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Friday, January 5, 2001
Tar Heels await impressive Wake

Darius Songaila
Songaila will test the Tar Heels inside.
No. 4 Wake Forest at No. 14 North Carolina
GAME TIME:   Saturday, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
LAST MEETING:   Wake Forest 58, North Carolina 52 (March 10, 2000)
SERIES:   North Carolina leads, 144-57

Wake Forest made perhaps the loudest statement of the young season when the Deacons blitzed through Virginia's press and put the Cavaliers back on their heels from the opening tap. The game was significant because it was the first time in four years that two Top 10 teams played in the ACC without one of them being Duke, North Carolina or Maryland. For the ACC, that is one giant step out of the hole they played in for the last two years.

Wake Forest is for real. The Deacons are solid and have no real weaknesses. Wake is physical and strong, and very experienced. But the Deacons will not continue to blow away people like Virginia and Kansas, and the Deacons will have a hiccup here and there on the schedule, especially through a tough January.

But Wake will be favored to win most every game they play. Why? The Deacons are playing with greater speed (getting up and down the floor quickly), freedom (everyone is truly looking to score, making defenses guard all five guys), and confidence (this team is determined and believes it is good).

The Deacons are still stingy with the ball, turning it over only 11.8 times per game -- best in the ACC. Yet Wake is shooting 51 percent from the field and averaging over 80 points per game.

North Carolina has yet to play its best basketball, and has a very capable team. Because the Tar Heels have great size and interior strength, but lack overwhelming speed and athleticism on the perimeter, the Heels do not force a lot of turnovers, and cough the ball up too much themselves (leading the ACC in miscues). But Carolina can still hit people hard inside and on the glass and wear them down.

The key is for Carolina is to get the ball into scoring areas, so that the ball can go into the paint. That is the job of the point guard, and also the wings, who have to work harder to get open and provide the handler someone to pass it to.

Key Match-Up: Kris Lang vs. Darius Songaila

While Carolina's Joseph Forte and Wake's Craig Dawson are their team's most potent perimeter scorers, and perhaps most dangerous players, Songaila and Lang are the keys inside. That's where this game will be won or lost.

Songaila is averaging 14 points and 6 rebounds, but has been playing fewer minutes to keep him fresh after his long summer at the Olympics. Now, Odom is unleashing the Lituanian on the league, and he responded with 27 points on Virginia and was simply unguardable.

Songaila is strong, combative and can post, face up and drive by most big guys in the country. Lang is finally healthy, and has put up over 16 points and 6 rebounds per game. Lang has a great jump hook, and is adept at exploiting low post position.

Key Stat: Offensive rebounds, turnovers and free throws

Wake's Ervin Murray (5-to-1) and Broderick Hicks (3.4-to-1) lead the ACC in assist/turnover ratio, and the Deacons have been magnificent in protecting the ball without sacrificing aggressiveness. Carolina will not face suffocating pressure from Wake, but the Deacons are a very sound defensive team that can cause Carolina's handlers a lot of problems.

Wake Forest has to hit the glass against North Carolina, as Lang and Brendan Haywood both are outstanding offensive rebounders. As a team, however, Carolina has yet to show off its rebounding strength. This can be a dominant rebounding team.

North Carolina is not a great free throw shooting team, but must hit them against Wake, because the Heels will get to the line.

Wake Forest Wins If ... The Deacons must get good pressure on the ball and make it difficult for Carolina to gain entry passes. This will make it difficult for the Tar Heels to get into their offensive sets. Unpredictable shots will follow, and Carolina's rebounding strength will be negated some. Watch for Josh Howard to spend some time guarding Forte. Howard is long, lean and super athletic, and will make it difficult for Forte to get up unchallenged shots.

North Carolina Wins If ... The Tar Heel guards must handl Wake Forest's ball pressure and find people inside. North Carolina, with Haywood and Lang, are very strong inside and need to force the ball low and play an inside-outside game. North Carolina is not a team that will force a lot of turnovers, and need to wear teams down with their inside strength. Carolina has the potential to be an outstanding basketball team, and when they get solid guard play and learn to help each other out in handling the ball, the Heels will be able to beat anyone.

Cook leads a young group of Johnnies.
St. John's at No. 10 Connecticut
GAME TIME:   Saturday, 1 p.m. ET (CBS)
LAST MEETING:   St. John's 79, UConn 64 (Feb. 21, 2000)
SERIES:   St. John's leads, 29-16

Both teams have been up and down at times this season, and that is a function of youth. The Big East is a conference that punishes youth, and each of these teams has significant lessons to learn about bringing intensity on the road, playing every play, and understanding time and score. That said, each team is very capable, and has shown flashes of being outstanding teams.

UConn is trying to get back to its fast-breaking, pressing style that has made them the best team in the Big East over the last 10 years. After the loss to Boston College, when the Huskies failed to match the intensity level of the Eagles, Jim Calhoun will have the attention of his young troops. St. John's has fought inconsistency, but has played hard each time out.

Both of these teams are good offensively, but struggle to stop people, and that is another sign of youth. This game will be decided on decisions, patience and the glass. Because each team is young, defenses break down after a few passes, and if you are patient and make good decisions, you can get shots.

Key Players: Caron Butler and Anthony Glover

While the key matchup will probably be at the point -- and how Taliek Brown and Tony Robertson handle the Red Storm sensation Omar Cook, who averages 16 points and 9 assists per game -- the key players to watch in this game will be UConn's Butler and St. John's Glover.

Butler is perhaps the most well-rounded player in the conference, and is the rookie equivalent of Richard Hamilton or Ray Allen for the Huskies. Butler averages over 17 points, 8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and close to three steals per game. He is an outstanding offensive rebounder and can push the ball upcourt when he gets it off the glass. Butler is the toughest match-up for Mike Jarvis because of his size, strength and skill level.

Glover is one of the toughest players in the country, and nobody plays any harder. Glover averages nearly 17 points on 54-percent shooting, and is an undersized assassin inside. While Cook handles the ball, St. John's goes the way Glover goes, and look for UConn to double him and try to make others beat them. Glover cannot take on UConn alone, and needs some help on the glass and in the paint defensively.

Key Stats: Rebounding

Neither team is a drop-dead, glass-eating team, but UConn has been the more consistent rebounding team. The Huskies have good size, athleticism up front, and depth. With Johnnie Selvie, Butler, Edmund Saunders, Soulemane Wane and Justin Brown, UConn can throw a lot of bodies at St. John's.

The Red Storm is long and has some size with Mohammed Diakite and Kyle Cuffe, but the Johnnies are not bulky or physical, except for Glover. The Red Storm is getting outrebounded on the season, and must get inspired efforts from everyone, including the guards, to hang with UConn on the backboards.

UConn Wins If ... The Huskies have to bring better and more consistent intensity to the floor as a group. UConn had some very good efforts in its 10-game winning streak, which was ended by Boston College, but the Huskies have played up to and down to the level of competition they face from game to game. When the Huskies play hard together, they have the talent and athleticism to play with, and beat, anyone.

St. John's Wins If ... The Red Storm has to at least stay even, if not control, the glass and make good decisions. The Johnnies have to rebound the ball and limit UConn to one shot, limiting two of the best offensive rebounders in the league in Selvie and Butler. St. John's shoots the ball well, but can take some bad shots which can best be characterized as turnovers. When St. John's is patient and makes good decisions, the Red Storm can be a potent scoring team.

Gilbert Arenas
Arizona needs Gilbert Arenas' 'A' game.
No. 2 Stanford at No. 15 Arizona
GAME TIME:   Saturday, 4 p.m. ET (CBS)
LAST MEETING:   Arizona 86, Stanford 81 (March 9, 2000)
SERIES:   Arizona leads, 39-19

This is a game that was circled prior to the season as a monster game. Because of Arizona's struggles, not to mention the tragic loss of Lute Olson's wife Bobbi, the game does not have the same feel. But, make no mistake, this game will go a long way in determining the Pac-10 race, and can be a huge boost for the Wildcats if they come out and play well under difficult circumstances.

Here's the deal with Arizona: It's all about how they defend. The Wildcats are very talented and on the offensive end, they can get almost whatever they want. As a result, they can be careless and settle for jumpshots.

Arizona will score on teams, but teams have the opportunity to score on them because they let opponents make passes. Until Arizona clamps down and decides to stop people instead of trying to outscore them, the Wildcats will be just "really good". When the Wildcats defend, they can be great.

But, any team that fails to respect Arizona will get blitzed, because when Arizona puts it together, they will be as good or better than anyone.

Stanford is one of the best and most disciplined offensive and defensive teams in the country. Because of the size, strength and defensive mindedness of the Cardinal, opposing teams find it difficult to get good shots, and almost impossible to get second shots. However, the Cardinal has had most of its problems against teams with superior quickness and speed, both of which Arizona possesses.

The tempo of this game will be very important. If Arizona can get out and run off of a miss or a live-ball turnover, the Wildcats can score some easy baskets and won't have to grind against Stanford's halfcourt defense.

Key Match-Up: Casey Jacobsen and Gilbert Arenas

Jacobsen is playing as well as any perimeter player in the nation. He is fundamentally sound, moves without the ball, is very confident and highly skilled on the offensive end. Averaging over 17 points on 51-percent shooting, Jacobsen hits over 49 percent of his 3-pointers, proof he's an outstanding shooter with a high release and deep range. But, because he moves so well, and because he has an outstanding shotfake, Jacobsen is very difficult to guard.

Jacobsen is constantly hunting his shot, and has only 16 assists to his credit, so is looking shot first.

Arenas is a wonderful talent, but has struggled lately. Arenas shoots the 3, can show shot and rip through a defense to hit a mid-range shot, and is very good in transition. He has a nose for the ball, great hands and loves to crossover on defenders. While Arenas averages 14 points, four rebounds and two assists, he has been up and down over the last several games.

When he is up, he is Arizona's best player. When he is down, the Wildcats are not nearly as good.

Key Stat: 3-Point Shooting; Michael McDonald's line and Richard Jefferson's line.

Stanford plays stellar defense from the 3-point line and in, containing penetration and cleaning up misses. But Arizona, with its ability to penetrate and kick, will get some open 3s. If the Wildcats hit a good percentage, without taking a 3 on their first and only look, that could open things up a bit.

McDonald has to have a good floor game against Jason Gardner and stay in front of him, containing his penetration. Gardner has been outstanding, and has really tightened up his shooting stroke. Stanford has no real answer for Richard Jefferson, and when Jefferson plays aggressively and with confidence, he can be the difference.

Jefferson sometimes floats in games, and if he is not hitting his shot early, can have lapses. But when he is attacking off the dribble, in transition, and on the glass, there isn't a better small forward in the country.

Arizona Wins If ... The Wildcats have to work to get good shots, and really push the ball in transition. Stanford is not a pressure or gambling defensive team, and if Arizona is willing to make passes, it will get some good looks at the basket. In order to push the ball, the Wildcats have to defend. Arizona cannot run if they are constantly taking the ball out of the nets. The Wildcats need to get consistent stops.

Stanford Wins If ... There are no secrets with Stanford. The Cardinal will play good containment defense, spring Jacobsen for shots, and look inside to the Collins twins for rebounding and defense. Stanford has to attack the pressure they face from Arizona, and McDonald has to play one of his best games, and play good defense on Gardner without fouling. Another key will be keeping Michael Wright off the glass and off of the low block. Wright has been manhandling everyone he has faced.
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