Marquee games fill the week in Top 25 basketball
The holiday break is usually a quiet time in college basketball, many of the top teams playing small-conference schools at home or taking extra time off before conference schedules start in full.
The season isn’t quite there yet and this week is loaded with marquee games, including two involving No. 16 UCLA.
The big day is Saturday when No. 4 Alabama faces No. 15 Gonzaga in Birmingham, Alabama, No. 6 Tennessee is at No. 9 Arizona and No. 8 Kansas hosts No. 14 Indiana. UCLA also faces No. 13 Kentucky in New York on Saturday after playing at No. 20 Maryland on Wednesday.
The most intriguing game Saturday might be No. 5 Houston at No. 2 Virginia.
The Cougars (9-1) lead the nation in scoring defense (49.7 points per game) and field goal defense (33.8%) despite losing to Alabama last week. The Cavaliers love to grind out possessions and are 13th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 57.9 points per game.
First one to 50 wins?
The Alabama game is the Zags’ latest against a high-level opponent.
Gonzaga (7-3) has dropped in the AP Top 25 after starting at No. 2 in the preseason, thanks to losses to No. 7 Texas, top-ranked Purdue and No. 11 Baylor. The Zags do have wins over No. 13 Kentucky and Michigan State on their resume.
Saturday’s game won’t be easy.
Alabama (8-1) climbed four spots in this week’s poll after joining Oklahoma in 1990 as the only teams to beat two No. 1 teams in the same season. The Crimson Tide outlasted North Carolina in four overtimes on Nov. 27 and proved it was no fluke by topping Houston 71-65 on Saturday.
The Tennessee-Arizona game will be a head-butting of strengths.
The Volunteers (9-1) are one of the nation’s best defensive teams, leading the country in 3-point defense (20.2%) while ranking in the top six in scoring defense, field goal percentage against and steals.
Arizona (8-1) leads the nation with 91.2 points and 21 assists per game.
Tennessee looked unstoppable while building an 18-point lead against No. 20 Maryland on Sunday, then had to hold on down the stretch for a 56-53 win. The Wildcats bounced back from a loss to Utah with lopsided wins over California and No. 14 Indiana.
The Hoosiers (8-2) get another massive test playing the Jayhawks at Allen Fieldhouse. Indiana allowed Arizona to go on a 17-0 run in Las Vegas, rallied to make it close and faded down the stretch without stellar freshman guard Jalen Hood-Schifino due to a back injury.
Kansas (9-1) has been solid after winning its fourth national title last season, its only loss coming to Tennessee in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game. The Jayhawks have wins over No. 12 Duke and No. 22 Wisconsin, and they blew out rival Missouri last weekend.
UCLA (8-2) may have the toughest task of all, facing two ranked teams in the same week for the second time this season.
The first go-round didn’t go so well. The Bruins lost by nine to No. 18 Illinois and by five to No. 11 Baylor in Las Vegas. UCLA has won five straight since, including victories over Stanford and Oregon to begin its Pac-12 schedule.
Maryland (8-2) has looked good in its first season under coach Kevin Willard, but has lost its last two games.
The Terrapins allowed Wisconsin to score 13 straight points, but held the Badgers without a field goal over the final 4:03 before losing 64-59 last week. Maryland then fell into another hole against Tennessee in Brooklyn before pulling together another rally that came up short.
After the Terps, the Bruins face maybe an even tougher test.
Kentucky (7-2) has been dominant at times and its only losses were to Michigan State in double overtime and to Gonzaga in Spokane. The Wildcats also figure to get strong support at Madison Square Garden.
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