Week 4 Watchlist: I Can Almost Remember Their Funny Faces
Back to business, with 25 games to schedule one's life around
The Watchlist Tune O’ the Week, a 50th anniversary special:
Well, back to normalcy. Gone is the joy of a three-day work week for most desk job people; you must log back in. You must check your Teams messages. Most regrettably, you must work to remember what the term API stands for, because you tried hard to forget it around plate #3 on Thursday night. The problem with being off, having little to do other than eat, is that it almost feels like too much of a good thing. Structure can be quite useful once you forget what structure feels like.
No one else who covers college basketball actively wants to say this, but I must admit a little relief that Feast Week has officially concluded. Every Feast Week brings the takes out left, right, and center. (It is also exhausting to write about if you’re covering a team in one of the events and have to write detailed previews of each game on short turnarounds.) While November/December performance largely ends up underrated come March, such as UConn’s last year, it can also be a huge mirage. Think of it this way:
For every 2022-23 UConn, there’s a 2022-23 Virginia. Hey, remember those guys? Same team that beat Baylor, Illinois, and Michigan in a two-week stretch? They also ended up a 4 seed…one that was far, far worse than UConn. Predictably, they lost in the Round of 64.
For every 2021-22 Duke, there’s a 2021-22 BYU. The Cougars started off the year by smacking San Diego State, Oregon, and Utah down, all with relative ease. They had one of the 10 best resumes in the sport entering December. Then they went 22-10 and didn’t come close to the NCAA Tournament.
For every underwhelming November team, there’s a 2018-19 LSU. Remember that magical LSU team that won every close game, went 16-2 in SEC play, and made the Sweet Sixteen? They started out 5-2 and exited the month of November 60th in Torvik.
…and a 2022-23 Marquette. Because of how they finished the year, no one remembers last year’s Marquette team starting out 6-3 and blowing very winnable games to middling Mississippi State/Wisconsin teams. Guess what happened from there? They went 23-4, won the Big East, and got a 2 seed.
This season is long and unforgiving, and chances are that a good chunk of the teams currently over/underperforming versus preseason expectations will likely continue that way. But because this is basketball, and because so much depends on the bounce of a round object, weird things happen. They happen all the time. Feast Week is over, but our collective feast of the sport is only beginning.
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Utah at Saint Mary’s (CA) (-1), 11 PM ET, ESPNU. This is the best game of a really middling day and I don’t anticipate staying up for it, so do with it what you will. This is on here for two reasons: both teams are good, and both teams badly need this win. Saint Mary’s has had an awful three-week run to start the season after receiving giant expectations, while Utah blew a chance to build a solid OOC resume by losing to St. John’s in their preseason tournament.
Miami at Kentucky (-7), 7:30 PM ET, ESPN. This is a brand-name game that sounds better than it probably will be, but considering how deeply unconvincing both teams are defensively this should be really high-scoring. Wouldn’t be surprised at all to see both teams crack 80 here and it’s worth noting both teams have struggled with the other team’s likely advantages (transition play for Miami, perimeter drive-and-kicks for Kentucky).
Utah State (-6) at Saint Louis, 8 PM ET, ESPN+. This is not one that even ranks among the top five in KenPom’s FanMatch on this day, but if you want a game that actually matters and features two teams that are not annoying Big Six teams who will go 17-15, watch this game. Utah State’s completely new roster in Year One of Danny Sprinkle looks phenomenal and is cooking on both sides of the court, while Saint Louis desperately needs marquee wins in year 8 of Travis Ford.
Colorado at Colorado State (-4), 9 PM ET, CBS Sports Network. A shame that this is semi-buried on a network that not everyone gets, but such is college sports in 2023. This is an actual November rivalry game - a very rare thing - and one that means a lot this year when both Colorado and Colorado State look like NCAA Tournament teams, a thing that hasn’t happened since 2012-13. If you like games with raucous crowds and hatred that’s real, you need to see this one.
WBB: Notre Dame at Tennessee (-0.5), 5 PM ET, ESPN2. As of the time of writing this was #17 at #19 in the AP Poll, but perhaps more importantly this is a Tennessee team in desperate need of a win over a national power. ND might be down this year but has Hannah Hidalgo, at minimum a top-10 player in NCAAW this season if not top-5. With her, they’re always going to be a threat, and it’s imperative that Tennessee’s defense - largely pretty middling thus far - gets off the mat at home.
Tennessee at North Carolina (-2), 7:15 PM ET, ESPN. This will get its own preview on Wednesday. Speaking of a Tennessee team that could really use a signature win! After this game, Tennessee will have played #1, #6, #13, and #22 in KenPom among their first seven games of the season, all of which were away from home. They also played #20 in a true road game as an ‘exhibition.’ It’s not even December! Such is their schedule that #27 Illinois, looming in two weeks, actually looks like a relief because it’s a home game.
Duke (-4) at Arkansas, 9:15 PM ET, ESPN. Arkansas is currently 51st in KenPom, and as wonderful and funny as that is, I am telling you right now: do not get fooled. Do not get sucked in. Do not buy it. Every single year, they do this thing. They have some sort of four or five-game stretch where they look like an NIT team, everyone gives up on them, and then they win 13 SEC games and make the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. I’m not getting fooled again.
WBB: Louisville (-1) at Ole Miss, 9:15 PM ET, ESPNU. #20 at #24 as of the time of writing. I buy Louisville a bit more than Ole Miss, but both are quite good, and of the two teams Ole Miss’s defense is the best unit.
WBB: Virginia Tech at LSU (-3.5), 9 PM ET, ESPN. YES! Yes. This is real hoops. These are a pair of legitimate top-10 teams squaring off at what promises to be a pretty hostile environment. Tech’s offense is very fun to watch, and not only is this Elizabeth Kitley vs. Angel Reese, it’s Georgia Amoore vs. Hailey Van Lith. This is the second-best game of the entire week, arguably.
Liberty at Florida Atlantic (-3), 6 PM ET, ESPNU. After all of the anger-filled discourse about how evil KenPom was being to poor little FAU, the Owls have responded by jumping all the way from their day one ranking of #36 to…being #37 at the time of writing. (Of course, during the writing process, they demolished Virginia Tech and won their preseason tournament because they are very good.) Anyway! Liberty has emerged as potentially the very best team from a one-bid league this year. Their offense is genuinely terrifying to defend and is on track to end the year as a top-15 unit. If nothing else, you’re promised a lot of entertainment here.
D2: #4 Cal State San Bernardino (-4.5) at #5 Chico State, 10:30 PM ET, streaming ($). I don’t think that anyone will watch this, and it also starts at 10:30 my time, so it’s at best a Friday morning Synergy stream for yours truly. But if you like good basketball, I do think you should find a way to seek this one out however possible. This is the best defense in D-2 (CSSB) taking on a Chico State team with three likely first-team All-Conference players on its side. CSSB’s HC is Gus Argenal, who you may have heard of from being Eric Musselman’s right-hand man for the last several years.
Texas Tech at Butler (-0.5), 6:30 PM ET, FS1. In the event that Liberty/FAU is a dud, you can pivot to this. I think TTU is pretty good in the sense that they look like an NCAA Tournament 10 or 11 seed, while Butler kinda looks like a bubble squad or an above-average NIT team. It’s not a bad game! Just not a great one.
THE SIX-STAR GAME OF THE WEEK
UConn at Kansas (-2), 9 PM ET, ESPN2. Do whatever it takes to stay up for this game. I’m talking to myself here - a famous 10 PM ET bedtime guy - but also to you. This is one of the best games we’ll get all season. Kansas did suffer a loss to Marquette in Maui but turned around and beat top-10 Tennessee, while UConn just looks like the same UConn team that won a title last year.
I do think that home court is pretty meaningful here. For all of the great stats one can produce about UConn post-COVID, their best true road wins in that time were #51 Villanova (‘22-23), #55 St. John’s (‘21-22), and #54 Seton Hall (‘20-21). They haven’t beaten a top-50 team in a true road game during that timespan. Obviously, at home and at neutral sites, these guys are nails. But how will they react with a team shooting unsustainably well from two and playing a fellow top-5 team on the road? Again: game of the week, possibly the game of the year to date.
Purdue (-9) at Northwestern, 9 PM ET, BTN. This gets the nod over Houston-Xavier for a pair of reasons: I do not believe in Xavier at all and this game actually has conference stakes. Plus, Purdue lost to this same Northwestern team on the road last year when flying high. Could it happen a second time? Unlikely, but it at least has some serious juice to it.
Saint Mary’s (PK) at Boise State, 10:30 PM ET, FS1. Saint Mary’s badly needs to go 1-1 or better this week, and really, they probably need to go 2-0. Boise blew a pair of great chances to get non-home victories by losing to Clemson and Virginia Tech, and along with a mid-December game at Washington State this is kind of their last real chance at a signature non-con win. SMC, meanwhile, needs to stop the bleeding ASAP.
Marquette (-1) at Wisconsin, 12:30 PM ET, FOX. This is probably the game of the day, though given that every game today will be battling college football championship Saturday it may go unnoticed. This is simply a great top-25 vs. top-25 battle between the two elite Wisconsin schools, whom play polar opposite styles with polar opposite head coaches. This is a premier Styles Make Fights matchup.
Yale at Vermont (-0.5), 7 PM ET, ESPN+. Another great game between two teams who are on track to produce a ton of wins. Both are pretty obvious favorites in their respective leagues, with both being capable of making a Sweet Sixteen four months from now. Neither will receive a challenge as good as this one in conference play, so tune in here.
Gonzaga (-5) vs. USC, 10 PM ET, ESPN. It would be great if this game were not at a neutral site, but it is what it is. USC keeps producing scatter-brained results across the board, with wins over Kansas State and Seton Hall counteracting losses to UC Irvine and Oklahoma. Gonzaga acquitted itself fairly well in Maui, going 2-1 and adding a Quad 1 win over UCLA to the resume. Potentially a very, very fun offensive game here…but also a potential dud if neither offense can make shots.
Memphis (-5) at Ole Miss, 2 PM ET, ESPN2. It may or may not last, but as of now, Ole Miss is technically still undefeated. Have they played a single good team? No. Have they looked good at any point? No! They’ve played #328, #200, #318, #141, and #164 and their largest win is by 11 points. Their last three wins were by a combined five points. But wins are wins, and at least as of now, this is a huge opportunity (along with a game on Tuesday against NC State) to get a signature non-conference win.
D3: Hampden-Sydney at Guilford (-3.5), 4:30 PM ET, streaming. This is #20 at #13 in the D-3 poll, and while that may or may not mean anything to you, let me sell you here. The last five games between these two teams have been decided by a total of 23 points, with the largest margin being 8. While Guilford was a top-10 team last year with a top-five defense, this year it’s Hampden-Sydney who might have the best defense in D-3. Also, H-S HC Caleb Kimbrough played at Guilford and was an assistant for six seasons, so this has some real fervor to it. Look, you could either fret over which of the super-annoying SEC teams is making the College Football Playoff, or you could enjoy yourself.
WBB: UConn at Texas (-2), 3 PM ET, ABC. As unflappable as UConn seems, their injury bug over the last few seasons has been something to behold. After finally getting Paige Bueckers back from injury, they almost immediately lost Azzi Fudd to a season-ender. UConn is still going to be UConn and therefore very good, but this is not the same team as years past that had an unimpeachable roster even with a key injury. Texas might be straight-up better.
Creighton (-1) at Nebraska, 4 PM ET, FS1. Now this is going to be fun. The NFL does have 49ers-Eagles as the main viewing option in this window, but I figure that if you’re 2,000+ words deep into a college basketball watchlist guide, the NFL may not be #1 on your priority list. Creighton is Creighton, but if you haven’t seen Nebraska play, you must rectify that. I cannot properly cover how delightful of a player Keisei Tominaga is in this newsletter. He is joy personified. Please watch him play basketball.
WBB: South Carolina (-12.5) at Duke, 1 PM ET, ABC. This is arguably too high for a game in which it is very likely South Carolina simply blows Duke out of the arena, but given Duke’s status as a good shooting team and a tremendous rim protection unit, it’s feasible to see how they hang in this one for three quarters or longer. As historically good as this South Carolina team seems, they’ve still struggled to catch up in the shooting department and are a sickening 61% from the free throw line.
Of course, their defense is so good it may not matter. South Carolina is currently on pace to be the third-best team of the last 15 years, per Her Hoop Stats, so that’s absolutely worth watching. Frightening that Dawn Staley lost Aliyah Boston and Brea Beal and got better, but here we are.
WBB: Ohio State at Tennessee (-1.5), 5 PM ET, ESPN. Another monster opportunity for Kellie Harper and the Lady Vols, but also a huge opportunity for Kevin McGuff and an Ohio State program rapidly on the rise. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the average Buckeye fan should pivot to this after what happened in Ann Arbor Saturday, but they are presumably too preoccupied with figuring out how QAnon can save them this time. Unfortunate.
Clemson at Pittsburgh (-3), 2 PM ET, ACC Network. On one hand, no thanks. But! On the other, these are two bubble teams playing in an actual conference game that could have potential stakes down the road. Both of these teams are actually fairly entertaining to watch, too, so I’ve seen worse.
Stats By Will is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.