The Week Ahead: What to Watch in College Basketball (1/24-1/30)

The Week Ahead: What to Watch in College Basketball (1/24-1/30)
Jan 23, 2009, 12:10 am
It’s been quite the week in college basketball. Pittsburgh and Wake Forest forfeited their top ranking in games they were expected to win. Now, Duke looks to take the number one spot by a significant margin. Despite last week’s marathon of quality games, don’t even think about putting down your remote. If possible, this week looks to be even better. Whether it’s in-state rivalries or moving up in the top 25, the following match ups are not to be missed. Similarly, you’ve seen the recent changes in our 2009 mock draft. Do you want to see where we’re coming from? Tune into some of these games to see why Wake Forest point guard Jeff Teague, for instance, has shot all the way up the board to the 6th pick. Then, while you’re at it, take a look at some of the lesser-known prospects, like Eric Maynor or Kenneth Faried, playing “Off the Beaten Track.” We haven’t failed you yet, so take a look at what we’re going to be watching during this coming week in college basketball.

Marquee Matchups:

#22 Memphis vs. Tennessee (Saturday, January 24th: 3:30 p.m. on CBS)

Memphis re-entered the top 25 this week after winning five straight conference games, part of a nine game winning streak, but still have much to prove. Neither the Tigers’ Conference USA slate nor their out of conference resume are enough to ensure favorable seeding come March. The good news is that Memphis has two chances left: road games at Tennessee and Gonzaga. Tennessee comes first and might prove to be the toughest challenge Memphis has faced yet. The Volunteers, despite winning two games in a row, are still reeling from a blowout loss to Kentucky and wondering what could have been, especially in close losses to Gonzaga and Kansas.

Both teams match up well, with size, length and athleticism at almost every position on the floor. The Tyreke Evans point guard experiment will have to yield favorable results if the Tigers want to continue their winning ways, and they must hit their open shots from outside. The ball is squarely in Tennessee’s court, as they have arguably the most versatile scorer in the SEC in Tyler Smith, and a solid inside outside duo in point guard Bobby Maze and center Wayne Chism. At the end of the day, though, it will be toughness, defense and offensive execution/decision making that decides this game. This is a must-win for both teams, eager to put disappointing starts behind them and get a signature out of conference victory.

In terms of draft prospects, this is a game that NBA scouts will look at closely in terms of evaluating Tyreke Evans’ NBA-readiness, as he’ll be going up against the type of athletic defenders he’ll see on a regular basis at the next level. For Tennessee, Scotty Hopson is coming off his first back to back double digit scoring games of the season. Can he continue the strong momentum, or will he revert back to his freshman ways as the competition stiffens?

Don’t miss this game, as it is sure to develop into a track-meet.

#3 Connecticut v. #19 Notre Dame (Saturday, January 24th: 7 p.m. on ESPN)

Outside of a slip up at home against Georgetown, the third ranked UConn Huskies have continued their winning ways, winning six straight conference games. They will face their greatest challenge since that ill-fated night against Georgetown when they travel to South Bend to square off against 19th ranked Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish sport one of the top inside-outside duos in the league with Luke Haragody, a relentless warrior in the post, and combo-guard Kyle McAlarney, whose range almost extends to half court. Notre Dame is overmatched, particularly in the post, where they may struggle against Connecticut’s frontcourt trifecta of Hasheem Thabeet, Jeff Adrien, and Stanley Robinson, but expect a great game. A player to watch is Connecticut point guard, A.J. Price, who started the season slowly while recovering from a postseason ACL tear, but is averaging 20.5 ppg and 5 apg in his past four conference games.

Scouts will want to see how Luke Harangody is able to cope with the size and length of a true NBA-caliber defender in Hasheem Thabeet. On the flip-side, Thabeet will have to show that he can step outside the paint to guard Harangody and still remain effective, while hopefully at least pretending to want the ball on the offensive end. His scoring and rebounding numbers have plummeted virtually every time he goes up a team featuring a big man with a pulse.

#15 Xavier vs. Louisiana State (Saturday, January 24th: 8 p.m. on ESPN2)

LSU is an enigmatic team, much like the rest of the SEC, but should provide fifteenth ranked Xavier with a tough road contest. Shooting guard Marcus Thornton and combo-forward Tasmin Mitchell, both of whom are significant scoring threats on any given night and as well as lockdown defensive point guard Garrett Temple, lead the Tigers. Xavier matches up well with combo-forward Derrick Brown currently having a solid season and C.J. Anderson, embodying his reputation as one of the nation’s top perimeter defenders. The Musketeers have performed well against more athletic teams this year, but after getting blown out by Duke, questions still linger pertaining to their ability to defend against dynamic and athletic frontcourts. This is Xavier’s final out of conference test before they continue their stranglehold over the Atlantic 10 and it should prove to be telling for both sides. Can Xavier stop an athletic perimeter attack? Can LSU return the SEC to the top 25? Tune in to find out.

In terms of draft prospects, keep an eye out for Marcus Thornton, currently in the midst of a renaissance season under the guidance of new head coach Trent Johnson. Thornton is one of the best per-minute scorers in college basketball, and is doing so in efficient and mistake-free fashion. He’s got a tough test against one of the toughest, nastiest defensive teams he’ll see all season.

#8 Syracuse vs. #9 Louisville (Sunday, January 25th: 12 p.m. on Big East Network, SNY, ESPN Fullcourt)

Louisville is on fire, winning six games in a row, including an upset over top ranked Pittsburgh, since dropping a tough game to UNLV. In addition, they have wins over Notre Dame and Villanova under their belts. The Cardinals face arguably their toughest game yet on the road against Syracuse, who fell at Pittsburgh and will be looking to avenge the loss against a Big East rival. The key to this game is Syracuse PG Jonny Flynn, who has had trouble shooting the ball lately, but desperately needs to exploit Louisville’s weak and undersized backcourt, that somehow has yet to click this deep into the season. On the wings, Syracuse’s versatile Paul Harris will have his hands full with Terrence Williams, a 6’6 combo-guard who has is averaging 22.3 ppg, 11.3 rpg, and 4.3 apg in his past three games. Similarly, the battle in the post will be brutal as Syracuse’s frontcourt duo Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson, who dominated Luke Harangody and Notre Dame less than a week ago, will face a Louisville frontcourt of Earl Clark and Samardo Samuels that has proved to be one of the country’s finest. Syracuse needs this win more, as they have dropped two of their last three games, but Louisville will not go down without a fight. They will have to make shots against Syracuse’s trademark zone defense.

Draft-wise this is a real smorgasbord. Terrence Williams is gaining serious steam with his play as of late, and Earl Clark is always a big attraction. Jonny Flynn will have to show better decision making skills than he has so far this season, and keep turnovers to a minimum.

#7 Michigan St. vs. Ohio State ( Sunday, January 25th: 3:45 p.m. on CBS)

Michigan State was stunned by upset-minded Northwestern on Wednesday night and look to rebound with a win at home against an Ohio State team that has dropped four of their last eight games. There are decent match ups all over the floor, but keep your eyes on the post as improving freshman B.J. Mullins, who is averaging 14.2 ppg after cracking double figures just twice in his first 12 games, faces off against Michigan State’s Goran Suton, one of college basketball’s more fundamental post players. Another great match up will be on the perimeter between Michigan State’s Raymar Morgan and Ohio State’s Evan Turner.

Despite struggling against Illinois, Turner is in the midst of a breakout season, showing his combination of versatility, size, and ability. Morgan is also having a fine season, though he has done little to convince scouts that he has expanded his shooting range and can play on the perimeter at the next level. Ohio State needs a quality conference win to get their season back on track and this would not be a bad place to start. For Turner, Morgan, and Mullins, this is a chance to continue to prove to scouts and fans alike that they belong at the next level. This game is likely to be a slug-fest, but it should be a highly entertaining one, with two of the best coaches in the country on the sidelines.

#1 Wake Forest vs. #2 Duke (Wednesday, January 28th: 7 p.m. on ESPN)

By the time Wake Forest and Duke match up in Winston-Salem, Duke will likely be the top team in the country. Wake Forest, holding the top spot for the first time since Chris Paul wore black and gold, self-destructed against Virginia Tech’s physicality in one of the biggest upsets of the year. They play a Duke team that is currently the top defensive team in the country and was definitely watching the Deacons struggle against Virginia Tech’s matchup zone and box-and-one defense. Thus, this game will be an important test for both teams. Wake Forest ran Duke into the ground last year when the Blue Devils attempted to push up the tempo, but this season, the Blue Devils are a year older, bigger, and more athletic. There are few teams in the NCAA this well matched, which should result in an outstanding game.

There are two match ups to pay attention to in this game, both of which are can’t-miss. The first is a battle between the defensive abilities of Gerald Henderson, who has blossomed into one of the top players in the ACC this season, and the offensive prowess of Jeff Teague, who has emerged as perhaps the ACC’s most unstoppable scorer. Teague was frustrated down the stretch against Virginia Tech’s zone, but he will have a much bigger challenge on his hands against Henderson.

The second match up will be on the perimeter, in the post, and just about everywhere in between as two of the nation’s more versatile forwards: Duke’s Kyle Singler and Wake Forest’s James Johnson. Neither player is shooting the ball particularly well from the perimeter, but they almost always find a way to impact the game on both ends of the floor. Both players look on the brink of getting some serious draft attention, and this could be a great place to start.

This game has the potential to be one of the top televised match ups in the country this season and you can bet that every scout and executive in the country will be either in attendance or tuned in for this one.

#10 Clemson vs. Virginia Tech (Thursday, January 29th: 7 p.m. on ESPN)

Virginia Tech just toppled top ranked Wake Forest and Clemson has now dropped two straight games, one to Wake Forest and a blowout loss on Wednesday in Chapel Hill. Winning in Blacksburg won’t be easy, as Virginia Tech boasts a strong backcourt in scoring guard Malcolm Delaney and shooting specialist A.D. Vassallo. If these two are able to score and center Jeff Allen is able to pick apart Clemson’s frontcourt the same way he did in Winston-Salem, Virginia Tech could pull its second significant upset in a week. Clemson, reeling after getting blown out by North Carolina on Wednesday will likely look to push the tempo and get bruising big man Trevor Booker involved early, as he was held to just 7 point and 4 rebounds against the Tar Heels. His matchup with fellow undersized warrior Jeff Allen will be very entertaining to watch. Clemson is the deeper team, but if Wednesday night taught the college basketball community anything: never bet against Coach Seth Greenberg and Virginia Tech.

It will be interesting to see how Delaney is able to react to the immense pressure that will be thrown his way by Clemson’s guards. He is still in the process of making the full transition to playing the point, and although he’s fared very well on the season as a whole, there have been some bumps in the road. Virginia Tech will need him at his best in terms of decision making if they want to have any chance at keeping this one close.

#23 Gonzaga vs. St. Mary’s (Thursday, January 29th: 11 p.m. on ESPN2)

If the legendary rivalry between Gonzaga Bulldogs and Saint Mary’s Gaels was not enough, consider this game’s importance to both the WCC conference standings and in both teams’ NCAA tournament hopes. Gonzaga certainly has more depth than St. Mary’s, but the Gaels have the best player on the floor in 6’0 combo-guard Patrick Mills who has struggled this season despite having a spectacular summer playing for the Australian National Team. He has been better lately, averaging 18.5 ppg and 5.5 apg in conference play, but still has a long way to go before he can convince anybody that he is ready to man the point guard position for an NBA team.

Mills will face Jeremy Pargo, an athletic freak at 6’2, but a player facing similar question marks in terms of his draft stock. Pargo has improved his assist numbers this season, but still cannot knock down perimeter jumpers consistently and has struggled at times with balancing scoring and distributing duties.

Also, don’t miss a chance to see 6’10 wing Austin Daye, who is quietly putting together a solid sophomore season and versatile 6’11 power forward Josh Heytvelt, who has slowed down after a great out of conference campaign and will be tested in the post against St. Mary’s big man Omar Samhan, a load in the post who could give Heytvelt trouble. The winner of this game not only gets in-conference bragging rights until the two meet again on February 12 in Moraga, but also gets a chance to get a good win for their resume in a nationally game. This is bound to be a very up-tempo, high scoring affair, so if you can manage to stay up, you are in for a treat.

Off the Beaten Track:

George Mason vs. Virginia Commonwealth (Saturday, January 24th: 4 p.m. on ESPN2)

The CAA has experienced its up and downs in recent years, but it looks to be a league on the rise, certainly one of the nation’s top mid-major conferences, and one that looks to make noise in March. This is a meeting between two CAA titans, veteran Virginia Commonwealth and upstart George Mason. George Mason is going to have its hands full containing point guard Eric Maynor, who in four years has shown drastic improvement as a playmaker and a scorer during his time in Richmond and is averaging 21.8 ppg and 6.2 apg. On offense, George Mason must try to find a way to score over 6’9 shotblocking center Larry Sanders, who has improved his game on both ends of the floor and is averaging 14.2 ppg, 9.2 rpg, and 2.3 bpg. This is another chance to see two great teams and prospects and, in Maynor’s case, catch a rare televised glimpse of the future NBA player.

Southern Illinois vs. Illinois State (Saturday, January 24th: 5 p.m. on The Valley Network, FSMidwest, Comcast Sportsnet Chicago)

Illinois State has struggled at times since entering conference play undefeated, losing three games by an average of five points. They must continue to win in the MVC if they want a chance at an at large bid should they fail to win the conference tournament. That is easier said than done, however, as every game in the MVC is a battle, even a team that, on paper, has struggled as much as Southern Illinois. The Salukis offense runs through two guards: stalwart playmaker Bryan Mullins and Rivals150 freshman, Kevin Dillard. They will need to have big performances on both side of the ball, however, to slow Illinois State, who has a pair of outstanding guards of their own, the freakishly athletic shooting guard Osiris Eldridge and senior gunner Champ Oguchi, a transfer from Oregon who has been scorching the nets in Normal, Illinois. Don’t miss this opportunity to see two Red Birds who have flown under the radar so far this season.

Brigham Young vs. Utah (Tuesday, January 27th: 10 p.m. on The Mountain Sports Network)

Brigham Young has dropped two straight games, including their second home loss in three games, and are in the middle of the pack in a crowded Mountain West Conference. Therefore, this game is a must-win for the Cougars. It won’t be easy, though, to beat Utah at home, in an in-state grudge match. The heart and soul of the Utes is 7’2 center Luke Nevill, who has improved remarkably over the past four years and has emerged as a solid post scorer. He faces an incredibly weak BYU front line and needs to have a monstrous game to ensure victories for the Utes. The reason for this is the fact that BYU packs an overwhelming perimeter scoring punch in the form of point guard Jimmer Fredette (14.9 ppg and 4.3 apg), wing Lee Cummard (17.1 ppg and 5.9 rpg), and combo-forward Jonathan Tavernari (17.4 ppg, 7.3 rpg). The key for BYU, though, may come down to center Chris Miles’s ability to shut down Luke Nevill. Miles has been extremely inconsistent this year, but needs to get his act together for BYU to get out of its slump. If you have access to the Mountain Sports Network, do not miss this game.

Morehead St vs. Tennessee St. (Thursday, January 29th: 9 p.m. on ESPN)

Morehead State dropped their first six games before bouncing back to claim solid wins over Central Florida, Tennessee-Martin, and Ohio Valley Conference leader Austin Peay. Now, they have a chance to avenge their earlier loss at Tennessee State in front of a national audience in their home arena. If anything, this game is worthy to catch a rare televised glimpse of scrappy sophomore big man Kenneth Faried, one of the best rebounders in all of college basketball, currently having a terrific season averaging 12.6 ppg, 12.2 rpg, 2.0 spg, and 1.8 bpg.

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