College Basketball Gets Saturday Spotlight

Today’s the first Saturday without any football since Labor Day, but not to worry—there’s eight nationally televised college basketball games that can satisfy your sports fix. Here’s the Notebook rundown on all eight…

Washington-Duke (Noon ET, CBS): Washington’s already lost games to St. Louis, Nevada and Marquette while beating no one of consequence, so we can’t expect them to win in Durham. But this game does offer some interesting matchups. With Duke, their ultimate success is determined by the frontcourt. Coach K will always produce a good backcourt and this year’s trio of Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins and dynamite freshman Austin River (son of Celtics coach Doc Rivers) is no exception. Duke needs to get good work from Mason Plumlee at center, particularly rebounding the ball, along with his brother Miles and forward Ryan Kelly. Right now, Plumlee is averaging 10 rebounds a game and if that holds, the Dookies will live up to their press clippings. I want to see how they fare against Washington’s Aziz N’Diaye, a tough rebounder in his own right and an entire team that goes to the glass. For this game, Duke’s backcourt dominance leads to a win, but what we see here can tell us more about what lies ahead.

Cincinnati-Xavier (12:30 ET, ESPN2): Xavier is coming off four straight wins over Georgia, Vanderbilt, Purdue and Butler so they have to be the favorite in this battle for the soul of the Queen City. Tu Holloway is one of the best guards in the country and Mark Lyons has been an able running mate. I want to see more out of Kenny Frease up front, and while Cincinnati has been erratic, they’ve also got talent, with a backcourt of Dion Dixon and Sean Kilpatrick and a very good forward in Yancey Gates. If Frease can lock up Gates and prevent him doing damage on the inside, or at least stop him from rebounding, the Musketeers will claim a fifth straight significant scalp.

Oklahoma State-Pitt (2:30 ET, ESPN2): Good game between rebuilding teams. Pitt’s got the better personnel right now, as I like Nasir Robinson and Dante Taylor’s ability to matchup down low, while their guard Ashton Gibbs takes away an Okie State strength with little 5’9” Keiton Page. Neither team has beaten anyone of note so far, but the down side for Pitt is that they lost to Long Beach State, while Oklahoma State’s losses to Stanford and Virginia Tech are more defensible.

Ohio State-Kansas (3:15 ET, ESPN): No team has made a louder statement in the early part of the schedule than Ohio State did when they blasted Duke by 22 points in Columbus. Kansas looks the part of a team not quite ready for the status the folks in Lawrence have been accustomed to. They’ve lost to Kentucky and Duke, and the wins have come over Georgetown and UCLA. Enough to tell you they’re still the good and steady program we’ve come to expect, but not so much that there should be a run on Final Four tickets just yet. This game promises a great showdown of forwards with Ohio State super soph Jared Sullinger matching up with KU’s underrated Thomas Robinson. Kansas has the single best guard on the floor in Tyshawn Taylor, but Ohio State’s backcourt is better balanced with Aaron Craft playmaking and William Buford scoring. Each team has gotten contributions from new players up front, with Kansas’ seven-footer Jeff Whitney helping on the glass, while Ohio State power forward Deshaun Thomas takes some of the heat off Sullinger. It’s easily the best game of the day and is realistically the best game of the rest of the December schedule.

Villanova-Temple (5 ET, ESPN2): Both Philadelphia schools are struggling out of the gate and hoping to turn things around before the NFL season is over and an angry city can turn its fire on flailing college basketball programs. What both the Wildcats and Owls have going for them are big men who are stepping up to the challenge of controlling the interior, with Mouphtaou Yaro for ‘Nova and Michael Eric for the Owls. This bodes well for turning things around, because both teams have talent on the perimeter and just need to get it all meshing. For Saturday, the guess is that Temple’s Juan Fernandez buries enough threes to get his team the win.

Kentucky-Indiana (5:15 ET, ESPN): Kentucky is the consensus #1 team in the country, and deservedly so with its early wins over Kansas and North Carolina. The Wildcats are very well-balanced, and I expect them to control the interior in this game. Indiana does have a nice freshman center in 6’11” Cory Zeller, and players like Victor Oladipo and Christian Watford are helping out, but the talent gap between them and the UK trio of Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis is just too severe. It’s worse in the backcourt where Doron Lamb, Darius Miller and freshman playmaker Marquis Teague are several notches above what IU coach Tom Crean can put on the floor. Crean’s rebuilding program in Bloomington is making progress and while their own notable games so far are against rebuilding Butler and N.C. State, the Hoosiers are 8-0 and given where they’ve been lately, that does say something. Just not enough to beat Kentucky. The only hope is that the young ‘Cats overlook a game on the road and if it’s close at the end, Teague is only a 52 percent foul shooter. So that’s maybe a 10 percent chance we can give Indiana.

Miami-West Virginia (7 ET, ESPN2): West Virginia won a double-overtime war against Kansas State on Thursday, so who knows how much will be left in the tank for a non-conference date with the Hurricanes. WVA is carried by forward Kevin Jones, who had 30 points and 12 rebounds, while Darryl Bryant, who scores 24 keys the backcourt. Miami has a good backcourt of their own in Durand Scott and Malcolm Grant. Beyond the question of the Mountaineers’ focus, the player whose performance will swing this game is WVA’s Deniz Kiliczi, a 6’9” junior forward from Turkey. He’s played well so far this season, but did not on Thursday and it nearly cost his team a win.

Michigan State-Gonzaga (9 ET, ESPN2): Neither team has given any real indication of what way this season will lean. Michigan State lost to North Carolina and Duke, but beat Florida State. Gonzaga lost at Illinois, but hasn’t played anyone else. So tonight’s battle will be a good measuring stick. The Spartans came into the season needing to find someone who could help Draymond Green down low and Keith Appling in the backcourt. That’s still a work in progress although freshman Branden Dawson is a good candidate to breakout. Gonzaga needs steady backcourt play from freshman Kevin Pangos, and if they get that life will be good. Because Robert Sacre and Elias Harris can bang with anyone in the paint.