When North Carolina causally posted on Twitter on Monday that it was looking for an opponent to play sometime between Tuesday and Thursday, it was just the latest reminder of how bizarre this 2020-21 college basketball season has been. The Tar Heels would normally be totally immersed in ACC action and have no need to publicly solicit an opponent just days before the prospective game.
But this season, played amid the COVID-19 pandemic, has wrecked conventional norms and thus has left teams with unconventional openings on their schedules. While most programs are in line to get most, if not all, of their conference games, most played fewer nonconference games than normal. With a gap appearing on UNC's schedule in February, the Tar Heels believed it made sense to add a non-league opponent.
They ended up getting a Wednesday game with Northeastern, which will count as a Quad 3 game for the Tar Heels as they try and bolster their NCAA Tournament resume in the regular season's final weeks. North Carolina-Northeastern is hardly a dream matchup, but its addition to the schedule shows how quickly games can be arranged when both parties are motivated.
So for this week's edition of the Dribble Handoff, our writers are wading into the hypothetical and responding to the following prompt: if you were given the power to set up a nonconference game this weekend, what matchup would you create? The only stipulation was that the teams cannot be on the same projected seed line in Jerry Palm's bracketology (so no Gonzaga-Baylor).
Here's what we came up with:
USC vs. Oklahoma State
Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs might ultimately be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. Or it could be G-League star Jalen Green. But, at this point, most evaluators seem to believe the top two picks will likely be Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham and USC's Evan Mobley. So why not get those two on the court together?
No, Cunningham and Mobley do not play the same position. The former is a backcourt player, the latter someone who mostly operates in the frontcourt, so they would not be each other's assignments. But it's never not cool to have two of the best, if not the two best, NBA prospects in college competing against each other -- especially when both are starring for likely NCAA Tournament teams. So I'd love to spend Saturday watching USC-Oklahoma State. As it is, in real life, I'll settle for USC-Arizona while Oklahoma State, if you're curious, is off this weekend because of COVID issues in Baylor's program. -- Gary Parrish
I'm bringing back BracketBusters. Remember BracketBusters? From the mid-2000s until 2013, we were given an array of mid-February nonconference matchups between mid-major schools with solid NCAA Tournament chances. It made for compelling television in the dog days of the season and also provided important opportunities for schools to enhance their at-large bona fides. If we could do it this weekend, there is one choice and one choice only: 22-1 Belmont vs. 20-2 Drake. (I would have gone Belmont vs. Winthrop, but they're both 13 seeds, so that would break our stipulation above.)
Both of these teams are at the mercy of the selection committee barring an automatic bid -- and I do think there's a healthy chance at least one of these teams gets the auto bid. But it would be a showcase game for mid-major hoops and, honestly, a top-three matchup we could have in college basketball this upcoming weekend. The other upshot of this is these kind of games (like Loyola Chicago-Drake last weekend) bring attention to mid-major teams in a way that benefits the sport and advances the greater conversation of what things we should be looking for when forecasting realistic at-large teams, no matter the league they come from. Belmont also deserves a Quad 1 or Quad 2 game, and this would provide that. If only! -- Matt Norlander
Alabama vs. Gonzaga
Gonzaga has held the No. 1 spot in the AP Top 25 and Coaches Polls since the preseason. All season, it has looked as if it is the best team in the sport as it barrels towards a potential spot as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Alabama, meanwhile, has emerged to grab the distinction as the most fun -- and lethal -- team in the game when it is firing on all cylinders. With its 3-point bombing ways and top-five defense as a driving force, it can, on any given night, shoot its opponents off the court and suffocate them in the process. It has taken just two losses -- by a combined eight points -- since Christmas and taken the SEC by storm. Who wouldn't want to see this matchup?
It'd pit a top-five Gonzaga against a similarly lethal Alabama defense in a true strength-on-strength showdown that, most likely, would feature a ton of points and an aesthetically pleasing style of play to boot. Would put off some major Final Four vibes and be a nice way to highlight the top-end skill we're seeing at the top of the sport between two of its best teams. -- Kyle Boone
You might see this and think it's just a cruel, cynical suggestion meant to please those who loathe the sport's blue bloods, and that's not entirely wrong. But having Duke and Kentucky play this weekend would be for the sake of history. What better way to illustrate the craziness of the 2020-21 college basketball season to future generations than to show them a game between the Blue Devils and Wildcats played in front of a near-empty arena with both programs in this bizarre state of disrepair?
The last seven times they have played, both teams have been ranked in the top-10. But fast forward to the 2020-21 season, and both appear destined to miss the NCAA Tournament along with a few other historically proud programs. Play the game at Rupp Arena so at least a few fans can be in attendance and tell their grandkids one day about how they were there for the "Blueblood Bath" game between Duke and Kentucky in February 2021. No game would provide a more accurate thumbnail perspective of the 2020-21 college basketball season than this hypothetical clash between battered powers . -- David Cobb