By Jon Rothstein
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SAINT LOUIS AT BUTLER
Just how good are the Billikens? Good enough to advance to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Saint Louis has a group of tough veterans who have single handedly made this team the squad to watch in the Atlantic 10. Butler was over matched when these two teams played about a month ago, and they’ll be anxious for payback. Still, there’s something special about Jim Crews’ team. The late Rick Majerus may no longer be on the sidelines — but it’s obvious when you watch this group that this is still his team. We’re going with Saint Louis on the road.
PREDICTION: SAINT LOUIS 71, BUTLER 66
MISSOURI AT KENTUCKY
This game is beyond pivotal for the Wildcats. If Kentucky hopes to have any chance of playing in the NCAA Tournament, they need to beat the Tigers on Saturday at Rupp Arena. Willie Cauley-Stein had a nice game on Thursday night against Vanderbilt (20 points, seven rebounds), but he’ll be stepping up a weight class when he faces the Tigers’ interior tandem of Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi. Missouri showed serious signs of the team they can be when they gutted out a win over Florida earlier in the week. We think they’ll be too much to handle for John Calipari’s club.
PREDICTION: MISSOURI 66, KENTUCKY 63
MARQUETTE AT VILLANOVA
This may be pound for pound the best coaching Jay Wright has done at Villanova. The Wildcats have completely bought in to what Wright is selling and have truly become a unit whose sum is greater than their parts. Marquette, however is playing like a typical Buzz Williams coached team in late February. The Golden Eagles get a little better each time they step on the floor and seem to once again have all the requisites to be a factor in March. This isn’t the most talented team Williams has had at Marquette, but it may be the deepest. It says here that depth will be the deciding factor on Saturday.
PREDICTION: MARQUETTE 62, VILLANOVA 56
GEORGETOWN AT SYRACUSE
This game will officially mark the end of an era. Saturday will be the last time these two proud programs meet as members of the Big East in front of what will be a record crowd at the Carrier Dome. John Thompson III looks like the runaway candidate for Big East Coach of the Year, while Jim Boeheim has a team that seems to be peaking at the right time. Michael Carter-Williams is starting to flourish more as a facilitator since James Southerland returned to the lineup, and while the Orange aren’t regularly mentioned among the nation’s elite teams, they really should be. Look for Syracuse to relish the stage and moment against Georgetown.
PREDICTION: SYRACUSE 74, GEORGETOWN 59
PITT AT ST. JOHN’S
This is a must win for the Red Storm if they hope to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive. The Panthers are two-deep at every position and are well coached as usual by Jamie Dixon. St. John’s hasn’t been the same team since Jamal Branch was lost to a knee injury, but sophomore forward Dom Pointer has emerged as a big-time utility guy. The 6-6 Pointer is a freak athlete and fills the box score at will. On a Sunday matinee at Madison Square Garden, look for Pointer’s intangibles to be the difference as St. John’s eeks out a victory.
PREDICTION: ST. JOHN’S 64, PITT 62
NCAA PICKS: Rothstein head-to-head vs. WFAN talent
THIS AND THAT:
– Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum told me this week that he’ll see a doctor on Monday to get an updated diagnosis on his broken left foot. McCollum suffered the injury during a game on January 5th at VCU just over six weeks ago. There is still an outside shot that the senior guard could return for the Patriot League Tournament, but that type of assessment won’t be able to be made until Monday. In 12 games this year for the Mountain Hawks, McCollum averaged 23.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.9 assists per game.
– Ole Miss’ NCAA chances took a hit on Wednesday night when the Rebels lost at South Carolina but Andy Kennedy’s team should still be able to reach the field of 68 if they play well down the stretch. Ole Miss has five winnable games remaining on their schedule, and should able to have 23 or 24 victories before they play in the SEC Tournament. The Rebels have only beaten one surefire NCAA team this season in Missouri, but we’d still be shocked if this squad is on the wrong side of the bubble on Selection Sunday.
– Long Beach State is now 13-2 since they’ve had their full complement of players on the floor. The 49ers added Tony Freeland and Keala King for the second semester, and have looked like a mid-major team that could do damage if they reach the field of 68. “There’s no question that we’re as talented as last year’s team,” Long Beach State coach Dan Monson said this week. “But talent has never been the issue with this group.” The 49ers have three players — King (Arizona State), Freeland (DePaul), and Dan Jennings (West Virginia) — that started their careers at BCS level programs as well as a potential second-round pick in James Ennis.
– Minnesota’s lack of outside shooting is officially a major concern. The Gophers have made just five of twenty nine three-point attempts in their last two games and now sit at 6-8 in Big Ten play. After a hot start, Tubby Smith’s team has dropped seven of their last ten games and will next host top-ranked Indiana next Tuesday.
– If Towson wins their final three games, the Tigers will complete the greatest one-year turnaround in college basketball history. Pat Skerry’s team won just one game last season, and could finish with 18 victories if they find a way to grind out the final three games on their schedule. Think Skerry will get a few votes for CAA Coach of the Year?
– Iona really misses freshman guard A.J. English as another perimeter threat off the bench. The 6-4 guard hasn’t played since January 20th due to a fractured wrist, and his absence has had a major affect on the Gaels’ firepower. Iona has lost five games recently by a total of eight points, and can’t seem to close out an opponent. There is still an outside chance that English may be able to return for the MAAC Tournament.
– Saint Louis has a secret weapon in long-range specialist Jake Barnett. A transfer from Toledo, Barnett didn’t play much last season for the Billikens but he’s recently emerged for Jim Crews’ team. In Saint Louis’ last two games, Barnett has made six three-point shots and could be a valuable piece down the stretch in the Atlantic 10.
– Earnest Ross is the X-Factor for Missouri. The 6-5 forward is a valuable 6th man for the Tigers, and gives Frank Haith’s team another guy who can really get on the backboards. “He’s a perfect example of how we’ve had guys buy into roles,” Haith said of Ross, who’s averaging 10.5 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. “He’s really giving us a lift off the bench.” Missouri has been sporadic all season long, but appears to have taken a step after they beat Florida earlier in the week. “We’re starting to play well at the right time,” Haith said. “We’ve just got to keep it going.” Missouri is 19-7 and 8-5 in SEC play.
– Former Maryland coach Gary Williams doesn’t believe a lack of postseason experience will inhibit Miami from advancing deep in the NCAA Tournament. “If you’re good enough to win like they’ve won, you’re good enough to win in March,” Williams said this week. “They’ve got older guys who are in their fifth and sixth years and a really good point guard in Shane Larkin.” Miami should wind up as the regular season ACC champion even though the Hurricanes travel to Duke on March 2nd. Jim Larranaga’s team is 22-3 and a perfect 13-0 in the ACC.
– More people need to start talking about Iowa State’s Tyrus McGee as one of the better sixth men in the country. The 6-2 guard is shooting 45 percent from three-point range and averaging 13.2 points per game. He’s a huge cog in the Cyclones attack and one of the more underrated players around.
What’s your can’t-miss game this weekend? Be heard in the comments…