From Cade Cunningham to Luka Garza to the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, this is what NCAA basketball fans need to be watching across college basketball this week.
The college basketball season is now two weeks old and we’ve had a lot of fun. Nearly 87 percent of the sport is up and running as big-time events like the Champions Classic and the Jimmy V Classic gave us some marquee non-conference showdowns. Let’s take a look at five things all college basketball fans will want to keep an eye on this week, beginning with our team of the week.
Team of the Week: Tennessee Volunteers
Expectations were high for Tennessee in the preseason when they were ranked 12th in the AP Top 25 as a top challenger for the SEC’s regular-season crown. A positive COVID test result in the program put the Volunteers on pause, making them one of just two Power 5 programs that is yet to take the floor this season.
Tennessee is set to kick off its season this week with a pair of non-conference matchups against Colorado and Cincinnati, which should be intriguing tests for a program experiencing a lot of turnover with a ton of potential. Yves Pons, the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, is back alongside a talented crop of newcomers headlined by five-star freshman Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson. This squad is the highest-profile team that hasn’t played yet so getting a first look at the Volunteers will help us gain a clearer picture of whether they should be considered the favorites in the SEC given Kentucky’s early struggles to score.
Cinderella Watch: Richmond Spiders
Throughout the season this space will spotlight potential NCAA Tournament sleepers who have a chance to make some serious noise in March. We’ll kick things off with Richmond, which already has a road win over Kentucky under its belt and is one of the favorites to win the Atlantic 10 thanks to its upperclassmen-laden rotation.
The two big names here are guard Jacob Gilyard and forward Grant Golden, who could be the best big man in the A-10. The Spiders are working on stacking up quality non-conference games to bolster their case for an at-large bid in March, including matchups this week against SoCon challenger Wofford, Missouri Valley front-runner Northern Iowa and a trip to Morgantown to take on West Virginia. Find an opportunity to watch Richmond, which is already ranked inside the Top 25 and could be a major factor this season.
Freshman to watch: Cade Cunningham
NBA draftniks are already salivating over the potential of Oklahoma State point guard Cade Cunningham, a 6-foot-8 point guard who is projected to be the top pick in next year’s draft class. Cunningham won’t get to play in March thanks to a postseason ban issued by the NCAA against Oklahoma State but he is making his mark in the regular season.
The Cowboys are 4-0 thanks in large part to Cunningham, who debuted with a double-double against Texas-Arlington and is averaging 18.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. Cunningham is also showing off his tremendous athleticism, making jaw-dropping plays like this windmill dunk off a steal against Oakland last Saturday.
Games against Oral Roberts and Wichita State this week will provide another opportunity to see the nation’s most exciting player in action.
Wooden watch candidate: Luka Garza
The presumed favorite for the National Player of the Year awards entering the season, Iowa center Luka Garza has more than lived up to the hype in the early going. Garza is averaging a ridiculous 34 points per game over Iowa’s first three games and has recorded double-doubles in two of those games, falling a rebound shy of doing it the third but making up for that by scoring 41 points in a win over Southern.
The sheer dominance that Garza has demonstrated is remarkable as evidenced by the fact that he has managed to outscore the Hawkeyes’ opponents by himself in the first half in each of the past two games. Iowa will get some stiffer competition this week with North Carolina, Iowa State and Northern Illinois on the schedule so this could be a chance for Garza to add some more eye-popping performances to his resume.
What to watch this week: The Big Ten-ACC Challenge
The Big Ten and the ACC have been two of the sport’s dominant conferences in the early going, placing a combined 11 teams in the AP Top 25 poll last week with another five receiving votes. The annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge, set to take place on Tuesday and Wednesday, is loaded with great games that could offer March previews for each league’s top dogs.
Tuesday’s top action features North Carolina traveling to Iowa to take on the Hawkeyes, a matchup between Illinois and Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium and a sneaky good tri-state matchup between Syracuse and Rutgers. The challenge continues on Wednesday with seven more games, with the headliners being a matchup featuring Michigan State traveling to Virginia and Indiana hitting the road to take on perennially underrated Florida State.
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