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March 5, 2008
Prospectus Preview
Wednesday's Games to Watch

by Caleb Peiffer

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Games of Wednesday, March 5

Atlantic Coast

Matchup: Duke (25-3, 12-2) at Virginia (14-13, 4-10), 7:00 p.m. EST, ESPN
Rankings: Duke, #5 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 12 in ACC); Virginia, #74 (10th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Duke, 86-75 in 77 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 16%
Prospectus: This is the final game for Duke before it returns home to play North Carolina in the last regular season contest of the year. A win over Virginia will move the Blue Devils back into a first place tie with North Carolina, which moved a half game up with its victory over Florida St. last night, and set up one of the most highly-anticipated Duke/North Carolina matchups in the history of the rivalry. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, finally got their first close win in conference play in Monday's 76-74 decision at Georgia Tech after it had dropped the first six ACC games it played this year that were decided by less than four points or in overtime. Seven out of Virginia's 14 conference contests have been close ones this season, so the Cavaliers have been a major part of the ACC having already set the 21st century record for highest percentage of close conference games. Thirty-three of 87 ACC games have been close ones thus far, 38 percent, so the conference is guaranteed to surpass the 33 percent put up by the 2007 MAAC and 2006 Big 12. Duke was able to put Virginia away without going down to the final possession on January 13, pulling out an easy 87-65 win in the first ACC game of the season for both teams. The Blue Devils defense, which ranks 11th in the nation in opponent turnover percentage, helped force a normally surehanded Cavaliers' attack into giving it away on 26 percent of its possessions, the second-highest rate for Virginia in conference play. Duke's defense has relied heavily on takeaways, as opponent turnover percentage has a correlation of -0.52 to the Blue Devils' defensive efficiency, a figure that is statistically significant with 99 percent confidence.

Southeastern

Matchup: Kentucky (16-11, 10-4) at South Carolina (13-15, 5-9), 7:00
Rankings: Kentucky, #58 in Pomeroy Ratings (6th of 12 in SEC); South Carolina, #88 (9th)
Pomeroy Prediction: South Carolina, 64-63 in 63 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 47%
Prospectus: The Wildcats put forth a suprisingly spirited effort on Sunday afternoon at Tennessee, which was then ranked No. 1 in the national polls. Kentucky, playing its first game without freshman forward Patrick Patterson, the team's best player who is out for the rest of the season with a stress fracture in his ankle, lost by just three points, 63-60. The Wildcats had a couple looks from deep in the final seconds that would have tied it, but missed both. Despite the loss, Kentucky still stands in second place in the SEC East thanks to Vanderbilt's loss at Arkansas. If the Wildcats can win tonight and again on Sunday at home over Florida, they would give themselves a serious shot at garnering an NCAA at-large berth. Kentucky beat South Carolina at home 78-70 on January 22, but the Wildcats had Patterson in that one, who pitched in with 22 points on 10-of-14 shooting and nine rebounds. If Kentucky hopes to survive without Patterson, it will not just need its two senior guards, Ramel Bradley and Joe Crawford, to step up their play, but also sophomore Derrick Jasper. Jasper, who sports a sub-par 82.3 offensive rating in the lowest percentage of possessions used and shots taken on the team, played all forty minutes against the Wildcats, more than doubled his seasonal shot percentage in scoring a season-high nine points, and added eight rebounds and eight assists.

Matchup: Mississippi St. (14-13, 8-6) at Vanderbilt (23-6, 11-3), 8:00
Rankings: Mississippi St., #28 in Pomeroy Ratings (2nd of 12 in SEC); Vanderbilt, #48 (5th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Vanderbilt, 72-70 in 71 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 43%
Prospectus: Vanderbilt is chasing Kentucky for the second spot in the SEC East, and thanks to its series split with the Wildcats and better overall record, if Vanderbilt finishes even with Kentucky in the standings it will receive the No. 2 spot in the division and the accompanying first-round bye in the SEC Tournament. Mississippi St. is gunning for the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament, which it would lock up with a victory. The Commodores have the second best team eFG% in the SEC, behind Florida, while the Bulldogs have the best eFG% defense, and third best in the nation. The conference efficiency margin shows that Mississippi St. is clearly the second best team in the SEC. The Commodores, however, rank No. 16 in both the AP and USA Today/ESPN top 25 national polls, so this is the Bulldogs' shot to show people how good they are and that they deserve to be the ranked team, not Vanderbilt. If Mississippi St. can win this game in one of the toughest places to play in the country--Memorial Gym in Nashville has an odd configuration of a raised, stage-like floor and team benches under the baskets, and Vanderbilt is 18-0 at home this year--then it will announce with a bang what the in-conference numbers have been indicating.

Matchup: Tennessee (26-3, 12-2) at Florida (21-8, 8-6), 9:00
Rankings: Tennessee, #15 in Pomeroy Ratings (1st of 12 in SEC); Florida, #47 (4th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Tennessee, 78-76 in 72 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 41%
Prospectus: Tennesse can clinch the SEC East title and at least a share of the overall SEC crown with a win, and if Mississippi St. loses and the Volunteers win, then Tennessee will clinch the overall title. That would be the first Tennessee outright SEC title in 41 years, the last coming in 1967. Since then, the Volunteers have shared first place in 1972, 1977, 1982, and 2000. Tennessee beat Florida at home on February 6, 104-82, and tonight's meeting should produce another high-scoring game, as Tenessee and Florida rank 1/2 in points per possession in SEC play. In the first game, the Volunteers out-rebounded the Gators, with an offensive rebounding percentage of 39.3 to Florida's 19.6, and also forced Florida into turnovers on more than one in four of its possessions. Considering that Tennessee ranks 10th in defensive rebounding, and Florida first, the battle on the boards will likely play out differently this time, and the Gators should also do a better job of protecting the ball. Tennessee of course is one of the best teams in the country at forcing turnovers, and its defense depends to a very large extent on generating takeaways. But a team has much more control of its turnover rate on offense than the defense it faces does, and Florida has been strong at taking care of the ball, ranking fourth in the SEC and 30th in the country with a low rate of giveaways on 18.3 percent of possessions.

As much as this game means for Tennessee in its quest for the outright SEC title, it likely means even more for Florida, which is trying to get back into the NCAA Tournament to defend its back-to-back national championships. The Gators lost a crucial game at home on Saturday to Mississippi St., and finish up the regular season after playing the Volunteers with a tough game at Kentucky. A win tonight would likely push the Gators into the field of 64.

Patriot League Tournament

Matchup: #7 Seed Bucknell (11-18, 6-8) at #2 Navy (16-13, 9-5), 7:00
Rankings: Bucknell, #244 in Pomeroy Ratings (6th of 8 in Patriot); Navy, #200 (3rd)
Pomeroy Prediction: Navy, 75-68 in 72 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 24%
Prospectus: Bucknell finished last season 13-1, tied for first place with Holy Cross, and yet this year the Bison and Crusaders find themselves together at the bottom of the standings. Bucknell won the Patriot League tournament in both 2005 and 2006, and is the only Patriot League team to ever win a game in the NCAA Tournament, which they have done twice: the #14 seed Bison memorably upset Kansas 64-63 in the 2005 NCAA Tournament, and then received a #9 seed the next year and knocked off Arkansas in the first round. Last year Bucknell lost in the Patriot League final to Holy Cross, and was predicted to finish second to the Crusaders this season as well. The Bison lost three seniors who were among the team's top four in percentage of minutes played last year, however, and Bucknell has struggled without them this season. The Bison did beat Navy at home, 85-77, with Navy winning the rematch 78-72 in Annapolis. The Midshipmen missed a chance to earn a share of the Patriot League regular season crown and the No. 1 seed in the tournament when they fell at Colgate last Saturday. Navy, which is trying to win its first league tournament since 1998, has a defense that ranks 24th in the nation at forcing turnovers, while Bucknell's offense is in the country's bottom 40 in turnover percentage.

Matchup: #8 Seed Holy Cross (15-12, 5-9) at #1 American (18-11, 10-4), 7:30
Rankings: Holy Cross, #176 in Pomeroy Ratings (2nd of 8 in Patriot); American, #163 (1st)
Pomeroy Prediction: American, 61-57 in 57 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 30%
Prospectus: This is the nightmare scenario for the American Eagles--win the regular season title, and then have to face the team the stats say is the second best in the conference. Holy Cross went 13-1 in last year's regular season and won the league tournament. The Crusaders have dominated the Patriot League in recent years, winning the tournament from 2001-2003 and the regular season title in 2001, 2003, and 2005, and were picked to finish first in the preseason, but injuries have gotten the best of them. Tonight's game could hinge around whether Crusaders junior forward Alex Vander Baan, who missed the last three games of the regular season with back problems, will play. Vander Baan is the team's leader in defensive rebounding percentage and is second in offensive rating and eFG%. Junior point guard Pat Doherty is also hobbled, and Adam May, a sophomore forward who ranks second on the team in both possessions used and percentage of shots taken, and third in offensive rating, has played only one minute in the team's last six games due to injury. Holy Cross split the season series with the Eagles, winning at American 66-64 and losing in Worcester 62-46. The biggest concern for the Crusaders should be defending the three-point line, something they have struggled to do all year, as American has the fifth best three-point percentage in the country (41.1) and shoots frequently from long range. The Eagles should also be able to hurt the Crusaders by penetrating to the basket, as they have the best free throw rate (free throws shot per 100 field goal attempts) in the Patriot League, and Holy Cross has allowed the highest free throw rate against of any Patriot League team. The Crusaders' strength is down low--Holy Cross ranks sixth in the nation in effective height and third in offensive rebounding percentage.

Big 12

Matchup: Oklahoma (19-10, 7-7) at Oklahoma St. (16-12, 7-7), 8:00
Rankings: Oklahoma, #34 in Pomeroy Ratings (6th of 12 in Big 12); Oklahoma St., #42 (9th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Oklahoma St., 65-63 in 64 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 38%
Prospectus: This latest edition of the Bedlam rivalry is the most intriguing game of the night, which makes it unfortunate that it is not being carried on national television. Winners of five straight, Oklahoma St. has poked its way into the middle of the Big 12 and into a tie with Oklahoma and Texas A&M, one game behind Baylor and Kansas St. Oklahoma won the first meeting, 64-61 in Norman on January 28, thanks primarily to the fact that it made 36 trips to the free throw line against 38 field goal attempts, a rate of 94.7, the highest that the Sooners have put up this season and the highest that the Cowboys have allowed. Oklahoma St., not surprisingly, ranks last in the Big 12 this season in holding down opponent free throw attempts. Freshman forward Blake Griffin did the major damage for the Sooners from the line, going 9-of-15, but in tonight's rematch Oklahoma will be without its best player's services. Griffin tore the medial meniscus in his right knee during Saturday's win over Texas A&M, and had surgery Sunday that will sideline him at least through Oklahoma's final regular season game, a potentially crippling blow to the team's chance at an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament. The surging Cowboys would like nothing more than to wrest that berth away from their rival at Gallagher Iba Arena in Stillwater tonight. An NCAA Tournament spot for the Cowboys was inconceivable a couple of weeks ago, but that is what will likely be on the line when Oklahoma St. travels to Texas this Sunday if the Cowboys can get even with the Sooners tonight.

Matchup: Texas A&M (21-8, 7-7) at Baylor (20-8, 8-6), 9:00, ESPN2
Rankings: Texas A&M, #20 in Pomeroy Ratings (4th of 12 in Big 12); Baylor, #31 (5th)
Pomeroy Prediction: Baylor, 74-73 in 69 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 46%
Prospectus: The other two teams besides Oklahoma and Oklahoma St. that are fighting each other for NCAA Tournament positioning square off in the nightcap of a crucial evening of Big 12 action, and a rematch of one of the most remarkable games of recent memory in college basketball, Baylor's 116-110 victory in five overtimes. Both teams are at the fringes of the NCAA Tournament field, but Texas A&M needs this game the most, as it plays Kansas on Saturday in the regular season finale, and will thus likely finish 7-9 in the Big 12 if it loses to the Bears tonight. The Aggies have played well in stretches this season, but those stretches came earlier in the year. Lately the team has been wildly inconsistent, and has developed a nasty habit of getting blown out--the Aggies were routed 77-50 in Austin on February 18, came back two games later to destroy Texas Tech 98-54, and then lost their next game 64-37 at Oklahoma last Saturday. Those 37 points were scored in 62 possessions, good for an offensive efficiency of 59.3, which is by far the lowest produced by Texas A&M this season. Baylor, on the other hand, has come on strong since a four game losing streak in the middle of its conference season, as the Bears have won three in a row to reassert their candidacy for an NCAA at-large bid. The first game between these teams, on January 23 in College Station, finally ended when Baylor outscored the Aggies 17-11 in the fifth overtime, and was the longest game in Big 12 conference history. Junior guard Curtis Jerrells led the Bears to the win with 36 points on 20-of-24 from the free throw line. Jerrells scored 11 of his points in the last overtime session, and 22 overall in the five extra frames.

Conference USA

Matchup: Central Florida (16-12, 9-5) at Houston (21-7, 10-4), 8:00
Rankings: Central Florida, #87 in Pomeroy Ratings (5th of 12 in CUSA); Houston, #68 (3rd)
Pomeroy Prediction: Houston, 80-74 in 71 Possessions
Upset Possibility: 28%
Prospectus: Houston dropped a one-point game on the road to East Carolina on Saturday, a loss which seriously harmed the team's chances at an NCAA Tournament at-large berth. The Cougars must win their final two regular season games, tonight and on Saturday at UTEP, to get back into consideration, and likely will need to make a run in the Conference USA Tournament as well. It would significantly help Houston if the Cougars could catch up with UAB, which ranks a game ahead of them for second place in the conference. If the Cougars win their last two they will have a great shot of at least tying the Blazers, for UAB plays at Memphis in its final game on Saturday. Houston has the second best offense in the conference behind Memphis', which is powered by the nation's fifth lowest turnover rate and eighth best free throw percentage. The Cougars beat Central Florida in the first meeting of the year between the two, 84-81 on the road. Guard Rob McKiver, Houston's senior offensive leader, scored 31 points on 78 eFG% shooting to pace the Cougars.

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

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