December Highlights

Let’s take a look at some of the teams that dominated the storylines in college basketball in the month of December.

Studs: Duke, Tennessee, Nevada, Florida State

Duke Blue Devils

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SB Nation

The Duke Blue Devils are 11-1 and haven’t lost since they were defeated by Gonzaga in the finals of the Maui Invitational on Thanksgiving Eve. Since then, Duke has taken down the likes of Indiana and #12 Texas Tech. Zion Williamson has emerged as the star of the team, even though it has three other top-tier freshman in RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Tre Jones. Williamson has been an absolute beast and has catapulted the Blue Devils back to the top of the polls. He presents a matchup nightmare for almost every team in the country and has been a monster in all phases of the game. Yes, his dunks are highlight worthy on a nightly basis, but the play of the year thus far may have been that he jumped so high to block a shot against Princeton that he hit his head on the backboard. Williamson is averaging 19.8 points, on 65.2-percent from the field, and 9.4 rebounds per game. His efficiency and athletic prowess have NBA scouts drooling. Halfway through the season, Zion is atop the draft board and most teams tanking want to have a shot at him.

Tennessee Volunteers

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Chicago Tribune

The Tennessee Volunteers are a complete college basketball team and are early season favorites to earn back-to-back regular season SEC titles. Tennessee is experienced and tough at every position. Rick Barnes has a pair of frontcourt bruisers in Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams who are dominating forces that can beat you in the post or from deep. Since their lone loss that came in overtime to then #2 Kansas in the NIT Season Tip-Off, in which Williams fouled out, Tennessee has won six consecutive games, including victories over Gonzaga, Memphis, and Wake Forest. The Volunteers have climbed to #3 in the country. After defeating then #1 Gonzaga, a game in which Schofield tallied 30 points and corralled six rebounds, the senior said that his main reason for coming back to school was to become one of Barnes’ favorite players that he ever coached. That’s what college basketball is about. Schofield is averaging 18.4 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Although Williams, the reigning SEC Player of the Year that is averaging team-highs of 16.6 points and 8.5 boards, may get all the postseason honors, Schofield is the heart of this team that has its eyes set on something bigger than just a conference title.

Nevada Wolfpack

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Mid-Major Madness

With only one game, at Utah, left on their non-conference schedule, the Nevada Wolfpack are 12-0 and could be flirting with entering the NCAA Tournament as a one-seed with an undefeated record. Road conference games are always tough in any league, but this could be a bad year for the Mountain West which makes the prospect of an unblemished record for Nevada more reasonable. The Wolfpack have risen to #6 in the nation with wins over BYU, Tulsa, UMass, Loyola-Chicago, USC, then #20 Arizona State, Grand Canyon, and South Dakota State. Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline are leading the team in scoring with 18.8 points per contest apiece. Martin and Caroline also average 5.6 and 9.6 rebounds per game, respectively. Caleb’s twin brother Cody facilitates the offense and has an assist to turnover rate of 3.2:1. Last year, Eric Musselman’s team played Cinderella. This season, Nevada has a target on their back and are poised to make a run even further than they did a year ago.

Florida State Seminoles

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Tomahawk Nation

After a surprise run to the Elite Eight, the Florida State Seminoles carried that momentum into the 2018-19 season and are off to an 11-1 start, with their lone loss coming against Villanova in the championship game of the Advocare Invitational in November. Florida State has wins over Florida, Tulane, UAB, then #19 LSU, then #19 Purdue, UConn, and St. Louis. With their leading returning scorer, Phil Cofer, missing the first nine games of the season, the Seminoles haven’t skipped a beat and sit at #9 in the AP Poll. Terance Mann leads the Seminoles in scoring and rebounding with 12.3 points and 6.8 boards per contest. Florida State may not be getting the attention it deserves with Duke, Virginia, and North Carolina looming at the top of the ACC, but don’t be surprised to see the Seminoles near the top of the conference standings when all is said and done.

Surprises: Texas Tech and Ohio State

These four teams were all expected to be good, but two surprise teams thus far are Texas Tech and Ohio State. The Red Raiders and the Buckeyes were surprise teams a year ago and Chris Beard and Chris Holtmann have their teams shocking the college basketball world yet again in 2018-19.

Texas Tech Red Raiders

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SportsRadio 1340 The Fan

After making it to the Elite eight a season ago, Texas Tech lost their leading scorer Keenan Evans to graduation and second leading scorer, freshman, Zhaire Smith to the NBA Draft. Their top returning scorer, Jarrett Culver, is the key reason why the Red Raiders are #11 in the country. Culver is averaging 19.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, and 4.5 assists. Texas Tech has wins over USC, Nebraska, and Memphis and barely lost to Duke at Madison Square Garden a week ago. The Red Raiders have hopes of ending Kansas’ streak of 14 consecutive Big Twelve regular season titles.

Ohio State Buckeyes

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Eleven Warriors

Ohio State lost do-everything big man Keita Bates-Diop to the NBA Draft and was picked to finish near the bottom of the Big Ten entering this season. The Buckeyes are now 11-1 and have wins over Cincinnati, Creighton, Minnesota, Illinois, and UCLA—with their lone loss coming to Syracuse in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge in November. Kaleb Wesson is averaging 16.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game to lead Ohio State.

If one thing is for certain it’s that Texas Tech and Ohio State were underrated two years in a row and that Beard and Holtmann are two budding stars in the college basketball coaching circle.

A November to Remember

The college basketball season is off and running. What have we learned so far?

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Moscow-Pullman Daily News

As the calendar turns to December, teams are entering the second month of their seasons looking to take advantage of their last few opportunities to grab wins in the nonconference portion of the schedule before 2019 and conference play commences.

The month of November was a wild one from the tip. From Duke blowing out Kentucky on opening night through Feast Week, we’ve seen some marquee matchups, upsets, surprises, and teams that look like they have a legitimate chance of cutting down the nets in Minneapolis in early April.

The four most impressive teams thus far are Gonzaga, Kansas, Virginia, and Michigan.

Gonzaga Bulldogs

Although Duke came roaring out of the gate, the young Blue Devils got punched in the mouth in the championship game of the Maui Invitational by the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Gonzaga held on to beat Duke 89-87 in college basketball’s most intriguing matchup thus far this season. The Bulldogs ran through the Maui Invitational without forward Killian Tillie, who is out for the foreseeable future with an ankle injury. Mark Few’s team is deep and talented—led by junior Rui Hachimura, who has been a beast. The Japan native has NBA scouts drooling and is averaging 21.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. Even without Tillie, Gonzaga is still incredibly deep and talented. Zach Norvell Jr., Brandon Clarke, and Josh Perkins are all averaging double figures. The top ranked Zags still have nonconference games against Creighton, Washington, Tennessee, and North Carolina, but if they can make it through those contests unscathed, they may just be dancing with an unblemished mark in March.

Kansas Jayhawks

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The Edwardsville Intelligencer

The Kansas Jayhawks entered most preseason polls as the number team in the country, but for some reason are now ranked second even though they have yet to lose a game. Duke leapfrogged Kansas after their throttling of Kentucky on opening night in Indianapolis and Gonzaga did the same after beating Duke in Maui. Kansas looks every bit as good as they were expected to be in the preseason. The Jayhawks defeated fifth ranked Tennessee in the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament championship game in Brooklyn, 87-81 in overtime. After almost not being welcomed back to the roster by Bill Self, Lagerald Vick has played with a chip on his shoulder to begin the season. The senior guard is leading the team in scoring with 19.6 points per game behind 58.3-percent shooting from three point land. Memphis-transfer Dedric Lawson is averaging a double-double, while Udoka Azubuike and Devon Dotson are also averaging double figures in scoring. Prior to entering Big Twelve play in search of their fifteenth consecutive regular season conference title, Kansas has matchups with Stanford, Villanova, and Arizona State. At this rate, it would be pretty shocking if anyone were to derail the Jayhawks hopes of another league title.

Virginia Cavaliers

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SB Nation

After being the first one seed to lose to a sixteen seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Virginia Cavaliers have bounced back with a vengeance to start their 2018-19 campaign. Just as it has been over the course of Tony Bennett’s tenure in Charlottesville, defense has been the key to Virginia’s early success. The fourth ranked Cavaliers are second in defensive efficiency and have held opponents to a mere 52.4 points per game. The main reason why the Hoos were bounced by UMBC in the first round of the “Big Dance” a year ago was that they were without their best player De’Andre Hunter in that game. Hunter is back and is leading the team in points (16.6) and rebounds (6.1) per game. Freshman point guard Kehei Clark has nearly a 3:1 assist to turnover ratio, which has allowed sharp shooters, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, to get open looks off the ball. The Cavaliers defeated Wisconsin 53-46 in the championship game of the Battle 4 Atlantis and traveled to College Park to defeat Maryland 76-71 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Virginia has a date at South Carolina on December 19, and it is very likely that they will enter ACC play undefeated. With Hunter being more of a focal point on this year’s team, this may be the year that Bennett finally makes it to the Final Four.

Michigan Wolverines

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Deadspin

The reigning National Runners-Up from Michigan are back and look like one of the most impressive teams in the country. John Beilein’s team has climbed to number seven in the polls behind a tremendous defensive effort. The Wolverines are the top team in defensive efficiency and are hold opponents to just 51 points per contest. Michigan is led by freshman forward Iggy Brazdeikis who is averaging 16.9 points, on 54.9-percent shooting and 38.9-percent from three, and 5.7 rebounds per game. Charles Matthews and Jordan “Swaggy” Poole have chipped in and are averaging 15.4 and 10.1 points per game, respectively. The Wolverines have absolutely dominated their competition, winning by an average margin of 21.7 points on their way to a 7-0 start. Michigan avenged their loss in last year’s National Championship game with a 73-46 whooping of defending National Champion and then number eight Villanova. The Wolverines knocked off Providence, 66-47, in the championship game of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. Most recently, Michigan pummeled number eleven North Carolina, 84-67, in front of a raucous home crowd in Ann Arbor in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Wolverines begin Big Ten play this weekend when they battle with number 19 Purdue on Saturday. As it looks right now, Michigan is good enough to be right back where they were last March, with hopes of getting one more win in 2019.

Bracket Busters: Buffalo and Furman

It’s never too early to pay attention to the teams from the one-bid leagues that are making noise in the nonconference portion of the schedule because that could be the difference between winning and losing your office March Madness pool. Two teams to keep an eye on this year are Buffalo and Furman.

Buffalo Bulls

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The Buffalo News

The Buffalo Bulls are no stranger to being “Bracket Busters,” as last year they eliminated number overall pick Deandre Ayton and the Arizona Wildcats in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Buffalo is off to a 6-0 start this season and have climbed to number 21 in the polls, largely in part to their 99-94 overtime win over then number thirteen West Virginia in Morgantown. Senior guard CJ Massinburg is averaging 20.5 points per game, on 51.9-percent from the field and 51.5-percent from deep, and 7.8 rebounds per game. Massinburg, along with Jayvon Graves, Nick Perkins, and Jeremy Harris, will look to have the Bulls dancing into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament this year.

Furman Paladins

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Zagsblog

Can you name a school that has beaten half of last year’s Final Four on the road this season? Probably not. The correct answer to that question would be the Furman Paladins. Furman blessed the “Fighting Sister Jeans” with a 60-58 win in Chicago and followed that up with a 76-68 upset of then number eight Villanova. The Paladins of the SoCon are 7-0 and will look to pull off another upset on the road when they take on LSU in Baton Rouge on December 21. Jordan Lyons, Matt Rafferty, and Clay Mounce hope to lead Furman to the “Big Dance” for the first time since 1980.

Keep your eyes glued to the tube as we propel our way through the remainder of the nonconference slate and into conference play in December.

Holiday Tournaments Preview

Family? Food? Football? What is your favorite part of the week of Thanksgiving? For me, it’s the holiday college basketball tournaments that give us the chance to see marquee match-ups in late November. I would like to think that every family has one person that fights animal cruelty to watch college basketball over The National Dog show, but as I’ve grown to understand, not everyone shares the depth of caring about animal rights as I do. Moral of the story: watch college basketball instead of the National Dog Show after the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Why? Because there’s no greater gift to be thankful for than having a belly full of turkey and a television schedule full of college basketball (and solidarity with the dogs).

Let’s take a look at three of the most compelling holiday tournaments for 2017.

Maui Jim Maui Invitational: November 20-22

Maui

The Maui Jim Maui Invitational is intriguing to me because, based on my predictions for the road to the Final Four, the draw is set up to showcase a battle between Wichita State and Notre Dame in the championship game. The matchup would feature two teams that are experienced and ready to play a big time game in November. Wichita State, led by sophomore point guard Landry Shamet, also features four seniors who are averaging double figures. The Fighting Irish showcase Preseason All-American Bonzie Colson who is averaging a double-double and point guard Matt Farrell is one of the best in the nation. My pick to win the Maui Jim Maui Invitational is the Wichita State Shockers in a track meet.

The Battle 4 Atlantis: November 22-24

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The Battle 4 Atlantis is one of my favorite events in college basketball. This year the field features a possible #5 Villanova vs. #3 Arizona contest in the championship game. After both schools had early exits in last year’s NCAA Tournament, they are both back with a vengeance. Villanova is a deep team with six players averaging double figures led by a back court of Donte DiVincenzo and Jalen Brunson. Arizona is led by Allonzo Trier who is averaging 30 points per game and Deandre Ayton, one of the top freshmen in the country. My pick for the winner of the Battle 4 Atlantis is easy. The Wildcats will take home the trophy.

Phil Knight Invitational: November 23-24, 26

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Motion

The Phil Knight Invitational (PK80) is in honor Nike’s founder and CEO’s 80th birthday in February. The invitational features two, eight-team brackets, the Victory Bracket and Motion Bracket. The Victory Bracket sets up a possible championship game between North Carolina and Michigan State. The Tar Heels, led by Luke Maye, Theo Pinson, and Joel Berry II, have veteran leadership and a balanced offensive attack that can lead them through the field to the championship game. Tom Izzo will have his team ready to bounce back from a tough loss to Duke in the Champions Classic. My pick is for Michigan State to win the Victory Bracket in a hard fought high scoring affair.

The Motion Bracket features what could be a preview of an Elite Eight matchup if my seed projections for the NCAA Tournament turn out to be correct: Duke vs. Florida. Duke looks to be the best team in the country so far. With Marvin Bagley III back from the eye injury he suffered against Michigan State in the Champions Classic, Duke will look to dominate in the PK80. Grayson Allen is playing the best basketball of his career with Trevon Duval beside him in the back court. The Florida Gators, led by sharp-shooting Rice transfer Egor Koulechov, will be a tough out for the Blue Devils, but I think that at this stage in the season, Duke will prevail and win the Motion Bracket.

Other Tournaments to Keep an Eye On (Projected Winners BOLD)

Legends Classic: Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Penn State, Pittsburgh

CBE Hall of Fame Classic: Baylor, Creighton, UCLA, Wisconsin

MGM Main Event: UNLV, Rice, Ole Miss, Utah

Cayman Islands Classic: Cincinnati, Iowa, Louisiana, Wyoming, Buffalo, South Dakota State, Richmond, UAB

NIT Season Tip-Off: Rhode Island, Seton Hall, Vanderbilt, Virginia

Las Vegas Invitational: Hampton, Northern Arizona, Xavier, George Washington, Kansas State, Arizona State, Rider, UC Irvine

AdvoCare Invitational: Missouri, St. John’s, Oregon State, West Virginia, Long Beach State, Nebraska, Marist (what a joke), UCF