By Steve Silverman
Saturday, Feb. 3
No. 2 Virginia (21-2, 10-0) at Syracuse (15-7, 4-5), 4 p.m. ET, ACCNE
Virginia may be the best team in the nation, and the Cavaliers had a brilliant game last weekend as they went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and beat the Duke Blue Devils. After that victory, how can Tony Bennett’s team go anywhere and not feel confident?
That’s just what Jim Boeheim and the Syracuse Orange want. They want nothing more than to deal with a powerful opponent that has already accomplished quite a bit. Boeheim knows how to prepare his team, and the Orange should be able to engage Virginia in a close, 40-minute battle that is likely to come down to the final possession or two.
Virginia has won 13 games in a row, and the Cavs are led by Kyle Guy, who is averaging 15.5 points per game and shooting 88.1 percent from the free-throw line. Devon Hall is also averaging 12.7 ppg, and he is connecting on 48.2 percent of his shots from the field.
Syracuse is led by the 1-2 punch of Tyus Battle and Frank Howard. Battle is averaging 19.7 ppg, while Howard is contributing 15.0 ppg. Neither Battle nor Howard are having impressive shooting seasons, as Battle is connecting on 42.4 percent of his shots, while Howard is hitting 39.1 percent of his shots from the field.
Texas-Rio Grande Valley (12-11, 3-3) at New Mexico State (19-3, 6-0), 6 p.m. ET, ESPN3
The Western Athletic Conference does not get a lot of support or publicity these days, but New Mexico State is a team that could surprise an opponent or two in March.
The Aggies have won eight games in a row and have not lost since dropping a non-conference game to USC.
First-year head coach Chris Jans has New Mexico State playing consistently, and he has a legitimate star in transfer guard Zach Lofton. The former SWAC (Texas Southern) player of the year is averaging 19.9 points per game and connecting on 48.8 percent from the field.
Texas-Rio Grande Valley is led by guard Nick Dixon, who came to the school after working at a Target and a zoo for two years before playing two seasons at Division 2 Morton College in Cicero, Illinois. Dixon can fill it up and he is averaging 21.3 ppg and connecting on 47.3 percent from the field.
Sunday, Feb. 4
Seton Hall (17-5, 6-3) at No. 1 Villanova (21-1, 8-1), 12 noon ET, FOX
This is going to be a huge challenge for the top-rated Wildcats because Seton Hall has not only been a solid team all season, they have been underrated, and, yes, disrespected by the voters who refuse to acknowledge them in the AP or coaches’ poll.
Head coach Kevin Willard’s Pirates are coming off back-to-back 16-point victories over DePaul and Providence, and they go into their biggest test of the year with the confidence that they are approaching peak form. If they can handle the challenge of not getting hit hard by an early Villanova run that takes them out of the ball game, the Pirates should be able to push Jay Wright’s team well into the second half.
Senior forward Desi Rodriguez is averaging 17.3 ppg and shooting 50.2 percent from the field, while sophomore guard Myles Powell is averaging 14.5 points per night.
Villanova is going to be in the driver’s seat for the national championship when they have one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. Junior guard Jalen Brunson is one of the best players in the nation, and he leads the Wildcats with an average of 19.3 points per game while shooting 55.8 percent from the field. Mikal Bridges is a dangerous scorer who is averaging 16.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.
Look for the Pirates to give Villanova a scare, but the Wildcats will not lose at home.
Tuesday, Feb. 6
No. 6 Xavier (20-3, 8-2) at Butler (16-7, 8-4), 6:30 p.m. ET, FS1
Xavier is a battle-tested team that plays with toughness every game, and head coach Chris Mack has his team rolling. The Musketeers have won five games in a row following a loss to Villanova, and while they play Georgetown February 3, that streak should be intact when they go to Butler.
The Bulldogs nearly always will find a way to defend their home court, and they are clearly going to be emotionally prepared for Xavier. Butler head coach LaVall Jordan has seen his team win three games in a row after dropping four out of five, so this is somewhat of a make-or-break game for Butler.
Senior guard Trevon Bluiett is leading the way for the Musketeers, as he is averaging 18.7 ppg and shooting 41.3 percent from beyond the arc. Senior guard J.P. Macura can get red hot and carry the team as he is averaging 13.0 ppg and connecting on 46.3 percent from the field.
Senior forward Kelan Martin is a major force for the Bulldogs, and he is averaging 19.5 points and 6.5 boards per night. He is getting support from sophomore guard Kamar Baldwin, who is averaging 15.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.