Here in the final days of the calendar, college basketball still has a few moves left in 2019. Why, there might even still be time to squeeze in another No. 1 ranked team.
To preview what’s left of the year, how about a rendition of The 12 Days of Christmas? Slightly abridged.
'On the sixth day before Christmas, the schedule gives to us . . .'
North Carolina State at Auburn. The 9-0 Tigers are one of the last four unbeatens in the nation, but it’s been a narrow thing, with a one-point win over South Alabama, an overtime escape against Furman and a 67-61 grinder with Saint Louis, when both teams managed to miss 26 of 47 free throws. Now here’s a genuine threat in 8-2 North Carolina State. The Wolfpack must like their recent karma, with a 15-point mashing of Wisconsin, a victory at Wake Forest with six players scoring in double figures, and beating UNC Greensboro with a half-court heave at the buzzer. Auburn wins this one, and chances are the Tigers will still be unbeaten going into the SEC schedule in January.
'On the fifth day before Christmas, the schedule gives to us . . .'
Central Connecticut at Penn State. OK, at last check Central Connecticut was 0-10. But it’s a chance to watch 9-2 and No. 23 Penn State take the court as a ranked team, and that hasn’t happened in nearly 24 years. Lamar Stevens will be making his 116th consecutive start, and how often do you see that?
'On the fourth day before Christmas, the schedule gives to us . . .'
Kansas at Villanova. The No. 1 ranking has been passed around like mashed potatoes at the Christmas dinner table. Michigan State . . . to Kentucky . . . to Duke . . . to Louisville . . . and now to Kansas. Will there be another handoff needed after the Jayhawks visit Wells Fargo Center in south Philadelphia, where Villanova is 31-3 since the start of the 2013-14 season? Can the Wildcats defend against Kansas’ 52.9 field goal percentage, second finest in the land? Udoka Azubuike has missed 13 shots all season – and blocked 20. As this week began, his 83.1 percentage not only led the nation but was 11 points higher than second place.
Saturday also brings Ohio State-Kentucky in Las Vegas, only the third time they’ve met this century.
'On the third day before Christmas, the schedule gives to us . . .'
Duquesne vs. UAB in St. Petersburg. The 9-0 Dukes are not only one of the nation’s four unbeatens, but they’ve also had only two games settled by single digits. It’s the school’s best start in 51 years. But 6-4 UAB might rain on this parade, having played Kentucky and Texas decently well and led Memphis State by 20 points before losing by eight.
'On the second day before Christmas, the schedule gives to us . . .'
Grambling State at Dayton. The Flyers really deserve attention. Did you know that: The No. 13 ranking in the AP poll this week is their highest in 51 years? At 9-1, they’re only an overtime loss to Kansas away from being unbeaten? Obi Toppin had 112 dunks in his first 24 career starts? They lead the nation in field goal shooting and assists? Five different players have led in scoring the past six games?
Though Grambling State might not be a high profile opponent, even if the Tigers did open the season against two non-Division I schools and scored 102 and 147. There’ll still be a good crowd two days before Christmas. There always is at Dayton. The Flyers' attendance has topped 10,000 in 549 out of 552 games the past 19 seasons.
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'On Christmas Day, the schedule gives to us . . .'
The championship game of the Diamond Head Classic. Probably be Washington or UTEP on one side of the bracket, Houston or Boise State or Georgia Tech on the other. But here’s the real appeal: While shivering on a cold Christmas night, turn on the TV and see shots of Diamond Head from Hawaii.
'On the second day after Christmas, the schedule gives to us . . .'
UMass Lowell at Loyola (Md.). In the second game of the season, UMass’ economics grad student Christian Lutete scored 51 points against Long Island, hitting 16 of 25 shots. He hasn’t taken more than 17 shots in any of the 10 games since, and his scoring average has settled in at just above 19 for the 6-6 River Hawks, or 50th highest in the country. But only three Division I players have broken 50 this season and he’s one of them.
'On the third day after Christmas, the schedule gives to us . . .'
Louisville at Kentucky. It’s common knowledge in both places that Kentucky has won six of the past seven and 10 of 12. On the great rivalry domination scale, that’s not quite what Ohio State has done to Michigan in football, but it’s close. And it won’t be easy to change this season, since the Cardinals haven’t won in Lexington in 11 years. Their last trip to Rupp Arena, the score was 90-61. For extra buzz around this year’s matchup, both teams have already been ranked No. 1.
'On the fourth day after Christmas, the schedule gives to us . . .'
Ohio State vs. West Virginia in Cleveland. West Virginia went 15-21 last season, and ended that painful campaign by giving up 109 points to Coastal Carolina. That was never going to sit well with Bob Huggins. A fix here, an alternation there, and these Mountaineers are 9-1, the only loss by two points in the final seconds to St. John’s. Ohio State is 10-1. Since the Buckeyes are sixth in the nation in field goal defense and the Mountaineers are 11th, open shots might be rather rare.
'On the fifth day and sixth days after Christmas, the schedule gives to us . . .'
The Big East blastoff. The league has shown considerable promise with an 83-25 non-conference record, and a lot of questions start to get answered Dec. 30 and 31 when Big East games begin.
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DePaul, for example. Are the 10-1 Blue Demons serious about making trouble in the league, never mind they were picked to finish last? If they start league play with a win at home against Seton Hall, that’ll look serious enough. The Pirates were considered a Big East favorite, but that was before the injury list started growing, including All-American Myles Powell. Now what?
Or Xavier. Are the 9-2 Musketeers a genuine contender after struggling in 2018-19? The road to the Big East title tends to go through Villanova, and that’s where they’ll be on Dec. 30, with the chance to make a huge statement. Or not.
Butler was picked to finish eighth in the Big East, St. John’s ninth. But at last count, they were a combined 19-3. They meet New Year’s Eve in New York at 7:30 p.m. — the last college basketball game in the nation in 2019. Then we’ll start finding out what has been real the first two months and what has been a mirage, and not only in the Big East. The 12 Days of Christmas are really a door to 2020 and the next phase of the college basketball season. League play is here.