Rob Dauster

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 07:  De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats dribbles the ball during the game against the Valparaiso Crusaders at Rupp Arena on December 7, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Weekend Preview: Kentucky-UNC, Crossroads Classic highlight great weekend

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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 7 North Carolina vs. No. 6 Kentucky, Sat. 5:45 p.m.: Before we get into what this game means, we need to talk about the x-factor in this game: the health of Joel Berry II’s ankle. Berry has missed the last two games after injuring the ankle two weeks ago and it’s unclear if he will be able to play on Saturday; if he does play, who knows how healthy he’ll be.

That’s an enormous issue for the Tar Heels, not only because we learned just how valuable Berry is to that team last weekend, but because of who North Carolina is playing. The way that Kentucky plays defense is that they overwhelm teams with their athleticism and ball pressure. They force turnovers, they force bad shots and they turn those empty possessions into layups at the other end of the floor. You need strong point guard play to run offense and get good shots against them, and an absent or hampered Berry would clearly hurt their chances of doing so.

And that’s frustrating, because this is a game that was supposed to tell us something about both of these teams. Kentucky’s been dominant for long stretches this season, but the only time they played a team that was anywhere near their caliber was when they lost at home to UCLA. North Carolina has been just as impressive, particularly as they cruised to a title in the Maui Invitational, but they were beaten pretty good by Indiana in Assembly Hall.

It will be tough to take too much out of this result if Berry is out. It won’t, however, affect what that win looks like on NCAA tournament profiles, which is why Kentucky won’t mind if Berry sits. Both of these teams are in contention for a No. 1 seed. UNC has the win over Wisconsin on their résumé and a full ACC slate to play. Kentucky doesn’t have a marquee win and won’t have any chances in league play to pick up a win this good.

A win is more important to Kentucky than it is to UNC.

  • Prediction: Joel Berry II is expected to play, but I don’t think he’s healthy. I’m on Kentucky (-5).

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No. 18 Butler vs. No. 9 Indiana, Sat. 5:00 p.m.: It looks like the Hoosiers are going to have O.G. Anunoby available on Saturday, and if they do, that’s a problem for Butler’s Kelan Martin, who will have to deal with one of college basketball’s best defenders. The concern for this Indiana has been what they will do against defenses that can bog them down, and while Butler, on paper, is a team that can do that, they don’t have the kind of stoppers in the back court that will make life miserable for the likes of Robert Johnson and James Blackmon Jr.

The Big East has done a lot of good things in non-conference play this season, and this is another chance for the conference to make a statement. Indiana is one of the favorites to win the Big Ten.

  • Prediction: With Anunoby on the floor I think Indiana (-2.5) is the play. If it turns out that Anunoby doesn’t play, take Butler plus the points.

No. 21 Notre Dame vs. No. 15 Purdue, Sat. 2:00 p.m.: This will be an interesting matchup of styles. The Irish play small-ball and roll out a starting lineup that features Bonzie Colson, who is generously listed at 6-foot-6, at the power forward spot. Purdue? Their front line consists of 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas and 6-foot-10 Caleb Swanigan.

The question will be this: Can Notre Dame take advantage of the perimeter ability of their front court players, pulling Haas and Swanigan away from the rim, or will the Boilermakers pound the ball into the paint. Worth noting: Purdue is fifth nationally in three-point shooter while taking more than 42 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc. You’ll pay if you pack your defense in too much.

  • Prediction: I think Notre Dame wins outright, so if you can get the Irish (+2.5) you’re getting rich.
Notre Dame's Steve Vasturia (32), Bonzie Colson (35) and V.J. Beachem (3) talk during the second half of a first-round men's college basketball game against Michigan in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 18, 2016, in New York. Notre Dame won 70-63. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Notre Dame’s Steve Vasturia, Bonzie Colson and V.J. Beachem (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • Georgetown at Syracuse, Sat. 12:00 p.m.: The most intense rivalry from the Old Big East will be reignited this weekend in the Carrier Dome. The game will honor former Syracuse guard Pearl Washington, passed away due to complications from brain cancer. Pick: Georgetown (+6.5)
  • Texas A&M vs. No. 19 Arizona, Sat. 12:00 p.m.: This game will be played in Houston as part of the Lone Star Shootout. Both Texas A&M and Arizona are, on paper, NCAA tournament teams, but neither of them have landed the kind of non-conference wins that would make them feel comfortable about getting an at-large bid. Pick: Texas A&M (-3.5)
  • Ohio State vs. No. 2 UCLA, Sat. 3:00 p.m.: Ohio State is not all that good this year, but there are two things worth noting here: They weren’t all that good last season when they beat Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic in New York, and anytime UCLA is on TV should be appointment television for anyone basketball fan with a pulse. Pick: UCLA (-9)
  • Wake Forest at No. 17 Xavier, Sat. 8:00 p.m.: The Skip Prosser Classic. Prosser, an extremely popular coach that spent his time at Xavier and Wake Forest, passed away in the summer of 2007 while employed as the head coach of Wake. In terms of hoops, this is a game that Xavier needs to win after they lost at Baylor and at Colorado earlier this month. Pick: Xavier (-10)
  • No. 8 Gonzaga at Tennessee, Sun. 4:00 p.m.: Tennessee gave North Carolina all that the Tar Heels could handle last weekend in Chapel Hill. This time, they’ll get Gonzaga in Thompson-Boling Arena. The big worry for the Vols are the bigs. Gonzaga has a lot of good ones. Tennessee, not so much.

FOUR STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. Are the stars healthy?: It seems like this is a topic that we have been discussing far too often this season, but once again, the best players on two of the best teams in action this weekend will likely not be at 100 percent if they play at all. Indiana’s O.G. Anunoby has missed the last three games after spraining his ankle late in a win over North Carolina. Ironically enough, it’s UNC’s Joel Berry II that is also dealing with an ankle injury that has kept him out of the last two games. As I mentioned earlier in this column, both of those players are key to their team’s matchups with Butler and Kentucky, respectively.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins reacts after making a three-point basket against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half of the game at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Lonzo Ball (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

2. Kentucky needs all the good wins that they can get: As of today, Kentucky has just one win over a KenPom top 80 team, and that’s Michigan State, who is currently ranked 43rd, a number that will likely drop as the site’s preseason expectations are phased out of the formula; that usually happens right around the new year. Kentucky will get their chances – they play UNC this weekend, Louisville next week and Kansas in January – but it’s important for the Wildcats to capitalize on those non-conference opportunities, because elite wins don’t look like they exist in the SEC. With Duke, Villanova, Kansas, UCLA, Indiana and Baylor all compiling résumés that look like they will be strong enough to put them in contention for a No. 1 seed, a lack of league wins will come back to bite Kentucky on Selection Sunday.

3. Are neutral site games good for the sport?: That’s the big question we always ask, and it’s relevant to bring up this weekend because of the overlord of neutral site events. There’s the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas featuring UK vs. UNC and UCLA vs. Ohio State. The Lone Star Shootout in Houston has Texas A&M vs. Arizona and Texas vs. Arkansas. The Crossroads Classic pits Indiana’s four best teams against each other: Indiana vs. Butler and Purdue vs. Notre Dame. The same event takes place in Iowa, where Iowa State squares off with Drake and Northern Iowa gets Iowa.

The argument goes two ways. On the one hand, if we don’t have neutral site events we probably aren’t seeing these games happen. The typical knock on neutral site games is that the environments are sterile, empty and not what college basketball is about. That may be true in the event in Texas, but the Crossroads Classic should be packed with fans from each of those fanbases. The event in Iowa should be crowded as well, and while UCLA and Ohio State may not draw a huge crowd, it would be shocking if North Carolina and Kentucky wouldn’t fill up an arena anywhere, let alone in Vegas.

So while, in general, I think neutral site games aren’t always good for college hoops, I don’t think this weekend will be an accurate representation of that.

4. There are some fairly important bubbles games this weekend, and no, it’s not too early to start talking about these things:

Arkansas vs. Texas, Sat. 12:30 p.m.
Davidson vs. No. 3 Kansas, Sat. 7:00 p.m.
Middle Tennessee State at VCU, Sat. 7:00 p.m.
Oklahoma State at Wichita State, Sat. 7:00 p.m.
Dayton at Northwestern, Sat. 7:00 p.m.
BYU at Illinois, Sat. 9:30 p.m.
Clemson at Alabama, Sun. 4:00 p.m.

North Carolina's Joel Berry II (2) drives to the basket against Long Beach State's Gabe Levin (0) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
North Carolina’s Joel Berry II (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Embattled Morehead State coach Sean Woods resigns

CINCINNATI, OH - NOVEMBER 19: Head coach Sean Woods of the Morehead State Eagles looks on against the Cincinnati Bearcats during the first half of the game at Fifth Third Arena on November 19, 2014 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Morehead State head coach Sean Woods has resigned, the school announced at a Thursday press conference

Woods had been suspended with pay from the program since November 22nd. Earlier this week, news broke that Woods is facing an assault charge stemming from an incident where he allegedly assaulted a player during a game in Evansville, Ind.

On Wednesday, the parent of one of the players that was allegedly assaulted released a statement that said Woods had headbutted his son last season.

Assistant coach Preston Spradlin has been the interim coach since Woods’ suspension.

Woods was previously suspended by Morehead State in 2012 after he publicly berated a player and appeared to make contact with him in a game against Kentucky.

Report: Indiana star to return this weekend

BLOOMINGTON, IN - NOVEMBER 30:  O G Anunoby #3 of the Indiana Hoosiers grabs his ankle after being injured during the game against the North Carolina Tar Heels at Assembly Hall on November 30, 2016 in Bloomington, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Indiana will have O.G. Anunoby on the floor when the No. 9 Hoosiers take on No. 18 Butler in the Crossroads Classic this weekend.

Tom Crean told ESPN that Anunoby will play, but it is still to be determined whether or not he will be healthy enough to start.

Anunoby has missed the last three games after suffering a sprained ankle late in Indiana’s win over North Carolina in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

CBT Roundtable: College Basketball’s Biggest Disappointments

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 05:  Rodney Purvis #15 of the Connecticut Huskies reacts after hitting a three pointer against the Syracuse Orange during the Tire Pros Classic at Madison Square Garden on December 5, 2016 in New York City. Connecticut defeated Syracuse 52-50  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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Travis Hines: Given the expectations weren’t all that high for the Huskies, consider this one hell of an achievement to find them here. They’ve been that bad while Markelle Fultz has been amazing. You have to start with Fultz’s brilliance to fully understand Washington’s ineptitude. The potential No. 1 draft pick is averaging 22.8 points on 49.7 percent shooting from the floor and 48.7 percent from the 3-point line while also putting up 6.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game. Throw in the 2.1 steals and 1.2 blocks, and he’s literally on pace to post numbers that have never been posted in college basketball. As a freshman. That’s just absurd. What else is absurd is that Washington has a guy of Fultz’s caliber performing up to the hype and still somehow sits 4-5 with losses to Yale, TCU (twice), Nevada and Gonzaga, which came in especially embarrassing fashion in a 27-point drubbing on national television.

The “how’ of Washington’s struggles clearly land on the defensive end of the floor, where one coach remarked to our Rob Dauster that “They were so ******* bad on defense. It was like they had never been coached. They had no plan.” So, that’s not good, I don’t think. The Huskies’ season is disappointing on a number of levels, first being it appears that we won’t be watching Fultz in the NCAA tournament, which is a bummer. The second is Lorenzo Romar didn’t need to surround Fultz with McDonald’s All-Americans to have a successful season. Capable dudes (given a defensive plan) would have been enough. And Washington wasn’t able to do that. How disappointing.

Rob Dauster: UConn has been an absolute mess this season. They lost to Wagner and Northeastern at home in their first two games. They barely escaped Loyola Marymount with a win. They went 1-2 in the Maui Invitational, with the one win coming in a closer-than-it-should’ve-been win over Chaminade. If that wasn’t enough, UConn has also been devastated by injury, with two starters – McDonald’s all-american point guard Alterique Gilbert and Terry Larrier, who was their best player at the start of the year – going down with season-ending injuries. This was a team that entered the season with a legitimate case to be considered a top 25 team and is, in all likelihood, going to end the year with a win over a potentially NIT-bound Syracuse team in Madison Square Garden being the highlight of their year.

This is how bad things have gotten for UConn: When I was at the game at MSG, a UConn fan told me that he would consider this season a success “if UConn shows up as a bad loss when they show Syracuse’s NCAA tournament résumé.” For a team that has won two of the last six national titles, that’s quite a fall from grace.

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Terrence Payne: Outside of the major six conferences, the Atlantic 10 is up there as one of the best. The A10 looked like it was on its way to another banner year when the preseason poll included both Rhode Island and Dayton. Currently, both teams find themselves outside the top-25, but more importantly, the conference as a whole finds itself with an underwhelming non-conference résumé. The A-10 is slightly above the American Athletic Conference for seventh place in the Conference RPI rankings, while KenPom rates the A10 as the eighth toughest league.

Rhode Island landed an early-season victory over No. 24 Cincinnati on a neutral floor, but the Rams have lost three out of four, all on the road, to Valparaiso, Providence and Houston. Dayton has been plagued by injuries to Kendall Pollard and transfer Josh Cunningham, which contributed to a 2-2 start. The Flyers have won five straight since, but Dayton could enter conference player with its best out of league win being against Northwestern or New Mexico, neither team pegged to land an at-large bid at this point. And it’s not just the team’s that began the season ranked. VCU, another A-10 power, hasn’t looked up to par, dropping back-to-back games against Illinois and Georgia Tech.

With a few weeks before conference play begins, the A-10 is lacking signature wins. Three years after receiving six bids, an all-time high for the conference, the A-10 is on pace to have, at best, half that amount this upcoming March.

Scott Phillips: It’s tough to call a young, injury-riddled team disappointing, but if Tom Izzo can angrily sit at the end of his own bench in the middle of games then we’re allowed to have such feelings. This Spartans team is 7-4 with single-digit home wins over Florida Gulf Coast, Oral Roberts and Tennessee Tech. Michigan State’s rebounding and free-throw shooting woes have cast serious concerns about their ability to win games early in the Big Ten without Miles Bridges. Of course, I expect Michigan State to make the NCAA tournament – and figure things out quickly – but they better do that before conference play begins.

CBT Roundtable: College Basketball’s Biggest Surprises

Baylor's Johnathan Motley goes up for a shot after getting past Southern's Jared Sam (12) and Shawn Prudhomme, rear, in in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
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Rob Dauster: Be honest with me for a second, I promise I won’t tell anyone. Before the season started, how many players on Baylor could you name? I’m guessing you probably knew Scott Drew because everyone knows Scott Drew – he’s the running joke that pulled a hammy. If you’re a fan of a Big 12 team, you probably knew Johnathan Motley’s name, too. Motley is a talented dude that has never found the consistency to live up to his potential. Beyond that, however, unless you played high school ball with someone on that roster, you Baylor was probably an afterthought for you back in October.

Hell, they were an afterthought for me entering the year.

And man, what a difference a month makes, right? The Bears have put together what is, to date, the most impressive résumé in college hoops. They beat Oregon by 17. They beat Xavier by 15. They have wins over VCU and Michigan State. They beat Louisville despite trailing by 22 points in the first half. Point guard Manu Lecomte is one of the nation’s most improved players. Jo Lual-Acuil, one of the nation’s leading shot-blockers, has teamed with Motley to give Scott Drew one of the longest and most athletic front lines in college basketball. Baylor myriad of wings – Ish Wainwright, Al Freeman, Jake Lindsay, King McClure – have all played their roles well. The Bears are justly ranked in the top five and look like they will actually give Kansas a run for the league title. If you say you saw this coming a month ago, you’re a liar and we all know it.

Travis Hines: The season Luke Kennard is having for Duke. We all knew he was good. The kid was a five-star recruit who played over 25 minutes a game as a freshman for Mike Krzyzewski. That doesn’t happen on accident. The thinking went, though, that potential National Player of the Year Grayson Allen might have to take a backseat to freshmen phenoms Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden, let alone Kennard. But with those three youngsters sidelined due to injury, Kennard has emerged as perhaps the Blue Devils’ best player of the year candidate. He’s shooting 52 percent from the floor and 40.9 percent from 3-point range while averaging 20 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists for a team, despite being shorthanded or feeling its way through lineup changes this season, looks to be, maybe, head-and-shoulders above the rest of the country. Kennard being good is certainly no surprise. His being one of – if not the – frontrunners for National Player of the Year is shocking given the situation we expected him to be inhabiting.

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Terrence Payne: Notre Dame has reached the Elite Eight in back-to-back seasons, yet when the ACC preseason poll was released in October, the Fighting Irish were pegged to finish seventh in the conference. A month later, Mike Brey’s team finds itself in the top-25 nationally, sitting on a 9-1 record with the only blemish coming to No. 1 Villanova. Despite going undefeated through the first nine games – its best wins were over Colorado and Northwestern – Notre Dame didn’t prove it was the real deal until its first loss of the season, falling to No. 1 Villanova 74-66 on a neutral floor. The game was closer than the final score indicated, as the Irish had an 11-point lead at one point over the reigning national champions.

A big part of this is the play of experienced upperclassmen. Junior Bonzie Colson, the undersized forward, is having a breakout year averaging 16.5 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem, two seniors, are averaging 16.6 and 15.5 points per game, respectively. But the biggest surprise has been the emergence of Matt Farrell. When Jerian Grant graduated in 2015, Brey was left with the assurance that he had another future NBA Draft pick, Demetrius Jackson, to fill the void. When Jackson left, it was up to Matt Farrell, a junior guard who was in-and-out of the rotation last season.

Not only is Farrell averaging 13.0 points and 5.5 assists per game (an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3:1), his best games have been against Villanova and sophomore point guard Jalen Brunson and during the Legends Classic, where he earned MVP honors. It’ll be a tall feat to unseat Duke atop the standings this season, but Notre Dame looks the part of a top-five team in the loaded ACC.

Scott Phillips: To me, the story – not just the biggest surprise – of the 2016-17 college basketball season is UCLA. We knew they had as good of a shot to be good as they did to crash and burn again. Some people had them ranked in the preseason, many others didn’t. But nobody except Lavar Ball could have predicted this. The father of UCLA’s star freshman point guard, Lonzo Ball, predicted a national championship for a team that finished 15-17 last season, and then the Bruins back up that sentiment by going into Rupp and winning. This UCLA team is changing the way we watch college basketball by playing a blistering, three-point oriented attack that is overwhelming opponents. They could, statistically, turn out to be the best three-point shooting team ever. UCLA passes my patented “Friends and Family Test” with wild outlet passes and flying colors. If someone I know shows even the slightest bit of interest in an orange bouncing ball, I force them to watch this team play. They never regret it.

No. 19 Arizona outlasts Grand Canyon 64-54

TUCSON, AZ - DECEMBER 14:  Rawle Alkins #1 of the Arizona Wildcats slam dunks against the Grand Canyon Lopes during the first half of the college basketball game at McKale Center on December 14, 2016 in Tucson, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) Arizona bumped DeWayne Russell, followed him wherever he went, made it difficult for the nation’s second-leading scorer all night long.

Russell still managed to score 19 points, but the 19th-ranked Wildcats earned the victory.

Arizona overcame a rash of turnovers and a disjointed-at-times offense with a hounding defense, making Russell work for everything he got in a 64-54 win over Grand Canyon on Wednesday night.

“It was just knowing what he wants to do, where he wants to go and eliminating that,” Arizona’s Kobi Simmons said of stopping Russell.

Russell entered the game scoring 25.4 points per game and had 42 against No. 11 Louisville , one of the nation’s best defensive teams.

The slightly built senior guard is the focal point of every team’s defense and it was no different against Arizona.

The Wildcats (9-2) used a physical tactic against Russell, chasing and bumping him all over McKale Center while holding him to 8-of-21 shooting and 1 of 7 from 3-point range.

“DeWayne’s unbelievable,” Grand Canyon coach Dan Majerle said. “To be keyed on, especially with the team we have, they know he’s going to be the guy getting all the shots and he finds a way to get some shots up.”

Arizona needed that kind of effort on a night filled with turnovers and shots that wouldn’t fall.

The Wildcats built a 16-point lead in the first half, but allowed the short-handed Antelopes to claw most of the way back due to a rash of turnovers.

Arizona had 19 turnovers overall and struggled shooting in the second half before wearing down Grand Canyon for its 39th straight non-conference home win.

Simmons scored 13 points, and Rawle Alkins added 11 points and eight rebounds for the Wildcats.

“I thought it was a great challenge for our players, especially our freshmen,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “We’re going to run into some of this moving forward and some of the teams that play with their style, are that physical and that tough-minded are also going to be much bigger.”

Grand Canyon (5-5), which is in the final year of its transition to Division I, kept Louisville within reach until late last week and did the same against Arizona.

Russell almost singlehandedly kept the Antelopes in the Louisville game, but had help against Arizona in one of college basketball’s toughest road arenas.

Russell had 11 points in the first half, helping Grand Canyon trim a 16-point deficit to 32-25 by halftime.

Arizona had 12 turnovers in the first half and struggled to make shots early in the second, allowing the Antelopes to trim the lead to 44-40. Arizona tried to pull away after that, but Oscar Frayer stayed aggressive as the Wildcats keyed on Russell, scoring all of his 16 points in the second half to keep the game from being a blowout.

“We played really hard tonight,” Russell said. “That’s one thing we can definitely hang our hats on: We play hard.”

BIG PICTURE

Grand Canyon played well against a Top 25 team for the second time in a week and should be set up well for when the WAC season starts.

Arizona was not nearly as crisp as it was in a blowout win over Missouri the last time out, playing disjointedly on offense at times but well on defense.

FREE THROWS

Arizona’s size advantage led to a big disparity in free throws. The Wildcats went to the line 27 times and made 20, while the Antelopes took just 12, hitting six.

SCHEDULING TOUGH

Majerle has been aggressive about scheduling top-quality opponents for the Antelopes, hoping to prepare them for the jump to Division I next season while giving the program exposure.

Grand Canyon opened this season at top-ranked Duke, hosted Louisville earlier this season, and previously had games against Kentucky and Indiana.

“This should only help us,” Majerle said.

UP NEXT

Grand Canyon hosts Mississippi State on Saturday to kick off a four-game home stand.

Arizona plays at Texas A&M on Saturday, its final road game before the Pac-12 season starts.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25.