The Week Ahead: What to Watch in College Basketball (2/21-2/27)

The Week Ahead: What to Watch in College Basketball (2/21-2/27)
Feb 20, 2009, 08:52 am
This past week witnessed another top seed biting this dust. This time it was Connecticut at the hands of conference-rival Pittsburgh. With conference schedules winding down and Bracket Busters lined up all Saturday afternoon and evening, this week promises to be even better. The stakes are raised as the nation's top teams are now vying for NCAA seeds in addition to conference rank, which makes these games all the more important. Scouts will be watching intently and so should you. Here is what we're watching in college basketball this week.

Marquee Matchups:

#2 Oklahoma at Texas (Saturday, February 21st: 9 p.m. on ESPN)

The Texas Longhorns have fallen upon hard times lately, dropping out of the top 25 and losing four of their last six games. Now, sitting on a 17-8 record, they're going to need to finish the season strong in order to secure a good spot in the NCAA tournament and have a chance to make a run in the post-season. Unfortunately, their road to the post-season includes a home game against the Oklahoma Sooners, who are on the verge of being the #1 ranked team in the country, have won 13 straight games since losing on the road against Arkansas, and beat the Longhorns handily last time around.

In this game, keep your eyes on the post, as two of the nation's top big men, not to mention draft prospects, face off. Texas's junior combo-forward Damion James is only 6'7, but he is a stellar rebounder and a versatile scorer. A big game against the country's best big man, Oklahoma's 6'10 sophomore Blake Griffin would do wonders for his stock, which has somewhat stagnated this season. Griffin, on the other hand, will not make it easy, turning out one of the most impressive seasons in recent memory, to the tune of 22.8 ppg, 14.2 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.3 spg, and 1.3 bpg in just 33.2 mpg.

On the perimeter, scouts will be watching Griffin's sidekick, 6'5 freshman phenom Willie Warren, capable on and off of the ball, and willing to take up the scoring reigns if, by some remote chance, Griffin has an off-night. Last, but not least, be sure to pay attention to Texas's new-look backcourt, with 5'11 senior sharpshooter A.J. Abrams, who must have a good shooting night for the Longhorns to have a chance, and 6'0 sophomore PG Dogus Balbay, who emerged from out o nowhere to become the team's top distributor, averaging 6.3 apg compared to just 1.7 TOpg over his last three games.

A win for Texas would be valuable because they're looking to get their swagger back after losing valuable momentum. For Oklahoma, however, a win in this game will almost surely result in the Sooners receiving the top ranking in the nation.

Tennessee at Kentucky (Saturday, February 21st: 1 p.m. on CBS)

Kentucky lost a must-win contest at Vanderbilt and Tennessee was embarrassed on the road at Mississippi, dropping both teams back on to the bubble and making this game look increasingly like the final straw in each respective team's post-season hopes. It will be tough to win at Kentucky, but as we have been saying all year, it is not as if Tennessee doesn't have the talent. The problem for the Volunteers, as it has been all year, is consistent defensive energy and consistent play from the point guard position.

Defensively, they'll have their hands full with the inside-outside combination of Kentucky's 6'8 big man Patrick Patterson and 6'4 scoring sensation Jodie Meeks. Combined, the pair is averaging 43.6 ppg, 12.8 rpg, and 3.6 apg, making them the clear focal points of the Kentucky offense.

If Tennessee can find a way to stop or even to slow them, they will have a very good chance of winning this game. They will also need another stellar performance from junior forward Tyler Smith and some perimeter shooting from freshman gunner Scotty Hopson. It also wouldn't hurt to have another solid performance from 6'7 combo-guard J.P. Prince, who since taking the reigns as point guard, has averaged 9.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, and 6.5 apg (1.8 TOpg) in a stretch that has witnessed the Volunteers win four of six games.

#8 Wake Forest at #9 Duke (Sunday, February 22nd: 7:30 p.m. on FSN)

Both Wake Forest and Duke have lost their share of bad games this year and it seems as though this is each team's last chance to show the selection committee that they're deserving of a top two seed in the NCAA tournament. We've showcased this match up before and nothing really changes, except that Duke is playing at home and Wake Forest has won two games in a row since losing four of six earlier in the New Year. Thus, this game finds both teams with a lot to prove.

For Duke it'll be a chance to prove that they can be the highest echelon of ACC team and can snap an ugly two game conference losing streak. Wake, they'll need to prove that their home win over Duke wasn't a fluke and that they can win in the ACC on the road. The key match up in this game is between two of the ACC's finest combo forwards, Wake Forest's James Johnson and Duke's Kyle Singler. Both of these players have elevated their play in recent games and their draft stock has been increasing accordingly. Similarly, Duke wing Gerald Henderson has emerged as a legitimate lottery prospect after a quiet early season and will look to prove himself against Wake Forest's freshman phenomenon, Al-Farouq Aminu, another player that has boosted his draft stock as the season has continued.

Also don't miss the battle of the backcourt Duke will look to slow down Wake Forest point guard Jeff Teague, who has experienced entire defensive schemes designed to quell the explosive scoring outbursts that he displayed earlier in the season. Only now, Wake Forest has found other ways to win. There is a lot riding on this game and is a classic not to be missed by any self-respecting basketball fan.

#7 Louisville at Georgetown (Monday, February 23rd: 7 p.m. on ESPN)

This is Georgetown's last stand. With just five games left before the Big East tournament, including match ups against Marquette, Louisville, and a game at Villanova, Georgetown has to win now and improve upon its terrible 14-10 record and tenth place standing the Big East.

If Georgetown wants to a chance to beat the seventh ranked team in the country, the team will have to get the better of every match up on the floor. First and foremost, however, Georgetown will have to have huge performances from its top players. Hoya's 6'11 center Greg Monroe has found his touch again after shooting a dismal 33% from the field against Cincinnati and has responded with two straight double doubles. He'll match up against 6'8 Samardo Samuels, who has had a stretch of good play lately after seemingly hitting the freshman wall in early February.

This game also boasts a match up between two of the nation's better combo-forward prospects: Louisville's 6'8 Earl Clark and Georgetown's DaJuan Summers. Both players have been wildly inconsistent this season, but are almost always significant factors in big wins and losses. Another player to watch is Georgetown's 6'1 point guard Chris Wright who has started to assert himself more vocally on the offensive end, providing the leadership that the Hoyas have lacked all season long.

Also, do not forget about Louisville wing Terrence Williams, who will have a favorable match up on the perimeter, and needs to prove to scouts that his single digit scoring efforts are a thing of the past. This is a game between a team looking to make the jump into the nation's elite and a team trying to escape from the basement of the Big East. Don't miss it, because if Georgetown loses again, it's likely the last you'll hear of the Hoyas for the rest of the season.

#15 Kansas at #2 Oklahoma (Monday, February 23rd: 9 p.m. on ESPN)

While the perimeter scoring duel between Kansas' Sherron Collins and Oklahoma freshman Willie Warren will be enthralling, the real reason to watch this game to see a meeting of two of the nation's finest big men: Oklahoma's Blake Griffin and Kansas's Cole Aldrich. You know the story on Griffin, but Aldrich isn't half bad, either, averaging 14.9 ppg, 10.3 rpg, and 2.5 bpg while shooting 62% FG and 80% FT. The two have yet to face off this season and scouts will be tuned in to see who comes out on top. Don't miss this one.

Florida at #23 Louisiana State (Tuesday, February 24th: 9 p.m. on ESPN)

LSU finally emerged as the SEC team that would crack the top 25 after multiple weeks without a conference representative, and after a thriller at Arkansas, it looks as though they are deserving of the honor. Shooting guard Marcus Thornton and small forward Tasmin Mitchell have both elevated their play and will be especially difficult for the upset minded Florida Gators to stop. The key for the Gators, however, revolves around if point guard Nick Calathes can get to the basket and put points on the board against one of the nation's top defenders, Louisiana State's Garrett Temple. Similarly, the Gators will have to get points in the post, which could be difficult if Louisiana State big man Chris Johnson continues to be a force around the basket, averaging 3.8 bpg during the Tigers' past 10 games, nine of which have been wins. This is a chance for Louisiana State to prove itself on national television and to solidify the notion that they are the top team in the SEC.

#1 Connecticut at #10 Marquette (Wednesday, February 25th: 7 p.m. on ESPN)

Before falling at home to Pittsburgh, Connecticut had held onto their top ranking longer than any team thus far this season. The Huskies face one of their toughest challenges yet when they travel to Milwaukee to face tenth ranked Marquette. Connecticut has a tremendous advantage in the frontcourt, with more size than Marquette knows what to do with, especially now that 6'9 Stanley Robinson has rejoined the rotation alongside of 6'7 Jeff Adrien and 7'3 Hasheem Thabeet.

The Golden Eagles only have 6'6 combo-forward Lazar Hayward to throw at the Huskies tremendous front line, but have a clear advantage in the backcourt, especially now that Connecticut is missing star slasher Jerome Dyson. The Golden Eagles start perhaps the most feared and athletic perimeter trio in the Big East with Dominic James at the point, Jerel McNeal off the ball, and Wesley Matthew on the wing. While Huskies A.J. Price has stepped up his game offensively, he will have his hands full with McNeal's defense and the sheer depth of the Golden Eagles' backcourt. Marquette will look to turn the tempo up and Connecticut will likely look inside. The result could make for an incredible basketball game.

#14 Arizona State at #22 Washington (Thursday, February 26th: 11 p.m. on FSN Regional)

Washington is one of the nation's biggest surprises this year, ranked twenty second in the nation and atop the Pac-10 conference standings. Their season gets significantly harder from here on out, however, facing the two Los Angeles schools on the road before coming home to take on the Arizona State Sun Devils, ranked fourteenth alongside a 20-5 record. The last time these two teams played, Washington pulled out an eye-opening win in Tempe.

The Huskies have a fairly complete roster and while Arizona State has the tendency to smother teams that lack a balanced attack, the combination of Isaiah Thomas and Justin Dentmon in the backcourt and Jon Brockman and Quincy Pondexter in the frontcourt might be enough to throw off Coach Herb Sendeck's dreaded zone.

Arizona State isn't easy to contain, either, primarily because of James Harden, the do-it-all combo guard who has improved upon a stellar freshman season to emerge as one of the country's most lethal offensive players. Though containing Harden will occupy most of their defensive energy Huskies would do well not to forget about Sun Devil center Jeff Pendergraph, who is quietly one of the nation's most efficient and productive big men. The last time that these two met, Pendergraph had 21 points and 15 rebounds. This is a match up between the two top teams in the Pac-10 and for fans and scouts alike, certainly worth watching.

Off the Beaten Track:

#21 Butler at Davidson (Saturday, February 21st: 12 p.m. on ESPN)

Davidson and Butler are traditionally two of the best mid-majors in the country. Lately, however, you'd never know it. Davidson has lost two of their last four games, including a blowout loss at home against the Citadel, which was without star Stephen Curry, but nonetheless embarrassing. Butler has no such excuses, having dropped two straight games, which greatly endangers their top 25 ranking. Worry not, however, as both teams have the chance to right the ship when they face off on Saturday afternoon.

Davidson's sole hope is that Stephen Curry comes back from a nasty ankle injury and returns to carry the scoring load. The 6'3 combo guard is averaging 29.0 ppg (46% FG, 39% 3FG, and 87% FT), 4.1 rpg, and 5.8 apg and, as the world learned on Wednesday, is the heart and soul of the Davidson offense. Without him, this game could get ugly. Butler, on the other hand, has a more balanced offensive attack, relying heavily on a frontline of Matt Howard and standout freshman combo forward Gordon Hayward. The duo combines for 27.5 ppg and 13.3 rpg. In the loss to Milwaukee, Hayward managed just 4 points and 4 rebounds to go alongside of 5 turnovers. For the Bulldogs to win, he has to step up to the plate offensively. Similarly, freshman point guard Shelvin Mack has to regain the composure he showed earlier in the season. He is shooting a miserable 5/21 FG and 1/11 3FG in Butler's two recent losses.

Don't miss this game as two of the nation's top mid-majors battle and prospects that rarely get significant airtime once conference play begins have the opportunity to show scouts what all of the hype is about.

Virginia Military Academy at Liberty (Tuesday, February 24th: 7 p.m. on Liberty Channel)

Virginia Military Academy plays one of the most unique, high paced offenses in the country and finally has been successful, sporting a 20-6 record, which is good or second in the Big South Conference. They're trailed by one game by Liberty, led by Stephen Curry's brother Seth, who despite being a 6'1 shooting guard, is torching nets to the tune of 20.6 ppg. The fraternal theme runs rampant in this game as the Holmes brothers, Travis and Chavis, power Virginia Military's offense. Travis is the distributor, but Chavis is one of the nation's most efficient and explosive offensive players, averaging 21.9 ppg while shooting 53% FG, 45% 3FG, and 84% FT. If you by chance get the Liberty Channel, give this game a look.

#5 Memphis at UTEP (Saturday, February 21st: 4 p.m. on ESPN)

This game is all about matchups, and while Memphis seemingly has the opper hand, UTEP team is a bad team to sleep on, particularly based on their win against Saint Mary's and a solid showing against Wake Forest. Nearly every position yields an interesting match up, but pay particularly close attention to the post, where power forward Robert Dozier's improved numbers will be put to the test against UTEP's 6'11 freshman power forward Arnette Moultrie, who has the potential to develop into an NBA prospect down the road and has shown flashes of excellence, especially 13 points and 13 rebounds against Wake Forest and 19 points and 18 rebounds against Houston. Memphis's freshman point guard Tyreke Evans will have his hands full as well, bringing his shot happy offense against UTEP's 6'6 point guard and defensive stopper, Julyan Stone. Stone doesn't do much on the offensive end, but he contributes on both ends of the floor and is developing into a very good distributor.

Last but not least, don't forget about UTEP's deadly 6'5 shooting guard Stefon Jackson who is averaging 23.1 ppg, but is not scoring nearly as efficiently as he was last year. Though he has rebounded nicely since shooting 1/11 in a loss against Tulsa, he will have his hands full against Memphis's versatile wing Antonio Anderson, who will likely be guarding him. If UTEP plays to their potential, especially taking home court advantage into consideration, they could give Memphis their toughest conference match up yet. This game features some nice prospects and could be quite a thriller. Do not miss this one.

Brigham Young at UNLV (Saturday, February 21st: 11 p.m. on CBS College Sports Network)

BYU has stumbled somewhat since their outstanding start of the season, but have started winning again and head into a difficult stretch of games where they take on the best teams in the MWC and have the chance to prove that they are worthy of an at-large bid in the NCAAs. Their first challenge, however, won't be easy. UNLV rarely plays up to their potential, but when they do, they are a dangerous and versatile team. Behind the backcourt led by combo guards 6'0 Wink Adams and 6'4 Tre'Von Willis, UNLV lacks Brigham Young's size, but can match their scoring ability. Brigham Young starts 6'2 Jimmer Fredette at the point and 6'7 Lee Cummard in the backcourt, who have the size and versatility to give the UNLV guards nightmares. The key to this game, however, may be UNLV swingman and defensive stopper Rene Rougeau, who will either be assigned to Cummard or streaky gunner Jonathan Tavernari, and has shown the ability to shut down the conference's best scorers. There is a lot riding on this game for Brigham Young, who look to avenge their home loss to UNLV in January and make a strong run at an at-large bid.

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