|Zero players in this photo return from the Elite Eight game between Kentucky & Baylor. (US Presswire)|
I've attended games in New York, Indiana and North Carolina over the past week, watched the Associated Press poll's top four teams in person and filed columns about a backup point guard, a well-assembled team and a surprising National Player of the Year candidate.
I haven't slept in my own bed since Nov. 17.
But I'm home now.
And I've got my remote ready.
What am I watching the next three days?
Read the Weekend Look Ahead and find out.
Top game: The last time any of us saw Kentucky and Baylor on the same court was last March in the Elite Eight when the Wildcats ran the Bears out of the Georgia Dome on their way to a national championship. Eight of the starters in that game were three months later selected among the first 38 picks of the NBA Draft. So a lot has changed since that Sunday afternoon, which is evident in the fact that both teams already have 40 percent of the combined losses they had all of last season. But Saturday's rematch (in name only) between the eighth-ranked Wildcats and used-to-be-ranked Bears should still be fun ... even if a 2011-12 alumni game would offer more in the way of talent.
Another interesting matchup: There's only one game all weekend between two schools currently ranked in our Top 25 (and one), and that game will be played inside Fifth Third Arena between Alabama and Cincinnati. Both teams enter with undefeated records and a few question marks. But it'll be hard to discount the winner regardless of who wins.
Yet another interesting matchup: I'm convinced Georgetown is good after watching the Hoyas twice last week in New York and being blown away (metaphorically speaking) by the development of Markel Starks, Greg Whittington and Otto Porter. And I'm pretty sure Tennessee is good because the Vols have an All-SEC-caliber point guard (Trae Golden) and All-SEC-caliber big (Jarnell Stokes), and any team with a capable point guard and big has a chance to be successful in this sport. So, yeah, I'm looking forward to Friday night's matchup between Georgetown and Tennessee in D.C. If the Hoyas win, they'll remain in Sunday's Top 25 (and one). If the Vols win, they'll debut in Sunday's Top 25 (and one).
Guaranteed to be a blowout: If top-ranked and undefeated Indiana can blowout North Carolina at Assembly Hall, what do you think the Hoosiers will do to Coppin State on Saturday at Assembly Hall? (Answer: Win by 35. Maybe 40.)
Guaranteed to be an upset: I'm really tempted to take unranked Saint Joseph's over No. 11 Creighton considering the Hawks are pretty good and the Bluejays are coming off a home loss to Boise State. But is Creighton really gonna drop two in a row at home? I don't see it. But what I can see is No. 19 Colorado falling at unranked Wyoming late Saturday -- although that might just be because I just saw Texas Southern take the Buffaloes to double-overtime.
Player trying to keep rolling: Mason Plumlee is leading our National Player of the Year Watch because he's been awesome since the moment this season tipped, most recently in Wednesday's win over Ohio State in which he jumped really high and caught an amazing alley-oop. The 6-foot-11 senior got 21 points and 17 rebounds in that game. It was his fourth double-double in seven outings. So good luck on Saturday, Delaware. You're gonna need it, I'm betting.
Player trying to get rolling: Aaron Craft is a terrific college point guard and a future NBA floor leader, but he didn't look like either in Wednesday's loss at Duke. The junior genius (check his GPA) took 15 shots, missed 12 of them and only recorded one assist, which is why it's remarkable that the fourth-ranked Buckeyes even had a chance to win. Does Craft need to be better Saturday for Ohio State to beat Northern Kentucky? No. Northern Kentucky stinks. But he does need to be better for Ohio State to achieve what it wants to achieve this season, and there's no better place to start being better than in a game against an Atlantic Sun opponent.
Three things you should know before you go
- First-year head coach Dan Muller has Illinois State off to a 5-1 start with the lone loss coming in overtime at Northwestern. He'll have his first chance to beat a ranked opponent Saturday when his Redbirds visit Rick Pitino's fifth-ranked Louisville Cardinals.
- Remember back in June when the SEC/Big East Challenge matchups were announced and Syracuse was all like, "We're not going to Arkansas!" kinda the same way Les Miles just decided he's not going to Arkansas, either? Well, things ultimately got settled. So the game that almost didn't happen will happen Friday night when the sixth-ranked Orange visit Bud Walton Arena.
- We've already had a handful of teacher-pupil matchups this season. The next will come Saturday when former North Carolina assistant Jerod Haase takes his UAB Blazers to the Dean Smith Center to play Roy Williams' 14th-ranked Tar Heels. Haase worked for Williams for 14 seasons -- five at Kansas, nine at UNC.
Final thought: The fact that Shabazz Muhammad will play in December while neither Tyler Lamb nor Josh Smith does is among the most surprising developments of this early season, and there's no story more interesting than the ongoing saga of UCLA basketball.
The Bruins have a new Pauley Pavilion but lots of the same old problems -- a bad loss to Cal Poly being one of them, two surprising transfers (Lamb and Smith) being a couple more. UCLA has gone from 13th in the preseason AP poll to unranked in the latest with a roster now featuring just eight scholarship players. So this is no way for Ben Howland to get off the Hot Seat. We can all agree on that. But I'm still not ready to start a search for UCLA's next coach because I'm still not certain Howland can't get this turned around, and I'm encouraged by this week's win over Cal State Northridge -- and heading into Saturday's game with No. 23 San Diego State -- because that win suggested Howland is gonna do what most think he must with this particular roster, i.e., play zone on defense and run on offense.
Howland hates playing zone.
And he's rarely let his teams run.
But this roster -- both the original and what's left of it -- lacks good perimeter defenders and anything resembling a shot-blocker, so there's no way to make them into a nice man-to-man outfit. UCLA is gonna have to use a zone to get by on defense and try to outscore opponents on offense, and the lack of numbers will be what forces Howland's hand.
Which is fascinating.
I mean, think about it: A man with three Final Fours is coaching for his high-profile job, and he's gonna spend the next four months coaching in a way that he's never actually coached before. Will Howland succeed? Nobody could say for sure. But wouldn't it be wild if a zone defense born out of necessity is what saves a man-to-man coach's career?