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Welcome to the second installment of the "Out of Focus" series.
In this column, three to five games are pegged that feature teams outside of the top 25. To be selected, the games must have significant postseason implications or compelling storylines.
These are games primarily for fans of the schools involved or true college basketball aficionados. The matchups are usually highly competitive, and some conferences that don't get a lot of face time on ESPN are highlighted. Keeping up with these games is a great way to track how the "lesser" conferences stack up against each other.
As was the case last time, the comments section will be used to update the games' results (and to hurl insults at my predictions as they fail), and I welcome any comments you have on the games or the predictions! Now on to the games that you should be watching, but won't (or can't) for Dec. 30.
3. Cleveland State (10-4) at Wright State (6-7)
I'm kidding, right? I'm not. This is a matchup between two teams that both have a legitimate shot at the postseason.
Since a two-point loss to Butler (an awfully important game in retrospect) and a 10-point loss to West Virginia in early December, Cleveland St. has run off five wins in a row, including an upset of the Syracuse Orange in the Carrier Dome. The Vikings were the preseason pick to win the Horizon League (though Butler is on top for now) and have been beating up on weaklings of late.
Wright State started the season 0-6, and they were not exactly playing top 25 competition. So how could they be competitive tonight? Well, they have won six of their last seven, including decisive victories over Oral Roberts, Big East foe South Florida, and an underrated Arkansas-Little Rock team. Their only loss during that span was by 13 points to No. 6 Wake Forest.
Whatever woes the Raiders were suffering through earlier in the season, they have certainly "Wrighted" the ship (yep, you can put my head in a vise and squeeze for that one) and should give the Vikings all they can handle.
Prediction: Cleveland State 72, Wright State 66
2. BYU (10-1) at Tulsa (8-4)
The Cougars are a one-point loss from being undefeated, and that loss came to a ranked Arizona State team on a neutral floor in Anaheim, CA. They don't have a lot of impressive wins, but they have a solid talent in G-F Jonathan Tavernari and great backcourt support from Lee Cummard and Jimmer Fredette.
Their names might need some work (Jimmer? Really?), but the Cougars join UNLV as the class of the Mountain West Conference.
Tulsa has faced a far more difficult schedule than BYU, and their only bad loss was at the hands of 5-6 Ohio. They lost by just four to Illinois and have defeated Oral Roberts and Texas A&M. The Golden Hurricane currently ride a four-game winning streak, but will probably have their hands full.
If Tulsa hopes to compete for a postseason bid in Memphis USA (er, Conference USA), this game is an absolute must-win.
Prediction: BYU 69, Tulsa 59
1. George Mason (8-2) at Dayton (11-1)
The darlings of the 2007 NCAA Tournament after stunning the nation and reaching the Final Four, George Mason has struggled mightily since. This year, however, the Patriots appear to be on the verge of turning it around. They have won six of seven, the only loss being a three-pointer to a decent Liberty squad. George Mason also has wins over East Carolina, Drexel, Ohio, and Tulane, none of whom are pushovers.
While GMU is on the verge of contending in the CAA, Dayton (deservedly or not) is on the verge of a top 25 ranking and may be ripe for an upset if they take the Patriots lightly. Their only win they can really crow about came against Marquette, who is fading fast in the Big East. Most of the other 10 wins came against considerably weaker opponents, and the one loss was a 77-59 blowout at the hands of MVC foe Creighton.
I'm marking this game down for the upset special of the night.
Prediction: George Mason 71, Dayton 70
A game that would have occupied a top three slot has already been played. Houston, representing Conference USA, blew out Massachusetts of the A-10 by a rather surprising score of 80-54.
With UAB down to six scholarship players and East Carolina playing inconsistently, Houston (8-2) may well have emerged as the most serious threat to Memphis (8-3) in the conference. After a horrible opening day two-point loss to Georgia Southern, the Cougars have been near perfect in winning eight of nine, their only loss being 71-67 to Iowa State.
The huge blowout of a UMass team that had beaten Kansas and Hofstra indicates Houston may be rapidly improving. Their next game at Mississippi State will help define whether there is any legitimate chance for the Cougars to snag an at-large bid.
Enjoy the games!