Dec 22, 2019
Welcome to the last full week of college basketball action before conference play begins. These are the final opportunities for teams across the nation to either boost their league’s NET or prove themselves against opponents outside the ones they typically scout.
While these next seven days are a bit thin, the top 10 games on ESPN+ feature the favorite in the Atlantic 10, two under-the-radar Big 12 teams and mid-majors that are itching to make a statement.
ESPN’s streaming service continues to provide an inside look at undervalued teams during a college hoops season that has so far been defined by parity.
1. Grambling Tigers at No. 13 Dayton Flyers (Monday, 7 p.m. ET)
For the second straight week, Obi Toppin and the Flyers occupy the No. 1 game despite facing an inferior opponent.
While Grambling does have some size up front — including 7-foot-1 Travon Bunch — this could be a chance to catch a monster night from Toppin. The sophomore forward is averaging 19.8 points and 8.0 rebounds — while shooting a highly efficient 61.9 percent from the field — but he actually hasn’t scored 20-plus points since a win over Virginia Tech in Maui. Does this mean the big man is due? It’s certainly a possibility.
Because of the plethora of weapons at the Flyers’ disposal, they haven’t needed Toppin to dominate; however, this could be his time to shine as the team preps for A-10 play.
2. Tulsa Golden Hurricane at Kansas State Wildcats (Sunday, 6 p.m. ET, Big 12 Now on ESPN+)
Two squads with potential look to right the ship as they face off in Manhattan.
We’ll start with the Golden Hurricane, who began the season with a resounding 7-1 start before falling to Arkansas State and allowing 98 points in a loss to Arkansas. Coach Frank Haith has found a gem in LSU transfer Brandon Rachal, but the junior guard is one of only two players averaging double figures in points and leads the team in rebounds. More production outside of Rachal is needed.
On the flip side, the Wildcats have lost five of their past seven, including a disappointing 0-2 trip at the Fort Myers Tip-Off. Bruce Weber’s team has been stout as usual defensively, but Kansas State’s lack of offensive production has come to the forefront in all its defeats. Xavier Sneed and Cartier Diarra have taken leaps, though, which gives KSU hope when the schedule flips.
3. SE Louisiana Lions at Oklahoma State Cowboys (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET, Big 12 Now on ESPN+)
The Cowboys are an incredibly difficult team to figure out. They pounded Ole Miss by 41, ran through Syracuse and won at Houston, but they also were defeated by Georgetown days after James Akinjo and Josh LeBlanc left the program and were obliterated by both Minnesota and Wichita State.
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While drawing conclusions about OSU in this affair vs. Southeastern Louisiana will be tough, its depth will be something to keep an eye on. Can someone on the bench surface to help the four players averaging in double figures? Can Chris Harris Jr. — who has played 24 minutes per game in his past four outings — be the freshman who takes the Cowboys to the next level?
Mike Boynton has some questions to answer and this matchup could be a way to let his less-experienced role players get more comfortable before the schedule beefs up.
4. Bethune-Cookman Wildcats at Saint Louis Billikens (Sunday, 7 p.m. ET)
The Jordan Goodwin show returns to Chaifetz Arena after the Billikens upset Kansas State.
The 6-foot-3 junior guard has been something special this season, averaging career highs in points (15.3) and rebounds (11.0). He has recorded a double-double in six of his past seven games and had six assists and six steals — to go along with 18 points and 15 rebounds — in a win over Maryville University.
While Saint Louis should win this showdown rather easily, Goodwin can affect the game in numerous ways, making him must-see television and the leader of an underrated Billikens team.
5. Toledo Rockets at Bradley Braves (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET)
Ever since they gave Michigan State a run for its money in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season, the Braves have established themselves as one of the better mid-majors in the country. Bradley is backing up that reputation so far, as its only losses since the season-opener against Saint Joseph are to Northwestern, Memphis and Miami (Ohio) without its leading scorer, Elijah Childs.
The Rockets nearly defeated Notre Dame in South Bend, but they aren’t quite on the nation’s radar like their opponent. Toledo, which lost to UMKC by 15 early last week, doesn’t have the same defensive discipline as coach Brian Wardle’s squad.
With only one matchup against Buffalo in MAC play, this could be the Rockets’ last chance to prove that their performance against the Fighting Irish was no fluke.
6. Bucknell Bison at La Salle Explorers (The Palestra, Philadelphia) (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET)
La Salle puts its four-game win streak on the line against a Bucknell unit that has struggled so far this season.
The Explorers thrive thanks to their elite guard play, led by Isiah Deas. The 6-foot-6 senior is averaging 11.5 points, and he dropped a career-high 31 on Morgan State on Dec. 14. While he has been inconsistent at times this season — he has finished five games with less than 10 points — La Salle has had South Carolina transfer David Beatty and Clemson transfer Scott Spencer to turn to.
Rebounding from the losses of Nate Sestina and Kimbal Mackenzie hasn’t been easy for the Bison (4-8), who have played poorly defensively. However, coach Nathan Davis’ team has been challenged since the season tipped off and won’t fear facing a red-hot A-10 opponent.
7. Milwaukee Panthers at Northern Kentucky Norse (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)
Two groups heading in opposite directions square off as Milwaukee has lost five straight and Northern Kentucky has won three of its past four.
While senior guard Darius Roy is prospering before our very eyes, the Panthers are heavily reliant on Te’Jon Lucas — who has scored just 41 points in the past four outings. The Illinois transfer needs to produce at a high, consistent level in order for Milwaukee to be successful.
Meanwhile, Northern Kentucky is led by the three-headed combo of Dantez Walton, Tyler Sharpe and Trevon Faulkner. Besides Walton, the Norse’s interior play is a question as no other forward is averaging more than 5.1 points, and their limited size has factored into all four losses. Win the rebounding battle vs. Milwaukee, and the Norse should continue to thrive.
8. Longwood Lancers at George Washington Colonials (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET)
George Washington has lost to Towson, American, Morgan State and UMKC this season, so things are not exactly trending upward.
So why is this one of our games of the week? Because of Armel Potter.
The senior guard has been on fire of late, averaging 20.7 points, six assists and 4.3 rebounds in his past seven games. The Charleston Southern transfer has developed into the team’s go-to scorer and the best all-around player on the roster, providing Colonials fans with hope for the remainder of the campaign and Atlantic 10 fans the opportunity to watch a gem.
9. Lehigh Mountain Hawks at Princeton Tigers (Sunday, 4 p.m. ET)
Princeton already played in one of the games of the year on ESPN+ as the Tigers were defeated by Arizona State on a last-second 3-pointer. The Tigers’ record (3-8) doesn’t exactly scream “must-see TV,” but they’ve improved of late, and won a thrilling overtime affair against Iona on Dec. 17.
Depth is the strength for Princeton as 10 players are averaging 10.7 minutes or more. The Tigers utilize more bodies than you can count and try to wear their opponents down with discipline and energy.
Coach Mitch Henderson’s team could develop into an Ivy League sleeper, but first, maybe there will be another exciting ending in store at Jadwin Gym.
10. Detroit Mercy Titans at Oakland Golden Grizzlies (Saturday, 3 p.m. ET)
Antoine Davis vs. Xavier Hill-Mais. The former is an extremely gifted scorer who plays on a team spiraling in the wrong direction, while the latter has pro potential, with NBA tools and a strong all-around game.
These two won’t go head-to-head too often on the court — Davis is a guard while Hill-Mais patrols the paint — but they are the focus of this Christmas week matchup. The outcome will likely be decided by whichever star rises to the occasion.