It was February 9, 1997.
Over 13,300 packed into Hearnes Center to see if Mizzou could the improbable: Knock off the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country in the same week. Five days earlier, Corey Tate scooped up a loose ball at the foul line, flicked a jumper and set off pandemonium against unbeaten and top-ranked Kansas.
On this day, No. 2 Wake Forest, led by a pretty good prospect in Tim Duncan, arrived in Columbia for an affair that now’s an imperiled species: A home game between high-major programs. Mizzou hung with the Demon Deacons for a half, but a 20-0 run out of the locker room by Wake crushed the Tigers—who would finish 16-17—under its heel.
Still, fans were able to see a Hall of Famer in February, and Wake coach Dave Odom was able to further callous his team while it was in the middle of a daunting ACC slate. Twenty years later, the chances Mizzou and Wake Forest would square off in February, much less in November, on a college campus is far more remote.
In the modern era, it’s become a challenge for high-majors not named Duke, Kentucky or Michigan State to lock in series against top-25 teams. Increasingly, the formula used by many coaches is to claw their way into a top-drawer non-conference tournament, lock up two home-and-home series against quality opponents and—in some cases—hope to land a decent opponent in an event like the Big 12-SEC Challenge.
The result is a non-league schedule with three or four matchups against Power 5 programs. However, even if they pull off that feat, only one of those games may be on their home floor. This week, we’ll see examples of how schools try to navigate that challenge.
On Tuesday night, the State Farm Champions Classic will give us a pair of top-five matchups, but also underscore how bluebloods have ensured they get a quality game. Kansas, Michigan State, Duke, and Kentucky rotate playing each other annually, essentially guaranteeing each team receives a booster shot for its SOS. They also play on a neutral floor, so coaches can ostensibly claim they’re preparing their teams for an NCAA tournament atmosphere. They rotate the series through cities like Chicago and New York, though, for recruiting purposes, too.
The quartet has created a feedback loop, ensuring each member gets a quality game in a potential recruiting ground and prime TV billing. It fits the mantra of UK coach John Calipari, who says he crafts schedules to give his players “experiences” they won’t forget.
At the same time, the explosion of neutral-floor tournaments beyond the Maui Invitational or preseason NIT means more teams can hunt for quality wins without having to travel into hostile territory. In just a couple weeks, Mizzou will be one of them when it treks to Orlando, Fla., for the Advocare Invitational.
The tradeoff, though, is we get less of what we saw last Friday when Iowa State came to Columbia. And I’d argue it erodes the patina of what makes college basketball unique for fans—rowdy student sections, banners aloft and a genuinely challenging environment that tests teams.
And that’s where the Gavitt Tipoff Games come into play. The challenge series between the Big East and Big Ten gives us matchups like Xavier-Wisconsin, Purdue-Marquette, and Butler-Maryland, and it stages them on campuses, preserving the essence of the sport. Increasingly, it feels like we’re trying to encase the experience in amber as the sports creeps toward sterile settings.
We can’t undo the explosion in exempt events or force coaches to travel into enemy territory. But we can hope they don’t let it—and the romance of the sport—die off.
And with that, it’s on 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.
No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan State | 6 p.m. CT Tuesday, ESPN
It’s a surprise to find Miles Bridges still in East Lansing and Marvin Bagley III in Durham.
By all accounts, Bridges should be an NBA rookie as Bagley dominates overmatched high school kids during his senior season at Sierra Canyon. Instead, the Michigan State combo forward stuck around for his sophomore campaign. Meanwhile, Bagley, the consensus No. 1 recruit in 2018, announced in August that he was reclassifying to be on a college campus this fall.
Now, they’ll meet Tuesday—one hitting the snooze on his NBA clock and the other trying to shave off time.
For Spartans coach Tom Izzo, Bridges return is a boon for a roster that has post depth. Last March, Izzo rolled out a four-guard lineup against Kansas in the NCAA tournament—and lost by 20. Aside from getting Bridges back, the hope is that Nick Ward can be a steady post defender. If he can’t change his ways, a replacement is waiting in the wings. Freshman Jaren Jackson is 6-foot-11 and has a 7-4 wingspan with the skillset that makes NBA scouts salivate. Toss in 6-9 Gavin Shilling, and you’ve got the kind of size, length, and athleticism we’ve been accustom to seeing for the Spartans.
As for Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Bagley augments a class that was already the nation’s best. Freshman point guard Travon Duval is shifty and savvy but will have to grow into the job of running a team laden with elite prospects—and managing egos—along the way. Gary Trent Jr. can be a spot-up threat. And then there’s big man Wendell Carter. That’s before you realize senior guard Grayson Allen is still roaming Cameron Indoor Stadium
Coach K again faces the formidable task creating a cohesive unit, a job that could take some time. Bagley already looks like he has acclimated, notching double-doubles in the Blue Devils first two games.
Head-to-head, Duke may have better prospects, but the Spartans trot out ample depth in the frontcourt and veterans on the perimeter. Guard Matt McQuaid can stretch defenses with his 3-point shooting stroke, while former McDonald’s All-American Josh Langford can slash and attack in the open floor. Cassius Winston is also back at point guard, with senior Tum Tum Nairn in reserve.
Pressed to make a pick, the Spartans have the depth and relative experience to notch an early win against a Blue Devils squad still finding its footing.
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.
No. 10 Southern Cal at Vanderbilt | 8 p.m. CT Sunday, SEC Network
Objectively, the choice should be a top-10 matchup between Kentucky and Kansas on Tuesday. Without a doubt, tune in for that clash.
But this game is the kind of matchup that shifts perceptions of the SEC. And it’s an opportunity to see a legit top-15 team in USC without staying up into the wee hours or hunting for the Pac-12 Network.
The Commodores only lost Luke Kornet, as close a thing as we might dub a stretch-5 in the college game, and return 72 percent of their offensive production. Matthew Fisher-Davis, while streaky, is a wing who could easily broach 20 points a night and has a deadly long-distance shooting stroke. Riley LaChance is another threat behind the arc. Forward Joe Toye is physical and can guard multiple positions. Payton Willis is steady at the point. And Jeff Roberson is what you want at combo forward: effective rebounder, efficient shooter and reliable on the defensive end.
The Commodores have the pieces to be a threat in the SEC, and they can validate that status with a win over a top-10 opponent. If you didn’t know USC was suddenly good at hoops, you’re forgiven. The hire of Andy Enfield, I’ll admit, was head scratching. He didn’t have geographic ties. And while USC is in a talent-rich region, it shares that pool with a certain program in Westwood. Well, Enfield has proved his doubters wrong. The Trojans bring back 97 percent of their minutes from a squad who snuck into the NCAA tournament field as a No. 11 seed in a play-in game and pulled off a Sweet 16 run. Their top eight scorers are back, led by an imposing frontcourt duo of Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu. Elijah Stewart is back on the wing and supplemented by Duke transfer Derryck Thornton, a former blue-chipper who skipped his senior year of high school to join the Blue Devils.
This one is another stylistic clash. USC isn’t a carbon copy of the Lob City frivolity we saw back in 2013 at Florida Gulf Coast, but Enfield’s crew can get out in transition, ranking 35th nationally for shots taken within 10 seconds of a rebound. Vandy? They averaged almost 19 seconds per offensive possession, finishing 306th in the country.
Vandy’s offense leans on 3-point shooting. Almost half of their shots come from behind the 3-point line, and an off night from deep came put them in a hole, and they don’t have the rebounding prowess to generate second possessions. One can see Vandy’s length and athleticism making contests on closeouts a challenge and choking off second possessions.
The Commodores’ early-season schedule isn’t filled with empty calories. Not when you book dates against Belmont, the Big South favorite UNC-Asheville and Southern Cal. Coach Bryce Drew will have a good gauge of where his team is to start his second season in Nashville. And to that end, a victory would give the VU a quality win out of the chute.
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.
Rhode Island at Nevada | 10:30 p.m. CT Monday, ESPNU
In five months, the coaches prowling the sidelines Monday may have new addresses.
Rhode Island’s Dan Hurley and Nevada’s Eric Musselman interviewed could have bolted last spring for high-major gigs, but they each inked extensions to stick around earn north of $1 million. How they’ve rebuilt their respective programs also embodies their personalities. Musselman is a West Coast guy at his core, a savant at structuring his offenses, and basketball journeyman who's been a head coach in the NBA, CBA, and NCAA. Hurley started out as a high school coach, preaches defensive and physicality, runs a bread-and-butter offense and has ground out rebuilds at each stop.
Both broke through with NCAA tournament bids last March, including a first-round win for Rhode Island over Creighton. Each has to do a bit of retooling.
URI ranked in the top-10 for effective field goal percentage defense, in large part, because of an intimidating paint duo of Kuran Iverson and Hassan Martin—both of whom moved on. Nevada also saw its top scorers—guard Marcus Marshall and current Houston Rocket forward Cameron Oliver—depart. In fact, four of the Pack’s starters will be new, and all of them are transfers. The Rams are fortunate in that they bring back all-everything point guard E.C. Matthews, who averaged nearly 15 points a game last season.
For Nevada, this is the marquee home game on its slate and could help their cause if the Mountain West Conference improbably becomes a two-bid league in March. Nevada may have lost too much to unseat San Diego State and opportunities for quality wins could be scant. It’s early, but this one looms large for a program looking for back-t0-back conference titles and returns to the NCAA tournament.
Rhode Island, for its part, will be the favorite in the Atlantic 10 Conference, where rivals Dayton and VCU lost their coaches. The Rams will also be more perimeter oriented than they have been in the past on the offensive end, leaning more on Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson.
Other games that should have your attention or eyeballs this week. They include top-25 matchups, solid high-major meetings, interesting SEC games and others that have implications for low- and mid-major conferences.
- No. 14 Minnesota at Providence, 5:30 p.m. CT, FS1
- No. 19 Purdue at Marquette, 7:30 p.m. CT, FS1
- No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 7 Kentucky, 8:30 p.m. CT, ESPN
- Indiana at No. 22 Seton Hall, 5:30 p.m. CT, FS1
- Butler at Maryland, 7:30 p.m. CT, FS1
- Creighton at No. 20 Northwestern, 8 p.m. CT, Big Ten Network
- Illinois State vs. South Carolina, 10:30 a.m. CT, ESPN2
- Missouri at Utah, 7 p.m. CT, Pac-12 Networks
- Samford at LSU, 8 p.m., SEC Network+
- No. 15 Xavier at Wisconsin, 7:30 p.m. CT, FS1
- Virginia at VCU, 3 p.m. CT, CBS Sports Network
- UNC-Asheville at Vanderbilt, 7 p.m., ESPN3
- Bucknell at Maryland, 7:30 p.m. CT, Big Ten Network
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!