For a Thursday, we have a very nice set of games. Let’s discuss.
Iowa Hawkeyes (9-2) Maryland Terrapins (6-5)
If you like an old-school defensive showdown, make other plans because this is NOT the game for you. Both teams are great on offense but struggle on defense.
The Hawkeyes have the runaway favorite for National Player of the year with Luka Garza, though it’s not just a one-man show. C.J. Fredrick is one of the five best shooters in the nation; Jordan Bohannon is turning it around as he’s nine for his last fourteen triples, and of course, the Muscatine Iowa native, Joe Wieskamp. You won’t find many teams that have the shooting ability of the Hawkeyes. The Terps post defense has been a massive problem; as we saw earlier in the week, they could not contain Trayce Jackson-Davis, and Garza has a lot more to his game than TJD with his shooting ability. Connor McCaffrey suffered an injury against Rutgers, which paved the way for Keegan Murray to get more minutes. The freshman had a phenomenal game, and he is also the best defender pound-for-pound on the roster; Keegan Murray is a star in the making.
The Terps defense isn’t as bad as Iowa’s, but it isn’t much better either. They cannot defend the post at all; they don’t have a defensive rock like Stix Smith or Bruno Fernando anymore; they have to rely on Galin Smith, who is struggling mightily. The Terps have been over-performing a bit. I think their win in Madison over Wisconsin is more of an outlier than anything else. Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala have continued to struggle shooting, though Hakim Hart, Donta Scott, and Jarius Hamilton have all been tremendous. As the late, great Dennis Green once famously said, “They are who we thought they were”
Keys to the game:
Maryland has to stop Garza. Nobody has proven to be able to, and I don’t envision Maryland being that team.
Maryland needs to get better shooting performances from Wiggins & Ayala.
Players to watch:
Iowa: C.J. Fredrick
Maryland: Aaron Wiggins
Illinois Fighting Illini (8-3) Northwestern Wildcats (6-3)
The Wildcats were 3-0 to open B1G play with wins over MSU & Indiana, but they’ve since lost two straight trying to avoid three straight.
Possibly the most significant issue for the Wildcats recently has been the production of Boo Buie; after a hot start to the season, Buie has recorded two total points in the same amount of games. Buie had 11, 14, and 30 in the three B1G wins for Northwestern; they need Buie to get it going as he’s the team’s most talented player. Miller Kopp is still shooting an absurd 55% from three; I’d like to see Kopp have more attempts from deep than he does; Kopp has shot 29 three’s this season; he may the best shooter in the conference, that HAS to change. When you have the shooting ability of Kopp, find positions to get him the ball from deep. The five-out offense NW runs this season will make Kofi Cockburn have to defend the perimeter on Pete Nance when they run that offense, not when Ryan Young is on the floor. Nance could pose a lot of issues for Cockburn due to his insane athletic ability and could get past Cockburn on some drives or get some fouls. I would not expect this to be a vast Cockburn outing due to the potential issues defending Nance.
While it may not be a massive Cockburn game, it will be a big day for Ayo Dosunmu. It has been a treat to watch Dosunmu work in his junior season, as he’s averaging 23.0/7.0/5.0 with takeover ability. The Illini have been tremendous this season, shooting 41.8% from three, with 59% effective field goal percentage, and have a plethora of shooters with Ayo, Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams, and Adam Miller. Illinois’s replaced Andres Feliz with a carbon-copy of himself, freshmen Andre Curbelo. The scrappy guard is one of the team’s best defenders, a great passer, and a driver. Curbelo will likely defend Boo Buie, which could continue the struggles for Buie. As I mentioned earlier with Cockburn, this is a poor matchup for him when Nance is in the game; Nance shutdown Luka Garza, he could do that against Cockburn, and defense on the perimeter is not ideal. Da’Monte Williams has been one of the country’s top shooters; this season, on 28 attempts, Williams is shooting 68% from three. You won’t find many more complete teams in the country than the Illini.
Keys to the game:
Northwestern has to hit their threes. They don’t have the inside game to beat Illinois from two-point-range; they have to make three’s.
Can Cockburn score on the more athletic Nance? Cockburn is much more robust, but he needs to stay on the court and stay out of foul trouble. Cockburn can score on Nance a bit, though he HAS not to be a defensive liability.
Players to watch:
Illinois: Andre Curbelo
NW: Miller Kopp
UCLA Bruins (7-2) Arizona State Sun Devils (4-3)
It’s tough to say there’s a “Must-win in January, but this is as close as a must-win as you get. Arizona State is 4-3 right now, with two losses in the past three. The loss to UTEP will be a stain on Arizona State’s resume for the rest of the season, but this is an excellent opportunity to add a Q1/Q2 victory.
The Sun Devils defense has struggled as a whole this season; that wasn’t unexpected, though the offense was supposed to be significantly more potent, however. I think that’s partly due to the abbreviated offseason. Having three ball-dominant players with Remy Martin, Alonzo Verge, and Josh Christopher can be a problem until they learn how to play with each other. The ball sticks too often, but we saw last season that was an issue also with Martin & Verge together; they lost by forty to Saint Mary’s last season, which seemed to turn the tide for the Sun Devils in 2019-20. ASU hasn’t played since the loss to UTEP due to COVID issues, so they have yet to avenge that loss. The three-point shooting has been problematic for Bobby Hurley’s squad this season as ASU is shooting 32.9% from deep, with Verge & Marcus Bagley being the only shooters above 35% in the main rotation. Bagley is the team’s best pure shooter, and it’s worth noting that Bagley got hurt, which led to Bagley missing the next three games, where ASU shot 28% from three, including a 1-for-18 performance against UTEP. When you can’t make threes in today’s game, you won’t win; Bagley is also slate to return for this game. Jalen Graham has dealt with foul issues often this year, something that’s limited his output this season; if Graham cuts down the fouls, he has the talent to put up a big performance. Pound-for-pound Arizona State is still the more talented team in the conference, which is the time to turn the ship around.
The Bruins suffered devastating news when Chris Smith tore his ACL during the Utah game, subsequently ending his season. Since the injury, I had expected guys like David Singleton/Jake Kyman to get more minutes. Instead, we saw Johnny Juzang and Jules Bernard playing nearly the entire game against Colorado. Jaime Jaquez now assumes the “Guy” role on the team; Jaquez is one of the conference’s better players due to his scoring ability and defense. Jaquez possesses the ability to score from anywhere, similar to what Chris Smith could do. Most Mick Cronin teams are defensive driven, however this season, the tide has turned. UCLA’s defensive efficiency is ranked 66th on KenPom, while their offense is ranked 11th this season. If the 66th ranking stands now, the WORST defensive efficiency for a Mick Cronin led team since 2008-09 with Cincinnati. It’s easy to pinpoint the problem for the UCLA defense. Opposing teams are shooting the ball at a 52% clip from inside-the-arc in 2020-21 that ranks as the worst throughout any year of Mick Cronin’s career. Based on what I’ve seen from UCLA this season, the Bruins allow many open mid-range jumpers, which is Remy Martin’s specialty. We get a team with differing paces, with Arizona State ranking 12th in adjusted tempo, and UCLA is 342nd in adjusted tempo.
Keys to the game:
Arizona State needs this game in the 80-point range, and if they score 80, they will likely win. The Bruins have only scored 80+ points one time in 2020-21 against the University of San Diego. The Sun Devils want to score a lot and push the pace.
The Bruins need to get the ball inside, both true bigs for ASU, Chris Osten, and Jalen Graham, have struggled with fouls, and if Jalen Hill/Cody Riley can get them in foul trouble, that is an issue for Arizona State.
Players to watch:
UCLA: Jalen Hill
ASU: Marcus Bagley
Arizona State: 83
Oregon Ducks (8-1) Colorado Buffaloes (7-3)
Since joining the PAC-12 in 2012, the Ducks have yet to defeat Colorado in Boulder; even without fans, it’s possibly the biggest home-court advantage in College Hoops due to Boulder’s high elevation.
The Buffs are a tremendous shooting team as a whole; they are shooting 37% from deep and an astounding 85% from-the-line, one of the best in the country. If Oregon puts Colorado on the line, that’ll become an issue for Dana Altman’s team. There is no bad free-throw shooter on the roster; if you get in a late-game scenario, the best player to foul is D’Shawn Schwartz at 76%; for a team like Rutgers, that would be their best free-throw shooter. Colorado isn’t a flashy team; they play slow, but they play smart; McKinley Wright is one of the country’s more intelligent players, and he picks his spots to be aggressive while also setting up others in the meantime. Oregon’s depth is an issue right now without N’Faly Dante & Will Richardson, but the lack of post depth is a significant concern in this game. Freshman Jabari Walker is a name to keep an eye on; Walker looks to be a future PAC-12 star with the ability to do everything at a high-level. There aren’t many more fundamentally sound teams than Colorado.
Despite the Ducks’ injuries, they have avoided that, causing problems with winning eight consecutive games. Eugene Omoruyi, to this point in the year, is likely to be the PAC-12 POTY with 18.7 PPG, 4.8 RPG, shooting 50% from the floor. Omoruyi can score from anywhere on the floor, which is a complete mismatch with his strength and shooting. Chris Duarte has been playing at a different level in 2020-21, showing every part of being the former Junior College POTY. Duarte is an elite shooter and defender, quickly has emerged as one of the better players in the conference without Payton Pritchard. Talent from top-to-bottom weights in favor of Oregon, but playing in Boulder is such a grueling task considering they haven’t won there in the entirety of Colorado’s time in the PAC-12.
Keys to the game:
Oregon has to limit the fouls. Colorado can single handily beat you at the foul-line, don’t give them the chance to do so.
Colorado needs to keep the pace slow. Oregon doesn’t play super fast. However, they play significantly faster than Tad Boyle’s team does.
Players to watch:
Oregon: Chris Duarte
Colorado: D’Shawn Schwartz