WEEKEND PREVIEW: Showdowns atop the Big 12 and Big East

(AP Photo/Eugene Tanner)
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GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 11 Iowa State at No. 3 Oklahoma, Sat. 7:00 p.m. 

Oklahoma is currently one of just three teams in college basketball with an unblemished record now that Michigan State and Xavier have both taken a loss in their conference openers. The Sooners, who kick off Big 12 play on Saturday, will be tested in their opener as well, as they host an Iowa State team that is coming off of a win at Cincinnati last week that helped legitimize a team whose record has looked better than their on-court product at times this season.

And that’s where this matchup gets really interesting.

Iowa State is probably the most proven of the two programs, but this year’s iteration of the Cyclones is a team that few fully trust. It’s not for a lack of talent — we had Georges Niang ranked fifth in our Player of the Year Power Rankings, and Monte’ Morris and Jameel McKay are likely all-Big 12 players — but they don’t have any front court depth and have major question marks defensively. It’s not like Oklahoma is a safe-bet for the Final Four, either, as they are still trying to find a way to replace TaShawn Thomas at the four and have ridden the white-hot shooting of Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard to a perfect record.

It will be a safe bet, however, that if the Sooners find a way to beat the Cyclones, they’ll end up being the No. 1 team in the country come Monday. If that happens, and if Kansas beats Baylor at home on Saturday, there’s a very real chance that undefeated, No. 1 Oklahoma plays at No. 2 Kansas on Monday night.

I think we all know what we need to root for.

THIS ONE’S GOOD, TOO: No. 9 Butler at No. 6 Xavier, Sat. 1:00 p.m.

This matchup lost a bit of its luster after Thursday. Butler lost at home to No. 12 Providence and The Kris Dunn Show just hours after the Musketeers went to No. 16 Villanova and got blown out by 31 points in a game that their star point guard suffered a terrifying — but not all that serious — head injury. The latter of those two results is what makes this game difficult to truly get a feel for. Edmond Sumner, the 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman whose exploded onto the NBA’s radar with a string of impressive performances the last month and a half, likely won’t be available. Xavier has quite a bit of depth and versatility this season … at every position except the point. Sumner was their guy.

But what makes the injury doubly-painful is that where Butler’s defense can be broken down is by a dynamic, play-making lead guard. Sumner isn’t Dunn, but they are similar in the way that they play, and the Bulldogs had no answer for Dunn on Thursday. Losing Sumner takes away their biggest advantage in what has become a critical game for both teams. The loser will fall to 0-2 in the Big East, and given that Villanova has lost all of two regular season league games each of the last two seasons, the loser of this game is going to have a very difficult time winning the Big East regular season title.

For the Bulldogs, the thing to watch is going to be Kellen Dunham. The dude is mired in an absolutely horrific slump. To quote Tin Cup, he’s got the shanks. In his last five games, he’s shooting 10-for-60 from the floor and 2-for-32 from three.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR

  1. Oklahoma-Iowa State is not the only relevant Big 12 game this weekend, as No. 23 Baylor pays a visit to No. 2 Kansas on Saturday at 4:00 p.m. The league title race implications aren’t quite the same in this one, but there will some pressure on the Jayhawks: they have a shot to be ranked No. 1 in the country with a win.
  2. Iowa is coming off of an important over the Denzel Valentine-less Michigan State Spartans, which is the kind of win that is going to have staying power on their résumé. But are they truly the kind of team that can beat the No. 1 team in the country by 13 points, or did they take full advantage of a team that was missing their best player? I think we’ll get a sense for that answer when they play at No. 14 Purdue at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday.
  3. Speaking of No. 1 Michigan State, the Spartans play at Minnesota on Saturday at 3:00 p.m. which suddenly becomes a key game in the Big Ten title race. A loss drops the Spartans to 0-2 in league play, and while this team is clearly not the same team without Valentine, Minnesota has not been good this season. This is one Sparty absolutely should not lose.
  4. Wake Forest at No. 18 Louisville, which will be played on Sunday at 8:00 p.m., is what I like to call a ‘gauge game’. We think both of these teams are pretty good, with Louisville having a shot to finish top four in the ACC and Wake Forest looking like they might be able to get to the NCAA tournament. But Louisville lost their only two relevant non-conference games while Wake Forest can’t stop turning the ball over. I think the Cards pick off the Demon Deacons.
  5. Cal entered the season ranked as one of the nation’s top 15 teams and picked as a favorite to win the Pac-12, and while they struggled early-on, the Golden Bears have looked the part their last two times out, blowing a game they should have one at Virginia and mollywhopping Davidson at home. Utah may have the best big man in college basketball in Jakob Poeltl, but Cal has the pieces to matchup with the Utes. In a wide-open Pac-12 race, this is a game that is going to matter come March.

WHO’S GETTING UPSET?: No. 8 Arizona at Arizona State, Sun. 2:00 p.m.

The Pac-12 may not have a dominant team this season — sorry, Arizona — but what they’ve shown throughout non-conference play is that they are deep and they are balanced. Arizona State is the perfect example. No one had the Sun Devils as much more than the easy leg of the Arizona weekends in league play, but Bobby Hurley has already led this group to a home win over Texas A&M, a neutral court win over N.C. State and a road win over UNLV. My money is still on Arizona to win the league — even if they lose — but a road game against a better-than-expected league rival in an 11:00 a.m. local tip to kick off conference play is not easy.

WHAT WE’LL BE TALKING ABOUT ON MONDAY: I wrote about this yesterday after Providence knocked off Butler in Hinkle Fieldhouse, but it bears repeating in this space:

There’s a very strong argument to be made that Providence roster the National Player of the Year in Kris Dunn, the National Coach of the Year in Ed Cooley and the nation’s Most Improved Player in Ben Bentil.

That said, it’s fair to ask whether or not Oklahoma should be the recipient of two of those awards. Buddy Hield should be a consensus first-team All-American at this point in the season and right there in the conversation for National Player of the Year with Dunn and Denzel Valentine. Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger also deserves just as much consideration for National Coach of the Year as Cooley, while Isaiah Cousins could very well be the nation’s Most Underrated Player.

I say all that to say this: Assuming Providence knocks off St. John’s in the Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Saturday and Oklahoma can hold serve against Iowa State in Norman, it’s time to start talking about the Friars and the Sooners as legitimate national title contenders. There are no dominant teams this season. Michigan State was the best team in the country for a month and a half, but they are overly-reliant on one guy and have some questions with their point guard play. Maryland and North Carolina might be the most talented teams in the country, but if they’ve proven anything this season, it’s that they’re far from unsusceptible to being upset. Kentucky’s inconsistent. Duke’s injured.

Providence and Oklahoma are not traditional basketball powers and their not loaded with McDonald’s All-Americans and it does not matter.

They have the pieces to win a national title this season.

And come Monday, that will be the major talking point in college hoops.