themselves at least a share of the regular season ACC title.
Under ordinary circumstances, State can’t hang with these guys. The only way Miami can lose is if they beat themselves, and there hasn’t been a lot of that going around.
1. No. 1 Michigan at no. 3 Indiana, Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPN
This is the big one, everybody’s excited, and my services as a hype man are not required. So I’ll just say this: If Florida is my favorite to win the whole kit and caboodle, Michigan is a very close second. But people tend to forget that the Wolverines are still a relatively young team, with three underclassmen and two juniors in the starting five. Granted, one of those underclassmen is Trey Burke, who happens to be the best player in college basketball, but what they’ve done offensively — racking up the no. 1 efficiency in the country — is still a testament to John Beilein’s skill as a coach.
More importantly, I think that youth accounted for the punch in the mouth they took in the first half at Ohio State two weeks ago, when they staggered out of the gate and found themselves trailing by 21 with six minutes left in the first half. They outscored the Buckeyes 44-27 in the final 26 minutes of that game, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the awful start. But the comeback, though it fell three points short, still told me everything I needed to know about the Wolverines. Even in the worst possible circumstance, you can’t count them out.
And oddly enough, their experience in Columbus is the worst thing that could have happened to the Hoosiers. Because with a talent like Trey Burke and a coach like Beilein, a repeat performance is unlikely. (Editors: If Tim Hardaway Jr. pulls a Tim Hardaway Jr. and goes 1-18 from the field while Cody Zeller nabs 40 offensive boards, destroy this post immediately.)
I’ve been tough on Indiana all season because I think they’re soft, and I’ll go ahead and admit that this is essentially my last stand. If I’m wrong and Indiana wins, I’ll repent and confess the error of my ways. The evidence will have mounted against me, and I’ll sag to the ground in defeat. But for now, optimism prevails. I’m not just expecting a Wolverines win; I’m expecting the Michigan perimeter to dominate. And I’m expecting Burke to carve up Yogi Ferrell or Christian Watford, or, God forbid, Jordan Hulls. And I’m expecting Beilein, an excellent game coach, to take Tom Crean to school. Here I am, readers, putting myself on the line without disclaimers or reservations: Michigan rolls by double digits.