RTC Weekly Primer: Don’t Sleep on Mid-December Games

Posted by Henry Bushnell on December 16th, 2014

Every Monday (sometimes Tuesday), Henry Bushnell will provide a look ahead at the week to come. He’ll discuss the week’s top storylines, preview the three most prominent and compelling games, put a giant or two on upset alert, and decide which teams are in desperate need of a big week.

It’s a cold, dark Monday night in December. The holiday scent is in the air. Subpar football unwillingly seeps out of a TV. Winter threatens to envelop us – if it hasn’t already done so. On this cold, dark Monday night in December, college basketball doesn’t really matter. Or at least it seems like it doesn’t. The Monday evening slate is tinged with irrelevance. Duke sleepwalks over Elon, and not many take note. The sport still lurks in the distance. Lenses are still out of focus.

Exam Weeks Around the Nation Building Young Minds

Exam Weeks Around the Nation Building Young Minds

But this, my friends, is a time as important as any in college basketball. When the final weekend of February rolls around, we’ll be scrutinizing teams inside and out, but December matters too. Just ask a team like Cal, which barely missed out on the NCAA Tournament a year ago. Analysts rued their March losses to Arizona State and Utah, but how about that December loss to UC Santa Barbara? That hurt too. Or ask Southern Miss, which built up a solid résumé, but was left to wonder what might have been if it hadn’t slipped up against Western Kentucky during the week before Christmas. On that same day, December 18, 2013, NC State toppled Tennessee. The Wolfpack made the field as one of the last four teams in. That’s not a coincidence.

Don’t ignore this week. Even with those lenses somewhat out of focus, the results will come into plain sight soon enough. It doesn’t matter how you win; your performance doesn’t have to be aesthetic. Just get the job done. Statements can be made. They will not be forgotten.

Three for the Money

North Carolina vs. Ohio State | Saturday, 1:00 PM, CBS

Roy Williams’ Tar Heels were a top-10 outfit back in November, but it’s Thad Matta’s Buckeyes that are playing like one. Still, the Buckeyes have only been tested once – on the road at Louisville – and they failed. North Carolina, on the other hand, has played six of its last seven games against KenPom top-100 teams, dropping three of them. Both teams, therefore, could use a win Saturday at the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago. The most intriguing aspect of this match-up is North Carolina’s fast-break offense. We all know that the Tar Heels want to push the ball, even after made baskets – they average 15.3 seconds per offensive possession, good for 12th in the nation. But through nine games, Ohio State’s stifling defense is forcing opponents to average 21 seconds per offensive possession, the second-slowest opponent pace in the country. The key to the game won’t necessarily be controlling tempo – Ohio State likes to run too, when the opportunity presents itself – but rather it’ll be whether Ohio State can slow down the Tar Heels’ transition game and force them to execute in the half court. If the Buckeyes can, they should win a key non-conference resume-enhancing tilt.

Oklahoma vs. Washington | Saturday, 9:00 PM, ESPNU

Of the remaining untarnished résumés, Washington’s is one of the most questionable. But there aren’t many better ways to answer potential questions than with a neutral site win over a ranked team, and that’s what the Huskies have a chance to do Saturday night at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. This has all the makings of a defensive battle. Lorenzo Romar’s team is excelling on the defensive end of the floor, holding San Diego State to 36 points (0.65 per possession) in an upset win a little over a week ago, and it is limiting teams to just 26.1 percent from three-point range. That could be worrisome for Oklahoma, who is prone to getting three-happy despite shooting a mediocre 33.3 percent from beyond the arc. The Sooners have an imposing defense themselves, and should be able to match the Huskies here blow for blow.

Butler vs. Indiana | Saturday, 2:30 PM, Fox Sports 1

Butler and Indiana Turned in a Classic Two Years Ago (credit: Pat Lovell)

Butler and Indiana Turned in a Classic Two Years Ago (credit: Pat Lovell)

Surely you remember the last time these two met. It was December 15, 2012, at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, just as it is this year. No. 1 Indiana, undefeated and led by Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, was stunned by unranked Butler and Alex Barlow, whose fading floater rimmed home and won the Bulldogs the game with just 2.3 seconds remaining in overtime. This time around, Butler is the ranked team, having already stunned North Carolina in the Bahamas. But Indiana’s freshman duo of James Blackmon and Robert Johnson is propelling an underrated (is that even possible?) group of Hoosiers. The Eastern Washington upset stands out, but Indiana has taken care of SMU and Pittsburgh, and hung right with Louisville for 30 minutes. This is an even match-up, and it’s bound to be an exciting one.

Staying Neutral. Many of this week’s big games will be played at neutral sites, which means that there is an abundance of opportunities for crucial wins. In addition to the three mentioned above, Missouri will battle Illinois in the Braggin’ Rights game, Northern Iowa will take on Iowa in Des Moines, and right after Butler-Indiana, Purdue will play Notre Dame in the second half of the Crossroads Classic. There’s also West Virginia against NC State at the Garden. These are the kinds of games the committee remembers.

Matching Up: Brimah vs. Okafor. On Thursday evening (8:00 PM, ESPN), Duke will put its perfect record on the line against UConn in New Jersey. And while the Blue Devils are the far superior team, Jahlil Okafor will meet his stiffest defender of the season. Connecticut sophomore center Amida Brimah made headlines Sunday when he scored 40 points on 13-of-13 shooting in only 28 minutes against Coppin State, but the real reason he presents such an intriguing match-up is his length and shot-blocking ability. As a freshman, Brimah’s 15.1 percent block rate was a top-five mark in the country, and he was a major contributor during UConn’s title run. Okafor’s offensive game is incredibly polished, but he hasn’t yet faced a seven-footer with Brimah’s defensive skill set. Let’s see how he fares.

Unbeaten Watch. Washington and Duke aren’t the only undefeated teams whose records could be in danger this week. In fact, of the nine unbeatens remaining, six could be challenged. On Saturday afternoon, Villanova welcomes Syracuse to Philadelphia, and Kentucky meets UCLA in Chicago. Then on Sunday, Virginia has an intriguing home date with a Harvard team that knows they need an eye-opening non-conference win. But before all that, late Friday night…

Upset Alert! Arizona heads to UTEP for a game that will strangely tip off at 10:00 PM local time. Nobody will be watching, but it’s just the kind of awkward situation that could give the Wildcats some trouble. Heck, even without considering the intangibles, KenPom gives the Miners a 29 percent chance to win. And it’s not the greatest on-court match-up for Arizona either. UTEP actually has more size – the Miners go 6’8″, 6’8″, 6’10” across the forward line, plus 6’11” and 7’1″ off the bench – than their Pac-12 foes, rebounds the ball well, and plays solid two-point defense. Plus, Tim Floyd’s team has already pulled off one upset so far this season, beating Xavier in November. The point of Upset Alert isn’t to say that Arizona will lose. But just don’t be surprised if it happens.

Crunch Time

  • Michigan: Nobody needs a win more than the Wolverines. Their shocking loss to NJIT was followed by a not-as-shocking-but-still-shocking loss to Eastern Michigan, and then a pummeling at the hands of Arizona. More than getting a résumé-enhancing win, Michigan just needs to right the ship. But it’s not going to be easy, with Larry Brown’s SMU team preparing to visit Crisler Arena on Saturday. The good news is that John Beilein’s squad has a week to recover and prepare – perhaps mentally more than physically – for the Mustangs and the proposition of a fourth straight loss. But with Big Ten play looming, it’s one that they absolutely must get.
  • Cincinnati: The Bearcats have now lost two of their last three games to mediocre teams – Ole Miss and Nebraska – and Saturday’s slugfest that ended in an overtime loss to the Cornhuskers was particularly draining. Mick Cronin’s team now has a big week ahead, with both San Diego State (Wednesday) and VCU (Saturday) on the docket. With both games at home, at least one victory is imperative. First to 50 wins on Wednesday.
Henry Bushnell (39 Posts)

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