(NOTE: Learning about the events in Newtown, CT, today made this post difficult to post, actually, but I was nearly finished when I heard of the shooting. I do not mean to be overdramatic – I tend to fall on the other end of the “drama” spectrum – but this tragedy, for whatever reason, has hit me deeply. As a writer, I haven’t the words to express how I feel about the senseless act of murdering children, and, as a father, I haven’t the strength to deal with the paralyzing fear it has invoked in me, so I will awkwardly return to a safe place in basketball…)
The slowest week of the college basketball season is about to end, with fewer than 100 games all week. Well, we are gutting through it, and now it is about to start to slowly picking up until the mayhem that is the start of conference play around the New Year. This weekend’s slate is decent with a couple marquee matchups to watch for and a whole slew of others with varying levels of intrigue. Here are some of the highlights and things to look for this weekend:
National Game of the Weekend
#5 Florida at #8 Arizona (Saturday, 10:00)
Not just the Game of the Week, but quite possibly the game of the non-conference season! Two legitimate Final Four contenders face off in the desert. Sean Miller has an arsenal of freshmen big men to lean on, as well as the grizzled veteran Solomon Hill, the wise old sophomore Nick Johnson, and the senior Xavier transfer Mark Lyons to lean on. Arizona is back – and it did not take nearly as long as some people thought it would. As for Billy Donovan’s squad – it is not crazy to think that this UF’s best team since the back-to-back titles teams of nearly a decade ago. They are strong inside (Patric Young and Erik Murphy) and outside (Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario), but most importantly, they are incredibly tough and capable on the defensive end. This might be the best defensive team in the country. This is going to be a great nightcap to a long day of hoops.
Mid-Major Game of the Weekend
Akron at Detroit (Saturday, noon)
There actually are not a whole lot of mid-on-mid battles this weekend, but this one should give us what we want. The Zips have a strong backcourt duo of Alex Abreu and Brian Walsh, a couple of solid swingmen in Chauncey Gilliam and Quincy Diggs, all supporting the enigmatic personality of 7’1″ manchild Zeke Marshall. Akron may be, yet again, the most overlooked mid-major around, but any road game is tough in this business, especially when that road takes you to the home of Ray McCallum, Jr. McCallum, who notoriously passed on offers from several Big Ten schools, including Michigan State, is clearly a high-major talent playing at a mid-major level. Unfortunately for the Titans, they have not exactly surrounded Ray Ray with a strong supporting cast. But, when you have a guy that is on another level, you are always tough.
The Best of the Undercard
If you are waiting for the Florida-Zona main course late Saturday night, you will have plenty to whet your palate throughout the day.
Butler vs. #1 Indiana (Saturday, 2:00)
The first game of a terrific “Battle for Indiana” double-header. The Hoosiers have looked every bit the #1 team in the country so far, but has the potential to be their toughest test yet, as the Bulldogs are stacked with outside shooters – particularly the dead-eyed Rotnei Clarke – and are unafraid of anyone in the country. And, with a guy like Brad Stevens at the helm, you know Butler will be ready in every capacity.
#6 Louisville at Memphis (Saturday, 2:30)
If you believe everything you hear or read, you will think that Memphis has been one of the nation’s biggest disappoinments. But, in reality, they only have 2 losses – both in Atlantis to very quality teams (VCU and Minnesota). They also left the island with a win over a good UNI team. Then, they returned home to pound Ohio U – a Sweet 16 team a year ago. But, this game could go a long way to either vindicating or discrediting the disappoinment tag affixed on Memphis so far.
Belmont at #9 Kansas (Saturday, 7:00)
One of the most impressive teams this year that no one is talking about has been Belmont. They have been blitzing teams, including a 15-point win over a really good Middle Tennessee St. team last night. It is hard to say how anyone will react to going into The Fogg (just ask Colorado-yikes), but if they can handle the environment, do not be surprised if they hang with the Jayhawks.
#3 Michigan at West Virginia (Saturday, 8:00)
Coach Beilein returns home. I wonder if Kevin Pittsnogle will be in the building. The Mountaineers have not exactly played the way the Huggy Bear expects, but it is still a tough place to play, even for a Final Four-caliber team like Michigan and Doogan’s #1 point guard in the nation, Trey Burke.
Kansas State at #14 Gonzaga (Saturday, 9:00)
I still believe that this is the best Gonzaga team in school history. But, after that home loss to Illinois last weekend, this game is suddenly pretty important to regain some traction. And, this Wildcat team, with their athleticism and fire – even with Coach Martin – is a scary opponent for anyone right now.
#16 Creighton at California (Saturday, 11:00)
Another late-night treat awaits us in Berkeley, as the Golden Bears play host to Doug McDermott and the Creighton Blue Jays. Cal is not an easy place to win any year, but with a backcourt of Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs, Mike Montgomery’s team is typically tough this year.
There are a few other ranked teams that have may want to watch out this weekend, for instance (in chronological order):
UNC-Asheville at #7 Ohio State (Saturday, noon)
The Buckeyes look like one of the best teams in the country, and UNC-Asheville is rebuilding, but the Bulldogs are still relatively potent, with a strong new crop of future All-Big Southers and a highly-experienced coach in Eddie Biedenbach, who is unafraid of games like this. I would not be surprised if OSU wins by 40 or 4.
Western Carolina at #15 Georgetown (Saturday, noon)
Any time you have serious trouble scoring the ball, you are prone to being upset. And, that has certainly been the case for the Hoyas thus far. While WCU is only 4-6 in the early going, they have had played tough through a difficult non-conference slate, including just recently giving Illinois a run for their money in Champaign.
East Carolina at #21 North Carolina (Saturday, noon)
The Pirates of ECU have been relatively untested so far this year, which means that they have stayed completely under the radar, but they do have Miguel Paul, Maurice Kemp, and URI transfer Akeem Richmond, who can all light it up. If the Heels are who we think they should be, they should handle ECU, but if they are who they have shown to be so far, they could definitely struggle.
#11 Cincinnati at Marshall (Saturday, 2:00)
Both teams were supposed to be good to great, but probably not elite coming into the season. But, in the early going, neither of them would fall under that category. You would be hard-pressed to make a case for Marshall being “good,” let alone “great.” While Cincy, on the other hand, has put themselves in the “elite” discussion with their early season play. Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright are as good a backcourt as you will find, and Cincy is – as always – tough and physical on the defensive end. Marshall has some talent, though, and could pose a threat at home, if they ever find what they are missing.
Purdue vs. #22 Notre Dame (Saturday, 4:30)
I like Mike Brey’s Irish team this year, and Purdue is in a bit of a rebuilding stage after losing so much talent to the Association recently, but the Boilers still have Terone Johnson and D.J. Byrd to go along with a pretty stellar freshman class, so this is dangerous for ND.
New Mexico State at #17 New Mexico (Saturday, 6:00)
In-state rivalries are always brutal, but this one can be especially so. The Lobos are loaded this year, but the Aggies are no slouches either, and anything can happen in these battles. Watch for State’s super-soph Daniel Mullings to try and carry his team to an upset here in The Pit.
Canisius at #4 Syracuse (Saturday, 7:00)
Syracuse looks really, really good. It is hard to imagine Canisius giving them a real game in the Carrier Dome, but, then again, it was hard to imagine Canisius doing anything they’ve been doing this year. They have two incredible scorers in Harold Washington and URI transfer Billy Baron (a dead-eye shooter who looks like a “coach’s son” because, well, he is one).
Norfolk State at #25 N.C. State (Saturday, 7:00)
N.C. State has been a pretty big disappoinment so far this year, but it is still so early, and maybe it is better that they do not go into ACC play with the target on their backs. Let the Dukies take the title of “favorite” for once. As for Norfolk, it’s not nearly the same team that upset Mizzou last year, as Kyle O’Quinn has left for the NBA, but they have surprised early and might be a dark horse in the MEAC race. An upset here, though, would say a whole lot more about what N.C. State is not than about what Norfolk is.
San Diego at #18 San Diego State (Saturday, 10:00)
Crosstown rivalries are always tricky. SDSU has talent to spare in this one, as USD is not a great team. But, again, crosstown rivalries are tricky.
Eastern Kentucky at #10 Illinois (Sunday, 6:00)
Well, something’s gotta give, right? Something’s gotta give in this battle of undefeateds. Yep, that’s right, Illinois is undefeated – you hadn’t heard? Well, it is true. And, now they get the ultimate test, as the bigshot EKU comes to town, sporting their own 9-0 record. Something’s gotta give…