Saturday & Sunday's Division Playoff Showdowns

THE NFL DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS - PREVIEWS AND TEAM LOGS FOR SATURDAY'S SHOWDOWNS BETWEEN RAVENS-STEELERS & PACKERS-FALCONS

By Jim Hurley:

Last year's Super Bowl champs are gone.

Ditto for the team they beat in last year's title tilt.

Okay, so maybe it doesn't exactly seem like the dawning of a new age - after all, the six-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers are alive and well in this year's post-season and the three-time champion New England Patriots are considered the even-money favorites to win it all - but the fact is the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts became "yesterday's news"faster than you can say Roger Goodell and so a new champion awaits.

We're down to the final eight teams and this weekend's NFL Divisional Playoffs are expected to be "close fits"- as least when it comes to Saturday's games where host Pittsburgh is a 3-point favorite right now against long-time rival Baltimore while Atlanta is a 2 ½-point choice to turn back red-hot Green Bay.

If you listen to the Las Vegas folks, than neither of Sunday's games - that's Seattle at 10-point fav Chicago nor the New York Jets at 8 ½-point favorite New England - should be all that close but haven't we all learned a little something about playoff life in the NFL ... see Seattle 41, New Orleans 36

NFL DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS - THE SATURDAY GAMES

In the AFC, it's ...#5 BALTIMORE (13-4) at #2 PITTSBURGH (12-4) - 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS

It's tough to ignore history here. In the 17 head-to-head meetings between these AFC North powerhouses each squad has scored 302 points - better yet, this year copped a three-point win on the other guy's home field and so anyone expecting something other than a rock-'em, sock-'em affair here that's decided late (or in overtime) likely is deluding himself/herself.

If you ask the Ravens - fresh off last Sunday's 30-7 AFC Wild Card win in Kansas City - they'll be quick to point out that road teams are 10-10 SU (straightup) in the last 20 games played in this NFL Divisional Playoff round.

Ask the Steelers and they'll point out that home teams are 59-21 SU since 1990 - an overwhelming .738 winning percentage that includes Pittsburgh wins in this round against San Diego (see 2008) and versus Indianapolis (see 2005) in years in which the black-and-gold went on to win it all.

Maybe all that history won't matter a bit as the Steelers point to the fact that here-and-now QB Ben Roethlisberger has won each/every one of his last six meetings with Baltimore including that 13-10 triumph ion Baltimore back in Week 13 play when even a broken nose suffered on the Steelers' first offensive possession was not enough to KO Roethlisberger who surely will be eyeballing big vertical pass plays here with speedy WR Mike Wallace a key to this Pittsburgh offense. Note that Wallace led the NFL in receiving yards the final nine weeks of regular-season play and he's averaging better than 20 yards a pop during his first two full years in the league.

Simply put, expect Roethlisberger to try and open up the field here with some long balls to Wallace and the success or lack thereof will then greatly determine how the Steelers move the ball via the ground route and with the short passing game. Gut feeling: The Steelers need Wallace to make at least two flip-the-field plays here and they need RB Rashard Mendenhall to get 20 "touches"and he must not "back down"from LB Ray Lewis in this confrontation.

Meanwhile, the Ravens need a pick-me-up game from RB Ray Rice who has not registered a touchdown in his six career games against this Steelers defense. No doubt that Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin and ace defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau realize that Rice is the real engine to this Ravens attack and so look for Pittsburgh's stop unit to spend mucho attention on the former Rutgers star here while QB Joe Flacco (6 TDs and 7 INTs in his seven career meetings with the Steelers) can't be too quick to fold his tent here when pressure comes on the scene.

Spread Notes - Baltimore is an electric 6-2-1 ATS (against the spread) on the road this year and that includes outright wins at the NY Jets (Week 1) and Pittsburgh (Week 4) plus the Ravens are a collective 12-9-2 versus the vig whenever in the underdog role in the John Harbaugh Era that began back in 2008. On the flip side, the Steelers are 5-1 spreadwise when playing fellow AFC North foes this season and Pittsburgh enters this playoff clash having covered seven of its last eight post-season games while dating back to 2005.

 

BALTIMORE

WEEK WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
#1 Baltimore + 1 NY JETS 10-9
#2 CINCINNATI + 3 Baltimore 15-10
#3 BALTIMORE - 11.5 Cleveland 24-17
#4 Baltimore + 2.5 PITTSBURGH 17-14
#5 BALTIMORE - 7.5 Denver 31-17
#6 NEW ENGLAND - 3 Baltimore 23-20 (ot)
#7 BALTIMORE - 12 Buffalo 37-34 (ot)
#8 BYE      
#9 BALTIMORE - 5 Miami 26-10
#10 ATLANTA - 2 Baltimore 26-21
#11 Baltimore - 13 CAROLINA 37-13
#12 BALTIMORE - 7.5 Tampa Bay 17-10
#13 Pittsburgh - 3 BALTIMORE 13-10
#14 Baltimore - 3 HOUSTON (ot) 34-28
#15 BALTIMORE - 2 New Orleans 30-24
#16 Baltimore - 3 CLEVELAND 20-10
#17 BALTIMORE - 9 Cincinnati 13-7
WC Baltimore - 3 KANSAS CITY 30-7

           
PITTSBURGH

WEEK WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
#1 PITTSBURGH + 1 Atlanta 15-9(ot)
#2 Pittsburgh + 5 TENNESSEE 19-11
#3 Pittsburgh - 3 TAMPA BAY 38-13
#4 Baltimore + 2.5 PITTSBURGH 17-14
#5 BYE      
#6 PITTSBURGH - 14 Cleveland 28-10
#7 Pittsburgh - 3 MIAMI 23-22
#8 NEW ORLEANS - 1 Pittsburgh 20-10
#9 Pittsburgh - 5 CINCINNATI 27-21
#10 New England + 4 PITTSBURGH 39-26
#11 PITTSBURGH - 7 Oakland 35-3
#12 Pittsburgh - 6.5 BUFFALO 19-16(ot)
#13 Pittsburgh + 3 BALTIMORE 13-10
#14 PITTSBURGH - 8 Cincinnati 23-7
#15 NY Jets + 3 PITTSBURGH 22-17
#16 PITTSBURGH - 14 Carolina 27-3
#17 Pittsburgh - 6 CLEVELAND 41-9
                                

In the NFC, it's ...#6 GREEN BAY (11-6) at #1 ATLANTA (13-3) - 8 p.m. ET, Fox
    
Here's a real news flash: The Atlanta Falcons didn't have to travel to frosty Wisconsin to get a taste for the snow this week. A winter storm that blanketed Atlanta and surrounding areas has made this anything but a "normal week"for Falcons' head coach Mike Smith and Company and you do have to wonder if the Packers are the team that will be better able to conduct their prep work between now and Saturday night ... just saying!

No doubt that Atlanta's quite comfy inside its Georgia Dome where the 2010 Falcons lost only once - a grueling 17-14 setback against the New Orleans Saints - and here you can fully expect QB Matt Ryan (3,705 yards passing and 28 TDs this season) to come out firing while looking to cross up the Packers who fully expect a heavy dosage of sledgehammer RB Michael Turner (1,371 yards rushing and 12 TDs).

If the Falcons can unloosen WR Roddy White and TE Tony Gonzalez early with some sizable aerial gainers, than the Green Bay defense that's held nine of its last foes to 17 points or less will get knocked on its collective heels. The flip side says LB Clay Matthews and CB Charles Woodson will be coming hard in the early stages and trying to rattle Ryan who has been protected extremely well by this underrated Atlanta offensive line.

Meanwhile, the Packers may still shine at quarterback where Aaron Rodgers appears to be fine after suffering a pair of concussions this year but RB James Starks - fresh off a GB rookie playoff rushing record 123 yards - must make his presence felt from the start plus he also must be able to help "chip"at DE John Abraham who figures to be the Falcons' most important defensive player in this post-season tilt. Trust us!

There are two other key items here: The Falcons have been quite comfortable playing close games this season with a tasty 5-1 SU mark in games decided by 5 points or less and so PK Matt Bryant - who drained a 47-yard FG with 9 seconds left to propel Atlanta past Green Bay 20-17 back on Nov. 28th - has little margin for error here.

Finally, the Packers' receivers must garner at least 75 YAC (yards after catch) with wide-outs Donald Driver and Greg Jennings needed to bust loose ... or else.

Spread Notes - Green Bay's 27-15 against the odds when playing away from Lambeau Field since the start of the 2006 season and that includes outright road dog wins this year at the New York Jets (a 9-0 win as 6 ½-point underdogs) and last weekend's 21-16 triumph over 2 ½-point favorite Philadelphia. Overall, the Packers are 15-6-1 ATS the past two seasons when playing teams outside the NFC North. Meanwhile, Atlanta is a collective 22-10 ATS overall since the start of last year (the Falcons are 11-5 ATS in each of the last two seasons) and this NFC South squad is 16-6 vig-wise as betting favorites since the start of the 2009 campaign.

GREEN BAY

WEEK WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
#1 Green Bay - 3 PHILADELPHIA 27-20
#2 GREEN BAY - 12 Buffalo 34-7
#3 CHICAGO + 3 Green Bay 20-17
#4 GREEN BAY - 14.5 Detroit 28-26
#5 WASHINGTON + 3 Green Bay 16-13 (ot)
#6 Miami + 3 GREEN BAY 23-20 (ot)
#7 GREEN BAY - 3 Minnesota 28-24
#8 Green Bay + 6.5 NY JETS 9-0
#9 GREEN BAY - 7.5 Dallas 45-7
#10 BYE      
#11 Green Bay - 3 MINNESOTA 31-3
#12 ATLANTA - 2.5 Green Bay 20-17
#13 GREEN BAY - 8.5 San Francisco 34-16
#14 DETROIT + 7 Green Bay 7-3
#15 NEW ENGLAND - 14 Green Bay 31-27
#16 GREEN BAY - 3 NY Giants 45-17
#17 GREEN BAY - 11 Chicago 10-3
WC Green Bay + 2.5 PHILADELPHIA 21-16

ATLANTA

WEEK WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
#1 PITTSBURGH + 1 Atlanta 15-9 (ot)
#2 ATLANTA - 6.5 Arizona 41-7
#3 Atlanta + 3 NEW ORLEANS 27-24 (ot)
#4 ATLANTA   San Francisco 16-14
#5 Atlanta - 3 CLEVELAND 20-10
#6 PHILADELPHIA - 2 Atlanta 31-17
#7 ATLANTA - 3 Cincinnati 39-32
#8 BYE      
#9 ATLANTA - 10 Tampa Bay 27-21
#10 ATLANTA - 2 Baltimore 26-21
#11 Atlanta - 3 ST. LOUIS 34-17
#12 ATLANTA - 2.5 Green Bay 20-17
#13 Atlanta - 3 TAMPA BAY 28-24
#14 Atlanta - 7 CAROLINA 31-10
#15 Atlanta - 5.5 SEATTLE 34-18
#16 New Orleans + 2.5 ATLANTA 17-14
#17 ATLANTA - 14 Carolina 31-10


THE NFL DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS -
PREVIEWS AND TEAM LOGS FOR SUNDAY'S GAMES BETWEEN SEAHAWKS-BEARS & JETS-PATRIOTS

By Jim Hurley:

Is this gonna be "Long-Shot Sunday" - or can we expect the heavy-duty chalk to rule the roost in these pair of Sunday NFL Divisional Playoff games from Chitown and Foxboro?
   
NFL DIVISIONAL PLAYOFFS - THE SUNDAY GAMES

In the NFC, it's... #4 SEATTLE (8-9) at #2 CHICAGO (11-5) - 1 p.m. ET, Fox
    
Now here's a case of the Seattle Seahawks hoping that history does repeat itself: The NFC West champs - fresh off last weekend's monumental 41-36 NFC Wild Card win against 10-point road favorite New Orleans - already have clawed the 2010 Chicago Bears and now are hoping to do so again. The Seahawks sacked Bears QB Jay Cutler six times en route to a 23-20 upset win back on Oct. 17th and so now Pete Carroll's rah-rah club is banking on an encore performance but do remember that Seattle has not won a playoff road game in some 27 years ... yikes!

The Seahawks didn't commit a single turnover in that win at Soldier Field back in Week 6 action and that's a major key here - of course. Quarterback Matt Haselbeck didn't have to deal with then-injured LB Lance Briggs back in mid-October but the Bears will have their Pro Bowl'backer on the field here and you can fully expect the Chicago defense to put eight men in the box and come after Hasselbeck one week after he aired four scoring strikes against the Saints.

Still, it's the other quarterback who figures to make-or-break this game for the 10-point favored Bears: The aforementioned Cutler (3,274 yards passing with 23 TDs and 16 INTs this year) has taken more than his fair share of hits behind the line of scrimmage as a Chicago O-line that's struggled with consistency must keep him in the upright position for most of this game. If Cutler is able to pick-and-choose his downfield targets, than the Seahawks - who've surrendered 34-or-more points in six of their last eight games - could get savagely beaten on the scoreboard here.

In fact, count on the Bears' early-game plan to include some major heaves by Cutler in the general direction of speedy WRs Johnny Knox and Devin Hester so that Chicago can "soften up" the Seahawks down low - if Knox and/or Hester blisters the'Hawks with some long gainers in the aerial game, than underrated RB Matt Forte (1,069 yards rushing with a nifty 4.5 ypc average) could have a proverbial field day against a Seattle linebacker corps that often is MIA.

Note two key potential factors here: Chicago PK Robbie Gould has hit on 7-of-11 field goals from 40 yards out and longer but he must make his kicks "count" here on what could be a very windy day near Lake Michigan - if Gould misses, let's say, a 45-yarder in a tied game early second half than it could give real life to a Seahawks team that's just waiting for the right moment to steal away momentum.

Finally, Seattle WR Mike Williams must be a factor here: Williams nabbed 10 passes worth 123 yards in that regular-season win in Chicago and he's more than just a safety net for Hasselbeck here - if the'Hawks pull the upset than Williams probably needs 100-plus yards receiving in this clash.

Spread Notes - Chicago rides a three-game pointspread winning streak into this post-season game and note overall the Bears have notched spread wins in six of their eight games dating back to mid-November. Note that Chicago's failed to cover four of its five post-season games since 2001. On the flip side, note that Seattle is 8-9 versus the vig overall and that includes a pair of outright upset road wins this year including the 23-20 win at 6-point fav Chicago back in Week 6 play and also the 36-18 triumph over 3-point favorite Arizona in Week 10 action. The'Hawks are a collective 5-4 against the odds in all post-season games since 2000.
  
SEATTLE

WEEK WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
#1 SEATTLE + 3 San Francisco 31-6
#2 DENVER + 3 Seattle 31-14
#3 SEATTLE + 3.5 San Diego 27-20
#4 ST. LOUIS + 2 Seattle 20-3
#5 BYE      
#6 Seattle + 6 CHICAGO 23-20
#7 SEATTLE - 6.5 Arizona 22-10
#8 OAKLAND - 2 Seattle 33-3
#9 NY Giants - 7 SEATTLE 41-7
#10 Seattle + 3 ARIZONA 36-18
#11 NEW ORLEANS - 11 Seattle 34-19
#12 Kansas City - 1.5 SEATTLE 42-24
#13 SEATTLE - 5 Carolina 31-14
#14 SAN FRANCISCO - 4 Seattle 40-21
#15 Atlanta - 5.5 SEATTLE 34-18
#16 TAMPA BAY - 5 Seattle 38-15
#17 SEATTLE + 3 St. Louis 16-6
WC SEATTLE + 10 New Orleans 41-36

CHICAGO

WEEK WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
#1 CHICAGO - 6.5 Detroit 19-14
#2 Chicago + 7 DALLAS 27-20
#3 CHICAGO + 3 Green Bay 20-17
#4 NY GIANTS - 3 Chicago 17-3
#5 Chicago + 3 CAROLINA 23-6
#6 Seattle + 6 CHICAGO 23-20
#7 Washington + 3 CHICAGO 17-14
#8 BYE      
#9 Chicago - 3 BUFFALO 22-19
#10 CHICAGO PK Minnesota 27-13
#11 Chicago + 3 MIAMI 16-0
#12 CHICAGO + 3 Philadelphia 31-26
#13 Chicago - 5 DETROIT 24-20
#14 New England - 3 CHICAGO 36-7
#15 Chicago - 5.5 MINNESOTA 40-14
#16 CHICAGO - 3 NY Jets 38-34
#17 GREEN BAY - 11 Chicago 10-3


In the AFC, it's ...#6 NEW YORK JETS (12-5) at #1 NEW ENGLAND (14-2) - 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Here's a question the New York Jets might be asking themselves following this AFC Divisional Playoff: Do they wish they would have "turned the volume down" on all their rhetoric in the days/hours leading up to this clash?

The J-E-T-S have been blurting out plenty of silly comments lately - not only second-year head coach Rex Ryan has been blabbering non-stop but CB Antonio Cromartie was the talk of the tabloids at mid-week after referring to Patriots QB Tom Brady in a derogatory way. Hey, didn't Cromartie notice how Brady (3,900 yards passing with 36 TDs and 4 INTs this season) torched a loud-mouth member of the Pittsburgh Steelers a couple of seasons back?

For his part, Brady - the no-doubt-about-it league MVP this year - had dodged the media's queries and claimed Cromartie "must like me" as he spars with the Boston and New York City media folks who sure know how to take a topic and thump it into the ground.

Brady's main concern here isn't verbal warfare but rather how can he attack a Jets team that he sliced/diced in a 45-3 win back on Dec. 6th. The Pats were all business in that 2010 revenge game - remember the Jets copped a 28-14 win at the New Meadowlands Stadium back in Week 2 action this year - and there were more than a few NYJ players who believe New England gladly "rubbed it in" during that game that had Pats head coach Bill Belichick beaming from ear-to-ear at game's end ... go look at the tape!

No question that Jets QB Mark Sanchez must answer the bell here as he's been brutally bad in two career starts at Gillette Stadium. If you include the 2009 regular-season tilt there - a 31-14 Patriots win - than you'll notice Sanchez has completed 25-of-54 passes with 1 TD and a whopping 7 INTs while throwing for a combined 300 yards ... not real good, right?

Sanchez can't win this one on his own, of course, and so the Jets need to win the field position battle when possible and so the aforementioned Cromartie (see 47-yard kick return last week to help set up the game-winning field goal in that 17-16 AFC Wild Card win in Indianapolis) and the slightly-battered Brad Smith (groin) must get NYJ into favorable field position when starting off drives and then RBs Shonn Greene and LaDainian Tomlinson (a combined 1,680 yards rushing in regular-season action) must chew yards and clock here while keeping Brady on the sidelines as much as possible.

One under-the-radar note here: The Pats need to make their rookie TEs Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski (45 and 42 receptions, respectively) early-game targets so that the Jets' LBs can be drawn away from the line of scrimmage - if this gets to be all about one-on-matchups for Brady than his brilliant offensive line will surely get the best of things here.

Spread Notes - New England is 10-5-1 against the Las Vegas price tags overall this season and note the Patriots are 85-54-4 ATS overall since the start of the 2003 campaign (and that's a heady .611 winning rate). The Pats, however, have failed to cover each of their last five post-season games dating back to the AFC Championship Game loss in Indianapolis in 2006. New England's 8-9-1 ATS overall in all post-season games since 2000. The New York Jets, meanwhile, enter this playoff tilt at 10-7 ATS overall this season including last weekend's one-point win in Indianapolis. The Jets are 10-5 versus the vig as underdogs in the Ryan Era (2009-present) and "gang green" is 13-7 ATS away the past two years.

NEW YORK JETS

WEEK WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
#1 Baltimore + 1 NY JETS 10-9
#2 NY JETS + 3 New England 28-14
#3 NY Jets + 2 MIAMI 31-23
#4 NY Jets - 6 BUFFALO 38-14
#5 NY JETS - 4.5 Minnesota 29-20
#6 NY Jets - 3 DENVER 24-20
#7 BYE      
#8 Green Bay + 6.5 NY JETS 9-0
#9 NY Jets - 5.5 DETROIT 23-20(ot)
#10 NY Jets - 3 CLEVELAND 26-20(ot)
#11 NY JETS - 6.5 Houston 30-27
#12 NY JETS - 9.5 Cincinnati 26-10
#13 NEW ENGLAND - 4 NY Jets 45-3
#14 Miami + 4.5 NY JETS 10-6
#15 NY Jets + 3 PITTSBURGH 22-17
#16 CHICAGO - 3 NY Jets 38-34
#17 NY JETS + 1 Buffalo 38-7
WC NY Jets + 2 INDIANAPOLIS 17-16


NEW ENGLAND

WEEK WINNER SPREAD LOSER SCORE
#1 NEW ENGLAND - 5 Cincinnati 38-24
#2 NY JETS + 3 New England 28-14
#3 NEW ENGLAND - 14.5 Buffalo 38-30
#4 New England PK MIAMI 41-14
#5 BYE      
#6 NEW ENGLAND - 3 Baltimore 23-20(ot)
#7 New England + 3 SAN DIEGO 23-20
#8 NEW ENGLAND - 4.5 Minnesota 28-18
#9 CLEVELAND + 4 New England 34-14
#10 New England + 4 PITTSBURGH 39-26
#11 NEW ENGLAND - 4 Indianapolis 31-28
#12 New England - 6 DETROIT 45-24
#13 NEW ENGLAND - 4 NY Jets 45-3
#14 New England - 3 CHICAGO 36-7
#15 NEW ENGLAND - 14 Green Bay 31-27
#16 New England - 7 BUFFALO 34-3
#17 NEW ENGLAND - 4 Miami 38-7


COLLEGE BASKETBALL WEEKEND NOTEBOOK -
TRACKING THE STILL-PERFECT TEAMS

Now that the Duke Blue Devils (15-1) finally bit the dust this past week - and can you believe that's the third time in the past seven years that Mike Krzyzewski's club went into Tallahassee as the nation's #1 team and came out a loser against always-gritty Florida State? - there's just four remaining unbeaten teams in the land of major College Basketball.

Here's the roll call while entering this weekend's action:

In alphabetical order, there's Kansas (16-0), there's Ohio State (17-0), there's San Diego State (18-0) and there's Syracuse (17-0).

The $64,000 question here is can any of'em stay perfect right throughout this 2010-11 season?

You tell us!

Better yet, would you sign up right here and right now to have these teams in this year's Final Four?

No Duke but whatta lineup this year and just about any of the matchups would be near pick'em affairs ... trust us!

Here's a look at the four undefeated squads and note below their current Associated Press Top 25 ranking along with their overall and conference marks:

#2 OHIO STATE (17-0, 4-0 Big 10 Conference) - The Buckeyes are bent on becoming the numero uno team in the land this week providing Thad Matta's club can dispose of heavy-duty underdog Penn State (10-6, 3-2 in the Big 10) on Saturday afternoon in cozy Columbus.

Hey, don't expect it to be a walk in the park.

The'Eyes really needed to weave some magic last Wednesday night en route to their 68-64 non-cover win at 10 ½-point underdog Michigan and before that Matta's men needed every ounce of energy to topple 15-point pup Minnesota 67-64 last Sunday afternoon.

In short, Ohio State has a monstrous-sized bulls-eye on its back these days and now folks are learning how to deal with sensational freshman front-court star Jared Sullinger who managed only 12 points in the win against the Wolverines. True, Ohio State guard William Buford (19 points) drained some key late-game free throws for the Buckeyes but - one of these days - Sullinger isn't going to be a stat-sheet stuffer and the'Eyes are gonna be hard-pressed to get enough points from their other forwards.

P.S., Ohio State better step up its three-point defense as Michigan poured in 11 trifectas in that mid-week tilt at Crisler Arena and word is Matta is concerned that his club isn't always playing full-tilt on the defensive end of the floor.
 
#3 KANSAS (16-0, 1-0 Big 12 Conference) - The Jayhawks are back up to their old tricks with a run-run offense that's averaging 84.3 points per game and twins Marcus and Markieff Morris have been the biggest/best scorers for Bill Self's gang.

Marcus Morris is averaging 16.8 ppg while Markieff Morris averages 13.2 ppg but it's point guard Tyshawn Taylor (5.3 assists per game) who's proving to be the energizer guy here for this Lawrence-based bunch.

If the Jayhawks are gonna stay unbeaten through this mid-January holiday weekend, then taking care of high-scoring Nebraska (Saturday, 2p.m. ET on ESPNU) is the next hurdle and don't be surprised if freshman guard Josh Selby looks to be more and more an impact player on the offensive end. Selby, you'll recall, served a season-opening nine-game NCAA-imposed suspension this year and so he's been eligible only since Dec. 18th and yet Kansas fans already have seen him drill some big-time long-range shots ... can we expect more of the same here against the'Huskers (13-3, 1-1 in Big 12 play)?
 
#4 SYRACUSE (17-0, 4-0 Big East Conference) - Hall of Fame head coach Jim Boeheim knew this year's'Cuse club had the potential to be "special"but insiders claim that even Boeheim had no idea this squad would click so quickly.

The Orange - fresh off Wednesday's 76-59 cruise-job win inside Madison Square Garden against 3-point underdog (and overmatched) St. John's - now go home for a high noon ET Saturday tilt against Cincinnati (16-1, 3-1 in Big East play) and you can expect more workhorse minutes from Syracuse star forward Kris Joseph.

Note that Joseph logged 34 minutes against the Johnnies and that came on the heels of 37 minutes played in the 61-56 win last weekend at Seton Hall and the 39 minutes played against Notre Dame in that 70-58 home win on New Year's Day. If Joseph is turning out to be an iron man sort for Boeheim's club, than what can you say about this vaunted 2-3 zone defense that held St. John's to less than 37 percent shooting from the floor - that's 21-of-57 - and note the Red Storm canned just 2-of-12 hoops from beyond the three-point arc and that's been another strength this season for the'Cuse.

Maybe Cincinnati - an offensively-challenged team if there was one - won't be hurling up many triples in this weekend tilt inside the Carrier Dome but you can fully expect the Orange to spread the wealth on offense where active guard Scoop Jardine (14 points and 6 assists against St. John's and really coming into his own these days) and quiet assassin Brandon Triche (15 points versus the Johnnies) have a way of taking over games when things start to feel flat for the upstate New York gang.

Hey, if you wish to look ahead to the next real serious challenge for Syracuse than circle this Monday's game at Pittsburgh (16-1, 4-0 in Big East action) - now that ought to be a real doozy on "Big Monday"!
 
#6 SAN DIEGO STATE (18-0, 3-0 Mountain West Conference) - Just when you think that the sport's super-powers own all the might, here comes Steve Fisher's team ready/willing/able to dent the big hoops party this March/April.

The SDSU Aztecs - who are at New Mexico (13-4, 1-1 in Mountain West Conference play) on this third Saturday in the month - really needed some true grit to escape past UNLV 55-49 this past Wednesday night as San Diego State F Kawhi Leonard scored 15 points and pulled down a season-high 17 rebounds and the club's winning streak reached 18 and thus the longest in the land now that Duke's 25-game winning streak is a thing of the past.

San Diego State is athletic and tough - or didn't you note all the skirmishes with the UNLV players in that high-strung hoops game the other night?

Overall, the Aztecs held the UNLV Rebels to 22-of-61 shooting from the floor (36.1 percent) and it didn't escape Fisher's notice that his club copped 40 rebounds to UNLV's 29 boards in that grit-your-teeth home win.

When might San Diego State finally get beaten?

Well, the Jan. 26th game at BYU could be a pothole in the road for the Aztecs who will make its trip to Las Vegas on Feb. 12th and there's a good chance that Lon Kruger's club will be trying to knock off an unbeaten then ... so stay tuned.

 

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