College Basketball: Crucial Matchups That Will Decide Conference Championships

Thad NovakCorrespondent IJuly 27, 2012

College Basketball: Crucial Matchups That Will Decide Conference Championships

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    Conference rivalries routinely bring out the best in a great college hoops team, but some league matchups loom larger than others. When the biggest powerhouses in the conference face off against each other, more than just one game is on the line.

    One pairing that’s sure to be played for high stakes next season is the duel between Louisville and Syracuse. The veteran Cardinals will need all of Peyton Siva’s offensive prowess to penetrate the 2-3 zone of the young but athletic Orange and stay on top of the Big East.

    Herein, a closer look at Louisville-Syracuse and the rest of the most important matchups in each of the nation’s top conferences.

8. Mountain West: San Diego State vs. UNLV

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    With New Mexico losing Drew Gordon and others to graduation, last year’s three-way MWC race is likely to become a two-team contest.

    That battle is going to be one of contrasting styles, with UNLV’s behemoth frontcourt tangling with the guard-heavy Aztecs.

    Xavier Thames, Chase Tapley and Jamaal Franklin will get their share of points for Steve Fisher’s team, but overcoming the power game of Mike Moser, Khem Birch and star freshman Anthony Bennett will be a tall order.

    UNLV’s ace in the hole could be point guard Anthony Marshall, who makes the iffy Rebel backcourt stronger (by a fair margin) than the Aztecs’ pedestrian collection of forwards.

7. Atlantic 10: St. Louis vs. Virginia Commonwealth

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    Defense will be the No. 1 story in a deep A-10 next season, and the conference’s two most dangerous teams will also be its two toughest squads to score on.

    St. Louis, which ranked eighth in the country in scoring defense a season ago, returns four starters from a team that nearly upset Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament.

    The biggest threat to the Billikens is conference newcomer VCU, which brings back four starters as well, after leading the nation with 10.5 steals per game and taking down Wichita State in the Big Dance.

    Billiken point guard Kwamain Mitchell will need to be at the top of his game to survive the Rams’ omnipresent pressure and lead St. Louis to a conference crown.

6. SEC: Kentucky vs. Florida

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    The least surprising entry on this list sees Billy Donovan and John Calipari enter Round 4 of what’s sure to be a long-running battle.

    Kentucky and Florida are again set to be the class of an SEC that’s short on depth but (thanks to the Wildcats and Gators) long on postseason hopes.

    High-scoring Kenny Boynton will lead Florida against a perennially-inexperienced Kentucky squad that’s likely to be among the nation’s top defenses again thanks to Nerlens Noel and his fellow elite recruits.

    Look for the newcomers at point guard—Wildcat Ryan Harrow (an N.C. State transfer) and Gator freshman Braxton Ogbueze—to be the key factors in determining which side comes out on top this year.

5. Pac-12: UCLA vs. Arizona

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    After last season's conference-wide slump, the Pac-12 will be back with a vengeance in 2012-13. The two teams leading the resurgence boast two of the nation’s top three recruiting classes: UCLA and Arizona (Nos. 1 and 3 according to ESPNU).

    The Wildcats feature a trio of freshman big men, led by seven-footer Kaleb Tarczewski, while the Bruin youngsters are led by small forward Shabazz Muhammad outside.

    If 6’7” freshman Kyle Anderson is as good as advertised while running the UCLA point, look for him to lead a narrow Bruin victory in the head-to-head meetings and the conference chase.

4. Big 12: Kansas vs. Baylor

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    For all that time that Kansas and Baylor spent during last year’s Big 12 schedule battling for the top spot in the standings, the 2012-13 version of this showdown is hardly going to be a rerun.

    With Thomas Robinson, Tyshawn Taylor, Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller all off to the NBA, last year’s role players will become leaders this time around.

    Baylor’s ultra-clutch Pierre Jackson will need all his crunch-time scoring talents to support a freshman-laden frontcourt against the fearsome Jayhawk defense.

    Jeff Withey’s shot-blocking will likely provide all the edge that KU needs, but if newcomers Perry Ellis and Ben McLemore can’t get into a scoring rhythm, Baylor could easily come out on top.

3. Big East: Louisville vs. Syracuse

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    As in so many Big East races, the 2012-13 title hunt will come down to which flawed offense can find the cracks in a terrific opposing defense.

    Syracuse’s eternal 2-3 zone may have lost shot-blocker Fab Melo, but 6’9”, 275 pound freshman DaJuan Coleman will be an imposing force in the middle in his own right.

    Coleman and combo guard Michael Carter-Williams will also form the heart of the Orange offense, but even they will struggle to punch through Louisville’s devastating matchup zone.

    The Cardinals, who add a healthy Wayne Blackshear to last year’s Final Four roster, have ample offensive worries of their own, but outside pressure from Peyton Siva and Russ Smith will combine with Gorgui Dieng’s shot blocking to make Louisville’s defense too tough to beat.

2. ACC: N.C. State vs. North Carolina

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    For a rarity, the revered Duke-North Carolina rivalry is unlikely to feature both of the ACC’s best teams next season. Upstart North Carolina State, fresh off a surprise Sweet 16 appearance, has a great chance to capture its first conference crown since 1989.

    The biggest threat to the Wolfpack is also the biggest X-factor in the ACC: a Tar Heel team that’s replacing four starters with unproven but anticipated talents such as James Michael McAdoo and freshman Marcus Paige.

    The latter, a ballyhooed point guard, will go a long way toward taking down N.C. State if he can fight to a draw (or better) against Wolfpack star Lorenzo Brown.

1. Big Ten: Indiana vs. Ohio State

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    Even if Ohio State doesn’t wind up as the second-best team in a loaded Big Ten conference, they’ll be the toughest matchup for likely frontrunner Indiana.

    How the Hoosiers fare against the Buckeyes’ superlative defenders will serve as a strong indication of how ready they are to live up to their preseason national title hype.

    IU has offensive weapons at every position, led by star center Cody Zeller and touted freshman point guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell, but they look ill-equipped to win a defensive slugfest.

    That’s just what they may be facing against Ohio State, which has 6’11”, 220 pound shot blocker Amir Wiliams to bang with Zeller and lockdown point guard Aaron Craft to pressure Ferrell.