College basketball holiday guide: Ring in the new year with hoops
2016 has been a banner year for college basketball.
Buddy Hield scorched the nets all the way to the Final Four several months ago. Middle Tennessee State pulled off an epic upset of No. 2 Michigan State in the NCAA tournament. Villanova literally hung a banner. Kris Jenkins hit one of the greatest shots in the history of the sport to clinch the title. This season is the year of bluebloods. UCLA has a transcendent star in Lonzo Ball, we might be watching the best Duke team ever, and Malik Monk messes around and drops 47 on North Carolina.
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Note: All times are Eastern
Saturday, Dec. 31: Xavier at Georgetown (11:00 a.m.)
Georgetown has struggled this season, but Xavier is still finding its footing, too, and winning any college basketball game on the road is a chore. If the Musketeers can lose at Colorado, the Hoyas certainly have a shot to knock them off in this New Year’s Eve clash.
This game features plenty of star power. Trevon Bluiett, J.P. Macura and Edmond Sumner form an excellent Big Three for Xavier, but somebody else is going to need to step up for Chris Mack’s crew. For the Hoyas, transfer swingman Rodney Pryor might be the biggest breakout player in the Big East that nobody is talking about. If he continues to hover around 20 points per game, Pryor could earn All-Big East honors. The sweet-shooting lefty is draining more than half of his field goal attempts, and he’s poised for a big day against a burgeoning rival in Xavier.
Saturday, Dec. 31: Duke at Virginia Tech (Noon)
You’ll get plenty of chances to see Duke in ACC play, but why not start early? This team has something for everyone, so let's rattle them off: A Naismith Award candidate in Luke Kennard. A preseason Naismith Award candidate in Grayson Allen. For the old-school folks out there, a fifth-year destroyer of interior foes in Amile Jefferson. A new-school big man that loves to dunk and shoot 3’s in Harry Giles. And when Jayson Tatum is mentioned after four other players, you know you’re dealing with a special team.
Plus... like, it's Duke. Love them or hate them, you probably have an opinion.
With all of that said, beating Virginia Tech on the road will be no easy task. Buzz Williams has the Hokies playing excellent basketball; they get overshadowed in the loaded ACC, but this is probably a tournament team. Duke is supremely talented, but they haven’t had much time to mesh due to injuries. Blacksburg will be rocking on New Year’s Eve.
Saturday, Dec. 31: Louisville vs. Indiana (12:30 p.m.)
This is appointment television. Louisville and Indiana are two blueblood programs that play two completely different styles.
Defense is the name of the game for the Cardinals. Louisville stifles opponents as well as anyone in the country; Donovan Mitchell is an awesome two-way player, and it feels like Rick Pitino has an endless supply of rim-protectors on his bench. The Cardinals grind teams out and can hit them with vicious man-to-man defense or a tricky matchup zone.
Indiana, meanwhile, is inconsistent defensively. But the Hoosiers love to rain 3’s. IU has five capable outside shooters in its starting lineup, including Thomas Bryant, who doubles as a rim-rocking center. Indiana can beat anyone (see: Kansas, North Carolina) but it can also lose to anyone (Fort Wayne). On a neutral floor, this will be a heck of a bout.
Saturday, Dec. 31: Villanova at Creighton (1:00 p.m.)
This could be the matchup of the year in the Big East. Villanova is virtually unbeatable in Philadelphia, but Omaha, Philadelphia is not. Creighton has reinvented itself this year and features a high-octane backcourt of Mo Watson and Marcus Foster.
The Bluejays are near the top of the nation in offensive efficiency; previously mentioned Indiana is known for its 3-point shooting, but Creighton might be even better from distance. The Bluejays’ top-three scorers all could finish the season with 3-point percentages north of 40 percent; Watson and Khyri Thomas are nearly locks to do so. A raucous crowd plus a bevy of long-range snipers is a recipe for an upset.
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With that said, Villanova is still the champion. The Wildcats have one of the most impressive road wins to date in 2016-17, as they knocked off Purdue at Mackey Arena in November. The Boilermakers were a bad matchup for the Wildcats, too; Purdue plays bully-ball on the inside, while Villanova has one true big man in its rotation.
Creighton and Villanova play similar styles. The Wildcats are more polished and experienced, but playing on the road, this tilt could swing either way.
Saturday, Dec. 31: Notre Dame at Pittsburgh (2:00 p.m.)
Pittsburgh is now what it’s been over the past few seasons: solid, but not flashy. Michael Young and Jamel Artis lead the way for the Panthers; both could finish the season averaging more than 20 points per game, though Pitt could use more from its other starters and bench. The Panthers want to drive to the rim as much as possible and force contact.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, recently suffered two tough-luck losses to Villanova and Purdue. The Fighting Irish are able to play with anyone; Matt Farrell is the next great point guard in South Bend, and he’s surrounded with shooters and playmakers.
But Mike Brey’s squad faltered after jumping out to first half leads in both of those games. Notre Dame’s strategy will be to trade 3’s for 2’s against Pittsburgh; the Irish don’t need to be great defensively to prevail, but they have to be decent. A win here would look very nice on their resume.
Saturday, Dec. 31: Florida State at Virginia (2:00 p.m.)
This could finally be Florida State’s season. The Seminoles always seem to amass an impressive collection of talent, but the sum is usually less than the individual parts. So far, that hasn’t been the case. Jonathan Isaac and Dwayne Bacon are stars, and Florida State flanks them with some nice complementary parts.
That’s all great, but winning at Virginia with a young roster is going to be extremely difficult. The Hoos don’t have the names they had last season, but their defense is still phenomenal; Virginia ranks near the top of the country in defensive efficiency.
The Cavaliers rank last in the country in adjusted pace. Florida State, meanwhile, plays pretty quickly. The Seminoles need to speed this game up if they want to have a shot; they’re probably the more talented squad. But forcing Virginia to play fast at home is akin to plopping a steak dinner in front of a vegetarian. Good luck getting them to bite.