2014-15 Season Preview: Can anyone other than Kentucky, Florida go dancing?

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source: AP
Karl-Anthony Towns (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we will be previewing the SEC.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Kentucky should be awesome.

We all know that.

But when it comes to the SEC, that’s about all that we know for sure. Florida should be good, but a number of key pieces are young and unproven. Arkansas might be good, but when was the last time that a Mike Anderson team was anything close to consistent on the road? LSU should make the tournament, but they should have made it last season. Georgia finished tied for second in the league last year, but they didn’t sniff the bubble. Might Ole Miss actually be the third-best team in the conference?

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Kentucky is so deep they’ll be playing with platoons: I was asked about this on the radio this week, andto really get a feel for just how deep Kentucky is, think about Derek Willis. At one point, Willis was the No. 26 recruit in the country. He’s an athletic, versatile combo-forward with three-point range and probably good enough to start for just about any team outside the top 25. He’s so far down the Wildcat depth chart that he won’t even play in Kentucky’s second platoon. Nine McDonald all-americans. Eight guys that potentially could be drafted this spring. Yeesh.

2. Florida is talented, but quite young: Florida graduated four seniors from last year’s team, including center Patric Young and SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin. In their stead this season will be former five-star recruits Chris Walker and Kasey Hill. How will that pair fare playing much-expanded roles for the Gators this season?

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3. Ole Miss is the league’s sleeper team: There is a lot to like about the Rebels this year. For starters, the distraction that was Marshall Henderson is gone, and in his place is star guard and our Preseason SEC Player of the Year, Jarvis Summers. The Rebels also have a big, athletic front line, and that should be enough to get them in the mix for that No. 3 spot in the league standings.

4. Arkansas should be good enough to get an at-large bid: If the Razorbacks are going to make the NCAA tournament, this is the season to do so. They have talented, veteran perimeter plays that will do well in Mike Anderson’s “40 Minutes Of Hell” system, but they also have one of the most underrated players in the country is star big man Bobby Portis. Portis could end up being a first round pick by the time the season is done, meaning that this may be their best chance to dance.

5. The same with LSU, but they should have been last year, too: Once again, LSU will enter this season with a front line that will draw attention: Jordan Mickey, Jarell Martin and Elbert Robertson. But the key this year will be the back court of Josh Gray and Keith Hornsby, who will replace Anthony Hickey. The key? Ensuring that back court understands the importance of pounding the ball into the paint for those big bodies.

PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jarvis Summers, Ole Miss

With all the talk about Marshall Henderson over the course of the last two seasons it was easy to overlook the fact that the best player on the Rebels was Summers. He may not become a national name this season — it’s hard to do that if you play in the SEC for someone other than Kentucky or Florida — but an all-american team isn’t out of the question.

THE REST OF THE ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM:

  • Aaron Harrison, Kentucky, So.: Harrison could very well end up being the leading scorer for Kentucky this season. He was inconsistent as a freshman, but he hit three enormous threes during Kentucky’s run to the NCAA tournament title game.
  • Karl Towns, Kentucky, Fr.: Towns is the most talented player in the league and may be the most talented player in the country, but Kentucky’s depth will limit his playing time and production.
  • Bobby Portis, Arkansas, So.: One of the most underrated players in the conference, Portis had a very good freshman season that was a bit overshadowed by the fact that Arkansas wasn’t a tournament team in a mediocre SEC.
  • Jordan Mickey, LSU, So.: Mickey put up huge numbers as a freshman, but it didn’t get as much attention nationally due to LSU’s disappointing finish to the season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Andrew Harrison, Kentucky, So.
  • Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky, So.
  • Kasey Hill, Florida, So.
  • Michael Frazier, Florida, Jr.
  • Charles Mann, Georgia, Jr.

BREAKOUT STAR: Kasey Hill — and, to a lesser extent, Chris Walker — should have big seasons for Florida this season, and Bobby Portis will likely shoot up draft boards as the season progresses, but my pick for a breakout star in the SEC is Vanderbilt big man Damian Jones. He averaged 11.3 points, 5.7 boards and 1.4 blocks as a freshman with the ‘Dores and will be asked to carry the load once again next season.

source:
AP

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Anthony Grant was one of the hottest names in coaching when he was hired away from VCU by Alabama back in 2009, but he hasn’t really been able to get things up and running in Tuscaloosa. Grant’s made just one NCAA tournament in his five seasons with the Crimson Tide, and last year was his worst as a head coach, as the Tide finished just 13-19 overall. It would not be good for Grant if his program finishes behind Bruce Pearl’s at Auburn.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : The SEC only sent three teams to the NCAA tournament again?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT … : Seeing how John Calipari will manage his roster and whether or not the platoons will work.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Nov. 18th, Kansas vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic)
  • Dec. 5th, Florida at Kansas (SEC/Big 12 Challenge)
  • Dec. 5th, Texas at Kentucky (SEC/Big 12 Challenge)
  • Dec. 13th, North Carolina at Kentucky
  • Dec. 27th, Kentucky at Louisville

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @SECSports

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Kentucky: I could see the Wildcats doing what Florida did last season, rolling through the league schedule undefeated and winning the regular season title by six games.
2. Florida: Florida’s success this season hinges on the play of sophomores Kasey Hill and Chris Walker. If they play like top ten recruits, the Gators could end up being a top ten team. If they don’t, Florida might not finish second in the SEC.
3. Arkansas: The Razorbacks have a star-in-the-making in big man Bobby Portis and a pair of talented wings in Rashad Madden and Michael Qualls. Two keys for this group: Winning on the road, and finding a point guard to run the ship.
4. Ole Miss: The Marshall Henderson Show overshadowed just how good Jarvis Summers was last season. Andy Kennedy will have a pair of talented transfers joining him in the back court along with a slew of big, athletic forwards. The SEC’s sleeper this year.
5. LSU: Jordan Mickey headlines a talented front court that includes Jarrell Martin and Elbert Robertson, but the Tigers are going to need more consistent back court play. Can transfers Josh Gray and Keith Hornsby provide it?
6. Georgia: The Bulldogs bring back their top five scorers from last season, including Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines, but to move up the SEC standings, they’ll need big years from big men Nemanja Djurisic and Yante Maten.
7. Texas A&M: The Aggies lose Jamal Jones, but Alex Caruso and Kourtney Robertson are back and will be joined by Jalen Jones, Alex Robinson and, if he gets a waiver, Danuel House.
8. Auburn: The Tigers bring back K.T. Harrell and add a number of quality transfers, but most importantly, the hiring of Bruce Pearl has added a level of excitement around the program. Bet on Pearl to win.
9. Missouri: New head coach Kim Anderson will have work to do with this group, but the cupboard if far from bare. I loved point guard Wes Clark in high school, Johnathon Williams III was promising last season and the addition of Jakeenan Gant, Deuce Bello and Keith Shamburger will help.
10. Vanderbilt: Kevin Stallings returns Damian Jones, who is a future all-SEC talent, and adds four top 150 freshmen to the mix. They’re young, but the future is brighter than the present.
11. South Carolina: Frank Martin has the Gamecocks moving in the right direction, as he’s added Sindarius Thornwell, TeMarcus Blanton and Marcus Strohman in recent classes.
12. Alabama: Anthony Grant has yet to have real success at Alabama. He’ll be relying on the influx of talent into the program — freshmen Justin Coleman and Devin Mitchell, transfer Ricky Tarrant — to try and get a tournament bid this season.
13. Mississippi State: Rick Ray is still in full-blown rebuilding mode with this program, but this season he’ll get back a number of key pieces — including Craig Sword — and will finally have some height.
14. Tennessee: The Vols lost quite a bit from last year’s Sweet 16 teams, and while Robert Hubbs and Josh Richardson return, there’s not much else here outside of the distraction provided by the NCAA investigation into Donnie Tyndall.

Saturday’s Things To Know: Ohio State’s awesome, Cowan the savior, Queta’s back

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Football dominated the conversation on Saturday.

That’s what happens when conference championship games determine who will be in the college football playoff. And some of those football games that were played on Saturday were fun!

But there were also some good, meaningful college basketball games that happened as well.

So if you spent the afternoon and evening eating, drinking and watching football, here are the ten things you need to know after a fun Saturday of hoops.

1. OHIO STATE IS PLAYING LIKE THE BEST TEAM IN COLLEGE BASKETBALL

I don’t know if No. 6 Ohio State in the best team in college basketball right now.

I don’t think anyone in college basketball is the best team.

After seeing Michigan State, Kentucky and Duke lose as the No. 1 team in the country, I feel like a man that has had multiple relationships end because he was cheated on. I can’t fall in love again until I can trust again, and I am definitely not ready to trust a single college basketball team with the title of my girlfr-… I mean, the No. 1 team in college basketball.

That includes Ohio State.

But I do think that I can say this and have it be justifiable simply because it can be backed up with facts: Ohio State is playing like the best team in college basketball right now.

On Saturday afternoon, the Buckeyes mollywhopped Penn State, beating them 106-74 as they became the first Big Ten team to put up triple digits in a conference game since 2006. Before you start snickering about how bad Penn State is, remember this: The Nittany Lions entered the day as the No. 23 team in KenPom’s rankings.

Ohio State beat them by 32 points.

And that’s not the only KenPom top 25 team that they have done this to.

They beat Villanova by 25. They beat North Carolina by 25, and that game took place in Chapel Hill. According to the indefatigable Jordan Sperber, there have been just six games this season where a KenPom top 50 team has lost by 20 or more points. Ohio State is responsible for dispensing three of those butt-kickings.

So while I don’t think that Ohio State will find themselves at the top of the polls on Monday morning, I do think that there is probably an argument to be made that they deserve it.

2. ANTHONY COWAN SAVES MARYLAND FROM DISASTER

The No. 3 Terps dug themselves a 15 point hole at home against Illinois on Saturday afternoon, which is hardly an ideal scenario and more or less the kind of thing that the naysayers have come to expect out of Mark Turgeon teams these days.

But Maryland didn’t lose.

The Terps rallied, and Cowan was the savior. He finished with 20 points, seven boards, six assists and three steals to lead the way, which is impressive, but what matters more is that Cowan scored four points in the final 20 seconds – a 28-foot three followed by a steal, drawing a foul and hitting a free throw – to give Maryland a 59-58 come-from-behind win.

Now, on the one hand, this performance is somewhat worrying. Top five teams playing at home should not find themselves in a 15 point hole to anyone. But everyone is going to have rough nights, and while this certainly qualifies as such, Maryland still found a way to win. Winning ugly is still a win.

And in regards to Cowan, I think that it should be noted that these are the kind of performances we’ve been waiting to see from him. Put the team on his back, carry them to a win they’re not supposed to get. That’s the stuff All-Americans do.

3. BAYLOR’S TRISTAN CLARK IS NOT RIGHT

The No. 18 Bears found a way to hang on and beat No. 12 Arizona in Waco on Saturday, 63-58, despite the fact that they had to give away free tickets – many of which were scooped up by Arizona fans – because their football team was playing in the Big 12 title game at the exact same time.

But Clark only played ten minutes after sitting out Wednesday’s game against UMES with a foot injury and a knee that apparently hasn’t quite recovered from surgery last season. He tweaked something in the first half and never came back in.

I feel for the kid. Last season, when Clark went down, he was arguably the best big man in the Big 12. He was likely a shoe-in for first-team all-conference had he played for the entire season, and the idea of pairing him with Freddie Gillespie, Mark Vital and all of those talented guards was why everyone was so bullish on Baylor entering the season.

And they weren’t wrong.

This is still a top 15 team.

But if Clark can’t get back to being the guy that he was for two months at the start of last season, that’s a pretty big blow to Scott Drew’s frontcourt depth.

4. NEEMIAS QUETA IS BACK

After a full month of nightly speculation about when Utah State would get their 7-foot-1 Portuguese center back from a knee injury, we finally got the answer on Saturday.

Midway through the first half in a home win over Fresno State on Saturday, Queta checked in for the first time this season.

Queta played just 10 minutes, finishing with six points on six free throws, missing all three of his field goals, but it’s his presence and availability that matters. The Aggies have plenty of skill and shooting on this roster. What they have been missing is a defensive anchor and a rim-protector, and those are the things that Queta does well enough to attract NBA attention.

5. MARKUS HOWARD IS BACK, TOO

After missing a game on Wednesday with a concussion, Markus Howard returned to the floor for Marquette on Saturday, and he made a difference.

The Golden Eagles went into the Little Apple and knocked off Kansas State, 73-65, thanks to 19 points from Howard.

6. IT IS TIME TO TAKE BUTLER SERIOUSLY

I know, I know, it’s Florida.

At this point, Florida has made us believers in Florida State, UConn and now Butler. So maybe we should be saying more about the Gators than about the teams they are playing. That’s certainly a conversation worth having at some point.

But I also think that it is fair to point out that Butler, currently sitting 9-0 after a very impressive 76-62 over those Gators – one in which their star, Kamar Baldwin, was just OK – currently has wins over Florida and Minnesota at home, Stanford and Missouri on a neutral and Ole Miss on the road.

This isn’t a fluke anymore.

7. CINCINNATI HAS BIGGER ISSUES THAN JARRON CUMBERLAND’S HEALTH

I don’t know how injured Jarron Cumberland is right now. I know that he had some issues early in the season that kept him out of practice for a few weeks, and I know that he and head coach John Brannen have had their issues. Cumberland has missed two games this season. He only played 18 minutes in a win against Vermont. His numbers are way down from last season.

On Saturday, Cumberland was 4-for-14 from the floor and finished with just 11 points in a 73-66 loss at Xavier in the Crosstown Shootout.

The bottom line is this: Right now, whatever is going on between Cumberland and Brannen is torpedoing what could have been a really good season.

8. KANSAS PASSED ANOTHER TEST AT HOME

I was actually really curious to see how Kansas would bounce back from their win in the Maui Invitational on Saturday when they hosted No. 20 Colorado.

The Buffaloes are tough. They are a veteran group that is well-coached and that defends the paint well. They have the bodies to give Udoka Azubuike some trouble inside. But that didn’t happen. There was no Maui hangover. The Jayhawks picked off the Buffaloes, 72-58, in a game that was closer to 20 in the second half.

That’s a good win in a tough spot.

9. INDIANA TOOK THEIR FIRST LOSS IN THEIR FIRST ROAD GAME

I don’t think I was the only one that thought the Hoosiers were officially back when they managed to beat up on a good Florida State team on Tuesday night, winning 72-58 in Assembly Hall. That win boosted their record to 8-0 on the season, and while all eight wins came at home, it surely had to mean something considering that one of those wins came against the No. 17 Seminoles.

Right?

Well, on Saturday, those very same Hoosiers got absolutely humiliated in an 84-64 loss at now 5-4 Wisconsin. Indiana trailed by as many as 30 points on Saturday. That’s not good.

10. CREIGHTON HUMILIATED NEBRASKA

We knew that Nebraska was in a rebuilding year in their first season with Fred Hoiberg at the helm, and we also knew that Creighton is a team good enough to make a run at an NCAA tournament bid this season.

The Bluejays were always going to be favored.

But this was a rivalry game.

Nebraska would make it interesting, right? Because these are the kind of games where you just throw the records out the window, correct???

Well, no.

Creighton was up 27-4. They led 37-7. I think the worst that it got was 42-11. The final wasn’t quite as bad – Creighton won 95-76 – but I don’t think anyone still cared at that point.

No. 2 Kansas hands No. 20 Colorado first loss 72-58

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LAWRENCE, Kansas — Ochai Agbaji scored 20 points and Devon Dotson added 18 points to lead No. 2 Kansas to a 72-58 victory over No. 20 Colorado on Saturday, snapping the Buffaloes’ season-opening seven-game winning streak.

Ten days after claiming the Maui Invitational title, the Jayhawks (7-1) built an early 6-0 lead over their former conference foes. David McCormack fueled the hot start, contributing six of the Jayhawks’ opening eight points.

Holding leading scorer Tyler Bey scoreless from the field through the first half, Kansas used a 9-0 run to build a 19-9 lead. Colorado (7-1) shot 26.9% from the field in the first half and that allowed the Jayhawks to take a 34-22 lead at halftime.

With Bey and D’Shawn Schwartz quieted, Evan Battey lead the way for the Buffaloes, scoring 14 points on a 5-for-8 shooting.

Schwartz picked up a technical foul on a dunk that temporarily quieted the raucous Kansas crowd, and Agbaji knocked down four 3-point baskets in the second half to keep the Buffaloes at a distance.

Colorado forced 21 Kansas turnovers, but the Jayhawks shot 52.9% to outlast the Buffaloes.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas: The size of the Jayhawks overpowered Colorado inside, especially with a two-big lineup, outscoring the Buffaloes 38-22 down low. The Jayhawks also found some late success from outside, shooting 85.7% from 3-point range in the second half after missing all six first-half attempts.

Colorado: With Bey contained by the swarming Kansas defense, the Buffaloes struggled to find any momentum offensively, turning the ball over 17 times and shooting 30% from the field.

UP NEXT

Kansas: Hosts Milwaukee on Tuesday.

Colorado: Hosts Northern Iowa on Tuesday.

Achiuwa, No. 15 Memphis surge back to beat UAB 65-57

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Precious Achiuwa scored eight of his 14 points in the final 4 minutes to rally No. 15 Memphis past UAB 65-57.

Memphis (8-1) trailed 17-0 early and 40-26 at halftime. The Tigers needed a 19-4 run over the final 8 minutes to overcome the Blazers (4-4), who didn’t relinquish the lead until freshman Achiuwa’s tip shot with 2:56 left put Memphis up 56-55.

UAB’s own sensational freshman, Jalen Benjamin, scored 17 points, but the Blazers lost their third straight.

Memphis cranked up the pressure in the second half, and UAB finally cracked in the final minutes. It began unraveling after Achiuwa hit two free throws to reduce the deficit to 44-29.

D.J. Jeffries, another member of Memphis’ heralded freshman class, followed up with two drunks and finished a one-man, nine-point run with a 3-pointer. That cut the lead to 44-38, Memphis outplayed the Blazers the rest of the way.

BIG PICTURE

Memphis: The Tigers busted out of a first-half slump in a big way, shooting 54% from the floor in the second half. … Memphis improved to 5-0 without its leading scorer, freshman James Wiseman (19.7 points in three games). He is scheduled to return from suspension Jan. 12 after being banned by the NCAA after it was found that coach Penny Hardaway provided money for moving expenses to Wiseman’s family before Hardaway was hired by Memphis.

UAB: The Blazers were doomed by 23 turnovers, a number of key ones in the second half due to Memphis’ full-court press.

UP NEXT

Memphis: The Tigers take a week off before returning to action Dec. 14 at Tennessee in the penultimate game scheduled in the series. Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said recently he’s not in favor of renewing the contract following a contentious meeting last season in Memphis.

UAB: Also takes a week off before playing the first of three consecutive games with instate foes. The Blazers host Montevallo on Dec. 14.

Anthony Cowan’s clutch three, steal keep No. 3 Maryland undefeated (VIDEO)

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COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Anthony Cowan Jr. made a free throw with 2.1 seconds left and No. 3 Maryland erased a 15-point deficit in the second half to rally past Illinois 59-58 Saturday in the Big Ten opener for both teams.

The Terrapins (10-0, 1-0 Big Ten) didn’t lead after halftime until Cowan’s free throw but still matched their best start since winning 10 straight to open the 1998-99 season.

Cowan collected a steal in the closing seconds of a tie game and was fouled in a scrum by guard Andres Feliz. Cowan made the first free throw and missed the second. Illinois (6-3, 0-1) failed to get a shot off in the remaining time.

Here is that entire sequence:

Cowan had 20 points, seven rebounds and six assists, and Jalen Smith (14 points, 13 rebounds) recorded his sixth double-double of the season for Maryland.

Trent Frazier scored 13 points for Illinois, which nearly claimed its first road victory over a top-five team since 1989. The Fighting Illini have lost 15 consecutive road games against ranked teams and six straight conference openers.

Illinois led 39-25 at halftime and briefly pushed its lead to 15 in the second half, but Maryland gradually clawed back.

Donta Scott’s basket with 1:45 remaining got Maryland within 57-55, and Frazier split two free throws 2 seconds later. It remained a three-point game until Cowan hit a deep 3-pointer with 29.8 seconds remaining.

The 14-point halftime hole was the largest Maryland has erased since coming back from a 15-point deficit at the break in an 80-78 defeat of Bucknell on Nov. 18, 2017.

BIG PICTURE

Illinois: After allowing Miami to shoot 59.3% while dropping an 81-79 decision Monday, the Illini were far sharper on defense. It wasn’t enough to avoid enduring a second consecutive one-possession loss.

Maryland: The Terps once again turned in a stellar second half to remain perfect on the season. Maryland has defeated Marquette, Notre Dame and Illinois in a seven-day span.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Maryland avoided joining No. 4 Michigan, No. 5 Virginia and No. 7 North Carolina as highly ranked teams to stumble this week. The Terps will likely remain in the top three when the next poll is released Monday.

UP NEXT

Illinois: The Illini host Michigan on Wednesday for their Big Ten home opener. Illinois has lost four in a row and 14 of 16 to the Wolverines.

Maryland: The Terrapins travel Tuesday to Penn State, where they have lost in each of the last three seasons.

No. 8 Kentucky rolls Fairleigh Dickinson, 600th win at Rupp

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — EJ Montgomery scored a career-high 25 points, forward Keion Brooks added 15 off the bench and No. 8 Kentucky dominated Fairleigh Dickinson 83-52 on Saturday for its 600th victory at Rupp Arena.

The 6-foot-10 Montgomery made 12 of 16 from the field, including several dunks to surpass his previous scoring best of 16 on Nov. 29 against UAB.

Forward Nick Richards, at 6-11, had 12 points and 10 rebounds for the Wildcats (7-1), whose 19-2 run over 6:11 in the first half built a 43-23 halftime lead. Kentucky shot 52% and held the Knights (2-6) to 33% shooting, outrebounded them 42-33 and owned nearly statistic for their fifth consecutive victory after a week off.

The Wildcats became the fastest school to reach 600 wins in an arena in NCAA history. Kentucky achieved the milestone at the 43-year-old building named after coach Adolph Rupp in 670 games, surpassing the pace of UCLA (689 games at Pauley Pavilion) and Kansas (699 at Allen Fieldhouse) .

Kaleb Bishop had 12 points for the Knights, who led only in the early minutes. The Northeast Conference school was coming off Tuesday’s 78-77 win over Quinnipiac that ended a five-game losing streak.

BIG PICTURE

Fairleigh Dickinson: The Knights couldn’t follow up their 50% shooting against Quinnipiac beyond the first couple of baskets as Kentucky’s defense disrupted their flow. They certainly were no match against the taller Wildcats inside, resulting in lopsided gaps in rebounding and paint scoring respectively.

Kentucky: The Wildcats emerged from the week-long break sharper and crisper, especially on defense. At times there were three players battling for rebounds, and they forced eight turnovers in the first half alone. Montgomery’s growing offensive confidence showed with several jumpers and aggression inside. Brooks, a freshman forward, took off in the second half for a career high as well.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

This victory likely won’t change Kentucky’s position in the rankings.

UP NEXT

Fairleigh Dickinson visits St. Peter’s on Wednesday.

Kentucky hosts Georgia Tech on Dec. 14 as it faces Power Five opponents for the remainder of the season.