One man’s predictions for an always unpredictable weekend of college basketball. I'm sure one or two of you might disagree with these:
Saint Louis at No. 15 Butler, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU: If the season ended today, Miami’s Jim Larranaga probably would win national coach of the year honors. But Jim Crews might be the runner-up. The Billikens’ interim head coach followed legendary leader Rick Majerus, who died in December. And that wasn’t his only challenge. He began the season without standout Kwamain Mitchell, who suffered a foot injury in the first practice of the season. Look at the Billikens now. They’re the best team in the Atlantic 10. They’re second in the league in scoring defense (61.6 ppg allowed) and first in scoring margin (plus-10.9). Sure, there’s still doubt. Butler, which has won five of six, is in the hunt for the conference crown, as is VCU. But St. Louis has earned convincing wins against both teams in recent weeks. The Bulldogs have held opponents to a 39.5 percent clip from the field, first in the league. They were stomped 75-58 in the first meeting. Will there be a different outcome Friday?
Prediction: Saint Louis 67, Butler 66
Arkansas at No. 5 Florida, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU: This month, Arkansas shocked the college basketball world when it stopped a Florida team that had toyed with its previous SEC foes. The 80-69 victory on Feb. 5 -- no squad had scored more than 67 points against the Gators at that point -- fueled questions about the Gators and created a buzz around the Razorbacks. Both were premature then. Arkansas has won three of four since that matchup, but Mike Anderson’s team tends to pull a 180 once it leaves campus (1-5 in SEC road games this season). Meanwhile, the Gators are coming off their second conference "L" of the season, a 63-60 loss at Missouri on Tuesday. Billy Donovan’s depth has taken a hit, as Will Yeguete continues to miss time with a knee injury. But the Gators are still the best team in the SEC, and they haven’t lost at home.
Prediction: Florida 78, Arkansas 62
No. 11 Georgetown at No. 8 Syracuse, 4 p.m. ET, CBS: Syracuse’s current position at the top of the Big East is unsurprising. But based on what Marquette and Georgetown lost after last season, they were not expected to join the Orange at the top of the conference. The three squads share 10-3 records in a tie for first place. But this is the first of two meetings between the Hoyas and the Orange. Both Georgetown (eighth) and Syracuse (ninth) are ranked in the top 10 of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. The Hoyas have held Big East opponents to just 57.2 ppg, the top scoring defense in the conference. Otto Porter (15.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg) has led the Hoyas to eight consecutive wins. But they haven’t met a program with Syracuse’s versatility and offensive diversity. The effectiveness of a Cuse attack that’s responsible for four wins in five games is largely based on Michael Carter-Williams (13-for-42, 12 combined turnovers in three Big East losses) and his effectiveness. In this game, Syracuse will need MCW to demonstrate the skill set that makes NBA scouts drool. A plus for Jim Boeheim’s program is that the Orange haven’t lost at the Carrier Dome this season.
Prediction: Syracuse 60, Georgetown 55
No. 16 New Mexico at No. 22 Colorado State, 4 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network: This is a matchup between the top offense (Colorado State) and defense (New Mexico) in the Mountain West. The Rams suffered a heartbreaking loss to UNLV on Wednesday, when Anthony Marshall hit a jump shot in the final seconds. But they’re still better than the team that was bullied by New Mexico in a 66-61 loss on Jan. 23. The Lobos led by as much as 22 in that one. Colorado State possesses the Mountain West’s top scoring offense (71.0 ppg), but the Rams were hindered by a 6-for-21 clip from beyond the arc and 16 turnovers in the first game. To beat New Mexico (57.8 ppg allowed, No. 1 in the conference), even at home, they’ll have to avoid the latter and attack inside. (Colton Iverson is averaging 13.7 ppg and 9.6 rpg.) New Mexico is the most complete team in the conference, but the Lobos have displayed most of their flaws in road losses (see 34 points against San Diego State on Jan. 26). Plus, they’re facing a Rams team that’s wants to feel more comfortable about its at-large status. A win over the Lobos would certainly help.
Prediction: Colorado State 78, New Mexico 74 (overtime)
No. 17 Marquette at Villanova, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN2: Think back to October. If someone had told you Buzz Williams’ program would be locked in a three-way tie for first place in the Big East in late February, how would you have responded? I would have said, “No way.” But it’s real. The Golden Eagles (45.5 percent from the field, second in the Big East) enter their last five games battling Syracuse, Georgetown and multiple five-loss Big East teams for the top slot. There’s just one problem. Three of Marquette’s last five games are on the road, where it has struggled ... like most teams in America. The Golden Eagles will face a perplexing Villanova squad that could be one of the selection committee’s greatest headaches. The Wildcats have a top-60 RPI with wins over Louisville and Syracuse, but they’ve also been swept by Providence and suffered a nonconference loss to Columbia. Villanova is right there, though. A win over Marquette would be a positive step for its NCAA tourney hopes.
Prediction: Villanova 71, Marquette 65
Southern Miss at No. 17 Memphis, 1 p.m. ET, Fox Sports National: Memphis has won 17 consecutive games and is tied with Akron for the nation’s longest winning streak. Josh Pastner’s program has been difficult to gauge, however, because Conference USA is not a very deep league right now. Southern Miss (top-40 RPI) is the closest thing to a quality opponent that Conference USA can offer. So a win wouldn’t hurt the résumé of a Tigers squad that has made strides during the past month. No one has ever questioned the athleticism and potential of Pastner's teams, but the Tigers are finally living up to it. Maybe. We won’t really know until the Tigers are competing in the postseason. Another win against Southern Miss (the Tigers won the first matchup 89-76 on Feb. 9) would help Pastner’s program build more momentum as March approaches.
Prediction: Memphis 85, Southern Miss 70
No. 24 Virginia Commonwealth at Xavier, 2 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network: “HAVOC” describes Virginia Commonwealth’s defensive approach (44th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) as much as it describes the current battle for the Atlantic 10 title. The Rams are a half-game behind Saint Louis after a 14-point road loss to the Billikens on Tuesday. They’ll travel again Saturday to face the league’s top scoring defense. Xavier (61.2 ppg allowed), however, has not played Saint Louis, VCU or Butler yet, so those numbers are probably an inaccurate representation of its defensive presence. But this critical stretch could lead Xavier to the bubble. Possibly. The Rams should be safe, but their final stretch could create problems for their at-large hopes if they stumble. First task? Don’t lose to a Xavier team with a 90 RPI.
Prediction: VCU 68, Xavier 58
No. 4 Michigan State at No. 18 Ohio State, 4 p.m. ET, CBS: The conclusion of the first game was not fitting. Michigan State and Ohio State had tussled -- well, Deshaun Thomas (28 points, while no other Ohio State player scored more than six) tussled with Michigan State -- for 39-plus minutes. Then sophomore Shannon Scott missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer. The Buckeyes can play great basketball when Thomas is on. The Buckeyes also can play bad basketball when he’s the only one who is on. The latter is a scenario that they must avoid against a Michigan State team that is barely second place in the Big Ten after Tuesday’s 72-68 loss to No. 1 Indiana in East Lansing. But the Buckeyes are a different group in Columbus. Just ask the Minnesota team the Buckeyes beat by nearly 30 points there on Wednesday night. The Buckeyes don’t have answers for Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix, who combined to score 22 in the first game. However, they won’t need one if Thomas gets some help on Sunday.
Prediction: Ohio State 64, Michigan State 62
No. 20 Pitt at St. John’s, noon ET, ESPN3/WatchESPNApp: The Panthers have lost consecutive games to Marquette and Notre Dame. In Monday’s 51-42 loss to the Fighting Irish, Mike Brey drew a first-half technical and the Panthers suddenly lost their momentum. From a 19-3 lead to a nine-point loss. Huh? Now they’re in the Big East’s six-loss group. You don’t want to be in that group in late February. The Big East title is unlikely, so Pitt is playing for a seed. A road loss to a St. John’s squad with slim, if any, NCAA tourney at-large potential would not help anyone involved with Pitt basketball. Steve Lavin’s program is an athletic marvel that has dismissed the midlevel Big East teams but failed against the top-tier programs. Pitt didn’t look like a squad that belonged in the latter group against the Fighting Irish, but Jamie Dixon’s team (11th in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) has never been hungrier. The Big East, however, is packed with hungry teams that still believe they’re at-large worthy. St. John’s is certainly on that list, and that is a problem for Pitt.
Prediction: St. John’s 73, Pitt 70
Cincinnati at No. 25 Notre Dame, 2 p.m. ET, CBS: How do you explain what happened to the Fighting Irish in Monday’s 51-42 win over Pitt? Mike Brey’s team played some of its worst basketball of 2012-13, and then he picked up a technical and everything changed. Isn’t that the story of Notre Dame’s entire season? Flashes of brilliance followed by bouts of mediocrity or vice versa? Well, the 9-5 Fighting Irish are still in the mix. They need a lot to happen with the top three teams (Syracuse, Georgetown and Marquette) to get serious about sharing a slice of the title. A loss to Cincy, however, probably would end that idea. Notre Dame shot 9-for-16 from the 3-point line when it defeated Cincy 66-60 in the first matchup way back on Jan. 7. That Cincy squad had the makings of a Big East contender. This Cincy squad is running on fumes following four losses in its past five games. The Bearcats’ dilemma? They can guard anyone (17th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy), but they can’t score (62.1 ppg, 12th in the Big East). That matters.
Prediction: Notre Dame 68, Cincinnati 64