ESPN’s Gameday crew will be in Vanderbilt on Saturday night anticipating the visit from #1 Kentucky, and while I can’t deny the caliber of that game, there’s three others that stand out even more, in terms of a directly impacting a conference championship. The biggest game of the day is Michigan State-Ohio State, which is at least on right before Kentucky-Vandy, tipping off at 6 PM ET on ESPN from Columbus. The other two won’t grab national attention, but first place goes on the line in the Mountain West with San Diego State-UNLV and in the Atlantic 10 with Xavier-Temple (9 PM ET, ESPN2). With these three games as the centerpiece of TheSportsNotebook, here’s a breakdown of how things shape up around the country….
BIG TEN: Ohio State has a chance to all but wrap up a second straight conference title in this one. They’re in sole possession of first and Michigan State is the only team within a game of first place. The Spartans live and die with power forward Draymond Green, but even in a one-on-one game, he’s not as good as Jared Sullinger, and the Buckeye star has more help, with DeShaun Thomas able to rebound and score and William Buford being solid on the perimeter. Both teams have good quarterbacks running the offense in Aaron Craft for Ohio State and Keith Appling for Michigan State, but the Buckeyes are the more talented team and they’re at home. And as many rabbits as Tom Izzo can pull out of his hat, the man on the other sideline in Thad Matta is nobody’s fool. No reason to think Ohio State doesn’t get it done here.
On Sunday, Illinois goes to Michigan (1 PM ET, CBS). TheSportsNotebook has been sounding the alarm bell about Illinois for a couple weeks and they lost again on Thursday to Indiana. There’s a meltdown going down in Champaign and a road win in Ann Arbor is badly needed.
ATLANTIC 10: Xavier is similar to Ohio State in that they were a heavy favorite to win their conference, got tripped up early and now can really take back control. In the case of Xavier they still trail Temple by a half-game so it’s not quite as cut-and-dried, but you get the feeling that the cream is rising in the A-10. The guards define both teams. Xavier’s Tu Holloway is one of the country’s best and he’s paired up Mark Lyons, while Temple has a trio of Khalif Wyatt, Ramone Moore and Juan Fernandez. But Fernandez is struggling with a hip injury and may miss Saturday’s night rumble in Philadelphia. He’s the three-point shooter of the group, so that’s a big weapon out of the Owl attack. Furthermore, Xavier’s Kenny Frease is the most capable frontcourt player on the floor. It’s going to take a big-time effort for the Musketeers to get this one on the road, but I think they pull it out.
St. Louis is also giving chase in the A-10 and if they beat a respectable LaSalle team, the Billikens could potentially join in a three-way tie at the top if both they and Xavier win. For some reason, ESPNU chose to televise the George Washington-Richmond game at 5 PM ET over St. Loo-LaSalle, giving it the honor of worst programming decision of the weekend.
MOUNTAIN WEST: San Diego State and UNLV are each ranked in the Top 20, yet their battle for the top of their league isn’t on national TV anywhere. Since there’s no other Mountain West games, I can’t go too crazy since I’m not sure of contractual situations with conferences, but whatever caused this, someone please fix it. They’re not on, while George Washington-Richmond is. Enough said. As to the game itself, Aztec coach Steve Fisher has done a yeoman’s job in rebuilding this team after heavy graduation losses and making it a contender again, as they hold a one-game lead on both UNLV and New Mexico. But this game’s in Vegas and in the end I think the Rebels have more talent. Oscar Bellfield is a playmaker who deserves more national attention. Mike Moser controls the post. Chase Stanback is a solid wing player and Anthony Marshall completes a solid Core Four, that I’m waiting to step up and seize control of this league. Saturday’s their chance to do it.
New Mexico has a tough game of their own with surprising Wyoming, who’s threatening to become the fourth MWC team in the NCAA Tournament. The Cowboys beat UNLV and can now play spoiler with Steve Alford’s Lobos.
Elsewhere around the country…
ACC: Duke’s thriller over North Carolina and Florida State’s upset loss at Boston College threw the top of this league back into a three-way tie and Miami and Virginia are in hot pursuit With Miami-Florida State and Virginia-UNC on tap, the potential exists for more chaos if the leaders don’t defend their home floor. As for Duke, they host Maryland (4 PM ET, ESPN) against a respectable Terps team that comes off a clutch win over Clemson, needs to get more and, at least under Gary Williams, rarely showed fear of the Cameron Crazies.
BIG EAST: After Syracuse’s survival game over Georgetown, Marquette is the only team left within two games of the Orange. Syracuse hosts UConn (1 PM ET, CBS), with the Huskies coming off a blowout loss to Louisville and looking to avoid a February meltdown. Marquette hosts Cincinnati (3 PM ET, ESPNU), and West Virginia badly needs a win when Louisville comes to Morgantown.
SEC: Kentucky-Vanderbilt means more for what it will tell us about the Commodores than it does about the Wildcats. We already know UK is elite. Vandy has the talent to be a great team, but they’ve shown a tendency for coming up small in big moments, like last week’s close loss at Florida. Now I want to see if they can defend the home floor in front of rabid fans in a really big game. The other televised game is Alabama-LSU (7 PM ET, ESPN2), who somehow wangled their way back on national TV after that hideous football game they subjected us to back on January 9.
BIG 12: Like Vanderbilt, Baylor has come up small in big moments and never more so than Wednesday night at home against Kansas when they were blown out. I saw the Bears as a national championship contender, and I’ll still probably talk myself into doing something stupid with them in March, but they are realistically not championship-level. They go to Missouri, who’s now in a straight two-team race with Kansas for the Big 12 crown. A big battle on the bubble is Kansas State-Texas (2 PM ET, ESPN) with the Longhorns gaining steam, but still needing more wins.
PAC-12: Right after I sung Washington’s praises on Thursday morning, they got hammered at Oregon that very night. The Huskies are dropped into a first-place tie with Cal, and Arizona nipping at their heels. Cal has the toughest game of the three this weekend with a visit to UCLA.