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February 20, 2008
Prospectus Preview
Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Games of Wednesday, February 20

Matchup: North Carolina (24-2, 9-2 Atlantic Coast) at North Carolina St. (15-10, 4-7), 7:00 p.m. EST, ESPN
Rankings: North Carolina, #7 in Pomeroy Ratings (2nd of 12 in ACC); North Carolina St., #93 (12th)
Pomeroy Prediction: North Carolina, 82-70 in 73 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 15%
Prospectus: The Tarheels are 3-1 in the four games they've played thus far with star point guard Ty Lawson sidelined, but it hadn't been easy going until last Saturday. North Carolina needed two overtimes to beat Clemson and topped Virginia by just a point, then unleashed on Virginia Tech to the tune of 92-53. Maybe they do deserve that No. 3 ranking in both the AP and USA Today/ESPN polls after all. Lawson will be on the sideline for this in-state rivalry game, as well. The Tar Heels beat the Wolfpack by 31 back on January 12 in the first meeting. North Carolina pounded State on the offensive glass, not surprising considering the Tar Heels are the second-ranked offensive rebounding team in the nation and the Wolfpack are last in defensive rebounding percentage in the Atlantic Coast. North Carolina also held an advantage on North Carolina St. in the turnover battle, but in the last three games without Lawson, the Tar Heels have been turning it over at a significantly higher rate than they have for the rest of the season. This game will be a contrast in tempos, with North Carolina running to the tune of 77 possessions per 40 minutes and the Wolfpack plodding along at 66. The Tar Heels quick pace won out in the initial contest, which was played in 75 possessions.

Matchup: MD Baltimore County (18-7, 10-2 America East) at Albany (13-12, 8-5), 7:00
Rankings: MD Baltimore County, #151 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 9 in America East); Albany, #184 (2nd)
Pomeroy Prediction: Albany, 72-71 in 64 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 49%
Prospectus: This game promises to be a great one, and a possible preview of a key America East tournament battle between the conference's two best teams (Albany ranks third in the standings behind a very lucky Hartford squad despite its being #2 by the stats). It is also a figurative battle of large canine mascots, between the UMBC Retrievers and the Great Danes. Albany lost its first game against MD Baltimore County, 69-65 on the road January 30. The Retrievers won that game at the free throw line, making 15 more trips than the Great Danes. MD Baltimore County has a significantly better offense than anybody else in the conference--it ranks 11th in adjusted efficiency at 1.14 points per possession, whereas the next best attack, Hartford's, is 137th. The Retrievers, however, have the worst defense in the America East. The team is also unique in that it is very old--25th in the nation with a weighted average of 2.2 years of experience--with a very short seven-man rotation. Albany plays 10 men, and is characterized by its rebounding, as the Great Danes rank second in the country in defensive rebounding percentage and 44th in offensive.

Matchup: West Virginia (18-7, 7-5 Big East) at Villanova (15-9, 5-7), 8:00
Rankings: West Virginia, #16 in Pomeroy Ratings (4th of 16 in Big East); Villanova, #77 (11th)
Pomeroy Prediction: West Virginia, 71-65 in 67 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 26%
Prospectus: As John Gasaway's rundown of in-conference statistics shows, the Mountaineers have been the third-best team in Big East play thus far, with a points per possession scored/allowed differential of +0.09, yet they haven't gotten the love that Connecticut or Notre Dame has. That's because the Mountaineers have been unlucky--at 1.4 wins less than expected based on points scored/allowed, West Virginia is down near the bottom of the Big East in luck along with Louisville (-1.7), which has also been grievously underrated. The Mountaineers have lost two Big East games by one point: 55-54 at Pittsburgh, thanks to a last-second three-pointer by Ronald Ramon, and 58-57 at home against Georgetown, a game which featured a controversial non-goaltending call on a last second attempt. All of West Virginia's conference wins, however, have been convincing, as the Mountaineers have not won by fewer than nine points. Villanova also lost a close game to the Hoyas in the final seconds on a controversial call, 55-53 on February 11, so these two teams can commiserate before the opening tip.

Matchup: Mississippi St. (17-7, 8-2 Southeastern) at Mississippi (17-7, 3-7), 8:00
Rankings: Mississippi St., #28 in Pomeroy Ratings (2nd of 12 in SEC); Mississippi, #60 (6th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Mississippi St., 74-73 in 73 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 47%
Prospectus: The Bulldogs are clearly the second best team in the weak SEC behind Tennessee, thanks primarily to the best two-point field goal defense in the nation (38.9 percent) and best block percentage (20.3). The Rebels, conversely, have seen their season fall apart after a promising 13-0 non-conference record, and have lost consecutive games to SEC lesser lights Alabama and Auburn. The Rebels have a strong offense that is powered by a low turnover rate and high offensive rebounding percentage, but a weak defense that has given up the second most points per possession of any SEC team in conference games (1.12, tied with South Carolina). Mississippi senior forward Dwayne Curtis has made two-thirds of his 210 two-point attempts, and he shot 7-of-11 for 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the Rebels' 88-68 loss to Mississippi St. on January 26. The Bulldogs were led in that game by senior forward Charles Rhodes, who tallied 26 points on 12-of-14 shooting. Rhodes has been a big part of the Bulldogs' 54 percent shooting on two-pointers, the 11th best mark in Division I.

Matchup: Houston (19-5, 8-2 Conference USA) at UAB (17-8, 7-3), 8:00
Rankings: Houston, #64 in Pomeroy Ratings (3rd of 12 in CUSA); UAB, #58 (2nd)
Pomeroy Prediction: UAB, 76-71 in 73 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 32%
Prospectus: Both of these teams had their chance to knock off Memphis (chances in Houston's case), and both came up short--just a split-second short for UAB. Now the Cougars and Blazers are left to squabble over the scraps that Memphis has left behind in its ravenous tear through Conference USA. In this case, however, those scraps are still pretty appetizing--an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament. There will most likely be no more than one at-large C-USA team to make the Big Dance, and there may even be none at all if Memphis runs the table and both of these teams fail to make some noise down the stretch and in the C-USA tournament. Consequently, this game is huge for both teams, especially UAB, which still has to play Memphis on the road and which stands a game back of Houston for second place in the standings. Houston's hallmark this year is an offense that doesn't turn the ball over and shoots a ton of three-pointers, while UAB sports a capable defense that does a good job making opponents miss.

Matchup: Wisconsin (21-4, 11-2 Big 10) at Illinois (11-15, 3-10), 9:00
Rankings: Wisconsin, #5 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 11 in Big 10); Illinois, #33 (6th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Wisconsin, 59-56 in 60 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 35%
Prospectus: The bad luck of the Fighting Illini got even worse last week. After a 24-point blowout victory on the road over Minnesota, Illinois lost on Saturday at Penn St. by one point, dropping the team into 10th place in the conference, ahead of only woeful Northwestern. The Nittany Lions got two free throws on their last possession to beat the Fighting Illini, which hit just five of 10 freebies for the game. Illinois is at -4.8 wins for the season, while the next unluckiest team, Harvard, is at -3.3. The Fighting Illini are on pace to be the least lucky team of the three-season period from 2006-08. That begs the question of whether teams that perform poorly in close games are usually also poor free-throw shooting teams, as Illinois shoots only 60 percent from the line. In any event, the Badgers surely know that they won't have an easy time of it in Champaign. Wisconsin beat the Fighting Illini 70-60 at home January 10 in these teams' first meeting of the year.

Matchup: Duke (22-2, 10-1 Atlantic Coast) at Miami FL (17-7, 4-6), 9:00
Rankings: Duke, #4 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 12 in ACC); Miami FL, #53 (6th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Duke, 81-72 in 74 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 21%
Prospectus: The Hurricanes have won two straight close games on the road to keep their hopes of an NCAA at-large bid alive. The team will most likely have to finish at .500 in the conference and come up with a signature win over Duke at home or Clemson on the road to have a strong enough case without needing to rely on an ACC tournament run. Duke showed that it wasn't invincible by losing 86-73 at Wake Forest on Sunday night. The Blue Devils beat Miami by 15 on February 2, a game in which Duke shot 40 times from the line, as compared with 21 trips for Miami. The two teams' seasonal stats suggest those figures will be much more even this time around. The Blue Devils also shot 12-of-30 from downtown, against only 3-of-11 for the Hurricanes, and the numbers state that that advantage from deep will hold up--Duke shoots nearly 39 percent from three, and as usual does an outstanding job preventing opponents from even attempting three-pointers. Duke's foes have had the second lowest percentage of their field goal attempts from threes this season, behind Morgan St. Duke was second in that category last year as well, first in 2006 and 2005, and fourth in 2004. It's safe to say that the main priority of the Coach K defensive blueprint is to limit perimeter scoring.

Matchup: Kansas St. (18-6, 8-2 Big 12) at Nebraska (14-9, 3-7), 9:00, ESPN2
Rankings: Kansas St., #6 in Pomeroy Ratings (2nd of 12 in Big 12); Nebraska, #46 (8th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Kansas St., 68-63 in 69 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 27%
Prospectus: The Wildcats recovered from a road loss to Texas Tech by smoking Missouri by 37 points at home on Saturday, a game in which they scored 100 points in 79 possessions, their highest efficiency of the conference season. Kansas St., thanks to its freshman forwards Michael Beasley and Bill Walker, has the second-best offense and defense in the conference behind Kansas. Nebraska has...well, the Huskers have 6'11" senior Aleks Maric, who has an 112.5 offensive rating, the eighth-best mark for players using at least as many possessions as he has (30.6 percent). Maric is also one of the best rebounders in the country on both ends of the court, and ranks in the top 100 in both free throw rate and block percentage. Maric scored 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting and grabbed 15 rebounds in the first game between these two teams, but it wasn't enough to prevent the Wildcats from winning, 74-59. Maric or any other Huskers player was unable to slow down Beasley, who scored 35 points on 15-of-21 shooting, had 13 rebounds and helped Kansas St. hold Nebraska to a 40.9 eFG%.

Matchup: Utah (15-8, 6-4 Mountain West) at Brigham Young (20-5, 9-1), 10:00
Rankings: Utah, #49 in Pomeroy Ratings (3rd of 9 in Mountain West); Brigham Young, #38 (1st)
Pomeroy Prediction: Brigham Young, 68-63 in 67 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 29%
Prospectus: The first edition of this classic rivalry this season was decided by only three points, with BYU coming up with a 55-52 win in Salt Lake City. That victory was the first of eight straight for the Cougars, a stretch which has propelled them to the top of the Mountain West. BYU is riding extremely high right now, having beaten second-place UNLV by 26 points at home last Saturday. The Utes also come into the game hot, having won four in a row as they look to make a late-season charge for the NCAA Tournament. These two teams are both in the top 10 of the country in defensive rebounding percentage, with Utah ranking first and BYU ranking sixth. The Cougars are also excellent at suppressing field goal percentage and therefore have the best defense in the conference, while Utah is more well balanced between offense and defense, boasting a stronger attack than BYU thanks to the country's ninth best eFG%. The Cougars won the first meeting at the free throw line, shooting 12-of-15 against Utah's 5-of-8.

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

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