Johnathan Loyd, Marcus Smart

Oklahoma State and Memphis both have statements to make tonight

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Michael Dixon (Getty Image) and Marcus Smart (AP photo)

Since it doesn’t involve freshmen destined to be top five picks and since it’s not being dubbed the single greatest basketball event ever held outside the month of March, but Tuesday night will feature one of the most intriguing matchups of the young season.

The No. 11 Memphis Tigers are headed to Stillwater to take on No. 7 Oklahoma State.

In and of itself, that’s enough for me to tell each and every one of you college basketball fans that you need to tune in. When two top ten (well, top 11, but close enough) teams take the court, you watch. It’s that simple.

But there’s so much more going on here, enough that I’d say there is just as much intrigue and just as many storylines heading into this game as there were for either of the matchups in the Champions Classic.

Let’s start with Memphis, who will be playing their first meaningful game with Michael Dixon as a member of their team. If you’ve forgotten, Dixon was suspended from Missouri before playing a game last season as a result of a couple of accusations of sexual assault. He was never charged, however, and Pastner brought him in for his senior season. When the NCAA granted him a waiver, Memphis was given a gift: one of the best all-around guards in the country.

Dixon brings a level of toughness and a brand of leadership that Pastner’s back court really hasn’t had before. And with Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford joining him, the Tigers all of a sudden have one of the most formidable back courts in the country. Add in the likes of Shaq Goodwin, Austin Nichols, and the rest of Pastner’s latest loaded recruiting class, and there is as much hype and potential on this Memphis roster as there as ever been.

Which is what makes this game so important.

For as many games as Pastner has won, for as many talented recruits as he has brought in, Pastner really doesn’t have anything to show for it. He’s won one NCAA tournament game. That came against St. Mary’s in the Round of 64, when the Gaels had to win a play-in just to get that far. At the time, the Gaels were ranked 25th in the Coaches Poll — and unranked in the AP poll — so not only is Pastner’s only NCAA tournament win, but it would also count as his only win against a ranked team.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that Memphis has won a lot of games during Pastner’s tenure, but they’ve yet to do anything of substance. They’ve yet to make a statement. They’ve yet to have that win that makes you say, ‘Damn, maybe this team is better than I thought.’

Methinks going into Gallagher-Iba and beating the Pokes would suffice.

But that’s not going to be an easy thing to do.

Let’s gloss over, for a second, the fact that Oklahoma State is a top ten team and a legitimate contender for the Big 12 title this season. You don’t need me up on my high-horse trying to tell you that Travis Ford’s club is really talented this season, and that winning on a really talented team’s home court is not an easy thing to do.

What I may need to do is remind you that Oklahoma State has a kid on their roster named Marcus Smart, a guy that could have been the No. 1 pick in the draft had he left as a freshman. A kid that is as competitive as anyone in the country. A kid that is coming off of an all-american season and has been completely overlooked in regards to the Player of the Year race and the conversation for the No. 1 pick in the draft.

This is his moment.

This is his chance to prove to the nation — to show the folks that have been discussing Andrew Wiggins vs. Jabari Parker and Julius Randle vs. Aaron Gordon — that they’ve overlooked someone.

He’ll be ready to play. You better believe that.

Put it all together, and what you get is a game in mid-November between two of the top 11 teams in the country where both programs have quite a bit to play for.

That’s not something that happens often.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.