With the Christmas season officially in the rearview mirror, college basketball can finally progress to the best and most important time of the season: conference play. While some programs strengthened their reputations during the non-conference portion of their schedules, there was an equal number of teams that were the beneficiaries of cupcake schedules for the first two months of the season. Now, the overachieving pretenders will have nowhere to hide as the stakes become much more elevated and the sense of urgency to win consistently is now higher than ever. Can the likes of Duke and Villanova still hold their tenuous places in the rankings or can Arizona State and Xavier become the new elite programs of this beloved sport? Let’s find out.
Xavier Musketeers (6) vs. Marquette Golden Eagles
During the early days of the season, it was easy to take for granted what programs such as Arizona and Florida were doing from an offensive perspective. However, both programs have experienced lulls in terms of success because they were too reliant on their respective offenses to carry them to victory. Unlike those two programs, the Musketeers have maintained their exceptional scoring ways (86.9 PPG) while steadily improving as a fundamentally sound defensive unit (68.8 PAPG). While the Golden Eagles have a fairly potent offense themselves (83 PPG), their defense has been wildly inconsistent (during their four-game winning streak, the Golden Eagles have allowed point totals as low as 51 and as high as 81). Combined with a less than impressive rebounding presence (31.9 RPG), the Golden Eagles simply do not have the requisite skill sets needed to garner and take away possessions from a Musketeers program that can score quickly and effectively.
Final Score: Musketeers 87 Golden Eagles 79 Spread:
Creighton Blue Jays (25) vs. Seton Hall Pirates (23)
There is a cliche saying out there that states “fake it until you make it”. As it pertains to the offensively potent Blue Jays, they have successfully held four out of their last five opponents 65 points or less. However, Creighton is still allowing 71.6 points per game, a stat that is indicative of a capable although usually inconsistent defense. Still, the Blue Jays are one of the few programs that have played to their strengths consistently and have stayed relevant in the top-heavy Big East Conference as a result. Conversely, the identity of the Pirates has wavered from a stingy defensive team to a deadly offensive team and everywhere in between. Despite this glaring plight, Seton Hall has lost just twice this season and they have actually looked a little less shaky on both offense and defense in their recent wins. Although the Pirates have the potential to be one of better teams in the Big East, they still need to prove that their defense can at least minimize the damage ranked opponents can to do them on a consistent basis.
Final Score: Blue Jays 79 Pirates 75 Spread:
Louisville Cardinals vs. Kentucky Wildcats (16)
Despite the loss of their head coach and several incoming freshmen before the start of the season, the tough-minded Cardinals are still confident they can be competitive in the ACC with an impressive record of 10-2. Although the offense of the Cardinals has wavered in terms of consistency this season, their overall team defense has actually been above average as they are currently allowing just 64.6 points per game to their opponents. For the Wildcats, the issue has been less about talent and more about acclimating their young freshmen to the high-pressure situations of college basketball. Although the Wildcats are a deadly offensive team (80.7 PPG), their wavering effort on the defensive side of the court cost them what should have been a win at home against UCLA. While both programs are suffering from serious growing pains of different varieties, the Wildcats at least have a veteran coach that is well-known for righting the ship after a tough loss.
Final Score: Cardinals 80 Wildcats 85 Spread:
West Virginia Mountaineers (7) vs. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Although the surging Mountaineers will most likely be unable to sustain their current explosion on offense (84.8 PPG) and their physicality on defense (63.4 PAPG) once Big 12 play commences, they clearly have the pieces and coaching needed to make a serious run at a conference title. As long as Jevon Carter can continue to be the Mountaineers two-way star as the season progresses, West Virginia should be able to follow their fearless leader into one contentious contest after another (18.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 6,3 APG, 3.7 SPG). While Oklahoma State may not have an offense as prolific as that of West Virginia, the Cowboys actually have a formidable defense (65.7 PAPG) led by Mitchell Solomon (6.7 RPG, 1.2 BPG). Without question, this will be a measuring stick contest for both programs and will be one of many crucial conference matchups that will usher in the second half of the season. However, the Mountaineers have proven versatility and the athletic players needed to overcome the stingy defense of the Cowboys.
Final Score: Mountaineers 81 Cowboys 72 Spread:
Baylor Bears (18) vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders (22)
Currently, the Big 12 is rightfully considered the best conference in college basketball as they currently have four teams ranked in the top twelve. However, with conference play upcoming, many of those competitive programs will come back down to earth and this particular contest will potentially result in the loser falling out of the top-25. For the Bears, the name of the game is being tenacious rebounders (40 RPG) while getting the basketball into the hands of their cerebral playmakers on offense (83 PPG, 19 APG). Unfortunately for the Bears, this strategy will need to be executed to near perfection if they hope to overcome the unforgiving defense of the Red Raiders (58.7 PAPG). Averaging 10 steals per game, Texas Tech has a plethora of opportunistic defenders. With Zhaire Smith being the Red Raiders consummate defensive playmaker (1.1 SPG, 1.1 BPG), the Bears will have a difficult time at finding a comfortable rhythm offensively on the road.
Final Score: Bears 74 Red Raiders 82 Spread:
Florida State Seminoles (24) vs. Duke Blue Devils (4)
With six teams having at least 11 wins or more in the ACC, it goes without saying that when any two teams from the aforementioned conference go head to head that the contest will almost always be wildly entertaining. With an offense that has clicked well so far this season (85 PPG), the Seminoles have made a living at giving themselves extra opportunities via their star rebounders (40 RPG). However, the rising Seminoles have not faced one of the best offensive teams in the country in the Duke Blue Devils (94.2 PPG, 20.8 APG). Essentially, Duke can dismantle their given opponent either with the help of their gifted shooter in Grayson Allen (17.1 PPG) and/or via their off the charts defensive player and rebounder in Marvin Bagley III (10.9 RPG, 1 BPG). Although the Seminoles have had their way with the Blue Devils in recent contests, Duke now has the talent and depth to take it to the confident Seminoles on both offense and defense.
Final Score: Seminoles 78 Blue Devils 89 Spread:
Boston College Eagles vs. Virginia Cavaliers (9)
After starting the season with a record of 5-3, the Eagles have rattled off five wins in a row, the most notable of which was an impressive offensive showing against the Blue Devils at home. With four of their five starters averaging double-digit points per game, the Eagles have the coveted balance and requisite playmakers to persevere valiantly against their opponents. Although the Cavaliers have struggled mightily on offense, their defense has been the most effective in college basketball as they have not allowed an opponent to score 70 points or more this season. While the Eagles are more well-balanced and are capable of scoring in bunches, the crushing defense of the Cavaliers has proven difficult to overcome. Short of another Herculean effort on offense for Boston College, the Cavaliers will once again minimize and take away crucial possessions en route to a gritty defensive victory.
Final Score: Eagles 63 Cavaliers 71 Spread:
Oklahoma Sooners (12) vs. TCU (10)
Despite allowing a less than impressive 79.1 points per game this season, the typically offensive adept Sooners are actually fairly opportunistic when it comes to snatching the ball away from the opposition (8.0 SPG). Of course, the Sooner’s main source of inspiration and overall production comes from arguably the most confident and capable two-way player in the country in Trae Young (28.7 PPG, 10.4 APG). With that being said, the still underrated Horned Frogs boast an impressive offense themselves (87.5 PPG). While TCU may not have a one-man show like the Sooners possess in Young, their team as a whole is impressively well-balanced as all five of their starters are currently averaging double-digit points per game and four of their five starters are averaging four rebounds or more per game this season. Even though the Sooners offense has been practically unstoppable this season, the Horned Frogs have the coveted depth and skilled rebounders needed to overcome a team that is heavily reliant on scoring in the mid to high 80’s to win consistently.
Final Score: Sooners 78 Horned Frogs 86 Spread:
Villanova Wildcats (1) vs. Butler Bulldogs
While being one of the few undefeated programs in college basketball would be enough reason for most programs to lay off the gas pedal, the Wildcats have firmly pushed it through the floorboard and are running wild on both offense and defense. Over their last five games, the ferocious Wildcats have scored less than 87 points only once and have stifled their opponents to 72 points or less in those affairs. Although the Bulldogs are by no means a pushover program, their streaky shooting tendencies in conjunction with some nagging turnover habits have cost them a few winnable games. (their two most prominent starters are averaging two turnovers per game). Even if the Bulldogs defense plays to the heightened level that they are capable of, they simply lack the overall talent and consistency needed to topple the best team in the country.
Final Score: Wildcats 86 Bulldogs 73 Spread:
Arizona State Sun Devils (3) vs. Arizona Wildcats (17)
Traditionally, the Sun Devils have usually been considered a football-centric institution while the Wildcats have almost always had an elite basketball program. However, this season has seen the unexpected occur as Arizona State has quickly emerged as an elite, undefeated offensive powerhouse (91.8 PPG). Although the Wildcats appear to have turned their once dire situation around, they have yet to match the production that the Sun Devils have brought to each and every one of their games. If the Wildcats had a competent defense to rely on, they would have a fair chance of pulling off the upset at home. As it stands now, the firepower of the Sun Devils is clearly superior and will allow them to pull off an impressive road victory against their hated rivals.
Final Score: Sun Devils 91 Wildcats 88 Spread: