As of today, the first day of the 2010 NCAA Basketball Tournament is exactly three weeks away. That means it’s time for cramming. Below are listed the seven games over these last few weeks of the regular season that every college hoops fan should try to catch.
1. February 28th: #14 Michigan State at #3 Purdue
Reasons To Watch: The loss of Robbie Hummel for the rest of the season with a torn ACL is really sad. I had become a big believer in Purdue and thought they actually had a shot at winning the national title, but without Hummel, that will be impossible. You have to feel bad for those Purdue fans in Indiana. I mean, what else do they have going for them? At least Drew Brees won the Super Bowl. They do still have guard E’Twaun Moore, who is one of my favorite players in the country. He’s not the quickest guy or the best shooter, passer, or defender, but he does everything well and he repeatedly makes big shots for the Boilermakers. JaJuan Johnson is one of the best centers around, and the return of point guard Lewis Jackson from an injury gave them a lift over the past few weeks. But it all comes back to Hummel, their best all-around player. They were headed for a #1 seed, and their remaining games will be very important because the selection committee will only have a handful of games to decide how far they drop from the #1 line, and it’s hard to imagine that they won’t drop at least a seed or two.
Michigan St. came into the season with huge expectations, but also some question marks, and it seems like those questions have not been answered. They come into this game having lost 4 of their last 6 games. They don’t have a good road win all year, and they actually only have two wins over tournament locks (Gonzaga and Wisconsin). They needed Delvon Roe to make a big leap, and it hasn’t happened at all. Raymar Morgan continues to disappoint. Kalin Lucas is an elite college guard, and Draymond Green has been one of the most improved big men in the country, but how far can that get them? If they’re to be taken seriously in the tournament, they need to go to Purdue and beat the Hummel-less Boilermakers in this game.
How far can they go?: It’s very hard to know what to make of Purdue right now, which is why they’ll be a team worth watching. Coach Matt Painter will be earning his paycheck, and I think they could still get to the Sweet 16, but any further than that seems doubtful. Michigan St. is looking like they’d be lucky to make the Sweet 16.
2. March 2nd: Illinois at #9 Ohio State
Reasons to Watch: A couple of interesting teams here worth gathering some more information about. Illinois could lock up a tourney berth with a win here, but they probably don’t need it. They have a load of good wins on their resume, but a couple of bad losses as well. Point guard Demetri McCamey is one of the lesser-known star players in the country. He averages 15 points and 7 assists, and racked up 16 assists in a loss to Purdue last week. But he’s unique because he doesn’t look like your typical assist-machine point guard, with a wide body that allows him to outmuscle a lot of other guards. The front-court combination of 7-footer Mike Tisdale and super-athletic Mike Davis help to make this team dangerous.
Ohio St. is definitely an interesting team right now. First off, they have the Player of the Year front-runner in do-everything forward Evan Turner, who is averaging 20 points, 9 boards, and 6 assists. Secondly, because they lost three games in a 6-game stretch that Turner missed with a back injury, their national stature is probably slightly below what it otherwise could be. And finally, coach Thad Matta has taken an interesting tactic of shortening his rotation to the point where there IS NO rotation. Matta has basically just been playing six guys, with Turner and a trio of big, talented guards (David Lighty, Jon Diebler, and William Buford) rarely coming off the court. It seems to be working for them, as they’ve won 9 of 10, with the only loss to Purdue.
How far can they go?: Illinois will be a prime candidate for a minor first-round upset, and has Sweet 16 potential. Ohio State has arguably the best player in the country, which means they are capable of beating just about anyone on any given night. But will they be fatigued from playing so many minutes? With the injury to Hummel, the Buckeyes might now be the best team in the Big Ten, and don’t rule them out from a trip to the Final Four.
3. March 3rd: #6 Kansas State at #1 Kansas
Reasons to Watch: I previewed the January 30th game between these teams, which Kansas won in an OT thriller. That result is one reason to watch this game. Another is to get a better read on this Kansas St. team. Right now, they’re looking at a possible #2 seed in the tournament. They’ve earned that seed, but I’m wondering if, even in a season of parity, there is 2-seed talent on this team. Jacob Pullen and Denis Clemente form an awesome backcourt, but if they’re not making their jump shots, how else does K-State beat you? Now, they don’t have any bad losses, so it seems like they find a way, but I’ll be watching this game to see how K-State matches up with the #1 team in the country when they don’t have their home crowd behind them.
How far can they go?: KU is the national title favorite at the moment. K-State is getting Final Four buzz but I’m not completely buying it. I see them going down in the Sweet 16, but maybe some favorable matchups could get them to the Elite Eight. This game will tell us more.
4. March 3rd: #5 Duke at Maryland
Reasons to Watch: You wouldn’t guess it if you watched the Duke/Maryland game on February 13th, when Duke demolished the Terrapins, but this game could determine the regular-season ACC champion. Maryland sits at 10-3 in the conference, a game behind the Dukies. That alone makes Maryland an interesting team, because when was the last time you saw a team at 10-3 in the ACC, and already at 20 wins on the season, but not ranked in the Top 25? The bottom line is, they have the resume of a ho-hum solid team. They’ve been fairly consistent and gotten the job done against the likes of Florida State (twice), Clemson, and Georgia Tech. They haven’t lost a home game in conference play. I’ve always been a pretty big fan of versatile senior guard Greivis Vasquez. His supporting cast features two other solid seniors, Eric Hayes and Landon Milbourne, and no doubt all three of those guys will be motivated to take down Duke in the final home game of their careers. Is Maryland a legit 2nd place ACC team that will be heard from next month, or are they an also-ran, unranked non-factor? This game may be the answer.
How far can they go?: Duke could end up with a 1-seed, but I’m not a believer. Their ceiling is probably the Elite Eight. I’m not completely sure what to make of Maryland yet, but I don’t expect to see them playing in the second week of March Madness.
5. March 6th: #7 West Virginia at #8 Villanova
Reasons to Watch: You look at the rosters for these two teams and it really makes you wonder why programs like St. John’s, Seton Hall, and Rutgers are not a lot better. 8 of the 10 starters for these teams (including all 5 for West Virginia) hail from the greater New York City area, and that’s not including Nova’s talented reserve guard Dominic Cheek. Despite all that talent, and the fact that these teams have been in the top 10 almost all season, they also both have some flaws.
Nova lost back-to-back games for the first time this season last week. They are really deep, but it seems like maybe that’s become part of the problem. Defensively, they’re not measuring up to Nova teams of the past few years. In their loss to Georgetown a couple weeks ago, the Hoyas just had their way with them at the offensive end. The team has loads of talent, but maybe Jay Wright needs to focus on finding the mix that will get some stops.
West Virginia has three forwards that look like future pros in Da’Sean Butler, Devin Ebanks, and Kevin Jones, but Bob Huggins will have to pull off some coaching magic to get a team with guards this mediocre to advance far in the tournament. Considering it’s been 14 years since a Huggins coached team made it past the Sweet 16, the odds may not be in their favor. But when Butler is going well he is really special, and he’s the type of player that can put a team on his back and carry them to a win.
How far can they go?: These two teams are similar in talent-levels, but I like Nova more, especially since they have the experience of a Final Four run last season. I think they could get that far again, but they probably don’t have a title in them, and I don’t expect them to be playing on that final weekend in Indianapolis. West Virginia probably doesn’t have the guards to get it done in the tourney, they’ll bow out out in the second or third round.
6. March 6th: #21 Texas at Baylor
Reasons to Watch: This is a matchup between a team that was apparently over-hyped most of the season (Texas) and a team that has probably been under-hyped (Baylor). The pressure in this game will be on Texas to take some positive momentum into the Big 12 tournament. All the talk about Texas early in the year was that they had a ridiculous amount of talented depth. Here we are, on the verge of March, and they have exactly two players that they can count on consistently: F Damion James and G Avery Bradley. With every other player on the team, either due to injury, foul trouble, or just general inconsistency, they’re left crossing their fingers and hoping for a good performance.
Baylor has one of the top backcourts in the country (talent-wise and name-wise) in PG Tweety Carter and SG LaceDarius Dunn. At 6-4, and with the ability to score any way he wants, Dunn looks like a future NBA 2-guard. Also with impressive names and impressive games are forwards Ekpe Udoh and Quincy Acy, who is one of the better sixth men in the country.
How far can they go?: Texas just seems to be a mess, so they’re worth watching to see if they get it together in time. They probably have Final Four talent, but it’s not impossible to see them going down in the first round if they get a bad matchup. Anyone’s guess right now. Baylor, on the other hand, looks to be a sleeper pick that could potentially make an Elite Eight run.
7. March 6th: #4 Syracuse at Louisville
Reasons to Watch: Louisville put themselves on the right side of the bubble with a win at Syracuse a couple weeks ago, and they would definitely nail down a bid with another win in this one. They’ve had an up and down season, with a home loss to Western Carolina in December, and a blowout loss at St. John’s just before the big ‘Cuse win. They’re led by three of the key contributors to last year’s team that earned a #1 seed: star big man Samardo Samuels, much-improved Edgar Sosa, and steady 2-guard Jerry Smith. But despite all the experience and talent, they haven’t been able to put it together.
Syracuse, however, has pretty much had it all put together from Day One this season. They only have one loss besides the Louisville one, and it would take a couple of stumbles for them to fall off the #1 line come tourney time. Wesley Johnson is still in the Player of the Year conversation, but his production has dipped a bit in February. Like Ohio State, ‘Cuse doesn’t go deep (basically a 7-man rotation), so you have to wonder if Johnson is running out of gas, especially considering he sat out last year after transferring. Besides Johnson, Andy Rautins is one of the best shooters in the country, and two Philly natives who were teammates at St. John Neumann, F Rick Jackson and G Scoop Jardine, have both had breakout seasons.
How far can they go?: Syracuse is a national title contender. Louisville is a tough team to predict, but unless they show something in these last few weeks, they’re probably a team that won’t be able to win more than one game in the tourney.