Now that the early-season tournaments are over, the non-conference season is in full swing. Some teams are avoiding the big boys and beating up on lesser teams (I’m looking at you, Florida), and others are challenging themselves with brutal schedules. Both the Big 10/ACC Challenge and Big 12/Pac 10 Challenge kick off this week, and every night of the week you’ll be able to catch some good hoops action. Now is the time for some of those NCAA tournament bubble teams to pick up some non-conference victories and boost their RPI rating, and while it may only be November, these games count just as much as they will in February.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Texas at UCLA
After making a seemingly competitive match-up against 7th ranked Tennessee into a one-sided throttling in their favor, the Texas Longhorns head into Pauley Pavilion with a chance to knock off a battered UCLA team. Luckily for the Bruins, both Darren Collison and Michael Roll, who have not played yet this season with injuries, may be able to return for this game, which tips off Sunday night. The Bruins managed to get by despite their injury problems, as they beat Maryland fairly handily and escaped with a win against Michigan State to win the CBE Classic last week. If they can get back to full strength, Texas’ explosive offensive attack will be tested by the Bruins’ nasty defensive play. The Longhorns may not have Kevin Durant anymore, but it is beginning to look like they may have a more balanced attack without him. Sure, the idea seems outrageous, but Texas just spanked a team that has a legitimate shot at reaching the Final Four. Rick Barnes himself even said his squad was farther along than last year’s team. The post could be a problem for Texas in this one, though, as they will struggle to defend the monstrous Kevin Love. Connor Atchley has played well so far this year and he will need to continue his strong play against superior competition.
OTHER MUST-SEE MATCHUPS
Indiana at Southern Illinois
Xavier’s thumping of the Hoosiers this weekend has tempered the nation’s high expectations for Eric Gordon and the crew, for now at least. But both teams suffered losses over the weekend, with Southern Illinois also losing badly to USC in the Anaheim Classic finals. Indiana has more flash and excitement on their roster, but Southern Illinois’ tough-minded attack and the fact that almost nobody goes into SIU Arena and beats the Salukis, who hold a 78-3 record at home over the past six years, poses a tremendous task for Indiana.
Wisconsin at Duke
Wisconsin may not have entered this season with much fanfare, but this is still a team expected to compete for an upper-tier finish in the Big 10. The Badgers dismantled Colorado and Georgia earlier this year, but when they face Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium they will finally get an idea of where they stand relative to last year’s squad. After taking out Marquette to win the Maui Invitational, the Blue Devils seem to be a much better team than last season. The only weakness for this team is their inside play- Brian Butch will give the Blue Devils all kinds of problems down low. Duke still enters this game as the clear favorite, though, especially since the game is in Durham.
North Carolina at Ohio State
Had the Tar Heels not collapsed down the stretch against Georgetown in last year’s Elite Eight, this would be the rematch of last year’s Final Four. Still, it doesn’t look very similar to that same Ohio State team, and besides Brandan Wright and a few other contributors, this is the same North Carolina team from last season. A new twist has been added to this game, as Ty Lawson’s status is in question after an injury during Saturday’s win over BYU. If he can’t go, the Buckeyes will have a shot to knock off one of the nation’s top teams, but the Tar Heels will most likely be too much for Ohio State even without their point guard.
North Carolina at Kentucky
North Carolina has a challenging week ahead, heading to Rupp Arena to face Kentucky just a few days after making a road trip to Columbus to play Ohio State. Lawson’s questionable status once again will play a factor in this game, because he’s the guy that makes everything happen for his team. With or without Lawson, the Tar Heels need to win both games to prove themselves worthy of the AP Poll’s top ranking.
Texas A&M at Arizona
After battling Kansas to overtime on the road, the Wildcats will try to take out another top notch Big 12 opponent in Texas A&M. The Aggies came into the year with a lot of question marks, and one of the biggest questions was whether the guard play would be good enough to offset Acie Law’s departure. Dominique Kirk and Donald Sloan are picking up the slack so far, especially scoring wise, and the result is a very strong early season performance and a Pre-Season NIT championship. It won’t be easy for Arizona to handle Joseph Jones and DeAndre Jordan down low, but can anyone on the Aggies guard the versatile Chase Budinger, who went off for 27 points against Kansas?
Ohio State at Butler
If you want to watch a team that loves to launch threes, Butler is the perfect team for you. The Bulldogs will throw up shots from pretty much anywhere on the floor. Butler is on fire coming off a Great Alaskan Shootout championship in which they lit up the scoreboard from behind the arc. It may seem odd that a Big 10 school, following up on a Final Four campaign, would be an underdog against a Horizon League school, but the Bulldogs are anything but another mid-major. Butler’s outside game is as good as any in the country, but the Buckeyes will expose their weak post play inside.
Kansas at Southern California
The Jayhawks barely survived a pesky Arizona squad Sunday night, and they’ll have yet another Pac-10 test when they travel out west to USC. Still not at full strength with a key injury to Sherron Collins and a limited Brandon Rush, Kansas looked sluggish at times against Arizona but still escaped with an overtime victory. USC may have started out with a terrible home loss to Mercer, but the Trojans made up for it with a spanking of Southern Illinois to win the Anaheim Classic. Everything seemed to come together for USC during that game- with a repeat of that performance, Kansas will be in serious trouble.
North Carolina State at Michigan State
Which N.C. State team will show up? The one that went 5-11 in the ACC last year and lost to New Orleans this season, or the one that nearly won the ACC tournament last season and knocked off Villanova on Sunday? The Wolfpack will need to be the latter to beat this Michigan State team, even though the Spartans have looked questionable at times this season. During the CBE Classic, the Spartans did perform well, but games against Louisiana-Monroe and Oakland were a real struggle. The Wolfpack’s deep and powerful combination of big men may bother the Spartans, but Tom Izzo’s got the edge as far as guard play goes.
OTHER GAMES OF INTEREST
Oregon at Kansas State
A disappointing loss against George Mason will most likely drop Kansas State out of the top 25 when the polls come out Monday, but the Wildcats are loaded with talent, led by freshman sensation Michael Beasley. Frank Martin needs to find a way to mesh his team as a group, or this team may fall completely short of their potential. Oregon suffered an upset loss to St. Mary’s earlier this season, as the Ducks continue to learn to play without Aaron Brooks. Expect to see a lot of scoring on both sides in this one.
Washington State at Baylor
Baylor will attempt to build on their Paradise Jam championship as they take on Washington State at home in Waco. The Bears knocked off Wichita State, Notre Dame, and Winthrop to capture the title, but the Cougars will be on another level compared to the teams Baylor has faced so far. Washington State will finally get to compete against a decent major-conference team, a nice break from the cupcakes they’ve faced early on. Baylor quietly possesses an extremely talented group of guards, but the Cougars boast one of the best tandems in the nation in Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver.
Davidson at Duke
After giving North Carolina a real scare and briefly reaching the top 25, Davidson heads to Cameron Indoor to take on the Tar Heels’ arch rival. If the Wildcats hadn’t lost to Western Michigan recently, there would probably be more hype surrounding this game. Duke destroyed Davidson last year, and while they may not beat them by 28 points again, the Blue Devils should win this game handily at home.
Gonzaga at Connecticut
If Connecticut wants to prove to people that it is a better team than last season, they will need to win this game at home against Gonzaga. The Bulldogs have not been too impressive early on, and they are without injured forward Josh Heytvelt. Although the Huskies gave Memphis a game, they still haven’t beaten anyone of note this season (except for Gardner-Webb maybe- and twice!) and won’t have a chance to play any other marquee opponents until conference play begins. This is a critical game for Jim Calhoun’s team.
Illinois at Maryland Two historically strong programs in somewhat of a down year will battle each other in this one, both looking for a solid resume win for the NCAA tournament committee. Maryland is still attempting to recover from the loss of three key seniors from last year, but the Terps should continue to progress as the season goes on. Illinois still needs to find some offense, but their defensive effort so far this season has been that of a typical Illini team.
Missouri at Arkansas Missouri coach Mike Anderson heads back to Fayetteville, where he coached as a long-time assistant under Nolan Richardson. In last season’s meeting in Columbia, Arkansas walked away on the wrong side of a blowout, but they have the benefit of playing at home this time. The Razorbacks have had problems turning the ball over this season, and they can’t do that against the Tigers if they want to win this game. Arkansas has the athleticism and talent to match Missouri’s frenetic style, but the key here is simply taking care of the ball.
Illinois at Maryland
Two historically strong programs in somewhat of a down year will battle each other in this one, both looking for a solid resume win for the NCAA tournament committee. Maryland is still attempting to recover from the loss of three key seniors from last year, but the Terps should continue to progress as the season goes on. Illinois still needs to find some offense, but their defensive effort so far this season has been that of a typical Illini team.
Missouri at Arkansas
Missouri coach Mike Anderson heads back to Fayetteville, where he coached as a long-time assistant under Nolan Richardson. In last season’s meeting in Columbia, Arkansas walked away on the wrong side of a blowout, but they have the benefit of playing at home this time. The Razorbacks have had problems turning the ball over this season, and they can’t do that against the Tigers if they want to win this game. Arkansas has the athleticism and talent to match Missouri’s frenetic style, but the key here is simply taking care of the ball.