We’re fresh off of a non-conference slate that produced several unforgettable moments: Malik Monk’s 47-point outburst against North Carolina. UCLA’s coming out party at Rupp Arena against Kentucky. Baylor rampaging through VCU, Michigan State and Louisville in the Battle 4 Atlantis. The list could go on and on.
Each part of the college basketball season is special for different reasons. There is a certain poetry that comes with conference rivalries; year in and year out, each game is a new verse.
With that said, contrasting styles and high-level individual battles can create a recipe for wildly entertaining basketball. Here are a few matchups that we haven’t seen yet but would be a blast to watch in March.
UCLA vs. Virginia
Fast vs. slooooowww. Virginia may be beatable, but the Hoos are impossible to speed up. Lonzo Ball and the Bruins thrive in a fast-paced environment, so this would be a significant style clash.
The Bruins invite opposing offenses to try and collect their own misses. Fail, and UCLA is off to the races in transition. Steve Alford’s squad ranks 12th in the nation in adjusted tempo; it’s first in offensive efficiency.
The Bruins attempt a ton of 3’s. Opponents barely make 30 percent of their triples against Virginia. UCLA spaces the floor in an effort to get easy looks at the rim. Opponents make less than 40 percent of their 2’s against the Cavs.
It’s like UCLA and Virginia are playing different sports while trying to achieve the same goal. Things would get weird. A 30-second UVA possession ending in a London Perrantes midrange bucket would be followed by a Bryce Alford 3-pointer launched five seconds into the shot clock. Bring it on.
West Virginia vs. Duke
Duke is absurdly talented, but the Blue Devils’ rotation is messy at the moment, and they still don’t have a true point guard.
It’s hard to break West Virginia’s press regardless, but without a gifted floor general, it’s an absolute nightmare. The Mountaineers force turnovers on an astounding 34.1 percent of their opponents’ possessions; Fordham, which ranks second in defensive turnover rate, comes in at 28.8 percent. Press Virginia is unlike anything we’ve seen in college basketball in the last decade.
Then again, there’s a reason why NBA teams rarely press. The most talented players generally aren’t affected by gimmick defenses, and every player in Duke’s rotation has a good chance to reach the league. Kentucky blew the doors off of West Virginia’s press in the 2015 NCAA tournament.
But Bob Huggins’ turnover-forcing machine gets more and more lethal each season, and the 2016-17 version looks to be the scariest yet. This game would be awesome.
Kansas vs. Purdue
Caleb Swanigan is doing ridiculous things this season for Purdue. He’s pulled down 20 or more rebounds in three of his last four games, and right now he’s looking like the favorite to win the Big Ten Player of the Year Award. The Boilermakers’ perimeter weapons are coming along despite consistency issues, and when they’re firing, few teams in the country are beating Purdue.
On the other side, unlike most Kansas teams, the 2016-17 Jayhawks are clearly more talented on the perimeter than they are on the inside. The outside trio of Frank Mason III, Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson is among the best in the land; despite their progress, the Boilers would have trouble matching up on the edge.
At the same time, the Jayhawks are thinner up front than they’ve been in years. Landen Lucas would get the first crack at containing Swanigan, but there is nobody on the Kansas roster that can guard him one-on-one. Then you remember that the Boilermakers have another interior hoss in Isaac Haas, and you’re left searching for answers.
Stops would be scarce in this tilt. We can only hope that we’ll see Swanigan and Mason trading crunch time buckets in an NCAA tournament game one day.
Kentucky vs. Creighton
Every player in Creighton’s starting lineup is a good 3-point shooter; Kentucky has one sniper in its starting five, but his name is Malik Monk, and he’s essentially an offense unto himself. The Wildcats struggle to make perimeter shots outside of Monk, but when he’s rolling, he defies logic. Every shot is a good shot when it leaves No. 5’s fingertips, regardless of distance or difficulty.
For Creighton, outside of Marcus Foster (who’s Monk-lite, by the way), the Bluejays are masters at creating open looks for themselves. Creighton makes 43 percent of its 3-point attempts, which leads the country, and it presents no hiding places for opposing defenders.
This backcourt matchup would be something else. Monk and De’Aaron Fox are as young and explosive as they come, but Foster and Mo Watson, while not as heralded, school foes on a nightly basis with their combination of shooting, passing and smarts. Justin Patton and Bam Adebayo would form an intriguing inside matchup as well; Patton is one of the rare guys who can shoot 3’s and protect the rim, while Adebayo looks like a baby Dwight Howard for the Wildcats. The rosters are constructed in completely different ways, but this would be one heck of a matchup.