Major non-conference tournaments begin next Monday with the Maui Invitational. But there are still some critical games over the next few days where teams will look back at the results come March.
Here are my top five games to watch this weekend (Thursday-Sunday):
1. Syracuse vs. UConn, Thursday, 2K Classic, MSG, NYC, 7 p.m., ESPN2: This could end up being a season-changing game for the Huskies. Dan Hurley doesn’t need to convince the UConn faithful that he’s the right person for the job. But getting a win over a longtime rival would do wonders to help with a number of impressions.
The Huskies may not be ready for primetime yet, but they have already created a bit of a buzz early in the season. Syracuse isn’t 100 percent healthy yet on the perimeter, and that’s where the Huskies have shown strength. The atmosphere should be great at the Garden, as it always is when these two teams meet. Syracuse is a national title contender once it gets healthy. The unheralded Oshae Brissett is off to a sensational start, averaging 18 points and 10 boards a game.
2. Oregon vs. Iowa, Thursday, 2K Classic, MSG, NYC, 9:15 p.m., ESPN2: The nation will get a chance to see Bol Bol on full display Thursday night. Bol is off to a stunning start with 17.5 points and 12 boards a game. But don’t dismiss the star power of Payton Pritchard. He’s a steady scorer, who can run a stable floor game. The Hawkeyes have the goods to be an NCAA tournament team. But they must defend. Giving up 82 points to Green Bay isn’t going to cut it. They’ve got to cut that number down. The good news is this team can score as Luka Garza and Tyler Cook both put up 17 in a win over the Phoenix. Iowa needs to come out of this tournament at least 1-1 to create some momentum.
3. Davidson vs. Wichita State, Thursday, Charleston Classic, S.C., 7 p.m., ESPN3: This is the best game of the first round of the Charleston Classic. The winner will likely get Purdue in the second round while Virginia Tech, Alabama or even Northeastern would all be a quality game on day three for the winner of this first game. Wichita State had a bounce-back win over Providence in Annapolis after losing to Louisiana Tech in the opener. Markis McDuffie is a star, scoring 32 against the Friars. But Davidson is my pick to win the A-10. The Wildcats have the best player in the league in Kellan Grady, who's posting 23.5 points a game while Jon Axel Gudmundsson averages 20. The problem in the last outing was the Wildcats couldn't shake the competition, beating Dartmouth by only three.
4. Ohio State at Creighton, Gavitt Games, Thursday, 7 p.m., FS1: I did not have this game on my radar two weeks ago as both teams looked to be in rebuilding mode. But then the Buckeyes upset Cincinnati 64-56 in the opener on the road and then put up 107 points in the second game against Fort Wayne. C.J. Jackson scored 25 in the win over Fort Wayne and had a key late bucket to extend the lead against the Bearcats. Pulling off another road win would do wonders for the Buckeyes' profile.
The Bluejays are off to a 2-0 start and Ty-Shon Alexander put up 20 in the team's win over ETSU. He averaged only 5.5 a game last season. The Bluejays needed new scorers, and the sophomore guard could be the answer. This will be another high-level atmosphere for the Buckeyes to play in within the first 10 days of the season. Not many teams are doing that at all.
5. South Carolina vs. Providence, Naismith Hall of Fame Tip-Off, Mohegan Sun, Uncasville, CT, Saturday, 2:30 p.m., ESPN3: Both teams desperately need this game. The winner will likely get a matchup with Michigan on Sunday (the Wolverines play George Washington in the first game Saturday). The Gamecocks were stunned at home by Stony Brook and have wins over South Carolina Upstate and Norfolk State. The Gamecocks play at Michigan on Dec. 8, so playing the Wolverines on a neutral court first would give them more of a shot.
South Carolina's Chris Silva, an SEC player of the year candidate, is off to a slow start at 9.3 points a game (down from 14.3 last season). He’s due to bust out. The Friars couldn’t hold back Wichita State last week in Annapolis but did beat Siena and pesky Holy Cross. AJ Reeves scored 29 and made seven 3s against Siena, and Alpha Diallo put up 18 against the Crusaders. But PC's defense needs to tighten up, especially after giving up 80 to Wichita State (and 32 to McDuffie).