I. Renko is an RTC columnist. He will kick off each weekend during the season with his analysis of the 26 other non-power conferences. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
After a one-week hiatus, we are back and just in time for a veritable orgy of great college hoops matchups today. Yes, there is Louisville v. Syracuse, Florida v. Missouri, Oregon v. UCLA, and Ohio State v. Michigan State. But things get no less interesting as you move down to the mid-major level, where several compelling matchups featuring conference contenders will unfold. Before we get to the Top 10, let’s take a look at what’s on tap today:
- Gonzaga at Butler — The nation’s two Cinderella darlings will square off at the storied Hinkle Fieldhouse in a made-for-TV (yes, ESPN College Gameday will be in the house) contest. It will be the final game of Gonzaga’s non-conference schedule and, arguably, its toughest. The loss of Rotnei Clarke to a frightening neck injury will take some of the luster off of this matchup, as Butler will be playing without their leading scorer. The task will be no easier on the other end of the Court, as the Bulldogs will have to contend with a potent Gonzaga frontcourt, led by 7-footer Kelly Olynyk, who has emerged into a bona fide All-American candidate. But as we all know, being the underdog suits Brad Stevens just fine.
- Creighton at Wichita State — Doug McDermott has wowed the nation over the past week with a pair of 30-point games, and between his dominance and Creighton’s three-point shooting, the Bluejays’ offense has become quite difficult to stop. But if there’s a team in the MVC who can do it, it’s Wichita State. The Shockers have the best defense in the league, which will have the added boost of a raucous home crowd for this premier matchup. The Shockers’ strong, quick guards will challenge Creighton at the other end, and Cleanthony Early might prove a tough matchup for McDermott. Carl Hall is also back in the lineup for the Shockers, so both teams will be at full strength.
- Harvard at Memphis — With Conference USA muddling through a down year, this could be be Memphis’ toughest opponent of the 2013 calendar year. The Crimson have turned in a quality season despite the unexpected one-year withdrawals of senior leaders Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey due to an academic cheating scandal. Much of the credit for that goes to freshman point guard Siyani Chambers, who is fifth in the country in minutes per game. Tommy Amaker has put a great deal of faith in the young man, but he has rewarded him with a 31% assist rate, 50% three-point shooting average, and 88% FT shooting average. Chambers will lock horns with Joe Jackson, who has steadied himself this season to become a reliable scorer and team leader. The senior point guard has hit double-digits in points in 12 straight games, the longest mark of his college career.
- Western Illinois at North Dakota State — North Dakota State has been one of the great underreported stories of the season, rolling up a 16-3 record and supplanting South Dakota State as the Summit League’s favorite. But Western Illinois has also creeped to the top of the league standings, just a game behind NDSU at 6-1. The Leathernecks are led by an inside-out combo of big man Terrell Parks (13.9 ppg, 9.4 rbg) and do-everything senior guard Ceola Clark. Clark is an excellent defender, and he’ll need to be at his best to help stop a North Dakota State that is a well-oiled, methodical, efficient machine. Marshall Bjorkland, the Bison’s 6-8 junior, is arguably the most efficient scorer in the country. He leads the nation in effective FG percentage (72.4%) and is fourth in true shooting percentage (71.2%).
- Utah State at Denver — Louisiana Tech remains at the top of the WAC standings after holding off Idaho on Thursday night, but these two squads are just one loss behind them. So tonight’s game has a lot riding on it. Expect a low-scoring contest between two of the lowest tempo teams in the country. Royce O’Neale and Chris Udofia lead Denver’s Princeton offense, which wears down opponents with movement and relies heavily on the three-point shot. Utah State will look to Preston Medlin, who leads the team with 16.3 points per game, and center Jarred Shaw who gets lots of touches in Stew Morrill’s offense.
- College of Charleston at Davidson — Charleston will have a chance to move into a tie atop the Southern Conference South standings with a win at Davidson. They’ll be led by their backcourt combo of Andrew Lawrence and Anthony Stitt, while their hosts will rely more heavily on their frontcourt tandem of De’Mon Brooks and Jake Cohen. Davidson can fall in love with the three-point shot to their detriment. They’re better when they get the ball to the versatile Brooks and Cohen. Getting the ball in the basket won’t be easy against Charleston, which has a pretty good defense anchored in the middle by Adjehi Baru.
- Belmont v. Tennessee State – You would think that this game between the OVC’s two undefeated teams would lose its luster with the absence of Tennessee State’s star big man, Robert Covington, except for one thing — they’ve won every one of their six OVC games without him. Covington went down with a torn meniscus in a December 18 trip to Middle Tennessee State that the Tigers went on to lose by 38 points. At that point, they were 5-7 on the season but they’ve reeled off seven straight since and now sit atop the OVC East standings. But they may need more than the Ewing Effect when they travel across town to face off with Belmont. The switch from the A-Sun to the OVC hasn’t dimmed the Bruins’ ability to dominate their conference competition.
So there it is, a day-long feast for the glutton who craves mid-major hoops. We move on, now, to the updated Top 10 rankings, our weekly (starting this week) Honor Roll, and a few more games to keep an eye on as the week unfolds.