Column: College basketball games to watch this weekend
While this weekend in college basketball isn't exactly the granddaddy of them all, as Brent Musburger would say, there is enough high-quality action in the coming days that suggests you should get intimate with your couch and television remote. We have some old rivalries, such as Cincinnati-Louisville and Richmond-VCU, as well as meetings that will hopefully become annual heated battles-I'm looking at you, Duke and Syracuse. As part of the Weekend Shootaround column, I'll preview some of the more enticing games, telling you which players to key on and projecting the eventual winners. Before Baylor drops yet another consecutive Big-12 tilt (The Bears have lost six of seven, including their last five), let's begin.
Thursday: No. 13 Cincinnati at No. 12 Louisville (7:00, ESPN): The Bearcats are the toast of the town at 8-0 in the AAC, and a win over Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center would certainly give Cincinnati some separation between themselves and the rest of the league. Since a home loss to Memphis back in early January, Louisville has beaten SMU, Houston, USF, and UConn by an average of 24.5 points. Cardinals forward Montrezl Harrell (12.1 points per game, 8.5 rebounds per game) has posted double-doubles in four out of his last five outings after only posting only one in the first 15 games of the season. It should be a mesmerizing battle down low between Harrell and Cincinnati's Justin Jackson (11.1 PPG, 7.4 RPG), although Jackson suffered an ankle injury against Temple on Sunday.
Prediction: Defending champ Louisville has seen Cincinnati reel off eight straight in a league that the Cardinals were expected to dictate-they'd be more than happy to do the honors and hand UC their first AAC loss. Between Jackson's wounded ankle and the return of Louisville starting point guard Chris Jones from an oblique setback, UL will take care of business at home.
Saturday: No. 11 Kentucky at Missouri (1:00, CBS): It feels strange calling this a "must-win" for Kentucky, as the Wildcats are ranked nationally and look to be in good shape for a high seed come March. Still, with UK's loss at LSU on Tuesday, they have now fallen two games behind first-place Florida in the SEC-and it could be three if Julius Randle and his guys don't come ready to play against a very talented Missouri squad. Randle (six points, five rebounds) and Willey Cauley-Stein (three points, six rebounds) were both no-shows vs. LSU and let Johnny O'Bryant III do whatever he wanted (29 points on 12-20 shooting). UK should be able to feast against an undersized Missouri frontline. The backcourt battle is where things get interesting: UK's Harrison twins and sharpshooter James Young paired up with Missouri's Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown, and Earnest Ross. Young (14.7 PPG, 2.4 made 3's per game) and Brown (19.8 PPG, 3 3's made per game) are two of the better shooters in America, and after watching Clarkson (18.5 PPG, 2.5 APG) I am confident in saying he's the best point guard that you've probably never heard of. Missouri will be looking to build off a big-time win at Arkansas on Tuesday.
Prediction: As underappreciated as the Tigers of Mizzou are, Kentucky needs this one more. Randle will play with a great sense of purpose, make a living at the free throw line, and lead UK to a statement road win.
Saturday: No. 17 Duke at No. 2 Syracuse (6:30, ESPN): Duke stands at 6-2 in the ACC and 1-0 in the Big East. And that's not a typo-the way Duke defended and rebounded at Pittsburgh Monday evening made it feel like the Blue Devils were the former physical Big East member. Duke would be smart to carry that same mentality into the Syracuse game, one that is so anticipated that it drew the College Gameday crew to come to the Carrier Dome. Syracuse, led by two potential All-American candidates in point guard Tyler Ennis (12 PPG, 5.5 APG) and forward C.J. Fair (16.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG), has a genuine third stud in the ultra-athletic Jerami Grant. As always, the Orange will be playing their high 2-3 zone, looking to turn Duke over and get out in the open floor. I'm thinking this will be the first installment of what turns into one of the more intense rivalries in the sport.
Prediction: Syracuse's zone defense is stupefying, no doubt, but Duke has all you need to break it. They have more than capable outside shooters (Andre Dawkins, Rasheed Sulaimon), the perfect gadgets to place at the free-throw line (Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood), and a point guard capable of attacking the gaps and collapsing the defense in Quinn Cook. Duke will prevail in a wild affair.
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