Once again, I will preview some of the weekend's marquee games and the big Monday matchup.
No. 19 Louisville at No. 18 Cincinnati
I'll be courtside for this Conference USA clash between two different but evenly matched teams. Louisville is perimeter oriented and a very good shooting team. The Cardinals have shot 52 percent or better from the field in the last eight games. For the season, Louisville is shooting 49 percent overall and 41 percent from 3-point range – and the team makes 10 3-pointers per game.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, has struggled to make perimeter shots (44 percent from the field), but the Bearcats do a good job pounding the ball inside to Jason Maxiell and Eric Hicks. Both shoot better than 50 percent from the field.
Both teams have been very good defensively and have out-rebounded their opponents, although Louisville at times has struggled to prevent teams from getting offensive rebounds. That could lead to trouble against Cincinnati. So could Cincinnati's defensive pressure, as Louisville had 24 turnovers in a loss at Houston last week.
I think Cincinnati has the advantage defensively, on the glass and playing at home. But I like Louisville's offensive efficiency if the Cardinals can compete on the glass and handle the ball. In Francisco Garcia, Louisville has a "stat sheet stuffer supreme" who could be the difference in the game.
No. 3 North Carolina at No. 4 Wake Forest
This is No. 3 vs. No. 4. Need I say more? Perhaps I will.
What a matchup! Two of the best teams in the country that both play a highly entertaining style of basketball. These teams are deep, experienced, talented and well-coached. Last year it took a few extra sessions to decide their game in Chapel Hill. I wouldn't be surprised if this game is as close.
After a pair of eye-popping blowout wins, UNC get its first major road test. It seems folks have "freeze-framed" Wake in Champaign, Ill., where it was dismantled by the Fighting Illini five weeks ago. This team is still championship-capable, and I think it will be pumped up to prove it. To beat UNC, the Deacons will have to be excellent in three areas: offensive efficiency, defensive rebounding and transition defense. And that excellence must be maintained for 40 minutes in all three areas.
The Tar Heels also have something to prove – that they can win a game on the road against a formidable opponent. That's the only thing lacking on their midseason folio, and I know the players are looking forward to the challenge. But they won't win if they don't shut off the turnover faucet. They've had 43 in the last two games, both blowout wins, but they won't outrun that many turnovers on the road against a team like Wake Forest.
Because these teams are so similar in style and personnel, it should be a terrific game to watch if both play at a high level. The intriguing matchups are endless and everywhere: Paul-Felton, Gray-McCants, E.Williams-May, Levy-J.Williams … and bench vs. bench. With neither team appearing to have a decided edge in any aspect of the game, I think the intangibles of determination, emotion and poise will determine the winner as much as certain stats. It's a tossup – and when that's the case, I give the edge to the home team.
UCLA at No. 17 Arizona
The young Bruins just keep rolling along. They scored an impressive road win at Arizona State on Thursday and are very capable of pulling off the sweep in Tucson. As I mentioned last week, this team has a lot of offense on the perimeter, but I thought the key to the win in Tempe was the defensive job done by frontcourt players Michael Fey, Ryan Hollins and Lorenzo Matta on Ike Diogu. They aggressively double-teamed him all night and held him eight points below his average. The same kind of effort will be needed against Arizona's Channing Frye.
This is another game between two evenly matched teams. Like UCLA, Arizona boasts a very strong perimeter attack with Mustafa Shakur, Salim Stoudamire, Hassan Adams and Chris Rodgers. All can score and are capable defenders when focused and motivated. And after some sluggish performances recently, I think this group will be highly motivated to beat the surging young Bruins.
UCLA's freshman trio of Aaron Afflalo, Jordan Farmar and Josh Shipp continue to play with confidence and outstanding poise, and Dijon Thompson is having a terrific senior season. It will be a tough game for Arizona to win, but I like the Wildcats to do just that on the strength of intense defense and being at home.
No. 13 Boston College at West Virginia
West Virginia has struggled recently with two losses in three games after winning its first 10. During the winning streak the Mountaineers averaged close to 80 points per game and shot 38 percent from beyond the 3-point arc. In the last three games, however, the numbers have been 55 points and just 22 percent from downtown. This team relies on disrupting opponents with a variety of defenses and making the perimeter shot. And hurting in those areas is not an ideal way to be going into a matchup with the Eagles.
Boston College is one of four remaining unbeaten teams in Division 1, and it's not a fluke. The Eagles are not an awe-inspiring group, but they know how to grind out games. They are solid defensively and on the glass, and play balanced and unselfish on offense. I've watched this team win games with savvy and toughness. What's impressed me most is that the Eagles don't let go of a game when they get control of it. And like their coach Al Skinner, this team is confident, tough-minded and unflappable. They don't rattle.
Craig Smith is a load inside, and freshman big man Sean Williams is showing consistent improvement. Jared Dudley does a little bit of everything and Sean Marshall is an excellent perimeter shooter.
West Virginia will be tough at home, especially if the shooting touch returns and D'or Fischer, one of the nation's top shot blockers, can neutralize Smith. But I think the Eagles will find a way to grind out another win.
No. 6 Oklahoma St. at No. 10 Texas
I see this matchup as one of experience versus youth. The Cowboys have six seniors in their seven- or eight-man playing rotation, while Texas is counting heavily on two freshmen and a sophomore. Both teams have very talented players, but the Cowboys have Final Four experience from a year ago which should help them win on the road in Austin.
Despite not being a very tall team, Oklahoma State plays big. On defense the team plays aggressively on the perimeter, and because Ivan McFarlin and the brothers Graham (Joey and Stephen) are smart players and good athletes, they hold their own inside. On offense this team shoots 52 percent from the field and averages 81 points per game. Both of those numbers attest to unselfishness, taking good shots and scoring off defense rather than having a lot of great shooters. This team takes care of the ball and rarely beats itself.
Texas is a very good shooting and rebounding team, but defense and turnovers are areas that need improvement if the Longhorns hope to move into the upper echelon. To beat Oklahoma St., they have to defend without excessive fouling and make sure they get good shots on offense. Freshman point guard Daniel Gibson sometimes goes a little too fast on offense, which leads to turnovers and poor shots. His floor game is very important to Texas' success. As he continues to develop, so will the Longhorns.