In a season with many imperfect, unproven teams, December could be a statement month for some teams in college basketball.
While some teams take it easy in the scheduling department in the last month of the calendar year, others have challenged themselves prior to starting conference play. Facing tougher competition now can pay sufficient dividends down the road in both team improvement and potential postseason prospects.
Here are 10 teams who have a chance to quiet some early-season doubters and show that they are real forces to be reckoned with this season.
Key Games: at Florida State, at Arizona, vs. Kansas State
If not for the incompatibility of the outdoors and the basketball hardwood, we might already know a bit more about how good Florida actually is at this point.
Instead, we will have to wait at least a couple more weeks to get a real feel for this year’s Gators.
Florida was supposed to get a nice season-opening test against Georgetown (currently No. 20 AP) on the USS Bataan in Jacksonville. Instead, the Gators got a nice season-opening half—in which they led 27-23—and that was it. The half did not count as a win, and the game will not be resumed or made up at later date.
To Florida’s credit, it has done everything it can since the Georgetown cancellation. The Gators rolled over Marquette on Thursday and also beat Wisconsin rather easily at home a couple weeks back. They sit at 6-0, with each of their wins coming by at least 13 points.
Having not been seriously tested in November, the road is about to get significantly tougher for Florida. That’s mainly because it will actually have to go on the road for some challenging games.
Within the next three weeks, Florida will head to Tallahassee, Tucson and Kansas City, respectively. The Gators will have an always-tough battle with Florida State next Wednesday. After a 10-day “break,” they’ll head out west to face No. 9 Arizona in a Sweet 16-type game. A week later, Florida will take on a solid Kansas State team in a semi-neutral game in Kansas City.
Those three games in December will tell us quite a bit about Florida. If the Gators win at least two, they’ll still have a solid claim as a potential Elite Eight team. Lose two, and Florida will have some ground to make up in SEC play if it wants a real shot as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Key Games: at Purdue, vs. Kent State, vs. Cincinnati, at Tennessee
Last December was quite the roller-coaster ride for Xavier. At times it was as tremendous as it was hideous.
Xavier’s season a year ago was split into two—before the brawl and after the brawl.
The “before” team was undefeated, with an amazing comeback win over Purdue and a win over Cincinnati (the brawl was at the very end of the game). The “after” team was semi-embarrassed in Hawaii around Christmas and never found its rhythm throughout Atlantic 10 play after being expected to win the league.
This year, Xavier is hoping for a much more consistent month of December. Something more like the first 10 days of the month and not the final 20.
In order to do that, though, the Musketeers will need to beat some quality teams throughout the month. That includes two teams out for major revenge after losing to them last year.
This Saturday, Xavier will start its challenging December at Purdue. The Boilermakers might still be boiling after letting one get away at Xavier a year ago. Winning the rematch in West Lafayette would be a great way for the Musketeers to build some confidence heading into some tougher games later in the month.
The second team out to return the favor—strictly with its play on the court, we hope—is Cincinnati (now No. 17 AP). The Brawl aside, the Bearcats were blown out by 23 at the Cintas Center last December. This time around, the two will play at the US Bank Arena, a neutral court. It may very well be the toughest game Xavier has on its entire schedule.
After those two tests, Xavier has another tough game right before starting conference play. The Musketeers will face Tennessee, in Knoxville. The Vols figure to make a strong run at an NCAA Tournament bid this year, and if Xavier wants to do the same, it may need to steal this one on the road.
These three games, along with one in between against an underrated Kent State team, should give us a better indication of how much Xavier’s fairly inexperienced bunch can compete in the A-10 this season.
Key Games: at Memphis, at UMass, at Oklahoma
Last season, Ohio went undefeated in the month of December. It ultimately led to a Sweet 16 appearance.
Can the same happen for this year’s team? It may be a bit tougher to match last year’s feat, but certainly within the realm of possibility.
Ohio sits at 6-0 with some strong voting consideration for the Top 25. However, the Bobcats haven’t been tested too much yet. They handled their toughest tests so far against a pair of Atlantic 10 teams (Richmond and St. Bonaventure).
The tests will start to get tougher next week, with a trip to Memphis. While the Tigers struggled last weekend in the Bahamas, they still present the kind of size and talent depth that Ohio just isn’t used to seeing regularly. A win for the Bobcats there would be of real significance and could pay major dividends down the road.
Two weeks after that game, Ohio will face another A-10 team in Massachusetts. That figures to be a bigger challenge than the Bobcats’ first two opponents from that league. A one-on-one matchup between two undersized point guards—DJ Cooper and Chaz Williams—should be really fun to watch.
The third test for the month comes on Dec. 29, when Ohio travels to Oklahoma. The Sooners are off to a pretty solid start at 5-1 and looked good in last weekend’s Old Spice Classic. Also, this is the only BCS conference opponent on the Bobcats’ schedule. A win would be important for furthering the credibility of not only this year’s team, but the Ohio program as a whole.
Key Games: at Gonzaga, vs. Missouri
Coach John Groce helped prove Ohio was legit last year. Despite moving to a Big Ten program, he may once again have to help prove his team is for real.
Groce and his Illinois team looked really good last week in Maui, taking home the tournament title. The problem was, it wasn’t against the normal level of competition a team figures to see there. Blowout wins over USC and Chaminade preceded an impressive 17-point win over Butler—who was coming off a big win over then-No. 9 North Carolina.
However, the lingering doubt over this Illinois team comes from the two games it played surrounding the Maui Invitational. The Illini escaped with an overtime win at Hawaii, and then needed a deep three-pointer from Tyler Griffey to avoid a loss at home to Gardner-Webb.
In the coming month, Illinois will have two big chances to prove if it will be a serious factor in the Big Ten this year. Both of those will be away from home against current Top 20 teams.
First, Illinois will head out west to Spokane to face Gonzaga (now No. 12) on Dec. 8. Mark Few’s team has looked almost as good as anyone en route to its 6-0 start, which includes wins over West Virginia, Oklahoma and Davidson. This isn’t a game we should expect the Illini to win, but if they do, they may quickly move into the “for real” category.
Another doubt-erasing opportunity comes a couple weeks later, in the annual bragging rights game between Illinois and Missouri. As always, it will be played in Saint Louis, meaning it’s an excellent chance to win a big game on a neutral court.
A split against Gonzaga and Missouri would be a positive outcome for Illinois. While losing both won’t immediately make them a pretender, it will mean the Illini will just have to do more work in the Big Ten to erase doubts and impress the selection committee.
Key Games: vs. Georgetown, vs. UCLA, vs. UNC, at Michigan State
As good as Illinois looked in Maui, Texas looked every bit as bad.
First, the Longhorns lost by 13 to Division II Chaminade, the longtime tournament host. The next day, they were only marginally better, losing by six to a USC team that went 6-26 (and 1-17 in the Pac 12) a year ago. A win over a depleted Mississippi State the following day merely kept things from getting even worse.
Luckily for Rick Barnes’ team, there are numerous opportunities to dig out of the hole they created for themselves last week. The first will be next week at Madison Square Garden, against No. 20 Georgetown. The Hoyas looked very good in their last trip to New York, beating UCLA and almost knocking off No. 1 Indiana.
Speaking of UCLA, the Bruins are Texas’ second crack at getting back on track. For the Horns, that one will be played much closer to home, in Houston. With the Bruins in some shambles themselves after an inexplicable home loss to Cal Poly, both teams will hungry for a salvaging win against a name opponent.
Later in December, Texas gets North Carolina, in Austin. Like UCLA, UNC is still trying to find its way with an extremely young team. The Longhorns should be fine with a split against those two teams, but winning both is still a possibility.
The final test of December for Texas will be at Michigan State. The Spartans have been yet another inconsistent team thus far, defeating Kansas while losing to Connecticut and Miami—not to mention barely beating Boise State and Louisiana-Lafayette at home. It’s never easy to steal a game in East Lansing, but if there’s a time to do it, Dec. 22 might just be a good a time as any.
After its rough start, Texas should be quite thankful to have these four games on its horizon. Whether Myck Kabongo is cleared to return remains a huge question and will certainly play a huge role in how Texas fares in these contests.
If he does return, winning two or three of these games seems realistic. Even if he continues to sit, a split is still very possible, given the struggles of some of these teams.
Key Games: at Kentucky, Northwestern, BYU, at Gonzaga
Losing three of its players to the NBA draft figured to pose some early-season problems for Baylor. However, one of the early losses suffered may mean it must do even more to prove it could get to its third Elite Eight in four seasons.
After a surprising home loss to the College of Charleston last weekend, Baylor now finds itself at 4-2. That’s not terrible, considering the other loss came to Colorado, but the Bears may need to win a couple key games in December to offset the bit of bad taste in some fans’ mouths.
First up is Kentucky, in Lexington. This is a rematch of last year’s Elite Eight matchup, but this time around a much more winnable game for Baylor. Despite the fact it is at Rupp Arena, Baylor has the personnel to match up with Kentucky’s talented but inexperienced front line. If Pierre Jackson can show poise and leadership in front of the huge crowd, Baylor may just steal a huge win.
Three days after the game at Kentucky, Baylor returns home to face Northwestern. The Bears destroyed the Wildcats on their home court a year ago, but a repeat of that is far from a guarantee. Note the College of Charleston loss a week ago.
Later in December, Baylor gets two games against two of the top teams in the WCC, BYU and Gonzaga. The Bears will get BYU at home before having to play a game in The Kennel against the Bulldogs. BYU very nearly knocked off Baylor—when it was still undefeated—a year ago. Gonzaga, meanwhile, is off to a ferocious start and could be the Bears’ toughest test in the non-conference season—Kentucky included.
If Baylor wants to be a serious title contender in the Big 12, it needs to prove it can handle adversity, and win tough games on the road. It has two such chances this month. Winning one—while taking care of business against two quality teams at home—should put Baylor back on track for a very formidable season.
Key Games: at Arizona, at Louisiana Tech, at Wichita State
There are currently 28 undefeated teams in college basketball. Southern Miss is one of them.
For the most part, the Golden Eagles’ schedule to date has been soft. A win at Georgia may not be too bad, but it doesn’t say too much about how good Southern Miss may be, either.
A couple more meaningful tests lay ahead in December, however. Southern Miss will play No. 9 Arizona on Tuesday, in Tucson. A win there is certainly not expected, but a competitive effort could do more to impress people than any of the Eagles’ six wins thus far.
The following weekend is an interesting game at Louisiana Tech. Like the Eagles, the Bulldogs, at 5-1 thus far, are trying to prove themselves to be conference-title contenders.
A very intriguing game awaits Southern Miss on December 22, when it faces Wichita State. The Shockers, despite losing most of its 27-6 team a year ago, appear to have rebounded much faster expected. With that game being in Wichita, it provides the Eagles with an opportunity for a very quality win they can build off heading into the Conference USA schedule.
After its first NCAA tournament appearance in 21 years this past March, Southern Miss is anxious for a return trip this year. A couple quality road wins in December could certainly help that cause.
Key Games: at Cincinnati, at St. Louis
The Pit can be as imposing a venue as any in college basketball. Only one team (San Diego State) won a game there last year.
That kind of home-court advantage can lead to a bit of discomfort away from home. New Mexico proved it could handle playing away from home when it won the Paradise Jam tournament, on the Virgin Islands. That included respectable wins over Connecticut and George Mason.
Now, the Lobos must prepare again to play several games away from Albuquerque. Though this time, each will be of the true road variety.
New Mexico will open December with a tricky game at Indiana State, in the MVC-MWC Challenge. Teams from the Valley are never easy, especially on the road. That cannot be considered a “gimme” game for the Lobos.
A home-and-home with in-state rival New Mexico State comes in the middle of the month for New Mexico. Again, despite losing much of the nucleus of last year’s team, the Aggies are sure to get up for their home matchup.
The end of December will provide a real test, as the Lobos have a tough back-to-back against Cincinnati and Saint Louis. Cincinnati appears to be a legit Top 20 team, and Saint Louis is still a tough defensive team despite not having coach Rick Majerus on the sidelines.
Winning on the road in the Mountain West is always difficult, no matter where you play. The upcoming December road games provide New Mexico a good trial run for the conference road slate.
If it plans to once again compete for a MWC title, New Mexico better win at least two of these games, and probably three.
Key Games: at Wisconsin, vs. UNLV, vs. Creighton
Its situation is a bit like that of Illinois. For California, winning an early season tournament has not quite erased all doubts as to how formidable the team truly is.
Like Illinois, Cal will have the opportunity to put many uncertainties to rest with a couple key wins in December.
On Sunday, Cal heads to Madison for a matchup with Wisconsin. Normally, this is one of those games you just put in the W column for the Badgers, given its outstanding track record at home. Now, after a somewhat surprising loss at home to Virginia, all bets are off. Cal has to feel a bit better about its chances after seeing that.
A week later, Cal will be back at home to face UNLV. The Rebels figure to be the more talented team here, but are still a bit of a work in progress, as evidenced by a loss to Cal’s Pac-12 foe, Oregon. Nonetheless, if the Bears can win that game it will likely look really good down the road, not to mention prove Cal as a potential Top 25 team.
Another tough home contest will come on Dec. 15, against Creighton. The Bluejays look forward to the chance to beat a BCS conference team on its home court, and Cal is not too bad a team to do it against. While the Bears got by one MVC team already, Drake, Creighton is a totally different animal.
Winning two of these three games should prove Cal will once again be a serious player in the Pac-12. Short of that, and the doubts cast on the Bears’ legitimacy may remain into 2013.
Key Games: vs. San Diego St., vs. Texas, vs. Missouri
UCLA wasn't expected to dominate from the get-go. Its preseason rank was probably a bit high, and based more on future expectation. That notion was emphatically proven right after a brutal home loss to Cal Poly.
That loss, along with a loss to Georgetown in Brooklyn last week, hurdled UCLA out of its No. 11 rank, and out of the Top 25 entirely. Despite the abrupt but deserved exit from the ranks, the Bruins now get the chance to play their way right back in.
On Saturday, chance number one awaits. San Diego State, clinging to a spot in the Top 25, will travel up to Anahiem to face UCLA. Though a much more experienced team, the Aztecs are not without some question marks, particularly in the frontcourt. If UCLA can exploit those, it may emerge with a key victory that could prove valuable later on.
As already touched on in an earlier slide, the Bruins will face Texas on Dec. 8, in Houston. The Longhorns are in a bit of disarray after a terrible showing in Maui, granted it was without point guard Myck Kabongo. Playing in what will basicallly be a road game provides another good test for this young team.
The third game circled on the December calendar of UCLA is a home date with Missouri. The Tigers are off to a solid start and may be almost as good a team as last year's Big 12 champion (and NCAA No. 2 seed) team. A win there would be huge for the Bruins' confidence and could be just the springboard this potent team needs to eventually take its spot at the top of the Pac-12 this year.