After a Quiet Week On College Hardwood, Weekend Action Set to Heat Things UpPosted by Bennet Hayes on December 14th, 2013
The end of the winter exam period could not come soon enough for college basketball fans. Yes, we know that it’s important for the kids to take care of their academics, but even the most fervent of followers would have to admit they could only take so many more nights of Bryant being featured in the headline contest of the evening. Nothing against the Bulldogs and their tidy 6-5 start, but this weekend’s spate of entertaining match-ups should help us all regain a little sanity Last night’s Hawkeye State battle served as a worthy appetizer for Saturday’s feast of action, but before you grab the remote and plop down in the front row seat in your living room, check out these four storylines to monitor on Saturday.
Chances For Validation, Redemption In Ann Arbor
It may be hard to believe now, but public perception of Arizona and Michigan was pretty comparable at the start of the year. Needless to say, that is no longer the case. The Wildcats, now also known as the #1 team in the land, get a shot at validating that ranking when they visit Ann Arbor today (12:00 EST, CBS), while the floundering Wolverines will seek to redirect the trajectory of their season. Wins over the #1 team in the country have a way of curing a lot of ills, but it will take a yet-to-be-seen vigor for Michigan to earn that antidote, even on their home floor. Mitch McGary and Jordan Morgan will clash with Aaron Gordon and the rest of that vaunted Arizona front line down low, but keep an eye on the battle of the Ni(c)ks. We saw against Duke how crippling a subpar night from Nik Stauskas can be for the Wolverines; if Nick Johnson’s rep as one of the best stoppers out West carries weight in Ann Arbor, Michigan may again find themselves searching for other scoring outlets. For Michigan, Saturday is an opportunity to prove that the Wolverines still might be who we thought they were; for the Cats, it’s another chance to show us that they are exactly who we think they are.
No Place Like Home: Welcome To The Dean Dome
To me, one of the crimes of the early-season schedule is the lack of true road games. I’ll stomach the neutral site affairs for the sake of a few more intriguing match-ups, but the heart of college basketball still rests on its home courts. Many of Saturday’s key battles will still take place in neutral territory, but this weekend is when the shift back to campus begins in earnest, with Kentucky’s visit to the Dean Dome (5:15 EST, ESPN) serving as exhibit number one. The Young Wildcats’ first road game of the season may well end up being its toughest, as Coach Cal’s team invades one of college basketball’s most iconic arenas to face a Tar Heel team that has already knocked off two top three teams. How Julius Randle and company handle their first 40 minutes in enemy territory will indeed prove telling, but how about this opportunity for the Heels? Knock off the Wildcats, line that W up next to the Louisville and Michigan State victories, and you have yourself three wins over potential #1 seeds – and we aren’t even halfway through December. UNC’s up-and-down beginning has been well documented, but have that trio of wins in your possession come Selection Sunday, and it will be as if Belmont never even paid that visit to Chapel Hill.
In-State Rivalries Galore
Saturday features a slew of worthwhile in-state rivalry games, and I’m not even counting Hawaii-Chaminade when I say that! A pair of contests from the Hoosier State could have far-reaching consequences, as Notre Dame and Indiana (3:15 EST, ESPN) lock horns just hours before Butler and Purdue (6:00 PM EST, BTN) are set to tip. The Irish, reeling after their mid-week loss to the mighty Bison of North Dakota State, could use a victory most here, but with all four teams still fully entitled to Tournament aspirations, each result will matter one way or another. Moving a state east, Cincinnati and Xavier (8:00 PM EST, FS1) take the in-state matchup theme a bit further in a struggle for supremacy in the Queen City. The game should be as competitive as ever, but hanging in the background of this one is the decision on the location for future Crosstown Shootouts. It goes without saying that a replication of last year’s competitive but respectful meeting would help get the game back where it belongs – on campus. For a final dose of neighborly warfare, take a peek out West for the holiest of these confrontations, as Utah and BYU renew pleasantries in Salt Lake City (10:00 PM EST, PAC12). BYU should be considered a fairly known entity at this point, but after a strong finish to last season, the 8-1 Utes have the chance to emerge from the shadows and make a real plea for legitimacy on Saturday.
Jayhawks In Kansas City
Bill Self may be the wizard of Lawrence, but he is surely channeling his inner Dorothy right now. Self and the Jayhawks are hoping that there is indeed no place like home (or at least close to home), as Kansas returns to the Sunflower State to face New Mexico Saturday in Kansas City (7:00 PM EST, ESPN2). The Hawks have lost three of their last four (all away from Allen Fieldhouse), and the lone win in that span was a less-than-reassuring escape against UTEP. We knew Kansas would lose games – emphasis on the ‘s’ – before Big 12 play began, but with more tests looming after the Lobos (Georgetown, an undefeated Toledo team, and San Diego State up next), Andrew Wiggins and company would be well served to stem the tide with a victory today. New Mexico has flown well under the radar for a team that began the season in the Top 25, but the 7-1 Lobos are coming off their best win of the season over Cincinnati, and boast a very capable trio of stars in reigning MW POY Kendall Williams, Alex Kirk, and Cameron Bairstow. We’re an especially big fan of Kirk here in this space; Williams may have earned the MW’s top billing a season ago, but I’ll call Kirk the most important player on this New Mexico team. His Lobos are fully capable of extending the Jayhawks’ misery for another night.
These are far from the only storylines brewing on a busy Saturday; enjoy what should be a fantastic day of basketball.