-- There are always games. That's one of the things we love about the college basketball season, and one of the things we occasionally take for granted. The next vital, exciting, two-monitors-with-WatchESPN-running night of basketball is never a full week away. College football Saturdays are a data overdose; college hoops' schedule is a regimented dopamine drip.
The best part? College basketball also has its Saturdays. It's nice that these things aren't mutually exclusive, because while we enjoy a Monday night doubleheader as much as the next person, let's be real: There's nothing quite like a good college basketball Saturday. Sleeping in, popping on GameDay, ordering some food, scouring your cable package for an obscure sports network, losing track of time as each game bleeds into another. It is these rituals we miss most in July. These are the best days of the year.
Saturday is one of those days.
Indeed, Dec. 19 is the first really good hoops Saturday of the 2015-16 season. It features two quality neutral-court doubleheaders, a top-10-ish matchup in Charlottesville, Virginia, and at least 10 important and/or watchable fixtures spread across 12 hours. We don't want to oversell it: There will be better Saturdays to come ( like, say, Jan. 30). But now that college football takes somewhat of a break and final exams have (mostly) wrapped up, the decks have been cleared for a Saturday that feels like the heart of college hoops season should.
Here are the highlights, ordered according to awesomeness:
On Sunday, Villanova beat La Salle 76-47. This is not noteworthy in its own right. What is noteworthy is that one game after their 4-for-32 3-point whiff-fest in a blowout loss to No. 3 Oklahoma, the Wildcats once again happily hoisted more 3s (28) than 2s (23). This time they made 13. We bring this up because the Wildcats' struggles from the 3-point line this season are the only difference between their current No. 12 ranking and a likely spot in the AP top five -- and it is only a matter of time before a team this confident from long range (and this accurate elsewhere on the floor) starts burying some of those 3s. It's entirely plausible that Virginia could be the second victim of a gathering storm of statistical correction, and if you think Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett isn't worried about that very notion at this very second, you haven't been paying attention.
Then again, Virginia's own early shooting woes -- like all those open looks that wouldn't fall in the Hoos' lone loss Nov. 16 at George Washington -- are decidedly a thing of the past. The Cavaliers are averaging 38 percent from 3, led by Malcolm Brogdon's high-volume efficiency and a 14-of-26 season mark from London Perrantes. Combining that accuracy with the customary aversion to turnovers has made UVa one of the nation's best offenses since the GW defeat -- and, yes, it is still playing top-five defense, too.
The point is, both of these teams are better than the numbers next to their names. Virginia might be the best team in the country. Villanova isn't far behind. And this game isn't merely the best of the day: It's one of the best nonconference games of the season.
Then again, what if Purdue is the best team in the country? Why not? ESPN's Basketball Power Index debuted with the Boilermakers at No. 1 this week, and the argument isn't all that difficult to understand: Matt Painter's team is 11-0. It has yet to win a game by fewer than 12 points. Its average margin of victory is 26. And its defense -- which lost reigning Big Ten defensive player of the year Rapheal Davis for four games to injury -- has held opponents to .89 points per possession. That's ... insane.
Then again, none of those 11 opponents were anything like Butler. In lieu of the Bulldogs' traditional grinding style, second-year coach Chris Holtmann has unleashed guards Kellen Dunham and Roosevelt Jones upon a suddenly super-efficient, and shockingly uptempo, offensive attack. Do the Bulldogs have the size to handle forwards Isaac Haas, A.J. Hammons and Caleb Swanigan? Probably not. Will the Bulldogs test the nation's best defense on the other end of the floor? Absolutely.
UCLA fans are uncommonly hard to please, but even they have to be enjoying this season so far. Sure, sure, it's not 10 national titles in 12 years, but John Wooden probably laid down some koan about enjoying life's smaller pleasures at some point, and the contrast between this December and 12 months ago absolutely qualifies. This time last year, the disjointed Bruins were embarking on a five-game losing streak that included a sound home defeat to Gonzaga, a horrific public dismembering by Kentucky, road losses at Alabama and Colorado, and a 71-39 clinic presided over by Utah guard Delon Wright. This year? The Bruins have already knocked off No. 1 Kentucky and won at Gonzaga. On Monday, they breached the top 25. Now they'll head into a nationally televised neutral court game against North Carolina with two legitimate bigs ( Tony Parker, Thomas Welsh) playing smart, complementary interior basketball. It's the little things, right?
For all of the good Billy Kennedy's excellent freshman class has done his team this season -- from a general talent boost to an influx of depth and lineup flexibility -- it is times like these when he will be thankful to have a few veterans in the mix, too. Because, real talk, freshman have never seen anything like Rico Gathers. The best and most relentless rebounder of the 2014-15 season is at it again, still leading the nation in offensive rebounding rate (22.1 percent) while posting a top-20 figure (29.3 percent) on defense. Even better, when Gathers is fouled -- as a glass-clearing maniac of his caliber often is -- he is shooting 78.6 percent at the line, up from 61.3 a season ago. Throw in Taurean Prince, Johnathan Motley and better-than-expected backcourt play, and the task ahead of these impressive Aggies, even at home, is their toughest to date.
We're not quite ready to give up on the Utes. That this idea requires enumeration should tell you how disappointing Larry Krystkowiak's team has been in its two losses to Miami ( 90-66) and Wichita State ( 67-50). The lockdown defense Utah played a year ago was nowhere to be found on either night, while its offense appears to have taken a step back, too. Losing star guard Delon Wright was always going to be tough. Wright was a brilliant defender and an attention-magnet distributor, one who got Brandon Taylor and Jordan Loveridge loads of open shots. Without him, the Utes' 3-point accuracy has plummeted. Their opponents' has skyrocketed. That said. Who knows? It's still early enough that 3-pointers on either end of the floor shouldn't be regarded as an unfixable flaw. We'll find out just how fixable when Duke -- missing forward Amile Jefferson but still featuring a deadly Grayson Allen -- shows up to Madison Square Garden on Saturday afternoon.
Do you hate defense? Then have we got a game for you! Both the Hoosiers and Irish will arrive at the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis looking to emerge from disappointing early losses -- losses both suffered primarily because neither team could get stops. Indiana is shooting the leather off the ball, averaging 61 percent from 2 and 44 percent from 3, which is really, really good. Unfortunately, you don't get to shoot if you turn the ball over first. Notre Dame is one of the least turnover-focused defensive teams in Division I, and perhaps that means this will be the game the full force of IU's vaunted, multi-weapon offense is finally felt. Anyway, if you had to watch just one of the lesser doubleheader games (Ohio State-Kentucky being the other), this is it. Points!
Iowa State's true rival is Iowa. Iowa's true rival is Iowa State. Northern Iowa just kind of hates everybody. That said, having ripped out the Hawkeyes' hearts in Ames last week, the Cyclones can now turn their attention to another of the breadbasket's excellent hoops outfits. The Panthers knocked off North Carolina in November but have lost to Richmond and New Mexico since, making this neutral-court game against a top-five team a magnificent crack at a marquee win in advance of Missouri Valley play. The Cyclones will be without guard Nazareth Mitrou-Long, whose season ended due to injury this week.
The past few weeks have been unusually panic-inducing for Wichita State fans, as an injury to guard Fred VanVleet resulted in three losses and the sudden tightening of the Shockers' nonconference résumé window. Then VanVleet got healthy, Wichita handled UNLV and Utah at home, and everyone could take a big, deep breath. And yet this weekend's trip to Seton Hall remains nervy. The Pirates are in that awkward perceptual sweet spot: good enough to beat a good team on their own court, probably not good enough to get to the NCAA tournament. With so little chance to make up at-large ground in the MVC, it's not clear the Shockers can afford to drop this one.
This isn't about the "most improved player." If it were, Michigan State's Denzel Valentine would probably win. (Though Purdue's Isaac Haas would be a strong contender, too.) Let's table that discussion for a month or two. For now, it's worth taking note of Texas guard Isaiah Taylor's improvement in his first season under Shaka Smart, wherein Taylor has improved his assist rate, lowered his turnovers, drawn nearly twice as many fouls per 40 minutes and turned in a career-best 110.6 offensive rating despite using nearly 29 percent of his team's available possessions. Kudos are in order. The Longhorns travel to Stanford on Saturday.
Safest space on the Internet
Bring it in, guys. No one is judging. No one is going to make fun of you. We're just going to have a quick, honest exchange: When you saw "Baylor vs. Texas A&M," did you briefly wonder why the Big 12 was beginning conference play in mid-December? We'll go first: Yes. Yes we did.
Oh, come on, guys. Don't be shy. Really? Just us?