After two months of unexpected upsets, six No. 1 teams and several epic finishes, we have finally reached conference play. With no dominant team standing out this season in college hoops, expect bedlam and a few unforeseen league champions across the country barring a complete turnaround.
To start the New Year on ESPN+, there are multiple ranked teams; two Big 12 matchups; a plethora of Atlantic 10 showdowns with squads out to prove themselves; and superstars you don’t want to miss.
For all the talk about how the Jayhawks are stronger using small ball to open up spacing, this could be a game in which Bill Self’s fascination with two-big lineups could come in handy.
This Top 25 showdown will likely be decided by the frontcourts, as West Virginia features freshman forward Oscar Tshiebwe and rebounding machine Derek Culver, while Kansas has Udoka Azubuike and David McCormack.
Bob Huggins’ unit is still lacking elite shot-creators, but the Mountaineers are physical and continue to use their pressure defense to keep opponents out of rhythm. That defensive energy could pose a problem for Kansas, particularly with its lack of a backup point guard behind Devon Dotson. Regardless of X’s and O’s, this should be an intense start to Big 12 play for both squads.
2. Kansas State Wildcats at Oklahoma Sooners (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, Big 12 Now on ESPN+)
Two teams with different styles square off in another entertaining matchup to commence the Big 12 season.
Kansas State’s identity doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon. The Wildcats rely on their defensive energy, while their offensive production comes and goes as Xavier Sneed and Cartier Diarra continue to adjust to their new and burgeoning roles.
Oklahoma is averaging 73.9 points and has a trio of dangerous offensive weapons in Wichita State transfer Austin Reaves, inside-outside threat Kristian Doolittle and 3-point shooter Brady Manek. While all three have experience and are capable of carrying the Sooners, their defense is in need of improvement, and Lon Kruger is still seeking more production from the role players.
Which style will win out? The gritty defense or the offensive force?
3. No. 18 Dayton Flyers at Saint Joseph’s Hawks (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
Obi Toppin and the Flyers play a true road game for just the second time all season as they face off against a Hawks squad that is reeling.
While Dayton has played an extremely tedious nonconference schedule, road games in conference play have a unique feel. Will the role players be as comfortable operating within the confines of the offense? Will Toppin be asked to put an extra load on his shoulders? And if so, can he take his play to another level?
Saint Joseph’s has struggled outside of Ryan Daly — who is averaging more than 20 points — but it will be interesting to see how comfortable Dayton is given its lack of opportunities away from home.
4. Jackson State Tigers at No. 7 Baylor Bears (Monday, 3 p.m. ET, Big 12 Now on ESPN+)
This is the last chance to catch the Bears before they dive into conference play with a matchup versus Texas.
Following its loss to Washington, Baylor has ripped off an eight-game winning streak, including victories over Villanova, Arizona and Butler. The Bears have the makings of a complete unit, with an elite defense, a potent offense led by Jared Butler and plenty of depth, athleticism and experience.
If Tristan Clark can become fully healthy and snap out of his early-season funk, Scott Drew’s group certainly can challenge Kansas at the top of the Big 12.
5. Richmond Spiders at Rhode Island Rams (Sunday, noon ET)
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If you’re looking for elite guard play, this is the game for you.
Rhode Island is led by Fatts Russell and Jeff Dowtin, while sophomore Tyrese Martin has stepped up to become the team’s third-leading scorer. Wagner transfer Blake Francis joins Jacob Gilyard and Nick Sherod to form Richmond’s talented trio that is capable of countering the Rams’ home-court advantage and potent offensive punch.
While Dayton and VCU are the current favorites at the top of the A-10, Richmond and Rhode Island are looking to solidify themselves as potential challengers atop the conference standings.
6. Saint Louis Billikens at Duquesne Dukes (Thursday, 7 p.m. ET)
Saint Louis defeated two Power 5 opponents in Boston College and Kansas State, and it nearly upset Auburn. The Billikens are a legit force in the Atlantic 10 thanks to the presence of Jordan Goodwin and Hasahn French.
Duquesne is 10-2 but has yet to face a Power 5 opponent or play in a true road game. While the Dukes feature a strong defense that has allowed an average of just 59.8 points — 20th in the nation — the first true test comes in their conference opener.
Will Duquesne’s balance — six players averaging 9.5 points or more — and defensive force translate against a Saint Louis team that is a true sleeper to reach the NCAA tournament? Or is Keith Dambrot’s team just capitalizing on a shaky nonconference schedule?
7. George Washington Colonials at Vermont Catamounts (Tuesday, 2 p.m. ET)
Vermont was expected to be one of the best mid-majors in the country behind Anthony Lamb, three other key returnees and former four-star recruit Daniel Giddens. Instead, the Catamounts have looked rocky at times and have recorded five losses, including two surprise defeats at the hands of Rider and Yale.
While George Washington is still adjusting to life under first-year head coach Jamion Christian, this is the final opportunity for the Catamounts to impress outside of the America East, where there are limited résumé-boosting opportunities.
Giddens needs to find more consistency. Lamb needs to snap out of his inefficient funk. And most important, John Becker’s team needs to gain more confidence from beyond the arc. These problems won’t all be solved against the Colonials, but a victory could instill more promise for the remainder of the campaign.
8. St. Bonaventure Bonnies at Buffalo Bulls (Monday, 7 p.m. ET)
A battle in New York takes center stage at Alumni Arena in Buffalo as the Bonnies and Bulls both try to extend win streaks.
Since the return of Osun Osunniyi, St. Bonaventure is 7-1 with seven consecutive victories. The schedule is finally beefing up with a game against an in-state rival, but Osunniyi’s experience and defensive energy provides the roster with a different dimension that was missing during the Bonnies’ unsteady first month.
Meanwhile, the Bulls are clearly still figuring themselves out under new coach Jim Whitesell. With strong depth and multiple players who have the ability to take over the game, this team has the chops to be a powerful threat early in the NCAA tournament. While an at-large bid is likely out of the question for Buffalo, gaining steam before MAC play can only benefit the Bulls in the long run.
9. UC Irvine Anteaters at Harvard Crimson (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET)
The only thing holding Harvard back is injury concerns. With Top 25 talent, strong coaching from Tommy Amaker and depth, the Crimson have a legitimate roster that will likely strike fear in any opponent come March.
One player to keep an eye on in this one is senior forward Chris Lewis, who has led Harvard in scoring multiple times this season and nearly put up a double-double in a win over Howard. As a strong rebounder and solid finisher, Lewis lives on the interior, giving the Crimson another weapon alongside Robert Baker.
The continued absence of Seth Towns, Harvard’s best player and one of the better rebounders on the team, puts extra pressure on the rest of the frontcourt, making Lewis and Baker the X factors for Amaker.
10. UTEP Miners at Florida International Panthers (Thursday, 7 p.m. ET)
UTEP and Florida International might not grab your attention, but the Miners’ junior forward Bryson Williams likely will after watching this showdown.
The 6-foot-8 talent is averaging 19.3 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting a ridiculous 56.3% from the field overall and 58% from 3-point range. Williams has the ability to take over any game with his inside-out scoring abilities and solid defense at the rim.
Williams is so skilled that UTEP is considered a sleeper in the Conference USA. But its first task in league play is no walk in the park, as the Miners face a 9-4 squad in Florida International that features its own bucket-getter in Devon Andrews (16.5 points per game).
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