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The Watch: Getting by with a little help from your foes

Mizzou’s schedule gets softer in December, but recent oppone all have matchups with trickle-down effects for the Tigers’ resume.

NCAA Basketball: Central Florida at Alabama
UCF walked out of Tuscaloosa with a win over No. 24-ranked Alabama, a victory that could make Mizzou’s road victory look better a couple months from now.
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday afternoon was strange inside Coleman Coliseum.

No, it wasn’t what the scoreboard reported: UCF 65, Alabama 62. Nor was the idea of the Knights traipsing out of Tuscaloosa with an upset of the 24th-ranked Crimson Tide. Instead, it was how the whole affair transpired.

Collin Sexton, the Tide’s blue-chip point guard, had to swap jerseys. The shot clock malfunctioned. Freshman wing John Petty’s reliable shooting stroke misfired. And UCF, usually paced by the 7-foot-6 walking monument known as Tacko Fall, leaned on a backcourt with an early reputation for being inefficient and unreliable.

Put another way, UCF wasn’t the team Mizzou knocked off last Thursday, ending a 1,400-day, 36-game losing streak on the road. In the long run, it might be a good thing, too. Until Sunday, UCF hardly resembled a team looking to build on a trip to the NIT semifinals—one looking to get off the bubble and into the NCAA tournament.

Now, coach Johnny Dawkins’ team owns a signature win, one it sorely needed after a 38-point loss to West Virginia and a rock fight with St. John’s. Down the line, it might also do enough to boost UCF’s RPI and KenPom ratings to give Missouri a quality win on its resume.

Scoreboard watching is about the only productive activity Mizzou fans can expect over the next three weeks. The four games between now and the Braggin’ Rights tilt on Dec. 23 feature four opponents with an average KenPom rating of 251. Practically, it may allow the staff to try new rotations and more practice time to make tweaks, but the on-court product should be a quartet of blowouts—all coming with students on break.

But, as you’ll see below, this week features some crucial games for opponents who dotted the Tigers’ front-loaded November slate. Currently, MU has a non-conference strength of schedule that’s projected to rank 86th nationally, per RPI Forecast. And that’s contingent on West Virginia (No. 25), Utah (No. 47) and St. John’s (No. 52) finishing in and around the top-50 of the RPI. And UCF? Entering the day they were projected to finish 93rd—a standing that can only get better with a victory over Alabama.

Naturally, The Watch encourages you to tune in for Mizzou’s scraps against Miami (Ohio) and Green Bay. But try to catch—or at least check in on—how those other programs fare.


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: Duke at Florida
Egor Koulechov, who joined Florida from Rice, was considered one of the best graduate transfers on the market. He’s lived up to the billing so far, averaging 17.7 points, 7 rebounds and shooting 48.5 percent from the 3-point line.
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

No. 5 Florida vs. No. 17 Cincinnati | 5 p.m. CT Saturday, ESPN2

Florida has played against type this season. Through the first month, they lead the nation in scoring and are ninth in adjusted offensive efficiency. For a program whose identity is built on the defensive end, the uptick in offensive production has even been a tad jarring for the guy leading the Gators.

“We’re a talented offensive group, for sure,” coach Mike White said last week. “We’re willing to share the basketball. Our skill level is what was expected — and our defense is about what we expected, and that’s not good enough at this point in the season.”

Even more surprising, it’s guard Jalen Hudson, who sat out last year after transferring from Virginia Tech, and graduate transfer Egor Koulechov pacing UF, especially behind the 3-point line, where the duo is shooting nearly 48 percent. It’s been enough to offset a slow shooting start from KeVaughn Allen and allow Chris Chiozza to focus on distribution and clamping down defensively.

And it’s helped the Gators come away with a double-overtime victory against Gonazaga—perhaps the best game of the season—and push No. 1 Duke to the brink. But this week sees the Gators continue to an uptick in their schedule, starting with an in-state fracas with Florida State on Monday and their date with the Bearcats in the Never Forget Tribute Classic.

Speaking of UC, it was an eventful weekend after the kind of dust-up that makes the Crosstown Showdown worth watching. On the court, the Bearcats got shelled, and they’ll have this week to prep for Florida, whose frontline offers Mick Cronin’s crew an opening.

UF’s interior defense has been, um, porous against anyone with a pulse. And as we pointed out last week, Cincinnati's front line of Kyle Washington, Gary Clark and Jacob Evans bring balanced scoring and, namely Clark, a physical presence on the glass. For a hint at how it might unfold, flip on the Gators fight against Gonzaga, which scored 54 points in the lane, led by Mizzou transfer Jonathan Williams’ 39 points.

On the other end, UC’s been stingy at the rim, ranking No. 2 nationally by holding opponents to 42.7 percent shooting. The Bearcats also block 21 percent of shots taken at point-blank range. Taken together, the Gators may be in a position where their guards will have to once again carry the day. The only difference is that Cincinnati has capable enough wings in Jarron Cumberland and Cane Broome, a scoring point who has stepped in admirably for Troy Caupain. Keep an eye on how Washington, who seemed oddly disengaged against Xavier, bounces back after a scoreless outing.

The outcome may be more indicative of where Cronin’s team is entering December than White’s group. Florida’s done enough through the season’s first month to stake a claim as a contender in the SEC, and a win over the Bearcats would only confirm what we’ve seen so far. Cincinnati, however, has aspirations of an AAC title and a deep run in March. It was just one game, a rivalry one, too, but the way Xavier dismantled UC certainly raises questions—one UC can dispel with a neutral floor 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: Arkansas at Houston
Arkansas is still hunting for an elusive top-50 win in non-conference play. Minnesota could fit the bill.
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

No. 14 Minnesota at Arkansas | 5:45 p.m. Saturday CT, SEC Network

If Arizona weren’t falling to Earth in a tailspin, the meeting between the Wildcats and Texas A&M would have been a clear choice. Instead, the Aggies trip to Phoenix lost a little bit of its luster. And it’s not like a loss would ding the Aggies, who, along with Florida, have put together a stellar start to the season.

Instead, I’ll be keenly interested in what transpires on Sunday in Fayetteville. Along with Tennessee, the Razorbacks have quietly put together a solid start to the season, which was reinforced at the PK80 event in Portland. In the PNW, coach Mike Anderson’s team knocked off an improved Oklahoma and handed a diminished UConn its worst loss in 40 years. And that’s on top of solid home wins over Samford and Bucknell.

Until they were shelled by 26-points against Houston, “They put it on us,” Anton Beard told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It was the Hogs’ first true road game, and once again raises the question of how well Anderson’s style travels in today’s day and age.

Still, the Hogs have played a top-20 schedule. They’ve gotten the production expected out of their veteran wing trio of Beard, Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon. At the same time, freshman Daniel Gafford, a top-40 recruit, has been the piece Anderson’s needed along his frontline. The big man is even catching the eye of NBA draftniks.

What Arkansas lacks is a high-profile win. That’s where Minnesota comes into play. The Gophers lost to Miami last week, but even then they’ve looked phenomenal in their first nine games. Jordan Murphy, who is averaging 21.0 points, grabbing 12.9 rebounds and shooting 57.9 percent, should be on Wooden Award lists after the first month. Point guard Nate Mason has a 3.4 assist-to-turnover ratio and is knocking in 43.8 percent of his 3-point attempts—finding a way to balance his scoring instincts with distribution. Meanwhile, wings Dupree McBrayer and Amir Coffey have been efficient contributors.

Aside from two really good backcourts, this one features two programs that want to get out and run. (Both are in the top 35 for adjusted tempo.) The difference may be how well Gafford, Trey Thompson and Adrio Bailey stack up against Murphy and Co. Arkansas is a slight favorite, but Murphy could again be an X-factor. He’s comfortable with the ball in his hands and a deft passer from the block or pinch post.

Over the past five seasons, Arkansas is 15-23 against KenPom top-50 teams, including 5-14 since 2015. And there hasn’t been a clear homecourt advantage from Bud Walton Arena. Still, the pace and personnel make this one worth tuning in to see.


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: Battle 4 Atlantis Championship-Villanova vs Northern Iowa
Creighton and Wichita State have bailed on the Missouri Valley Conference, leaving Northern Iowa—led by Bennett Koch—as one of the league’s few mainstays. The Panthers should contend with Missouri State for the conference crown.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

UT-Arlington at Northern Iowa | 7 p.m. CT Thursday, ESPN3

Northern Iowa isn’t a secret. Nor is Panthers coach Ben Jacobson. And both are wedded together now. There was a time when Jacobson’s name was perennially on coaching hot boards each spring, and every year he decided to stick around Cedar Falls.

Today, UNI is the last remaining member of a Missouri Valley Conference triumvirate that no longer includes Creighton or Wichita State. Yet the Panthers have never been a juggernaut. Instead, of year-to-year dominance, Jacobson’s program is cyclical: a young roster goes .500, improves slightly and then contends for two years. Then the process starts anew. As a result, there are two-year lulls where UNI slips down the standings.

Using that framework, this season is one where UNI should contend for a conference title—a push led by veterans in Bennet Koch and Klint Karlson. Over Thanksgiving, UNI picked up a pair of solid wins over SMU and North Carolina State but was handled by Villanova in the final of the Battle 4 Atlantis.

On Thursday, UNI hosts a program that defines up-and-coming. (There’s a great read from The Athletic detailing the construction process.) UTA coach Scott Cross has been on the job for 12 years but recognition has coincided with the Mavericks’ relatively short jump to the Sun Belt five years ago. Here’s a look at the Mavs trajectory, with KenPom rating in parentheses.

  • 2013-14: 15-17, 9-9 Sun Belt (No. 215)
  • 2014-15: 16-15, 10-10 Sun Belt (No. 197)
  • 2015-16: 24-11, 13-7 Sun Belt (No. 102)
  • 2016-17: 27-9, 14-4 Sun Belt (No. 75)

But you likely know nothing about the engineering that’s unfolded, even if the Mavs did win a pair of games last year in the NIT. Like its mid-major brethren, the Sun Belt is a one-bid league, and a run by sixth-seeded Troy required eliminating UTA in the tournament’s quarterfinals.

And last month, they almost picked off then-25th-ranked Alabama, leading by as many as 12 points and watched a last-second jumper glance off the rim.

Combo forward Kevin Hervey has been as advertised, averaging 23.4 points and 8.4 rebounds a game. He can score on the block and has decent range across the floor and is skilled on the backboard. (His KenPom profile is downright gaudy.) While he’s not a likely NBA prospect, Hervey will probably could have a fruitful career cashing checks from abroad. On the perimeter, Neal is as good a setup man you’ll find in a mid-major league, leading the nation with 10.3 assists per game. Aside from being the most experienced team in the country, UTA will also try to pick up the pace against UNI squad that’s sixth-slowest nationally in adjusted tempo.

Using Sagarin and KenPom, UNI is likely a three- to five-point favorite on its home floor. For Northern Iowa, a victory could be critical. Their non-conference schedule is currently ranked 32nd, and that’s before a date with Iowa State and a visit from a top-25 team in Xavier. Without Creighton and Wichita State around to provide four RPI-boosting games, the Panthers will need to do some quality work outside of the Valley to bolster their case in the event they finish near the top of the league but don’t claim its auto bid.


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.

Monday

  • Missouri State at North Dakota State, 7 p.m., ESPN3
  • Florida State at No. 5 Florida, 8 p.m., ESPN2

Tuesday

  • No. 15 Virginia at No. 18 West Virginia, 6 p.m., ESPNU
  • No. 4 Villanova vs. No. 12 Gonzaga, 6 p.m., ESPN
  • Texas at VCU, 6 p.m., ESPN2
  • Vermont at Marquette, 6 p.m., Fox Sports 1
  • UNC-Asheville at Furman, 6:30 p.m., ESPN3
  • No. 22 Nevada at Texas Tech 7 p.m., Fox College Sports
  • Utah at Butler, 8 p.m., Fox Sports 1
  • No. 7 Texas A&M vs. Arizona, 8 p.m., ESPN2
  • SMU at No. 20 TCU, 8 p.m., Fox Sports Southwest+
  • St. John’s at Grand Canyon, 10:30 p.m., ESPNU

Wednesday

  • Rhode Island at Alabama, 7 p.m., SEC Network+
  • Middle Tennessee at Vanderbilt, 7 p.m., SEC Network+
  • Northern Kentucky at East Tennessee State, 7 p.m., ESPN3

Thursday

  • Iowa at Iowa State, 7 p.m., ESPN2

Friday

  • St. John’s vs. No. 16 Arizona State, 7 p.m., Pac-12 Networks
  • Oklahoma at No. 25 USC, 9:30 p.m., ESPN2
  • No. 22 Nevada vs. No. 20 TCU, Midnight, ESPNU

Saturday

  • UCLA at Michigan, 11 a.m., CBS
  • Marquette at Wisconsin, 11 a.m., Fox Sports 1
  • Florida Gulf Coast vs. Texas-Arlington, 2 p.m., ESPN3
  • No. 6 Wichita State at Oklahoma State, 3 p.m., ESPN2
  • Ole Miss at Middle Tennessee, 5 p.m., Stadium
  • Alabama at Arizona, 9 p.m., ESPN2

Sunday

  • No. 16 Arizona State at No. 2 Kansas, 3 p.m., ESPN

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!