By Jon Rothstein
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GEORGETOWN AT CINCINNATI
The hottest team in the Big East will travel to the Queen City to take on pound for pound the toughest team in college basketball. Cincinnati has shown their warts throughout the season, but the Bearcats have remained a feisty group that attacks loose balls like a flock of seagulls going after a ham sandwich. Mick Cronin’s team set a school record with 46 deflections in their win over Villanova on Tuesday night, and you can bet that they’ll attack Georgetown with the same ferocity. Cincinnati’s relentless pressure has given the Hoyas fits in the past few seasons, and this game might come down to overall team depth. We like the Bearcats in a tight one.
PREDICTION: CINCINNATI 58, GEORGETOWN 55
DUKE AT MARYLAND
Desperate times call for desperate measures and that’s just what this is for the Terps. Any hopes that Maryland has of reaching the NCAA Tournament hinge solely on whether or not Mark Turgeon’s team can beat Duke on Saturday. The Terps don’t have a plethora of quality wins on their NCAA resume and need a season-changing victory. Maryland has the interior size to guard Mason Plumlee and the Terps will need a strong shooting game from freshman small forward Jake Layman, who has quietly emerged as this team’s X-Factor. The Blue Devils are clearly the better team, but Maryland is more desperate.
PREDICTION: MARYLAND 68, DUKE 65
SAN DIEGO STATE AT UNLV
The Runnin Rebels were sliced up like a side of fries on Wednesday night at Air Force, and we’re starting to wonder if this team will ever truly get things together. UNLV is 5-5 in conference play and while Dave Rice’s team has a favorable schedule down the stretch, their chemistry still isn’t right. San Diego State, meanwhile lost a tough game on Wednesday at Colorado State, and seems to be finding their groove now that Xavier Thames is back in the lineup. The Aztecs are too good a team to lose two games in a row when they’re fully healthy.
PREDICTION: SAN DIEGO STATE 73, UNLV 67
KENTUCKY AT TENNESSEE
The Wilcats’ first game without Nerlens Noel will be a tough one.Kentucky’s interior defense is a major question mark without their vaunted freshman shot blocker and Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes is starting to finally hit his stride. The Vols’ burly big man has posted six straight double-doubles, and looks like the best big man in the SEC. We’re confident that John Calipari will find a way to get this group on track without Noel — but we’re not sure that the Wildcats will be able to handle Tennessee’s physicality inside.
PREDICTION: TENNESSEE 64, KENTUCKY 60
SAINT JOSEPH’S AT LA SALLE
The Atlantic 10’s most disappointing team takes on the league’s best kept secret. La Salle owns wins over both VCU and Butler and has all the tools to be a player in the NCAA Tournament. The Explorers have quality guards and two burgeoning big men in sophomores Jerrell Wright and Steve Zack. The Hawks meanwhile, have been maddeningly inconsistent — but may still have the Atlantic 10’s most talented roster. We think Phil Martelli’s team will give us flashes of brilliance as usual, but ultimately fall to a La Salle team that really deserves more national attention.
PREDICTION: LA SALLE 75, SAINT JOSEPH’S 71
NCAA PICKS: Rothstein takes on Malusis, Roberts, Phenoms
THIS AND THAT:
– Even though North Carolina didn’t beat Duke on Wednesday night, the Tarheels should take solace in the fact that they finally found a lineup. Roy Williams’ team looked cohesive and in sync with James Michael-McAdoo on the floor surrounded by four perimeter players. If North Carolina can continue to play with the same type of balance and continuity it showed in the first half against Duke, then the Tarheels should have an excellent chance to reach the NCAA Tournament.
– Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright have officially emerged as the best back court in the Big East. UConn’s dynamic tandem can has single handedly made the Huskies competitive in a season in which they can’t play in either the Big East or NCAA Tournament. Both Napier and Boatright are averaging 16 PPG or better and shooting over 38% from three-point range. UConn is 17-6 overall and 7-4 Big East play.
– Charlotte is a legitimate player in the Atlantic 10 after their win at Butler. The 49ers have two blue-collar forwards in freshmen Willie Clayton and Darion Clark as well as a terrific point guard in Pierria Henry. Alan Major’s team travels to Saint Louis next and then returns home to face Temple. Charlotte is 17-6 and 6-4 in the Atlantic 10.
– What is going on with Creighton? That’s exactly what Bluejays coach Greg McDermott would like to know. “Every team goes through ups and downs during a season,” McDermott said on Thursday. “We’re going through that right now. We can’t make the shots we were making earlier in the year.” Creighton has lost three straight games and now sit at 20-6 overall. Sharpshooter Ethan Wragge has made just one of his last ten three-point attempts — and point guard Austin Chatman has also struggled recently — only dishing out six assists in his last three games. “He’s a big key for us,” McDermott said of Chatman. “We need him to regularly make the right pass.” The Bluejays will travel to underrated Evansville on Saturday.
– Miami coach Jim Larranaga feels that freshman big man Tonye Jekiri is a vital piece to the rest of the Hurricanes’ season. “He’s our best front line defender,” Larranaga said on Thursday of the 7-foot Jekiri. “He’s also a target offensively because our guards can throw him lobs at the rim once they get into the lane.” Miami is still perfect in the ACC and have a 20-3 overall record. If Larranaga isn’t the national coach of the year, it’s a flat out crime.
– Several Atlantic 10 coaches feel that La Salle is the type of team that could do damage if they reach the NCAA Tournament. This looks like the best team Dr. John Giannini has had since he’s been at the Philadelphia school and junior point guard Tyreek Duren is an exceptional decision maker that loves the big stage. Keep an eye on this team as we get closer and closer to March.
– Dan Muller has rallied Illinois State. The Redbirds’ first-year head coach has his team playing their best basketball of the season. Illinois State has won four straight games and seven of their last eight. The Redbirds will host Wichita State on Sunday. “We’ve gotten tougher than we were earlier in the year,” Muller said. “We’re competing better and we’re holding our opponents to 40% from the field.” A win against the Shockers would do wonders for this team moving forward. A trendy preseason pick, Illinois State nearly beat Louisville earlier in the year and has the best offensive talent in the Missouri Valley. There’s no reason to think that the Redbirds can’t go on a run over the final few weeks of the season.
– Marquette could become a dangerous team if Todd Mayo becomes a consistent scoring option off the bench. The 6-3 sophomore is averaging 10 PPG over his last three games and could emerge as a legitimate third scoring threat behind Vander Blue and Davante Gardner. “Todd can really make shots,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said on Thursday. “Our team would change if he could regularly give us a burst.”
– Do not forget about Hawaii in the Big West. The Warriors have won five straight games and led Long Beach State by 33 points at the half in a victory over the 49ers last week. Hawaii has terrific size in Vander Joaquim, Isaac Fotu, and Christian Standhardinger, who is destroying opponents at will. In Standhardinger’s last five games, he’s averaging 22.4 points and 11.2 rebounds per contest.
– The player with the most to gain over the next two months? Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein. The freshman big man will be under an incredible microscope after Nerlens Noel’s season ending ACL injury. If Cauley-Stein performs at a high level for the rest of the season, the Wildcats will go to the NCAA Tournament and he’ll likely be a lottery pick in June’s NBA Draft.
What’s your can’t-miss game of the weekend? Be heard in the comments!