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The Watch: What do we know, and when do we know it?

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The Watch is running on Tuesday this week ... because Monday’s schedule stunk. The rest of the week: not so much!

NCAA Basketball: Arizona State at Kansas
Arizona State and Tennessee have been two of the more surprising teams so far in college basketball. But what other surprises are in store?
Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

I can’t watch every game.

Each week, though, I offer you, dear reader, 20 suggestions. I started this feature as much for me as for you. The beauty of college basketball is the bounty it offers up and the diversity of players, styles, and rivalries. Still, it’s often too much. So I rely on KenPom, Hoop Math, Statbroadcast and various Twitter feeds to get a sense of the sport’s topography.

By this time in the calendar, we should a good idea about the terrain. But just as we feel safe putting our feet in a certain place, the plates underneath them begin shifting. Half the top-15 took losses, and two top-5 teams—Kansas and Florida—lost twice. Boston College busted Duke’s zone from long range. Notre Dame lost to a sneaky good Ball State program. Minnesota was picked off twice on the road, the latter loss giving Arkansas its first quality win. Nevada left the top-25 as quickly as it appeared. And USC now appears to be the latest Pac-12 contender stuck in a rut.

On Monday, ESPN’s Jeff Borzello had Arizona State, which was picked sixth in the Pac-12, atop his power rankings.

His calculus:

Right now, it's hard to make a case that any team in the country has a profile better than the Sun Devils. Villanova is undefeated, like Arizona State, and its two best wins are over Gonzaga and Tennessee. Michigan State has comparable wins over North Carolina and Notre Dame, but the Spartans also have a loss.

And I hardly saw it coming. I scour FanMatch each week. I watch hoops. I devour KenPom, Hoop Math and Statbroadcast. Still, I didn’t sense the tectonics operating in such a way to elevate Bobby Hurley’s crew. The same thinking applies to Tennessee. (More on the Vols later.)

We’re a third of the way into the season. Conference play opens next month. Or, if you’re in the Big Ten or ACC, it’s already been sprinkled into the non-league portion of the slate. We can’t make bold proclamations, but we’ve seen enough to go beyond faint impressions.

That’s certainly true in the SEC—or at least at the top of the heap.

At this point, Texas A&M has lived up to its potential. Alabama has flirted with disaster and taken a home loss to UCF, but the Tide still boast one of the SEC’s most balanced attacks. UK is young, lacks jump-shooting and hasn’t truly been tested. That will change in the coming weeks. As for Florida, they’ve lost three in a row. Our concerns about their front line aren’t just projections. Dating back to their win over Gonzaga, the Gators are being outscored by 12 points per game in the paint and sporting a minus-4.2 rebound margin. And if 3-pointers aren’t raining down, coach Mike White’s team is posting less than one point per possession inside the arc.

The rest of the league? Well, it’s muddled.

Missouri has a top-25 caliber offense but doesn’t value the ball. But that seems nitpicky, especially since Mizzou sits at 8-2 and didn’t tumble into a pit of despair after losing Michael Porter Jr. The same thinking applies to Auburn. Mustapha Heron is doing the heavy lifting, but players like Desean Murray and Anfernee McLemore are filling the void left by the indefinite absences of Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy. Arkansas looks to be better than we assumed, too. Even Georgia, with wins over Saint Mary’s and Marquette, has shown some pluck.

Blank regions exist, though.

On Monday, Mississippi State picked up eight votes in the Associated Press poll, an oddity I find amusing. Few teams, and I’m talking about Georgetown, have faced a weaker non-conference schedule. The Bulldogs lined up six games against teams rated below No. 250 in KenPom, including four sub-300 opponents. Remaining undefeated should be commended, but State has squeaked past Jacksonville State—a threat in the Ohio Valley Conference—and a rebuilding Dayton.

Ben Howland’s rationale is easy to grasp: He’s got a young team--again--and trying to insulate it until SEC play arrives. In the process, it also muddies the water when it comes to slotting MSU in the conference hierarchy. Quinndary Weatherspoon is one of the league’s best returning players. Aric Holman is a solid body in the paint. The Bulldogs may avoid floggings, but I can’t help but think Arkansas’ arrival in early January will unmask these guys as pretenders.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that the SEC is trending in the right direction. Arkansas, Tennessee and, to an extent, Missouri have shown the middle of the conference has some mettle. But this week, we’ll get a better idea of whether Tennessee is a team that can elbow its way into the top-four of the standings. Mississippi State gets its first and only test with a road trip to Cincinnati. And Auburn has a tricky game on a neutral floor.

A sweep of those games would be impressive—and drive home the idea that up to 10 SEC teams could scrap for at-large bids in March. With that, let’s get to The Watch.


THE CAN'T-MISS

We get it: You may not have the time (or inclination) to load up your schedule with games to watch. That’s why we single out the game you should carve out to time to see each week.

NCAA Basketball: Lipscomb at Tennessee
Grant Williams could be one of the nation’s best undersized forwards. He’s also what passes for a star on a Tennessee roster of largely unheralded prospects.
Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

No. 7 North Carolina at No. 20 Tennessee | 2 p.m. CT Saturday, ESPN

A common crutch for writers is to use a star player as representative of a program’s culture—itself something that’s practically impossible to quantify.

Well, I’ll use it now.

Our brain trust at various SB Nation sites pegged Tennessee to finish 11th in the SEC. Traditional scribes were more pessimistic, picking the Volunteers to finish ahead of only LSU. Anyone who’s paid attention, though, knows Rick Barnes’ rebuild is a tad trickier than it otherwise might appear. And when Robert Hubbs III walked out the door, UT seemingly lacked a do-it-all player.

If you haven’t met him, let me introduce you to combo forward Grant Williams, a sophomore averaging 16.1 points and 7.3 points—numbers that hint Barnes may not have lost his touch. Williams, to be blunt, wasn’t a hot commodity on the recruiting trail. He was an undersized forward adept at playing in the mid-post but just an average athlete. Williams compensated with a sound face-up game and a knack to play off the bounce from the high post.

As a sophomore, his range hasn’t extended beyond the 3-point line, but Williams is a monster at the rim (67.6 percent), and his mid-range game (44.0 percent) is still solid. He’s such a load that Williams draws almost 7 fouls per 40 minutes of game action. Barnes has done a fantastic job taking a high-IQ player and directing his assertiveness, and Williams has emerged as one of the nation’s more underrated post players.

Easing the pressure on Williams to produce are a pair of ball-handlers in Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bone. Employing lineups with two ball-handlers have allowed Barnes to lean on complementary styles. Bone is able to attack gaps and seams, but can be erratic—a trait offset by Turner’s smooth and polished floor game. Together, the sophomores supply 20 points combined a night and help the Vols to the nation’s top assist percentage. Finally, Jordan Bowden has shown flashes of being the kind of replacement for Hubbs that Tennessee needs on the wing.

The Vols’ signature win, a 78-75 overtime victory over then-No. 16 Purdue, was a prime example of their skills working in lockstep. A week later, they blitzed Southern Conference favorite Mercer in Knoxville. A chief question confronting Barnes was whether he could develop a core of players that could give Tennessee a chance to compete night in and night out. Well, the early returns appear positive.

With the top-25 in flaming ruins, an opportunity exists for the Vols to make a major move. Nothing is better primer than a visit from North Carolina, which has the size and veteran perimeter players to appropriately gauge the matter Barnes has on his hands.

Tar Heels forward Luke Maye has gone from walk-on to superstar, and his matchup with Williams is one few recruiting analysts would have deemed high profile a couple years ago. On the perimeter, Joel Berry has done a nice job keeping the trains on time, while super sub and slasher Theo Pinson is now a starter.

Tennessee will also have to overcome and undersized frontline—forward Admiral Scholfield is just 6-foot-5—and a tendency to give up offensive rebounds. Keep an eye on Kyle Alexander, a 6-11 junior, who scored 13 points and yanked down 11 rebounds against a large Purdue frontcourt.

North Carolina’s tempo shouldn’t terrify the Vols, but transition defense—as it always against Roy Williams’ secondary break—will be a premium. If Tennessee can stay organized, compete on the backboards, and get timely and efficient perimeter shooting, they might be able to snatch a signature win.


THE CONFERENCE CALL

The SEC is trying to be better at basketball. Schools are assembling tougher schedules, hiring better coaches and recruiting at a higher level. We want to spotlight one matchup, and not always the one that first comes to mind, that’s interesting, could influence national perception or have major implications for the league race.

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Dayton
Transfer guard Desean Murray has been critical for Auburn, which needed other players to step forward after Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley were held out for possible ties to the pay-for-play scandal rippling through college basketball.
David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Middle Tennessee vs. Auburn | 5 p.m. Saturday CT, SEC Network

If you’re a regular reader, you know I’ve already advised you to check out Middle Tennessee. And in the two weeks since, the Blue Raiders have matched the billing. They knocked off a reeling Vanderbilt in Nashville. On Saturday, they outscored Ole Miss by 20 points after halftime for a 77-58 victory in Murfreesboro.

As they head to Birmingham, Kermit Davis’ program is eyeing an SEC sweep in non-conference play—a feat that might help their at-large case in March.

For Auburn, this neutral floor game is possibly their toughest of the non-conference portion of the schedule, and it’s our first chance to see how Pearl’s group fares against an NCAA tournament-caliber foe.

The Tigers’ schedule hasn’t left us wincing at missed opportunities to see how Pearl stabilized a program that fired an assistant coach and sat down a pair of starters on the eve of the regular season. If we’re honest, the early signs didn’t hint at a full recovery. Auburn dropped an exhibition game against Division II Barry College, a loss where the Tigers (again) seemed apathetic defensively. Two weeks later, Temple used a 31-17 run over the final 10 minutes to hand Auburn a loss in the Charleston Classic.

Since then, the Tigers reeled off six consecutive victories. More importantly, guard Mustapha Heron has received help. Point guard Jared Harper was a bright spot last season, but he’s been even better early on, dealing out 5.2 assists per game and serving as a deadly spot-up threat by hitting 43.9 percent from behind the arc. He’s paired up well with Bryce Brown, another deep-shooting option for Pearl’s fast-paced attack.

What has mattered more, however, has been the play of Anfernee McLemore on the interior. No, he doesn’t have the scoring punch of Wiley. But he’s been every bit the rim protector Auburn’s needed, ranking seventh nationally with 3.6 blocks per game and leading the nation in block percentage. He’s also been stellar on the backboards. Meanwhile, top-75 freshman Chuma Okeke, who’s added 8.2 points and 5.6 points in reserve.

If Auburn can get steady production from Brown, Harper, McLemore and Presbyterian transfer Desean Murray the Tigers could still be a factor as SEC play arrives. Right now, Middle Tennessee, which is headed by a post duo of Nick King and Brandon Walters, is a good proxy for an SEC peer. A comfortable victory would be telling as we try to figure out whether to keep Auburn on the list of potential bubble teams from the league.


THE DEEP CUT

We at Rock M Nation believe in equality. There are quality hoops played in mid-major and low-major conferences, and those are the wells of rising coaching talent and potential Cinderella teams. As a true hoops connoisseur, you should see the players, coaches, and teams long before the spotlight finds them in March. So, we will bring you one game that might otherwise be considered off the grid.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon, the favorite in the withered WAC, is now eligible for the NCAA tournament.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Grand Canyon at Boise State | 8 p.m. CT Wednesday, Stadium

It’s the commercials.

That’s how you know GCU, the for-profit university with its roots linked to the Southern Baptist church. Well, there’s also a physical campus, with 19,000 undergrads to boot, in the Phoenix area, and a fledgling basketball program that could become another part of the school’s marketing apparatus.

Four years ago, the school made the jump from Division II to the Western Athletic Conference, but with the transition came a three-year period where its programs would not be eligible for the NCAA postseason. Now that’s done, and coach Dan Majerle has done a stunningly quick construction job.

As Sam Vecenie detailed in 2016, the Antelopes hunted the transfer market like it was a waiver wire. Majerle also mined local prospects like point guard Joshua Braun, who tore ACLs in both knees within a year and saw his recruiting stock plummet. Connections also helped them land Casey Benson, whose brother just so happened to be a GCU assistant.

The Antelopes aren’t great offensively, but they have the size and length that you don’t normally see at low-major programs to be a problem on the defensive end.

Meanwhile, you know about Boise because of blue turf.

On the hardwood, Leon Rice has done about as much as one can expect with a program that has no natural recruiting territory. The Broncos have hovered at the top of the Mountain West, but haven’t been able to supplant San Diego State. At the same time, Nevada has improved under Eric Musselman, and UNLV figures to be better as Marvin Menzies settles in.

There’s no window for Rice, a former Gonzaga assistant, but the margin of error for Boise State to compete in its league is tighter. Swingman Chandler Hutchison is a do-everything player for the Broncos, posting 14.0 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. Critically, four other Broncos—Justinian Jessup, Christian Sengfelder and Alex Hobbs—are averaging double-figures and lending some semblance of balance. Yet Boise State has struggled to rebound, in spite of their adequate size, and been turnover prone early.

The ramifications of a win for either program won’t loom large in March, but it’s probably our best chance to gauge the WAC favorite before GCU slogs through a sub-par WAC slate.


THE DOCKET

Other games that should have your attention or eyeballs this week. They’re top-25 matchups, solid high-major meetings, interesting SEC games and others that have implications for low- and mid-major conferences. All tip-times are based on CST.

Tuesday

  • Mississippi State at No. 25 Cincinnati, 6 p.m., ESPN2
  • Yale at Iona, 6 p.m., ESPN3
  • Michigan at Texas, 8 p.m., ESPN2

Wednesday

  • No. 1 Villanova at Temple, 6 p.m., ESPN2
  • Monmouth at Princeton, 6 p.m., ESPN3
  • Houston at LSU, 8 p.m., SEC Network

Saturday

  • No. 17 Purdue vs. Butler, 11 a.m., Fox
  • Virginia Tech at No. 8 Kentucky, 1 p.m., ESPN2
  • Davidson at No. 16 Virginia, 1 p.m., ACC Network Extra
  • Stephen F. Austin at LSU, 1 p.m., SEC Network
  • Oklahoma State vs. No. 19 Florida State, 1 p.m. Fox Sports South
  • No. 18 Notre Dame vs. Indiana, 1:30 p.m., Fox
  • No. 2 Michigan State vs. Oakland, 1:30 p.m., ESPNU
  • No. 25 Cincinnati at UCLA, 2:30 p.m., CBS
  • Illinois State at Ole Miss, 2:30 p.m., SEC Network
  • Oklahoma at No. 3 Wichita State, 3 p.m., ESPN2
  • Clemson vs. No. 22 Florida, 3:30 p.m., Fox Sports South
  • No. 13 Kansas at Nebraska, 7 p.m., FS1
  • Utah at BYU, 10 p.m., ESPN2

Sunday

  • Vanderbilt at No. 5 Arizona State, 1 p.m., Pac-12 Networks

THE REVIEW

Catch up on prior editions of The Watch and look back three months from now to see how foolish all of these ideas actually are!