By Steve Silverman
Teams are preparing for their conference schedule at this point of year, but the next couple of weeks will see a menu of notable interconference games and holiday tournaments.
Once the conference schedules begin in earnest, the games become more competitive and entertaining, but interconference games may be the most informative when making end-of-season judgments about which teams belong in the NCAA tournament and where they should be seeded.
Saturday, December 16
Virginia Tech (9-1) at No. 8 Kentucky (8-1), 2 p.m. ET, ESPN2
This is a matchup that should include quite a bit of interconference pride with Virginia Tech representing the ACC and Kentucky serving as the standard bearer in the SEC.
Most teams that play at Kentucky are going to have to overcome some degree of nerves and anxiety, but that’s not the way Buzz Williams coaches. If his team is on point, playing on the road will not bother Virginia Tech a bit.
Even if the unranked Hokies are going to overcome the home-road intimidation factor, there’s the little matter of talent. Virginia Tech is an overachieving team, and they are led by senior guard Justin Bibbs, who is averaging 17.5 points per game and connecting on 60.0 percent of his shots from the floor.
Sophomore forward Kerry Blackshear is not the type to back down. At 6-10 and 260 pounds, he is tough and physical, and he is averaging 13.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.
The Wildcats have their usual array of big-name freshman stars, and if you haven’t seen freshman forward Hamidou Diallo, watch him here. Diallo is averaging 14.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. He is joined on the front line by freshman Kevin Knox, who leads the Wildcats in scoring with 15.2 points per game.
Oklahoma (7-1) at No. 3 Wichita State (8-1), 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2
The Sooners are an exciting, high-scoring team that has a chance to make a statement against highly ranked Wichita State.
Oklahoma comes to Charles Koch Arena in Wichita with the leading scorer in the nation. Freshman Trae Young is a phenomenal player who has seemingly made an adjustment to big-time college basketball with ease. Young is averaging 28.8 points a game, and he is shooting 47.9 percent from the field and 86.3 percent from the free-throw line.
Young is not just a gunner, either. He is constantly looking to make the spectacular pass and is averaging 8.8 assists per night, but he is also turning the ball over nearly four times per game.
Junior guard Christian James is a fine complement to Young as he is scoring 12.8 ppg and connecting on 48.8 percent from the field.
The only loss on the Shockers’ ledger is a one-point defeat to Notre Dame, and Gregg Marshall’s team has rebounded nicely since then by winning four straight games.
Two of those wins came against Baylor and Oklahoma State, and sophomore guard Landry Shamet is leading Wichita State with an average of 16.3 points per night while shooting 55.3 percent from the field. Shamet had a foot injury during the summer and there was some talk that he might not be ready to perform at a high level at the start of the season, but those fears were unfounded.
Senior forward Darral Willis Jr. is averaging 11.7 points and a team-high 6.4 rebounds per game.
Sunday, December 17
No. 7 North Carolina (9-1) at No. 20 Tennessee (7-1), 3 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Tar Heels may have lost Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Tony Bradley and Nate Britt from last year’s national championship team, but Roy Williams has a formidable cast once again.
North Carolina’s only defeat was an 18-point trouncing at the hands of No. 2 Michigan State, and this is their first game against a ranked opponent since then. Junior forward Luke Maye has stepped up this year and is averaging 19.9 points and bringing down 10.5 rebounds per night. Senior wing Theo Pinson is a do-it-all type who is handing out 4.4 assists per game and averaging 9.4 ppg.
Rick Barnes’ Vols lost a tough nine-point decision to top-ranked Villanova, but his charges have won four straight since then and one of those victories came against North Carolina State.
Forward Grant Williams had an impressive freshman season and he is building on that performance as a sophomore. Williams leads the Vols with 16.1 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, and Barnes counts on him to get the job done on the offensive boards.
He is joined on the frontline by 6-4, 235-pound Admiral Schofield, who is averaging 11.9 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
Wednesday, December 20
Evansville (8-2) at No. 4 Duke (11-1), 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Give credit to Evansville head coach Marty Evans for swallowing hard and scheduling a road game at Duke.
The Purple Aces have performed well to this point, but now they are walking into a level of Coach K’s inferno since the Blue Devils are coming off an 89-84 defeat at Boston College.
Dru Smith is averaging 12.4 points and 5.5 assists per game for Evansville, and swingman Blake Simmons is scoring 11.1 points per game. Evans brought in freshman guard Noah Frederking to become a key leader, and he is trying to adjust to the pace of big-time college basketball.
The Blue Devils not only lost their last game, they will have had 11 days to think about it. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski was unhappy with the Devils’ defensive effort in that game, so expect a complete reversal here.
Freshman Marvin Bagley III may be the best player in the nation by the end of the season, and he is scoring 21.3 points per game while shooting 61.1 percent from the floor. Grayson Allen is having an excellent season too, averaging 17.2 points per night.