Column: College basketball games to love
If you were not previously made aware, Valentine's Day is this Thursday. And, while I get continuous pats on the back from boyfriends everywhere thanking me for the reminder, allow me to introduce what really should be an annual ritual for Cupid's holiday. For the time being, we will refer to this brilliant, innovative tradition as "The Basketball Love Diversion."
The basis is simple: tell that special someone that your Valentine's Day will be spent watching Wisconsin-Minnesota or UCLA-California instead of going out to dinner or to the movies. Rather than blowing bills on expensive flowers and boxes of chocolates that no one really eats, just download the Watch ESPN app for her. Explain carefully that this week is "Rivalry Week" and also that dining at restaurants every Feb. 14 is as overrated as Kansas this year. And if, after saying all that, your date still hasn't gone all Nerlens Noel on you and rejected your idea? Well, save her a spot on the couch and marry her as soon as possible.
Next on the agenda is previewing one of the best weeks of the year for any sport: Rivalry Week. Although Rivalry Week games did not officially kick off until Monday night, the Notre Dame-Louisville thriller this past weekend acted as the perfect appetizer. Notre Dame prevailed, 104-101, in five overtimes. Six guys played 50-plus minutes, new big-man-on-campus Garrick Sherman scored all of his 17 points in the extra sessions, and Russ Smith set the all-time record with 18,273 combined boneheaded decisions and missed game-winning shots. My favorite stat, however? It was the sixth time in eight games between the Irish and the Cardinals that went into at least one overtime period.
Being that conference realignment is about as predictable as the stuff that comes out of Metta World Peace's mouth, this year's edition of Rivalry Week carries even bigger implications than usual. For example, Wednesday's Syracuse-UConn meeting may be the last between two teams that have butted heads for decades. On Thursday, Gonzaga travels to St. Mary's in what has been a fan favorite in the West Coast Conference. With all this chatter about the Catholic 7 wanting to scoop up religious-based teams from other leagues, however, who really knows how long the Zags-Gaels rivalry will carry on for?
In light of Valentine's Day, I have decided to rank some of the Rivalry Week games in a love hierarchy. The three categories are as follows: "Like It," "Love It," and "Head-Over-Heels." Indulge yourself in some great hoops action this week, and let me know how the "Basketball Love Diversion" goes.
No. 20 Wisconsin at Minnesota (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN)
Wisconsin comes in to "The Barn" having won four out of their last five games, the last two of which have come in dramatic fashion. If you still haven't seen Ben Brust's jaw-dropping, game-tying 40-footer at the buzzer on Saturday against No. 3 Michigan in a classic that the Badgers pulled out in OT, immediately revoke your man card. Minnesota, meanwhile, has now dropped six of their last eight after starting the season 15-1. It's time for the Gophers to get back in the groove again, and it must start on the offensive end.
No. 6 Syracuse at Connecticut (Wednesday, 7 p.m., ESPN)
The Orange can breathe a little easier now that James Southerland, their third leading scorer (13.6 points per game) and best outside shooter, has retained his eligibility after sitting out for six contests. Southerland scored 13 points and had three three-pointers in his return against St. John's on Sunday, but it was point-guard Michael Carter-Williams who stole the show. MCW had 17 points, eight dimes, four rebounds, and six steals against the feisty Johnnies. UConn no longer has Jim Calhoun pacing the sidelines, but do you honestly think Kevin Ollie despises Syracuse any less? The Huskies, banned from the postseason, are playing for nothing more than pride at this point. If they are to send Cuse off to the ACC with a sour taste in their mouth, Shabazz Napier is going to have to be the guy.
No. 5 Gonzaga at St. Mary's (Thursday, 11 p.m., ESPN2)
The class of the West Coast Conference meets up on Thursday, as Gonzaga and St. Mary's are once again atop the league standings. For Gonzaga, this is an opportunity to show the NCAA Tournament committee that they are worthy of a No. 1 seed. For St. Mary's, this game almost takes on a "must-win" label. The Gaels have a gaudy record at 21-4, but their marquee wins have come against BYU and Harvard. Matthew Dellavedova is probably the best point guard you've never heard of; however another 4-15 field goal shooting, four-turnover performance isn't going to cut it. Those are Dellavedova's numbers from Jan. 10, a game that Gonzaga led by 20 at one point and hung on for the victory.
No. 25 Kentucky at No. 7 Florida (Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN)
The SEC was supposed to be a three-headed monster with Florida, Kentucky, and Missouri fighting for the conference crown. Until recently, though, Florida was the only one out of those three that had lived up to its billing. Here comes Kentucky now, strolling into Gainesville with a five-game win-streak and an absolute force in the paint named Nerlens Noel. The Cats have taken on a kind of underdog role of sorts, something that was thought absurd in the John Calipari Era. I can't wait to see how Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin compete against the likes of Gators Kenny Boynton and Scottie Wilbekin.
No. 4 Michigan at No. 8 Michigan State (Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN)
The beautiful thing about Kentucky-Florida is that you do not even have to flip the channel to see another great rivalry immediately after. Consider this: Michigan's battle against the Spartans marks the third time in the last four games that Trey Burke and company have played a Top 10 team, and the other game was a loss at Wisconsin. The Wolverines can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but they can also see Tom Izzo and Michigan State blocking their path. As if the Big 10 needed another fabulous backcourt matchup to promote themselves, Tuesday means Trey Burke against Keith Appling. Wow.
UNC at No. 2 Duke (Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN)
I had the privilege of seeing one intense ACC bragging-rights game over winter break, when my friend and I traveled to Raleigh and saw NC State upset then-undefeated and top-ranked Duke. But if the NC State-Duke series is a pack of wolves, then UNC-Duke is a group of piranhas, bears, and snakes all-in-one. A passion that compares to Yankees-Red Sox, Wednesday night is going to be straight-up rocking in Cameron Indoor. My question is, who do the Tar Heels have to bang with Mason Plumlee down low? Come Thursday morning, Roy Williams may still be looking for an answer.
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