GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 1 Oklahoma at LSU, Sat. 5:00 p.m.
All of the typical late-January storylines will be in play in Baton Rouge on Saturday afternoon when the Sooners pay a visit to the Tigers: No. 1 team in the country, true road game against a bubble team, upset potential, NCAA tournament bids on the line, etc. All that stuff matters, but that’s not what makes this game interesting.
Buddy Hield vs. Ben Simmons.
That’s why people are going to tune into this one, and deservedly so. Because the difference between these two Player of the Year favorites is fascinating. On the one hand, you have Hield, a underrated recruit coming out of high school — remember, he went to high school in Kansas, wanted to go to Kansas and wasn’t taken by Kansas — that has turned himself, over the course of a stellar four-year career, into the nation’s best player. And he is just that, by the way. Going beyond the simple fact that he is averaging 25.7 points for the No. 1 team in the country, Hield also has the highest offensive rating on KenPom for a player with a usage rate over 28% in the 13-year database on the site. He’s been better than Doug McDermott was as a senior. He’s been better than J.J. Redick and Adam Morrison. He’s shooting 51.7 percent from three while taking eight threes per game.
He deserves every bit of attention he gets.
And then there’s Simmons, who is the latest uber-recruit to matriculate through the college ranks. Simmons is putting up video games numbers this season, where 20 points, 12 boards and five assists equals a quiet night. He’s a virtual lock to be the No. 1 pick in the draft, but despite all the individual success, the incredibly bright future and the comparisons to LeBron and Magic, LeBen is playing on a team that may not find themselves in the NCAA tournament when it is all said and done.
Should we take bets on who will write the column praising Hield for staying in college for four years and being everything that’s right about amateur athletics while lambasting Simmons as the poster-child of one-and-done culture, where AAU ball teaches kids that hype and chasing a dollar is more important than winning?
It won’t be me.
I’ll be the guy that’s content to simply enjoy just how good and intriguing this matchup is going to be.
THE OTHER GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 14 Iowa State at No. 5 Texas A&M, Sat. 2:00 p.m.
The Cyclones bounced back from a 1-3 start to Big 12 play with a pair of statement wins at home over Oklahoma and Kansas. The problem? Both of those wins came at home, in an arena know for creating ‘Hilton Magic’. We need to see what the Cyclones can do on the road, and they’ll have a chance to prove it on Saturday as they pay a visit to College Station to take on Texas A&M. The Aggies are coming off of a loss to Arkansas in Fayetteville on Wednesday night, so they’ll be looking to make a statement of their own.
THE OTHER, OTHER GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 20 Kentucky at No. 4 Kansas, Sat. 7:00 p.m.
This game was so much more interesting back when we thought that Skal Labissiere was going to be an all-american. He’s not, which takes some of the luster off of this matchup. That said, Kansas has looked vulnerable in recent weeks while Kentucky is surging thanks to … Derek Willis?
Yup, Willis, who couldn’t find his way off the bench with the GPS on his cell phone the last two years, was inserted into the starting lineup earlier this month and it’s turned out to be the best thing that John Calipari has done this season. He’s averaging 12.3 points, 10.0 boards, 2.0 blocks and shooting 9-for-20 (45%) from three in the last four games. Can that continue against a team as good as Kansas?
SEVEN THINGS TO WATCH FOR
- No. 11 Virginia may have saved themselves with a trio of triples at Wake Forest midweek, but the Cavs aren’t fooling us. This team is not good on the road. At all. Which is perfect for No. 16 Louisville, who badly needs to adds wins to a résumeé that is far more empty at the top than would be ideal this late in the season. Tony Bennett’s Pack-Line defense against Rick Pitino’s zone pressure. An interesting contrast of styles that, unfortunately, is destined to be played in the 50s. Tip is on Saturday at 1:00 p.m.
- If anyone knows how the power structure in the Pac-12 shakes out, I’d love for you to share with me. Because I have no idea beyond the fact that Oregon looks like they’re the best team in the league. What I do know is this: Washington and USC are the two most entertaining teams in the conference, and they’ll be going head-to-head on Saturday afternoon. Appointment viewing.
- No. 22 Wichita State is tracking towards being the most interesting bubble discussion on Selection Sunday. They lost a bunch of games early, but none of them were bad losses and three of them came without Fred VanVleet on the floor. The MVC has not been as strong as we initially expected it to be, but there is one other really good team in the league: Evansville. The Shockers pay the Purple Aces a visit on Sunday at 4:00 p.m.
- No. 9 West Virginia’s visit to Florida is not going to be for the faint of heart. Florida is fourth nationally in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. West Virginia? They’re first. This is a win the Gators desperately need for their NCAA tournament profile. Upset city on Saturday at 12:00 p.m.
- At one point, the Mountain West looked like it would be a wide-open conference race, but that was before San Diego State went out and won their first eight games in league play. That said, the most talented team in the conference is UNLV, and since Dave Rice was fired, the team has won four of their last five, including a come-from-behind win over Boise State on Monday night. The two square off on Saturday night at 8:00 p.m. in the Thomas and Mack Center.
- First place in three mid-major leagues will be on the line on Saturday: UAB and Marshall will be squaring off for first place in Conference USA, Stephen F. Austin and Texas A&M-CC go head-to-head in the Southland and Norfolk State will visit Hampton with the MEAC lead on the line.
- There are three games that will be featured on NBCSN this weekend: Fordham at UMass (Sat. 12:00 p.m.), La Salle at Dayton (Sat. 2:00 p.m.) and George Washington at George Mason (Sun. 12:00 p.m.)
WHO’S GETTING UPSET?: No. 10 Providence at Georgetown, Sat. 8:00 p.m.
This prediction may come back to bite me because A) Providence has yet to lose a true road game this season, including their win at Villanova, and B) Georgetown has yet to prove themselves to have any kind of consistency. That said, I’ve still on the bandwagon saying that Georgetown is a top 20 team waiting to come out of its NIT shell, and I think this is the game where it becomes apparent. There is a clear-cut blueprint for beating the Friars this season: Pack in the defense, force Kris Dunn into being a passer and challenge every perimeter jumper. That’s not the ideal way for Georgetown to defend, but if they can get it done, they can land themselves a win that will put them further into NCAA tournament consideration.
WHAT WE’LL BE TALKING ABOUT ON MONDAY: I think the biggest story line that is going to come out of this weekend will be Buddy Hield.
Look, I think Ben Simmons is as terrific of a prospect as you are going to find in the college ranks, but that doesn’t mean that the Tigers are a team that can defend, and you have to be able to defend if you have any hope of beating Oklahoma this season. I think Simmons is going to get his, but I also think that the Tigers are going to end up losing by 25 points.
And I think Hield is going to go bananas.
35 points? Eight threes? Maybe a couple of dunks thrown down between contested, step-back threes?
Look, I know how good Buddy Hield is. If you’re reading this, than you probably know how good Hield is. But if just feels like he isn’t getting the kind of hype that he should be based on the season that he is having. This is the game that is going to draw the nation in, when, for the second time this season, he goes crazy in front of a national audience, this time outplaying the projected No. 1 pick in the draft as his team wins in a blowout.
This is the weekend that Hield goes from ‘That kid at Oklahoma is pretty good, right?’ to ‘Buddy Hield, boy. That dude is cold-blooded!’