Rejoice! College basketball returns Friday.
Woe! The season’s first weekend is, dare we say, mundane.
For now, we’ll avoid the annual debate about how the sport can garner more attention for its return to the sports calendar. If we’re being totally honest, too, it’s a structural issue that’s largely locked in place. Unlike college football, there’s no slate of tantalizing matchups that build to a crescendo. And a loss doesn’t deal a blow to a national title contender’s chances.
That doesn’t mean the doubleheader on Nov. 14 that is the Champions classic—Duke vs. Michigan State and Kentucky vs. Kansas—isn’t compelling. It’ll be fascinating to see how two youth-laden rosters fare against teams with veterans. We’ll get to see Marvin Bagley and Miles Bridges on the same floor. Oh, and in the background are the sneaky good Gavitt Tipoff Games.
But the beauty, and the drawback, of the college slate is we can gauge a progression, see how teams mutate and adapt as the season goes along. The regular season isn’t just a prologue until March. Its results set the stage for the month-long drama that hooks the general public.
And that’s where The Watch comes in. With 351 teams playing 30 games each, tracking the ebbs and flows of the season is hard. So, this weekly piece exists to pare that list down to the 10 to 15 matchups that matter nationally, in the SEC and in one-bid leagues.
Think of it as a sommelier recommending a wine from a list.
KenPom’s ever-trusty FanMatch helped identify games that mattered, whether it was in a conference race or a quality non-conference matchup. In that way, college basketball at a national level is easier and more interesting to track, whether it’s an epic clash in the ACC or watching potential Cinderellas like Texas-Arlington or College of Charleston.
So, without further ado, let’s dive in.
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. 25 Texas A&M vs. No. 11 West Virginia | 5 p.m. CT Friday, ESPN
On paper, a matchup between the Aggies has all the ingredients for a compelling season opener: talented rosters, contrasting styles and two coaches who rank among the best in their respective conferences.
For their part, the Aggies have the pieces, especially in the paint, to challenge Kentucky for the SEC crown. By extensions, it also means Billy Kennedy could have a top-10 team in College Station.
But, thanks to a tidy News Dump last Friday, we know he won’t have one when the team touches down in Germany at Ramstein Air Force Base.
The Aggies will be without forward Robert Williams, a preseason pick for SEC Player of the Year, who will be serving the first part of a three-game suspension for the always opaque violation of team rules. Add to that the absence of J.J. Caldwell, a top-75 recruit who already missed his freshman season, for his own flouting of the rules.
No doubt, having a potential lottery pick parked on the bench hurts. But Caldwell’s absence may loom larger. West Virginia led the nation in turnover margin last year and swiped the ball on 13.8 percent of its opponents possessions. Last year, the Mountaineers forced the Aggies to cough the ball up 23 times—a number large enough that, if replicated Friday, would be hard to offset by generating second possessions on the offensive glass. Oh, and coach Bob Huggins also bring back to veteran wings in Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles.
Caldwell was penciled in as the Aggies starting point guard, but the duty may be passed to Marquette transfer Duane Wilson, whose production was sporadic at times last season. Perhaps Wilson and Admon Gilder can help pull Texas A&M through and avoid foisting early demands on freshmen guards T.J. Starks and Jay Jay Chandler.
The scouting report is easy. West Virginia wants to get to play this game in the open floor and make it a helter-skelter affair. Meanwhile, A&M will lean on its bigs to dominate the lane and offset any giveaways by owning the backboards.
This is also a chance to scout Bob Huggins’ group, which was picked second in the Big 12 Conference and is a solid candidate for another deep run in March. Mizzou could see the Mountaineers in a couple weeks—and if the bracket breaks right—at the AdvoCare Invitational. If that meeting takes place, it’s likely West Virginia would be the Tigers’ sternest test in the non-conference portion of the schedule.
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 in the league race.
Bucknell at Arkansas | 6 p.m. CT Sunday, SEC Network
Three years ago, the central question would be whether a plodding Bucknell squad could avoid being sped up by Arkansas’ pressure. Not anymore. Coach Nathan Davis has the Bison getting up and down, finishing 58th nationally in adjusted tempo last season. How comfortable is Bucknell operating with the throttle open? As a No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament, they put a scare into aforementioned West Virginia.
The gang’s all back, too, for the Patriot League favorite.
All five starters will suit back up, headlined by senior Nana Foulland, a 6-9, 230-pound post who averaged 15.8 points, grabbed 7.8 rebounds and shot 63.0 percent from the floor. Combo forward Zach Thomas put up nearly 16 points a night and knocked in 40 percent of 3-point attempts. Meanwhile, point guard Stephen Brown dished out almost five assists a game while sporting a 2.7 assist-to-turnover ratio.
The antidote to 40 Minutes of Hell is experience and a plethora of ball-handlers. Well, Bucknell ticks off those boxes. Yes, the Razorbacks have one of the SEC’s best wing duos in Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon, but a chief question—one Sam Snelling detailed in his preseason checkup of the Hogs—is a dearth of post depth with the departure of Moses Kingsley. It’s not just that Bucknell is comfortable playing at Arkansas pace and equipped to handle its pressure, but the Bison have proven big men who can score efficiently, stretch a defense and generate second possessions.
Come March, Bucknell could be a trendy pick in your office bracket pool, while Arkansas is a likely bubble team. The gap between these teams isn’t all that wide, and it’s unlikely Bucknell will be phased taking the floor of Bud Walton Arena.
How do we know?
Well, Bucknell pulled off a similar feat last year, snagging an early-season road win against Vanderbilt. And during a rather bland opening weekend, it might be worth tuning in to see if the Bison can do it again.
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.
Princeton at Butler | 5 p.m. CT Sunday, CBS Sports Network
Since the ’90’s, Butler’s parameters for a coaching search have rarely been tweaked. Typically, it’s a been former player – see Barry Collier, Thad Matta, Todd Lickliter and Brandon Miller – who moved on to the staff as a graduate assistant, then to an operations role and was slowly groomed. The only aberrations? Brad Stevens and, most recently, Chris Holtmann.
First-year coach LaVall Jordan ticks off all those boxes, and his resume is bolstered by spending six years learning at the hand of Michigan coach John Beilein. Sure, Jordan has just one season of head coaching experience at Milwaukee, but he took a Panthers rosters in shambles and led it to the finals of Horizon League tournament.
Holtmann’s recruiting prowess left a roster well-stocked for Jordan with a nice mix of veterans like Kelan Martin and Tyler Wideman to go with young stars like Kamar Baldwin. The Bulldogs, who reached the Sweet 16 last season, were picked seventh in the Big East—a reasonable projection considering Holtmann’s exit and the loss of veterans like Andrew Chrabascz, Tyler Lewis, Avery Woodson and Kethan Savage.
Facing Princeton, Jordan will square off against another coach drawn from a well-established lineage. Tigers coach Mitch Henderson is an alum and devotee of legendary coach Peter Carril’s offense. Henderson, though, has put his own spin on the system, picking up the pace and installing some more modern sets. The Tigers also bring back the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year in Myles Stephens, second-leading scorer Devin Canady (13.4 ppg) and Amir Bell, who’s ready for a featured role.
The Bulldogs are a nine-point favorite, but this tilt features a pair of coaches on the rise, solid young talent and is a meeting of programs truly defined by cultures that span generations.
Other games that should have your attention or eyeballs this week. They include top-25 matchups, solid high-major meetings, interesting SEC games and tilts that have implications in low- and mid-major conferences.
- Iowa State at Missouri, 8 p.m. SEC Network
- Georgia Tech vs. No. 18 UCLA, 11:30 p.m. ESPN
- No. 14 Notre Dame at DePaul, 3 p.m., FS1
- Yale at Wisconsin, 6 p.m., Big Ten Network