Set Your Tivo: 01.07-01.09Posted by Brian Otskey on January 7th, 2011
***** – quit your job and divorce your wife if that’s what it takes to watch this game live
**** – best watched live, but if you must, tivo and watch it tonight as soon as you get home
*** – set your tivo but make sure you watch it later
** – set your tivo but we’ll forgive you if it stays in the queue until 2013
* – don’t waste bandwidth (yours or the tivo’s) of any kind on this game
Brian Otskey is an RTC contributor.
The first big hoops weekend of 2011 features many important games across the land. Here are five key games followed by a host of others. All rankings from RTC and all times eastern.
Cleveland State @ Butler – 7 pm Friday on ESPNU (****)
With Butler’s loss at Milwaukee on Monday, folks in the Horizon League used to the Bulldogs’ dominance are excited that this may be the year someone else takes the title. Cleveland State leads the league by a game over Detroit and Wright State while holding a one and a half game lead over Butler heading into tonight’s game. Should the Vikings win on the road tonight and plow through the rest of their Horizon schedule, expect to see Cleveland State win the league. Obviously we’re a long way off from that but CSU is currently in a nice position. Butler’s problems have been on the defensive end. The Bulldogs have given up an average of 73.6 PPG in their losses while their defensive efficiency has dropped significantly from their top five ranking of a year ago.
Stopping Cleveland State’s strong back court is the key to beating them, making a poor defensive effort a recipe for disaster. Ronald Nored has to live up to his defensive billing and lead the way tonight for Butler. Cleveland State’s guard trio of Norris Cole, Trevon Harmon and Jeremy Montgomery score 64% of the team’s points by themselves. Cole, a strong contender for Horizon Player of the Year, leads the way with 21 PPG as well as five assists and rebounds per contest. He can defend, too — he averages over two steals a contest. Gary Waters has a special player in Cole, a guy who can burn you by penetrating or by shooting it from the perimeter. Harmon, a 38% shooter from deep, will also pose a big problem for Butler defensively. The Vikings defend the three very well (#22 nationally), making life difficult for the struggling Zach Hahn as well as Shelvin Mack. Mack’s percentage is down this year but he’s gone 10-21 (48%) from three point land over Butler’s last four games. Neither team shoots the ball well but Butler has to get something from deep in order to offset the advantage the Vikings will most likely hold from the perimeter.
Cleveland State’s weakness is rebounding, making Matt Howard a huge player in this game for Butler. Howard has had a great year but must stay out of foul trouble. If BU loses their man in the middle, Cleveland State has a great chance to win on the road. Considering Butler’s poor shooting, Waters may decide to pack his defense in on Howard and make the Bulldogs beat them from outside. Expect a slow, low-scoring bout; both teams foul a lot, resulting in many stoppages and the lack of an even flow to the game. Butler is a tough team to beat at Hinkle Fieldhouse, but the Vikings have won there as recently as the 2009 Horizon Tournament. The Bulldogs will be favored at home but this game will be close right down to the final ticks.
#13 Connecticut @ #12 Texas – 3:30 pm Saturday on ESPN (****)
Even though they play different positions, the star matchup of Kemba Walker and Jordan Hamilton will be fun to watch. Both can carry a team, able to go on a hot streak at a moment’s notice. Besides the two star players, the story of this game will be whether or not Texas can keep up its outstanding defense, ranked seventh in efficiency. That’s been the big key for the Longhorns’ rise in the polls, though they still remain under the national radar for the most part. UConn has lost two of three since starting 10-0 as teams are forcing Walker into more shots and limiting the contributions of his “supporting cast.” Texas is heading the other way, having won six in a row since their loss at USC a month ago. Rick Barnes uses a nine-man rotation and they’ve been lucky that all have stayed healthy thus far. While Dogus Balbay’s minutes have been cut this year, Barnes may turn to his senior guard in an attempt to lock up Walker. Balbay is one of the best on-ball defenders in the nation and we think Texas would be foolish not to get him more time in this one than they have recently.
Jim Calhoun needs Alex Oriakhi to be on his game, period. The UConn big man fouled out in only 23 minutes against Notre Dame and didn’t even score a point. Walker cannot run this show by himself against good competition so it’s vital that the Huskies get some other players going. Shabazz Napier would seem to be a likely candidate, though he showed his youth with a couple of questionable shots and drives in the late stages of the Notre Dame game. Connecticut doesn’t shoot the ball all that well, so their effort on the offensive glass will be very important. That’s good news for the Huskies, who rank fourth in that category, but Texas has a strong interior defense and manages to pull down 43 RPG themselves. The Longhorn defense is ranked third in the nation inside the arc with Tristan Thompson and Gary Johnson patrolling the paint. Thompson blocks two shots per game and Johnson grabs over seven rebounds a game, terrific for a guy who’s only 6’6. Both players can score on the other end too, averaging 24 PPG between them. With stud freshman Cory Joseph and Hamilton knocking down triples, plus their duo inside, Texas has too much for the Huskies on the road. Connecticut did win last year’s meeting at home but we like the Longhorns a lot this time.
St. John’s @ #16 Notre Dame – 8 pm Saturday on ESPNU (***)
So, guess who is atop the Big East standings right now. Pittsburgh? Connecticut? Georgetown? Syracuse? Villanova? Nope, keep guessing. The St. John’s Red Storm are 3-0 in the big, bad Big East after toppling mighty Georgetown on Monday night. Facing a daunting upcoming schedule which features a ranked team every game from Georgetown on Monday to Duke at the end of the month, the Johnnies need to keep their head above water and try to break even during this stretch. Already 2-0 on the road in conference, a win here would really put the league and nation on notice. Both teams play at a slow tempo and protect the ball very well so don’t expect many turnovers or transition opportunities. Considering this, the half court games of these teams will decide who wins this. Notre Dame should have a strong edge on the glass, out-rebounding the Red Storm 40-33 on average. St. John’s was killed on the boards against Georgetown but managed to win by forcing turnovers and defending the three well. With turnovers at a premium in this matchup, St. John’s must defend the efficient Irish offense very well to be able to win. Mike Brey’s team isn’t deep but they put five players in double figures and have two pure shooters able to dominate a game. Tim Abromaitis and Ben Hansbrough lead the team in scoring and three point shooting, but one of those that averages double figures, Carleton Scott, will likely be out with a hamstring tear. Scott is their third leading scorer providing 12/6 per game, so Jack Cooley and Joey Brooks may be counted on to provide a lift off the bench. Other than them, Notre Dame doesn’t have many players to turn to. With Scott out, defending Abromaitis and Hansbrough becomes even more important for St. John’s. Steve Lavin has tinkered with man-to-man and zone defense all year and may turn to a match-up zone here, extending out and getting in the faces of ND’s dynamic duo. Of course, zones often leave you vulnerable on the glass so Lavin may not want to risk many second chance put-backs.
Dwight Hardy has been the star of the show for the Johnnies, scoring at least 20 points in six of his last seven games. Hardy is a superb free throw shooter at 92%, his perfect 10-10 key to their win over Georgetown. With Justin Brownlee inside and D.J. Kennedy on the wing, St. John’s has good balance that can excel in a half court setting. The Johnnies shoot 47.5% as a team, certainly able to compete with the Irish. Notre Dame is the better team overall and will be favored at home but St. John’s has proven that they’re not to be taken lightly. We think the Johnnies are for real and they’ll give the Irish all they can handle on Saturday, winning this one if they can shut down the Irish shooters.
Cincinnati @ #8 Villanova – 12pm Sunday on ESPN FullCourt/ESPN3.com (****)
The Bearcats stand at 15-0 after knocking off Xavier in the Crosstown Shootout on Thursday, though a win over this year’s Xavier squad is not the statement it would have been in years past. Cincinnati still hasn’t played any team that’s a good bet for the NCAA Tournament but that changes on Sunday as they head to Villanova. This is actually a pretty good matchup for Cincinnati. Their strength is defense and rebounding and they play a very physical style of basketball. That may be able to rattle Villanova, a team that likes to speed up the game and relies on guards employing a lot of finesse moves. The Bearcats are tenth in defensive efficiency while also ranking in the top 20 in both three- and two-point percentage against. Granted, those statistics have been piled up against a litany of cupcakes, but we have no doubt that Cincy’s defense is legit. They’ve held opponents to 53.8 PPG, including 34, 46 and 53 against the best opponents they’ve played (Dayton, Xavier, Seton Hall respectively). With Corey Fisher and Maalik Wayns struggling mightily from deep, only Corey Stokes is a true threat from the perimeter for Villanova. Keeping a body on Stokes is important and that job may fall to Rashad Bishop. Both know each other well from growing up in New Jersey and Bishop should be able to stay with Stokes most of the time. Still, Stokes is an outstanding shooter with range who doesn’t need much daylight to make shots.
In the paint, Yancy Gates and Ibrahima Thomas against Antonio Pena and Mouphtaou Yarou might actually decide this game. These teams are evenly matched inside but the Wildcats have more talent in the back court. Stopping the dribble penetration of Fisher and Wayns is crucial for Cincinnati to win. If Villanova’s guards can slice through their defense, shots will open up for the Wildcats across the floor. We expect this to be a good game with the Bearcats looking for their marquee win of the year so far. Again, another home team will be favored but Cincinnati has the tools and talent to stay in this game for a long period of time. It’s always easier to slow a game down than to speed it up and that’s what Mick Cronin will look to do. If their defense lives up to the gaudy numbers and they can successfully grind the game to a half, Cincinnati just might win.
Missouri State @ Wichita State – 8:30 pm Sunday on ESPNU (****)
This is the game of the year so far in the Missouri Valley featuring the two best teams, both tied at the top with 3-0 league records. Each team runs an efficient offense and both are a bit lacking on the defensive end. That’s interesting because each plays at a slow pace but fails to defend all that well. These teams are very similar on paper, each with three double figure scorers and a solid supporting cast. Each missed a couple opportunities for quality wins outside of the MVC, so winning a conference title is very important. The winner of this game will hold the upper hand in that regard, though they’ll meet again in Springfield, MO on February 26 to close the regular season. Missouri State has the best player on the floor in Kyle Weems, a versatile 6’6 forward who can score from almost anywhere. In addition to Weems, Missouri State has other three point threats including Jermaine Mallett and Adam Leonard, both seniors. Each team is heavily laden with seniors and juniors, making them two of the most experienced teams in the nation.
The Shockers have plenty of deep threats of their own with David Kyles leading the way at an outstanding 46%. Kyles leads the team in scoring, teaming with J.T. Durley and Toure’ Murry for almost half of Wichita State’s scoring output. Durley is a solid presence in the paint on offense, able to create quality shots with his size, though he doesn’t rebound particularly well for a man of his size. Wichita State is a deep team with no player seeing more than 27 minutes of action on average. By contrast, Cuonzo Martin doesn’t have the luxury of a deep rotation with two players receiving over 31 minutes of playing time. Getting solid play from Will Creekmore in the post will mitigate any damage caused by Durley or Garrett Stutz of Wichita State. Creekmore has started conference play well, making 15 of his 19 shots in the Bears’ last two games. More of that will be needed against a Shockers team that has a lot of height in the paint. Rebounding will also be key for the Bears as the home team cleans the glass well. Playing at Wichita State is very difficult, as the team enjoys solid fan support and a raucous atmosphere is a given. There’s no doubt the fans will be ready for this one considering its importance to each team’s season. The Shockers should be able to hold serve at home but Missouri State takes great care of the basketball (ten turnovers per game) and their experienced players may not be rattled like those who enter Charles Koch Arena for the first time. Expect a good battle here with the Shockers emerging on top by five to ten points.
Plenty of other games to watch this weekend:
West Virginia @ #11 Georgetown – 11 am Saturday on ESPN2 (***)
The loser of this game will drop to 1-3 in Big East play, mostly due to the fact that neither team is defending like they usually do. Both are outside the top 60 in defensive efficiency despite solid offense for both clubs. This game could very well be in the 70’s but Georgetown must get its “big three” going. The trio of Hoya guards scored only 20 points combined on 7-25 (28%) shooting against St. John’s on Monday.
#20 Kansas State @ Oklahoma State – 1 pm Saturday on ESPN2 (***)
The homestanding Cowboys did not look good against Gonzaga last week and desperately need a quality win to get going. Marshall Moses leads the way but OSU must get more consistent play out of Keiton Page. He’s been held to two points in each of his last two games after scoring 20+ in the three games prior to that. Kansas State’s high hopes have been derailed for now with the team lacking a true point guard to set up the offense. Poor shooting, especially at the line, and off-court problems have also poisoned the atmosphere in Manhattan. Jacob Pullen returned from his suspension against Savannah State on Monday and poured in 24 points thanks to a hot shooting night. Of course Oklahoma State isn’t Savannah State. This is a dangerous game on the road for the Wildcats.
Tennessee @ Arkansas – 1:30 pm Saturday on ESPN FullCourt/ESPN3.com (**)
We never know what to expect from Tennessee these days and really, who can accurately predict this Volunteers road game, their first without Bruce Pearl on the sidelines? Tobias Harris went for 17/13 in only 21 minutes of action against Memphis on Wednesday and Tennessee will need more of the same in order to win this one on the road. Should they play solid defense, the Vols should win against an Arkansas team that struggles to score. Only Rotnei Clarke averages double figures for the Razorbacks, a team looking to make some noise in the wide-open (that’s nice talk for “extremely depressing”) SEC West.
#7 Missouri @ Colorado – 1:30 pm Saturday on ESPN FullCourt/ESPN3.com (**)
Years ago, Colorado was a tough road trip for even the best teams in the Big 12. That hasn’t been the case in recent years but the Buffaloes have won nine of ten after starting the year 2-3. Granted, the schedule hasn’t been great but Tad Boyle has his team playing well on the offensive end. As expected, Alec Burks and Cory Higgins each have had terrific seasons. According to the Pomeroy ratings, there isn’t one thing Colorado doesn’t do well on offense, save for maybe offensive rebounding. However, defense is another story. With their #177 defensive efficiency rating and Missouri’s helter-skelter pace, this game could easily be in the 80’s. Marcus Denmon should have a big day for the Tigers.
Marquette @ #5 Pittsburgh – 2 pm Saturday on ESPN FullCourt/ESPN3.com (***)
This game features a bunch of quality guards and forwards but Pitt has the edge when it comes to rebounding and defense. Marquette will need a super-human effort on the glass to win this game, though Pitt is vulnerable on the perimeter. If Darius Johnson-Odom, who had 29 points at Rutgers and has shot 14-24 (58%) from deep over his last four games, can stay hot, the Golden Eagles will be in this one until the end. There aren’t many teams tougher and scrappier than Marquette, a direct result of Buzz Williams’ influence on this team. The Panthers are the rightful favorite at home and we think they’ll win, but this will be a really good game.
George Mason @ Old Dominion – 2 pm Saturday on CSN DC, New England, Philly (***)
Two teams that figure to battle it out for the CAA title meet for the first time in Norfolk. The Monarchs struggle to score but run a deliberate offense in addition to defending well. However, ODU is susceptible to the trifecta making George Mason a dangerous team because of their deep threats, especially Cam Long (39%). Jim Larranaga has a pretty good offensive team but the Patriots must keep Old Dominion, one of the better rebounding teams in the nation, off the boards in order to win.
#10 Kentucky @ Georgia – 4 pm Saturday on ESPN FullCourt/ESPN3.com (***)
Georgia fell off the national radar after struggling in the Old Spice Classic but has won eight straight to get to 11-2 entering SEC play. Trey Thompkins hit for 26 against Eastern Kentucky and hasn’t missed a beat over the past few weeks. With Travis Leslie in the back court as well, Georgia is a sleeper in the SEC East, especially at home. Look for Kentucky to try and speed up the game, grabbing extra possessions and taking advantage of UGA from the three point line. The Bulldogs neither shoot it nor defend it well while the Wildcats shoot 41% from deep.
#23 Minnesota @ #2 Ohio State – 2 pm Sunday on Big Ten Network (***)
A surprising struggle against Iowa gave Buckeye fans some pause but they’re still undefeated and look like a favorite to take home the trophy in Houston this spring. To beat Ohio State, a team must shoot the three well and get to the line, among other things. Minnesota has the personnel to do that with Blake Hoffarber stroking it from deep and the tall front line racking up fouls inside. You do have to wonder if the off-court distraction of Devoe Joseph’s transfer, among other problems, as well as the effect of their front-loaded schedule is hurting their chemistry right now. With players inside to put a body on Jared Sullinger, Minnesota may have a fighting chance here. Still, everything they need to do seems too much to ask against a team in the top three in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
#3 Kansas @ Michigan – 4:30 pm Sunday on CBS (**)
With Josh Selby now in the fold, Kansas seems even more directly pointed towards a possible Final Four run. Michigan faces the difficult task of trying to defend a deep and talented Jayhawk attack that features six players averaging at least 9.0 PPG. KU averages 86 PPG to Michigan’s 68 so John Beilein’s only chance comes down to two things: grinding the pace to a halt and a poor shooting night from a number of Jayhawks. Michigan just doesn’t have the personnel to knock off the most efficient defensive team in the nation, though Selby vs. Darius Morris will be fun to watch.
Maryland @ #1 Duke – 8 pm Sunday on FSN (***)
This rivalry has really exploded over the last ten years but Duke is head and shoulders above the Terrapins this time around. Even so, Maryland is 10-4 and has done a lot of things well. They haven’t knocked off a good team yet, but their fourth ranked defense will keep them in most games. Getting Jordan Williams involved early and often is the key for Gary Williams. Duke is most vulnerable inside so look for the Terps to try and get Mason Plumlee in early foul trouble.
UCLA @ USC – 10:30 pm Sunday on FSN (***)
The battle of LA should be a good one as both teams have improved greatly from last year, despite their lackluster records. The Trojans defend very well and should have an advantage at home if Lazeric Jones still isn’t 100% for the Bruins. UCLA puts five players in double figures but has little depth after that. Brendan Lane could be a key player in this game and he needs to step up into a bigger role for UCLA to have success going forward, especially Sunday inside against Nikola Vucevic. The USC big man leads the team in scoring and averages a double-double. With Jio Fontan in the back court, the Trojans have another deep threat to go along with Donte Smith. For UCLA, Reeves Nelson needs to continue his solid play in order to pick up a road win against their crosstown rivals.