London Perrantes, Marko Gujanicic, Anthony Gill
(AP Photo/Mic Smith)

WEEKEND PREVIEW: Saturday is the best day of non-conference hoops

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GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 12 Villanova at No. 8 Virginia, Sat. 12:00 p.m.

We’ve reached something of a crossroads with this Villanova team. In the last two seasons, they’ve won 32 regular season Big East games, storming through the conference for back-to-back league titles. But in neither of those years have they found a way to play themselves out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. All of the numbers tell us that this team, this program, is one of the best in the country … except for when they are asked to play elite competition. Fair or not, with Villanova, it always feels like this is a team that fails to perform when the lights shine the brightest, and that was once again on display last week, when they flew out to Hawaii and got run out of the gym by Oklahoma.

That said, this Villanova team is, in theory, one that should be able to give Virginia some problems. They have big men that can pass, they can spread the floor and they have shooters up and down their lineup, although part of the reason for their early season struggles has been the inability to consistently his threes this season. On the other hand, Virginia still has just one loss on the season, they were dominant in the win over West Virginia at the Garden last week and their only loss — at No. 22 George Washington — doesn’t look all that bad. Another impressive win over a top 20 team will certainly be a statement.

THIS ONE’S GOOD, TOO: No. 17 Butler vs. No. 9 Purdue, Sat. 5:00 p.m.

We knew the Crossroads Classic at Bankers Like Fieldhouse was going to be a fun event, but back when the season began, it seemed like the matchup between Indiana and Notre Dame was going to be the highlight of the double-header. Yogi Ferrell vs. Demetrius Jackson! An ACC power vs. a Big Ten power! And while there’s an argument to be made that it is still the more important of the two games — both the Hoosiers and the Irish desperately need this win — the nightcap has clearly become the better basketball game.

Butler’s reputation over the years has been as a grind-it-out, tough, physical defensive team. Not this year. They run, they score a ton of points and they’re the sixth-most efficient offense in the country, according to KenPom. Purdue, on the other hand, is the nation’s best defensive team with the biggest front line. Butler’s strength is in their back court. There’s a lot going on here, but the bottom line is that it is must-see TV either way.

Jorden Kaufman, A.J. Hammons
(AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR

  1. Bankers Life Fieldhouse won’t be the only NBA arena hosting a really good double-header this weekend, as the CBS Sports Classic will take place in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. The opener is the more intriguing matchup, as No. 11 North Carolina squares off with No. 22 UCLA at 1:00 p.m. The game is made all the more interesting by the fact that Kennedy Meeks will not be playing, opening up the door for Tony Parker to be able to out-muscle Isaiah Hicks. There’s a real chance, based on the way that UCLA has been playing of late, that the Tar Heels will suffer their third loss of the season. The second game of the two will pit No. 4 Kentucky vs. Ohio State, a game the Wildcats should not have trouble with.
  2. It’s going to be a big day in New York for college hoops, as Utah will square off with No. 7 Duke at noon at the Garden. There is going to be a lot to keep an eye on here. For starters, this will be the first game against high level competition in which Duke will not have the services of Amile Jefferson, who broke a bone in his foot. Will Marshall Plumlee and Chase Jeter be enough to slow down Jakob Poeltl? The other part of it is that the Utes like to play four-around-one like Duke does, meaning they won’t be able to take advantage of Duke’s lack of a true power forward in the paint. But since they also don’t have a pure point guard, it is going to be interesting to see how they fare against the pressuring, half court man-to-man defense that Duke throws at teams.
  3. UNLV had looked like they had shaken off all the issues they’ve had with execution and under-performing in recent years … until they hosted Arizona State on Wednesday night. The Rebels blew a 14-point second half lead and ended up losing 65-55 to the Sun Devils. Now they have to travel down to Tucson to take on No. 13 Arizona, a team that has been surging of late. We’ll really find out what UNLV is made of this weekend.
  4. Perhaps the most interesting game of the day will be featured on NBCSN in a 12:30 p.m. ET tip as Michigan State, the No. 1 team in the country, will head up to Beantown to take on Northeastern in a true road game. How often does that happen? The game is part of another cool event that Spartan AD Mark Hollis dreamed up, as Michigan State will be playing a triple-header in men’s hoops, women’s hoops and hockey against the Huskies.

    CLICK HERE to watch this game on NBC Sports Live Extra Saturday afternoon.

  5. Not many people are going to be talking about this one — that’s what happens when games are played in Texas during football season — but No. 16 Baylor will make the trip to take on No. 24 Texas A&M. The Aggies have the size up front to handle Baylor’s bulk, but the Bears have enough talented perimeter defenders to deal with A&M’s quality guard play. The title of Best In Texas is on the line.

THREE MORE NOTABLES GAMES

Auburn at No. 10 Xavier, Sat. 12:00 p.m.
Wichita State at Seton Hall, Sat. 12:00 p.m.
No. 23 Cincinnati at VCU, Sat. 4:00 p.m.

WHO’S GETTING UPSET: Northern Iowa vs. No. 5 Iowa State, Sat. 7:00 p.m. (Des Moines)

As good as Iowa State has looked at times this season, and as talented as their starting five is, there are still people — myself included — who are doubting whether or not this is a team that can truly compete at the top of the Big 12 and for a national title. The concern is, mainly, depth, particularly behind Jameel McKay. Ben Jacobsen’s Northern Iowa team has already notched a win over North Carolina this season. Will they be able to hang another upset over a top five team?

WHAT WE’LL BE TALKING ABOUT ON MONDAY: Saturday will be the best day of college basketball this season to date, and, outside of March, it may be one of the best days of the entire season. There are in-state rivalry games. There are top 25 matchups in on-campus venues. There are bluebloods squaring off against each other in NBA arenas. Hell, the No. 1 team in the country is playing on the road against a mid-major that has already won a game in No. 15 Miami’s gym.

On paper, it looks awesome.

And while a schedule looking doesn’t always turn into a day of great games and wild finishes, at the very least we know that there is going to be something for us to talk about, something relevant that the public at-large will care about. It may not be Bo Ryan and it may not be Tony Bennett accepting the Wisconsin job, but with this number of quality basketball teams facing off against one another, we’re going to get some action. Buckle up, because it’s the first time since the Champions Classic that college basketball is can’t-miss TV.

ALSO ON THE SCHEDULE

Creighton at No. 3 Oklahoma, Sat. 2:00 p.m.
Oral Roberts at LSU, Sat. 2:00 p.m.
Tulsa at Oregon State, Sat. 11:00 p.m.
Tennessee at Gonzaga, Sat. 11:00 p.m.
Texas at Stanford, Sat. 11:30 p.m.
Pittsburgh at Davidson, Sun. 12:00 p.m.

Conference USA Preview: Look out for UAB this year

Georges Niang, William Lee
UAB's William Lee (AP Photo)
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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Conference USA.

This version of Conference USA is not as strong as the Conference USA of old, the one that featured the likes of Marquette, Memphis, Cincinnati and Louisville, but while much of the league falls under the ‘mid-major’ label these days, there’s still enough talent at the top of the conference to throw a scare into some of the big boys.

Take, for example, UAB. The Blazers last season finished just a game above .500, but after a dreadful start to non-conference play, Jerod Haase’s group turned it on in the league. They went 12-6 in CUSA, won the league’s tournament title and knocked off Iowa State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. Oh, and they return everyone from last year’s group, including leading scorer Robert Brown and William Lee, who will be one of this season’s break out stars.

A major reason for UAB’s late-season surge was Lee, who did not truly get healthy until late-January. A 6-foot-9 combo-forward, Lee can block shots, score around the rim and make plays on the perimeter. He’s got a chance to be a star this season, and he makes UAB a really dangerous mid-major.

But he may not even be the best player in the conference, as Old Dominion returns reigning CUSA Player of the Year Trey Freeman. Freeman was a major reason that the Monarchs were able to beat LSU, VCU, Richmond and Georgia State last year in addition to reaching the semifinals of the NIT. The Monarchs also return Aaron Bacote, and while they lose their starting front line, there will be some promising big bodies available. East Carolina transfer Brandon Stith could post double-double numbers while Denzell Taylor was sixth nationally in offensive rebounding percentage last season.

The consensus from those around the league is that UAB and ODU, in some order, will be the team to beat this season. But there are a number of teams that will have a shot at finishing in that No. 3 spot.

Middle Tennessee State returns the majority of their roster from a season ago. The team’s leading returning scorer is power forward Reggie Upshaw, but the name to watch out for is Perrin Buford. Buford, a JuCo transfer, scored in double-figures in 10 of his last 12 games and averaged 14.1 points over his final eight.

UTEP returns just one healthy player from their top six from last season — Earvin Morris — but it’s who they add that keeps Tim Floyd’s club in the mix for the top five. Oregon transfer Dominic Artis will likely take over point guard while top 100 freshman Brodericks Jones and JuCo addition Lee Moore will be counted on for big years.

If Aaron Cosby can return to being the player he was as a sophomore at Seton Hall, Western Kentucky should have a chance to finish in the top six. But that was three years and two teams ago. Louisiana Tech not only lost ‘Speedy’ Smith and Raheem Appleby, but head coach Mike White left for Florida as well. New head coach Eric Konkol will be relying heavily on Alex Hamilton this year.

The two x-factors will be Marshall and Rice. The Owls returns a veteran back court and adds a key transfer in Egor Koulechov as they will look to build on the momentum from a strong close to the season. Head coach Mike Rhoades is a Shaka Smart disciple.

The same can be said for the Thundering Herd, who started the year 2-15 against Division I opponents but, in league play, won seven out of ten at one point. Dan D’antoni, Mike’s brother, plays an uptempo, gun-slinging style, adds a number of shooters and brings back Ryan Taylor.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “Most will say UAB because they’re coming off of that tournament win, but I like Old Dominion, too. They have best guard group in the conference. Defensively, they’re really hard to score on and physically tough. Trey Freeman is the best point guard and leader in the league. It will come down to whether [Brandon Stith] can replace what they lost up front.”
  • Sleeper: “Rice. I think they have a chance to finish in the top couple spots. Marcus Jackson and Max Guercy are a veteran back court, and with the addition of Egor Koulechov from Arizona State, if he’s really good they’ve got a chance to be really good. Mike Rhoades has done a really good job, and last year they got better as the year went on. If they continue that momentum, look out.”
  • Star to watch: “UAB’s William Lee. He’s the best NBA prospect. The last month of the year, he was as good as anyone in the league. He’s a 6-foot-9 combo-forward that’s athletic and has three-point range. Given his versatility and his talent level, he could have a breakout year.”

PRESEASON CONFERENCE USA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Trey Freeman, Old Dominion

Freeman was the best player in the conference last season, and after a full offseason of improvement, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be anything other than the same this year. Freeman is a scoring point guard that can breakdown a defense, but he’s also capable of making plays for his teammates. He’s the reason ODU has a real shot at unseating UAB at the top of the league.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON (insert league) TEAM:

  • William Lee, UAB: Lee, a 6-foot-9 combo-forward, averaged 11.9 points, 8.1 boards and 2.3 blocks while shooting 44.4 percent from three over the last 12 games. He wasn’t healthy until February, either.
  • Robert Brown, UAB: Brown was UAB’s star in March, averaging 18.2 points in five postseason games. The fifth-year senior is the engine that makes their offense run.
  • Alex Hamilton, Louisiana Tech: The lone returnee from last season’s dynamic back court, Hamilton should see an uptick in his total numbers this year.
  • Ryan Taylor, Marshall: Taylor averaged 14.1 points, 8.6 boards and 2.8 assists for the Thundering Herd last season playing the Draymond Green role in their uptempo offense.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @(link)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. UAB
2. Old Dominion
3. Middle Tennessee State
4. UTEP
5. Western Kentucky
6. Louisiana Tech
7. Rice
8. Marshall
9. Florida Atlantic
10. Florida International
11. Charlotte
12. North Texas
13. UTSA
14. Southern Miss

SEC Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

Willie Cauley-Stein (Getty Images)
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source: Getty Images
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Kentucky vs. The Field has been a popular debate among college basketball for much of the season, but first, the Wildcats have to get out of the SEC Tournament. At 31-0, John Calipari’s team is the heavy favorite to win the auto bid and it will be interesting to see if Kentucky continues its trend of playing well in big games on national television.

As long as Kentucky stays healthy and fully engaged, there’s no reason they shouldn’t win in Nashville.

Arkansas is the only other top-25 team in the SEC and the Razorbacks are coming off of a late loss against LSU as they’ve faltered a bit down the stretch. But the Razorbacks feature the SEC’s Player of the Year in sophomore Bobby Portis and he’s been fantastic during SEC play.

READ MORE: NBC Sports’ latest Bracketology

From there, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss and Texas A&M are still fighting for NCAA Tournament bids and/or better seeding. The Aggies and Tigers, in particular, could use a win or two to help get them into the field of 68 while Georgia and Ole Miss could use some wins to get out of the near double-digit seeding range they currently sit.

Some other dangerous teams lurk in the lower seeds as Vanderbilt is playing much better late in the season after some close losses and Florida has enough talent to at least put a scare into Kentucky if they play in the quarterfinals and the Wildcats have an off-night.

Bracket

source:

MORE: NBCSports.com’s 2015 Conference Tournament Previews

When: March 11-15

Where: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville

Final: March 15, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Favorite: Kentucky

Like there was any doubt? The Wildcats have rolled to a perfect 31-0 record before heading to Nashville to begin the postseason and it seems as though Kentucky plays even better when the game has national significance. Defensively, Kentucky can be as dominant as any team in the country, and offensively, they have so many different weapons and ways to get shots that they’re tough to stop.

And if they lose?: Arkansas

The Razorbacks benefited from only facing Kentucky once in the SEC and they’re the only team in the conference to be consistently featured in the top 25 during league play. Led by third-team All-American Bobby Portis, the Razorbacks have been more consistent away from home this season and can intimidate teams with their athleticism on both ends of the floor. But can Mike Anderson’s team bounce back from a 3-2 end of the conference season that also included some narrow wins?

Other Contenders

  • Georgia: Besides being swept by South Carolina and losing to Auburn at home, the Bulldogs have been rather strong in SEC play and have only lost to the conference’s top-four teams outside of that. Plus, Mark Fox’s team has actually given Kentucky a real test this season.
  • LSU: The road win at Arkansas to end the season was a big one and sophomore Jarell Martin is playing tremendous down the stretch. The Tigers are certainly talented enough to make a run in the postseason if Jordan Mickey is healthy and playing at full speed.

Sleeper: Vanderbilt

The Commodores are surging down the stretch and the experienced pieces are finally gelling with the freshmen. Sophomore big man Damian Jones has generated some early NBA buzz while freshman guard Riley LaChance is one of the most underrated freshman among power conferences in the country. As a team, Vanderbilt shoots 39 percent from 3-point range, and if they get hot, they can be tough to stop.

SEC Player of the Year: Bobby Portis, Arkansas

A third-team NBCSports.com All-American, Portis was the most important individual player on any team in the SEC this season. Averaging 17.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game on good shooting splits (56% FG, 42% 3Pt, 74% FT), the 6-foot-11 sophomore scored in double figures in all but one game this season as the Razorbacks’ go-to guy. In SEC play Portis played even better, as he averaged 18.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game while also blocking 2.8 shots a game in league play.

SEC Coach of the Year: John Calipari, Kentucky

Kentucky has answered every question about its use of one-and-done players and the platoon system this season by dominating opponents and playing mostly selfless basketball. Calipari is a huge reason why. The head coach has gotten nine McDonald’s All-Americans to put aside ego for the greater good of the bigger picture (a national title) and the result has been one of the best college basketball teams in recent memory.

First-Team All-SEC:

  • Portis
  • Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky – An NBCSports.com first-team All-American, the junior center is the country’s best defensive player, covering an incredible amount of ground on the perimeter while also protecting the rim as well as anyone in the nation.
  • Karl Anthony-Towns, Kentucky – The potential top-3 pick in the NBA Draft has played his best ball down the stretch. The freshman center only plays an average of 20 minutes a game but has at least 12 points in eight of his last 11 games.
  • Josh Richardson, Tennessee – It’s hard to imagine how bad Tennessee basketball would have been this season without Josh Richardson. The senior used a great 2014 NCAA Tournament as momentum for a tremendous senior year.
  • Jarell Martin, LSU – Coin flip between Martin and sophomore teammate Jordan Mickey based on numbers. Mickey has many more blocks, but Martin has been huge down the stretch, including 27 points in a road win at Arkansas that might have saved LSU’s season.

Second Team All-SEC:

  • Jordan Mickey, LSU
  • Danuel House, Texas A&M
  • Damian Jones, Vanderbilt
  • Stefan Moody, Ole Miss
  • Devin Booker Kentucky

CBT Prediction: Kentucky stays unbeaten entering the NCAA Tournament and beats Georgia for the title.