MWC Provides A Really Cool Matchup
Derrick Low
Derrick Low
Scout National Basketball Columnist
Posted Jan 5, 2007


There's some marvelous college showdowns in cities like Chapel Hill, Eugene and Champaign this weekend. But the the equal -- at the very least -- of any of them for "big game" status will be played in Colorado Springs Saturday.

Saturday, top-ranked and unbeaten UCLA visits Mac Court in Eugene to face a University of Oregon team that was also unbeaten before being tripped up Thursday night by the USC Trojans.

 

Also Saturday, Ohio State’s dandy bunch of freshmen get their first taste of road action, Big Ten style, when the Buckeyes visit Champaign to take on the University of Illinois.

 

Another dandy on tap for Saturday is the best non-conference tilt of the weekend when the University of Connecticut Huskies venture into Baton Rouge where Glen Davis and the rest of his LSU buddies will be waiting.

 

But what is the most intriguing matchup of the weekend?

 

I offer up UNLV’s Mountain West Conference clash with the Air Force Academy Saturday in Colorado Springs.

 

The Falcons gained national awareness almost immediately this season by smacking Stanford to earn a spot in the College Basketball Experience semifinals, where they suffered what has proven to be their only loss (to Duke) before handling Bob Knight’s Texas Tech team in the third-place game the next evening in Kansas City.

 

They’ve since soared to a 14-1 record and are nationally ranked (including the final spot in this week’s Frankhoops.com Top 25).

 

But the Rebels, if not quite the ‘Runnin’’ versions that played in four Final Fours under Jerry Tarkanian (and won it all in 1990), are playing better right now than at any time since Tarkanian stepped down as the program’s coach after the 1991-92 season.

 

Lon Kruger’s team is off to a surprising 14-2 start, with consecutive non-conference road victories against Northern Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, Texas Tech and Houston before its MWC-opening 97-94 victory over Utah in Las Vegas Wednesday night.

 

Both have built strong enough at-large resumes so far that, barring collapses, they each should be in relatively comfortable positions to be invited into the NCAA Tournament field in March if someone else wins the conference tournament.

 

So there you have it: The Game of the Weekend!

 

Who would have thought it possible, even a few weeks ago, right?

 

A look at that and other cool matchups on Saturday and Sunday:

 

SATURDAY

UCLA at Oregon

Frank Says: The Ducks were stunned by USC Thursday night (84-82). And that score is any indication, then they’re going to have to play much better defensively, in half court and in transition, if they are going to upset the No. 1 Bruins who always play exceptional defense. And Ben Howland’s team seems to be much more explosive on the offensive end than it was during its Final Four run of last season.

 

Arizona at Washington State

Frank Says: In another Pac-10 game of note, the Wildcats will attempt to improve to 13-1 overall and 4-0 in conference play with their 13th win in a row when they stroll into Pullman, Wash., to play against one of the handful of biggest surprises, team-wise, of the season. The host Cougars are 13-2 and 2-1 after their 20-point victory over Arizona State Thursday. And they came oh-so-close (losing, 57-54, after holding a 10-point advantage early in the second half in Pauley Pavilion) to handing UCLA its only loss last week. Coach Tony Bennett has one of the most underrated backcourts (at both ends of the court) in the country in the junior duo of Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver. Something to consider: Over their past five games, the Wildcats have averaged 89 points. In the same stretch, WSU has allowed an average of 53.2 points. Something’s gotta give, folks.

 

Ohio State at Illinois

Frank Says: If the Illini are going to contend for a Big Ten title – although most, including myself, have all but conceded it to Ohio State or Wisconsin – they’d better not lose many, if any, games on their home court. And Coach Bruce Weber’s team couldn’t find a better way of bouncing back from consecutive road losses, including a 10-point decision to Michigan in its Big Ten opener, than by knocking off a club that oozes Final Four potential.

 

Virginia Tech at Duke

Frank Says: The Hokies were looked upon as strong NCAA Tournament bid contenders coming into the season. But a 10-4 start (with losses to Western Michigan and Marshall), including a narrow home victory over Wake Forest in their ACC opener, hasn’t exactly made them look like “tourney locks”. A very strong performance – especially one that helps them carry a victory out of Cameron Indoor Stadium – could alter that perception.

 

Alabama at Arkansas

Frank Says: Coach Mark Gottfried’s team grinded out a 13-1 non-conference record in near-methodical style, led by the potent post punch of senior Jermareo Davidson and Richard Hendrix. But picking up wins in the Southeastern Conference – especially away from the friendly confines of home – more often than not requires a bit more than just “methodical”.

 

Connecticut at LSU

Frank Says: The youthful Huskies, after being spoon-fed a very tender diet of home cookin’ for their first 11 games, found out how tough to digest road fare can when they finally ventured away from home and lost by 10 points in a Big East Conference game against West Virginia. Well, get ready kids: Things aren’t going to be any more palatable in Baton Rouge.

 

Kansas State at Texas AM

Frank Says: Did the Wildcats’ performance while losing at Xavier earlier this week reveal the look of a team that could be in contention for one of the top three our four spots in the Big 12 Conference standings in early March 12? Well, not really. But a more viable test – on the home court of a team that might be the best club in the conference right now – is on tap for Bob Huggins’ crew in this one.

 

UNLV at Air Force

Frank Says: Would the Rebels be 14-2 and looking like, perhaps, the co-favorites to win the Mountain West Conference if UNLV Coach Lon Kruger’s son hadn’t transferred from Arizona State in July to spend his senior season playing for pops? Uh, you be the judge: Kevin Kruger is averaging 14.4 points and 5.1 assists per game, and had 25 points, eight assists and only two turnovers in the team’s 97-94, double-overtime victory over Utah Wednesday night. Duh!

 

Georgia Tech at Clemson

Frank Says: And then were two – unbeaten teams, that is, after Oregon was dispatched by USC Thursday night in Eugene, leaving just Clemson and UCLA as Div. I clubs with spotless records. And the Tigers survived their toughest test yet with a 68-66, ACC-opening victory at Florida State Wednesday night to go to 15-0. The chances that the Tigers will be 16-0 seem solid, if you think the fact that Georgia Tech hasn’t beaten an opponent on its home court in two years means anything.

 

Notre Dame at Georgetown

Frank Says: The Irish looked every bit the Big East Conference title contenders --- yeah, as remarkable as that would have sounded in November – while coasting over disappointing Louisville Wednesday night in South Bend. The Hoyas take a six-game winning streak into their Big East opener, including a 16-point decision in Ann Arbor last Saturday.

 

SUNDAY

Florida State at North Carolina

Frank Says: Can anyone slow down the Tar Heels? Well, probably not in Chapel Hill, that’s for sure. Seven of their 13 victories have come by margins of 25 or more points. ACC competition has got to be a lot tougher than that, right? You would think so. But then again . . .

 

Kansas at South Carolina

Frank Says: Things could prove a bit tricky before the start of Big 12 play for Bill Self’s Jayhawks (10 in the Frankhoops.com Top 25) when they go into Columbia to face a 10-2 Gamecocks’ squad that is definitely flying under the national radar. Of course, the 21-point loss to Clemson – at home – might be a reason for that lack of national respect.

 

Syracuse at Marquette

Frank Says: Both squads are coming off losses in their Big East openers, the Golden Eagles at Providence and the Orange at home to Pittsburgh. The loser of this one needn’t panic – yet. FYI: This is the first time Jim Boeheim’s team has played outside of New York this season.



 

Inducted into the USBWA Hall of Fame in April, 2005, Frank Burlison is Scout.com’s national basketball expert and is also a columnist for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com. Read more of Burlison’s pieces at www.frankhoops.com



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