First, let’s take a moment to reflect on last weekend’s amazing Syracuse-Duke matchup. Sure, the Orange won. But the Blue Devils were still fighting in overtime with their best players on the bench. The Rodney Hood game-winning dunk attempt? The Rasheed Sulaimon 3-pointer at the buzzer in regulation? Jerami Grant’s overall effort (24 points, 12 rebounds in 40 minutes)?
I was right on that pick, but it really could have gone either way, right?
Virginia’s buzzer-beater against Pitt not only ruined that prediction, but it also gave the Cavs more street cred in their pursuit of the ACC crown. Oh, and then there’s Texas.
The Longhorns manhandled Kansas last weekend in an 81-69 victory in Austin. The same crew that lost its top four scorers from last year is now just one game behind Kansas in the Big 12 race.
Just go ahead and give Rick Barnes national coach of the year honors.
And it’s more proof that this game is unpredictable.
Now, remember that when I mess up this weekend’s picks.
Last week: 3-2
No. 7 Cincinnati at SMU, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU: Mick Cronin is definitely in that national coach of the year conversation, too. And don’t be surprised if Sean Kilpatrick, fourth nationally with a 121.4 offensive rating per Ken Pomeroy, steals the inaugural American Athletic Conference player of the year honors from UConn’s Shabazz Napier. The Bearcats haven’t lost since mid-December, but Larry Brown, yet another candidate for national coach of the year honors, has something cooking in Dallas. His program’s AAC opponents are shooting just 38.5 percent from the field, the lowest mark in the league. The Mustangs, like the Bearcats, put an emphasis on stingy defense, so this could be sloppy, but SMU did produce 73 points in a loss to equally stubborn Virginia in late November. SMU dismissed Memphis and UConn at home this season. The next achievement for Nic Moore & Co.? Handing Cincy its first conference loss of the season.
Prediction: SMU 74, Cincy 68
No. 4 Wichita State at Northern Iowa, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Let’s talk about perfection, as Wichita State prepares to face conference foe Northern Iowa. It’s interesting how the storyline has changed for a team such as Wichita State. When this run began, there was this sense of anticipation. Can they do it? And now the Shockers have been bombarded by scrutiny, an aura created by doubters who question Wichita State’s 24-0 resume. Those doubters have a point. Wichita State’s strength of schedule, per the BPI, is 114th overall. Louisville (111th) is the only top-20 program in the BPI with a triple-digit SOS. But this has still been a marvelous run by Gregg Marshall’s program. And who can deny the collective potency of the foursome that leads them? Tekele Cotton, Fred VanVleet, Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker were all good enough to guide the program to the Final Four last year, so let’s appreciate this run because we might not see another one for years. And it will continue against the oft-injured Panthers, who have lost five of their last seven.
Prediction: Wichita State 74, Northern Iowa 62
No. 10 Michigan at No. 17 Iowa, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN: John Beilein -- yep, another national coach of the year candidate -- has molded this Michigan team back into a national title contender. This is the same Michigan team that lost Wooden Award winner Trey Burke and potential lottery pick Mitch McGary. But Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III have been a fluid group who’s been a perpetual quagmire for the rest of the league. Iowa’s depth is less significant than its offensive and defensive limitations, but Michigan is the worst matchup for the Hawkeyes. The Wolverines are comfortable outside (37.2 percent from beyond the arc in Big Ten play) and they can score in a multitude of ways via that trio. They can pack the lane against Roy Devyn Marble, Aaron White & Co. and force them to take risky 3s, which happened when the Hawkeyes went 2-for-10 in a 75-67 loss to Michigan in Ann Arbor on Jan. 22. The Hawkeyes scored just 1.02 points per possession in that outing. Yes, Fran McCaffery’s program needs a win to stay in this Big Ten race after dropping three of its last five, but Michigan is just a tough opponent for Iowa.
Prediction: Michigan 73, Iowa 71
No. 23 Gonzaga at No. 24 Memphis, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: At the beginning of the year, this appeared to be a much sexier meeting between a pair of programs who’ve gone mainstream despite existing in what many would consider mid-major leagues in recent years. It’s still intriguing. The Kevin Pangos-Joe Jackson and Shaq Goodwin-Sam Dower matchups would be ideal pairings. But Gonzaga didn't acquire any top-25 wins during the nonconference season, and it suffered a loss to Portland in league play. The West Coast Conference’s overall decline has affected Gonzaga’s national reputation and its bracketology (27th in the BPI) standing. The Zags could use a win over a Memphis team that suffered a 15-point road loss to SMU last weekend, but the Tigers have been solid as defenders of the arc thus far (31.1 percent allowed from the 3-point line in American play). And they shoot well, too (38 percent from beyond the arc in conference play). Their athletic, turnover-forcing (13th in defensive turnover rate per Ken Pomeroy) perimeter players, however, will be the difference in this game.
Prediction: Memphis 80, Gonzaga 74
No. 9 Michigan State at Wisconsin, 1 p.m. ET, CBS: Wisconsin won its first 16 games of the year. That dazzling start included wins over Iowa, Green Bay, Florida, Saint Louis, West Virginia and Virginia. But Bo Ryan’s program has lost five of its last seven games. Ryan’s Badgers have never finished below fourth in the Big Ten. Could this be the season that ends that streak? If Wisconsin’s defensive lapses continue, it’s possible. The Badgers are 60th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. They finished first last season and 12th the previous year and haven’t been this low since the 2010-11 campaign. They’ve never been the 1980s Lakers, but their ability to corrupt offenses has been a staple of the program for years. Bottom line, Wisconsin’s defense just hasn’t been consistent. Michigan State hasn’t exactly had a perfect year, either. Adreian Payne finally returned during this week’s double-digit win over Penn State, but Keith Appling missed the matchup with a wrist injury. The Spartans can’t get healthy, but they’re resilient and obviously a problem for every opponent, especially when Payne is healthy. The Badgers are usually successful, however, in these back-against-the-wall scenarios.
Prediction: Wisconsin 68, Michigan State 67