Last year, in the midst of committing some of the wildest forms of procrastination, I stumbled across a matchup any women’s basketball player would be unable to ignore: Stanford vs. UConn. To say winter break ‘09-10 was the first of its kind for me would be an understatement, but the chance to see the eventual national championship game at Connecticut before it actually happened justified my lack of productivity. With the Syracuse Orangemen and a large portion of the Big East in the local area, some powerhouse programs play in our backyards. So since the holiday season is approaching and our campus is falling victim to what seems to be the longest winter break ever, here are some local men’s college basketball games you might want to catch in your time off.
North Carolina vs. Rutgers — Dec. 28, 2010 — Madison Square Garden
The nice way to speak of the Tar Heels as of late is to excuse their performance and call it “rebuilding.” Yes, North Carolina failed to defend its 2009 national championship in jaw-dropping fashion by failing to even qualify for last year’s tournament, and yes they aren’t boasting multiple superstar names right now as they have in the past. But Roy Williams is bringing his crew to the Garden, and the chance to watch a Hall of Fame coach and his young squad is at your fingertips. Junior center Tyler Zeller has taken matters into his own hands this year by contributing 16.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, a vast improvement from a respectable sophomore campaign. The Tar Heels have slipped in the rankings so far, but showed what they were capable of on Dec. 4 when they topped No. 11 Kentucky by two in Chapel Hill. Rutgers wasn’t given much respect in the preseason, picked to finish 15th in the 16-team Big East Conference. Granted, the Big East is invading the top-25 polls, but the Scarlet Knights have been pretty successful so far, picking up wins over UMiami and Auburn. Rutgers is getting their offense from Mount Vernon High School products (shout out Westchester) Michael Coburn (11.0 ppg) and Jonathan Mitchell (10.8). Mitchell is in his fifth year of eligibility after transferring from the University of Florida where he was a member of the 2007 national champions. I recommend this game for the balance of local talent and Hall of Fame names meeting on basketball’s biggest stage.
St. John’s vs. Notre Dame — Jan. 16, 2011 — Madison Square Garden
Lucky for St. John’s, the team can practically call the Garden its home court. The Red Storm plays a ton of its headlining games in the city, and Notre Dame is heading our way. Currently ranked 23rd nationally, the Fighting Irish are just another dominant team in the Big East. Ben Hansbrough (yes, Tyler Hansbrough’s little bro) sits atop the stats with 16.3 ppg, while three of his teammates follow in double-figures for the season. A recent loss to No. 11 Kentucky crossed Notre Dame off the list of unbeatens, but the Irish still remain as legitimate contenders to make a run in March. Notre Dame shouldn’t have a problem taking care of St. John’s, but again, if you want to get a sneak peek of a team that has big plans for March, here is your chance. And plus, maybe Tyler will be in the house.
Connecticut vs. Villanova — Jan. 17, 2011 — Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, Conn.
Currently, we have the Huskies ranked sixth nationally in both the AP top-25 and ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll, with Villanova not far behind at 12th. Despite how dodgy some non-conference schedules are for top teams like the two we have here, it is clear that UConn’s main weapon is their junior guard, Kemba Walker. Walker currently leads the nation in points per game with 28.1 and manages to knock down 42 percent of his attempts from behind the arc. The Huskies are also tied with Florida State in blocks per game with 8.25. Villanova, on the other hand, brings a balanced attack to the table. Four of the Wildcat starters are averaging double-figures so far, led by senior guards Corey Stokes (16.0 ppg) and Corey Fisher (14.1 ppg). The only blemish on their schedule is a loss to No. 24 Tennessee. However, with a remaining non-conference schedule filled with mid-major teams, Villanova should be able to polish the edges and gain some confidence before heading into brutal Big East play. With the conference potentially sending nine teams to the tourney this year, I recommend this game for the chance to see two ranked and respected teams battle it out before they take over March Madness.