As colleges approach finals week, a few of the nation’s top teams will first have to deal with their own tests on the hardwood.
Passing those tests could help clarify which teams should be considered among this season’s elite in college basketball.
Three teams—Arizona, Kansas and Gonzaga—occupying the final three spots of the Top 10, respectively, will put their rankings on the line on Saturday.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that only one is playing a ranked team—all three should be very much on alert heading into their matchups.
No. 8 Arizona vs. Clemson: Can the Cats win a grinder on the road?
Unlike its Pac-12 counterpart UCLA, Arizona hasn't had too much trouble living up to high expectations thus far.
The Wildcats are 6-0, winning their games by an average of almost 22 points per game. That includes a 28-point blowout win at Texas Tech last Saturday, which is Arizona’s only game away from home to date.
While Arizona had no problem clearing that first mini-hurdle of winning on the road, it did have a bit of a tougher time than expected this week against Southern Miss.
The Golden Eagles frustrated Arizona with their zone defense, and jumped out to an eight-point halftime lead.
Nick Johnson and Kevin Parrom helped to avoid a potential upset, combining to score 23 of the team’s 36 second-half points.
Despite the stiff challenge from Southern Miss, Arizona heads back on the road with its undefeated mark intact. Now, the Wildcats will head to Clemson, where another defensive test likely awaits.
Clemson comes into this game allowing an average of just 53.7 points a game.
It has given up less than 60 points in all but one game—a loss to Purdue. The Tigers held high-flying Gonzaga (ranked ninth in the nation in scoring average) to just 57 points in an eight-point loss to the Bulldogs.
Having already come close against a Top 10 team, can Clemson get over the hump this time while playing on its home court?
It’s possible, but someone will have to take over for the Tigers on offense. For a team without a dominant scoring threat, who might that be?
It could very well be K.J. McDaniels, who has become Clemson’s most dynamic player.
McDaniels scored 15 points against Purdue and 16 in a win over South Carolina.
If he can stay out of foul trouble, which plagued him in the Gonzaga loss, McDaniels may just help lead Clemson to a signature program win at Littlejohn Coliseum.
Colorado vs. No. 9 Kansas: Can the Jayhawks handle a former Big 12 pushover?
After a one-year hiatus, Kansas will renew its pseudo rivalry with its neighbors to the west—Colorado.
The word “pseudo” is used there because of the fact that Kansas has totally dominated the rivalry over the past decade.
The last time the Buffaloes won in this series was January 2003.
However, these aren’t exactly your older brother’s Buffs. This year’s team—which already beat Baylor, another potential top-tier Big 12 team—is very capable of knocking off Kansas.
Even in Lawrence, where Saturday’s contest will take place, beating Colorado will be no easy task for KU.
The first order of business for Kansas should be to slow down Spencer Dinwiddie.
Colorado’s sophomore shooting guard is on fire of late, averaging 26 points over the last three games, while shooting 11-of-22 from three-point range.
If Dinwiddie can stay hot in the hostile Allen Fieldhouse, the Buffs could very well pull this game out.
The other test for KU in this one will be keeping Andre Roberson (11.5 rebounds per game) off the glass.
That assignment will be largely in the hands of defensive-stalwart Jeff Withey, but stopping Roberson is usually not done by one man—no matter how big a presence.
Freshmen forwards Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor will also have to play a part in minimizing the offensive boards and second-chance buckets that Roberson so often provides.
For Colorado, the question will be which defense shows up. Will it be the one that allowed less than 60 points to both Dayton and Baylor? Or will it be the one that allowed 80 points, including 12 three-pointers, to a 1-7 Texas Southern team?
If it’s the former, Colorado should be right in this one to the very end, especially if it can minimize the impact Withey has on the offensive end.
If it’s the latter, this game could feel like the many Jayhawk blowout wins in which the Buffs have endured over the past decade.
No. 13 Illinois vs. No. 10 Gonzaga: How will the Bulldogs bounce back from its scare against Washington State?
Gonzaga looked about as good as any team in college basketball over the first three weeks of the season.
Then it faced the kind of game that trips up so many teams who appear to be in cruise control—the dreaded local rivalry game, on the other team's home floor.
Gonzaga can thank Kelly Olynyk and Kevin Pangos for ensuring it wouldn’t suffer the same fate as so many have before.
Thanks to Olynyk’s 22 points, and Pangos’ game-winning layup with two seconds to play, the Bulldogs survived a brutal fight with Washington State in Pullman.
Now, Gonzaga heads back home in hopes of regaining the previous swagger it displayed so prominently over its first eight games. However, a matchup with No. 13 Illinois in The Kennel could provide the same kind of test—and very well more—that WSU unexpectedly gave the Bulldogs.
As well as Washington State shot the three (10-of-27) against Gonzaga on Wednesday, Illinois has been even better from long range.
The Illini are averaging 11 three-pointers per game, and at a clip just above 40 percent.
That level of success from outside has been far and away the biggest reason this team is off to a 9-0 start. But Illinois has yet to face an opponent that matches the likes of Gonzaga.
The Illini’s toughest test to date has been Butler. While the Bulldogs are a sound defensive team in their own right, they do not possess quite the same kind of athleticism at all spots on the floor as compared to the Zags.
Elias Harris, along with fellow forward Olynyk, will make it difficult for Tyler Griffey to enjoy the same type of open looks from long range he has seen thus far.
At 17-of-33 for the season from three, Griffey has perhaps been the X-factor for Illinois in the early going.
If Griffey can’t get good shots from deep, it could be tough for Illinois to pull off what would be easily its best win of the season.
Additionally, if Harris and Olynyk can exploit the Illini’s lack of muscle on the defensive end, Gonzaga should find itself 10-0 after this one.