Posted on December 8, 2023
Featuring the nation’s No. 1 team, the Conference of Champions has several key matchups over the weekend.
The top-ranked Wildcats take on No. 23 Wisconsin in Tucson while UCLA, Washington, and Colorado all face brand-name opponents.
I preview the four games here and my picks appear at the bottom.
No. 23 Wisconsin at No. 1 Arizona
Saturday, December 9
12:15 pm PT, ESPN
Wisconsin prevented Arizona from reaching the Final Four in back-to-back Elite 8 games during the 2014 and 2015 seasons. In many ways, the losses sealed the fate of the Sean Miller era in Tucson.
For the first time since those fateful seasons, the Cats have an opportunity for revenge.
The Badgers run a very short primary rotation. The main contributors are composed of just six players who combine to average 87.0 percent of Wisconsin’s scoring production.
And they do not share the ball on offense.
The Badgers enter the game 304th in assists per game and average only 11.0 in each contest. That means the offense is primarily one-on-one action designed to put pressure on individual opposing defenders.
From a personnel standpoint, Wisconsin presents somewhat of a challenge.
With a capable power forward in Tyler Wahl (6-foot-9 and 225 pounds) along with a legitimate center in Steven Crowl (7-foot and 247 pounds), the Badgers arguably have an advantage in the interior.
Tommy Lloyd figures to rotate Oumar Ballo and Mo Krivas on Crowl, though.
In other words, UA has the answers at center.
But Wahl is a different story.
Keshad Johnson (6-foot-7 and 225 pounds) gives up some height to the power forward and might have trouble slowing him down. If Johnson gets into foul trouble, it could be particularly concerning for Lloyd and his staff.
Paulius Murauskas (6-foot-8 and 225 pounds) is a natural second option, but he probably isn’t ready for a moment like this and might not see the court.
Lloyd could decide to play Ballo and Krivas together if Johnson gets into foul trouble.
It’s a bit of a headache that could require creative coaching solutions to address.
Still, Arizona matches up well against the rest of Wisconsin. The primary scorer is AJ Storr, a 6-foot-7 and 205-pound guard who’s right in Pelle Larsson’s wheelhouse.
The shooting guard position is where Arizona figures to eat.
Caleb Love (6-foot-4 and 205 pounds) will be matched up with Max Klesmit (6-foot-4 and 200 pounds) or a true freshman in John Blackwell (6-foot-4 and 194 pounds).
Neither presents a physical or skill challenge that will bother Love. The result could be Love’s top game as a Wildcat to date.
And at point guard, Kylan Boswell matches up well with Chucky Hepburn. The UA point guard figures to frustrate the Wisconsin distributor with high-pressure defense.
Defensive rebounding and free throw shooting will be key for Arizona, as well as defending the three and blocking shots.
Wisconsin is a defense-first team that runs one of the slowest paces in the nation. If Arizona can create turnovers that lead to fast breaks and transition points, the hostile crowd could turn this game into a blowout.
At the same time, the Badgers could make it a game if they shoot well from three. The Big Ten team is not a strong three-point shooting group.
But if Arizona lets them get open looks from the perimeter, Wisconsin could capitalize and put the game within reach.
UCLA vs. Villanova
Saturday, December 9
4:00 pm PT, FOX
Villanova has had an up-and-down year. The Wildcats lost to Penn, St. Joseph’s, and Drexel but beat Maryland, Texas Tech, North Carolina, and Memphis.
Like Forrest Gump would say, “You never know what you’re gunna get.”
Mick Cronin’s group is a stronger shooting team and a far better shot-blocking group. But otherwise, the analytics are similar.
Both teams take care of the ball well, rebound at about the same rate, score similar amounts of points per game, and share the ball with roughly comparable numbers.
Still, the Wildcats have just two players averaging in double-figures while Cronin has four.
Led by Eric Dixon (6-foot-8 and 255 pounds) and Justin Moore (6-foot-5 and 210 pounds), the Big East team has respectable variability.
However, Moore suffered a sprained knee on Tuesday and is questionable for the matchup with the Bruins.
Dixon, though, is a unique player and a matchup problem.
With weight that makes him more of a center but at the height of a power forward, he’s somewhat of an in-betweener. Yet, he plays like a wing.
Averaging 3.3 shots from deep per game, Dixon is not afraid to shoot the ball from the perimeter.
Cronin probably doesn’t want Adem Bona guarding the three-point line and must be scratching his head trying to find a solution.
It’s a matchup that screams Berke Buyuktuncel’s name, yet the Turkish freshman is out for the game with an ankle injury.
There are no good answers. The result could be Dixon going off.
The Bruins have an issue against this type of player that will continue until Buyuktuncel advances to where he needs to be for Division I college basketball.
The rest of the personnel matchups, though, are relatively favorable. Villanova’s other options are guards and Cronin has plenty of players to appropriately match up.
And the Wildcats don’t have a true center.
If Aday Mara can step up and play to the expectations surrounding him entering this season, there’s a major opportunity to be had. This team is vulnerable to a dominant big and the spotlight is on.
The question is, will Mara deliver?
No. 7 Gonzaga at Washington
Saturday, December 9
8:00 pm PT, ESPN2
The Huskies have the personnel, particularly among the starters, to match up with Gonzaga’s strengths.
Franck Kepnang is an ideal center to counter Graham Ike and Keion Brooks Jr. is arguably the right body type to contain Anton Watson.
In other words, Mike Hopkins has solutions for the Zags’ top two scorers.
And in the backcourt, Hop has adequate and multiple options to assign to Nolan Hickman and Ryan Nembhard.
Sahvir Wheeler won’t be physically outclassed by Nembhard and Koren Johnson matches up well with Hickman’s height.
Paul Mulcahy is built very similarly to Dusty Stromer, too. Both players are wing/guard hybrids that can play either the two or three as needed.
There’s a skill discrepancy between the rosters. Yet, the Spider-Man meme could aptly describe the two roster compositions.
The primary difference, though, is Gonzaga’s backup bigs. Braden Huff (6-foot-10 and 242 pounds) and Ben Gregg (6-foot-10 and 230 pounds) are matchup nightmares.
The duo can either spell Ike or be used as stretch power forwards that do most of their damage from the perimeter.
The two players are the definition of an X-Factor that could single-handedly win Gonzaga the game.
Gregg averages 2.1 attempts from three per game and is shooting 41.2 percent from beyond the arc. Huff is even better. The freshman is taking an average of 2.4 shots from three and is knocking down 52.6 percent of his looks.
Huff can also score down low, too, and is averaging 65.1 percent from the field and 12.5 points per game.
Hopkins has answers up and down his bench for all the other weapons Mark Few has, except for Huff/Gregg. And Few knows it.
Moses Wood and Wilhelm Breidenbach are the probable assignments to slow them down, or perhaps even Braxton Meah.
To beat the Zags, Washington must figure out the answers to Gonzaga’s perimeter-shooting backup bigs. Otherwise, the game could turn into a double-digit loss.
Colorado v. No. 15 Miami
Sunday, December 10
11:00 am PT, ESPN2
It’s a one-off game against Miami that is the featured matchup of the eight-team event.
Despite the Hurricane’s Top 25 ranking, it’s a fairly even game on paper. The teams are neck-and-neck in points per game, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, three-point percentage, rebounds, and turnovers.
The primary differences are that Colorado shares the ball more often and Miami blocks more shots.
The Canes have four players averaging in double-figures. The rotation is short, too. Three play 30 minutes or more, while leading scorer Wooga Poplar averages 29 minutes.
Almost entirely guard-based, Miami might be vulnerable in the interior. But that’s not Colorado’s strength.
Eddie Lampkin Jr. is sixth on the team in scoring and fifth in minutes per game. Tristan da Silva might have success in the paint, but Boyle doesn’t have a dominant big to take advantage down low.
The result could be a high-paced affair that’s dominated by the guards.
The X-Factor is Cody Williams. At 6-foot-8 and 190 pounds, Williams creates a cause for concern for Jim Larranaga.
Able to score from anywhere on the court, his efficiency around the rim must scare the Miami coaching staff.
The Canes have some options on their bench to throw at him, yet Matthew Cleveland figures to garner most of the assignment.
Cleveland averages over a steal per game and his defense against Williams figures to loom large.
If Williams, KJ Simpson, and Tristan da Silva each have efficient days from the field, Boyle’s team can get the job done.
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