After a wild weekend that saw five top-ten teams go down in the span of 24 hours, the lack of a "sure thing" when projecting college basketball games this year was further highlighted.
Arizona's road loss with under a second left to California may have been the least shocking of the heavyweight upsets from the end of last week, as Michigan State fell to a struggling Georgetown team at Madison Square Garden (called by yours truly) and Oklahoma State lost at home to a Baylor squad with only one previous Big 12 Conference win.
It's hard to believe that there will be quite as many shockers this weekend (apart from those undefeated fellas in Wichita), but this time of the season is where the contenders start to separate themselves from the pretenders. So some big questions heading into the next few days remain that need to be answered, and will be by Monday.
Is Cincinnati really THIS good (like, run the table in the American Athletic Conference good)? Can Wichita State and San Diego State both get one seeds in the Tournament? Has Oklahoma State forgotten how to win basketball games?
With those doubts and questions in mind, what follows is the only reason people read the articles of college basketball analysts: some projections for the games ahead:
Team Most Likely to Win the Best Thursday Night Game: (7) Cincinnati, vs. (22) UConn on ESPN, 7 p.m.
For the second week in a row, the Bearcats will be on ESPN on Thursday night facing a Top 25 opponent. Last week, Cincinnati jumped out to a double-digit lead in the first half before barely holding off a Louisville comeback in the final minutes to win 63-62. The defense of Mick Cronin's corps against the NCAA's reigning champs was positively stifling, as the Cardinals didn't score their 10th point until just over six minutes remained in the first half.
Of course, Cincy's effort was no fluke. While the Sean Kilpatrick-led offense is happy to score 70 points on any given night, their D has been fierce since the season began. Cincinnati is fourth in points allowed in the NCAA this season, surrendering an average of 56.7 points per game. That number is fine and good, but consider this one: The Queen City's best basketball team has allowed 70 points just ONCE this entire season (in an 80-76 win at Temple on January 26).
The job that second-year head coach Kevin Ollie has done with the Huskies after the ignominious departure of Jim Calhoun following the 2012 season is very impressive. The play of guard Shabazz Napier and forward DeAndre Daniels has been excellent in the Huskies recent three-game win streak, which has propelled them into the top 25 (they're currently ranked 22nd). UConn also has a victory at Memphis to add to its tourney resume, a 73-63 triumph in which Daniels (23 points, 11 rebounds) and Napier (17 points, 10 assists) both posted double-doubles.
However, it will be very difficult for the stars of Storrs to score on the Bearcats, especially when their own offense is quite average (71st in the NCAA). This is the same team which has lost conference road contests against Houston and Southern Methodist, and is now being asked to defeat a home team that hasn't lost a conference game to this point.
Cincy had to get the job done on the road this week. This week, within the friendly confines of Fifth Third Arena, the job will be a little bit easier for the Bearcats. By the way, how does the Cincy student body not have a cheering section called Cronin's Cronies yet? That just seems like a missed opportunity to this observer. Prediction: Cincinnati 72, UConn 64
Biggest Chance for a Statement Win: Kansas State, vs. (15) Texas, 1:30 p.m.
After Saturday's win over Kansas, in a contest that wasn't even close in crunch time, many talking heads on the TV and airwaves are saying that the now-15th-ranked Longhorns might (GASP!) be even better than the lottery-player-laden Jayhawks team.
That's probably a stretch, given that the sheer talent of the Jayhawks team and Bill Self's Hall-of-Fame level of coaching should have them playing their best ball when it counts in early March. Then again, as Virginia Commonwealth and Northern Iowa will tell you, those young teams are prone to tourney upsets...
...but that's a conversation for another time.
Another important weekend test in the Sunflower State for Texas lies ahead this weekend, and this time it's on the road. Kansas State has one of the strongest home-court advantages in college basketball at Fred Bramlage Coliseum, better known as the "Octagon of Doom".
The Wildcats are undefeated at the Octagon this season, which includes wins over Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and West Virginia, whom they lost to on the road but beat by 22 on their own turf (or parquet). Texas has definitely proven to be a top-20 team, but are poised for a letdown in their first important post-Jayhawks showdown.
Kansas State doesn't usually score much (in fact, they're mediocre at best), but they have a top-25 defense and seem to shoot well enough to win in their home setting. Jonathan Holmes and the Longhorns had better come in with the intention of shooting at a high percentage. If they start off slow, Rick Barnes' team could be in for a lone night. Prediction: Kansas State 69, Texas 63
Best Top-25 Non-Conference Game of the Week: (23) Gonzaga at (24) Memphis, 2/8. 9 p.m., ESPN
It's a mystery as to which Memphis team will show up on a given night. Will viewers tune in to see the team that has wins at conference rival Louisville (old-school Conference USA fans will tell you how fun it is to see Memphis and Louisville in the same conference again) and against Oklahoma State? Or will we see the team that was decimated by Cincinnati and was rocked by 15 at SMU just a week ago?
Gonzaga is cruising along under the radar this season in the West Coast Conference this year, with a neutral court win against Arkansas and an 80-point showing in a win at West Virginia, who is a real contender in the Big 12 this season. We have reached the point where any self-respecting coach won't take a chance playing Gonzaga in non-conference play (even Tom Izzo wouldn't schedule the Zags this year). That's likely why Kevin Pangos and company are forced to travel East at this odd juncture in this season.
There's no question 'Zaga can shoot, since they are making over 50 percent of their shots this year (their .503 field goal percentage ranks third in D-I). Their defensive numbers are average, though, despite playing against clearly inferior opponents in the WCC. A nine-point loss to Portland last month still stains their tournament resume, and Memphis is looking as good as they have all season following a 101-point showing against Rutgers immediately after the SMU setback.
That, coupled with the traveling aspect and matchup problems against a Tigers team which ranks in the top 40 in all major offensive categories (including their third-highest assist-per-game total of 17.9) means that Gonzaga is fighting an uphill battle this Saturday night in prime time. Prediction: Memphis 85, Gonzaga 76
Other Matchups With Big Upset Potential: (13) Saint Louis at LaSalle, 2/8, 5 p.m., ESPN2
The Billikens have been the only A-10 team this season which has seemed to be able to avoid the intra-conference land mines in what has so far been a standout year for the conference. After a shaky start in non-conference play, Saint Louis is currently 8-0 in A-10 play. However, SLU doesn't score an exceptional number of points per game.
LaSalle, on the other hand, usually plays up to their competition, as a home win against George Washington and double-overtime loss to Virginia Commonwealth demonstrates. Dr. John Giannini knows that the latter game, the only conference contest they've lost at Tom Gola Arena this season, got away from them. His boys will be ready to close this time in my second upset pick of the week. Prediction: LaSalle 76, Saint Louis 72
(10) Michigan at (17) Iowa, 2/8, 2 p.m., ESPN
This wouldn't be a true college basketball article if it didn't mention what is probably the premier game of the weekend. The 2013-14 season has been a great success for coach Fran McCaffery and the Hawkeyes. The former Siena coach, well accustomed to busting brackets as well as expectations, has gotten his unheralded players to embrace their underdog status and win games with long-distance shooting and tenacious defense.
They'll be facing a Michigan squad, replete with stars Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III, who know that game well. Iowa will put up a good showing against a top-ten Wolverine squad, but the battle-tested Michigan squad will be making a "Beilein" for the top five by the time this week is said and done (pun obviously intended). Prediction: Michigan 71, Iowa 67
(9) Michigan State at Wisconsin, 2/9, 3 p.m., CBS
There always seems to be one game each Sunday afternoon that, at its conclusion, has college hoops enthusiasts scratching their heads. Last week, it was Michigan falling to Indiana at Assembly Hall. This weekend, it will be a Spartan team celebrating the return of Adreian Payne. Although Sparty is surely glad to have him back, Payne is sure to be rusty at first, especially against a typically tenacious Wisconsin defense.
Any Big Ten team will tell you how hard it is to win conference games on the road. Also, it's easy to forget with their recent struggles that this Badger squad was a top-five team just a matter of weeks ago. Wisconsin is unlikely to be unranked for long, making this an unprecedented third upset pick. Prediction: Wisconsin 65, Michigan State 63
Enjoy the weekend of hoops, everyone.
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