By Jon Rothstein
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DUKE AT NORTH CAROLINA
How do you slow down Ryan Kelly? Put Reggie Bullock on him. The 6-7 junior has been on an absolute tear since Roy Williams opted to go with a smaller lineup, and Bullock has responded in a big way, posting three double-doubles in his last four games. Duke hasn’t lost this season when they’ve had Kelly in the lineup, and the Blue Devils look like they could be the favorite heading into the NCAA Tournament. North Carolina meanwhile, has really played well recently, and won six games in a row. It makes perfect sense to pick Duke, but there’s something we really like about this group of Tarheels. We’ll take North Carolina at home.
PREDICTION: NORTH CAROLINA 72, DUKE 70
SYRACUSE AT GEORGETOWN
The final Big East meeting between the Orange and the Hoyas should be tremendous. Georgetown is coming off a loss on the road at Villanova while Syracuse got a much needed victory at home against DePaul. Otto Porter dominated when these two teams played a few weeks ago, and he’s starting to look like the favorite for national player of the year. The skilled forward means more to Georgetown than any other player means to his team in college basketball — and no one knows that more than Jim Boeheim. Porter scored 33 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and had five steals when these teams met a few weeks ago at the Carrier Dome. It says here his brilliance will again be the difference.
PREDICTION: GEORGETOWN 61, SYRACUSE 57
FLORIDA AT KENTUCKY
How can the Wildcats ensure themselves a berth in the field of 68? By winning this game. Kentucky needs to play well down the stretch to make the NCAA Tournament and beating Florida would cement their place in the bracket. The problem is we can’t see this Kentucky group beating a savvy, veteran team like the Gators — even if the game is being played at Rupp Arena. Florida finally has all their pieces finally healthy, and looks like they’re gearing up for a big run over the next three to four weeks. We see the Wildcats as just being another stop along the way.
PREDICTION: FLORIDA 68, KENTUCKY 62
VCU AT TEMPLE
The Owls’ point guard situation has been sporadic all season long and that could be a problem against the Rams. VCU’s relentless full-court pressure will be a major obstacle for the Temple’s trio of Will Cummings, T.J. Dileo, and Khalif Wyatt to overcome — and that will be the key to the game. The Owls have won six games in a row and eight of their last nine, but beating the Rams at home would make a statement heading into the Atlantic 10 Tournament. Until we see Temple’s guards handle “HAVOC”, we just can’t pick them against a VCU team that seems primed for a big March.
PREDICTION: VCU 75, TEMPLE 70
INDIANA AT MICHIGAN
Could the Big Ten not have a single one seed in the NCAA Tournament? Not if Indiana wins this game and wins the Big Ten Tournament. The Hoosiers took a big step backwards in terms of securing a top seed in the field of 68 when they lost at home to Ohio State, but Tom Crean’s team can still regain their swagger with a win on Sunday in Ann Arbor. Indiana has responded well this season when they’ve dealt with adversity, and we expect that to happen on the road against Michigan.
PREDICTION: INDIANA 82, MICHIGAN 78
EXPERT PICKS: Rothstein vs. Malusis, Roberts, Phenoms
THIS AND THAT:
– We feel for Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell. The Seawolves won the America East regular-season title — but will likely have to play Albany in a true road game on Sunday in the semis of the conference tournament — because the Great Danes are the host school in the first two rounds of the league playoffs. Should Stony Brook advance, they would then host the championship game on March 16th at home on Long Island. Talk about a raw deal for a school that’s dominated the America East this season (23-6, 14-2).
– Steve Alford isn’t going to campaign for New Mexico to be a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament, but he certainly feels his team deserves to be under consideration. “We fit all the criteria,” Alford on said on Thursday in regards to New Mexico’s resume compared to other potential top seeds. “We’ve scheduled up and we’ve won the top rated RPI league outright.” The 26-4 Lobos have terrific balance and one of the more skilled big men around in sophomore center Alex Kirk. The 6-11 Kirk missed last season with a back injury, but has made a major jump this year, averaging 12.0 PPG and 8.1 RPG. “He can beat you inside and out,” Alford said of Kirk. “He’s going to be one of the best big men in the country next year.”
– Providence coach Ed Cooley credited his former boss at Boston College Al Skinner for his ability to develop personnel. The Friars have two of the more improved players in the Big East this year in Bryce Cotton, who is the conference’s leading scorer (20.0 PPG), and power forward Kadeem Batts (15.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG). “I learned a lot from Al but maybe the biggest thing was knowing where to put players on the court to be successful,” Cooley said of Skinner on Wednesday. “He was really good at knowing how to get the most out of guys.” Providence has won three straight games and seven of their last eight. Don’t sleep on this team from making a late push towards the bubble if they get hot in the Big East Tournament. The Friars are 9-8 in the Big East and close the regular season on Saturday at UConn.
– Is there anyone on more of a roll than Tennessee’s Jordan McRae? The 6-5 shooting guard is averaging 28 points per game for the Vols over his last five outings, and has been a major reason for this team’s recent surge. The junior should be one of the better players in the SEC next year as a senior. Cuonzo Martin’s team is 18-11 and closes the regular season on Saturday at home against Missouri.
– Xavier could wind up being the sixth team from the Atlantic 10 to challenge for a bid to the NCAA Tournament if the Musketeers keep winning down the stretch. Chris Mack’s squad closes the regular season on Saturday night at Butler (6:30 ET, CBS Sports Network), and then would probably have to win multiple games in the Atlantic 10 Tournament to push for an at-large bid. Xavier has already beaten Butler once, along with Memphis, La Salle, Temple, and Saint Louis.
– This is the most wide open MAAC Tournament in recent memory with six to seven teams capable of winning the league title. Niagara won the regular season crown outright and has a terrific guard in Juan’ya Green, while Loyola is the most experienced team and the defending champion. You also can’t dismiss Iona or Canisius, who will meet on Saturday in the quarterfinals. It’s going to be a fun couple of days in Springfield.
– Akron’s potential NCAA Tournament chances took a major hit when starting point guard Alex Abreu was arrested on Thursday on drug charges. Abreu has been suspended indefinitely and was averaging 10.3 points and 6.0 assists per game. Akron is 24-5 but would likely have to win the MAC Conference Tournament to advance to the field of 68.
– Last night’s performance by Colorado reiterates why Tad Boyle is one of America’s most underrated coaches. The Buffaloes domination of Oregon came just hours after it was announced that Colorado’s Andre Roberson would miss the game after being diagnosed with mono. Even without Roberson, who was averaging a double-double (10.8 PPG, 11.5 RPG), the Buffaloes were terrific from the opening tip. If freshman Xavier Johnson can produce with regularity as an undersized power forward, the Buffaloes will continue to be a tough out no matter who they play.
– Georgia Tech gave us a glimpse of what we can expect from the Yellow Jackets next season when they upset Miami on Wednesday night in Coral Gables. Brian Gregory’s team has three talented freshmen in Robert Carter, Marcus Georges-Hunt, and Chris Bolden that should all be much better next year as sophomores. Georgia Tech also brings in a talented point guard prospect next season in Travis Jorgenson, who should push for a starting spot from day one. This team will be in contention for an NCAA bid in 2014.
– Aaron Jones’ season ending ACL injury has had a major effect on Ole Miss. Without Jones, Andy Kennedy doesn’t have a capable third big man he can bring off the bench to spell both Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner. Before Jones’ injury, the Rebels were 6-1 in SEC play. Since then, they’re 5-5.
What’s your prediction for Duke-UNC? Be heard in the comments!