By Jon Rothstein
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MICHIGAN STATE AT INDIANA
The team picked by many to win it all will square off against the team that’s been forgotten. Michigan State has won six games in a row while posting an overall record of 17-3 and yet, no one is talking about the Spartans. Tom Izzo is starting to get the most out of sophomore Branden Dawson, and Keith Appling has become much more assertive as the season has progressed. Whoever controls the pace of this game will wind up with a victory. The Spartans are more prone to pushing the ball than they’ve been in years past — but you don’t want to run with Indiana. The Hoosiers are pound for pound the best offensive team in college basketball and should score the ball well enough to walk out of Assembly Hall with a win on Sunday.
PREDICTION: INDIANA 76, MICHIGAN STATE 69
NEW MEXICO AT SAN DIEGO STATE
Just another day in the Mountain West, right? It seems like every week there’s two or three unbelievable games in a league that’s quickly becoming one of the best in college basketball. New Mexico has been quietly brilliant all season long while San Diego State has flashed their upside in spurts. The Aztecs have the perimeter versatility to match up with the Lobos, but can can they handle Alex Kirk inside? New Mexico’s skilled big man really struggled against the size of Colorado State on Wednesday and could be primed for a bounce back game. These two teams are both capable of winning the conference, but it says here that home court advantage will be the difference as Steve Fisher’s team starts to get back on track for the second half of the season.
PREDICTION: SAN DIEGO STATE 73, NEW MEXICO 69
SYRACUSE AT VILLANOVA
The Wildcats can’t really beat the Orange just days after they knocked off Louisville, right? Wrong. Villanova’s win over the Cardinals on Tuesday night encapsulated what this season is all about — craziness. One game has absolutely no bearing on the next and that’s what will make this NCAA Tournament one of the the craziest we’ve ever seen. The only problem for the Wildcats in this game is their lack of outside shooting is likely to be magnified againstSyracuse’s vintage 2-3 zone. We know that Villanova made 7-of-15 three-point attempts against Louisville, but we just can’t see them replicating that type of performance against the Orange’s superior length.
PREDICTION: SYRACUSE 69, VILLANOVA 62
OKLAHOMA AT KANSAS
There are three constants in life. Death, taxes, and Bill Self. Year after year Self loses players and keeps his program beyond dominant in the Big 12. In Self’s entire tenure in Lawrence, he’s won eight conference titles and only suffered seven losses at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. Will an eighth occur on Saturday against Oklahoma? We don’t think so. The Sooners have a solid team under Lon Kruger and two athletic forwards in Romero Osby and Amath M’Baye, but their back court is simply too young and inexperienced to win a game at Kansas.
PREDICTION: KANSAS 77, OKLAHOMA 65
LA SALLE AT VCU
The Rams will be an angry bunch when they take the floor on Saturday night. VCU had a seven-point lead in the final minute of regulation against Richmond on Thursday night before losing by 12 in overtime. La Salle is now a team on an upward trajectory in the Atlantic 10 after their win earlier in the week against Butler. The Explorers have the back court personnel to handle VCU’s relentless pressure but we just can’t see the Rams losing twice in three days.
PREDICTION: VCU 71, LA SALLE 65
THIS AND THAT:
– UCLA is going to be a trendy pick to go deep in the NCAA Tournament because of their overall talent. The Bruins dominated Arizona from start to finish on Thursday night in Tucson and are starting to blend into a cohesive unit. The scariest part of all of this? Shabazz Muhammad is really hitting his stride. The 6-5 wing was sensational against the Wildcats, scoring 23 points on 8-of-16 attempts from the floor.
– Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson will be the Player of the Year in the SEC. A volume shooter with unbelievable range, Henderson is the main reason why the Rebels are likely to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Andy Kennedy’s tenure in Oxford. The 6-2 guard is averaging 18.9 PPG and has already made several big shots in end of game situations. In what is a relatively down year for the SEC, Henderson is shining in a major way.
– VCU and George Mason will begin a home-and-home series beginning next season at the Siegel Center in Richmond. This is a great move for both programs, who were longtime rivals in the CAA before VCU joined the Atlantic 10 this year. George Mason should return all five starters next season while VCU has made themselves into a perennial college basketball power.
– Speaking of Paul Hewitt’s team, George Mason seems to have turned a corner since they moved Corey Edwards into the starting lineup next to Bryon Allen in the back court. With two ball handlers on the floor at the same time, the Patriots have cut down their turnovers and gotten into the lane more on offense. George Mason is 5-2 in the CAA and will travel to conference leader Northeastern on Sunday. The Huskies are a perfect 7-0 in league play.
– Northwestern is all of a sudden alive and kicking again in the Big Ten after Wednesday night’s win over Minnesota. The main reason why the Wildcats are now 3-4 in league play? Senior guard Reggie Hearn. The 6-4 Hearn is averaging 18.3 points per game in his last three games and has emerged as this team’s go-to scorer. Bill Carmody’s club is at Nebraska on Saturday.
– What in the world is going on at Saint Joseph’s? The Hawks were beaten at home this week by St. Bonaventure and have been inconsistent all season. At 10-7 overall and 1-3 in the Atlantic 10, Phil Martelli’s team is at a major crossroads. This group has the talent and ability to be an NCAA Tournament team, but they’ve yet to prove they can handle expectations and winning on a regular basis. Saint Joseph’s hosts Xavier on Saturday. The tip off is at 6 PM ET on CBS Sports Network.
– Miami sophomore point guard Shane Larkin was the best player on the floor when the Hurricanes routed Duke 90-63 on Wednesday night. The lightning quick floor general torched the Blue Devils for 18 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists. “He’s made a big jump from his freshman to sophomore year and he’s capable of making another one,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said this week. “Shane is capable of becoming 20 point per game scorer.” The Hurricanes lead the ACC with a perfect 5-0 record. They will host Florida State on Sunday.
– Oregon State’s 1-5 record in PAC-12 play is a bit deceiving since the Beavers were without arguably their best player Eric Moreland for three of those games due to a suspension. With Moreland back in the lineup, Craig Robinson has an experienced, versatile team that’s capable of beating most teams in the conference. Against Washington on Wednesday, the 6-10 forward scored 12 points, grabbed 10 rebounds, and grabbed four rebounds in a 74-66 win. Oregon State hosts Washington State on Saturday.
– Rutgers’ game at UConn on Sunday is officially a must win for the Scarlet Knights. Mike Rice’s team has had multiple attempts to keep building momentum over the past few weeks but they’ve failed to capitalize on all of them. At 3-4 in the Big East, Rutgers will travel to UConn, then Cincinnati, and return home to face Louisville. Any hopes of having a breakthrough season hinges on beating the Huskies.
– Looking for an underrated game this weekend? Try Stephen F. Austin at Northwestern State. The Demons lead the nation in scoring at 85 PPG while the Lumberjacks top the nation in scoring defense, only allowing 49.4 PPG. Talk about a contrast in styles! Stephen F. Austin already has a win this year at Oklahoma.
What’s your can’t-miss game? Be heard in the comments!