By Steve Silverman
The college basketball season is starting to take shape, and the sport owes something of a debt to elite-level teams that have scheduled games against top-level opponents from outside their conferences.
Teams like Oklahoma that are not afraid to go on the road and play a strong Pac-12 team like USC even though they will be playing teams like Kansas, West Virginia, TCU and Texas during the Big 12 regular season.
That’s what happens when a team has a courageous coach like Lon Kruger, who is not afraid to expose his team in challenging situations. Playing USC in the Staples Center is just that.
Friday, December 8
Oklahoma (6-1) at No. 25 USC (4-2) , 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
The Sooners come to the Staples Center with freshman guard Trae Young leading the way. Young is scoring 28.7 points per game, and that figure leads the nation. Young is more than just a scorer, as he is handing out 8.7 assists per game.
The Trojans started out with four straight wins, but they have lost their last two games and head coach Andy Enfield has to figure out a solution to the team’s second-half shooting woes. USC had a halftime lead in their last game against SMU and they were unable to hold the advantage after shooting 8-of-22 from the field during the final 20 minutes.
USC was fighting hard to stay in the game and were able to tie the game at 42, but SMU followed with a 19-3 run. The Trojans can’t afford those dry spells against the high-scoring Sooners, who are averaging 94.7 points per game.
The Sooners depend on Christian James and Khadeem Lattin in addition to Young. James is averaging 11.9 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, while Lattin is scoring 11.1 points and pulling down a team-high 9.1 rebounds per game while shooting 64.7 percent from the field.
USC is led by junior forward Chimezie Metu, who is scoring 16.0 points and averaging 7.7 rebounds per night. He is joined by fellow junior forward Bennie Boatwright, who is averaging 15.3 points and 7.7 assists per game.
Saturday, December 9
Colorado (7-1) at No. 13 Xavier (8-1), 5 p.m. ET, FS1
Xavier basketball is all about toughness.
Any time the Musketeers are at home against a non-conference opponent, college basketball fans can be sure that the Musketeers are going to come into Cintas Arena with a snarl and an “I dare you” attitude.
Head coach Chris Mack has a team that is grounded in toughness, and that nastiness is also combined with a considerable amount of talent. The Musketeers are averaging 89.8 points per game and shooting an eye-catching 53.9 percent from the field.
They will make it very tough on the Buffaloes, who average 76.1 points per game with a 47.8 shooting percentage. If Xavier gets off to an early lead and applies tough defensive pressure, it is going to be difficult for Colorado to catch up.
Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura continue to lead the way for Xavier. Bluiett, a 6-6 senior guard, is averaging 21.3 points per game while shooting 53.6 percent from the field. Macura is averaging 12.6 points per night, and the 6-5 guard is shooting 52.8 percent.
Colorado will try to counter with McKinley Wright IV, George King and Namon Wright for the bulk of its scoring. All three are averaging in double figures, and Wright, a 6-0 freshman guard, is averaging 15.6 points per night and shooting 52.7 percent from the field.
Sunday, December 10
No. 16 Arizona State (7-0) at No. 2 Kansas (7-1), 2 p.m. ET, ESPN
Even though this game takes place during the middle of your NFL Sunday, it is worth your attention as the Sun Devils come visiting to Allen Fieldhouse.
That’s because Kansas is coming off its only loss of the season, and Bill Self’s team is likely to be razor sharp after going through some challenging practices following their 74-65 loss to Washington Dec. 6.
Self was highly critical of his team’s overall effort against the Huskies, and while the loss wasn’t on the home floor in Lawrence, it was in Kansas City and the head coach was embarrassed. An early-season loss is clearly a teachable moment for an elite head coach, and fans will be able to see just how much the Jayhawks have learned following the defeat.
The Jayhawks are not likely to peak until tournament time, and that’s just the way Self and Kansas fans want it. They have a slew of outstanding players, including Lagerald Vick, Devonte Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. All three are averaging 16.0 points per game or better and are capable of taking over any game.
Arizona State has an impressive 16-point win over Xavier, and no Bobby Hurley-coached team is ever going to back down from an opponent. The Sun Devils may not have the same talent level as the Jayhawks, but they will not be intimidated. Senior guard Tra Holder is averaging 22.1 points per night to lead Arizona State, while Shannon Evans II is scoring 18.7 points and handing out 5.1 assists per game.
Tuesday, December 12
Mississippi State (7-0) at No. 17 Cincinnati (7-1), 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
This is not a rivalry game or a classic interconference matchup that fans have been longing to see.
It is just a terrific game that features two dynamic teams that play with tons of effort on an every-night basis.
The Bulldogs are in tough as they travel to the Queen City to take on an accomplished Bearcats team coached by Mick Cronin
Mississippi State is led by sophomore guard Tyson Carter, who is scoring 15.7 points per game and shooting 52.7 percent from the field. Carter, a 6-4, 164-pound whippet, is like a blur when he is leading the Bulldogs’ offense at full speed.
The Bearcats are not a superstar-driven teams, but Cronin’s players are tenacious and talented. Senior forward Gary Clark is a 6-8, 225-pound force who averages 13.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per night, while Jacob Evans chips in with 13.1 points per game.