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Friday, December 14, 2018

10 college basketball games to watch in December

Bill Self

November college basketball is a wild ride. Half the games are big time match-ups fabricated by sponsored tournaments and the other half feature certain blowouts. One thing both genres share in common is lack of national interest. Tournaments held during Thanksgiving week draw out the die-hards but lack attendance or TV viewing from even casual basketball fans.

Flipping the calendar from November to December makes things start to feel real in college hoops. Some conferences tip off league play, while some blue-blood programs schedule enticing match-ups in on-campus gyms. Gone are the sleepy vacation resort crowds, and in their place are the pep bands and student sections that make this sport great.

Over the 31 days of December, there is plenty to attract your attention, highlighted by this slate of games featuring top teams throughout the nation.

Purdue at Michigan, Dec. 1

Last year, the Big Ten moved a few conference games for each team to the early part of January to compensate for the league playing its conference tournament abnormally early. Most power conferences end their tournament in the 48 hours prior to Selection Sunday. Because the Big Ten wanted access to Madison Square Garden, which is already booked in mid-March by the Big East Tournament, the Big Ten moved things up a week.

This year, the Big Ten Tournament is back where it belongs in Chicago, but the early December conference games remain on the schedule. Big Ten brass looks to the semester break and a newly expanded 20-game conference slate as the reasons.

Whatever the case, it will always feel strange to have important conference games just days following Thanksgiving. That’s where we find ourselves this very Saturday, with two of the league’s top teams squaring off already.

Though it feels like Conference Player of the Year won’t be awarded for millennia, Carsen Edwards can cement himself as the frontrunner for the honor. Getting off to a hot scoring start, especially with a win in Ann Arbor, would put the spotlight on Edwards for the rest of the Big Ten season.

Iowa at Michigan State, Dec. 3

Just two days later, two more of the Big Ten’s best will go toe-to-toe. This is not a match-up that necessarily flashed off the calendar preseason. Michigan State looked to be the class of the conference and while Iowa seemed poised for a strong year, they have impressed more than expected. The Hawkeyes are undefeated, with wins over Oregon, UConn, and Pitt. Iowa can already start to prove itself as a team capable of a tournament run with a win in East Lansing.

In the other locker room, things have not gone fully according to plan. Sparty has already lost twice, to Kansas and Louisville, as they adjust to life without Miles Bridges on campus. Michigan State has the talent to be in the conversation at the top of the bracket, but needs to start banking high quality wins to stay in that conversation. This would be the perfect game to do so.

Iowa State at Iowa, Dec. 6

Just three days after that crucial conference match-up, Iowa turns around and hosts one of the most underrated rivalries in college basketball. The Cyclones and Hawkeyes play in two of the sport’s most iconic venues and have tussled once per year since 1970. Since the teams started playing yearly, Iowa leads the series by a narrow margin of 25 wins to 23.

This year’s match-up will be greatly affected by the availability of a host of Iowa State contributors. So far this season, four Cyclones have yet to suit up. Lindell Wigginton and Solomon Young have been injured, while Cameron Lard and Zoran Talley were suspended by the program for the team’s first seven games. Combined, those four players started 97 times last season. Coach Steve Prohm is hopefully that his team will continue to build as it comes back together healthy.

So far, even with a chunk of the team unavailable, Iowa State has looked excellent, winning twice at the Maui Invitational. Freshman Talen Horton-Tucker looks like a future star and Virginia transfer Marial Shayock has always been able to score.

Nevada vs. Arizona State (in Los Angeles), Dec. 7

If you’ve only been following college basketball from the surface so far this season, you’ll want to check out Nevada as soon as possible. The Wolf Pack isn’t just good for a mid-major; Eric Musselman has built one of the best teams in college basketball. After reaching the Sweet Sixteen last March with a team already almost exclusively assembled via transfers to Reno, Musselman added three more quality transfer players and a talented freshman in big man Jordan Brown.

The Wolf Pack will make an interesting challenge for Arizona State freshman guard Luguentz Dort. The Canadian phenom has been spectacular this season, yet has not faced Top 25 competition yet. Nevada has tons of options when defending Dort, making this a very intriguing match-up when the Sun Devils have the ball.

Gonzaga vs. Tennessee (in Phoenix), Dec. 9

The Zags look like the headliner in this match-up, thanks to their fantastic win over a dominant Duke team in Maui. I wouldn’t, however, overlook Tennessee when considering possible Final Four teams. Perhaps because the Vols lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, many seem to have forgotten just how good Tennessee was last season. A team that won 26 games last season returns the 11th-highest percentage of its minutes played last season. Grant Williams won SEC Player of the Year last season and has been treated like a relative afterthought this year.

The Vols showcased what they are capable of already by taking Kansas to overtime earlier this month. Williams fouled out just before the extra period and the Jayhawks prevailed, though Tennessee was impressive. The game felt as much like a tournament match-up as any other game so far this season, except for Gonzaga’s win over Duke. This game should have plenty of juice behind it and be a nice test for both teams.

Villanova at Kansas, Dec. 15

Although Villanova has bounced back to a certain degree, there may be no worse fate for a team in need of turning things around than a trip to Phog Allen Fieldhouse. In 15 years at Kansas, Bill Self has more Big XII Conference titles (14) than losses in his home gym (11). It’s just so rare for any team to sneak into Lawrence and leave with a win, especially for this Villanova team, which is clearly both less talented and less polished than any Jay Wright has had in half a decade.

The Wildcats have taken the 9th most three-point attempts this season, but have shot just 32.9 percent as a team. No Villanova team has shot under 33 percent since 2012. That number could recover with a hot shooting night, but that percentage is a symptom of a deeper problem. Villanova isn’t making shots because none of the Wildcats excel at creating shots, for themselves or for others.

Against a rangy Kansas defense, that could be a serious problem. Kansas fans will be salivating at the chance to avenge NCAA Tournament losses to the Wildcats in 2016 and 2018.

Gonzaga at North Carolina, Dec. 15

Because Gonzaga has reached a point in its program history where it can seek a number one seed every March, but still plays in the West Coast Conference, we as the viewing public are treated to a few extra gems involving the Zags every December. While most high-profile teams will play one or two big games, often because they are sanctioned to do so in a tournament or challenge-type event, the Zags find themselves scheduling tough games, often away from the comforts of home.

This game features one key question for the Tar Heels: who on the Carolina roster can cover a player like Rui Hachimura? We’ll see who Roy Williams tries on a player of Hachimura’s size and athleticism during this game, taking notes for later down the road. Coach K will have an eager eye on UNC’s defense against a player as springy and agile as Hachimura, knowing he and freshman Zion Williamson have at least two future dates with North Carolina.

Duke vs. Texas Tech (at Madison Square Garden), Dec. 20

You didn’t think we could make it through this entire list without a Duke game, did you? Of course not! The Blue Devils have been the hottest ticket in college basketball all season. Every win has been exhilarating and full of dunks and highlights. Duke’s only loss was arguably the best played game of the young season. So of course we have to recommend checking out the Blue Devils in their home-away-from-home at the “Mecca of Basketball” in New York City.

They’ll face a Texas Tech team that should provide ample challenge. Sophomore Jarrett Culver has increased his scoring, rebound, and assist numbers this year, now posting 18.8 points per game with 50 percent shooting from long range. He is a rising name among NBA scouts and should make for an intriguing defensive assignment for the Duke guards as they also try to impress decision makers at the next level.

Kansas at Arizona State, Dec. 22

While Kansas gets Villanova in the comfy confines of Phog Allen Fieldhouse, the Jayhawks will travel to Tempe to face off with Luguentz Dort and the Sun Devils. Remember that stat above about how few home losses Bill Self has at Kansas? One came last year at the hands of Bobby Hurley’s Arizona State program. The Jayhawks started that game on a 15-2 to run before losing in convincing fashion.

The second half of the home-and-home series gives Kansas a chance for revenge. Lagerald Vick should draw the assignment of guarding Dort, though based on match-ups, this should be a game dictated by the Kansas bigs. Dedric Lawson is poised to comfortably record a double-double in this one.

North Carolina vs. Kentucky (in Chicago), Dec. 22

Give Roy Williams and his staff some credit this year. The Heels will play five KenPom Top 50 teams before Christmas and also started their season with true road games at Wofford and Elon. Duke, by the way, won’t play a true road game until Jan. 8, while the Tar Heels will have played five away games by that date.

This game, like so many early season Kentucky tilts, will be a good measuring stick to determine which freshmen are prepared for conference play. That goes for both teams here, as UNC is also giving high volume minutes to two freshman. Point guard Coby White looked pedestrian at Michigan this week. An up-and-down race with Big Blue is the kind of game where his attacking style could thrive.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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