It is the most wonderful time of the year. For many Americans, Christmas centers on Jesus, Joseph, Mary, the Virgin Birth, and relevant religious services and celebrations. For others, it is all about family, sharing, receiving, giving, or the like. Still others see it as an avenue to parties, egg nog, fruitcake, the Christmas Story marathon, Santa's visit, reindeer, and elves. More cynical and jaded folks reject the whole lot of it, viewing the entire season as a microcosm of society's larger ills of greed, overspending, and general spoiled brattiness. For me, it is a combination of all of the above.
But regardless of how I feel about Christmas on any given day, there has always been one constant surrounding Christmas during my lifetime: music. My best memories of Christmas are those times at my grandparents' house with thirty voices singing carols in unison in the den or the upstairs room. This would often be followed by a wonderful holiday meal, marathon Rook-playing sessions, and talk of the recent play of the local college hoops' teams, namely Louisville, Kentucky, and Western Kentucky.
So, my gift to you is a combination of music and college basketball. I give you the Twelve Games of Christmas. These are the most important games over the next three days (December 22-24).
Twelve Wildcats Drumming (loudly)
Iona vs Kentucky (Friday, December 23) - Many Kentucky fans are banging their drums, sounding the return to the Tubby bandwagon after UK thoroughly handled Louisville last weekend in their annual rivalry tilt. But, if the Wildcats become too focused on the banging drums and not on their still undefeated opponent, the Cats could be in for a loss. The 7-0 Gaels have had nearly two weeks to prepare for Kentucky, and Iona guard Ricky Soliver is one to watch. They have already won at Iowa State. This game will be played in Louisville, and not in Rupp Arena. Beware of the Gaels in this one.
Eleven Hoosiers Launching
Indiana at Butler (Friday, December 23) - OK, maybe it was not eleven Hoosiers launching threes, but it sure must have felt that way to Charlotte last week when they hosted Mike Davis' bunch. The Hoosiers made ten first half threes en route to a relatively easy win on the 49ers home court. Indiana has big man D.J. White back and possesses one of the more balanced offensive attacks in the country. If you have not had a chance to check out IU yet, they play at rejuvenated Butler in Hinkle Fieldhouse on Friday. The Bulldogs look to be a major player in the Horizon League this year along with defending champ UW-Milwaukee. Butler had a down year last season, but they return all five starters and have played very solid basketball to this point.
Ten Bearcats Leaping
Cincinnati vs Dayton (in Las Vegas, Thursday, December 22) - The high-flying Bearcats are learning to win in the post-Bob Huggins Era. Forward James White is playing tremendous basketball, and Eric Hicks is still a beastly presence on the interior. Leaping is one of their strong suits. Dayton (7-3) seems to be bouncing back after a couple of down years. These teams have already met once this season back on November 29, and the Flyers took that contest by a 75-66 count on Cincy's home court.
Nine Teams a-Dancing?
West Virginia vs Oklahoma (Thursday, December 22) - In the preseason, many pundits suggested that the Big East would put eight or even nine teams into the NCAA Tournament. One of those considered a lock for the Dance was WVU. However, with the rugged conference slate ahead and the Mountaineers struggles in the early going, their status appears a bit more tenuous than first believed. Oklahoma will counter with arguably one of the best frontcourt duos in the country in Taj Gray and Kevin Bookout. Both of these teams are still looking for their first wins over top competition.
Eight Maids a-Milking (the clock)
NC State at Alabama (Thursday, December 22) - The Pack has been better than expected, and the Tide has struggled early on. With Bama's focus on their frontcourt studs and NC State's slow pace and time-erasing zone Princeton-like offense, this game will likely be played in the 50's.
Seven Paper Tigers
Auburn at Texas A&M (Thursday, December 22) - Both of these teams have won a lot of games early. Neither is as good as its record indicates. One of them will find that out after this game.
Six Heartless Scrooges
Detroit at Louisville (Saturday, December 24) - A game played on Christmas Eve? It is the only game on the D-I slate in the entire nation. It's bad enough that Rick Pitino and the Cards would schedule a home game on Christmas Eve, but the poor guys from Detroit will be traveling over the Christmas weekend. Pitino, Detroit coach Perry Watson, and the athletic directors and university presidents (for a total of six heartless scrooges) all get lumps of coal in their stocking. Maybe they all should retire and "decrease the surplus population" (apologies to Charles Dickens).
FIVE! UNKNOWN! DUDES!
Colorado State at Hawaii (Thursday, December 22). Have you heard of Colorado State center Jason Smith? Maybe you haven't, but the NBA scouts sure have. Smith is a 7'0", 235-pound sophomore who has led the Rams to an 8-1 start. Smith is averaging 17.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.7 blocks, and 2.6 assists per contest. Can the big man shoot free throws? He's running at a 73% clip. This guy is a player. Also keep an eye on even less-known teammate Michael Morrison (11.6 points per game, and 24 in his last outing). For the Rainbows, Julian Sensley's (averaging 17 and 6 per game) name pops up now and again, but he toils in relative obscurity. He is joined by two other very nice players in guard Matt Lojeski (14 points, 58% from three-land; no, that's not a typo) and Ahmet Gueye (14 points, 8 rebounds). The Rainbows are 5-2 with wins over Michigan State and Utah State. They may not be Nevada-quality, but they are certainly the second or third best WAC team in the early season. Fresno State is in the mix as well.
Four Ballin' Birds
South Carolina vs Temple (Thursday, December 22) - Granted, there will be a lot more than four birds involved when the Owls and Gamecocks take the court, but there are four birds worth watching in this one. Temple's Mardy Collins is widely considered one of the top NBA point guard prospects in the country this year. Sidekick Antywane Robinson, a 6'8" senior, is also having a nice year (12.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 40% from three). Temple was lambasted in their last game at Auburn, so they will be looking for some revenge on the SEC. South Carolina counters with 6'7" guard Tarance Kinsey (16.6 points, 46% from three) and lanky 6'8" forward Renaldo Balkman (13 points, 8 rebounds). These four birds should help make this a nice contest.
Tennessee vs Oklahoma State (Thursday, December 22) - The surprising Vols (6-0) recently destroyed Big 12 favorite Texas on their home court and now ready themselves to face the Cowboys in Oklahoma City. UT will put up their fair share of threes, and few are better marksmen than sophomore guard Chris Lofton (47% from downtown). On the other side, this is not one of Eddie Sutton's best squads, but the Cowboys always play tough and make opponents earn wins. This is a perfect test for Bruce Pearl's first club and a nice chance for Sutton's crew to show that they are still a legitimate NCAA team.
Two In-State Foes
Brigham Young at Utah State (Thursday, December 22) - The Cougars and Aggies both will likely have to win their conference tourneys to find their way into the bracket come March, but this is a nice in-state game.
And One Big Reality Check
LaSalle at Villanova (Thursday, December 22) - The LaSalle Explorers are to be congratulated. They are a perfect 7-0 heading into tonight's game against Villanova. This game will give us some notion of whether LaSalle is going to challenge George Washington and Xavier in the A-10, or if they have merely been feasting on Christmas goodies. It has been awhile since LaSalle was on the national radar. Remember Lionel Simmons (aka The L-Train)? Great college player.
There you have it. The Twelve Game of Christmas this year will spread joy to all the little boys and girls across Hoopworld. So, sing it loud and strong to the same tune as the "Twelve Days of Christmas":
Twelve Wildcats drumming, eleven Hoosiers launching, ten Bearcats leaping, nine teams a-dancing, eight maids a-milking (the clock), seven paper tigers, six heartless scrooges, FIVE! UNKNOWN! DUDES!, four ballin' birds, three pointers, two in-state foes, and one big reality check.
Then, take December 25th and 26th to catch your breath, because teams return to action on the 27th. The conference season looms just around the corner.