With the All-Star break upon us, the NBA takes a much needed week-long break amidst the brutal grind of a season that is too long and has too many games packed into not enough time. The downside for fans is that it leaves a pretty extended period of not having basketball to watch in the middle of the season asides from the general silliness that will be going on in Toronto over the weekend. The good news is that this is the time of the year where college basketball really gets going, with the meat of the conference schedule upon us as teams start getting geared up for March Madness.
Even for those who have no interest in following the NCAA Tournament, this week represents a good time to start catching up on some of the top prospects in this year’s draft and some of the guys their favorite teams will be linked too in the draft over the next few months. With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the biggest games in NCAA basketball over the next week for those who are looking for their basketball fix.
1) Duke at UNC (next Wednesday) - Over the last few years, the dynamic in the most heavily hyped rivalry in college basketball has done an 180. Duke is the one with future NBA stars while UNC is counting on an older and more experienced team full of fringe prospects to make up the difference from a talent perspective. The key match-up to watch in this one will be at the forward positions - Brandon Ingram vs. Justin Jackson and Brice Johnson. Ingram, the only guy with a chance to unseat Ben Simmons at the top of the draft, can swing between either forward position and he will be tested by an NBA prospect at each spot. Johnson will try to punish Ingram in the post and on the glass while Jackson will try to use his speed and quickness to get into Ingram on the perimeter. Both guys could make themselves a lot of money with a strong performance on Wednesday.
2) Texas A&M at LSU (Saturday) - This is a huge game for both teams. Texas A&M is trying to regain its foothold at the top of the SEC after losing four of their last five while LSU would secure a spot in the Tourney by protecting their home court with a win. A&M doesn’t have a forward with the size to match up against Ben Simmons in the post, but they have two 6’7+ 3-and-D seniors who could go in the second round (Danuel House and Jaylen Jones) and they will try to use their quickness to test Simmons on both sides of the ball.
3) Oregon at Cal (Thursday) - While Jaylen Brown and Ivan Raab have slipped under the national radar as Cal has battled mediocrity for most of the season, both freshmen are still widely seen as lottery picks in this year’s draft. Oregon, who has emerged from out of nowhere to be a leading candidate for the Pac-12 title, will be a good test for both of them. The Ducks feature length, athleticism and shooting ability at almost every position and guys like Chris Boucher, Elgin Cook and Dillon Brooks will challenge Cal’s two stars on the defensive side of the floor.
4) Kansas at OU (Saturday) - No player has risen up draft boards more this season than OU senior Buddy Hield, the Wooden Award frontrunner who has gone from fringe first round pick to potential lottery selection. Hield’s rise began with his performance against Kansas in a 3OT classic in Lawrence earlier in the season, when he went off for 46 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists in 23 shots. One thing to watch is whether Bill Self plays Frank Mason on the OU star, as Hield had much more difficulty with Mason’s quickness and ability to get into his dribble as opposed to the bigger and slower Wayne Selden.
5) Providence at Xavier (next Wednesday) - Kris Dunn knew he would be accepting a huge challenge if he came back to Providence for his senior season, given how much of his supporting cast from last season is gone. That has become more apparent in the last few weeks, as the losses have started to pile up and Providence has slipped to the middle of the Big East. He will have to be at the peak of his game as a floor general and outside shooter, the two areas of the game that a senior PG is expected to excel at if he’s going to be taken in the lottery, if they are going to have any chance of pulling a road upset against a Top 10 team.
6) Wisconsin at Maryland (Saturday) - Maryland freshman Diamond Stone has pushed himself into lottery consideration following a scoring outburst at the start of Big 10 play that included a 39-point outing against Penn State. However, given the massive difference in physical ability they possess over their peers at the NCAA level, the only way to measure NBA-caliber big men is what they do against other NBA prospects at their position. That’s what makes the Wisconsin game so intriguing because Stone will have to go up against Nigel Hayes, a 6’8 235 ball of muscle who could represent the template for the type of skilled and athletic small-ball 5 that Stone will see a lot more at the next level.
7) Gonzaga at SMU (Saturday) - As has become the norm under Mark Few, Gonzaga has one of the best frontlines in the country, which features two NBA prospects in Kyle Wiltjer and Domatas Sabonis. Sabonis is the more highly regarded of the two and he will face an interesting challenge against SMU, which will throw three smaller and faster 6’7+ forwards at him. SMU is going to make Sabonis defend in space and finish over the top of thicker defenders who will try to push him off his spots and challenge him off the dribble, which will be a good preview for the types of opponents he will face at the next level, given how much smaller NBA teams are playing at the PF position these days.
8) Indiana at Michigan State (Sunday) - Denzel Valentine is a triple double machine who has been one of the best players in the country as a senior and he has risen from fringe second-round pick to a lock to go in the middle of the first round. The questions with Valentine mostly come on the defensive end of the floor, which makes a game against an Indiana team with one of the most potent offenses in the country an interesting challenge. Watch how Valentine does against Troy Williams, a 6’7+ super athlete, on both sides of the ball. While Williams’ lack of a jumper may keep him from playing at the next level, he’s the type of athlete that Valentine will need to be able to thrive against to succeed in the NBA.