The Big Ten and the SEC highlight this weekend in basketball, with first-place battles going on in each one. These games go back-to-back in the late afternoon and early evening Saturday on ESPN, so you can get comfortable for Illinois-Purdue (4 ET) followed by Kentucky-Vanderbilt (6 ET).
Purdue is coming a monster win in Columbus on Wednesday night and this game is a similar scenario--a team one game back trying to nudge even with the Boilers and Michigan State. The Illini were manhandled at home by Ohio State last weekend after scoring impressive wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin. At the start of the season, I would have liked Illinois' chances up front. But Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale--especially Davis, who has played his way onto the bench, haven't lived up to their potential, giving Purdue a decided edge in the frontcourt with JaJaun Johnson
patrolling the middle and Robbie Hummel able to score from inside or out. Illinois' best hope is for Demetri McCamey to carry them, as he did in their other two big wins. But Purdue has an answer for McCamey in the person of E'Twaun Moore and they have homecourt, as they fight for their first Big Ten championship since 1996. I think they'll grab this one by the throat early and never look back.
The crowd should be pumped in Nashville when Kentucky comes to town. Vanderbilt can move into a tie for first with a win here and while they are not as talented as Kentucky, they are talented enough to win at home. The Commodore backcourt of Jermaine Beal and Brad Tinsley will match up with John Wall and Eric Bledsoe. Down low, A.J. Oglivy is a match for DeMarcus Couisins. The key for Kentucky will be the play of Patrick Patterson. He showed up in spades Tuesday night when they barely survived Mississippi State in overtime. But he's been off and on all
year, meaning he's due for an off. And I just feel like the near-miss of Tuesday foreshadows a loss for Calipari's crew. I'm calling for a Vandy upset that keeps the SEC race alive.
The ACC also offers high stakes action on Sunday night when Virginia Tech visits Duke (7:45 ET, FSN). The Hokies can pull even with the Blue Devils for first place and give Maryland & Wake Forest a chance to do the same. Last weekend, the Terrapins floundered in a visit to Cameron. Can Tech fare any better? This one is a battle of the Big Threes, with outstanding backcourts and one good forward keying both teams. Duke's is well known, with Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith pulling the trigger in the backcourt, and Kyle Singler up front. Tech has the unheard of, but talented Dorenzo Hudson and Malcolm Delaney to match up at the guards and Jeff Allen up front. The key here is that Singler is much more explosive than Allen. He's coming off a big game against Miami and he
won't let his team lose its grip on first place at home. In the meantime, look for Maryland to hang in by beating Georgia Tech at home, while Wake survives a trip to N.C. State. Neither one of those games are gimmes though, so there's a real chance Coach K could have the race firmly in his grasp by late Sunday night.
Syracuse & Villanova are still dueling each other for the Big East title, and 'Nova has a tough game at Pitt on Sunday (Noon ET, CBS). This is the ultimate revenge situation, since Villanova broke Pitt's heart up in Boston during last year's East Regional final. But I have my doubts that homecourt and vengeance are going to be enough to carry the Panthers home in this one. The Wildcat backcourt is vastly superior this year, and Pitt has to get good work from Nasir Robinson and Gary McGhee up front--enough to make up the difference. With Villanova's own post man Antonio Pena, surely smarting from a rough outing Monday against
UConn, I doubt Pitt can make that happen. I look for this one to be close for 30-35 minutes, but the 'Cats to make all the big plays down the stretch.
Elsewhere in the Big East, Marquette has a huge bubble game with Cincinnati in the Queen City. With the Golden Eagles losing at home to Pitt last night, they can't afford another loss. This one's not going to be easy on the road, but MU has the best player on the floor in Lazar Hayward. If they get some decent outside shooting from Darius Johnson-Odom they should survive the trip. I believe they will, mainly because the Bearcats are a huge disappointment, especially forward Yancey Gates.
ESPN's Saturday prime-time show looked better when the season began. UCLA's visit to Washington was supposed to be a battle for the Pac-10 lead, but both teams have been major disappointments. The Huskies are coming off a tough loss at USC that really hurt their at-large NCAA prospects. The Bruins are
coming off a rough...well, a rough season. Washington has the two best players on the floor in Quincy Poindexter and Isiaiah Thomas, and the latter should have some extra motivation after his worst game of the year against the Trojans. At home, look for Washington to win it big. Of more interest in the Pac-10 continues to be the yo-you that is Cal. Just when they seemed to have this race under control, they pulled an inexusable tank job against Oregon State last night. They need to bounce back against Oregon. I'm sure they will, but this is a league on very hard times right now.
On Sunday night, after the conclusion of Duke-Virginia Tech, we'll do a complete review of where the championship races, as well as those for NCAA bids are at in each major conference.