10 storylines to watch ahead of the Big East-Big 12 battle

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Conference challenges are a beautiful thing in college basketball. They add heavyweight matchups to the schedule, get power-conference teams to play opponents that will provide quality résumé opportunities and a proper measuring stick, and make the sport more compelling during a time of year when football is still king. 

One of these challenges, the Big East-Big 12 Battle has produced some incredible moments over the last three years between two of the best basketball conferences in America. These two leagues have combined for five of the last seven national championships, and this year’s slate features a showdown between the last two title winners, UConn and Kansas, on Friday night at Allen Fieldhouse. Credit to the two conferences for a no-brainer, heavyweight clash that will certainly get major national attention. All in all, this challenge has been highly competitive, with the leagues splitting the games in each of the last three seasons. That matchup between the Huskies and Jayhawks is where we lead our 10 storylines to watch in the Big East-Big 12 Battle. 

Schedule:

Nov. 30: Texas Tech at Butler, 6:30 p.m. ET, FS1
Nov. 30: No. 15 Creighton at Oklahoma State, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Dec. 1: Houston at Xavier, 6:30 p.m. ET, FS1
Dec. 1: St John’s at West Virginia, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Dec. 1: Iowa State at DePaul, 8:30 p.m. ET, FS1
Dec. 1: No. 4 Connecticut at No. 5 Kansas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Dec. 2: TCU at Georgetown, 5:30 p.m. ET, FS1
Dec. 5: Providence at No. 25 Oklahoma, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Dec. 5: No. 18 Villanova at Kansas State, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Dec. 5: Seton Hall at No. 9 Baylor, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Dec. 6: No. 16 Texas at No. 3 Marquette, 8 p.m. ET, FS1

1. UConn takes historic non-conference winning streak into Allen Fieldhouse 

The 7-0 Huskies have won 24 consecutive non-conference games by double digits and have started right where they left off after winning their fifth national championship since 1999 last April. Will the streak hit 25 at Allen Fieldhouse? It’s a tall order to win in Lawrence as a visitor, and an even taller order to win by double digits. But I think the pressure is on Kansas in this matchup because the Jayhawks have not put together a complete performance from the perimeter this season. When the 3-point shot can’t be used to your advantage, it just makes everything harder. It’s unusual to be saying that about a Kansas team, but the Jayhawks shot just 3-for-14 from 3-point land against Eastern Illinois on Tuesday, surviving 71-63. They went 6-for-17 from downtown in a double-digit loss to Marquette at the Maui Invitational, and while they struggled from there against Tennessee, they were able to beat the Volunteers, who are also inconsistent on offense. Johnny Furphy and Nick Timberlake have to get going at some point. 

The issue for Kansas is that UConn is averaging eight made 3s per game and has multiple perimeter weapons in Alex Karaban, Cam Spencer and even point guard Tristen Newton, who had a triple-double last week for the undefeated Huskies. While five-star freshman Stephon Castle’s status remains up in the air with his knee injury, Solomon Ball – although struggling in his most recent game – has done a solid job filling in. Additionally, Dan Hurley has found a new frontcourt combination with junior Samson Johnson having a breakout season and complementing Donovan Clingan well when he comes in off the bench. 

If Spencer and Karaban are cooking offensively, Kansas is going to have a tough time with Connecticut. I think UConn is better positioned to win, but if the Jayhawks take this game, it’s because DaJuan Harris outplays Newton and controls the way the game is played. 

Hunter Dickinson (21.2 PPG, 12.7 RPG) vs. Clingan (15.0 PPG, 6.0 RPG) should be pure theater. Clingan finished with a career-high 29 points along with seven rebounds in Monday’s 84-64 win over New Hampshire. 

2. Shaka Smart will meet his former team when Texas visits Marquette

Kudos to the Big 12 and Big East for scheduling a game with some added drama as Smart faces his previous school, Texas. In the six years that he was at the helm in Austin, the Longhorns reached the NCAA Tournament three times but failed to win a game. Last season, the program faced the adversity of a midseason firing of head coach Chris Beard after he was arrested on an assault charge in December. Rodney Terry and a group of seniors stayed together, with the Longhorns reaching the Elite Eight for the first time since 2008. Marquette notched its most wins in school history with 29 last year, winning the Big East regular season and tournament titles. So, both programs are in a good place now, and it’s clear Smart has found a better home for him to be himself with the Golden Eagles.

Right now, Marquette looks as tough as any team in America with All-American point guard Tyler Kolek and big man Oso Ighodaro, who shined in the Golden Eagles’ win over Kansas with 21 points and nine rebounds. Meanwhile, Texas is 5-1 but does not yet own a résumé-building win, having escaped from lowly Louisville at the Empire Classic before losing to UConn by 10 in the championship game. The Longhorns are headlined by the nation’s active leading scorer, Max Abmas (2,653 career points), and a dynamic junior in Tyrese Hunter on the perimeter. Sophomore wing Dillon Mitchell needs to continue to be a matchup problem for opponents. He broke out against Connecticut with the best offensive game of his college career with 21 points and eight rebounds. The NBA Draft prospect has to find that groove again if Texas is going to cause issues for Marquette. 

3. How will Houston handle its first road test of the season? 

The sixth-ranked Cougars are off to a 7-0 start and have been led by one of the best pure shooters in America, LJ Cryer, along with returning impact guard Jamal Shead. Cryer is shooting 38% from 3-point land and is averaging 17 points per game. He was the perfect pickup by Kelvin Sampson via the transfer portal from Baylor. Emanuel Sharp and J’Wan Roberts help with the scoring, and a rebound-by-committee approach led Houston to a +10 margin. 

I think this team is a legit national title contender, but that first true road test can always reveal something about your identity. It will come at a soldout Cintas Center against a Xavier team that is, frankly, ticked off after suffering a loss to Oakland earlier this week. 

At 4-3, Xavier is very inconsistent and has struggled mightily on the interior after losing starting big men Zach Freemantle and Jerome Hunter in the preseason for the entire year. If the Musketeers are going to pull off the upset, they have to find a defensive answer for Cryer, Desmond Claude has to have a big night, and Quincy Olivari and Dayvion McKnight must make some shots. I lean Houston here, but Sean Miller is good in bounce-back spots just when you think he’s buried. I think this is a closer game than one might expect. 

4. The most underrated game in The Battle: Providence visiting Oklahoma

The 25th-ranked Sooners are one of college basketball’s biggest surprises after beating USC last week to win the Rady Children’s Invitational and improve to 6-0 on the season.

Porter Moser cleaned up in the transfer portal with Javian McCollum, Jalon Moore, and John Hugley IV. With the sophomore leap of Otega Oweh and an X-factor in guard Milos Uzan, there’s a lot to like about this team because they also guard at a high level, ranking top-35 in KenPom offense and defense. 

On the other side is a Friars team that is 6-1 under first-year head coach Kim English and looks every bit the part of an NCAA Tournament squad. Bryce Hopkins is a stud as a stretch-four man, Devin Carter is a Swiss Army Knife guard and Ticket Gaines shot 7-of-10 from 3-point range in a blowout win over Wagner on Tuesday. Jayden Pierre should be good to go in this game, and keep an eye on one-and-done freshman candidate Garwey Dual. The Friars have the pieces to match up with the Sooners. I’ll be zoning in on big man Josh Oduro facing Hugley on the interior. 

5. A game that you would really like to have if you’re Rick Pitino and St. John’s …

That’s how I would describe it for the Red Storm against a 3-3 West Virginia team that has been underwhelming without RaeQuan Battle (waiver denied) and Kerr Kriisa (suspended until Dec. 16 due to receiving impermissible benefits at Arizona). 

St. John’s is 4-2 on the season and now has its full complement of players with UMass transfer RJ Luis coming back from a broken left hand and scoring 14 points off the bench in his debut this past Saturday in a 91-45 win over Holy Cross. This team has won three of its last four games and has gradually improved on each end of the floor. A win over a Utah team that sits at 38th in KenPom is the best victory for the Johnnies early on, while a blowout loss to Michigan and a neutral-court loss to Dayton wash that out. 

St. John’s needs its frontcourt duo of Joel Soriano and Chris Ledlum to control the interior and for Daniss Jenkins and Jordan Dingle to coexist well on the perimeter. The matchup between Soriano and Syracuse transfer Jesse Edwards will be fun to watch. 

There is one added storyline: Quinn Slazinski, an Iona transfer who’s averaging 16.3 points per game at WVU, will meet his former coach in Pitino on Friday. 

For St. John’s NCAA Tournament hopes, this is a game they could really use, and I believe it’s their toughest test left in the non-conference season because it’s on the road. 

Pitino Chronicles: Rick Pitino’s master plan for St. John’s

Pitino Chronicles: Rick Pitino’s master plan for St. John’s

6. Who’s legit? Butler or Texas Tech? 

Are the Bulldogs back to being relevant? They have a chance to show it on Thursday night at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Thad Matta did work in the transfer portal and hit a home run with Michigan State transfer Pierre Brooks, who has scored 51 points in the last two games, a pair of wins over Penn State and Boise State in Orlando. 

The issue for Brooks, Posh Alexander, Jahmyl Telfort & Co. is that the Red Raiders really guard at a high level. Senior guard Joe Toussaint is averaging close to 15 points per game for Grant McCasland’s team, Pop Isaacs has evolved in the backcourt, and don’t sleep on fifth-year senior Devan Cambridge. The Arizona State transfer had 17 points and seven rebounds in the 73-57 win over Michigan at the Battle 4 Atlantis last Friday. 

Can Butler find some easy buckets in transition? Tempo is a big key in this contest because Texas Tech wants a physical rock fight. Hinkle Fieldhouse should be rocking.

7. Justin Moore and Eric Dixon lead Villanova in a daunting road test against Tylor Perry, Arthur Kaluma and Kansas State

I love this game for a variety of reasons. Bramlage Coliseum does not typically welcome in a non-conference program at the stature of Villanova, so it will be fun to see the atmosphere for this one. 

Villanoa has found a rhythm with four consecutive wins, all over top-60 KenPom opponents. The Wildcats’ recent success has been highlighted by the play of big man Eric Dixon (34 points against North Carolina) and a balanced core. Kansas State has three players – Perry, Kaluma and Cam Carter – all averaging at least 15.7 points per game. Can Will McNair Jr. and David N’Guessan hang in with Dixon and Tyler Burton? 

The question on the road for Villanova is point guard play and the combo of Mark Armstrong and Jordan Longino being able to make plays. Between the two teams, you get a combined 19 made 3s per game. This will be a fun one. 

8. Will Creighton get back on track or is there cause for concern with the Bluejays? 

It was a Thanksgiving Day to forget for Creighton, who got drubbed 69-48 by Colorado State at the Hall of Fame Classic. Trey Alexander shot 1-for-16 and Baylor Scheierman was not much better at 4-for-17. It was one of the program’s worst performances under Greg McDermott, but I would expect them to respond. It won’t be easy in Stillwater though, because even though the Cowboys are 3-3 with heartbreaking losses to St. Bonaventure and Notre Dame, Mike Boynton’s team should have leading scorer Bryce Thompson back on Thursday. He’s been dealing with a leg injury in recent weeks. I’ll be zoning in on a pair of transfer point guards in this game – Steven Ashworth of Creighton and Javon Small of Oklahoma State.

The Jays can score more easily than Oklahoma State. They’ve had a week to prepare. Let’s see what they’ve done with it. A win by the Cowboys would be a season-changer for them. 

9. The 6-0 TCU Horned Frogs visit Ed Cooley and Georgetown on Saturday

Jamie Dixon doesn’t get enough credit nationally for how consistent he is, and his TCU team should dance again for a third straight season. That’s never happened in program history. The length and versatility that the Horned Frogs have with JaKobe Coles, Emanuel Miller and Micah Peavy could give the Hoyas a lot of issues. 

Look out for senior guard Jameer Nelson Jr. in this one. The son of Jameer Nelson Sr., who transferred to TCU from Delaware, has scored in double figures in five of the first six games. 

If Georgetown is going to have any shot in this game, it’s in the hands of Illinois transfer Jayden Epps and North Carolina transfer Dontrez Styles to keep them in it. The duo is averaging 37.5 points per game. 

10. Unbeaten Baylor could win the Big 12 Conference, but can they get by Seton Hall?

I think the Bears are the most complete offensive team in college basketball. They currently stand at No. 2 in KenPom, ranking only behind Alabama in the analytics department. Averaging 93 points per game, this 7-0 team has shot 52% from the floor and 44% from 3-point territory. Scott Drew has a legit top-10 NBA Draft pick in 6-foot-5 freshman Ja’Kobe Walter, along with a slew of talented guards in RayJ Dennis, Langston Love and Jayden Nunn. 

Seton Hall’s defense could give Baylor a challenge, but the issue for the Pirates is perimeter shooting. Kadary Richmond is the engineer of the offense and one of the best point guards in the Big East, but The Hall is only averaging 5.5 made triples per game. That lack of consistency could spell trouble in Waco. 

Predictions:

Butler over Texas Tech 
Creighton over Oklahoma State
Houston over Xavier 
St. John’s over West Virginia 
Iowa State over DePaul 
UConn over Kansas
TCU over Georgetown
Providence over Oklahoma 
Kansas State over Villanova 
Baylor over Seton Hall 
Marquette over Texas 

Big East wins, 6-5

John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.



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