By Steve Silverman
The last 10 days of the year represent the last chance for college basketball players to catch their collective breath. Pretty soon teams will have concentrate on playing for regular-season conference championships.
While most teams will be off from December 24 through 26 (with the exception of the teams competing in the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii), a number of intriguing games this week should attract the attention of college basketball fans — even as the Bowl season approaches full speed and the NFL regular season nears its climax.
Friday, December 22
Northwestern (9-4) at No. 17 Oklahoma (9-1), 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
The Northwestern Wildcats have not had the stellar start that head coach Chris Collins was looking for after the team’s first NCAA tournament appearance last year.
The Wildcats lost four of their first nine games and fell out of the top 25. While there are a number of issues, the Wildcats are shooting 44.2 percent from the field, and their inconsistent offense has turned potential victories into defeats.
Swingman Scottie Lindsey is averaging 15.8 points per game to lead the team, while guard Bryant McIntosh is averaging 13.4 points and shooting 39.6 percent from the field.
The Wildcats will not have forward Vic Law, who is their best defensive player and second-leading scorer. Law suffered a fall in last week’s game against DePaul and is in the concussion protocol.
Northwestern is going to have it tough without Law, because they are going up against freshman star Trae Young, who has been sensational in the early part of the season with the Sooners.
Young is leading the nation in scoring with 28.5 points per game and is also the top assist man with 10.2 per game. Young has clearly created a buzz around a team that was just 11-20 last season.
Young is getting help from junior guard Christian James, who is averaging 12.8 points per game and connecting on 49.0 percent of his shots. Freshman Brady Manek is a fine outside shooter, who is averaging 11.3 points and connecting on 51.1 percent from the field.
Unless the Wildcats can put the clamps on Young early in the game, Oklahoma has a big advantage in this Big Ten-Big 12 confrontation.
Saturday, December 23
Ohio State (10-3) at No. 5 North Carolina (10-2), 1:30 p.m. ET, CBS
The defending national champion Tar Heels are coming off a shocking and embarrassing home loss to Wofford, and they are likely to make the Ohio State Buckeyes pay.
The Wofford Terriers came through with a 79-75 victory in Chapel Hill, and that victory was the school’s first over a Top-25 team.
North Carolina head coach Roy Williams saw his team have a poor shooting night, but he knows that his team does not have any huge fundamental issues. It would not be a surprise if the Tar Heels play their sharpest game of the year.
Forward Luke Maye is averaging 19.3 points and 10.6 rebounds while shooting 53.5 percent for the Tar Heels. He is getting excellent support from guard Joel Berry II, who is the team’s second-leading scorer with 17.1 points per game and is handing out 3.5 assists per night. However, Berry is struggling with his shooting, connecting on 37.3 percent of his shots from the field.
The Buckeyes are starting to find themselves under first-year head coach Chris Holtmann, having won their last five games. Two of those wins came over Big Ten rivals Wisconsin and Michigan, and that’s quite surprising considering that many of the preseason publications ranked them among the better conference teams.
Forward Keita Bates-Diop is averaging 18.2 points per game and connecting on 52.7 percent of his shots from the field and 82.5 percent of his free throws. Guard C.J. Jackson is averaging 13.0 points and a team-high 4.4 assists per game.
This will be a huge test for the Buckeyes, since they are likely to get North Carolina’s best effort.
Wednesday, December 27
No. 1 Villanova (11-0) at DePaul (7-5), 7:30 p.m. ET, CBSSN
The top-ranked Wildcats open the Big East portion of the schedule with what should be another win against DePaul.
While the Blue Demons don’t have the kind of talent to match up with Jay Wright’s Wildcats, they are playing winning basketball for the first time since the 2006-07 season.
There are no guarantees that DePaul will stay above the .500 mark, but head coach Dave Leitao has a team that is playing much better defense and finding the open man.
Guard Jalen Brunson will likely exploit DePaul, because he is playing sensational basketball. He is scoring 18.5 points per game, handing out 4.8 assists and connecting on an eye-catching 62.9 percent from the field.
Swingman Mikal Bridges is a top pro prospect, and he is averaging 17.1 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Center Marin Maric is having a positive impact on the program after transferring from Northern Illinois, averaging 12.6 points and 5.2 rebounds per night.
DePaul is likely to have a supportive crowd at brand new Wintrust Arena at the start of the game, but the Wildcats will quiet them down as the game hits the second half.
Wednesday, December 27
Eastern Michigan (8-2) at Syracuse (10-1), 7 p.m. ET, CBSSN
While neither team is in the top 25, the Eagles and the Orange are both off to fine starts and could have solid seasons.
Eastern Michigan looked like a middle-of-the-pack MAC team at the start of the year, but the Eagles started the season with four straight wins, and after losing two of three, the have won three consecutive games.
Forward Elijah Minnie and freshman forward/center James Thompson IV are doing much of the work on the frontline. Minne is scoring 18.5 points per night, while Thompson is averaging 17.7 points and pulling down 12.7 rebounds per game.
Jim Boeheim and the Orange are not expected to be among the top teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but Syracuse’s only loss came at the hands of Kansas. Boeheim has a way of preparing his team, and Syracuse could surprise once the ACC season gets underway.
Sophomore guard Tyus Battle is an excellent scorer and is averaging 20.7 points per game, while freshman forward Oshe Brissett is making an excellent impression. The 6-8, 195-pound Canadian is averaging 15.6 points and 9.5 rebounds per night.