What to watch for in South Carolina-UConn, Villanova-Creighton, more on FOX
February is here, and with only five weeks remaining until Selection Sunday, every weekend becomes more critical for NCAA Tournament contenders.
There’s a full slate of action on the hardwood this weekend, with five games set to air on FOX. That includes a national championship game rematch in women’s basketball as No. 1 South Carolina faces No. 5 UConn on Sunday at Noon ET in Hartford, Connecticut.
Here’s a rundown of the weekend slate and what to watch for in each matchup.
Michigan State vs. Rutgers (Madison Square Garden), Saturday, 12 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app
The world’s most famous arena will be rocking 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 entered East Lansing having won seven of its last eight games, but the Spartans got the best of them in a commanding 70-57 win. A.J. Hoggard went for 16 points and seven assists, one of five Michigan State players in double-figures.
The question in the rematch is simple: Will the Spartans find offensive balance twice against the Scarlet Knights? Rutgers is 15-1 when it holds opponents to 65 points or less and 7-0 in Big Ten contests. The Scarlet Knights are one of the best defensive teams in the country, ranking No. 2 in KenPom adjusted efficiency on that end.
Rutgers big man Clifford Omoruyi should have an advantage down low. He went for 12 points and 12 rebounds in the first meeting with the Spartans, who have had a ton of trouble guarding the interior. Sharpshooter Cam Spencer could be an X factor in this matchup. When the impact transfer scores at least 14 points, Rutgers is 11-1.
In order for the Spartans to win, Hoggard and Tyson Walker need to dictate the game over Paul Mulcahy and Caleb McConnell.
Michigan State’s A.J. Hoggard hits a 3-pointer against Rutgers
Michigan State’s A.J. Hoggard capped off an eight-point run with a 3-pointer against Rutgers.
Illinois at Iowa, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. 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 then there are days that make you think that’s not the case. In recent weeks, Brad Underwood’s team has seemed to figure things out. Going 7-1 over an eight-game stretch in this conference is certainly not easy, and with the exception of an off-night against Indiana, Illinois has looked more like the team that beat UCLA and Texas in its non-conference season.
The Illini face a tall task on Saturday afternoon against an Iowa team that has won back-to-back games over Rutgers and Northwestern by a combined 27 points. The coaching battle alone between Fran McCaffery and Underwood, two of the more fiery personalities in the sport, will be fun to take in.
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 per game to go along with 8.6 rebounds. As for the Illini, Baylor transfer Matthew Mayer has been a huge reason for the team’s recent success. In the last six games, the senior has averaged over 15 points per contest. The Hawkeyes will also need to find a way to keep Terrence Shannon Jr. from finding easy looks.
The matchup to watch will be Iowa’s offense, which ranks sixth in KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency, against a top-15 Illinois defense.
The Hawkeyes are currently on the 8-line in FOX Sports bracket forecaster Mike DeCourcy’s latest NCAA Tournament projections, while Illinois is a 5-seed. This is a Quadrant 1 opportunity for each team.
Matthew Mayer scored a career-high 26 points in a win over Wisconsin
Illinois forward Matthew Mayer scored a career-high 26 points, leading the Illini to a victory over Wisconsin.
St. John’s at No. 16 Xavier, Saturday, 5 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app
The Musketeers have their minds on a Big East regular-season title race. At 10-2 and tied with Marquette in first place – but owning that tiebreaker over the Golden Eagles – the rest of the way is about taking care of business. That includes getting past a St. John’s team that has been a major disappointment this season.
Xavier is coming off an 85-83 overtime win against Providence in which Jack Nunge, Colby Jones and Souley Boum all scored 20 or more points. Boum is a front-runner 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 victory over 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 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 one bright spot for the team is Joel Soriano, who leads the country with 18 double-doubles. If the Red Storm are going to have a chance in this game, Soriano needs to get Nunge into foul trouble, which in return could give Xavier’s thin frontcourt issues.
The Musketeers lead the Big East in scoring, averaging over 83 points per game. Meanwhile, St. John’s is eighth in the league in scoring defense, allowing over 73 points per contest. If you like watching offense and high tempo, that will be a theme.
No. 16 Xavier Musketeers vs. No. 17 Providence Highlights
Jack Nunge had 23 points, while Colby Jones and Souley Boum added 20 points in Xavier’s win over Providence.
Villanova at Creighton, Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app
A Big East championship game rematch from last season is set to take center stage Saturday night, but the circumstances for each program couldn’t be further apart. The Bluejays have won five in a row 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 has returned from his Achilles injury and certainly adds something for Villanova, but the Cats have struggled to close 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 write off 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 the last five games by an average of 16 points. Their entire starting five has 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 a 2.7 assist-to-turnover ratio, and his backcourt mate, Trey Alexander, has not turned the ball over once during the team’s winning streak.
The issue with Villanova has been uncharacteristic turnovers and struggles in the closing stretch of games. When you go from Ryan Arcidiacono to Jalen Brunson to Collin Gillespie to sort of piecing together the point guard role, that’s a sizable drop-off, and it’s hurt the Wildcats this year. That is in addition to losing one of the best program builders 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’ lead at halftime over Butler.
Women’s hoops: No. 1 South Carolina at No. 5 UConn, Sunday, 12 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app
The Gamecocks have clearly been the best team in the country yet again, winning 28 consecutive games dating back to last season. Dawn Staley’s team is led by reigning AP National Player of the Year Aliyah Boston.
Meanwhile, the Huskies are 21-2 on the season and have maneuvered their way around a slew of injuries and an absence of Geno Auriemma for a period of time. While we knew Paige Bueckers and Ice Brady would miss the entire season, the setbacks to Azzi Fudd (knee) and Caroline Ducharme (concussion) have resulted in the Huskies having five players averaging 32 minutes or more per game.
Sunday brings a tall test for Aaliyah Edwards and Dorka Juhasz because the Gamecocks are the most dominant interior 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 close to 10 blocks per contest.
Senior guard Zia Cooke has been great once again, leading South Carolina’s backcourt and averaging 15.1 points per game. Beyond Boston, 6-foot-7 junior Kamilla Cardoso is posting 9.5 points and 8.1 boards per game. Depth is a strength for Staley’s team, with eight additional players averaging somewhere between four and seven points per contest.
For Connecticut to pull off an upset, Lou Lopez Senechal and Aubrey Griffin will have to make shots off dishes from 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 that you will see in men’s or women’s hoops all season.
Staley and Auriemma are the faces of the sport on the sidelines, and credit to them for arranging to play each other year in and year out.
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport 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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