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February 5, 2008
Prospectus Preview
Tuesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Matchup: Virginia Tech (14-8, 5-3 Atlantic Coast) at North Carolina St. (14-7, 3-4), 7 p.m. EST, ESPNU
Rankings: Virginia Tech, #47 in Pomeroy Ratings (5th of 12 in ACC); North Carolina St., #93 (12th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Virginia Tech, 61-60 in 63 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 47%
Prospectus: This one should be yet another close game on the ACC bubble, as the conference rolls towards a historic season in terms of down-to-the-wire action. The Hokies have won three straight games to move into third place behind the two Atlantic Coast powers--and two of those wins came in overtime (Virginia Tech has a third overtime win in conference play as well, against Virginia, and a one-point victory over Maryland). The Wolfpack is coming off a thrilling win of its own, a 67-65 defeat of Wake Forest at home in which the winning points were slammed home at the buzzer by 6'10" junior Ben McCauley following his teammate Gavin Grant's missed three-pointer. North Carolina St. is no stranger to that kind of luck this season--the team's three conference wins have come by a combined seven points, while it has been blown out in three of its four league losses, making it the luckiest team in the ACC. This is a critical game for the Hokies if Virginia Tech wants to take advantage of its good fortune in close conference games thus far and the easiest schedule in the ACC to finish with a winning record and sneak into the NCAA tournament.

Matchup: Michigan (5-16, 1-8 Big Ten) at Ohio St. (15-7, 6-3), 7, ESPN
Rankings: Michigan, #128 in Pomeroy Ratings (10th of 11 in Big 10); Ohio St., #26 (4th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Ohio St., 74-58 in 65 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 5%
Prospectus: It's Rivalry Week on ESPN, which means this game gets national television play despite the high likelihood of a blowout. The Wolverines are undoubtedly bad, but their struggles have been exacerbated by the second-toughest strength of schedule in the nation, with games against UCLA, Duke, Georgetown and Butler in non-conference play, and two early matchups with Wisconsin in Big 10 play. Michigan is one of the youngest teams in the nation, with just one upperclassmen among the team's top seven in minutes played. Ohio St. is also a green squad due to the players the team lost to the NBA draft, as the Buckeyes have three freshman playing significant minutes. Remarkably, Ohio St. has not lost much on defense from last year even despite the absence of Greg Oden--in fact, the team currently ranks 14th in adjusted defensive efficiency, a spot better than it finished last year. The Buckeyes have managed to retain their outstanding ability to keep opponents off the free-throw line from the 2007 campaign--Ohio St. has actually improved in that area, lowering its opponents' free throw rate from 21.6 last season (second nationally) to 19.8 (first). The Buckeyes have also remained an excellent shot-swatting squad thanks primarily to the presence of 7'0" freshman Kosta Koufos, Ohio St.'s heir to Oden on the defensive end.

Matchup: Drake (20-1, 11-0 Missouri Valley) at Illinois St. (16-6, 8-3), 8:05
Rankings: Drake, #24 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 10 in Missouri Valley); Illinois St., #59 (2nd)
Pomeroy Prediction: Drake, 65-63 in 63 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 43%
Prospectus: The top two teams in the Missouri Valley square off, with the conference's best offense in Drake going up against its best defense (by adjusted efficiency) in Illinois St. The only loss for the Bulldogs of Drake came in their second game, against St. Mary's, so the team has run off 19 straight wins, a streak that includes a 79-73 defeat of Illinois St. at home on January 19. In that game, the Redbirds shot very well from the floor and from long range, but were done in by 17 turnovers--the best quality of Drake's defense is its ability to create steals. The Bulldogs' potent attack is powered by the three-point shot, and Drake has gotten nearly as large a percentage of its points from downtown (39.1 percent) as from inside the arc (41.3 percent). The Redbirds actually shoot a little better than Drake from long range, but don't take as many threes. Illinois St. has an advantage in height on the Bulldogs, but that mainly is because of 6'11" Levi Dyer, who actually spends most of his time on the perimeter rather than in the paint--Dyer is a three-point specialist who has taken nearly twice as many longballs (90) as two-pointers (49).

Matchup: Butler (19-2, 8-2 Horizon League) at Valparaiso (14-7, 5-4), 9, ESPN2
Rankings: Butler, #36 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 10 in Horizon); Valparaiso, #110 (2nd)
Pomeroy Prediction: Butler, 67-62 in 61 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 29%
Prospectus: The Crusaders of Valparaiso rate as the second-best squad in the Horizon League despite being in fifth place in the conference standings, as the team has the second-best offense by adjusted efficiency in the conference (behind Butler) and the fifth-best defense. A win here for the Crusaders would put three Missouri Valley teams just a game back in the loss column of the front-running Bulldogs (aren't you tired of that nickname?). Butler, like its fellow Bulldogs from Drake, lives with the three on offense, getting an identical percentage of its offense (39.1 percent) from deep as Drake does. The team's most deadly assassin is 6'7" senior Pete Campbell, who is 54-of-116 on three-pointers (47 percent). Valparaiso gets an even higher portion of its offense from three (39.3 percent), with 6'6" Shawn Huff doing most of the damage (47-of-104, 45 percent), so you can expect a very slow game with loads of long-range shots.

Matchup: Florida (18-4, 5-2 Southeastern) at Tennessee (19-2, 6-1), 9, ESPN
Rankings: Florida, #34 in Pomeroy Ratings (4th of 12 in SEC); Tennessee, #12 (1st)
Pomeroy Prediction: Tennessee, 83-73 in 72 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 19%
Prospectus: Florida's run of strong play was brought to a halt with a 19-point loss at Arkansas on Saturday. Things won't get any easier for the Gators defense when the team travels to take on the Volunteers' eighth-ranked offense in a matchup of the top two teams in the SEC East. Tennessee's offense is made strong by the team's aversion to turnovers, and the Gators don't force enough (just a 20.5 turnover percentage) to get the Volunteers out of their scoring rhythm. On the other side of the ball, the key will be whether Tennessee can generate its usual healthy steal total against a Florida offense that takes terrific care of the ball. If the Volunteers can't, an excellent Florida attack should be able to cut apart Tennessee's weak two-point defense, and the result will be a highly efficient offensive slugfest.

Caleb Peiffer is a contributor to Basketball Prospectus. He can be reached here.

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