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The Watch: Finally, college basketball

The roster churn created by one-and-done and the sport’s pay-for-play scandal have sucked up a ton of oxygen. Those issues aren’t going away, but the season’s opening week features bluebloods, a solid SEC slate and mid-majors trying to cause early mayhem.

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NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Michigan vs Villanova Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

The past several years have been witness to an ongoing debate about what college basketball can do to move the needle as it ushers in the season.

Putting a quartet of top-10 teams on the floor, which will take place during the Champions Classic, is a noble effort. Yet the sport will always be a niche brand. The one-and-done era also escalated the churn rate of roster turnover eroded the college game of assets that once made it durable. Unlike college football, hoops lacks well-worn characters and story arcs — ones that stick easily in a fragmented media environment — that can help it break through.

Take Trae Young, whose offensive pyrotechnics and shotmaking managed to carve out space in cluttered news cycles. He’s gone. And while Zion Williamson figures to drive the hardwood zeitgeist, the list of recognizable stars is relatively short.

How many casual sports fans can tell you who landed on the AP’s preseason All-American team? Is Carsen Edwards’ name rolling of tongues? Will people stay up late to watch Caleb Martin on ESPNU?

Then there are the brand-name programs. Per usual, No. 2 Kentucky and No. 4 Duke gorged themselves on five-star talent. (Five of Sam Vecenie’s top-25 draft prospects ($)will be on the floor.) Yet it’s reasonable to think those precociously talented — but young rosters — will need time to coalesce and gel.

And what about the defending national champions? You know, Villanova, purveyor of positionless basketball. They saw three stalwarts — Jalen Brunson, Mikal Bridges, and Donte DiVincenzo — exit the program.

And Kansas? Well, the preseason No. 1, spent the past month watching its dirty laundry aired in a Manhattan courtroom, pay-for-play revelations that resulted in the Jayhawks sitting Silvio De Sousa. On Tuesday, a story moved across the wire with the following headline: “Kansas eager for focus to shift from the courts to the court.”

Yeah, I bet.

As for the rest of the preseason top 10, Virginia, Tennessee, Nevada, North Carolina, and Michigan State are all programs whose stars won’t wow you with their Q ratings.

All the while, the first of three federal trials delving into corruption in the sport sucked up oxygen. Federal prosecutors didn’t reveal anything fans of the sport didn’t know about how the black market for talent operates. As Yahoo Sports columnist Pat Forde wrote, the response of NCAA power brokers in Indianapolis and campuses across the country has been to run an administrative version of the four corners offense.

Listen, I love the sport because of the diversity it offers in styles, players and the visceral connection it has with fans. It’s why I write The Watch each week — out of the sincere, albeit naive, hope that you’ll pluck a couple games off the buffet. This week, there’s plenty of decent fare, whether it’s blueblood headliners, No. 8 North Carolina visiting Wofford or a plethora of early tests for SEC squads.

But the sport’s structural issues on the floor and off aren’t going away, and that hems in its appeal. For now, though, it’s time to fix our eyes on TVs, start looking over team sheets and embrace the push toward March.


THE CAN'T-MISS

We know you have competing demand for your time and attention span. No, you won’t have ESPN+ called up watching mid-week Atlantic Sun games. But if you want college hoops in your life, make sure to have your eyes on this game.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky Media Day Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

No. 4 Duke vs. No. 2 Kentucky | 8:30 p.m. CT Tuesday, ESPN

If session tickets for the Champions Classic weren’t moving for outrageous prices, I’d be tempted to scoop one up.

You know, just on the off chance to see Zion Williamson annihilate a rim in my town, an act that would likely confound physicists at CalTech.

The rest of Blue Devils rotation is equally stacked between elite — R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Tre Jones — and veteran frontcourt pieces in Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier. Reddish’s positional versatility and Williamson’s switchability should allow Mike Krzyzewski to toggle effortlessly between traditional lineups and small-ball groupings. Perhaps this roster will also show diligence on the defensive end, enabling Coach K to abandon the zone defense that became a life preserver a season ago.

Down in Lexington, Kentucky coach John Calipari managed to avoid churning his entire roster and built a frontcourt that owns talent and experience.

Graduate transfer Reid Travis, who averaged 19.5 points and 8.7 rebounds at Stanford last season, is a player whose polished interior scoring and ability as a cutter offer plug-in productivity. Yet Cal managed to keep PJ Washington and Nick Richards in the fold for their sophomore campaigns. On UK’s offseason trip to the Bahamas, Washington appeared poised to take a quantum leap, showcasing comfort and consistency from beyond the 3-point arc to go with rim protection and rebounding that fit well as a small-ball 5.

It speaks to Kentucky’s depth up front when E.J. Montgomery, a top-10 prospect who committed this past spring, is going to have to bully his way into the rotation.

On the perimeter, sophomore Quade Green lends depth behind five-star point guards Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley. On the wing, Keldon Johnson, a legitimate two-way talent, might be the best NBA prospect of the bunch. Finally, importing guard Tyler Herro gives the Wildcats the kind of shooting threat they lacked at junctures last season.


THE CONFERENCE CALL

Don’t look now, but the SEC is among the deepest conferences in the country. 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: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Texas Tech vs. Florida Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Florida at No. 17 Florida State | 8 p.m. CT Tuesday, ESPN2

Eleven months ago, the Gators resembled a potential SEC title contender. Coming off a stellar run at the PK80 Invitational, they owned a double-overtime victory against Gonzaga and pushed Duke before losing by three points on a neutral floor.

And on Dec. 4, 2018, the then-No. 5 Gators held a one-point lead over in-state rival Florida State — a tough but beatable opponent.

Coach Mike White’s team proceeded to melt down, letting guard Terance Mann and the Seminoles outscore them 49-31 over the final 25 minutes. The rout featured all the flaws that blemished the Gators’ season: an over-reliance on 3-point shooting, lack of frontcourt production, too many offensive rebounds and rickety defensive by Egor Koulechov.

Now, the Gators can use the Seminoles as an early barometer for a roster anchored by veterans in Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen, bolstered by an elite recruiting class and still facing questions in the paint.

As Sam Snelling noted in his Florida preview, White can get creative with his backcourt, but he needs to find a reliable duo among Keith Stone, Kevarrius Hayes, Chase Johnson, Gjorak Gak, and Dontay Basset to anchor the interior. They’ll need it against FSU, which brings back Phil Cofer and Christ Koumadje from an Elite Eight run last March.

Again, Mann is the most proven wing on coach Leonard Hamilton’s roster, which also has some depth in Trent Forrest, PJ Savoy, and M.J. Walker — a trio where each member averaged at least 6.7 points per game. The ’Noles also picked up graduate transfer David Nichols, a combo guard who tallied 14.6 points per game last season at Albany and was an All-America East pick.

As we stand here in early November, the Gators’ schedule features 18 games against potential NCAA tournament teams, with 11 of those tilts taking place on a road or neutral floor. There’s plenty to like about what White has put together in Gainesville, but the season-opener hints at an assessment we make come March: Florida is better than its record.


THE DEEP CUT

At Rock M Nation, we believe in equality. There are quality hoops played in mid-major and low-major conferences, 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. Let’s get off the grid, shall we?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Buffalo vs Kentucky Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Buffalo at No. 13 West Virginia | 8 p.m. CT Friday, ESPNU

Last time we saw Buffalo, they were crushing fourth-seeded Arizona under their hoof.

The bulk of that roster is back for another go-around, including former MAC Defensive Player of the Year Davonta Jordan and preseason Player of the Year CJ Massinburg. Coach Nate Oats also kept combo forward Jeremy Harris, a 41.8 shooter from 3-point range, in the mix.

When those four players shared the floor last season, the Bulls posted an absurd 1.22 points per possession, shot 38 percent from 3-point range and only coughed the ball up 13.6 percent of the time.

And its unlikely Oats’ group will be phased to visit Morgantown, especially after the Mountaineers (finally) saw Daxter Miles Jr. and Jevon Carter move on. Sure, coach Bob Huggins still has shot-swatters in Sagaba Konate and Esa Ahmad patrolling the lane. However, young guards Brandon Knapper, Jordan McCabe and Emmit Matthews will be tested early.

Given that Buffalo consistently ranks in the top-40 nationally for adjusted tempo, it’s hard to see Huggins’ high-pressure tactics rattling a veteran roster. For his part, Massinburg, who averaged 17.3 points last season, was not only deadly in transition (1.087 PPP), but only coughed the ball up on 10.3 percent of his fast break possessions. As a group, the Bulls sported a 14.5-percent turnover rate when pushing the ball in the open floor.

If Buffalo, which rated No. 135 in adjusted efficiency, can tighten up on the defensive end, they could score a marquee win that could boost their seed line when March arrives.


THE DOCKET

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

Nov. 12 to Nov. 18

Date Time Matchup TV Thrill Score
Date Time Matchup TV Thrill Score
Nov. 12 6 p.m. Stanford at No. 7 North Carolina ESPN2 30.1
Nov. 12 7 p.m. No. 25 Buffalo at Southern Illinois ESPN+ 58.3
Nov. 12 8 p.m. Utah at Minnesota BTN 51
Nov. 13 5:30 p.m. Wisconsin at Xavier FS1 67.4
Nov. 13 6 p.m. Memphis at No. 22 LSU SECN 39.6
Nov. 13 6 p.m. Stephen F. Austin at Miami ESPNU 26.4
Nov. 13 6 p.m. Georgia at Temple ESPN3 46.3
Nov. 14 5:30 p.m. No. 18 Michigan at No. 8 Villanova FS1 60.7
Nov. 14 6:30 p.m. Seton Hall at Nebraska BTN 60.6
Nov. 14 7:30 p.m. No. 24 Marquette at Indiana FS1 69.2
Nov. 15 1 p.m. Alabama vs. Northeastern ESPNU 57.4
Nov. 15 6 p.m. Ohio State at Creighton FS1 64.5
Nov. 15 6 p.m. No. 15 Syracause at Uconn ESPN 40.2
Nov. 15 6:30 p.m. Belmont at Lipscomb ESPN+ 49.5
Nov. 15 8 p.m. No. 13 Oregon vs. Iowa ESPN2 71.2
Nov. 15 10:30 p.m. Texas A&M at No. 3 Gonzaga ESPN2 40.5
Nov. 16 6 p.m. St. John's at Rutgers BTN 52.1
Nov. 16 6 p.m. Vermont at Louisville ACCN 37.7
Nov. 16 7 p.m. Ole Miss at Butler FS2 41.9
Nov. 17 1:30 p.m. South Carolina vs. Providence ESPN3 62
Nov. 17 5 p.m. New Mexico State at New Mexico ATT 49.6
Nov. 17 7 p.m. Saint Louis at Seton Hall FS2 48.8
Nov. 18 2:30 p.m. Indiana at Arkansas ESPN 68.4
Nov. 18 9:30 p.m. Texas A&M at Minnesota ESPN2 62.8
KenPom