Out of Focus: Five NCAA Games You Need To Know About (Jan. 13)

Nathan BitnerSenior Analyst IJanuary 13, 2009

First of all, let me apologize for my recent absence and the lack of last week's Conference Rankings. They will be up in one form or another in the coming days, although that form must remain an enigma until I can figure out how to incorporate rankings that are a week out of date.

I have a new respect for Kellen Winslow after getting a nasty staph infection (MRSA) from a very small dog bite and spending about a week in the hospital. After two painful surgeries and nearly losing my arm, I can see why he was so upset with the Cleveland Browns' franchise. 

On the other hand, maybe I should have been brushing my English Bulldog's teeth a little better...

Unfortunately, my misguided interactions with the land manatee that is my Bulldog coincided with a rough stretch for my beloved North Carolina Tar Heels, so now that I'm back, maybe they can get back to that undefeated season. Undefeated while Nathan is not in the hospital, that is.

Anyway, on to the rest of college basketball and the "Out of Focus" games for tonight. 

As usual, these are games played by unranked teams that might be a little bit "under the radar." However, they are chosen for the effect they can have on the postseason and often involve very competitive matchups, including some teams likely to be on the Selection Committee's bubble come March.

As always, updates on the games will be posted in the comments section and I eagerly await your opinions on the teams, the games, or my predictions.

5.  UCF (10-5, 0-1 Conference USA) at UAB (9-6, 0-1 CUSA)

On paper, Central Florida may look a bit outclassed by the Blazers, but remember that UAB is down to six scholarship players since academic missteps sidelined several of their "student-athletes." 

Even with the hit they took from the sanctions, UAB remains the best shooting team in Conference USA, hitting .453 from the field.

UAB's "Big Three" of Robert Vaden, Paul Delaney III, and Lawrence Kinnaird were awful in the conference opener, a 75-56 drubbing at the hands of the Houston Cougars. The trio were a combined 10-of-34 from the field and the Blazers were hammered on the boards as well. 

Though all of their losses are to relatively high-quality opponents, the losses are mounting for UAB and their hopes of an NCAA tournament at-large bid are fading quickly.

Central Florida presents the opposite picture. Though they started the season poorly with losses to Valparaiso, Mississippi, and Morehead State, the Knights have been tough to beat since an excusable Dec. 20 loss to Florida.

Since then, they have won five of six, the only loss being a narrow 73-66 defeat to Memphis in the conference opener.

The Knights' wins include a 25-point beatdown of the same Valparaiso team that had won an early-season matchup and wins against New Mexico, Holy Cross, Penn, and South Florida. 

When the Knights can force turnovers and run the floor, they score big numbers and become a much more dangerous team.

If they can get the score up into the 70s, they can likely pull off a mild upset.

Prediction:  UAB 66, UCF 62

4.  Florida State (13-3, 0-1 ACC) at NC State (9-4, 0-1 ACC)

Boston College has already shown the nation (and North Carolina, specifically) that no one should be taken lightly in the ACC, at least outside of the state of Virginia.

The Wolfpack don't have many quality wins, their best probably being an 11-point victory over East Carolina. They do have a few "quality losses," if such a thing exists. 

Before a conference-opening 63-51 loss to undefeated Clemson, NC State's three losses were by a combined 10 points, and all came to teams that were either ranked at the time or at some other point in the season (Davidson, Marquette, and Florida).

Brandon Costner looks much improved over last year's extremely disappointing season, and he remains the key if NC State hopes to contend for an at-large berth in a loaded conference. They'll have the home-court tonight, and the RBC Center provides a solid advantage.

They'll need every advantage they can get against the Seminoles, who have looked good all year long. After leading now No. 1 Pittsburgh for most of their matchup, the Seminoles went on to lose a close one. They clawed back into their conference opener with now No. 3 Duke, coming back from a huge deficit to lose by just eight.

Wins over Florida, Cincinnati, Western Kentucky, and California more than make up for the Seminoles' only other loss, a 73-59 defeat to Northwestern in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Though this game is more important for the Wolfpack, neither team wants to start in an 0-2 hole in conference play.  This game may very well go down to the last shot, and the winner can continue to ponder an NCAA bid.

Prediction:  Florida State 71, N.C. State 70

3.  Memphis (12-3, 2-0 CUSA) at Tulsa (11-5, 1-0 CUSA)

Surprisingly, Conference USA makes a second appearance on the list, though the main reason is that Memphis has been such a disappointment so far this season. This is not going to be the breeze through the conference schedule that it has been for the Tigers during their current 44-game CUSA winning streak.

Memphis looked unimpressive in their victory over UCF and kept Marshall far too close in the conference opener. Tulsa is better than both of those teams, and may be the first of a few upsets Memphis could experience in conference play. 

Memphis lacks quality wins, their best probably being over Big East foe Cincinnati and have lost to all three ranked teams they have played. This matchup features two of the best defenses in Conference USA and the team that plays best on "D" is likely to take the victory.

Tulsa has won seven of its last eight against generally mediocre opponents, the lone loss being a hard-fought 74-68 defeat to an underrated BYU team. The Golden Hurricane easily handled Charlotte and Southern Miss in their last two games. 

Reserve G Justin Hurtt may be the key for the Tulsa offense if he can perform as he did against Charlotte (5-5 from three-point range), especially if the Memphis defense turns its focus to C Jerome Jordan. 

Don't expect Memphis to pour in three-pointers: Tulsa holds its opponents to a league-best 26 percent from behind the arc.

Prediction:  Tulsa 66, Memphis 63 ... the streak ends with a huge upset

2.  Kansas State (11-4, 0-1 Big XII) at Kansas (11-4, 0-1 Big XII)

Could the real Kansas Jayhawks please stand up? This team may be the biggest Jekyll and Hyde squad in college basketball, with all due respect to Tennessee. They are young and athletic but have some bad losses (61-60 at home to UMass) to go with a few impressive wins (92-85 over the aforementioned Volunteers, for example).

They are dangerous enough to contend for third in the Big XII but were clearly outclassed in their last game, a 75-62 loss at Michigan State. Right now, the Jayhawks are committing too many turnovers and, because of their youth, are making a few too many mental mistakes at crucial times. 

It is looking more and more likely that the reigning National Champions are in a rebuilding, rather than reloading phase.  Unless they generate more impressive offensive numbers from their young recruits, Kansas can expect to make the tournament in March, but not as a very high seed.

Though they own an identical 11-4 record, Kansas State is not quite at the same level as Kansas. They have shown steady improvement since back-to-back losses at Iowa and at Oregon, winning six in a row (albeit against weak competition) before losing their conference opener by just eight to Oklahoma.

The Wildcats will need better backcourt scoring to compete with Kansas. The guard trio of Denis Clemente, Jacob Pullen, and Fred Brown shot an atrocious 13-of-41 against the Sooners, which accounted for all but 14 of the Wildcats' shots. 

The Wildcat defense, on the other hand, was solid, so if they can up the offensive output, they will certainly give the Jayhawks a competitive game.

It all depends on which Kansas team shows up tonight.

Prediction:  Kansas 78, Kansas State 67

1.  TCU (11-5, 2-0 Mountain West) at BYU (13-2, 1-0 MWC)

Many analysts, myself included, thought that UNLV and BYU would battle for the Mountain West crown after showing themselves as the class of the conference in the early season. 

TCU's name (and perhaps San Diego State) may need to be added to the mix after the Horned Frogs dumped UNLV 80-73 on the heels of a win at Texas Tech.

TCU has lost to some bad teams (Indiana and Louisiana Tech), but have won four in a row and looked solid in downing a UNLV team that was on the verge of being ranked in the top-25.

The Mountain West is the most underrated conference in the country, with nearly every team (with the exception of Colorado State) at least capable of upsetting the best in the nation. Every team in the MWC, again with the exception of the Rams, have a winning record and have either posted quality wins and/or very close losses to good teams.

For its part, BYU has lost only to Arizona State (by one) and No. 2 Wake Forest in a game that was even closer than the 94-87 final score. Though their best win is probably the victory against Tulsa, they have looked solid every time they have taken the court.

I have no doubt that the Cougars will be dancing in March, but TCU needs this quality win to salvage any hopes of an at-large bid after their early season missteps.

Prediction:  BYU 80, TCU 71

Now hurry up and find a spot on the Internet, radio, or satellite channel to watch these games! You won't be sorry.


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