By Steve Silverman
All the preliminaries are out of the way, and the meat of the college basketball season is about to begin in earnest.
It’s all about conference play at this point. Earlier in the year, teams wanted to make impressions on the poll voters by taking on impressive non-conference opponents. A couple of months from now, it will be about conference tournaments and then the Big Dance itself.
However, the conference schedule is where teams show what they are all about, and this is when old rivalries turn into nasty battles. The temperature of the 2017-18 season goes from simmer to a full boil in a matter of seconds.
Friday, December 29
No. 11 Kansas (10-2) at Texas (9-3), 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2
The Kansas Jayhawks are perennially one of the strongest teams in the nation and can usually be counted on to be one of the top seeds in the NCAA tournament.
As the Big 12 season gets underway, Kansas is not its usual Self. There are four teams with better records in the conference, and two others have the same 10-2 record that the Jayhawks bring to the court.
Texas has gotten off to a solid start, but in the remarkable Big 12, 9-3 puts them in last place.
However, don’t undersell either of these teams at this point. Kansas dropped back-to-back games against Washington and Arizona State earlier this month, but the Jayhawks have rebounded with three wins in a row.
Bill Self’s Jayhawks are seeking their 14th straight conference title, and they are depending on Lagerald Vick and Devonte’ Graham as their two leading scorers at 17.1 and 16. 8 points per game, respectively.
Additionally, the Jayhawks have three other players who are scoring in double figures, including center Udoka Azubuike, who is scoring 15.5 points per game and leading the Jayhawks with 8.0 rebounds per night.
The Longhorns have won three games in a row since losing to Michigan earlier in December. Shaka Smart’s team should not be taken lightly, and most of the Longhorns’ opponents realize they are going to have to contend with one of the best rebounders and shot blockers in freshman Mo Bamba.
Bamba is averaging 10.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per night, and he is also blocking 4.3 shots per game. That latter number does not tell the full story, because he is impacting numerous shots as opponents are forced to make adjustments to avoid Bamba’s long arms.
Andrew Jones is averaging 15.3 points per game and connecting on 52.4 percent of his shots.
Saturday, December 30
No. 24 Florida State (11-1) at No. 4 Duke (12-1), 2 p.m. ET, CBS
A loss can be a good thing for Duke, and after the Blue Devils dropped a December 9 game at Boston College, they rebounded with a 104-40 win over Evansville.
While that may not have been much of a test, head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team came out in an angry mood and took it out on Evansville.
That has been the only game the Blue Devils have played since the loss to the Eagles, and you can be sure the Blue Devils have gone through some heavy-duty practices since then.
Look for Duke to come out with another focused effort against a strong Florida State team.
Duke is led by Marvin Bagley III, and the freshman has an excellent chance of being the first player selected in next spring’s NBA draft if he opts for one-and-done status. Bagley is averaging 21.1 points and 10.9 rebounds per night, and he is connecting on 61.7 percent of his shots from the field.
Senior guard Grayson Allen is averaging 17.1 points and 4.3 assists per night.
Versatile swingman Terance Mann is the best player on a deep Florida State team, and he is averaging 15.1 points per game. Mann is an exceptional defender and passer, and he can also go to the boards effectively.
Forward Phil Cofer is chipping in with 15.4 points per game and connecting on 55.4 percent of his shots.
Saturday, December 30
No. 3 Arizona State (12-0) at No. 17 Arizona (10-3), 9 p.m. ET, PAC12
The Arizona State Sun Devils are perhaps the most surprising teams in the nation. They have rolled through the non-conference portion of their schedule, and head coach Bobby Hurley’s team has opened eyes all over the country.
They beat Kansas State at home in late November, and followed up that victory by going on the road and beating the Kansas Jayhawks on their home floor.
Hurley demands hustle and defense from all of his players and he gets it, and his team will be prepared to go on the road and play a competitive game against their archrivals.
Senior guard Tra Holder is Arizona State’s leading scorer at 21.3 points per night, and backcourt mate Shannon Evans II is averaging 17.8 points per game. Both Holder and Evans see the court extremely well and will find open teammates.
Sean Miller’s Wildcats are expected to be at or near the top of the Pac-12 by the time the season ends, but they could be vulnerable at this point.
They suffered a three-game losing streak earlier in the year, and while they have rebounded with seven consecutive wins, the Sun Devils will be a very dangerous opponent.
Guard Allonzo Trier is one of the best players in the nation, and he is averaging 21.2 points per game and connecting on 56.2 percent of his shots. Freshman DeAndre Ayton is a huge factor, as the 7-1 frontcourt star is averaging 19.5 points and 11.4 rebounds per night.
Look for Arizona to become a much better team as the season moves along, but Arizona State is the better team right now.
Wednesday, Jan. 3
St. Bonaventure (10-2) at Dayton (6-6), 7:30 p.m. ET, CBSSN
It’s not always about the top-25 teams in the nation. The Atlantic 10 game between the St. Bonaventure Bonnies and the Dayton Flyers is also worth your attention.
The Bonnies appear to be on the verge of cracking into the top 25, as they have won seven games in a row.
One of those wins was a three-point win at Syracuse (11-2), and while the Orange are not in the top 25, it’s a significant win for head coach Mark Schmidt.
The Bonnies also played competitively against TCU earlier this year, and the Horned Frogs (12-0) are unbeaten to this point in the season.
Guard Jaylen Adams had 23 points in the victory over Syracuse, and he is capable of taking over any game. Matt Mobley is averaging 17.5 points and he is a streaky shooter. When he is on, he can stretch out a lead, but he can also grow cold.
The Flyers have struggled to this point, but they are always tough at UD Arena. Guard Darrell Davis is the team’s leading scorer with 16.5 points per night, while forward Josh Cunningham is scoring 16.3 points per night and connecting on an amazing 69.8 percent of his shots from the floor.