Big-time Big 12 games headline weekend matchups
Though I must make the obligatory reference to Pitt's poor schedule, I also feel obligated to point out that the Panthers have been executing at a high level this season. They are ranked seventh overall in Kem Pomeroy's efficiency ratings (11th on offense, 20th on defense). Much-improved senior center Talib Zanna is coming off his best game of the season, a 22-point, nine-rebound effort against Georgia Tech, but he is going up against a much stronger frontcourt in this game. The Orange are not going undefeated this season, but it's hard to imagine them losing this one at home.
Syracuse 68, Pittsburgh 60
The Badgers are always tough to beat at home, but I expect they'll be doubly tough coming off that loss at Indiana. I actually thought Wisconsin looked more impressive than it had all season on Tuesday night. They were pushed by a desperate home team, and they showed a lot of toughness in hanging around. Hopefully, the Badgers learned that they can't just sit back and jack up jump shots. They only attempted four free throws against Indiana.
Wisconsin 75, Michigan 66
The Illini are in deep doo-doo. After winning 13 of their first 15 games, they have now lost three straight, with the last two coming at Northwestern and then at home against Purdue. It's no coincidence that 6-4 junior guard Rayvonte Rice is having his toughest stretch of the season, having made just 12 of his 41 shot attempts during those losses. The Spartans are still not playing at full strength (Adreian Payne's foot issues will probably keep him out of this game), but the way Keith Appling has been playing of late, it won't matter.
Michigan State 74, Illinois 64
If this game were being played in Terre Haute, I'd pick the Sycamores in the upset, but I'm not going against Wichita State at home. My only concern with the Shockers is that they get absolutely no scoring in the post, but their wings are so good at driving to the rim (and getting fouled) that it hasn't hurt them so far. Indiana State, however, is the second-best team in the Missouri Valley, and it has one of the best driving and rebounding guards in the country in 6-4 senior Jake Odum. This one is must-see TV, but by the time the credits roll, the Shockers will still be perfect.
Wichita State 76, Indiana State 70
Yes, Kansas' freshmen are coming into their own, but the real reason these Jayhawks are on a tear is because junior point guard Naadir Tharpe is running the show like the veteran he is. On Monday night, Tharpe turned in his best performance in the biggest game of the season, finishing with a game-high 23 points (on 7-of-9 shooting) to go along with four assists and six rebounds in the Jayhawks' win at Iowa State. It was just a few weeks ago that Tharpe lost his spot in the starting lineup to freshman Frank Mason. Of course, as long as Marcus Smart is on the floor, Oklahoma State will always have the superior point guard, but at least Tharpe has closed the gap to make it respectable.
Kansas 77, Oklahoma State 71
UNLV resurrected its season Wednesday night in the most surprising way, snapping a two-game losing streak at home (against Air Force and Nevada, no less) by knocking off New Mexico in the Pit. Junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones scored 23 points in the win, but it was the post defense of little-used reserve Carlos Lopez-Sosa that was the difference. Still, it's hard to imagine lightning striking twice, given that San Diego State might be the best defensive team in the country. The Aztecs are ranked first nationally in field goal percentage defense (35.8), they're fifth in three-point D (26.8) and they're 12th in overall defensive efficiency.
San Diego State 70, UNLV 60
I haven't been much of a Baylor fan this season, and the Bears justified my pessimism by losing two of their last three games at Iowa State and Texas Tech by a combined 25 points. Which, of course, means they are ready to bounce back with a win at home over an NCAA tournament-bound Oklahoma squad. Isaiah Austin, who did not make a field goal against the Red Raiders, continues to be a disappointment, but juco transfer Kenny Chery has done a good job assuming the helm.
Baylor 74, Oklahoma 70
Tennessee has had its share of ups and downs this season (well, more downs than ups), but now it enters the most challenging part of its schedule, with four out of its next six on the road. Further, the Volunteers are not getting Kentucky at a good time, since the Wildcats just lost a heartbreaking overtime game at Arkansas on Tuesday night. There are a lot of trend lines around Kentucky that are very positive right now, but none is more significant than the improvement of 6-8 sophomore forward Alex Poythress, who played a season-high 32 minutes against the Razorbacks and finished with 12 points, six rebounds and two blocks.
Kentucky 80, Tennessee 68
Both these teams scored impressive wins Thursday night, but UConn's triumph at Memphis has the potential to change this team's once-fragile mindset. Even though Shabazz Napier struggled much of the game, he made big shots late. That's what winners do. Moreover, the maddeningly inconsistent junior forward DeAndre Daniels turned in his best performance of the season, finishing with 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. Louisville is a good team, not a great one, and it will take more than that to pull off a win in Gampel Pavilion.
UConn 79, Louisville 73
UCLA played a mediocre game at Colorado on Thursday night, but the Bruins still won by 13 because the Buffaloes are depleted -- and devastated -- by the loss of their best player and leader, Spencer Dinwiddie. Still, a road win in conference play is not easy to come by, and I sense the Bruins are ready to start playing some high-level defense during the second half of the season. Utah caused a ripple or two by putting together a good record during the season's first two months, but the Utes played a laughably weak nonconference schedule. Now that they're into Pac-12 play, they have lost three of their last five games (albeit by a combined seven points). UCLA is better, and it should be able to prove it on Saturday.
UCLA 76, Utah 67
Last week: 6-4