While Kansas overcame the power of Hilton Magic and East Tennessee State delivered a splendid performance at UNC Greensboro this past week on ESPN’s streaming service, the next seven days look like ESPN+’s best slate of the season so far.
Four Big 12 matchups take center stage, including the conference’s top dog, while six potential Cinderellas and multiple quality stars are in action.
As league play continues to heat up, we’re giving you an inside look at many NCAA tournament teams and potential bracket busters.
In the everlasting chase to find the best team in college hoops, Baylor just might hold that title. The program doesn’t have the history of Kentucky, Duke and Kansas, but the roster is just as skilled, experienced and talented this season.
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The Bears have shown they can win with defense — vs. Butler — and with a offensive firepower — as they had against Villanova. In fact, the Bears have won 12 straight and beat Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse for the first time in the Scott Drew era. Even their lone loss was impressive, as they led Washington by six with less than five minutes to play at a neutral site.
In addition to watching Baylor, this is another opportunity to catch ISU’s Tyrese Haliburton, who is one of the better all-around players in the Big 12. The sophomore continues to produce with his combination of solid scoring instincts, feel for the game and length that impacts his success on the glass. Will he rebound from his outing vs. Kansas and take down the Bears?
Chris Beard is one of the better coaches at getting more out of less. He did it last season by guiding the Red Raiders to the Final Four despite losing multiple starters from the previous campaign, and has put TTU in solid position this year even after the departure of Jarrett Culver to the NBA.
The Red Raiders are still desperately seeking more quality victories. Other than their win over Louisville on a neutral floor, they’ve failed to break through against Iowa, DePaul, Creighton and Baylor. While Kansas State is down this year due to the loss of Dean Wade and its two leaders in the backcourt, it would be the first win in a true road game for TTU.
If you like defense, this is a matchup for you as both teams rank in the top 45 in points allowed. The Wildcats are averaging only 64.6 points per game (368th in the country).
Another big-time matchup in the Big 12 as the Horned Frogs and Sooners both attempt to maintain their hot starts.
Jamie Dixon’s unit has been great defensively as they close out possessions consistently and have a solid rim protector in Kevin Samuel (2.9 blocks per game). Desmond Bane and RJ Nembhard lead the offense, but TCU has struggled mightily at the free throw line and can be careless with the ball.
On the flip side, Oklahoma continues to rely on Brady Manek, Austin Reaves and Kristian Doolittle, but is searching for secondary options. Keep an eye on Jamal Bieniemy, as the sophomore guard was the team’s second-leading scorer vs. Texas and has turned the ball over just three times since Dec. 17.
The Big 12 rolls on as the Longhorns are the focus in a game they desperately need to win. Shaka Smart’s seat might be getting warmer as Texas continues to underachieve with no NCAA tournament wins and so-so regular-season success since the coach relocated to Austin in 2015.
While they did defeat Purdue at Mackey Arena to begin this campaign, they also were blown out by Georgetown, Providence and Baylor, and lost by 10 at home to Oklahoma.
It’s not like they are lacking in talent, either. The roster features seven four-star recruits, including Matt Coleman III, Courtney Ramey and veteran Andrew Jones, while the personnel is much better suited to play Smart’s preferred style. Could a road win over a solid Oklahoma State team jump start them for the remainder of the season?
Despite a shaky nonconference schedule, the Dukes keep racking up the victories as they’ve begun Atlantic 10 play with a 4-0 record and are 14-2 overall.
While this matchup looks noncompetitive on paper, the Dukes are looking to build their case as the third-best team behind Dayton and VCU. If coach Keith Dambrot & Co. want to separate from the pack, they must find more productivity on the glass and better shooting from the perimeter.
Miami (Ohio) transfer Marcus Weathers is another good reason to tune in as the junior forward stuffs the stat sheet and has scored in double figures in the past eight outings.
After showing poise and experience in a victory over UNC Greensboro last week, the Buccaneers hit the road again for another critical matchup.
It’s no secret that East Tennessee State is the favorite in an underrated SOCON and is one of the better mid-majors in the nation due to its elite coaching and balance. But Western Carolina shouldn’t be overlooked, especially with how the Catamounts have completely outperformed preseason expectations.
The Catamounts were picked seventh in the league’s coaches’ poll, but Mason Faulkner (18.5 points per game) has played exceptionally well and the team’s lone losses have come at the hands of Georgia, Xavier and Florida State. Can Western Carolina stake its claim atop the Southern Conference, or will ETSU continue its dominance?
Tommy Amaker’s bunch tips off league play with a home game against a Dartmouth unit that has already beaten Buffalo this season.
When Harvard’s best player, Seth Towns, opted to enter the transfer portal, the Crimson’s upside and potential took a huge hit. However, they are still cut out to win the Ivy League and potentially make a run in the NCAA tournament, especially if Bryce Aiken can stay healthy.
The Crimson have had seven (!) different players lead the team in scoring in at least one game. They have high-major talent, athleticism and depth beginning with Aiken, Chris Lewis and freshman Chris Ledlum. You don’t want to miss any chance to watch this group.
If you’re looking for a potential future sleeper, take a peek at Akron. The Zips are 13-3, have won four straight and their three losses have come against Louisville, Liberty and West Virginia.
Led by veterans Loren Cristian Jackson, Tyler Cheese and Xeyrius Williams, this MAC squad plays lock-down defense, can control the tempo on the offensive end and uses their physicality to dominate the glass.
A challenge on the road against dominant scorer Eugene German (20.4 points per game) will test their mental toughness, especially after the Zips recorded a monster comeback victory at home against Ball State in the previous outing.
With no true favorite standing out in nonconference play, Quinnipiac is the early front-runner to be the top team in the MAAC. It hasn’t been pretty at times for the Bobcats — losses to two NEC schools — but they have a nice combination of experience and youth.
Juniors Rich Kelly and Kevin Marfo are two of the team’s top four scorers, while senior and ex-Northwestern forward Aaron Falzon can give them quality minutes and shooting off the bench. The big-picture numbers don’t stand out for freshmen Matt Balanc and Seth Pinkney, but both have played well of late, giving coach Baker Dunleavy two much-needed options as March creeps closer.
A showdown against Manhattan will test QU to see if the Bobcats are truly a step above the rest.
Beyond two surprising hiccups against Sam Houston State and UTSA, Louisiana Tech has performed at a high-level thanks to a top-65 offense and defense.
Are the Bulldogs really the team that marched into Starkville and upset Mississippi State?
This home affair vs. North Texas could give us a good idea of where they stand as the Mean Green have won three straight and feature talented point guard Umoja Gibson. If Louisiana Tech wants to win the C-USA, this is a must-win, even if it’s only January.
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