At 11-1, the Wolverines are off to their best start under Tommy Amaker, and they are ranked in the top 11 nationally in blocks (6.8 per game), scoring defense (54.3 ppg) and field-goal defense (36.0 percent). Unfortunately, their schedule to date is also ranked 290th out of 336 teams, so those numbers tell us bupkus -- especially since in the one somewhat difficult road test, the Wolverines flopped 74-67 at N.C. State. One way or another, the rubber will hit the road in Westwood, where Michigan will face a tough, experienced, disciplined squad. Michigan actually has exactly the kind of player that can give UCLA trouble in 6-foot-10 senior center Courtney Sims, who is coming off a 21-point, 13-rebound performance in last Saturday's win over Northern Illinois. Still, given that UCLA won this matchup last year in Ann Arbor, I see no reason why the Bruins should lose this one at home.
If you saw the final score of Ohio State's 75-56 win over Iowa State on Tuesday, you probably assumed the Buckeyes had an easy night. But if you watched the game, you know that it was actually a tight affair before Ohio State pulled away in the last four minutes -- even though the game was in Columbus and Iowa State is not very good. This is just a sign of the adjustment the Buckeyes are going through while learning to play with Greg Oden. As I've noted before, OSU was a 43.4 percent three-point shooting team without Oden, and they are at 36.3 percent with him. (Senior guard Ron Lewis has had a particularly steep drop, from 50 percent to 33.3 percent). Florida, meanwhile, could be without junior forward Al Horford, who has missed two games because of a high ankle sprain and is listed as questionable for this one. Corey Brewer also missed three games with mono, but he returned this week. If this game were being played late in the season on a neutral floor -- April 2 at the Georgia Dome would be nice -- the Buckeyes might be the favorite. But Florida is a proud champion that's a little tired of taking everyone's best shot. I think the Gators are ready to do some shooting of their own.
It seems a lot of folks wrote off BC after early losses to Vermont and Providence, but the Eagles have since showed signs of life in beating Michigan State and Maryland at home and blowing out a good UMass team on the road. If only the Jayhawks, who have quietly won three games against mediocre competition since losing at DePaul, could bottle up BC's toughness and drink it before every game, they might never lose again. Even with Jared Dudley making an early case for ACC player of the year, Kansas has more talent, so it's just a question of whether KU will be ready to play. The Jayhawks do tend to get up for good teams (especially at home), and while it's a little odd to see a Bill Self-coached team allowing opponents to make 36.1 percent from behind the arc (which ranks next to last in the Big 12), BC is hardly well-suited to take advantage. The Eagles are dead last in the ACC in both three-point percentage (27.8 percent) and threes made (4.6 per game).
Very, very tough game to pick. You never want to make too much of a single game, but as I watched Tennessee pull out a thrilling two-point upset of Oklahoma State on Monday night, I thought I saw a team establishing a lasting identity. Yes, Tennessee loves to hoist the three, and the Vols have arguably the best pure shooter in America in Chris Lofton. But they beat the Pokes with tough, hard-nosed defense, forcing 22 Oklahoma State turnovers on 14 steals. Texas is probably more talented than Tennessee, but I'm not sure the Longhorns, who are coming off two solid wins of their own over LSU and Arkansas, have developed their own identity yet. Texas has three guys who play the point position better than anyone UT has, but I'll give the edge to the Vols primarily because they're at home. And keep in mind that last year Tennessee thrashed Texas in Austin by 17.
Welcome to the next stop on the Travis Ford Bluegrass Reunion Tour. On Dec. 13, Ford, who played for Rick Pitino at Kentucky, took his Minutemen into Louisville and handed his mentor (not coincidentally, a UMass grad) a four-point loss. Now Ford's team faces a taller task in beating a Wildcats team that matches up with UMass much better than Louisville, especially inside. For all the talk about the veteran nucleus of Randolph Morris, Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley, Kentucky is quietly developing one of the top freshmen classes in the nation. Point guard Derrick Jasper has allowed everyone to play in their natural positions by starting at the point, and 6-5 guard Jodie Meeks rescued the Cats from a sluggish offensive performance against Louisville by going for a season-high 18 points. You can expect some chatter on the infamous Kentucky message boards about whether Ford will someday be the head coach in Lexington, but on this day, the incumbent will prevail.
Kentucky 71, UMass 62
The Second Five
NC State (7-3) at Cincinnati (7-3) Two programs in major rebuilding mode, but right now N.C. State has better blocks (especially freshman forward Brandon Costner). N.C. State 74, Cincinnati 65
California (8-3) at DePaul (7-4) The Blue Demons are a pretty ugly offensive team, but their toughness at home should be enough to carry them. DePaul 68, Cal 64
Drexel (7-2) at Temple (5-3) The Dragons have won five straight, including road wins at Villanova and Syracuse. I smell a sixth. Drexel 72, Temple 65
Oral Roberts (5-5) at Arkansas (8-3) The Hogs need a win badly after back-to-back losses to Texas Tech and Texas, but it won't come easy against a veteran ORU squad. Arkansas 77, Oral Roberts 73
Bucknell (5-5) at Texas Tech (9-3) These are not your slightly older brother's Bucknell Bison. Yes, Bob Knight will tie Dean Smith with win number 879, but almost as significant is the fact that the Red Raiders have won five out of their last six and are steadily improving. Texas Tech 69, Bucknell 59