Ranking the 'Can't Miss' December Games in Men's College Basketball

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 2, 2019

Ranking the 'Can't Miss' December Games in Men's College Basketball

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    Kentucky's Tyrese Maxey
    Kentucky's Tyrese MaxeyAdam Hunger/Associated Press

    December is the season of gift giving, and men's college basketball has bestowed upon us quite the smorgasbord of presents for the final month of 2019.

    Rather than easing into the pool of games, this week's ACC-Big Ten Challenge will make a huge splash with not one, not two, but three battles between AP Top 15 teamsassuming Michigan climbs at least that high in Monday's rankings after winning last week's Battle 4 Atlantis.

    A few days after that, both the ACC and the Big Ten will have conference games to help accommodate the 20-game schedules. And over the latter half of the month, you've got North Carolina-Gonzaga, Maryland-Seton Hall, Kansas-Villanova and, as always, Louisville-Kentucky.

    Decembers used to be filled with buy games against cream puffs just to keep guys from acquiring rust in between the late-November neutral-site tournaments and the start of conference play in January, but games with massive NCAA tournament implications abound throughout the next four weeks.

    Games are sorted based on a combination of mutual Final Four potential and how much history (AKA: bad blood) there is between the teams.

Honorable Mentions

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    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    Gonzaga at Arizona (December 14 at 10 p.m. ET)

    Tough to leave this one out, but had to draw the line somewhere. From 2014 to '16, this was a most excellent early December battle. Early on, these have been two of the most efficient offenses in the nation, so don't be surprised if the winning side flirts with 100 points.


    Memphis at Tennessee (December 14 at 3 p.m. ET)

    Both teams are ranked in the AP Top 20, but the lack of James Wiseman and the fact that last season's matchup featured a combined 68 free-throw attempts keeps this one from quite cracking our top 10.


    Dayton vs. Colorado (December 21 at 6:30 p.m. ET in Chicago)

    It's a rematch of a first-round game from last year's NIT, but it might as well be a Sweet 16 preview. Colorado is on the short list of teams with the potential to win the Pac-12, and the Obi Toppin-led Dayton Flyers are looking like the best mid-major team this season.


    Cincinnati at Xavier (December 7 at 5 p.m. ET)

    One of the best rivalries in the sport, but is either team any good? Cincinnati has played three straight overtime games against Bowling Green, Valparaiso and UNLV. Xavier barely eked out overtime victories against Missouri and Connecticut.


    Texas Tech at DePaul (December 4 at 8:30 p.m. ET)
    Texas Tech at Louisville (December 10 at 7 p.m. ET)

    Texas Tech has only faced two competent opponents, losing to both Iowa and Creighton in the Las Vegas Invitational. These games simply aren't as intriguing in the aftermath of that disappointing showing. However, that matchup with 8-0 DePaul is hard not to like.


    Duke at Virginia Tech (December 6 at 7 p.m. ET)

    Was Virginia Tech's upset of Michigan State the real deal, or were its subsequent not-close losses to Dayton and BYU more in line with what the expect from the Hokies moving forward? Either way, playing at Virginia Tech has been a nightmare for Duke lately. The Hokies have won three straight at home in this series, and they almost knocked off the Blue Devils in the Sweet 16 last year.


    Colorado at Kansas (December 7 at 7 p.m. ET)

    The last time these teams met in December 2013, Colorado snapped a 19-game losing streak against the Jayhawks. And the renewal of this rivalry couldn't have come at a much better time for the Buffaloes, as they are 6-0 and one of several strong candidates to win the Pac-12. This is a huge opportunity for McKinley Wright IV and Tyler Bey to introduce themselves to a bigger audience.

10. Kansas at Villanova

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    Kansas' Udoka Azubuike
    Kansas' Udoka AzubuikeMarco Garcia/Associated Press

    The Game: Kansas at Villanova, December 21, at noon ET

    As it turns out, when Kansas commits fewer than 26 turnovers in a game, it's tough to beat.

    The Jayhawks have been much more sure-handed since that sloppy season debut against Duke, winning each of their last six games. Only one of those was decided by single digits, and only because Dayton could not miss from three-point range (16-of-33) in the Maui Invitational championship.

    But if catching fire from downtown is the formula to hanging with Kansas this season, hello, Villanova.

    As you may have heard, Jay Wright loves threes. At least 42.7 percent of Villanova's field-goal attempts came from beyond the arc in each of the previous six seasons, and the extended line certainly hasn't deterred them this year. They're taking 48.9 percent of their shots from downtown, and they are making 40.4 percent of them. Villanova ranks in the top 20 in both categories, which was also the case when it won the national championship in 2018.

    Each of Villanova's six leading scorers is attempting at least 2.5 triples per game and making at least 35 percent of them. Five of the six are also shooting better than 52 percent from inside the arc, so you just have to defend everyone from everywhere to slow down the Wildcats. Ohio State somehow found a way to do just that a few weeks ago, but Nova typically only has two or three offensive duds per season.

    Even if Villanova is hitting its shots, though, Kansas is capable of scoring in bunches, too, and the Wildcats might not have an answer for the frontcourt dominance of Udoka Azubuike and David McCormack. This could mean Villanova jacks up close to 50 threes to try to keep pace. And I could not possibly be more here for that.

9. Maryland at Seton Hall

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    Seton Hall's Myles Powell
    Seton Hall's Myles PowellSarah Stier/Associated Press

    The Game: Maryland at Seton Hall, December 19, at 7 p.m. ET

    Can one man take on an army by himself?

    Maryland is loaded with talent and has been perhaps woefully overlooked in everyone's rush to declare that there are no great teams this season. Senior point guard Anthony Cowan Jr. and sophomore big man Jalen Smith have combined to average better than 30 points, 12 rebounds and five assists per game. Aaron Wiggins and Darryl Morsell have been excellent sources of defense and rebounding. Eric Ayala is quietly averaging 11 points. And Mark Turgeon is running at least 10 deep in every game.

    No disrespect to Ohio State or either of the Michigan schools, but this is starting to look like the team to beat in the Big Ten.

    But the Terps don't have the best player in this game, and the Myles Powell Experience has been an incredible one thus far.

    Despite leaving one game with an ankle injury after four minutes and zero points, Seton Hall's senior leader is averaging 23.4 points per game. He lit up Michigan State for 37 pointson a night when he wasn't even expected to play due to that ankle injuryand then dropped 32 on Oregon two weeks later.

    Some lot of good it has done for Seton Hall, though, as the Pirates lost both of those games by one possession. The Oregon loss was particularly tough to swallow, as they blew a 19-point second-half lead in that Battle 4 Atlantis quarterfinal, subsequently drawing Southern Miss and Iowa State instead of Gonzaga and either North Carolina or Michigan.

    Will we see a continuation of that trend of Powell being great but not quite great enough for Seton Hall to beat Top 25 competition?

8. Kentucky vs. Ohio State

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    Ohio State's D.J. Carton
    Ohio State's D.J. CartonPaul Vernon/Associated Press

    The Game: Kentucky vs. Ohio State in Las Vegas, December 21, at 5:15 p.m. ET

    It's hard to believe, but these two programs separated by fewer than 200 miles have only met twice in the last two decades. There was Kentucky's 62-60 upset of No. 1 overall seed Ohio State in the 2011 Sweet 16 and then Ohio State's 74-67 win over Kentucky in the 2015 CBS Sports Classic. That's it. That's the list.

    If those previous matchups are a harbinger of what's to come, though, we're probably underselling this one by putting it at No. 8.

    After all, even in defeat, Jamal Murray went off for 33 points four years ago. And in that NCAA tournament classic, Josh "Jorts" Harrellson (17 points, 10 rebounds) and Jared Sullinger (21 points, 16 rebounds) had one hell of a duel in the paint.

    So who lights up the scoreboard in this year's battle?

    It might turn into a sixth-man showdown. Ohio State freshman D.J. Carton is averaging 10.4 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists off the bench, and Kentucky sophomore Immanuel Quickley is averaging 21.6 points per 40 minutes in three games since transitioning into a reserve role.

    More likely, though, this will be a defensive grind. Both Ohio State and Kentucky are well on their way to a third consecutive season ranking in the top 25 in adjusted defensive efficiency, currently both in the top five in that category. First to 65 points probably wins this game. 

7. Ohio State at North Carolina

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    North Carolina's Cole Anthony
    North Carolina's Cole AnthonyBen McKeown/Associated Press

    The Game: Ohio State at North Carolina, Dec. 4, at 9:30 p.m. ET

    Get ready for a brief run on UNC games, as the Tar Heels put together a slobberknocker of a December schedule, per usual.

    Less than a week after slogging through the Battle 4 Atlantis, North Carolina will host an undefeated Ohio State team destroying everything in its path. The Tar Heels have yet to win a game by more than 16 points, but the Buckeyes have won six straight by at least 19, including the 76-51 shellacking of Villanova on Nov. 13.

    Chris Holtmann's bunch has been particularly overpowering on defense. Only Virginia has a better adjusted defensive efficiency than the Buckeyes, who have held each of their seven opponents to 57 points or fewereven though they have yet to play in a game with fewer than 64 possessions.

    But Ohio State has not faced a team as committed to dominating with its frontcourt as North Carolina is, so Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot and Co. will give Kaleb Wesson and Kyle Young a test unlike anything they have faced thus far.

    Historically, North Carolina has had Ohio State's number. The Tar Heels have won 11 of 12 in this series, including each of the last seven. Most of those games weren't even close, either. Moreover, Ohio State has lost five consecutive games in the ACC-B1G Challenge, including losses by double digits to unranked Syracuse and Clemson in the past two years.

    Those yesteryear trends probably don't mean anything, but it's not a great omen for the Buckeyes.

6. North Carolina at Gonzaga

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    Gonzaga's Filip Petrusev
    Gonzaga's Filip PetrusevYoung Kwak/Associated Press

    The Game: North Carolina at Gonzaga, December 18, at 9 p.m. ET

    This was "supposed" to be the championship matchup of the Battle 4 Atlantis, but Michigan had other ideas, upsetting North Carolina in the semifinals before throttling Gonzaga in the title game. But we're still going to get a rematch of the 2017 national championship game for the second time in as many Decembers.

    In last year's game, North Carolina committed 23 turnovers at home but still won comfortably (103-90) by shooting 13-of-25 from three-point range and destroying the Bulldogs in rebound margin (42-21).

    These rosters look just a wee bit different now, though. Of the 13 players who logged at least 12 minutes in that game, only Gonzaga's Corey Kispert and North Carolina's Garrison Brooks remain.

    Per usual, North Carolina is one of the best rebounding teams, but Gonzaga ought to better hold its own in that category this time around. Sophomore big man Filip Petrusev (16.1 PPG, 8.7 RPG) has been one of the biggest breakout stars of the first month of the season, and he has one heck of a supporting cast with Drew Timme, Killian Tillie, Joel Ayayi and Ryan Woolridge each averaging at least 5.0 rebounds.

    And it's hard to envision the Tar Heels making 13 threes again this year, considering they have been held to six or fewer in each of their last five games. Cole Anthony is the lone player on the UNC roster with more than six triples, and he has only made four of his 19 attempts over the past four contests.

    Throw in the fact that this game is being played in the Kennel instead of the Dean Dome, and there's a good chance the "mid-major" knocks off the blue blood.

    Either way, this should be a great battle between teams legitimately challenging themselves this December. For Gonzaga, this comes at the end of a three-game gauntlet that begins with road games against Washington and Arizona. And North Carolina will face Ohio State, Virginia and Gonzaga in the span of 15 days.

5. North Carolina at Virginia

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    Virginia's Jay Huff (30) and Mamadi Diakite (25)
    Virginia's Jay Huff (30) and Mamadi Diakite (25)Jessica Hill/Associated Press

    The Game: North Carolina at Virginia, December 8, at 4 p.m. ET

    With the ACC moving to a 20-game conference schedule this season, the league had to get a little creative to fit in all those games. In addition to having 14 of the 15 teams open the regular season with a conference showdown, there will be another seven ACC games played over the weekend of Dec. 6-8.

    Most of those games are, in a word, meh. The league only has five teams in the KenPom Top 40 and two of them are playing home games against opponents not projected to do much this season: Louisville vs. Pittsburgh and Florida State vs. Clemson. Duke at Virginia Tech could be a good one, but we've already briefly mentioned that matchup in our honorable mentions.

    And then there's North Carolina at Virginia, which should be a gem.

    These teams have squared off nine times in the past five seasons, including meeting in both the 2016 and 2018 ACC championship games. All nine times, both teams were ranked in the AP Top 25. For seven of those nine contests, both teams were ranked No. 14 or better.

    While it doesn't have the history of a Duke vs. UNC, a Kentucky vs. Louisville or a Georgetown vs. Villanova, there's a case to be made that this has been college basketball's best rivalry of the past half-decade.

    In addition to the consistent success of these two programs in recent years, the most intriguing thing about this pairing is the drastic difference in styles. Roy Williams and the Tar Heels love to push the pace, dominating with conditioning and offensive rebounding. But Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers play slower than anyone, winning on the strength of foul-free defense and efficient offense.

    Thus far, though, Virginia's offense has struggled in the quest to replace Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De'Andre Hunter. The Wahoos are currently averaging just 55.1 points per gamewell below the 71.4 they averaged at virtually the same pace last season. If that continues in this game, Cole Anthony, Anthony Bacot and Garrison Brooks should be enough for the Tar Heels to snap their four-game losing streak against UVA.

4. A Trio of Simultaneous Gems

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    Penn State's Lamar Stevens
    Penn State's Lamar StevensMary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Game A: Arizona at Baylor, December 7, at noon ET
    Game B: Penn State at Ohio State, December 7, at noon ET
    Game C: Florida at Butler, December 7, at noon ET

    Individually, any of these three games would at least be worthy of consideration.

    But all three tipping off at the same time?

    Well that's just an awesome sampling of March in early December.

    Baylor is by far the best team that Arizona has had to deal with thus far, so here's a chance to find out just how far that freshman trio of Nico Mannion, Josh Green and Zeke Nnaji might go. Arizona's offense has run circles around most teams, but Scott Drew's defense has caused many a fit for Final Four-caliber teams over the years.

    The Big Ten showdown is intriguing because Penn State might be for real for once. With a healthy Mike Watkins, that defense is nasty, and Lamar Stevens can get buckets with the best of them. Even if the Nittany Lions don't pull off the road upset, they can make a statement to the rest of the conference/country by giving the Buckeyes a battlepotentially three days after Ohio State scores a huge W over North Carolina.

    And don't look now, but Butler is 7-0 with wins over Minnesota, Missouri and Stanford while Florida might be turning a corner after that disappointing 2-2 start. This is the unofficial rubber match from last year, as Butler beat Florida in the Battle 4 Atlantis prior to the Gators throttling Butler 77-43 at home in late December.

    Make sure you've got multiple devices at the ready for when these three games come down to the wire simultaneously.

3. Michigan at Louisville

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    Michigan's Zavier Simpson
    Michigan's Zavier SimpsonCarlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The Game: Michigan at Louisville, December 3, at 7 p.m. ET

    One week ago, this didn't look like one of the 10 best games of December. Louisville was an obvious title contender, but Michigan was unranked and didn't exactly assert dominance in its lone game against a remotely noteworthy opponent (at home vs. Creighton).

    But then the Wolverines rolled through Iowa State, North Carolina and Gonzaga to win the Battle 4 Atlantis and to make this game look like a potential Final Four preview.

    It was a full team effort that propelled Michigan to those three key wins. Senior point guard Zavier Simpson only managed to play 17 minutes against North Carolina before fouling out, but he still averaged 10.0 points, 10.7 assists and 5.0 rebounds in the Bahamas. Eli Brooks matched a career high with 24 points against the Tar Heels. Isaiah Livers and Jon Teske were both in double figures in all three games. And sophomore David DeJulius continues to thrive as Michigan's sixth man, scoring 34 points off the bench.

    It's not just offense, either. Despite losing assistant coach Luke Yaklich to Texas this offseason, it appears the Wolverines still remember how to defend the perimeter at an elite level. Those three Battle 4 Atlantis opponents shot a combined 13-of-46 (28.2 percent) from downtown while the Wolverines were an unconscious 33-of-70 (47.1 percent). Hard to keep pace with any team consistently winning the three-point battle like that.

    Louisville might be able to turn the tables. Jordan Nwora (20-of-40), Dwayne Sutton (8-of-15) and Ryan McMahon (21-of-39) are each shooting at least 50 percent from distance on the season, and the Cardinals should be able to win the battle in the paint.

    Far be it from us to write Michigan out of any game at this point, though. This should be one heck of an appetizer to the main event of Tuesday night in the ACC-B1G Challenge...

2. Duke at Michigan State

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    Michigan State's Cassius Winston
    Michigan State's Cassius WinstonCarlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The Game: Duke at Michigan State, December 3, at 9:30 p.m. ET

    One of these two teams is going to pick up its second colossal win of the season. Duke beat Kansas in the Champions Classic; Michigan State won at Seton Hall. Hard to argue with two surefire Quadrant 1 wins less than a full month into the season, which is going to further cement the winner as one of the favorites to win the national championship.

    What's more intriguing, though, is how we'll come to view the loser of this game.

    Michigan State was the preseason No. 1 team, but the Spartans already have two losses. The one against Kentucky was no big deal, but falling to Virginia Tech in the first round of the Maui Invitational was perhaps the most surprising result from any of those early-season tournaments.

    If Michigan State proceeds to lose this game and drops to 5-3 with just that one quality win, questions about this team's legitimacy will be unavoidable. Rounding out the rest of December with games against Rutgers, Oakland, Northwestern, Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan won't do anything to help Sparty's case, either.

    Meanwhile, Duke enters this contest fresh off a week featuring the incomprehensible home loss to Stephen F. Austin and the subsequent closer-than-expected home game against Winthrop. Adding injury to insult, third-leading scorer Cassius Stanley suffered a hamstring injury in the Winthrop game and is expected to miss at least a few weeks of action.

    Should the Blue Devils lose this one, can they still be regarded as one of the three best teams in the ACC? Does the marquee win over Kansas simply get filed away as a turnover-filled fluke in an otherwise mediocre nonconference slate?

    Maybe this one actually plays out like a battle between two of the 10 best teams in the nation and we come away from it feeling good about both sides. However, it seems more likely the skeptics among us will pounce on whichever side grabs the short straw.

1. Louisville at Kentucky

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    Louisville's Jordan Nwora
    Louisville's Jordan NworaMark Zaleski/Associated Press

    The Game: Louisville at Kentucky, December 28, at 3:45 p.m. ET

    It's a little ridiculous that this game is scheduled to tip off 15 minutes prior to the first College Football Playoff national semifinal. Honestly, who thought that was a good idea to put the biggest college basketball game of the month up against one of the biggest football games of the year?

    But I digress.

    Sadly, this hasn't been much of a game over the past two seasons. Both times, Kentucky was ranked No. 16, Louisville was unranked and the Wildcats won by double digits.

    However, when both teams have been ranked in the AP Top 20—a realistic expectation for this year's matchup, since they are both currently in the Top 10—game on. That has been the case eight times since 2000 with each of those contests decided by nine points or fewer.

    Based on early returns, it's tough to forecast what either side will be bringing to this no-love-lost affair. Kentucky had the infamous home loss to Evansville and the subsequent close call against Utah Valley, but Louisville has had its own pair of scares against USC Upstate (trailed 43-40 in the second half) and Akron (four-point game in the final 30 seconds).

    With any luck, both Tyrese Maxey and Jordan Nwora will show up in a big way for a back-and-forth slugfest. Maxey had 26 for Kentucky in the season-opening win over Michigan State while Nwora is having the type of dominant junior year that was to be expected, averaging 22 points for the Cardinals.

    The outcome will likely depend on how much Kentucky develops over the next few weeks. Louisville is loaded with veterans and has a good thing going already, but the Wildcats have a lot of room between their current state and their ceiling. If freshmen Kahlil Whitney and Keion Brooks Jr. are playing better by Dec. 28, perhaps the Wildcats protect home court in this battle of title contenders.

    One interesting note to keep in mind in March: The winner of this game has made it deeper into the NCAA tournament than the loser in 10 of the last 11 years. (Four times, the loser of this game didn't even get to go dancing.) The lone exception came in 2016-17 when both Kentucky and Louisville earned No. 2 seeds, but the Cardinals—three months after eking out a 73-70 home win over the Wildcatshad the misfortune of drawing that hotter-than-the-sun No. 7 seed Michigan team that won the Big Ten tournament after its plane nearly crashed on the way to the event.