WEEKEND PREVIEW: Big Ten and Big East showdowns, plus a chance for Oregon to shine
GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 18 Purdue at No. 4 Maryland, Sat. 4:00 p.m.
We’re going to be getting an interesting contrast of styles in College Park on Saturday afternoon, as the Boilermakers -- with arguably the biggest front line in college basketball and one of the best defenses in the sport -- take on a Maryland team that likes to spread the floor and relies on the ability of their two talented guards to make plays. The issue for Purdue all season long has been their back court play. Will Johnny Hill and P.J. Thompson make enough plays? Can they get the ball to A.J. Hammons, Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan in a position where those big bodies can be effective?
Hammons is going to be the key here. Diamond Stone has had an up-and-down season. There are nights he looks like a top five pick and games where he seems to be completely overmatched. Hammons is a first-team all-Big Ten performer and a guy with an outside shot of making an all-american team that is playing his best basketball of the season right now. So while Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon -- along with Robert Carter -- get the headlines, the matchup with Stone and Hammons may be the most important of the game and the one that brings out the NBA scouts en masse.
THE OTHER GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 3 Villanova at No. 11 Providence, Sat. 2:30 p.m.
This game was far more intriguing before Providence forward and Big East leading scorer Ben Bentil injured his ankle in Wednesday’s loss to DePaul. Why was it intriguing? Because Villanova is all alone in first place in the Big East, and if the Friars have any prayer of catching the Wildcats, this is a must-win game. It’s also a rematch of a game from earlier this season, when Providence overcame the two feet of snow Snowzilla dumped on Philly to beat Villanova in overtime. Then throw in the fact that the Friars are looking to right their ship after losing to DePaul (!!!) this week, and there were all kinds of intriguing story lines heading in.
And then Bentil had to go and sprain his ankle.
THE OTHER, OTHER GAME OF THE WEEK: No. 15 Baylor at No. 14 West Virginia, Sat. 8:00 p.m.
The Big 12 race is not for the faint of heart this season, but both the Bears and the Mountaineers currently find themselves in the thick of the race. After knocking off Iowa State in Ames this week, West Virginia has climbed into a tie for first place with Oklahoma while Baylor is sitting a game out in a tie for third. Jonathan Holton is not expected back for this one, which should give Baylor an advantage on the interior. The key here: How will Lester Medford deal with the WVU pressure?
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR
- Pitt has a big, big game this weekend as they host No. 9 Virginia on Saturday at 12:00 p.m. We’re still in a position where we don’t really know all that much about the Panthers. Just how good is this team? The only ranked team they’ve played is Louisville (they scored 41 points and lost by 18) and the only quality wins on their profile came against Notre Dame and Syracuse. The could use a home win against a top ten team that has been inconsistent on the road this season.
- No. 10 Michigan State seemed to find their stride last week, as Denzel Valentine returned to his Player of the Year caliber form while Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello have been playing some of their best basketball of the season. The Spartans will pay a visit to rival Michigan on Saturday at 2:00 p.m., and while the Wolverines have picked off Maryland in Ann Arbor without Caris LeVert, they’re coming off of a blowout loss in the same building to Indiana.
- Florida visits No. 20 Kentucky on Saturday at 4:00 p.m. and I can’t help but feel like we’re going to learn quite a bit about both teams in this game. Kentucky followed up their terrific performance at Kansas by ... blowing a 21 point lead at Tennessee and losing. The Gators? They’re streaking right now, having landed a blowout win over West Virginia last weekend. Going into Rupp and winning is a different beast, however.
- No. 23 Arizona is in a bit of an interesting position right now, as they don’t have much in the way of quality wins on their NCAA tournament profile right now. They’re also two games off the pace in the Pac-12 regular season standings and are still playing without Allonzo Trier. Washington, on the other hand, has been one of the nation’s most entertaining teams. The two will square off on Saturday at 4:30 p.m.
- Utah suffered one of the worst losses I’ve seen in a while on Thursday night, when Brandon Taylor, for some unknown reason, decided to foul an Oregon State player firing up a half court prayer at the buzzer. The Utes, who are arguably the second-best team in the Pac-12, will look to bounce-back on Sunday against the best team in the Pac-12, No. 16 Oregon, on Sunday at 4:00 p.m.
WHO’S GETTING UPSET?: No. 2 North Carolina at Notre Dame, Sat. 7:00 p.m.
Does anyone know what’s wrong with Marcus Paige? Over the course of his last six games, the former all-american is shooting just 21.3 percent from the floor and 14.3 percent from beyond the arc. That’s atrocious, particularly when you consider just how good Paige has been at times during his career. The other problem for the Tar Heels? Joel Berry II isn’t playing his best basketball right now, either, and Justin Jackson was in the midst of a slump of his own until Monday’s loss at Louisville. Notre Dame isn’t quite as good as we thought they would be this season, but the Fighting Irish are still a tournament team with one of the best point guards in the country in Demetrius Jackson. The key for them is getting stops, but if they do, they’re potent offensively.
WHAT WE’LL BE TALKING ABOUT ON MONDAY: The Super Bowl, probably.
That’s kind of the way these things work.
But I have a feeling that the biggest story line coming out of this weekend is going to be Oregon. The Ducks are currently sitting in first place in the Pac-12 and, coming off of a blowout win over a pretty good Colorado team that had been playing well, a win over Utah would put us in a position where we needed to start seriously considering whether or not Dana Altman could get this team a No. 1 seed.
And when you think about that, it’s crazy.
Because this team is less than two years removed from a scandal involving an alleged sexual assault that directly cost the program three players and, likely, indirectly cost them a few more. They lost Joe Young, who averaged 20 points last season, to graduation and Dylan Ennis, who was, in theory, supposed to be his replacement, to injury. They basically play seven guys and their best NBA prospect is probably Chris Boucher, a 6-foot-10 basketball vagabond that is listed (generously?) at 190 pounds and whose journey to sports stardom isn’t all that dissimilar from the world’s most famous Boucher, Bobby.
The Ducks aren’t supposed to be this good.
But it seems they are.
And if they can take care of business against Utah on Sunday, it might be time to recognize that.