Three games, three conferences, three teams setting themselves apart from the rest. Saturday features three matchups that could determine conferences championships. Let’s break them down!
Purdue (23-3) at Michigan State (23-3)
The Purdue Boilermakers looked to be the unstoppable force of the Big Ten winning 12 in a row until they ran into the immovable object of Kenta Bates-Diop and the Ohio State Buckeyes. Purdues week doesn’t get any easier as they head to the Breslin Center to face preseason Big Ten favorite Michigan State.
Michigan State has the personnel to upset Purdue’s four-out, one-in offense, thanks largely to the versatility of Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges, but—as is always the case with Purdue—teams have to find a way to run the shooters off the three-point line. Michigan State will have the ability to place multiple defenders on the Purdue’s Isaac Haas, his size may be imposing but his post skills are still somewhat of a work in progress. Size will also be a factor with guard play, the Boilermakers lack of size at guard will allow Michigan State to play Cassius Winston and Tum Tum Nairn on the court at the same time, making their offense much more efficient.
While this game features great guard play, ultimately the matchup between Michigan State freshman star Jaren Jackson and Purdue’s Vincent Edwards could make the difference in a metrically even matchup. Will Jackson’s length make an impact or will Edward’s ability to pull the freshman away from the basket cause trouble for the Spartans? I left Purdue out of my top 5 believing my they were going to have trouble with the big timers of the Big Ten they are currently 0-1.
Matt Boeding: Purdue James Caldwell: Michigan State
Gonzaga (22-4) vs St. Mary’s (24-2)
The Zags head to Mckeon Pavilion with redemption on their mind. Gonzaga features a better non-conference schedule but the loss to St. Mary’s in January still puts the Gaels in command of West Coast Conference. In the first game this year, the Zags got off their game plan and never re-found it. The offense broke down into 20 minutes or so of hero ball, which only works if your name is Rui Hachimura and your shots keep going in.
To be successful Gonzaga will have to keep moving the ball, Gonzaga averages 16.5 assists per game this season. Against Saint Mary’s, they only had 11. Most importantly, in a second half where the Zags were outscored 36-29, the Zags only had three assists. Even more importantly, in the second half of the second half, where the Zags were outscored 20-10, they had zero assists.
St. Mary’s will need to keep the same aggression on the defensive end they made in the first meeting. The matchup between St. Mary’s Senior Jock Landale and Gonzaga’s Senior Jonathan Williams will be the matchup to watch on Saturday. Landale is going to get his points but if the Mizzou transfer Williams can make him work for his shots then it can be a long day for St. Mary’s. This game will no only decide the West Coast Conference but will also decide most likely whom will get the higher seed in March.
Matt Boeding: St. Mary’s James Caldwell: Gonzaga
USC (17-8) vs Arizona (19-6)
Two teams that have more questions than answers about what kind of team they are.
Arizona has the most impactful player in the Pac12, Deandre Ayton, but just like every team led by freshman inconsistencies seem to follow them. Losing to UCLA put them in a vulnerable position against a hungry USC team.Their best offensive players — Allonzo Trier, Dusan Rustic and even Deandre Ayton — just aren’t difference-makers on the other end of the court.
The Trojans may have 17 wins and an 8-4 record in the Pac-12, but they do not have a win over a likely at-large team. Their only wins against likely tournament teams came against Middle Tennessee State and New Mexico State, powerhouses in Conference USA and the WAC, respectively. They missed an opportunity on Thursday, losing at Arizona State. Saturday’s game with Arizona—which has lost twice since Thanksgiving—is the Trojans last chance to get a win over an at-large quality team in the regular season. If they don’t get it, they’ll have to do some serious damage in the Pac-12 tournament.
USC’s offense an be elite as they are 4th in the Pac-12, 6’10” Junior Bennie Boatright will lead the charge against the suspect defense of Arizona. USC needs this win but they really don’t have the consistency to pull this one off.
Matt Boeding: Arizona James Caldwell: Arizona