GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 23 Cincinnati at No. 12 Xavier, Sat. 5:30 p.m.
The last time these two teams got together in the Cintas Center, almost four years ago to the day, the Bearcats and the Musketeers got together for what ended up being one of college basketball’s ugliest brawls. Seven players ended up getting suspended, Xavier’s Kenny Frease was left bleeding from a gash on his cheek, Tu Holloway told reporters after the game that “we zipped them up” and one of college basketball’s fiercest rivalries was forced to make a change. The Crosstown Shootout was renamed and moved to a neutral court for two years before the powers that be decided that it would be possible to play this game on campus without having it turn into a fistfight.
Last season, the game was played at Cincinnati’s Fifth Third Arena. This year, it makes its triumphant return to Xavier’s home floor, and while I doubt that we will see the two sides throwing hands again anytime soon, don’t doubt for a second that there is a healthy dislike between the two programs. What makes this even better is that both Cincinnati and Xavier are as good as they’ve been in recent memory, particularly Xavier, who looks like a legitimate Final Four contender right now. Cincinnati isn’t quite on that level, but they have a big, aggressive and athletic front line that anchors a team that looks like it’ll compete for the American title.
THIS ONE’S GOOD, TOO: No. 25 Utah at Wichita State, Sat. 3:30 p.m.
Jakob Poeltl is special, man. Last season, the 7-foot Austrian was a guy that caught some dunks and blocked some shots and had some nifty plays working in ball-screen actions with Delon Wright. This year? He’s a monster, averaging 21.3 points, 9.9 boards and 2.5 blocks as the centerpiece of an offense loaded with shooting and a team that may be the best in the Pac-12. But Wichita State now has a healthy Fred VanVleet back, and a healthy VanVleet makes them a top 15 team. There is some added drama here as well, as Wichita State’s early losses put them into a situation where they may have to win this game to have enough in their non-conference schedule to be seriously considered for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR
- On Saturday afternoon, Arizona State will pay a visit to No. 5 Kentucky in a game that could end up tripping the Wildcats up. Arizona State is not a super-talented team, but they are a scrappy group of dudes that play like they’ve got something to prove. (A shocker coming from a team coached by a Hurley, right?) Kentucky is still working through some kinks, namely toughness. I think it is fair to say that their biggest issue this season has been that their big men have a tendency to play soft, and Skal Labissiere deserves as much of the blame as anyone.
- No. 3 North Carolina will be paying a visit to Austin to take on a Texas team that has been playing better of late. In theory, the Longhorns are the kind of team that could give UNC some trouble. They have enough size up front that UNC’s bigs won’t be able to dominate the paint and Shaka Smart’s pressure defense could give the Tar Heels trouble; their question-mark the last couple of years has been at the point guard spot. That said, I can’t see UNC dropping this game … which, of course, means they’ll lose by 25.
- The rivalry between Marquette and Wisconsin is intense. While Saturday afternoon’s game probably won’t get the national attention it would have if both of these teams looked destined for the Sweet 16, there will still be quite a few bragging rights on the line. This year’s game will be played in the Kohl Center.
- Florida will be paying No. 1 Michigan State a visit in a rematch of the 2000 national title game. The Gators haven’t quite come around yet this season. They have the pieces to be the fourth-best team in the SEC, if not better. And while John Egbunu and Dorian Finney-Smith have played well, guys like Devin Robinson and Kasey Hill — both of whom were five-star recruits — have yet to come into their own.
- Oregon stumbled last weekend when they played a de-facto road game against UNLV in Las Vegas, and on Saturday night they’ll pay a visit to another pesky Mountain West team, Boise State. The Broncos are good, but they have a guy named Nick Duncan who is a 6-foot-8, 260 pound Australian dude that runs around off of screens and jacks up threes. He’s my spirit animal. Your’s too, probably.
FOUR MORE NOTABLE GAMES
- La Salle at No. 9 Villanova, Sun. 5:00 p.m.
- Ohio State at UConn, Sat. 12:00 p.m.
- Kansas State at Texas A&M, Sat. 5:30 p.m.
- BYU at Colorado, Sat. 8:00 p.m.
WHO’S GETTING UPSET?: UCLA at No. 20 Gonzaga, Sat. 10:00 p.m.
Gonzaga is not the same team without Przemek Karnowski. They blew a 12-point lead at home to Arizona last weekend — just their tenth loss in 11 seasons playing at The Kennel — and they needed a 45 percent three-point shooter to miss a wide-open three to avoid overtime at home against Montana on Tuesday. The issue is the guard play and a front line that doesn’t have their best rim protector. UCLA is a confounding team — they may be the most talented team on the west coast, only they rarely play up to their potential. They do, however, seem to show up for big games, and on the road against Gonzaga certainly qualifies as a big game. If they show up this weekend in Spokane, they have the pieces to give the Zags problems.
WHAT WE’LL BE TALKING ABOUT ON MONDAY: After the first couple weeks of the season, the consensus seemed to be that the Pac-12 was going to be down this year. Cal had that disastrous trip up to Vegas where they lost to Richmond and San Diego State. Arizona lost to Providence in the Wooden Legacy. Utah got worked by Miami. UCLA lost to Monmouth at home. When four of the top five teams in the league take a questionable loss in the first two weeks of the season, there are going to be doubters.
That sentiment has changed a bit in the last two weeks.
Providence has turned out to be pretty damn good. Miami, too. UCLA bounced back with a convincing win over then-No. 1 Kentucky. Arizona won at Gonzaga. Oregon has been without two starters and has looked like they might be the best team in the league. This weekend will be a significant test for a number of teams in the league. Utah, Oregon and UCLA all get tough road tests against teams from smaller conferences. Arizona State gets a shot at Kentucky. Colorado gets a shot at BYU at home.
The Pac-12, as a conference, has a chance to make a pretty significant statement this weekend, and while I’m not predicting they’ll win all of those games, I think they will do enough to make us take notice. Maybe the league is better at the top than we realized.