15 “Must See” Games This Week In College Basketball
Duke Retains The #1 Spot In The AP Poll For The 4th Straight Week
College basketball is finally in the spotlight. With college football ending this week, casual fans will turn their attention, rightly so, to the hardwood. Most of the nation has begun conference play and that means the real season is underway. No more cupcakes for anyone to feast on. Night in, night out, your team will have a battle on their hands. That’s especially true when they go on the road. For some reason, perhaps the apparently lack of great teams, it looks like winning away from home will be damn near impossible. That means it’s very likely the winners of some of the BCS leagues especially will have 3 to 4 losses. That doesn't mean they are necessarily a “best of a bad lot” league, instead, they had to go through “hell and back” which could be a major positive come the NCAA tournament.
The thing I’m looking forward to most this week is some “prove it to me games”. These are matchups where one, or both, teams involved have the opportunity to “prove” they belong in the “big dance”. Building a resume starts the first or second week of conference play. This isn't college football. These games matter. Additionally, I’m hoping my faith will be restored in various teams across the country. The non-conference portion of the season was relatively lackluster. I even joked that the tournament should be contracted this year in order to make sure we don’t get a whole lot of mediocrity. Hopefully this will be the beginning of a shifting dynamic in our game to earn your way in, not back your way in. Let’s get to it!
(#15) Monday, 6:30 PM EST, ESPN2, #17 Notre Dame vs. #21 Cincinnati
This is a big one to get the week started the right way. Cincinnati is coming off an inexplicable loss to St. John's at home. It was the proverbial trap game after their big win over Pittsburgh last Monday to open Big East play. The big question for Mick Cronin is how he can maximize scoring on a team that is outstanding defensively. Meanwhile, Notre Dame's Jack Cooley should have a big game in this one with the Bearcats lack of bigs. This would be the Irish first big win of the year as Kentucky has really fallen off the map.
(#14) Tuesday, 9 PM EST, ESPNU, Pittsburgh vs. #19 Georgetown
I'm warning you right now. This is going to be a tough watch. These two want to grind it out and play good defensive. Expect a 51-50 affair if we are lucky. Nevertheless, this is a big game early in the Big East season. Will this be the game one or two of the Pittsburgh bigs step up? Steven Adams and Talib Zanna have major potential but haven't really had that breakout game. Georgetown needs to pick up the pace. They've had success when they run.
(#13) Wednesday, 9 PM EST, Big Ten Network, #8 Minnesota vs. #12 Illinois
This is perhaps the best game of the weekdays this week. Minnesota is showing they are a legit contender for the Big Ten title crown as Trevor Mbawke appears to be finally healthy while the backcourt is starting to shine led by Andre Hollins. I am really curious to see how the Illini hold up on the boards in this one. They were excellent against Ohio State but the Buckeyes don't really have any bigs. Assembly Hall in Champaign is one of the toughest places to play in the nation. If the Gophs get this one they are the Big Ten favorites I believe as they only have to play Michigan once.
(#12) Wednesday, 10 PM EST, CBS Sports Network, #24 UNLV vs. #25 New Mexico
Well this one should be a fascinating contrast in styles to open Mountain West play. UNLV wants to run and push the pace. Without a true point guard, they have no choice. When they get in the halfcourt their offense looks like garbage despite having the best freshman in the nation in Anthony Bennett. New Mexico will try and grind you down. The Bennett-Alex Kirk matchup will be a joy to watch. Kirk really busted onto the national scene with his beautiful work against Cincinnati.
(#11) Thursday, 7 PM EST, ESPN, Miami (FL) vs. North Carolina
Who would have thought North Carolina might not even make the NCAA tournament this year. Well with their start to the season, that is a real possibility. They have no real leadership or the proverbial "go to guy". James Michael McAdoo needs to become a post player. Shooting jumpers is not going to be a recipe for success. Miami is starting to learn to win without dominant post man Reggie Johnson. They dominated the glass in a nice win at Georgia Tech
(#10) Thursday, 7 PM EST, ESPN 2, #22 Michigan State vs. Iowa
I think Iowa is still a year away from being a real factor on the national scene, however this is a major one for their confidence. They need to avoid an 0-3 start with the amount of youth on this team. While they've played top flight competition, that is a major hole to dig yourself out of. Michigan State never knows what they'll get out of the Payne/Nix combo but this seems to be a game for them. Iowa freshman Adam Woodbury is the only real post defender and he can be pushed around.
(#9) Thursday, 9 PM EST, ESPN 2, #4 Arizona vs. Oregon
This is Arizona's first real test away from the McKale Center (sorry Clemson) and it won't be easy. Oregon is coming off a nice win over rival Oregon State and they have one of the most exciting freshman backcourts in the nation in Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis. E.J. Singler is starting to take the reigns of his squad and Waverly Austin is finally giving Tony Woods some help inside. I want to see Arizona dominate one their big games this year. Squeaking by is a recipe for disaster long term. Especially when you have the talent the Wildcats are blessed with.
(#8) Thursday, 11 PM EST, ESPN 2, Saint Mary's vs. #9 Gonzaga
Gonzaga finally lost its hold on the WCC last year thanks to a tough Saint Mary's group. I have a feeling they'll take it back this year but we'll find out more Thursday. The Gaels haven't really beaten anyone of note. A bizarre loss to Pacific is a real red flag for me. Gonzaga's trio of bigs should have a field day. Randy Bennett better coach his squad up big time.
(#7) Saturday, 12 PM EST, ESPN, #1 Duke vs. #20 North Carolina State
Ahh yes. NC State so much potential coming into this year but they haven't proven much of anything yet. They'll have their chance as they host Duke on Saturday. I want to see them play a complete game. That means Howell, Leslie, Brown, Warren, etc chipping in. We all know Duke will play "up" for this game and that means a tall task is on hand. I've got a feeling though Mark Gottfried's boys grab this one. They won't win a ton on the road so they've got no choice.
(#6) Saturday, 12 PM EST, Big Ten Network, #8 Minnesota vs. #5 Indiana
Talk about a brutal week for the Golden Gophers. After facing the Illini in Champaign, they'll travel to Bloomington to talk on the Hoosiers. I tend to think the Hoosiers are a big overrated and this will be a tremendous test for Cody Zeller. Can he really get physical with Mbawke and Williams? He got pushed around at Iowa a bit and by Butler's Andrew Smith. That's concerning. Tubby Smith though has to worry about Jordan Hulls. He is deadly at home and you can't get buried early.
(#5) Saturday, 2 PM EST, Pac-12 Network, UCLA vs. Colorado
Extra, extra, read all about it, the "new look" Bruins are on display! Ben Howland finally realized this year's squad can't play his traditional, grind it out style, that took him to three straight Final Fours. He's let them run and it has paid off. While Shabazz Muhammad isn't exactly the transcendent impact on college basketball many expected, he has been rock solid. Colorado has got to make this game ugly. They can't keep up offensively with Arizona State let alone UCLA. The Buffs were expected to be a bubble team but can't afford an 0-3 start to league play.
(#4) Saturday, 2 PM EST, NBC Sports Network, #14 Butler vs. Dayton
Butler is up at the top of the college basketball landscape once again. Brad Stevens continues to prove you can win at the "mid major" level and have success well into March. This is a bigger game for Dayton though. They are a fringe bubble team that has two really tough close losses to Illinois State and USC. They need this one for what is a relatively weak resume outside of a win against Alabama.
(#3) Saturday, 8 PM EST, ESPN 3 (Online), #10 Missouri vs. Ole Miss
I call this one a "prove it to me game". Ole Miss has feasted on a lot of cupcakes in the non conference and let's hope they don't have a sugar hangover. What's their best win right now? Rutgers? That's a pretty paltry resume. Missouri is playing outside basketball and are finally starting to turn the team over to Phil Pressey full time. He can score. Now they are letting him.
(#2) Saturday, 8 PM EST, NBC Sports Network, Colorado State vs. #16 San Diego State
I really like what I've seen so far from Colorado State in terms of their style. They are physical and win the game on the glass. Minnesota transfer Colton Iverson has been particularly impressive as he transition to the Mountain West. Meanwhile Pierce Hornung continues to be the best undersized rebounder in all of the country. Can they keep up though with San Diego State if they try to push the pace? It will be an interesting watch. I think the Aztecs are the second best team out west. I will be even more bullish if someone takes the point guard reigns and let's Jamaal Franklin be the undersized power forward he excelled at last season.
(#1) Sunday, 1:30 PM EST, CBS, #2 Michigan vs. #15 Ohio State
"The Game" hits the hardwood for its first basketball incarnation of Big Ten season. Ohio State is really trying to find themselves and what they do best. Right now they are a poor jump shooting team that likes to shoot jumpers. I actually like this match up for them though since both teams can push the pace. Michigan needs to get better defensively in order to be a truly elite team this year. The Trey Burke-Aaron Craft matchup is one of the best you'll see all season long, in any conference.