There are always a few nights each season before the conference tournaments get underway that just have a special feel to them and tonight is one of them. What a slate of games, two monster games and an another that warrants significant viewing time. The two marquee games should be extremely high-scoring and entertaining from start to finish.
First at 8pm on ESPN we have #8 North Carolina trekking across town to #18 Duke. It is Coach K’s second game back and the single most important game of the season for Duke. Things have been relatively quiet for the Blue Devils in terms of media overblown issues the past few games and they have been able to just play basketball. Sure Grayson Allen has been bullied around a few times, but really during Duke’s three game win streak, they have started to finally click. That plays a big role in the reason tonight’s game is the most important for Duke because it is the home game for them. If things were switched and the first game was in Chapel Hill, it would turn into a game about Grayson Allen. The crowd in Chapel Hill will be the toughest he’ll face all year, but tonight he gets to focus just on basketball and North Carolina, the team.
The Tar Heels haven’t played in four days after beating Notre Dame at home and will be well rested coming into Cameron Indoor Stadium and more importantly, healthy. Theo Pinson has struggled to stay on the floor this season and has only played in six games. Although it hasn’t been confirmed, it appears he will play tonight for the first time in 3 games and he is much needed by UNC specifically tonight. If he plays, he will most likely be the primary defender against the ACC’s best player, Luke Kennard. He is athletic and quick enough to shut down Kennard, something that no team has been able to do all season because he is too versatile. When UNC has the ball, Joel Berry is the guy to watch. Berry struggled mightily in the two games against Duke last season, scoring just 20 points on 5 of 23 shooting. The Tar Heels will need a much better performance from him tonight if they want to leave Cameron with a win.
And how about this for a stat courtesy of ESPN to show just how special this game is, over the last 96 games both teams have won 48 and scored exactly 7,437 points, kudos to who ever figured that one out.
What a tough act to follow right? But #5 Oregon at #10 UCLA is like having The Rolling Stones follow Led Zeppelin. This one should be even higher scoring than the ACC showdown, which should see both teams in the 80s because this one could see both in the 90s. These are two teams heading in difference directions as Oregon struggled during the non-conference schedule and has been a force to be reckoned with in Pac-12 play, including the 89-87 win over UCLA in their conference opener. And who will forget for the rest of the season the whooping they just put on Arizona this week when they shot over 65 percent from the floor.
UCLA was untouchable in the non-conference slate, but has struggled a bit the past few weeks. They lost two straight games by more points than they had held a deficit all season. The home game tonight ends a three game road trip and they will be the beneficiary of a rocking Pauley Pavilion tonight. This one has matchups galore to look out for starting with Lonzo Ball against Dillon Brooks, I mean what more can you ask for than the two best players in the conference going head-to-head all night. Ball has been playing his best basketball the past few weeks, but Brooks got the better of him in Eugene on December 28. It is impossible to tell who will have the edge tonight, but both should have some electric plays.
Next we have the battle of the UCLA freshman TJ Leaf and Oregon senior Chris Boucher, both standing 6’10 with complete different styles of play. I give a slight edge to Boucher because of athleticism and experience, but Leaf kept Boucher quiet in Oregon’s December win.
The final excellent head-to-head matchup is Bryce Alford against Tyler Dorsey. Alford is heart and soul of UCLA and this will be his last huge game at Pauley after four incredible seasons. Dorsey is coming off the best game of his career in the Arizona win as he scored 23 and knocked down all six of his three point attempts. I can easily see these two sharp shooters combining for close to 15 three pointers tonight.
If those two games aren’t enough for you on your Thursday night, you can tune into the 7pm Big Ten showdown between #16 Purdue and Indiana in Bloomington. If Indiana had James Blackmon and OG Anunoby, ESPN would have had to shift their scheduling around so that all three games were on ESPN, but this one gets ESPN2. This is a must win game for Indiana if they want to keep themselves out of bubble talk, but Purdue comes in hot after beating Maryland and Northwestern. Consider this one Rush opening for Zeppelin and the Stones. Enjoy!