We’re exactly one month from the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, and there’s still plenty left to be decided. Who will take the control of the Big East? How many SEC teams will get in? Can Washington hold off UCLA to win the Pac 10? How much does Tyler Zeller’s return help North Carolina? Can anyone guard Blake Griffin? This is a big weekend for everyone, whether it’s marquee teams looking to add to their resumes or borderline teams just trying to build one. Here’s some highlights.
Saturday, Feb. 21
12 p.m. ESPN #22 Butler at Davidson
Both teams should probably feel comfortable about their tourney chances, but a win in this one certainly wouldn’t hurt. Butler, coming off a loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is led by talented forward Matt Howard, as well as surprising freshman Shelvin Mack in the backcourt. The Bulldogs won’t wow anyone with highlight-reel plays, but as always, they play fundamental basketball and defend like their life depends on it. Davidson is obviously led by Stephen Curry, who has been hobbled by an ankle sprain and missed most of their last game, a blowout loss to The Citadel. Curry is expected to be able to go in this one, which would give Davidson the edge. However, if he’s less than 100%, Butler could sneak in and get a win.
1 p.m. CBS Tennessee at Kentucky
This might be a matchup of the two best teams in the SEC. Or it might not, depending on which teams show up. Kentucky has ridden the hot hand of Jodie Meeks all season, but they desperately need someone to step up and assist him, especially if Patrick Patterson (ankle) still isn’t 100%. UK has struggled with turnovers all season, and their rebounding efforts without Patterson have been less than stellar. On the other hand, Tennessee has been on a roller coaster as well, despite having probably the most talented roster top-to-bottom in the league. The Vols are very careless with the ball, and appear disinterested in defense at times…as they did in January, when Meeks scored 54 against them. Look for them to do a better job of locking into Meeks this time, but look for UK to get a big home win.
9 p.m. ESPN #2 Oklahoma at Texas
Unless Texas gets pressure on Sam Bradford in the pocket, they stand no chance of….wait. Wrong game- sorry. While this one may not carry the intensity of the Red River Shootout, this is still a huge game for both teams. Oklahoma can virtually lock up a #1 seed as the season is winding down, and they’d love to be able to do it on their rival’s home floor. Besides Griffin, who has been unstoppable all year, the Sooners have been getting major contributions from a number of players, including Taylor Griffin, Austin Johnson and frosh Willie Warren. This is a loaded team- no doubt about it. Texas comes in on a bit of a slide, having lost four of their last six. The Longhorns still play tough defense, but their offense has been wildly inconsistent. They have struggled to replace DJ Augustin at the point, and AJ Abrams and Damion James have both been prone to slumps this year. While Texas will use the energy of the crowd to hang around for a while, look for the Sooners to win going away.
Sunday, Feb. 22
1 p.m. CBS #14 Villanova at #25 Syracuse
Of course we have to have a Big East game on here. The Orange knocked off Georgetown this week to stop a slide, but they’re still in need of some wins if they want to feel comfortable about their tourney chances. They’ve lost five of seven, although their schedule does ease up down the stretch. Jonny Flynn and Eric Devendorf lead the offense for the Orange, but the defense has been a question mark all season. Nova was pounded by West Virginia last weekend, but they’ve otherwise been playing great , having won seven of eight. Dante Cunningham has blossomed into one of the best players in the league, and the Wildcats are explosive offensively. Nova still has a slim shot at winning the Big East, so they’ve got plenty to play for. Look for a tight game, with Syracuse getting a big victory at home.
7:45 FSN #8 Wake Forest at #9 Duke
Both teams have stumbled a bit recently could use a big win to right themselves as March approaches. Wake’s youth has shown up in ACC play, overshadowing their talent at times. Jeff Teague is as explosive as any guard in the country, but he still can force shots and get frustrated by aggressive defense. But when they’re playing right, this is a terrific team, with a ton of size and athleticism. Duke has been very un-Duke lately, playing subpar defense and missing a ton of shots. Coach K has expanded his rotation a little, even inserting Elliot Williams into the starting lineup, to try to shake things up. The Devils need Gerald Henderson and Kyle Singler to play big if they’re going to make a deep tourney run this year. With a stunning loss at Joel Coliseum last time they met, look for the Devils to be ready for this one. They get the home win here.
10 p.m. Arizona at #11 Arizona State
Okay- all those who picked Arizona to go on a seven-game winning streak in February, raise your hands. No one? Well that’s just what they’ve done, despite being undersized and outmanned. The Wildcats have been playing terrific lately, led by their trio of Chase Budinger, Nic Wise and Jordan Hill, who has grown into a lottery prospect with his sensational season. Coach Russ Pennel has gotten this team to believe in themselves, and they’ve barged their way back into the tournament discussion. The Sun Devils don’t overwhelm anyone offensively, but James Harden is as good as any guard in America. They play tough defense, and their motion offense is tough to defend against, as they put shooters Derek Glasser and Ty Abbot on the floor to clear lanes for Harden. What Arizona has done in the past month has been impressive, but it’s hard to go against ASU at home. Look for the Sun Devils to break the Wildcats’ winning streak.