Weekend Storylines: Exams Over, But Tests on the Court Just BeginningPosted by Bennet Hayes on December 28th, 2013
Here’s to hoping that this week brought you plenty of holiday cheer, because it surely did not supply you (or anyone else!) with much quality college basketball. Entertaining Diamond Head Classic final aside, this week was as slow as the college basketball season gets. Don’t despair, however, because Santa has delivered a Saturday chalk-full of college hoops. Two big-time rivalry games occupy the prime real estate on this weekend’s marquee, but there’s plenty of substance, albeit understated, sprinkled throughout Saturday’s docket of action. Here’s a quick primer on the big games in Syracuse and Lexington, plus a few other worthwhile narratives to monitor on this busy Saturday.
A Couple Of Old Big East Friends
In the world of college basketball, eleven months is far from an eternity, but my, oh my; how things have changed since the last time Villanova and Syracuse locked horns! What was a Big East conference game last January will be an ACC versus (new) Big East affair today (2PM EST, CBS), and with both teams set to embark on their maiden voyages in the new leagues next week, the Carrier Dome will serve as the clinic for anyone needing one final dose of Big East nostalgia. Subplots abound in this game, but I’ll be especially interested to see how Villanova attacks the Syracuse zone. The Wildcats haven’t been a bad offensive team to this point in the season, but the Cats’ statistical breakdown on the offensive end puzzles. Villanova is 18th best in the country in two-point field goal percentage (55.1%), also shoots the ball pretty well from the stripe (72.2%), but struggles from beyond the arc (204th nationally in 3P% at 32.7%). With those splits, you’d expect Jay Wright’s team to focus their efforts inside the three-point line. So far, however, they’ve done the exact opposite – the Wildcats are 7th in the country when it comes to percentage of field goal attempts from three-point range (45.7%). Will the chucking continue against an Orange zone that begs opponents to settle for deep shots (43.1% of Syracuse opponent’s field goal attempts are threes), or can the Wildcats throw aside this bit of statistical dissonance and find a way to get quality interior looks against the zone? Remains to be seen, but expect 30,000+ to get a first-hand view of the answer.
Battle For The Bluegrass
The second massive Saturday afternoon affair is an annual matchup that rarely lacks in either passion or importance, as Bluegrass State rivals Louisville and Kentucky renew pleasantries at Rupp Arena (4PM EST, CBS). Somehow, the defending champion Cardinals have flown under the national radar to this point. A resume that is currently without a win over a top-70 team (according to KenPom) may have something to do with that, although the Cardinals are still somehow number one in the efficiency ratings. On the other side, Kentucky’s 9-3 start has come with ample fanfare (of course), so most college basketball fans should be relatively familiar with the Cats. Believe it or not though, Kentucky’s best victory of the season is a home victory over Boise State, so don’t understate the importance of this game for Kentucky. While Rick Pitino and Louisville would love to snag this win just as much as the home team (for obvious reasons), the veteran Cardinals’ identity will not be on the line today. But if Cal’s team is going to have a chance to deliver on all the preseason hype come March, his youngsters need to start believing in their own capability to do so — and soon. Winning the most important game on the regular season schedule would seem like a great catalyst for a confidence surge. Today is big for Julius Randle and company.
It seems to happen every year around this time. Fresh off the holidays, exams, and an interrupted practice schedule, a power conference team comes out and lays a nice, big egg on their (student-less) home floor. By definition, these defeats register as quite shocking, but if you want to keep an advanced eye out for possible upset victims, you could do worse than to dial in on a pair of Big East schools. St. John’s takes on pesky Columbia at the Barclay’s Center (2:30 EST), while Georgetown hosts Florida International (12PM, FS1). Nobody, and I mean nobody, likes sleeping their way to an early-afternoon, single-digit victory over a team with a sub-250 RPI like the Hoyas do. Other sizable favorites capable of tripping up on Saturday: George Washington (at Hofstra) and Harvard (at Fordham).
Important Games Not Being Played In Syracuse Or Lexington
Villanova-Syracuse and Louisville-Kentucky will surely dominate the conversation all day (they are the only two games featuring two ranked teams), but there a number of undercards worth keeping an eye on. Two of the country’s better mid-majors clash in Terre-Haute, as Indiana State plays host to Belmont (1 EST, ESPN3). There isn’t a lot of substance to 10-2 Wake Forest’s current resume, but with both losses to top-40 foes (Kansas and Tennessee), the Demon Deacons have a chance to be surprisingly relevant heading into 2014 if they can knock off Xavier in Cincinnati (5 EST, FS1). Providence-UMass (6 EST, ESPNU) is mildly intriguing, but the third and fourth best contests of the day are evening affairs. If you have a Mark Gottfried shrine in your closet, crack open a cold one and kick back, because this is your kind of Saturday night! First, Missouri visits T.J. Warren and Gottfried’s surprising NC State squad (8 EST, ESPN2). Next, Gottfried’s old school, Alabama, heads west to pay a visit to UCLA (10 EST, ESPN2), also known as the program that gave Gottfried his first assistant coaching gig. The day definitely slows down after the battle in Rupp, but both those late games are worth staying up for — even if you aren’t a fan of slimy Jim Harrick disciples. Zing!
Hope everyone enjoyed the brief respite; college basketball is back, and it’s bringing conference play with it; the WCC kicks off its conference slate today, with headlining games featuring Gonzaga (vs Santa Clara) and BYU (at Loyola Marymount). The other 32 leagues will soon follow course, and with all due respect to a scintillating opening eight weeks of college basketball, that means the real games are about to begin in earnest. Enjoy the beginning of that beginning today.