Out of Focus UPDATE: Five Best Games You Didn't Watch Tonight (Dec. 17)

Nathan BitnerSenior Analyst IDecember 17, 2008

Let the games begin!  Tonight!  No, really!

You've had a long day of work.  Or school.  Or post-exam lounging. 

You're tired of reading about Charles Barkley, Gene Chizik, Sean Avery reruns (pardon the pun), and Plaxico Burress' need for a holster.

You are in need of a college basketball fix, but a quick glance at the Top 25 shows a whole lot of typical December mismatches, a point I've already addressed.

There are plenty of games on tap tonight, and plenty that matter in the college basketball world.  They are not going to be grabbing attention on ESPN, and they won't be "televised worldwide," but you need (yes, need! You are an aficionado, aren't you?) to know about them, and I'm here to bring you the lowdown on five of these matchups.

Sure, there are some interesting storylines for the ranked teams.  Can a talented Siena team upset a heralded Pitt Panthers squad that has played exactly no one so far this year?  Western Kentucky and Cleveland State have already delivered recent body blows to the Big East.  Is Pittsburgh next?

Speaking of Syracuse, in-state rival Canisius pays them a visit, and while it will be interesting to see how Jim Boeheim's squad rebounds from the devastating last-second loss to Cleveland State, Canisius isn't the threat they were 10 or 20...or 40 years ago. Expect a Syracuse blowout.

So, in an effort to broaden your horizons, I've left out the Top 25 from my list.

Now I know many of you won't be torn away from the GameChannel presentation of Ecclesia at Central Arkansas (yes, that's a real name and a real game tonight), but if you so choose to divert your attention, I offer up these five diamonds-in-the-rough that may just make a difference some three months down the road.


5. Nicholls State (6-3) at LSU (7-0)

Just how bad is the SEC?  Well, enough that LSU might not want to be too confident in overlooking the Colonels. Neither team is as good as their record, and both have spent the majority of their season thus far beating up on SWAC opponents.

Nicholls State has taken it so far as to play (and beat) 0-8 Southern University twice. LSU's toughest competition has been Cal State-Fullerton, which isn't saying much, considering that UCSF has already lost to both Texas State and Montana State.

The pick: LSU 76, Nicholls St. 66


4. Mercer (6-3) at Oklahoma State (6-3)

Mercer has defeated Alabama and Auburn, and all three of their losses are to quality teams (Dayton, Georgia Tech by just six, and an East Tennessee State team picked by many to win the Atlantic Sun). 

Oklahoma State's only questionable loss was an 18-point blowout at the hands of Washington, a team not expected to compete in a weak Pac-10 this year.  The Cowboys' other losses were to Top 25 teams Gonzaga and Michigan State, and they notched wins against Tulsa and Siena.

This game may mean more to the Bears, who must do all they can with their non-conference schedule.  UCLA is on tap after this game.

The pick: Mercer 74, Oklahoma State 73

3. St. Mary's (7-1) at Oregon (4-5)

Well, I asked about the SEC, but just how bad is the Pac-10?  St. Mary's will be the heavy favorite despite a loss to UTEP earlier in the season.  The Ducks have looked incredibly inconsistent in crushing Alabama and easing past Kansas State, but losing to Oakland, Utah, and most recently San Diego.  It looks like another embarrassing loss for the Pac-10 at home.

With the West Coast Conference looking weaker this year, the Gaels can't afford a letdown if they want to be secure come March.

The pick: St. Mary's 88, Oregon 74


2. Jacksonville State (6-1) at UAB (5-3)

This is better than it sounds. UAB was expected to be the primary contender opposite Memphis in Conference USA but may face better than expected competition in East Carolina, UTEP, and Houston.  The Blazers have already defeated Arizona but struggled with Big East doormat South Florida and the WCC's Santa Clara.  None of their losses were awful, coming at the hands of Cincinnati, Oklahoma, and Boston College.

Jacksonville State has generally dominated its competition and has a win against the upstart Minutemen of Massachusetts.  The Gamecocks' only loss came in their opening game against the, yes, Gamecocks (of South Carolina).  Since then, they have handled all comers.  This should be a great game.

The pick: UAB 75, Jacksonville State 73


1. East Carolina (8-1) at N.C. State (5-1)

These teams may both be NIT-bound by the time March rolls around, but both are feeling pretty good right now and badly need this in-state rivalry win.  The Pirates haven't faced much competition to this point, and three of their next four games will be against ACC foes.  ECU's only loss this year was a six-pointer to George Mason. 

N.C. State got a pass out of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge but fought Davidson tooth and nail before finally losing 72-67.  Sidney Lowe knows he can't afford key out-of-conference losses if he has any hopes of being discussed by the Selection Committee come March.  Next Monday, the Wolfpack take on Big East foe Marquette at home, and State can't be caught looking ahead.

The pick: N.C. State 69, East Carolina 64


One bonus game for you: Texas Tech (7-2) plays in-state foe UTEP (4-4), a team that handed St. Mary's their only loss of the season and took Wake Forest to the wire before losing 82-79. 

The Miners hope to be a Conference USA bubble team come March, and after early-season losses to UNLV and New Mexico State, they'll need to defeat the Red Raiders tonight to have any hopes of being in the discussion. 

Texas Tech is just hoping to stay in the top half of the Big XII, something that won't be an easy task if they have any more efforts like Saturday's loss to Lamar. 

The bonus pick: UTEP 70, Texas Tech 68


In my opinion, these games beat the likely blowouts the Top 25 teams will be engaged in, even if I do have to follow them online or by Internet radio. 

Now hurry!  The games are about to begin!