University basketball broadcaster and reporter
February is here, and with Selection Sunday just five weeks away, each weekend becomes more critical for NCAA Tournament contenders.
There’s a full slate of action on the hardwood this weekend, with five games airing on FOX. That includes a rematch of the women’s basketball national championship, as No. 1 South Carolina will face No. 5 UConn on Sunday at noon ET in Hartford, Connecticut.
Here’s a rundown of the weekend slate and what to look out for in each matchup.
State of Michigan vs. Rutgers (Madison Square Garden), Saturday, 12 pm ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app
The world’s most famous arena will be moving for the Big Ten’s annual Super Saturday game between Tom Izzo’s Spartans and Steve Pikiell’s Scarlet Knights. When these two teams met 15 days ago, Rutgers came into East Lansing having won seven of their last eight games, but the Spartans got the best of them with a commanding 70-57 win. AJ Hoggard had 16 points and seven assists, one of five Michigan State players in double figures.
The rematch question is simple: Will the Spartans find their offensive balance twice against the Scarlet Knights? Rutgers is 15-1 when holding opponents to 65 points or fewer and 7-0 in Big Ten contests. The Scarlet Knights are one of the best defensive teams in the country, ranking second in KenPom adjusted efficiency in that regard.
Rutgers senior Clifford Omoruyi should have a low lead. He had 12 points and 12 rebounds in the first meeting with the Spartans, who have had a lot of trouble protecting the interior. Shooting guard Cam Spencer could be an X-factor in this matchup. When the impact transfer scores at least 14 points, Rutgers is 11-1.
For the Spartans to win, Hoggard and Tyson Walker must dictate the game over Paul Mulcahy and Caleb McConnell.
Michigan State’s AJ Hoggard hits a 3-pointer against Rutgers
Michigan State’s AJ Hoggard capped an eight-point streak with a 3-pointer against Rutgers.
Illinois at Iowa, Saturday, 2:30 pm ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app
Are the Illini the second best team in the Big Ten? It feels that way right now, but there are days that make you think it isn’t. In recent weeks, Brad Underwood’s team has seemed to figure things out. Going 7-1 in an eight-game stretch in this conference certainly isn’t easy, and with the exception of a night away against Indiana, Illinois has looked more like the team that beat UCLA and Texas in its non-conference season.
The Illini face a big task Saturday afternoon against an Iowa team that has won back-to-back games over Rutgers and Northwestern by a combined 27 points. The one-on-one coaching battle between Fran McCaffery and Underwood, two of the hottest personalities in sports, will be fun.
How will Illinois defend Iowa star Kris Murray? The 6-foot-8 junior is second in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 20.6 points and 8.6 rebounds. As for the Illini, Baylor transfer Matthew Mayer has been a big reason for the team’s recent success. In the last six games, the senior has averaged more than 15 points per game. The Hawkeyes will also have to find a way to keep Terrence Shannon Jr. find easy aspects.
The game to watch will be Iowa’s offense, which ranks sixth in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency, against a top-15 Illinois defense.
The Hawkeyes are currently the No. 8 seed in FOX Sports prognosticator Mike DeCourcy’s latest NCAA Tournament projections, while Illinois is a No. 5 seed. This is a Quadrant 1 opportunity for every team.
Matthew Mayer scored a game-high 26 points in a win over Wisconsin
Illinois forward Matthew Mayer scored a career-high 26 points to lead the Illini to a win over Wisconsin.
Saint John at number 16 Xavier, Saturday, 5 pm ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app
The Musketeers have their sights set on a run for the Big East regular season title. At 10-2 and tied with Marquette for first place, but with this tiebreaker over the Golden Eagles, the rest of the way is about taking care of business. That includes beating a St. John’s team that has been a huge disappointment this season.
Xavier is coming off an 85-83 overtime win against Providence in which Jack Nunge, Colby Jones and Souley Boum scored 20 or more points. Boum is a favorite for Big East Player of the Year. He has scored 20 or more points on 10 separate occasions and is coming off a season-high nine assists in the dramatic win against the Friars.
While Xavier is without Zach Freemantle (left foot) this month, the Musketeers are 12-1 at home and beat St. John’s in the first meeting of this season, 84-79.
The Red Storm are 1-5 on the road this year and are coming off an 84-72 loss to Seton Hall in which they held a 13-point lead. The team’s only bright spot is Joel Soriano, who leads the country with 18 double-doubles. If the Red Storm have a chance in this game, Soriano needs to put Nunge in foul trouble, which in return could lead to thin Xavier frontcourt issues.
The Musketeers lead the Big East in scoring, averaging over 83 points per game. Meanwhile, the St. John’s is eighth in the league in scoring defense, allowing more than 73 points per game. If you like to see attack and high tempo, this will be a theme.
Xavier Musketeers no. 16 vs. no. 17 Highlights of Providence
Jack Nunge had 23 points, while Colby Jones and Souley Boum added 20 points in Xavier’s win over Providence.
Villanova at Creighton, Saturday, 7:30pm ET on FOX and the FOX Sports App
A rematch of last season’s Big East championship game will take center stage Saturday night, but the circumstances of each program couldn’t be more different. The Bluejays have won five straight and are 8-3 in the Big East. The Wildcats have had a disappointing season, sitting at 10-12 overall and 4-7 in conference play, as life without Jay Wright has not been kind to them.
Justin Moore is back from his Achilles injury and certainly adds something for Villanova, but the Cats have struggled to close out games, as seen in Wednesday’s 73-64 loss at Marquette.
Creighton, on the other hand, could be a Final Four dark horse. When the Jays lost six in a row, it was easy to dismiss that idea. But with 7-footer Ryan Kalkbrenner healthy and back in action, Creighton is 14-5 on the year. The Jays have won each of their last five games by an average of 16 points. All of their starting five have scored in double figures in the last three games, and Baylor Scheierman is up to ten double-doubles on the year.
Greg McDermott’s team has also taken great care of the basketball. Ryan Nembhard is third in the Big East with an assist ratio of 2.7, and his backcourt partner, Trey Alexander, hasn’t turned the ball over once during the team’s winning streak.
The problem with Vilanova has been the unusual losses and struggles in the final stretch of the games. When you go from Ryan Arcidiacono to Jalen Brunson and Collin Gillespie to fill the point guard role, that’s a significant downgrade, and the Wildcats are hurting this year. That’s in addition to losing one of the greatest program creators of all time and a Hall of Famer in Wright.
Creighton’s Trey Alexander hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer
Creighton’s Trey Alexander hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to extend the Bluejays’ halftime lead over Butler.
Women’s Hoops: No. 1 South Carolina at No. 5 UConn, Sunday, 12 pm ET on FOX and the FOX Sports App
The Gamecocks are clearly the best team in the country again, winning 28 straight games dating back to last season. Dawn Staley’s team is led by AP National Player of the Year Aliyah Boston.
Meanwhile, the Huskies are 21-2 on the season and have held on to avoid a slew of injuries and the absence of Geno Auriemma for a period of time. While we knew Paige Bueckers and Ice Brady would miss the entire season, setbacks to Azzi Fudd (knee) and Caroline Ducharme (concussion) have left the Huskies with five players averaging 32 minutes or more per game .
Sunday is a big test for Aaliyah Edwards and Dorka Juhasz because the Gamecocks are the most dominant indoor team in the country. Staley’s group is outscoring opponents in the paint by an average of 25 points per game and the Gamecocks lead the nation with nearly 10 blocks per contest.
Senior guard Zia Cooke has been terrific again, leading South Carolina’s backcourt and averaging 15.1 points per game. Beyond Boston, 6-foot-7 junior Kamilla Cardoso is averaging 9.5 points and 8.1 boards per game. Depth is a strength for Staley’s squad, with eight additional players averaging between four and seven points per contest.
For Connecticut to pull through, Lou Lopez Senechal and Aubrey Griffin will need to hit the plate off the nation’s assist leader Nika Muhl (8.8 per game). The XL Center is sold out, and it will be a whiteout in Hartford, providing one of the best atmospheres you’ll see in men’s or women’s hoops all season.
Staley and Auriemma are the faces of the sport on the sidelines, and to them the credit for having prepared to play year after year.
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers sports in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter at @John_Fanta.
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