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Why This Will Be A College Basketball Weekend To Remember | TheSportsDay Why This Will Be A College Basketball Weekend To Remember | TheSportsDay

Why this will be a college basketball weekend to remember

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Get ready for the best weekend of the college basketball season to date. Starting at 10 p.m. ET Friday, we will enter a span of 24 hours that will provide marquee matchups, NBA Draft prospects, significant measuring-stick non-conference games, elite atmospheres and much more. 

Included in the loaded slate? How about reigning national champion, No. 5 UConn, traveling to Seattle to face No. 10 Gonzaga in the start of a two-year series between the two elite programs to kick off the weekend. It’s also a rematch from last year’s Elite Eight, when the Huskies rolled past the Bulldogs, 82-54. It will be a fun point guard matchup between Ryan Nembhard of the Zags and Tristen Newton of the Huskies, with the two facing each other last year when Nembhard was at Creighton. 

If Gonzaga has a chance to win this game, it’s because Anton Watson, Nolan Hickman and freshman Dusty Stromer are complementing each other offensively and feeding off Nembhard. But I think UConn’s best – when they hit that level – is better than anybody in America. The Huskies also pose matchup issues with Gonzaga with their versatility on the interior between Donovan Clingan and Samson Johnson, plus the shotmaking of Alex Karaban and Cam Spencer. 

My pick: UConn

Flip the page to Saturday, and it’s a marathon of blue bloods and big-branded programs. No. 2 Kansas returns a game in a true home-and-home series with a road trip to Bloomington to face a 7-2 Indiana team looking to respond.

The battle between the Hoosiers and Jayhawks means former Michigan star Hunter Dickinson is back at Assembly Hall. He’ll surely be met with some chants from the Hoosier faithful. The frontcourt is the strength for both of these teams, with Dickinson and KJ Adams combining for over 32 points per game, while Oregon transfer Kel’el Ware and sophomore Malik Reneau are combining for over 31 points per contest. 

For both teams, the question mark has been on the perimeter. Indiana has really struggled to shoot it from deep, averaging only 3.4 made 3-pointers per game, which ranks 360 out of 363 nationally. Kansas is at 6.6 made per game, with Kevin McCullar really taking off and serving as the X-factor in this game as well. The fifth-year senior has gone from averaging 10 points to 19 points per game this season.

One item to watch: Indiana point guard Xavier Johnson’s status is up in the air heading into Saturday. He has missed the last three games with a left foot injury. It was the Kansas game last year that Johnson suffered a season-ending right foot injury. 

“It’s tough on him, it’s tough on us,” Indiana coach Mike Woodson told reporters Friday. “I don’t know when he’ll be back in the lineup, but we’ve got to keep marching on.” 

Will the Hoosiers get enough from Trey Galloway and five-star freshman Mackenzie Mgbako to hang in with Kansas? 

It’s hard to win at Assembly Hall, but this Indiana team just isn’t dynamic enough offensively. 

My pick: Kansas

Later on, at 2 p.m. ET on FOX, Michigan State takes on No. 6 Baylor at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena. The Bears sit at 9-0 and are one of college basketball’s seven remaining unbeaten teams, while the Spartans have been heading in the opposite direction. Will desperation come out of Tom Izzo’s 4-5 team? I wrote about the state of Michigan State this week and how they can attempt to turn the ship around. 

My pick: Baylor

[Read more: With No. 6 Baylor next, how does Michigan State get back on track?]

The matchup of the weekend is in Indianapolis where No. 1 Arizona takes on No. 3 Purdue. How will Oumar Ballo and the Wildcats go about defending Zach Edey? The best player in college basketball has scored a combined 95 points in his last three games and is coming off a 35-point, seven-rebound performance in a wild win over Alabama. 

Then there’s the backcourt play, with the Wildcats’ duo of Caleb Love and Kylan Boswell meeting the Boilers’ sophomore pair of Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer. San Diego State transfer Keshad Johnson is a huge reason why Tommy Lloyd’s team is No. 1 in the country, so Purdue finding an answer for him is something I will be watching. 

One other key element: tempo. Arizona is No. 6 in the country in tempo. Purdue is at No. 158. Who dictates the style of the game? With it in Indianapolis, and the Boilers at 9-1 with a Maui Invitational title, I’m not letting the Northwestern loss define my thinking of them. 

My pick: Purdue. 

How good is this Saturday’s slate? I haven’t even gotten to a top-15, blue-blood showdown in Atlanta yet, when No. 9 North Carolina takes on No. 14 Kentucky. Freshman standout Aaron Bradshaw, who was ranked fourth in the 247 Sports Class of 2023 Composite rankings, had his coming-out party in last weekend’s 81-66 win over Penn. Bradshaw totaled 17 points and 11 rebounds, joining Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham as the best set of reserves in America. 

On the other side of the matchup is a pair of veterans in RJ Davis and big man All-American Armando Bacot. Establishing the center early and often is the key for UNC in this game, and Notre Dame transfer Cormac Ryan has to knock down some shots. In his last three games combined, he’s 8-for-29 from the floor. That has to change. In the midst of these freshmen, Kentucky’s Antonio Reeves is averaging 18 points per game on 51% shooting from the floor. 

My pick: Kentucky 

[Read more: Ranking the top 10 freshmen in college basketball this season

Also included in this absolutely loaded buffet of Saturday games:

Texas A&M vs. No. 4 Houston (Toyota Center, 2:30 p.m. ET)

My pick: Houston 

No. 13 Clemson at Memphis (3 p.m. ET)

My pick: Memphis 

Ohio State vs. UCLA (Atlanta, 3 p.m. ET) 

My pick: Ohio State 

Alabama at No. 8 Creighton (FOX Primetime Hoops, 8 p.m. ET)

My pick: Creighton 

NC State vs. No. 12 Tennessee (San Antonio, 10 p.m. ET) 

My pick: Tennessee 

So, there is no shortage of action on the hardwood this Saturday, a welcome sight with less football on the TV, opening the door for college hoops to have some shine. 

Whether you’re just catching up to the sport, or you’ve been locked in throughout the season, I wanted to unveil 10 of my early-season takeaways thus far, with some superlatives included as well. 

My four best teams: Arizona, Purdue, Connecticut, Baylor 

Why is this? There’s just a complete nature about all four of these teams. The Wildcats have elite-level balance, the Boilermakers have a generational talent inside and a group hungry for redemption, the Huskies have not slowed down at all and Newton has been an All-American point guard, and while the Bears’ defense has its flaws, Ja’Kobe Walter is one of the best freshmen in the country as part of a stacked perimeter. 

Could Houston, Kansas or Marquette have a case? Of course. It’s a long season. I would say the Cougars’ lack of offensive depth concerns me, the Jayhawks’ issues at shooting guard are an eyebrow-raiser, and Marquette’s rebounding disadvantages are why I have these three teams on the outside – however, they are all very close.

My first team All-Americans at this point … again, it’s early! 

Zach Edey, Purdue 

Hunter Dickinson, Kansas 

Tristen Newton, Connecticut 

PJ Hall, Clemson

Jaedon LeDee, San Diego State 

My three biggest surprise teams: Clemson, BYU, Oklahoma 

Brad Brownell has assembled his perfect team with the Tigers, who are top-30 in KenPom offense and defense, have a superstar in Hall, a sharpshooter in Joe Girard, and a very underrated weapon in Chase Hunter. This team has legit balance. 

The Sooners were picked 12th in the Big 12. The Cougars? 13th! 

Porter Moser crushed it in the transfer portal with guard Javian McCollum (Siena) and forward John Hugley (Pitt), while sophomore guard Otega Oweh has gone from 4.8 points per game last year to 15.2 per game this year, and is one of the most improved players in America. 

Meanwhile, in Provo, Utah, Mark Pope has a team with six players averaging in double figures, including Jaxson Robinson, who is putting up over 16 points per game and had 28 in a win over Denver this past week. The metrics love this team, and they should. At 9-1, BYU ranks in the top three in scoring offense and defense in the Big 12. 

Team with the most upside: Kentucky 

I didn’t rank the Wildcats in my preseason poll because I wanted them to fully prove something this year. The performance against Kansas in the Champions Classic, albeit in a loss, showed me something. Bear with me, Big Blue Nation! You have a team that could go on a very deep run, and Sheppard has been an absolute stud. 

My biggest factor with this team is in a close game, when they have to go halfcourt offense, what does that look like? Reeves’ shot economy is important here, and I think it’s big to see how Bradshaw evolves in the offense. At the end of the day, can DJ Wagner and/or Dillingham run a consistent offense when the game gets slowed down and produce successful, quality possessions? That’s what I want to see as the year goes on, along with consistency, because the loss to UNCW two weeks ago showed the youth on this UK team. 

Unranked team that I believe in: Auburn 

Had the Tigers not slipped up at Appalachian State, I would have them ranked in my top 25 right now. I really like this team because highly-touted freshman guard Aden Holloway has opened up a new dimension in an offense with seven players averaging at least 7.3 points per game. 

They have an elite post presence in Johni Broome, along with quality length in Jaylin Williams and JUCO transfer Chad Baker-Mazara. They really pressure the ball well defensively too, sitting at 12th in KenPom adjusted efficiency on that end of the floor. The Tigers are in the top four in the SEC in fewest turnovers. There’s a lot to like about Bruce Pearl’s group. 

Five big questions ahead of January:

1. Who is the second-best team in the Big Ten? Will anybody challenge Purdue? 

My leaders in the clubhouse: Illinois and Wisconsin, both of whom are ranked this week. Terrence Shannon Jr. has more assistance now, and pieces that frankly fit better with Marcus Domask and Quincy Guerrier. Coleman Hawkins’ shotmaking ability is something that needs to progress, but I like this Illini team, even with some point guard questions. As for the Badgers, even after a loss at Arizona, I still think this team has a lot of potential. St. John’s transfer AJ Storr has led the team in scoring with 13.8 points per game. 

2. Will Duke get on track and make a push? 

It’s rough that the Blue Devils are having to go on without Tyrese Proctor for now, a sophomore who has NBA Draft lottery potential, but the injury bug is part of the reality. This team is 7-3 on the year, but doesn’t have a signature win. 

Jared McCain and Jeremy Roach knocking down three triples apiece was encouraging in Tuesday’s 89-68 win over Hofstra. Duke needs McCain to keep progressing. One thing is for certain: Kyle Filipowski is a stud. 

3. Who will win the Big East, and what’s the middle going to look like? 

The top-three teams are as strong as any trio in any conference, with UConn, Marquette and Creighton at the top of the league. The Golden Eagles are the reigning regular season and conference tournament champions, but the Huskies hold the national title throne. Last year, though, two of the Huskies’ eight losses came to Marquette. Those matchups will be spicy when they hit on the calendar. 

Beyond those three, the Big East is a bit of a mystery. I think it will be a five-bid league with two of Villanova, Providence, Butler, St. John’s or Xavier making the Big Dance. The Wildcats have had the most bizarre season with the Battle 4 Atlantis championship, and then a last place finish in Philadelphia’s Big Five. I’d still put them in the NCAA Tournament field today, but likely in an 8-9 game. 

Will the Friars be able to show more of what they had in a blowout win over Wisconsin? Kim English could have the dark horse team in the league. Can Butler sustain its 8-2 start, and prove they can win away from Hinkle Fieldhouse? And then, will Rick Pitino and Sean Miller pull their teams together after a slow start? Fittingly, the Red Storm host the Musketeers in their Big East opener on Dec. 20.

4. Who could be a March dark horse that you should keep an eye on? 

Here’s my foursome: Memphis, Saint Joseph’s, Indiana State and Kent State 

5. Who will be the last unbeaten standing? Here’s the list of the remaining seven teams who are still perfect on the season:

10-0 Houstonvs. Texas A&M Saturday
8-0 Arizona – vs. Purdue Saturday 
9-0 Baylor – vs. Michigan State Saturday
9-0 Oklahoma – vs. Green Bay Saturday  
9-0 Clemson – at Memphis Saturday 
9-0 James Madison – at Hampton Saturday 
9-0 Ole Miss – vs. Cal Saturday

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John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.



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