For the first time in over eight months we enter a Saturday where college basketball takes center stage. No pesky college football. No NBA Playoffs, NFL Draft, WNBA playoffs, skeet-shooting, jai alai. Nothing to steal the spotlight from the greatest game on planet Earth, college basketball.
That’s right, it’s December and it’s college hoops season. And to quote my guy Drew Franklin: Let’s goooooooooooooooooooooo!!
Honestly there is so much good college basketball on Saturday that, to be honest… well, that is the problem. There is… so… much… college… basketball. Where do you even begin?
Thankfully I’m here to answer that question, with your guide to the first Saturday of college hoops season with no football.
No. 9 Kentucky vs. Seton Hall, 12:00 p.m. ET, FOX
It only seems appropriate to start with the game that is of the most interest to everyone reading this post: Kentucky vs. Seton Hall. The marquee program in college hoops, playing in the marquee arena in all of basketball. What’s better than that?
Not much, and what makes it even better is that for the first time in a long time we should learn something about these Wildcats. Seton Hall almost strikes me as the perfect team for Kentucky to play in this setting; the Pirates are a step up in competition and the first Power 6 program they’ve faced since opening night. Just seeing a Big East caliber opponent should light a little fire under the butts of these Wildcats. But Seton Hall isn’t good enough where they will likely challenge the Wildcats for 40 minutes. If Kentucky can slow down the Pirates best player Myles Powell (who averages 22 points per game) they should be able to win.
Therefore, this game is about getting a win for Kentucky, but also showing improvement against a better opponent. Specifically we all want to see how their perimeter defense holds up, and personally I want to see how P.J. Washington plays. While Washington looked solid for a couple games, he’s averaged just seven points per game in Kentucky’s last three wins.
The Wildcats can beat Monmouth, UNC-Greensboro and maybe even Seton Hall with Washington averaging seven a game. They won’t be able to beat the teams that matter in January, February and March unless he steps his game up though.
No. 10 Michigan State at Florida, 12:00 p.m. ET, CBS
Keep that remote control ready, because Kentucky-Seton Hall isn’t the only intriguing game worth keeping your eye on in the early window. Michigan State-Florida might not be as sexy on paper as it was two months ago, but it holds important intrigue for both teams.
For Florida it’s been an up-and-down start at 5-3 overall, but what better way to get back on track than by knocking off a Top 10 team at home? Michigan State meanwhile is already a solid 7-2 with victories over UCLA and Texas. Why not add a road win over a power school to your resume?
This is one that will be fun to watch on Saturday and could have wide-ranging impact come March.
South Carolina at No. 5 Michigan, 12:00 p.m. FS1
Poor Frank Martin. Since South Carolina made the Final Four two years ago his team has completely fallen off the cliff. And yes, I am very aware that if Frank Martin sees that above sentence my life might potentially be in danger. So if this is my last post at Kentucky Sports Radio, just know how much I appreciate everyone’s support.
But if it isn’t my last post, here’s the reality at South Carolina: Since that Final Four run, just about everything that could go wrong for the Gamecocks has, and it didn’t get better this week when South Carolina lost at Wyoming. That’s a bad loss no matter how you cut it. And it probably doesn’t even help that this isn’t even a particularly good Wyoming team, as they entered the game at 3-5 overall.
So if a 3-5 Wyoming team can get a victory over South Carolina, what could the No. 5 team in America, and one that I believe might be the best team in college basketball do? I’m almost afraid to find out.
Xavier at Cincinnati, 2:00 p.m. ESPN2
This starts a long day of good games on ESPN2 (seriously, if you decide not to change the channel from about 2 p.m. ET to midnight you should be just fine) as bad blood is renewed in one of the nastiest rivalries in college basketball.
The disappointing thing is that there is no Chris Mack in this one, although there is still Mick Cronin on the other sideline.
Which means there’s like a 200 percent chance that if Cincinnati wins this game, Cronin will throw out some kind of sick brag like “There’s no way Indiana, Louisville or Kentucky did what we did today.”
You can count on it.
Louisville at Indiana, 2:30 p.m. FOX
Speaking of Louisville and Indiana, the “Rick Pitino Revenge Tour” – aka the schedule that Louisville put together before firing Pitino – takes a stop in Bloomington this weekend for another brutal game for Chris Mack. The Cards have already survived Michigan State and Seton Hall in the last month. Will they have as much success at Assembly Hall?
On the flip side, I’m excited to see Indiana as well. The Hoosiers have probably played a bit above expectations, especially when you consider their two losses were at Arkansas (when three or four key players weren’t playing) and at Duke. Not to mention that their game at Duke came directly after their loss to Gonzaga – so they didn’t just get Duke, but a pissed off Duke.
Therefore, while I wouldn’t say that Indiana is necessarily “exceeding expectations” right now, they have played better than I personally expected. We’ll see if they can keep it up against a Louisville squad that looks good in their first month under Mack.
Western Kentucky at Arkansas, 3:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network
This might just be the sneaky interesting game on Saturday’s schedule, as it pairs up two potential first round NBA Draft picks in Western Kentucky’s Charles Bassey and Arkansas’ Daniel Gafford. The “Bassey Era” in Bowling Green hasn’t quite gone to plan, as Western Kentucky enters this game at just 4-4 and could really use a big win as they get set for Conference USA play.
On the flip side, Arkansas has unquestionably been the surprise of the SEC as they enter this one at 6-1 overall, and were one missed free throw from being undefeated right now. What’s been especially cool is that the Hogs aren’t just about Gafford but have gotten contributions across the board. Freshman Isaiah Joe earned SEC Player of the Week last week and guard Jalen Harris had a 12-assist performance against Colorado State earlier in the week.
Look at this: Daniel Gafford quoting my tweet from last night. Honestly, it's impossible not to root for this kid. Incredibly talented, and the ultimate teammate. Im quickly seeing why Arkansas fans have fallen in love with him (here's the original tweet: https://t.co/LvNIOTiC5p) https://t.co/jiv3hruMto
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) December 6, 2018
That game actually led to a cool moment as well, when following Arkansas’ victory I mentioned how the Hogs are about more than Gafford and are really developing into a nice team. Well apparently Gafford noticed the tweet, and not only responded but referenced it in a press conference later in the week.
So yeah, I hate to brag, but think Daniel Gafford and I just became best friends. And the Torres-Gafford friendship is the bromance of the college hoops season that no one could have seen coming.
Georgetown at Syracuse, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
“It’s an old-school, Big East rivalry and”… blah, blah, blah. You get the point. Can’t lie: I’m an old-school Big East guy and even I’m getting sick of all the nostalgia every time two teams from the old Big East conference get together.
But in terms of the actual regular season, well, this one is important. In a down Big East, the Hoyas are very much a tourney contender – but need a signature out of conference win as they head into league play. On the flip side, with so many big games on their schedule, Syracuse should be fine. But it would still be a little bit less than ideal to drop a third out of conference game before the start of ACC play.
This one will be a tough, hard-nosed game.
Not only because it’s an old-school rivalry. But because it has big implications.
Clemson at No. 22 Mississippi State, 4:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2
This is the first of a double-header in New Jersey and like so many other games, it has big meaning for both teams.
It’s especially important for Mississippi State.
Remember, this was a team that got left out of the NCAA Tournament field last year, largely because of a disappointing out of conference resume. Well, their out of conference resume isn’t all that much more impressive this year. They’ve played a single big-time opponent (Arizona State) and lost.
It’d probably behoove Mississippi State to win this game here. Also, I can’t believe I just used the word “behoove” in a sentence.
No. 12 Wisconsin at Marquette, 5:00 p.m. ET, FOX
This one is basically Xavier-Cincinnati with worse PR. Take two schools that are a short drive from each other, match them up in a once a season affair and what do you have? A rivalry that one local writer this week called “Like the Super Bowl… only five times more important.”
While that one might have a liiiiiitle bit of hyperbole rolled in, it isn’t that exaggerated and this year it should be heightened by the fact that both teams are actually really good. Marquette is 7-2 and coming off a nice win over Kansas State last week, while Wisconsin’s only loss is to Virginia on a neutral court.
Basically, this one will have the feel of a Sweet 16 game, only in December.
And while we’re at it, has anyone else noticed that Wisconsin’s Brad Davison is basically the 2018-2019 version of Marquette coach Steve Woji-however-you-say-his name, when Steve Woji-however-you-say-his-name was a player? You know, the floor-slapping, charge-taking, 5’10 white dude that gets under the skin of every opponent and every opponents fan-base?
If you haven’t seen Davison play, this tweet pretty much sums up his style of play.
Brad Davison trying to cross the street pic.twitter.com/oG0gWgVFTm
— Alec Lower (@AlecLower) November 28, 2018
No. 11 Florida State vs. UConn, 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
This is the second half of that double-header in New Jersey, and I can’t lie, this is a pretty big one for my Huskies. If they can somehow win this game, I feel pretty good that they’ll have a resume strong enough to get an at-large bid come Selection Sunday. It’s a long way away, but as they say, it’s never too early to start thinking about March.
On a completely different and random note, this also might be a matchup of the most entertaining coach on the sideline (Dan Hurley) against the most boring (Leonard Hamilton).
Seriously, is Dan Hurley screaming “MOTHERF****ER” after a random, mid-November win against Morehead State doesn’t get you fired up, I don’t know what would.
If Dan Hurley pumping his fist, and screaming "MOTHERF***ER" after a mid-November win against Morehead State doesn't endear him to the UConn fan-base, I don't know what will. Man, do I love this guy pic.twitter.com/HK0LorNz0Y
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) November 9, 2018
New Mexico State at No. 2 Kansas, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Like I told you, if you just leave on ESPN2 all day you should be set, and I can’t lie, this one might be a weeeee bit more entertaining than many of you expect.
The bottom-line is that while Kansas is the No. 2 team in the country, they aren’t exactly playing like it. They’ve had to go to overtime in two of their wins (including last Saturday against Stanford) and trailed at halftime in a few others. They’re ripe for an upset.
While I wouldn’t say the upset will necessarily happen this weekend, this one could be close. For starters, Kansas will be out without forward Udoka Azibuke, but more importantly, New Mexico State is a dangerous mid-major capable of pulling an upset. Incredibly, the Aggies have won their conference in six of the last seven seasons and won’t be intimidated by the atmosphere in Lawrence.
I’m not calling an upset, but this one could be close.
Notre Dame at UCLA, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Ok, ok, so this one isn’t quite as exciting as it was on paper two months ago, but hey, you’ll probably be up anyway, so why not watch?
One, it’s two big brand names, and two, I’m 99.99999 percent Bill Walton is on the call, so you know something crazy will happen.
More importantly, grab a cold one – you have survived the first big Saturday of college hoops season…
With so many more to come!