I hope you all never get sick of reading about college basketball, especially conference challenges since they comprise a good 50-60% of all the blogging I've ever done. Apparently they shouldn't be, since that number is also a pretty good estimate of the winning percentage of my picks. I previewed the ACC/Big 10 Challenge on my other blog, and went 6/11, but since I balanced my incorrect picks very well between the two conferences, I missed the final tally by just a game. Had Duke beaten Wisconsin, I would've nailed the final score, and would have deserved it about as much as France deserves to be in the World Cup. So far I'm 5/9 in my Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series picks. The latest in the line of early season conference tournaments pits the SEC against the Big East. Lucky for you all, although the conferences combine for 28 teams, there are only 4 games in the SEC/Big East Invitational. These two conferences have been about as evenly matched as Ohio State football and its recent BCS-bowl opponents, but this event has some must-see games (UK/UConn, Florida/Syracuse) and some "who cares?" games (Georgia/St. John's, Depaul/Mississippi State). On to the picks (I'm shooting for 3/4 this time around).
Georgia vs. St. John's (MSG): Let's save the best for last and get this one out of the way now. I think we all remember Georgia's miraculous run to the NCAA Tournament in 2008, winning twice in one day to capture the SEC tournament crown, save Dennis Felton's job, and earn a 14 seed in the tourney. They actually gave Xavier a good fight for most of that one, but Felton is gone and former Nevada coach Mark Fox is at the helm for the Bulldogs. He inherited quite the rebuilding (did they ever really build anything?) project, however, and this year has shown it. Georgia is 4-3 with losses to Wofford and UAB mixed in. St. John's, on the other hand, looks poised to climb up from their perennial spot in the Big East cellar, getting off to a 6-0 start, their best since 1994-95, before a loss to Duke. The Red Storm were the only team in the Big-East to return all five starters before Anthony Mason Jr. went out with a hamstring injury, and this looks to be the deepest team coach Norm Roberts has ever had. They are led by junior forward D.J. Kennedy, who averages 17.7 points per game, and junior guard Dwight Hardy has done a serviceable job replacing Mason Jr. at 10.1 points per contest. Mason Jr. should be back by mid-December, but it seems the Red Storm have learned how to play well without him. Sean Evans has been solid inside, but the Johnnies need Paris Horne to find his shooting touch (11 for 35 in his last 5 games) to contend for a top 10 spot in the league. I expect St. John's to breeze by the Bulldogs in this one in a home game at MSG.
Kentucky vs. UConn (MSG): The heavyweight match-up of the tournament pits John Calipari's Wildcat squad against Jim Calhoun and the Huskies. Apart from the coaching talent on display, there will be plenty of playing talent on the floor. Kentucky's pair of diaper dandy guards, John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, will have to contend with the more experienced Huskie tandem of Kemba Walker and Jerome Dyson. The speed on the floor should be electrifying, but the interior play should be equally interesting. Kentucky's dominating front-court is led by Preseason First Team All-American Patrick Patterson and highly-touted freshman Demarcus Cousins, who comes in averaging 14 and 8 a night. They'll have their hands full with UConn's trio of big men: athletic freak Stanley Robinson, Gavin Edwards, and freshman center Alex Oriakhi, who brings a raw offensive game but has led the Huskies on the glass at 9.9 a game. Look for the Huskies to try to get Cousins in foul trouble and wear down Patterson with double teams and physical inside play. The guards for UConn must keep Wall out of the open court and force some of the more inexperienced Wildcats to beat them. These are two very similar teams who on paper present a very even match-up. I expect Calhoun to look to play a half-court game and slow down the speed of Wall and Bledsoe, using the size he has on hand to his advantage. Oriakhi will need to stay disciplined and avoid getting into foul trouble, but this should present Cousins and Patterson with the stiffest defensive test they'll have all year. UConn has led the nation in blocks for the past nine seasons and are leading in that category once again. The Huskies are used to being on the big stage in the world's most famous arena, and I expect (and hope) that they exploit the youth and inexperience of Kentucky and win a tight one. You won't find a better match-up of talented front and back-courts anywhere else, and I look forward to seeing how it plays out. Come March I think UK wins this one, but it's December and the second half of their game against UNC showed that they're still learning to play with each other and to improve their shot selection. Huskies in a close one at MSG and a 2-0 lead for the Big East.
Depaul vs. Mississippi State (Tampa, FL): Once again let's save the best for last. This game pits a tourney team from last season in Rick Stansbury's Bulldog squad against a team that has shown solid improvement this season in Jerry Wainwright's Blue Demons. Depaul took a huge hit with the injury of center Mac Koshwal, who up until the injury to his foot in the Virgin Islands had been an absolute beast, averaging 15 points and 13 rebounds a game. The Blue Demons are left with just one reliable scorer in senior guard Will Walker, who will need to have a huge day for Depaul to have any chance of knocking off Miss. St. Koshwal's absence means the Bulldogs will have an enormous advantage in the front-court, with arguably the nation's best defender in Jarvis Varnado controlling the paint. He has become a better and more efficient scorer this season and is averaging 5.3 blocks per game. Without Koshwal to check him he should be able to score at ease and control the defensive glass for the Bulldogs, who feature a balanced offense led by 5 players in double figures. Dee Bost, Ravern Johnson, and Barry Stewart return to lead an experienced back-court charged with the task of keeping Walker from going off. The Blue Demons desperately need someone to step up in a big way and supplement him, but I don't see it happening. Wainwright will need to find a way to teach his team to play without Koshwal, but it will be a gradual and prolonged process that may not come to fruition. I see Mississippi State taking out a depleted Depaul squad that had shown clear improvement to this point in the season. Tough break for Wainwright's boys, but somehow I don't think Varnado will care, much less show any mercy to whoever steps in to replace Koshwal. SEC pulls within 2-1.
Florida vs. Syracuse (Tampa, FL): This match-up of undefeated teams pits Billy Donovan's revamped Gator squad in their home state against Jim Boeheim and the Orange. The Gators feature a balanced scoring attack led by freshman guard Kenny Boynton, who comes in averaging almost 14 points a game to go along with an assist to turnover ratio of almost 2. Sophomore Erving Walker joins him in the back-court with an assist to turnover ratio of 5 to 2. Florida has really benefited from the addition of Georgetown transfer Vernon Macklin, who comes in averaging 11 points and 6 rebounds a game. Macklin, Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus will have their hands full with the physical front-court of the Orange, led by Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku. Florida hasn't been challenged last year, but Syracuse has, and passed with flying colors. In the NIT Season Tip-Off, they beat Cal by 22 and UNC by 16. Iowa State transfer Wesley Johnson has yet to meet a defense he can't torch, shooting 59% from the field and 51% from beyond the arc. He has been sensational in big games, going for 17 and 11 against California and 25 and 8 against the Tar Heels. Big men Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson combine to shoot over 67% from the floor, and freshman Brandon Triche has acquitted himself quite well in a talented Orange back-court led by Scoop Jardine and Andy Rautins. The Orange feature 8 players averaging over 7 points per game, they get excellent contributions from freshmen Triche and Mookie Jones, have a legitimate go-to scorer in Johnson, have a dominating front-court, and have several players like forward Kris Joseph who have stepped into bigger roles this season. This will be the first test for the Gators, and boy is it a big one. They should have a de facto home game in Tampa, but they'll need big performances out of Boynton and Macklin to have a shot to knock off the 7th-ranked Orange. Florida needs to get out in transition, play an up-tempo game, and avoid falling into a half-court contest with a bigger and more physical Syracuse team. In my mind, Syracuse is too deep and has too many weapons for the Billy Donovan's squad to match up with. Nobody has found an effective way to deal with Wesley Johnson, and even if he has an off night the Orange have plenty of other scoring options to pick up the slack. Syracuse in a pretty close game and a 3-1 win for the Big East.