Here's what you need to know for Saturday, Dec. 23:
1. Ohio State vs. North Carolina in New Orleans in the CBS Sports Classic. The Buckeyes have put together an undefeated December behind the play of versatile players Keita Bates-Diop, Jae’Sean Tate, point guard C.J. Jackson and the interior production of Kaleb Wesson. But the Buckeyes haven’t played a team as talented as North Carolina this month. This will be the barometer the Buckeyes need to gauge where they stand heading back into Big Ten play in a week.
The Tar Heels are coming off a stunning loss to Wofford at home. How this team reacts in the first five to 10 minutes of the game should be a strong indicator as to whether or not there is any hangover effect. This will be a challenging defensive test for UNC with Tate and Bates-Diop's ability to slash to the basket as wings and Wesson's presence in the post.
2. Kentucky vs. UCLA in New Orleans in the CBS Sports Classic. Kentucky coach John Calipari said he’s still figuring out how to play with this group. But the Wildcats are loving flying a bit under the radar. They continue to improve on the defensive end at critical moments of the game and are finding out that they have a variety of options offensively. This team lacks a proven leader, which so far hasn’t been a negative at all. The depleted Bruins could use a quality win after losing at Michigan and at home to Cincinnati. UCLA is 2-2 in the month of December. Freshman Kris Wilkes started hot by scoring in double figures in six of the first seven games. He hasn’t scored more than nine points in three of the past four.
3. Illinois vs. Missouri in St. Louis. This is the first time Brad Underwood and Cuonzo Martin will be on opposite sides for this affair. The game has real meaning for the Tigers, who have legit NCAA-bid potential and want to use any neutral site/road wins (they have two so far) to boost their resume. Illinois is in rebuilding mode and has struggled to find consistency. But a win over Mizzou would do wonders for this team’s self-esteem and confidence, especially after losing to New Mexico State last Saturday in Chicago. Leron Black came back after hyperextending his left elbow and scored 17 in the five-point loss to the Aggies.
4. Tennessee at Wake Forest: This game looks like one that could be in Dayton between two No. 11 seeds — talented enough to be much higher but their resumes may not allow a higher spot in the bracket. Wake Forest has its groove back, winning six in a row after a 1-4 start. The best news lately was Doral Moore scoring 20 points and grabbing 11 boards in a 29-point win over Army. The 7-1 junior has been foul prone and can disappear (fouling out and scoring just two points in 14 minutes in a win at Charlotte). He will need to be huge in this game against the Vols.
THEM: Hey! There's no highlights in the North Pole.— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) December 21, 2017
US: Yes, there is!
THEM: No there's not.
US: We make highlights all the time!
THEM: No, there's not.
US: Especially when we get buckets! pic.twitter.com/aIuDzQ1UUi
Tennessee almost had a win against North Carolina a week ago but the Vols couldn’t close the Tar Heels out. This is a very talented, but young Tennessee team. And as good as the Vols have looked at times, their best win came on Nov. 22 — a month ago over Purdue in the Bahamas. Winning at Georgia Tech matters, even if the Yellow Jackets may not be dancing in March. Taking down quality teams off the mainstream radar in Lipscomb and Mercer will look good, too. Winning at Wake would be a tremendous get with games looming at Arkansas and Auburn, as well as home games against Kentucky and Texas A&M over the next four weeks.
5. UConn at Auburn: Both teams are hungry for recognition. The Huskies have one win against a power team in Oregon on Nov. 23 in Portland. They have failed to capitalize on the other chances against Michigan State and Arkansas in Portland, Syracuse in New York and at Arizona Friday. No one would expect them to win all, but one in this group would have helped their cause. Not having Alterique Gilbert since Nov. 26 hasn’t aided the situation. The Huskies are averaging just 61.2 points in the four losses against MSU, Arkansas, Syracuse and Arizona. Auburn may be down in numbers, but not in effort or results. The balanced Tigers are 10-1 and they won at Dayton and Murray State. OK, so those victories may not knock you over, but they are still road wins and will count more. Beating UConn will help but the real test may come at Tennessee on Jan. 2.