Mid-Major Games of the Week: Part II
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by Matthew Stevens
Thursday, December 22
Dayton (8-3) vs. Cincinnati (7-2) (in Las Vegas) – It’s not every day in college basketball that a non-conference rematch occurs but that’s exactly what the folks holiday tournament in Las Vegas have done. Though the blood may not be as bad as that between Cincy and Xavier, it's definitely a rivalry game.
After losses to bubble teams Creighton and DePaul, the Flyers need to go 2-0 versus the Bearcats to get the Committee to look hard at their non-conference resume. The Bearcats' upcoming schedule is murder for interim head coach Andy Kennedy. Cincy still has to get through LSU and always-dangerous Miami (OH) before starting its inaugural year of Big East play.
Dayton's Brian Roberts drove right through Cincinnati's man-to-man defense for layups in the last outing, scoring 24 points leading Dayton to its breakthrough 75-66 victory. To exact revenge, Kennedy will need to find a way to slow him down. Otherwise the Flyers will win and inch closer to Bracketography.com's projected NCAA Tournament field.
Prediction: Dayton gets Cincy sweep, Flyers by 5
LaSalle (7-0) at #3 Villanova (7-0) – Isn’t it nice to have a Big Five game mean something to more than just Philadelphia? Nobody really knows what to make of LaSalle, because none of their seven straight wins to open the season have come against quality competition, and the Explorers needed four overtimes to beat Central Connecticut State.
LaSalle forward Steven Smith (no, not Stephen A. Smith) is turning in a fabulous season as a senior, averaging a team-high 23.0 points as he continues to climb the school's all-time list. The 6-foot-7 forward has 1,554 points to rank 17th in school history. Smith had 41 points in the win over CCSU, connecting on 17 of 27 shots. He will need another superstar performance if the Explorers have any chance of beating Villanova.
Just about every expert in the country underestimated 'Nova after star forward Curtis Sumpter tore his ACL. (Except David Mihm, who still ranked the Wildcats as a Preseason #1 seed.) However, after wins over Oklahoma and Bucknell, the Wildcats look to be a serious challenger to UConn for the top spot in the Big East. The Wildcats won their first six games by double digits and beat Penn 62-55 in a Big Five matchup last week.
"No matter what, we stay together and keep playing hard," Wildcats' guard Randy Foye said after the Penn game. Foye, averaging a team-high 22.0 points, was limited to 16 against Penn. The senior averaged 32.3 points over his three previous games. Foye is part of a four-guard lineup for Villanova that stretches team’s defenses and may be a factor come March.
Prediction: Don’t be surprised if LaSalle keeps it close and may lead at half, but 'Nova will dominate in the second half and win going away. Wildcats win eighth straight by 15.
Friday, December 23
#16 Indiana (6-2) vs. Butler (6-4) (in Indianapolis) – The Bulldogs are a darkhorse to come out of the Horizon League this season, and three of their four losses have come on the road to quality teams (UNC-Wilmington, Ohio State and Michigan). The other came on a buzzer-beater against undefeated Indiana State.
The most intriguing part of this game is its similarity to IU's matchup with the Sycamores in Terre Haute. The Hoosiers tend to be slightly overconfident (and rightfully so) when facing in-state opponents. It may bite them again when they take on Butler in Conseco Fieldhouse.
Auburn transfer Marco Killingsworth has made a huge difference to Indiana’s offense, which had been stagnant before he arrived in Bloomington. Killingsworth had 17 points on 7 of 12 shooting in IU’s 71-54 win at Charlotte. His size and athletic ability may be the difference in this contest. But if Butler can keep the Hoosier guards from penetrating and make shots on the offensive end, an upset is more than realistic in this one.
Prediction: Whether at the start or the end, Butler will make a run. But look for the Hoosiers to make free throws down the stretch. Killingsworth has a huge game along with D.J. White and IU gets an 8-point win.
Iona (7-0) at #12 Kentucky (7-3) – Merry Christmas to the Gaels! Their presents include a two-week road trip that includes games in Rupp Arena, at Seton Hall and at Fresno State, before their MAAC feast begins. After destroying a solid Louisville team on its home floor, most national experts think UK will roll through this contest.
Some of you may think my eggnog is spiked, but I’m taking Iona in this one.
Doug Gottlieb's newest Mid-Major Dandy, Iona features a 6-foot-1 guard named Steve Burtt. Burtt is averaging 25 points per game and put 23 on the Cyclones in the Gaels' 89-72 upset win at Iowa State. Look for Tubby to put defensive specialist Rajon Rondo on Burtt, because Patrick Sparks does not have the quickness to keep up with him. The question for Kentucky (and Rondo) is on the other end of the floor: will Rondo demand the ball at the end of the game, or play a more passive role, as he has in Kentucky's losses to Iowa, North Carolina, and Indiana.
The biggest Christmas present for mid-major fans would be an Iona upset two days before the holiday.
Prediction: Burtt goes for over 30 and Kentucky is upset by a MAAC opponent for the first time in school history. Iona by 2.