RTC Weekly Primer: Hilton Magic, Yum!, and Battle Out West

Posted by Henry Bushnell on January 13th, 2015

The first two months of the college basketball season are all about landmarks. Okay, they’re not all about landmarks, but they are about building up to something more important, and landmarks help us track the progress. First there are Midnight Madness and the season’s opening weekend. Then, the Champions Classic followed by all the holiday tournaments. More recently we’ve celebrated the return of conference play and the first full Saturday of games. Now, we’ve got one final landmark to pass before we hit full stride: the return of ESPN’s College Gameday. The festive travelling Saturday pregame show is back for good this weekend when Rece Davis and the crew travel to Ames for Iowa State’s match-up with Kansas, and it returns with some tweaks. First of all, Seth Greenberg replaces Digger Phelps as one of the three studio analysts; but more importantly, flex scheduling has been introduced, which means ESPN can choose its destination a week in advance to ensure it relocates to the most intriguing game of the weekend (just like the football version). With the eyes of the college sports world now fully trained on the hardwood, a more interesting Gameday experience is just another of many things to look forward to in 2015.

Three for the Money

This Was the View the Last Time These Two Teams Met

This Was the View the Last Time These Two Teams Met

  • Kansas at Iowa State | Saturday, 9:00 PM EST, ESPN. If Kansas and Iowa State are worthy of Gameday’s attention, they’re certainly worthy of ours. Assuming that the Jayhawks get past Oklahoma State at home on Tuesday – by no means a foregone conclusion – they’ll have successfully shrugged off questions and will have started Big 12 play 3-0 for the ninth consecutive year. On the other side of things, Iowa State is one of the most enigmatic teams in the country. On some nights the Cyclones look offensively un-containable, but on others, they look completely out of sync. One thing for which they can be counted on though is a healthy sprinkling of Hilton Magic. Iowa State has only dropped two games over the past three calendar years in their building, but both, however, came against Kansas. Both were also barn-burners. Count on another one this Saturday. 
  • Duke at Louisville | Saturday, Noon EST, ESPN. The Jayhawks and Cyclones got Gameday, but this early tip-off between the Blue Devils and Cardinals should garner just as much attention. NC State played the role of narrative-killer on Sunday when its upset meant Coach K won’t have an opportunity to win his 1,000th game here, but perhaps now the game will take on a little added importance. The key will be how Louisville’s guards keep Duke out of the lane and how well they recover to the three-point shooters. Jahlil Okafor will clearly be a factor underneath, but if Terry Rozier and Chris Jones can make things uncomfortable for Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones, the Blue Devils could fall short of their customary offensive output.
  • Utah at Arizona | Saturday, 7:00 PM EST, Pac-12 Network. Saturday could go a long way to deciding the Pac-12 crown this season. And while it’s a shame that this game is buried on the Pac-12 Network, it’s a huge occasion. Utah is the insurgent, rising to power from the ashes, while Arizona is still king until proven otherwise. The Wildcats’ throne will be seriously threatened on Saturday. After a stunning loss to Oregon State — coming only three games after a defeat at UNLV — there are some issues in Tucson. Sean Miller still hasn’t found consistent enough offense from his talented group, and one worry is that he must sacrifice defense to get his best offensive five on the floor. Delon Wright, Utah’s do-everything combo guard, will look to take advantage of a physically underwhelming Arizona backcourt. Find this one on a stream somewhere.

Matching Up: Jakob Poeltl vs. Kaleb Tarczewski

Another key battle in the Utah-Arizona game will be down low. Jakob Poeltl, Utah’s seven-foot Austrian freshman, is a menace on the offensive glass. He’s fallen off a bit lately but is still a big-time talent. Kaleb Tarczewski, on the other hand, has been increasingly efficient as his career has progressed in Tucson. He and Poeltl also have nearly identical frames. If Tarczewski can neutralize Poeltl and let Brandon Ashley go to work on the Utes’ undersized power forwards, it will be advantage, Arizona.

Upset Alert!

This is probably the time to just drop the mic and retire the Upset Alert section of this column. OK, I won’t do that, but allow me to gloat for a bit. To be blunt, I’m on fire. Three weeks ago, I called Temple over Kansas (it didn’t make the column, which ran on Tuesday, but trust me, I did); two weeks ago, I said Villanova would go down (right before Seton Hall got them). And last week, I foresaw another NC State court rush after an upset of Duke. So who will it be this week? There’s nothing that jumps out at me, but something caught my eye out west on Thursday night. Utah could be looking at a trap game at Arizona State, but that’s not it. I actually think Gonzaga is the team that could be in trouble. This year’s Bulldogs are a different team than the ones that have hit some speed bumps on the WCC road in the past, but that doesn’t make this year’s version immune to a shock. They travel to Pepperdine on Thursday night in what is their second toughest game of the rest of the regular season. The Waves are 4-1 in conference play; they just won at BYU; and they have the top three-point defense in the country. That’s not necessarily the formula required to beat Gonzaga this season, but I’ve been riding my gut recently rather than match-ups and rational thinking, so I’ll go with it again. I don’t love the pick, but I had to choose something. The Zags are going down.

Mid-Major Watch

Larry Nance Might be the Best Player You've Never Seen Play

Larry Nance Might be the Best Player You’ve Never Seen Play

There are a couple big games at the summits of two of the better non-power-six leagues. On the east coast, VCU and Rhode Island — both 3-0 in the Atlantic 10 — meet tonight. Dan Hurley’s Rams are the conference’s surprise package, but they need a big win here to officially announce their candidacy. Out west, preseason Mountain West favorite San Diego State makes the long trek to Wyoming on Wednesday. The Cowboys are the only 4-0 team in the MW and probably have the league’s best player in Larry Nance, but here they’ll come up against college basketball’s second-best defensive unit.

Vegas Not Fazed by Kentucky’s Scares

The Wildcats are 23.5-point favorites over Missouri tonight, but Saturday at Alabama projects as their toughest SEC test yet. Could the Crimson Tide pull off the gigantic upset? Doubtful, but not out of the question.

Crunch Time For…

  • Temple – The Owls knocked off UConn two weeks ago and now face the other two conference contenders, SMU (home) and Cincinnati (away), this week. At least one win is imperative for Fran Dunphy’s team to stay in contention.
  • Ohio State – The Buckeyes still have zero top-40 wins and only one victory away from home, an overtime triumph at reeling Minnesota. Columbus is already jubilant after the football team’s national championship, but the basketball team needs two wins this week over Michigan and Iowa.
  • Almost Everybody in the Big 12 – If you discard the two worst teams in the conference (Texas Tech and TCU), every other Big 12 team has a game against a ranked opponent this week and five of those remaining eight play two games against ranked teams. In this conference, on any given night, during any given week, statements can be made.

CBB Survivor Picks

  • ACC: Virginia – The Cavaliers get a bit of a breather — home vs. Clemson; at Virginia Tech — after two difficult games last week.
  • Big 12: TCU – Only one game this week, and it’s at Texas Tech.
  • Big East: Villanova – Xavier could be a tough match-up, but I feel pretty confident in Jay Wright’s squad at home.
  • Big Ten: Purdue – Only one game this week, and it’s at Penn State.
  • Pac-12: UCLA – Only one game this week, and it’s at USC.
  • SEC: Arkansas – The SEC is tough conference to get a handle on. Even Kentucky isn’t a sure bet this week, and I used the Wildcats last week anyway.
Henry Bushnell (39 Posts)

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