2012 will be the final year for the SEC/Big East challenge, and LSU takes part in the opening night of action when they take on Seton Hall. In 2011, the Big East came away victories by winning eight of the twelve games. Can the SEC show they have what it takes on the court?
As the semester winds to a close, the NCAA basketball games continue to get better and better. One of the best weeks of the college basketball season is when the ACC/Big 10 and SEC/Big East go head to head in order to win for the conference. Although the SEC/Big East challenge is not as balanced as the ACC/Big 10 challenge is, there still should be quite a few interesting and exciting games. Here's what basketball fans can look forward to in addition to the LSU/Seton Hall game.
(5-1) Marquette vs. (5-0) Florida ~ ESPN2 8:00
This is a rematch of a 2012 NCAA regional semi-final game in which the Gators won and advanced to the Elite 8 over the Golden Eagles of Marquette. Bradley Beal, who has since moved onto the NBA, led the Gators with 21 points on a nearly perfect shooting day in Phoenix. Marquette was unable to find their shooting touch out in the desert, and the college careers of both Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder came to an end. Obviously, the Golden Eagles will be looking for revenge on Thursday night in Gainesville.
The Gators will come into the game as favorites, though both teams have been impressive so far this season. Marquette's only loss came on a last second buzzer beater to the Butler Bulldogs, while the Gators have a quality win over the Wisconsin Badgers. Senior Kenny Boynton is leading the way for the Gators and is still one of the best shooters in the country, while Patric Young and Will Yeguete have done a good job anchoring the inside. Marquette still has a lot of overall talent, though they may be without guard Vander Blue who suffered a knee injury. Even so, Davante Gardner and Trent Lockett will be able to match Florida on the inside.
I expect Florida to win this game, mostly because I expect their hot shooting to continue. Marquette will likely keep it close because of their solid inside rebounding and speed on the outside to chase down long rebounds. However, I don't think they will be able to score enough to keep up with the Gators high powered offense. If Marquette is able to slow the game down and execute offensively, they could steal a win on the road, but I'm not convinced they will be able to do that against a veteran Gators team.
(4-1) Kentucky vs. (6-1) Notre Dame ~ ESPN2 6:00 CT
Despite the fact that I think Florida is legitimately better than Kentucky, the game of the night will be in South Bend as the two teams most associated with home court advantages battle. Kentucky hasn't lost at home under Calipari, while Notre Dame is 40-1 in their last 41. Kentucky will have point guard Ryan Harrow back after he left for personal reasons. It's a good thing for Kentucky, but I'm still not sure how much it will impact the game.
Against Maryland, it was the play of former walk on Jarrod Polson that won them the game, not Ryan Harrow. On the one hand, I don't like to read too much into a single, season opening game. On the other hand, Harrow has been an incredibly inconsistent player at both Kentucky and North Carolina State so even with Harrow back, it's possible that he has a bad game against Notre Dame's veteran guards.
Notre Dame, while not ranked currently, is a team that always seems to find themselves near the top of the Big East rankings. Jack Cooley looks like former Big East player of the year Luke Harangody, and plays like him too. He's incredibly efficient and an awesome rebounder. Eric Atkins is a great, prototypical point guard that has improved his jump shot year after year. Jerian Grant is a great shooter, though he has a tendency to play really bad if his shots aren't falling.
Overall, I think the Irish will be too much for Kentucky at home. They hardly ever lose at home and Kentucky is a young team that is still trying to find their way. They should keep it close throughout because they are extremely athletic and have a speed advantage over Notre Dame. However, when the clock is running down, I expect the veterans of Notre Dame to make the big plays to seal the win.
(5-1) South Carolina vs. (4-2) St. John's ~ ESPNU 6:30 CT
Frank Martin and the Gamecocks will play their first road game of the season when they make the trip up to New York, NY to take on the St. John's Red Storm. Steve Lavin is back on the sidelines after sitting out a year to battle cancer and so far has done a pretty good job getting the young Storm team to play well. They had a disappointing run at the Charleston Classic, but losing to Murray State and Baylor is hardly going to derail their season. Wins over Detroit and the College of Charleston are pretty good at this point in the young season.
Overall, I think this game is the perfect opportunity for the Red Storm to make a statement. They have a distinct talent advantage over South Carolina and with Lavin back they won't be at a disadvantage on the sidelines either. D'Angelo Harrison is averaging over 20 points already and it doesn't seem like he will slow down anytime soon. Jakarr Sampson is a great forward as well that I don't think anyone on the Gamecocks roster can guard. Expect an easy win for St. John's
(5-1) Seton Hall vs. (4-00) LSU ~ ESPNU 8:30 CT
The game of the night as far as LSU fans are concerned is the one in the PMAC as the Pirates make their way down from New Jersey attempting to end LSU's mini winning streak. Seton Hall will be bringing potential Big East player of the year Fuquan Edwin, who has been on fire in the short season. He's averaging nearly 20 points a game so far on a team that averages just over 70, so keeping him in check has to be the goal for the Tigers. The Hall is also getting solid contributions from transfer Gene Teague, who's putting up 13 and 8 a night.
I'll break down the individual matchups later, but this could be the closest game of the night between the two conferences. LSU has had no problem letting teams shoot if it meant we would get the ball back. It's evident by the fact that LSU has an average of 45 rebounds a game, 5th in the country. If Seton Hall is knocking down the outside shot, LSU will be in trouble. Seton Hall has always been quite tough defensively and will be more than happy to pressure the Tigers on the perimeter and force our now undersized forwards to beat them.
If I had to say, I would take the Tigers simply because the game will be at home and I have some faith the fans will come out now that football is over with. Even though both teams play conflicting styles, both are also capable of playing at the tempo set by the other. LSU's pace I think will be more difficult to adjust to for the Pirates, which is why I would give them a slight edge other than the fact that they are playing at home.