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Brian Mull | | January 1, 2016

College basketball: Five conference tilts highlight a loaded weekend

  Buddy Hield has led the No. 3 Sooners to an 11-0 mark.

Conference season has arrived, hoops lovers. There are 129 matchups pitting Division I teams on Saturday alone, and the vast majority are league affairs. Friday and Sunday have plenty to offer as well.

Here's the five best games to watch:


No. 9 Butler (11-2, 0-1) at No. 6 Xavier (12-1, 0-1), 1 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)

Previously unbeaten Xavier suffered a 31-point loss to hot-shooting Villanova on New Year’s Eve in a game where guard Edmond Sumner took a nasty fall and was removed on a stretcher. Sumner is going to be fine long-term, per coach Chris Mack. The incident clearly affected the Musketeers, whose offense and defense are both rated in the top 21 in adjusted efficiency. If Sumner can’t play, Xavier will miss his scoring and playmaking. Butler has an elite offense (ninth in adjusted efficiency) and average defense (140th). The Bulldogs hope senior forward Kellen Dunham snaps out of his 3-point shooting slump (2 for 32 in last five games) as they aim to rebound from an eight-point loss to Providence.

Notre Dame (9-3) at No. 5 Virginia (11-1), 5 p.m. (ESPNU)

Give credit to Virginia coach Tony Bennett for testing his team in the nonconference portion of the schedule. The Cavaliers played the stiffest slate of any ACC favorite:

Team Non-conference strength of schedule, per
Virginia 80
North Carolina 128
Duke 172
Miami 189
Louisville 305

The Cavaliers have already faced a half-dozen teams in the Pomeroy top 75 and have top-10 wins over West Virginia (9) and Villanova (3). Of course, a coach can feel confident assembling such a rigorous schedule when he has seniors like forward Anthony Gill (130.3 offensive rating) and guard Malcolm Brogdon (120.6). Notre Dame also has an elite offense (sixth in adjusted efficiency) fueled by an all-ACC caliber point guard in Demetrius Jackson (57 percent on 2-pointers) and four regulars who shoot 37 percent or better behind-the-arc.

Iowa (10-3, 1-0) at No. 14 Purdue (13-1, 1-0), 6 p.m. (BTN)

Speaking of treacherous nonconference journeys, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery wasn’t afraid to challenge his squad in November and December. The Hawkeyes played six games against top-50 opponents and went 3-3 (their losses were by a combined 12 points). Oh, and in the Big Ten opener they handed No. 1 Michigan State its first loss. The Hawkeyes shoot well (54.5 effective field goal percentage), limit turnovers (10 per game) and defend (0.95 points per possession allowed). That’s a dependable formula for long-term success. Purdue is the nation’s best defensive team, allowing a measly 0.83 points per possession (58.3 pts. per game). The Boilermakers haven’t allowed more than 1.03 ppp to any opponent this season, using their enormous height to shut down scoring around the rim (37.0 pct on 2-pointers).

No. 11 Iowa State (11-1) at No. 3 Oklahoma (11-0), 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

What’s not to like about this tasty matchup? It features two of the best players in the nation: Iowa State’s Georges Niang (18.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield (24.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg). Each team has a top-20 offense, although they take different routes to producing their points. Iowa State dominates near the basket, converting 59.7 percent of its 2-pointers, which is third in the nation. Oklahoma has made 46.2 percent of its 3-pointers (2nd in the nation), an astronomical figure that’s certain to regress in conference play. Only eight teams have shot 43 percent or better for the season against Division I competition since 2001-02, per the database. The Sooners have been significantly better than Iowa State on the defensive end this season, holding teams to a 40.2 percent on 2-pointers and 28.1 percent on 3-pointers.


No. 8 Arizona (12-1) at Arizona State (10-3), 2 p.m. (ESPNU)

The Bobby Hurley Era at Arizona State started with a bust: a three-point home loss to Sacramento State. Since that miscue, however, the Sun Devils have been a pleasant surprise. They have four top-80 victories. Losses at Kentucky and against Marquette on a neutral floor are acceptable. Tra Holder paces a balanced attack (14.2 ppg) and folks in Tempe are eyeing just the fourth NCAA tournament trip since 1994-95. Knocking off their arch rival won’t be easy, though. Arizona is second in the nation in defensive rebounding and top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Wildcats have won 106 games since the start of the 2012-13 season and aren't slowing down now - forward Ryan Anderson, a transfer from Boston College is averaging a double double (15.5 ppg, 10.3 rpg).

Sit back and enjoy those five games as you ponder your resolutions and the emergence of Khallid Hart of Marist.

The 6-2 guard is 13th in the nation in scoring, averaging 22.3 points per game. He has two 30-point games in his last four outings, including a career-high 37 points in a 84-83 double overtime win over Brown on Dec. 22nd. Turnover prone earlier this season, Hart has committed only eight in his last 195 minutes on the court. He’s shot 47 percent or better from the field in the last 10 games and has a 117.7 offensive rating while attempting 28 percent of the shots for the Red Foxes, who have defended poorly (allowed 1.10 points per possession). Marist is 4-7 overall and 1-1 in the MAAC entering a 2 p.m. game Saturday against Canisius.

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