FIVE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW
1. What will Creighton do at the point guard spot?: Suddenly, the most important story line in the Big East has become the future of this Creighton basketball team, and we’ll get our first glimpse of it against Marquette in Omaha on Saturday.
The Bluejays lost Mo Watson Jr., their starting point guard and an all-american this season, to a torn ACL on Monday. Watson was leading the nation in assists this season. He was the engine that made Creighton’s high-powered offense run. He was to the Bluejays what Lonzo Ball is to UCLA.
Greg McDermott is one of the more underrated coaches in college basketball, but this is going to be a massive overhaul for him. Their offensive attack was built around Watson’s abilities – the way he can push the ball in transition, the way he can get into the lane, the way he can find their myriad of 45 percent three-point shooters – and there isn’t another guy on the roster that can do those things.
There is still plenty of talent on that Creighton roster, but they’ll be playing the rest of the season without the head of their snake.
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2. Indiana vs. Michigan State is critical, just not in the way we thought it would be: The Hoosiers and the Spartans were supposed to be two of the best teams in the Big Ten this season, but that’s not the way that the year has played out. The two teams have a combined 13 losses, while Indiana is a buzzer-beater from James Blackmon Jr. away from being 2-4 in the Big Ten.
The Spartans look like they have started to right the ship. They are just a game out of first place in the Big Ten standings, their freshmen are starting to play like they’re more than just freshmen and Miles Bridges is back from the ankle injury that cost him a few weeks. Indiana, on the other hand, is at a crossroads in their season. O.G. Anunoby appears to be out for a significant amount of time with a knee injury, and he is the one guy on that roster that can operate as a defensive stopper and something of a glue-guy. Last year, when Blackmon went down with a knee injury, Indiana’s season could have unraveled. Instead, Yogi Ferrell carried them to a Big Ten regular season title.
So while the Spartans will be playing a game they cannot afford to lose if they want to be Big Ten champs, Indiana is going to be trying to prove that 2016-17 isn’t going to be a total loss.
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3. Miami at No. 18 Duke, Sat. 8:15 p.m. (ESPN): Duke is going to be the biggest story line in the sport for the foreseeable future. Part of it is because they are Duke. They are always a massive story. But the more pressing issue is that this team has turned into the most fascinating team I can remember in college basketball. On paper, they are more talented than the 2015 Kentucky, the one that went 38-1. On the floor, they’re a mess. Harry Giles III is still a shell of himself, understandably so. Marques Bolden has been so bad that Chase Jeter and Javin DeLaurier have usurped his spot in the rotation. Jayson Tatum hasn’t adjusted to the college level the way we expected him to, and the only person in the program that seems to realize Luke Kennard is the best player on the team is Luke Kennard.
The leader on the bench, Coach K, is out recovering from back surgery. The leader on the floor, Amile Jefferson, is out with a foot injury.
And then there is Grayson Allen, who … well … you know. He keeps tripping people, and even when he doesn’t, we have successfully lumped him into some controversy on the floor for three straight games. Oh, and he’s the Preseason Player of the Year that just so happens to be playing out of position because the Blue Devils don’t have a point guard.
In 2015, when Duke had an identity crisis in January, they were shredded at home by Miami, losing by 16 points and having their season effectively ended by the public at large. They figured it out that year and won a national title. They’re at a similar crossroads this weekend. Is this when they start to turn things around?
4. First place battles in the ACC, Pac-12 and the SEC: There are a trio of headline-grabbing games this weekend featuring league leaders. No. 12 Louisville travels to No. 10 Florida State, who is tied for first in the ACC, a game ahead of the Cardinals. No. 14 Arizona, who it tied with Oregon for the top spot in the Pac-12 standings, treks to Pauley Pavilion to pay a visit to No. 3 UCLA, who is a game out of first. And finally, No. 5 Kentucky hosts No. 24 South Carolina, the last two undefeated teams in the SEC.
Three terrific games. Three terrific breakdowns right here.