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Think Saturday's games don't matter? Think again

This weekend is one of the last opportunities for teams to capture significant nonconference victories prior to the start of conference play.

That matters more than you might think.

Sure, college basketball seasons are long and filled with redemptive opportunities -- especially to rebuild résumés damaged in nonconference matchups. But the wins and losses in this stretch could also haunt programs on Selection Sunday.

Don't ignore the stakes of the upcoming slate. Here's why Saturday matters.

Villanova tries to stop a free fall as Kansas continues pursuit of top overall seed (No. 17 Villanova at No. 1 Kansas, noon ET on ESPN)

In April, Jay Wright led Villanova to its second national title in three years before three players -- Mikal Bridges, Donte DiVincenzo and Omari Spellman -- secured spots in the first round of the NBA draft. The Dallas Mavericks picked Wooden Award winner Jalen Brunson in the second round.

The lie too many of us told ourselves was that Wright could lose the nucleus of his title team and still bounce back in the 2018-19 season.

Nope.

This Villanova team ain't that Villanova team that beat Kansas in the Final Four last season. Far from it, in fact. The Wildcats have already lost to Michigan, Furman and Penn. After the Penn loss earlier this week, Jahvon Quinerly, a five-star guard, called Villanova his second choice on his Instagram story on Wednesday before he apologized Thursday.

Well, Quinerly plays only 8.6 minutes per game because Wright is smart enough to know the team's turnover rate nearly doubles -- and Villanova makes less than 30 percent of its 3-pointers -- when he's on the floor.

For the most successful program in recent years (136 wins in the previous four seasons), the turmoil is foreign. But a win over Kansas, the top team in America, at Allen Fieldhouse would be the perfect elixir while adding a signature win to the résumé of a Villanova squad that will enter a gauntlet of Big East teams with more firepower than Penn and Furman.

But what if Nova loses Saturday and gets bullied in league play? Could the Wildcats miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2011-12 season? No possibility seems outrageous at this point.

For the undefeated Jayhawks, this is the kind of the game that could enhance the team's argument for the top overall seed if Nova turns things around in the coming months.

Without Udoka Azubuike, however, Kansas struggled Saturday against New Mexico State. The Jayhawks are clearly incomplete without their starting big man, who will miss another game this weekend with an ankle injury, as Kansas chases a favorable seed that could ease its path to the Final Four in Minneapolis, a seven-hour drive from Lawrence.


Penny Hardaway can make more noise on recruiting trail with upset of Tennessee (No. 3 Tennessee at Memphis, noon ET on ESPN 2)

If I could pick any game to attend this weekend, it would be this one. Right now, only a handful of tickets are available for this rivalry game at FedEx Forum. Some are listed for $800 apiece on various sites.

A week ago, the Vols knocked Gonzaga from its No. 1 perch with a come-from-behind win in Phoenix. Both Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams, last year's SEC player of the year, could compete for conference player of the year and Wooden Award honors this season.

Rick Barnes has a Final Four-level squad in Knoxville. But Hardaway has already emerged as a force in his first season at Memphis. Securing a commitment from James Wiseman, the top prospect in the 2019 class on ESPN.com and locking up a top-10 incoming class gave Hardaway an A-plus for the 2018-19 season before it really started.

For Hardaway and Memphis, this year is just the happy hour before the main event next season. But what if he wins Saturday? Hardaway would only enhance his position among the nation's top prep talent. Few scenarios, on paper, support that scenario. Maybe the Tigers make 46 percent of their 3-pointers the way they did against UAB last Saturday. Maybe Kyvon Davenport and Jeremiah Martin combine to score 60 points or more.

All unlikely outcomes against a Tennessee team that's playing top-15 defense, to be sure. But expect the Vols to face all the pressure in this matchup. They're the team coming off last weekend's stunner. They're the team suddenly attached to national title buzz. And they're the targets, a new position for a program that was picked to finish at the bottom of the SEC last season before its run to a conference title.

With Hardaway on the sideline, this Memphis-Tennessee rivalry matters again. And Saturday's matchup will prove as much.


Gonzaga, in a last chance to get a signature win, faces North Carolina, a team searching for an identity (No. 4 Gonzaga at No. 12 North Carolina, 7 p.m. ET on ESPN 2)

Entering the weekend, Gonzaga was the only top-50 squad from the West Coast Conference ranked in KenPom.com's top 50 and one of just two (along with No. 21 San Francisco) in the NCAA's new NET rankings. Those realities could complicate Gonzaga's shot at a top seed if the Bulldogs lose at North Carolina on Saturday.

The victory over Duke at the Maui Invitational put the Bulldogs in a favorable position, but they squandered a late lead in last week's neutral-site loss to Tennessee. Saturday presents another top-10 opponent for Gonzaga and a final opportunity to capture a résumé-altering victory. Sweeping through the WCC with wins over North Carolina and Duke -- and only a tough loss at a neutral site against Tennessee -- would help Gonzaga's case for a top seed. The Duke win alone might not be sufficient.

That's why Saturday matters.

Gonzaga is a great team. Josh Perkins is a savvy point guard. Rui Hachimura is a lottery pick and Wooden Award candidate. And Brandon Clarke (16.9 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 3.3 BPG, 1.4 SPG) is a prospect for a first-round slot in next summer's NBA draft. Plus, Killian Tillie will return soon.

The Bulldogs possess an identity North Carolina hasn't found yet. Freshman Nassir Little, a top-10 prospect in his class, is still trying to prove he's a consistent contributor. In losses to Texas and Michigan, Cam Johnson finished 8-for-21 combined. Luke Maye, a preseason All-American known for his versatility, has made just 31 percent of his 3-pointers, a year after leading the ACC with a 47 percent clip from beyond the arc.

Who are these Tar Heels? We don't know yet. They've floundered in their big matchups thus far. After facing Gonzaga, they travel to Chicago for a matchup against Kentucky on Dec. 22.

Maybe we'll know more about Roy Williams' team then. But another loss to a contender on Saturday would only generate more questions about UNC's viability in the ACC.


Indiana seeking momentum against Butler before a treacherous Big Ten stretch (Butler vs. No. 25 Indiana at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, 3:45 p.m. ET on CBS)

This is a tough game for both teams. Butler beat Florida last month, but its inconsistent offense cost the team in losses to Saint Louis (52 points) and Dayton (64 points). Still, the Hoosiers are a potential NCAA tournament team, so a win over the rival Bulldogs should help Indiana's résumé.

After Saturday's game and a pair of cupcakes against Central Arkansas and Jacksonville, the Hoosiers will continue Big Ten play -- they started 2-0 with home wins over Northwestern and Penn State last week -- with this stretch: Illinois (home), Michigan (road), Maryland (road), Nebraska (home), Purdue (road), Northwestern (road) and Michigan (home). That's a brutal run that could leave Indiana with a sub-.500 mark in league play by mid-January.

Saturday's matchup should resemble some of the early battles Archie Miller's squad must navigate to secure the quality wins necessary to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years. Same goes for a Butler team that's approaching a difficult slate in the Big East. Good opportunity for both teams.

Other notable games:

No. 13 Virginia Tech vs. Washington (7 p.m. ET in Atlantic City, New Jersey, on ESPNU)

After its lopsided road loss to Auburn (88-66) last month, Washington suffered two-point losses to Minnesota and Gonzaga. This is a key opportunity for Mike Hopkins' team to finish on the right side of the scoreboard against a Virginia Tech squad with seven players who've made at least 39 percent of their 3-point attempts, instead of just earning praise for competing.

South Dakota State at No. 7 Nevada (9 p.m. ET on ESPN3/WatchESPN)

Nevada has a chance to run the table this season. But the undefeated Wolf Pack must get past Mike Daum (26.2 PPG, 10.8 RPG) and the fiery Jackrabbits offense, which scored 90 points in the first half of a recent win over Savannah State, to preserve the possibility.

Cincinnati at No. 18 Mississippi State (8:30 p.m. ET on SEC Network)

A Mississippi State team led by Quinndary Weatherspoon (16.8 PPG) will face the best defensive team it has played all year. The Bearcats are ranked 18th in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom.com, though the Bulldogs aren't far behind at No. 26.