Midseason hoops superlatives (cont.)
We're used to associating the arrival of January with the start of conference play, but there are still a handful of intriguing nonconference games to look forward to the next two months. Here, in reverse order, are my 10 best:
10. Maryland at Villanova, Jan. 15. It's odd (and unfortunate) that Gary Williams is willing to play this road game while stubbornly refusing to exhume the annual series with Georgetown. Williams' Terps will have their hands full against Villanova, especially if their guards don't improve drastically over the next few weeks.
9. Kansas at Michigan, Jan. 9. You might think this should be a blowout, but the Jayhawks haven't exactly been embarrassing a lot of opponents these days. The Wolverines don't have nearly as much talent, but John Beilein's deliberate, complicated offense makes Michigan's opponents uncomfortable. KU likes to get out and go, but the way Michigan takes care of the ball and limits possessions, the Jayhawks will have to win by walking.
8. Gonzaga at Memphis, Feb. 5. Josh Pastner inherited the Gonzaga series from John Calipari, but I strongly recommend he keep it going even if his team loses. (The contract for this series has three more years remaining.) Calipari and Mark Few realized the value of playing each other in February, when they tend to drop off the national radar while competing in midmajor conferences.
7. Purdue at West Virginia, Jan. 16. The Mountaineers entered 2010 undefeated and ranked sixth in the country, only to have their New Year's Day ruined by getting whupped by the Boilermakers in West Lafayette by 15 points. (And it wasn't really that close.) Methinks that might come up in the West Virginia locker room before tipoff.
6. Temple at Duke, Feb. 23. Coach K likes to play good nonconference opponents in late February, but it's too bad he doesn't play more true road games. (These two will play again next season at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. Anyone want to pass the hat to get it moved to the Palestra?) This will serve as a beneficial tournament tuneup for the Blue Devils, since they'll be playing a good team with an unconventional style during the heat of their stretch run in the ACC. The big question is whether Duke will enter this game undefeated. I doubt it, but given the weakness of the ACC it's certainly possible.
5. Memphis at Tennessee, Jan. 5. This is always a great intrastate rivalry game, but I'm sure both coaches will feel like it's the last thing they need. The Tigers are so young it's hard to expect them to handle the hostile environment well. On the other hand, Tennessee is having trouble beating anyone right now, so it can't come in feeling confident. Expect lots of ill-advised shots, careless turnovers and a fabulous finish.
4. UConn at Texas, Jan. 8. When these two teams faced off in Hartford last season, UConn earned an enormous win against a team that came in ranked No. 1 in the country. Then again, the Huskies followed that up by losing five of their next six and eventually missed out on the NCAA tournament, so perhaps it's best if history doesn't repeat itself.
3. Kentucky at Louisville, Dec. 31. This game is technically in 2010, but it's too titillating to leave off my list. This will be Kentucky's first foray into the brand-new KFC Yum! Center, but I expect they'll be the ones licking their fingers in the end. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) It's not often the Wildcats play a team that's just as inexperienced as they are. The Cards have more depth, but lack the same level of talent.
2. Xavier at Cincinnati, Jan. 6. It doesn't matter how good these teams are or where they're ranked. They always play a high-energy, testy game that thrills hoops addicts in the Queen City. This matchup will have even more intrigue if Cincy comes in undefeated. Since the Bearcats are playing DePaul and Seton Hall at home beforehand, that appears likely.
1. Tennessee at UConn, Jan. 22. This will be even better than Geno vs. Pat. Call it the "Furlough Game." Bruce Pearl will be permitted to coach the Vols right in the middle of his eight-game SEC suspension, and given the way they've been playing of late it looks like the team could be in dire need of a win.
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Duke (1)
2. Kansas (2)
3. Ohio State (3)
4. Syracuse (4)
5. Pitt (5)
6. Villanova (6)
7. Connecticut (7)
8. Kentucky (9)
9. Texas (13)
10. San Diego State (10)
11. Georgetown (11)
12. Missouri (18)
13. Michigan State (8)
14. Illinois (14)
15. Washington (12)
16. Kansas State (15)
17. Minnesota (16)
18. Purdue (17)
19. Vanderbilt (19)
20. North Carolina (21)
21. Notre Dame (22)
22. Gonzaga (23)
23. UCF (25)
24. Texas A&M (NR)
25. Temple (NR)
Dropped out: Tennessee (20), Baylor (24)
The primary team to consider this week was Michigan State. The Spartans got embarrassed at home by Texas, but how far could I really drop them? Look at their four losses: UConn (neutral), Duke (road), Syracuse (neutral), Texas (home). So I plugged them in at 13 because none of the teams behind them had done anything to deserve being moved up. Illinois and Kansas State were coming off losses to Missouri and UNLV, respectively. At any rate, the Spartans better start kicking into gear soon. Their New Year's Eve Big Ten opener at home against Minnesota is a good place to start.
I might have moved Texas a little higher, but that road spanking at USC nagged at me. Then again, USC is better than a lot of us thought. I see you, Trojans.
Elsewhere, I think my fellow voters are making a mistake with San Diego State. Don't get me wrong, this is a good team. But I don't believe a team should move up the rankings simply for beating mediocre-to-bad teams. The Aztecs won at Gonzaga back on Nov. 16, but they haven't played anybody good since. This week they're ranked seventh in the AP, but I doubt they'll ever go above 10th on my ballot.
I seem to be a lone wolf in the wilderness (again) with respect to Washington. I have the Huskies at No. 15, yet my fellow voters don't see fit to rank them. This week they were fifth among others receiving votes. This befuddles me. Washington's three losses are all to ranked teams (Michigan State, Kentucky, Texas A&M), and the loss to the Aggies came by one point on the road. If you think the Aggies deserve to be ranked, do you really think they're so much better than a team they beat by a point at home? My wisdom here will be vindicated ... eventually.
For my final spot I brought Temple back, largely because the Owls' Dec. 9 win over Georgetown is looking better by the day. They are playing Villanova on Thursday, so we'll see if they deserve the respect I've given them. My next man up is Butler, which has now won five straight and captured the championship at the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii with wins over Utah, Florida State and Washington State. I also looked at Florida State, but I couldn't take the Seminoles over Butler, and their win over Baylor said as much about Baylor as it did about them. UNLV did have that road win at Kansas State, but since the Wildcats didn't have their two best players, that wasn't enough to erase the Rebels' losses at Louisville and at home to UC Santa Barbara last week.
Other teams who got a long look were Washington State (10-2 with a 22-point win over Gonzaga at home), Arizona (11-2, losses on the road to Kansas and BYU), Georgia (9-2 with both losses coming on a neutral court to Notre Dame and Temple), Utah State (losses at BYU and Georgetown but no quality wins) and Oklahoma State (11-1 but no good wins and a neutral court loss to Virginia Tech). Don't worry, boys. I have to fill out another ballot next week.
Swim Daily, Throwback Thursday: Daniela Pestova 2003
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