The combination of finals and the upcoming holiday leaves us with the slowest week of the college hoops season this week. But all is not lost, as there are still a handful of important, intriguing matchups to take in before our focus shifts to the NFL playoff push. Let’s jump right in with this weeks Game of the Week.
Texas vs. Alabama - Friday, December 22, 9 EST/6 PST (ESPN2)
Despite neither team being ranked in the current top 25, there are plenty of reasons to tune in, even for the “NBA only” basketball crowd. Alabama guard Collin Sexton and Texas big man Mo Bamba will both be plying their trade in the NBA next season, so this game provides two-for-one value on tracking the next group of pro talent.
More importantly, at least in the college landscape, is each team’s current standing, their respective schedules so far, and what stands ahead.
Alabama sits at 8-3, but its most impressive showing of the season so far came in the bizarre loss to Minnesota, in which Alabama was forced to play three-on-five for the last 10 minutes of the game, and actually outscored the Gophers over that span. You don’t want to go into Selection Sunday trying to sell a loss as your best achievement, regardless of how rare or impressive it was.
In addition to the loss to Minnesota, ‘Bama fell short against Arizona in its other opportunity to make a statement. Alabama’s best win to date is over Rhode Island, and while a Texas win might not be super sexy, it is the kind that can go a long way come tourney time. No. 8 Texas A&M awaits the Crimson Tide in the SEC opener, and entering that game coming off a win over Texas would put ‘Bama in a much more comfortable position.
Texas also enters this game at 8-3, coming off a shaky one-point win over Tennessee State. The Longhorns have two respectable losses to Duke and Gonzaga, but respectable losses are still losses. Their best win so far is over Butler. Like Alabama, Texas has a big conference opener, with No. 14 Kansas awaiting to kick off Big 12 play. A win over ‘Bama would provide a big boost heading into conference play, as well as a win they can point to in March.
The two teams are pretty evenly matched, as evidenced by the KenPom rankings. Alabama is currently No. 39 in that metric, while Texas checks in at No. 40. There is one glaring advantage in this matchup, and that goes to Texas’ defense. The Longhorns are conceding just 61.4 points per game, anchored by the aforementioned Bamba.
Bamba is averaging a ridiculous 4.1 blocks per game, singlehandedly altering opponents’ plans of attack. Bamba adds 10.3 points and 9.7 rebounds.
Yet Bamba isn't the only standout on the Texas roster. "Five-star freshman Mohamed Bamba has anchored the paint with 5.8 blocks per 40 minutes, but it's Kerwin Roach Jr. who may actually be the Longhorns' best defender thus far," Cody Daniel, co-editor for Burnt Orange Nation told TSFJ. Daniel also notes that as impressive as the defense has been, the offense has struggled mightily. "In general, the team boasts positionless, high-level athletes and that's made life easy on the defensive end, but of course, scoring has been an issue, especially since leading scorer Andrew Jones fractured his wrist."
Jones suffered a wrist fracture against VCU on December 5th. Dylan Osetkowski, Roach and Bamba are scoring in double-figures, and that trio, along with Matt Coleman, will be relied upon to pick up the slack until Jones can return. For the season, Texas is shooting just 28% from beyond the arc and 61% from the free-throw line.
For Alabama, everything revolves around Sexton. The star freshman is averaging 21.8 points along with 3.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists, while shooting 47% from three. Sexton poured in 40 points in that bizarre game with Minnesota, and dropped 30 on Arizona.
Sexton has gotten help from his backcourt mate, John Petty, a highly-touted freshman in his own right. Petty chips in 12.3 points.
This game provides a great opportunity to get a look at a couple of future pros, while pitting two teams who are in desperate need of finishing off the non-conference schedule on a positive note. It may lack the sizzle of a meeting of ranked opponents, but it brings just as much substance and intrigue.
This Week’s Other Games Of Note
Friday, December 22
No. 9 Xavier at Northern Iowa, 9 EST/6 PST (CBSSN)
A potential trap game for Xavier as it closes out its non-conference schedule. UNI is battle tested, having already played UNC and Villanova this season. They won’t be intimidated by the number next to Xavier’s name. This game serves as a fascinating contrast in styles, as Xavier plays at a faster-than-average pace en route to 88.4 points per game. Meanwhile, Northern Iowa plays at a prodding pace, third-slowest in the nation according to KenPom. The Panthers use the slow pace and a defensive focus to hold opponents to just 59 points per game.
Northwestern at No. 17 Oklahoma, 7 EST/4 PST (ESPN2)
If you’ve been keeping up with TSFJ’s college hoops coverage this season, you know that we’re enamored with Oklahoma, and in particular freshman stud Trae Young. Consecutive victories over No. 25 USC and No. 3 Wichita State have catapulted the Sooners into the top 25. As for Young, he’s scored 20+ points (43 against Oregon, 33 against Portland) in every game except for his collegiate debut, in which he still managed a double-double.
Speaking of double-doubles, Young has five in his first 10 college games. On Tuesday night against Northwestern State, he had 26 points while tying an NCAA record with 22 assists. You should be watching Oklahoma play every chance you get, regardless of who they are playing.
Northwestern is coming off its first NCAA Tournament berth in school history, and entered the season with high hopes. However, they’ve faltered in every significant test so far this season. A win over Oklahoma would go a long way towards setting the tone for the rest of the season.
Saturday, December 23
Ohio State vs. No. 5 North Carolina, 1:30 EST/10:30 AM PST (CBS)
With the Big Ten struggling and the Buckeyes only getting one shot at true conference heavyweights Michigan State and Purdue, they are in desperate need of a signature win to bolster their hopes of an at-large NCAA berth. Meanwhile, UNC seems to have gotten the wake-up call from their terrible showing against Michigan State, and looks capable of defending its national championship.
No. 7 Kentucky vs. UCLA, 4 EST/1 PST (CBS)
Most years, this would easily be tabbed the game of the week. But UCLA this year is not Lonzo Ball’s UCLA. The Bruins have yet to secure a win of consequence. Saturday provides one last chance before Pac-12 play. The young Wildcats have been hitting their stride, coming off a solid win over Virginia Tech. They are also a fun team to watch. You can bet they don’t want to be the ones to give UCLA its signature win.
While this week’s college hoops schedule doesn’t have a lot of the fireworks we have come to expect throughout the young season, there’s still a lot worth watching this week, from both a team and an individual standpoint. Next week the drama will continue to build as conference play gets underway, so be sure to check back so you don’t miss a thing.
Josh Naso aka The Silver Fox has a love for all things sports that borders on disorder. Here, he aims to share his thoughts on and passion for those sports with you.