Michigan State vs. Texas (in Houston) - For Michigan State, in a national sense, this is sort of a "put up or shut up" game. The Spartans entered the season with Final Four aspirations, but the team has been much more disappointing than that so far. Now, this isn't Michigan State's last chance for an elite non-conference win (they play Kansas in East Lansing in January), but it's their last opportunity before Big Ten play starts. Further, the fact that it's on a semi-away court means that a win will be all the more impressive.
Normally the Longhorns live off their offense. In each of the past 3 seasons, Texas' offense has been among the top 5 most efficient offenses in the country. Not so this season - UT is pretty mediocre in that department, but the defense has stepped up. What's changed for UT this year is a TO Rate that went from dazzling to just pretty good (Big Ten Geeks - masters of stating the obvious). On defense, Texas could give MSU all sorts of problems, sporting the 9th-best block percentage in the country. For a Spartan team that doesn't like to shoot the 3, that could be trouble. For a more in-depth preview, check out KJ's analysis.
Minnesota vs. Louisville (in Glendale, AZ) - Minnesota is undefeated so far this season, but they haven't played anyone. We'll see the results of that approach tonight, as they take on one of the most impressive teams in the country. With OSU's defensive lapse against Jacksonville, Louisville has taken over the top spot as the nation's most efficient defense. What drives that defense is outstanding perimeter defense (opponents are shooting 24.3% from 3) and outstanding defensive rebounding (opponents collect only 24.3% of the available offensive rebounds).
I wish I could say something interesting about the Gophers, but the truth is, it's hard to tell what kind of team this is given the schedule. Another byproduct of the Jacksonville game is that Minnesota has slid into the top spot as the nation's best shotblocking team. Unlike Dallas Lauderdale's one-man show in Columbus, the Gophers sport 3 players with a block percentage north of 10%. But against teams that are of mid-major height, does that mean much right now? If the Gophers can contain Samardo Samuels, then I'll be (very) impressed. I will note, however, how weird of a season Damian Johnson is having so far. We picked him to be a defensive stopper, and so far, that's working out (block percentage of 13.6, steal percentage of 4.7). But he's dishing assists like a pass-first PG (28.6 assist rate), and rebounding like a...well, pass first point guard (7.9 defensive rebounding percentage).
Purdue vs. Davidson (Indianapolis) - It became smart to say that Davidson would really miss departed point guard Jason Richards this season. Analysts were saying it so much, you had to question whether or not it was actually true. Well, here's how much the Wildcats have missed Mr. Richards - their already scintillating turnover rate has actually gotten better. Ok, they also have less assists (and are shooting more from the outside), but the loss of Richards hasn't really affected Davidson from a ballhandler/creator standpoint. Steph Curry has shown he can be a PG, and then some. That said, Davidson's shooting percentages are down, and Mr. Richards did quite a bit of shooting last year.
Obviously, the big story in this one is whether Purdue's elite defense can contain Mr. Curry. Chris Kramer will draw the bulk of the workload, but expect to see a lot of Lewis Jackson as well. It's not going out on a limb to say this might be Curry's worst game of the season - Purdue's defense might be the best he'll face. But Purdue's offense needs to get going. Surprisingly, it's the backcourt that needs to start making shots, specifically Keaton Grant and E'Twaun Moore, whom are each shooting 30% from 3 point range.
Iowa @ Drake - The finale for the Battle of Iowa, the Hawkeyes are staring down a sweep of their in-state rivals. Iowa's offense has been tremendous this season, even if the turnovers are a little on the high side for a team that shoots this many threes. But when the team is making 42% of its numerous three point attempts, it's hard to stop. Basically, the Hawkeyes have surrounded the efficient post banger Cyrus Tate with four guys who bombard opponents with three pointers (the fourth member of the quartet, Anthony Tucker, might return to action against Drake after serving his suspension). That's bad news for Drake, who sports a bad defense with particularly bad perimeter defense. Iowa should roll in this one.
Detroit @ Illinois,
Northwestern @ Stanford - As I mentioned a couple days ago, this game features a bit of role reversal. Last year, it was the taller Cardinal who dominated the paint, this year it figures to be the much taller Wildcats. One thing will have to give, however, between Northwestern's POT tendencies and Stanford's defense. Cardinal opponents take only 26.8% of their shots from 3 point range, and they don't make very many of them (27.6%). Northwestern might be better served by pounding it inside where the Cardinal is weak. If the Wildcats do pull off the victory here, expect them to show up on a lot more brackets.