Weekend viewer's guide: Let the madness begin
Do you know what this weekend is? I mean, yes, it's the one-year anniversary of Iowa State's 17-point drubbing at Oklahoma; and yes, it will be four years since Greg McDermott's last game in Hilton Coliseum -- both things that are cringe-worthy in their own special way. But this weekend is a happy weekend.
It's March, everybody. It's conference title races and Senior Nights and bubble-popping and eye tests. It's brackets and seeds and upsets and net-cutting. It's pure, unadulterated, unparalleled madness and gosh is it beautiful. We may still be wrapping up the regular season at the present time, but sit back and enjoy the next month of college basketball, ladies and gentlemen. It truly does not get any better than this.
Circle these for this weekend...
Big 12 Game of the Weekend, Part 1: (5) Kansas at Oklahoma State (8:00 p.m., ESPN)
The Worldwide Leader is saving the best for last on Saturday. There are a couple storylines we can put to bed before this one tips off: Marcus Smart is back and he's fine. He's scoring about at his average, dishing out plenty of assists and he and the Cowboys are winning since the three-game suspension. Four of Smart's last five appearances have been against the Big 12 bottom-feeders, but he went for 16-10-9 in Lawrence back on Jan. 18, so expect him to get his. Secondly, the Jayhawks are your Big 12 regular season champions for the 10th straight year, giving Bill Self more conference titles at KU than losses inside Allen Fieldhouse -- a stat that I am utterly incapable of wrapping my head around. So, I'll say this: perhaps a matchup between two teams in two different mental states (desperation vs. auto-pilot?) could make for an interesting Saturday evening in Stillwater. With Perry Ellis closing out his sophomore season in tremendous fashion, he'll be just one more guy on an upward trend for Travis Ford's defense to contain. The mismatch to watch for will be on the glass, as it typically is for anyone having to deal with Joel Embiid & Co. for 40+ minutes. Phil Forte had 23 points in Lawrence on a 7-of-10 day from three, and an upset in this one might require a similar performance.
Big 12 Game of the Weekend, Part 2: (15) Iowa State at Kansas State (6:00 p.m., ESPNU)
We can talk all we want about trying to force a rivalry with West Virginia that may not quite be there yet, but it's Iowa State's annual trip to Manhattan that I always tend to wake up a little bit earlier for; a few more cups of coffee, a few more tweets, a few more pregame articles to read, a few more beers on ice (drink responsibly, kids). Plain and simple, the Cyclones need a "signature" road win. And while it wouldn't blow the pants off the Selection Committee, winning in the Octagon of Doom is an absolute chore (unless, for some reason, you're Northern Colorado). ISU has won seven of eight, while Kansas State has been alternating wins and losses since their overtime thriller against the Jayhawks. The key for the Wildcats will be attempting to stifle a suddenly hot perimeter game for the Cyclones -- efficiency they have sorely lacked in Big 12 road games this year (47-of-170, .276). Chris Williams doesn't allot me enough words to express exactly how I feel about Monté Morris' performance lately, but let's just say he and fellow freshman Marcus Foster should provide quite the show at the point guard position. Keep an eye on Matt Thomas in this one as well. Jan. 25 against K-State was his Big 12 coming out party (14 points on 4-of-6 from deep) and he's in desperate need of another confidence booster.
Others around the country
(9) Creighton at Xavier (Saturday, 4:00 p.m., Fox Sports 1):When I predicted Creighton to run the table back in late January, I figured this game would be their one potential stumbling block (and thanks to a loss at St. John's, none of that matters now). Whether or not this one is close, it will at least be entertaining. These are two efficient squads offensively, and let's be honest: we all tune in to Creighton games now just in case Ethan Wragge goes mental again, right? All due respect to Doug McDermott, Xavier sophomore Semaj Christon might actually be the most NBA-ready guy on the floor in this one. He'll need to be on point for the Musketeers to pull the upset.
(10) St. Louis at VCU (Saturday, 5:00 p.m., ESPN2):Spoiled by "Hoiball" for almost four years now, I don't take nearly enough time to appreciate the defensive juggernauts out there, which is what you're getting in this one. Though slumping recently, VCU hasn't lost at home since Jan. 26 of last year. St. Louis, however, has ripped off 20 of 21 since early December, so something's got to give. If you haven't seen Jordair Jett or Briante Weber play yet this year, you'll want to. These are two guards that suffocate ball-handlers and can force a ton of turnovers.
(4) Syracuse at (12) Virginia (Saturday, 3:00 p.m., ESPN): All the ACC regular season marbles are Virginia's for the taking Saturday night -- and what better scenario to capture a conference title than playing host to Syracuse? It's hard not to like UVA in this game, who has won 12 straight in mostly convincing fashion. Syracuse could be undefeated just as easily as they could be winless over their last five games, but they've settled for a 3-2 stretch -- eclipsing 60 points just once. Expect much of the same offensive struggles against a notoriously staunch Virginia defense. It's not your grandfather's ACC any longer, but it certainly is surprising (and awesome) to finally see Tony Bennett's Cavaliers a win away from supremacy.