For the first time this season, the college sports weekend spotlight will be squarely on college basketball, highlighted by the return of a legendary coach, another ranked battle in the Big East and a few surging teams trying to keep their momentum going. Here is a list of the games you should be watching this weekend!
Valparaiso @ Oakland
When: Friday 1/8, 7:00 pm ESPN2
Why: This is a battle between potential “Giant Killers” come March. Valpo and Oakland are two teams expected to contend for the Horizon League title this season, and they are successful in much different ways. According to KenPom, Valparaiso sports the 2nd most efficient defense in the country, while Oakland ranks in the top-30 in offensive efficiency.
Player to Watch: Oakland G Kahlil Felder – Felder, a 5’9″ guard from Detroit, may very well be the most talented offensive player in the country. He is 3rd in the nation in scoring at 26.1 PPG, and he leads the nation in assists, averaging 9.2 a game. He has double-doubles in 3 of his last 4 games, and he will look to lead his squad to victory Friday night.
Prediction: These are two very good teams, and this should be a fun game, but at home, I like Kahlil Felder and the Golden Grizzlies to pull off the victory.
#3 Maryland @ Wisconsin
When: Saturday 1/9, 1:00 pm ESPN
Why: A nice little road test for Maryland early in the Big Ten schedule as they travel to Madison to take on a Wisconsin team looking for a return trip to the Final Four this season. Many people expect the Terrapins to make a Final Four run this year, led by backcourt stars Melo Trimble and Duke-transfer Rasheed Sulaimon. The Badgers won’t go down in this matchup without a fight, especially if F Nigel Hayes and G Bronson Koenig have anything to say about it.
Player to Watch: Maryland C Diamond Stone – The freshman center has been a nice surprise early on in the season. A highly touted recruit out of Milwaukee, Stone has scored in double-figures in eight straight for Maryland, including a 39-point outburst on Dec. 30 against Penn State. Stone is returning to his home state on Saturday, and will look to have a big impact.
Prediction: Wisconsin is a tough team, and they will be a threat in March, but this Maryland team just has too much talent. The Badgers could keep it close, but expect Maryland to come away with the win.
Baylor @ #13 Iowa State
When: Saturday 1/9, 3:00 ESPN2
Why: Iowa State is one of the most fun teams to watch this season, led by PG Monte Morris (7.4 APG), F Jameel McKay (14.4 PPG, 9.8 RPG) and F Georges Niang (19.2 PPG). Coach Fred Hoiberg left this season to become the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, and this team is trying to prove that they can make a deep run with new head coach Steve Prohm, formerly head coach at Murray State. They will face a tough test from a Baylor squad coming off a disappointing Round of 64 loss to 14-seed Georgia State in 2015. A road win over Iowa State would be a nice notch in their belt.
Player to Watch: Baylor F Taurean Prince – Prince, a 6’7″ senior from San Antonio, has seen his importance to this team grow in each of his four seasons in Waco, and he is now being relied upon to lead the Bears to great things this season. Prince has scored at least 30 points in a game twice this season, and he may need to do that again if the Bears want to pull off the upset.
Prediction: Iowa State is a team known for dominating at home in Hilton Coliseum, but they have been tested there this year, including a loss to unranked Northern Iowa. I anticipate this game being closer than expected, but the Cyclones just have too much firepower, and they should win this one.
#24 Pittsburgh @ Notre Dame
When: Saturday 1/9, 4:00 pm ESPN3
Why: Pitt is off to a great start this year, but many experts wonder just how good they are based on their schedule. They have played one team in KenPom’s top-50 this season (Purdue) and took the loss. That is their lone loss, while they have beaten all of the teams that they should beat. This is not the same Notre Dame team that won the ACC last season, but led by the returning Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste, this is a team that should make the tournament, and will give Pitt a nice test early in their ACC schedule.
Player to Watch: Notre Dame G/F Matt Ryan – No, this is not the Atlanta Falcons quarterback. Instead, it’s the 6’8″ freshman sharpshooter from Cortland Manor, NY who has been a nice complimentary piece for this Irish team. Ryan is basically on the court to shoot 3’s, but he makes a good percentage of them, and he will be key to a victory over Pitt.
Prediction: If Zach Auguste can dominate the paint early, that should open up the perimeter for ND’s shooters to put away the Panthers. This will help determine just how good Pitt really is this season. Should be a competitive game, but I like the Irish at home.
#6 North Carolina @ Syracuse
When: Saturday 1/9, 8:00 pm ESPN
Why: The marquee game this weekend pits a red-hot Tar Heel squad led by PG Marcus Paige (16.3 PPG) and F Brice Johnson (16.8 PPG, 10.6 RPG) against a scuffling Syracuse team who gets Coach Jim Boeheim back after serving a suspension for a violation of NCAA rules. The Orange are off to an 0-3 start in ACC play, with losses to Pitt, Miami and Clemson, but they do hold wins this season over UConn and Texas A&M, and it will be interesting to see if the return of Boeheim can help them pull off a massive upset.
Player to Watch: North Carolina F Brice Johnson – This past Monday against Florida State, Johnson became just the 2nd player in UNC history to have at least 30 points and 20 rebounds in a game, as he finished with 39 points and 23 boards in a 106-90 victory. Johnson is a force underneath the basket, and if the Tar Heels are to win this game, they need to beat Syracuse’s zone by getting the ball inside to Johnson.
Prediction: The return of Boeheim will motivate Syracuse to play a really good game, but the Tar Heels are just way more talented than the Orange, and that talent will allow them to overcome a game Syracuse team.
Ohio State @ Indiana
When: Sunday 1/10, 1:30 pm CBS
Why: Two teams that could end up squarely on the bubble come March look to get a win that could separate one from the other early on in conference play. Indiana was dealt a major blow earlier this week when it was announced that their 2nd leading scorer, G James Blackmon Jr., would have knee surgery and miss the remainder of the season. The Hoosiers have won eight straight, including the last three without Blackmon, but they now know that Blackmon is out for the year, and it will be interesting to see how the rest of the team deals with that news.
Player to Watch: Ohio State F Jae’Sean Tate – If the Buckeyes are going to pull of the victory over Indiana, Tate, a sophomore from Pickerington, OH, needs to play well. Tate is probably the most talented player on the team, but he has been very inconsistent during his Ohio State career. He has the ability to take over the game, and look for him to do so on Sunday if the Buckeyes are to be victorious.
Prediction: This is a big opportunity for Ohio State, as a road win over Indiana will look really good on their tournament resume. I expect Indiana to struggle some without Blackmon, and I think the Buckeyes will be good enough to take advantage and pull off the road victory.
#11 Villanova @ #18 Butler
When: Sunday 1/10, 7:30 FOX Sports 1
Why: The top of the Big East is loaded this season, and it will provide us with a lot of entertaining match-ups, including this one between the Wildcats and the Bulldogs. These are two of the most efficient offenses in the country (KenPom ranks Nova 5th and Butler 6th), and that should result in a shootout of epic proportions, unless Villanova’s defense, ranked 6th in the country in efficiency, has something to say about it.
Player to Watch: Butler G Roosevelt Jones – It seems like Jones has been in Indianapolis for a decade now, but amazingly it’s only been four years. The senior from O’Fallon, IL is averaging 14.3 PPG, 7.1 RPG and 4.9 APG, and he is a game-changer. If Butler is going to defeat Villanova, Jones needs to have a big game, as he struggled in two meetings last year, scoring a combined 14 points on just 6-26 shooting.
Prediction: While Villanova has one of the country’s best defenses, I fully expect this game to be a shootout between to premier offenses. Butler has struggled early on in Big East play, with losses to Providence and Xavier, and the way Villanova is playing, I expect the Wildcats to hand Butler its 3rd conference loss.
That does it for the weekend preview for January 8-10! I hope you get some time to watch some of these great games. As far as what’s coming up on Bracketball this weekend, look for my first “Giant Killer” profile, where I will tell you everything you need to know about a team that you probably know nothing about, but will need to know a lot about when filling out your bracket in March. Also, look for a “Primetime Player” profile, where I will highlight a player who I think will have a huge impact in the postseason. And on Monday, you can look forward to my first Bracketology post of the season. I will post what I think the bracket would look like if the season ended right now, with a little analysis as to why I placed teams where I did. Have a good weekend everybody!