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Weekend preview: Mountain West - Missouri Valley Challenge highlights loaded slate

Counting down everything to watch for

NCAA Basketball: Dartmouth at Rhode Island Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

First off, apologies for not doing this last week. Turkey, holidays, family, etc. But we’re back and there’s an absolutely loaded slate of games coming up this weekend. Cancel your plans, ignore your football (and your family), and watch some great games.

Here’s everything you need to know about this weekend in mid-major college basketball:

5 Games to Watch:

Winthrop at Dayton, FS Atlantic and FS Ohio, Sat., 2 p.m.

Life hasn’t been easy for the Flyers lately, with injuries leading to a couple of early losses. Next, Dayton gets Winthrop on Saturday in a guarantee game that is anything but.

If you’re looking for great guard play, this one’s for you. By now, everyone knows about Charles Cooke and Scoochie Smith, but how about Keon Johnson? At just 5’7, the senior has put up 16.2 points per game, good for second on the team behind swingman Xavier Cooks (17.8).

Gonzaga vs. Arizona (Staples Center), ESPN, Sat., 5:30 p.m.

Our own Will Maupin is going to talk about this game and the BYU-USC game in his preview piece tomorrow, so we’ll keep this quick. The Bulldogs have a chance for a signature win on a national stage. There’s been so much talk about the Gonzaga transfers, and rightfully so, but freshman Zach Collins has been outstanding over the first seven games.

Rhode Island at Providence, FOX Sports Networks, Sat., 4:30 p.m.

The Rams need a win to avoid their third loss in four tries, but will have to go on the road to do so when they face the Friars out of the Big East. EC Matthews has struggled recently, but Hassan Martin has not. The senior poured 31 on Belmont last week and followed that up with a 16-point performance in Rhody’s loss at Valparaiso. KenPom projects this as a one-point Providence win and it figures to be one of the under-the-radar treats of the weekend.

BYU vs. USC (Staples Center), ESPNU, Sat., 8 p.m.

Again, check our preview for this tomorrow. TL;DR: USC is undefeated so far while BYU lost to Utah Valley last Saturday. The Cougars could really use a quality W and they can get one here. Players to know: Erik Mika, Nick Emery, TJ Haws.

Florida State at George Washington, CBS Sports Network, Sun., 4 p.m.

Because they’re the best team in DC, the Colonials get to host this one at the Verizon Center (rule I just made up, but yes that is where the game will be). The Colonials are coming off a win over Harvard and will first host USF on Saturday on their actual home court. Tyler Cavanugh has scored in double figures every game so far this year and has eclipsed 20 points three times. Seton Hall transfer Jaren Sina is the other guy to watch — he scored 19 last time out and shot 12-12 from the line. George Washington needs a good win after blowing early chances against Georgia and UAB.

Nine more to watch because this weekend is that loaded:

Wake Forest at Richmond, ESPNU, Sat., Noon
Saint Joseph’s at Villanova, CBS Sports Network, Sat., 1 p.m.
UCF at UMass, Atlantic 10 Digital Network, Sat., 1 p.m.
Illinois vs. VCU, CBS Sports Network, Sat., 3 p.m.
Wichita State at Colorado State, CBS Sports Network, Sat., 5 p.m.
Northern Iowa at Wyoming, Campus Insiders, Sat, 6 p.m.
Arkansas State at TCU, Sat., 8 p.m.
New Mexico at Illinois State, WatchESPN, Sat., 8 p.m.
Louisville at Grand Canyon, Sat., 9 p.m.

4 Players to Watch:

TJ Cline, Richmond

The son of basketball legend Nancy Lieberman, Cline wrote an excellent piece this week for The Players Tribune. Read up then watch as his Spiders look to take down Wake Forest on Saturday.

Zach Collins, Gonzaga

Collins hasn’t gotten the attention he deserves, but that’s going to change soon. A big game against a national program could be what makes the 7-footer a household name.

Keon Johnson, Winthrop

Johnson dropped 38 in the Eagles’ upset win at Illinois, but since then is just 6-23 from the field. Make no mistake: Winthrop could knock off Dayton on the road, but it’s going to take a strong effort from the Eagles’ smallest player.

Eric Mika, BYU

In his collegiate debut, Mika scored 26 points and grabbed 18 rebounds to lead BYU to a win over a solid Princeton team. He’s had two more double-doubles since, and is shooting 60 percent from the field over seven games. Yeah, it’s about time you got to know him.

3 Storylines to Follow:

The MWC/MVC Challenge

We’re going to preview this more on our podcast tonight (do listen, it’ll be fun!), as there is plenty of intrigue. Northern Iowa needs a win badly after dropping three straight. Colorado State needs a quality win and Emmanuel Omogbo is an American treasure. Loyola thinks it can compete in the MVC, but suffered a key injury this week. New Mexico still exists, in case you forgot.

The Mountain West won this event 6-4 last year, and since we’re in the business of probably wrong speculation, my official prediction is a 7-3 Mountain West victory this year.

It’s resume-building time

There aren’t a lot of cupcakes on the schedule this weekend, so it’s a great time to pick up signature wins. Teams the committee should keep an eye on:

- If Gonzaga has the season many think it is capable of, the Bulldogs could be in the No. 1 seed conversation. A win over Arizona on a neutral court would help end any strength of schedule concerns.

- Rhode Island has two more chances at a big non-conference road win, with one coming this weekend against the Friars. The committee rewards aggressive scheduling and teams not afraid to step off campus.

- With Dayton and URI overshadowing them, the VCU Rams could use a reason for people to take notice. Illinois isn’t great, but it’d be another line on the resume for a team that has already beaten Princeton.

- We’re still not sure exactly how good the Mountain West is. Given that it was a one-bid league last year, San Diego State can’t afford any slip-ups if it wants an at-large bid. Beat Loyola and no one notices. Lose to a team that may be better than advertised and, well…

- George Washington gets USF and Florida State on back-to-back days. Losing to the Seminoles would probably do little harm, but the Colonials can’t afford to look past the Bulls for the bigger game on Sunday. George Washington is already 4-3. An 0-2 weekend would be disastrous.

Early season surprises meet

In case you haven’t noticed, Arkansas State is a good team. The Red Wolves have done everything asked of them so far and more, with wins at Georgetown and against Chattanooga. TCU is off to a good start as well, with wins against Illinois State, UNLV, and Washington twice. We still aren’t sure if either team is NCAA Tournament quality. One will pick up a solid win on Saturday, however, when the Red Wolves and Horned Frogs meet in a battle of adjectively qualified animal mascots on Saturday night.

2 Questions we Have:

Can Northern Iowa right the ship?

Life comes at you fast in college basketball. After a 3-0 start with wins over Arizona State and 2016 Final Four participant Oklahoma, the Panthers have dropped three in a row. Granted, two of those came against Xavier, one of the best teams in the country. But Northern Iowa’s loss at home to George Mason on Wednesday was inexcusable. Wyoming is a winnable game and with games against Iowa and at North Carolina looming, this is the time for the Panthers to turn it on.

Can UMass contain Tacko Fall?

7’6 beast Tacko Fall’s improvement from his freshman to sophomore years has been one of the quiet successes of college basketball this season. He’s doubled his scoring output (7.4 ppg to 14.7) while shooting 80 percent from the field* and more than doubled his rebounding (5.9 rpg to 12.3). UMass is a guard-powered team and 6’10 Rasheen Holloway will have the unenviable task of trying to contain Fall. Holloway has had a tough time staying on the floor, and that could spell trouble when trying to guard a guy eight inches taller than you.

*the field being the tiny sliver of air between the top of Fall’s reach and one basketball-space above the rim

1 Upset Pick:

Western Kentucky over Missouri

To be clear, I do not think Western Kentucky is a particularly good team. Yet. But I’m picking this game for two reasons: 1. Missouri is also bad 2. We have two writers who are Missouri fans and I enjoy trolling them by throwing stones from my glass house.