2009 is finally here, and that means the rush and stress of the holidays are finally over.. which means there’s no better time to grab a comfortable chair and take in some hoops. The first weekend of the year offers some great match-ups, and it’s time to start separating the contenders from the pretenders as conference play is getting geared up. Here are some big games to keep an eye on:
Saturday, Jan. 3
12 p.m. ESPN #3 Pitt at #8 Georgetown
The Hoyas are fresh off a huge road win at UConn, and are looking more and more like a legit contender for the Big East. Their only loss was an early-season one to Tennessee, and they’ve righted themselves since then, relying on terrific play from guards Chris Wright and Austin Freeman, as well as forwards DaJuan Summer and Greg Monroe to lead a balanced attack. Pitt has coasted through a fairly easy schedule so far, but did struggle on the road against Rutgers last time out. Sam Young and DeJuan Blair give the Panthers the size and athleticism to match up with the Hoyas, and Levance Fields is a heady player in the backcourt. This should be a slugfest between two very good teams, although the Hoyas should ultimately prevail at home.
12 p.m. #23 Ohio State at #21 Minnesota
Coming into the season, who would have thought the Golden Gophers would be ranked as we enter January? Tubby Smith has done a great job of building a competitive team, led by guard Lawrence Westbrook. The Gophers only loss is to Michigan State, and they also own a win over Louisville. The Buckeyes have also taken some by surprise with their hot start, led by forward Evan Turner, who is having a breakout year. They’ll miss David Lighty (injury) in this one, as he has the most experience of any of the Buckeyes’ rotation players. Look for Minnesota to ring up a win at home.
2 p.m. ESPN #18 Tennessee at Kansas
It’s a little strange not to see a ranking next to the Jayhawks, but such is the life when you lose six players off a national championship team. The Jayhawks have a ton of talent, but are still putting the pieces together and developing team chemistry. Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich have stepped up their games as expected, but keep an eye on Tyshawn Taylor, a newcomer who is really starting to come on. The Vols are loaded with athleticism on the wings, but their frenetic pace can work against them at times as they force shots and turn the ball over. Tyler Smith leads the way, but there’s any number of guys capable of having big games in Bruce Pearl’s offense. Look for a fast-paced game, with KU getting a big win in front of their home crowd.
Sunday, Jan. 4
4:30 p.m. CBS Kentucky at #18 Louisville
There’s always a lot riding on the UK-UL game, and this year it is no different. The Cats have been hitting their stride since a sluggish start, and boast one of the best 1-2 combos in the country in Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson. However, during their recent 6-game winning streak, the Cats have feasted on no-name opponents, with the biggest “name” win coming over a rebuilding Indiana team. The Cards meanwhile, have dropped two of their last three, and appear to lack any kind of offensive identity at this point in the season. With Billy Gillispie looking for a signature win, and Rick Pitino trying to get his team back on track, this one should feature a ton of intensity. Look for Louisville to pull out the home win.
5:30 p.m. Boston College at #1 North Carolina
UNC’s game plan should be fairly simple for this one…stop Tyrese Rice. The sharp-shooting guard lit up the Heels for 46 points last year (albeit in a loss), nailing 8-12 from 3-point land and generally carrying the Eagles all game. He’s had a little more help this year, but there’s no questions that as Rice goes, so goes the team. The Heels have been as close to unstoppable as any team in recent memory, and you can bet Roy Williams has reminded his team about Rice’s performance. Look for UNC to win big here, but it may be interesting to see if Rice goes off again.
7:45 p.m. Virginia Tech at #5 Duke
On paper, this one shouldn’t even be close. The Hokies best win so far would probably be over St. Johns, and they’ve lost every other big-name match-up so far. Duke meanwhile, has been rolling lately, including a throttling of then #7 Xavier just before Christmas. However, the Hokies always seem to play Duke tough, and senior leader AD Vassallo won’t be phased by the environment at Cameron Indoor. The Devils have relied on versatile forward Kyle Singler and sharp-shooter Jon Scheyer to lead a very balanced team, and they’re playing with a lot of confidence right now. Look for Tech to hang around for a little while, but Duke just has too much talent.