Saturday, February 18, 2012

Welcome to the first of many “Bracket Buster” weekends

If you haven't gotten into college hoops yet this season, this weekend is the time to jump in, head first! Several ranked teams are playing each other including two mid-major teams that could end up in Cinderella's shoes come March, making this weekend all the more exciting. Why fly blind into your office pool a few weeks from now when you can watch a great preview and go into March Madness actually knowing a thing or two about several of the teams in your bracket?

To a casual fan, the match-up of Saint Mary's and Murray State. would exactly scream "excitement" but for those of us who know better, this is in fact the marquee match-up of the weekend!

Who would've guessed that No. 16 Saint Mary's (23-4, 12-2 WCC) and No. 14 Murray St. (25-1, 13-1 OVC) would be top teams this late in the season? Sure, some may think this pairing has lost some luster as both teams suffered surprising losses recently, but that disappointment makes this game all the more important moving forward.

Aside from the nostalgia of true March Madness that comes to mind when thinking of these two teams, the Gaels and Racers each have exciting playmakers on their rosters this year. Saint Mary's junior point guard Matt Dellavedova leads the Gaels, averaging 15.7 points per game and 6.4 assists. Dellavedova is hampered by an ankle injury with head coach Randy Bennett calling him a game-time decision. Hopefully he'll play so we can watch him go up against the Racers' junior point guard Isaiah Canann, averaging 19.2 ppg, 3.8 apg and shooting a whopping 47.3 percent from 3-point range.

As if Dellavedova's injury wasn't bad enough, the Gaels will definitely be without sophomore guard and top defender Stephen Holt who partially tore his MCL in St. Mary's home loss to Loyola Marymount on Wednesday. This one hurts the Gaels, both literally and figuratively.

Both teams are expected to receive an at-large bid to the Tournament, but if either team drops a few games, they could find themselves forced to win their conference tournament in order to make it to the Big Dance. Obviously, nobody wants to play under that kind of pressure when you can secure a Tourney spot with strong regular season play. In other words, both Murray St. and Saint Mary's will play their hearts out in front of a national audience at 6pm EST on ESPN. Expect a close and exciting game, especially if Dellavedova is healthy enough to suit up. I'm taking Murray St. in this one as the Racers are still likely pissed after losing their only game of the season to Tennessee St. last week and should use that as fuel. Plus, the Gaels should experience a bit of a learning curve in adjusting to playing without the injured Holt.

There's another point guard match-up worth watching, and it comes in the big boy conference, the Big Ten; It's a classic duel between rivals Ohio State. and Michigan. Sure, it doesn't sound as compelling as a football game in the Big House, but these two institutions have proven themselves to be formidable opponents on the hardwood as well.

Yes, the No. 6 Buckeyes (22-4, 10-3 Big Ten) SMASHED the 19. Wolverines (19-7, 9-4 Big Ten) when they played in Columbus last month, and OSU has won its last six straight games against Michigan. But here's the thing, Michigan is 14-0 in Ann Arbor this season, which is where Saturday's game is being played. The Buckeyes need the win to stay atop the conference alongside Michigan State. Although OSU beat Michigan by 15 points in that last meeting, the Wolverines defense showed promise playing Jared Sullinger tough and I would imagine, the D will kick it up a notch given the importance of the game and playing it in front of their home crowd.

If Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke play well, I can't see Michigan losing in Ann Arbor. Watching point guards Burke for the Wolverines and Aaron Craft for the Buckeyes go at it should be a lot of fun. The fact that Michigan is finally a contender again after all of these years just adds to the excitement of college hoops this season. Even though the Wolverines stunk in their last meeting with OSU, I'm picking Michigan at home the second time around. You can catch this one following St. Mary's vs. Murray St. on ESPN (scheduled at 9pm EST).

An at-large match-up worth watching is Long Beach State at Creighton. Both teams are intriguing for different reasons, plus both squads might be dancing come March. Creighton (22-5, 12-4 MVC) will play host to Long Beach St. (19-6, 12-0 Big West) in hopes of building upon their last game (a victory which snapped a three-game skid) while attempting to spoil the 49ers 12-game winning streak.

The Bluejays and 49ers both put a lot of points on the board (averaging 79.9 and 74.1 ppg respectively) so we can expect to see plenty of offense and for Creighton, the man leading the way is Doug McDermott averaging 22.7 ppg. The Bluejays entire starting lineup is well-balanced, comprised of unselfish players who enjoy logging assists, rebounding and letting Ethan Wragge (off the bench) shoot 3-pointers at a solid rate of 45 percent.

In the visiting 49ers, we'll see a team that has played the most difficult non-conference schedule this season with most of those games coming on the road. Long Beach St. beat then-ranked Pittsburgh away from home and Xavier at a neutral site but lost to San Diego State, Louisville, North Carolina and Kansas on the road. To me, this team screams "Cinderella" having experience against some top programs heading into the Tourney.

Then again, the 49ers have to make it to the Tourney before they can wear the glass slipper, something they haven't done recently, losing the Big West title game the last two seasons. A win over over Creighton would get the 49ers one step closer to an at-large bid which would remove the pressure of having to win the Big West tournament to get in to the NCAA's.

The 49ers have three players averaging double figures in scoring (senior guard Casper Ware leads the way with 17 ppg) and has two others following close behind averaging nearly 10 ppg. Senior forward T.J. Robinson averages over ten boards per game as well.

LBSU is holding teams to 65 ppg while Creighton allows 68.6 ppg. The 49ers will need to bring their "A" game defensively as Creighton's 79.9 ppg ranks 10th in the nation. The Bluejays are a solid 12-2 at home while the 49ers are 8-5 on the road, but as we mentioned earlier, they have played one hell of a road schedule.

Creighton leads the nation in field goal percentage (shooting 51 percent) and ranks third with 18.4 assists per game. Stats say Creighton should win this game but I'm going with Long Beach St. The 49ers are due to win this one on the road, plus, they start four seniors and a junior. That is a lot of experience to counter the Bluejays who have only one senior and and two juniors in their starting five.

In the ACC, I'm taking No. 21 Florida State (18-7, 9-2 ACC) over North Carolina State (18-8, 7-4) in Raleigh. Both teams played Thursday, with FSU ending up on the right side of a comeback and the opposite being the case for N.C. State. I think the Wolfpack are worse for the wear, probably still exhausted from being mentally wounded by Duke's come-from-behind victory.

Also in the ACC, No. 22 Virginia hosts Maryland. This game doesn't do much for me considering neither team can manage to beat Duke, UNC or Florida St. I give UVA the edge here as they are 12-1 at home while the Terps are a dismal 1-5 on the road.

Yes, New Mexico has won six straight games heading into Saturday's showdown against Mountain West rival UNLV. Yes, UNLV stinks on the road, the Rebels are just 5-6 away from home. Yes, the Lobos now sit atop the conference coming off a win at No. 15 San Diego St., and their last loss came a lonnnng time ago, at UNLV on Jan 21.

Having said all of that, I'm taking No. 11 UNLV. I feel like this is the week the Rebels get back on track on the road. Could this prediction go up in flames? Sure. But my gut tells me Vegas comes up a winner on Saturday.

And finally, in the Big 12, we've got Kansas State visiting No. 10 Baylor. If anyone in the Big 12 aside from Kansas or Missouri can beat the Bears (22-4, 9-4 Big 12), it's probably the Wildcats (17-8, 6-7 Big 12), but I don't see it happening Saturday. Baylor is too good at home (12-2) and this team is on a mission. From Brittney Griner and the women's hoops team to RG III and the football team to men's basketball, I'm convinced 2011-2012 belongs to Baylor athletics. The men's basketball program has overcome such heinous corruption and heartbreak in a relatively short amount of time with this last year being truly special . Despite losses to the cream of the crop Kansas and Missouri, I see Baylor getting a running start heading into the Tourney. I think Perry Jones III, Pierre Jackson and Quincy Acy will be too much for the Wildcats to overcome in Waco.

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