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Weekend preview: The most underrated rivalry in basketball highlights the long weekend

Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga will meet Saturday night for the first of at least two meetings in 2016-17.

NCAA Basketball: Gonzaga at San Francisco Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Hey, guess what? It’s a three-day weekend.

What should you do for a three-day weekend, you ask? Watch college basketball for 72 hours, of course.

And good gravy, this a great weekend for that. We all know what the Saturday night headliner is: a clash between Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga, renewing one of the great rivalries in all of college basketball. But there’s plenty of drama before that, from the Atlantic 10 to the Missouri Valley to the Mountain West.

Here’s a breakdown of what to watch for.

5 Games to Watch:

This is another one of those weeks where the Saturday schedule is loaded, so I’m going to lay out a five-game marathon schedule for you, then list a bunch of other good ones below. Make sure you’ve shaken your Friday hangover by 12:30 p.m. ET, when this all gets going.

Of course, all times here are Eastern because that is the only time zone that matters in life.

Richmond at Saint Joseph’s, Sat., 12:30 p.m., NBC Sports

Still reeling from Shavar Newkirk’s season-ending injury, Saint Joseph’s has a chance to right the ship at home against a good Richmond team. James Demery is back from his injury and has stepped up in Newkirk’s absence to help Lamarr Kimble and the rest of the Hawks weather the storm. This will be a tough one, however, as the Spiders are 4-0 in the Atlantic 10 with wins over Davidson, George Washington, and St. Bonaventure.

Eastern Michigan at Ohio, Sat., 3:30 p.m., ESPN3

Two teams separated by eight spots in KenPom meet in a match of MAC East vs. MAC West squads on Saturday. This will be the toughest MAC team that the streaking Bobcats have faced so far, but is critical for them with a trip to Akron coming up next week. The Eagles, meanwhile, have flown under the radar to start the season, thanks to a bunch of respectable losses. With a win in Athens, the mid-major community will take notice.

Nevada at Wyoming, Sat., 6 p.m., ESPN3

Nevada fans have been pretty vocal in our mentions over the last couple weeks, and they have every reason to be excited. The Wolf Pack have won nine out of 10 games, with their lone Mountain West loss coming by one at defending champion Fresno State. Wins at Wyoming, however, do not come easy. The Cowboys are looking to shake off a rocky start to conference play and have won 11 straight at home dating back to last year.

Wichita State at Illinois State, Sat., 8 p.m. ESPN2

Wichita State was supposed to be down, but the Shockers have hit their stride. Like Nevada, Illinois State has also won nine out of 10. The Redbirds have given up 60 or more points only three times in that stretch, with one of those instances coming in overtime. They have the homecourt advantage in the first meeting of these two teams this season. This is the best the Valley has to offer.

Saint Mary’s at Gonzaga, Sat., 10 p.m., ESPN2

It’s here! It’s here! The rivalry we all know and love finishes off a great Saturday of basketball. Saint Mary’s is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. Gonzaga has one of the best defenses. Both are good shooting teams. Both are well balanced. Both are experienced. Jock Landale will face off with Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins inside, and whoever wins that battle could determine the difference in the game. Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s are a combined 31-1. I’m so excited.

Other really good games:

New Mexico at Colorado State, Sat., 2 p.m., ROOT Sports
VCU at Davidson, Sat., 2 p.m., CBS Sports
Louisiana Tech at Old Dominion, Sat., 4 p.m., American Sports Network
Yale at Princeton, Sat., 8 p.m., ESPN3
Massachusetts at Rhode Island, Sun., 2:30 p.m., NBC Sports
Missouri State at Loyola-Chicago, Sun., 4 p.m., ESPNU
George Washington at La Salle, Sun. 4:30 p.m., NBC Sports
Albany at UMBC, Mon., 1 p.m., ESPN3
Monmouth at Canisius, Mon., 7 p.m., ESPN3
Green Bay at Valparaiso, Mon., 8 p.m., ESPN3

4 Players to Watch:

Deontae Hawkins, Illinois State

Hawkins has been the KenPom MVP in two of the Redbirds’ five Missouri Valley games, and he may need another stellar performance if Illinois State wants to knock off Wichita State. He’s been inconsistent on offense at times, but is one of the most important players on one of the Valley’s best teams.

B.J. Johnson, La Salle

If you can be an adult for a minute and ignore the funny name, you’ll see that Johnson has been a huge part of La Salle’s recent surge. While the Explorers have won five of their last six, the Syracuse transfer has averaged 20 points per game in that stretch to go with seven rebounds. A home win over George Washington would put La Salle at 4-1 in the Atlantic 10.

Kenny Kaminski, Ohio

I’ll never not love 6’8 guys who can shoot threes. Kaminski is shooting 50 percent from deep in MAC play, helping the Bobcats start 3-0 in conference. They’ll face their first big test, however, Saturday against Eastern Michigan.

Miye Oni, Yale

Yale’s freshmen have been phenomenal and are a big part of why the Bulldogs have not fallen off the map without last year’s championship trio of Justin Sears, Brandon Sherrod, and Jack Montague. The 6’6 Oni is a 45 percent three-point shooter who can also pull down double-digit rebounds and block his share of shots.

3 Storylines to Follow:

Forgotten favorites

Princeton came into the season picked to win the Ivy League. Towson was picked second in the Colonial. Albany was picked third in the America East. All three have either underachieved in the early going or simply been forgotten about, but all three have a chance to turn it around this weekend. Princeton has its first true Ivy League weekend, and that includes a home game against Yale. Towson, at just 9-9, gets a red-hot Northeastern team. Albany, which is somehow 0-3 in the America East, faces a streaking UMBC squad.

Time running out on URI

That win over Cincinnati in the non-conference looked great, but what have the Rams, a preseason Top 25 team, really done since then? Yeah, Belmont, Old Dominion, and Saint Joseph’s are OK wins, but Rhode Island is just 2-2 in the Atlantic 10. If the Rams are going to turn their season around in time to challenge for an at-large bid, it has to start now. A home win over UMass wouldn’t blow anyone away, but it would be a good start.

The best mid-major doubleheader of the season

Is there any better conference doubleheader between mid-majors than Wichita-Illinois State, followed by Saint Mary’s-Gonzaga? The answer is no. We already broke those games down, so all you have to do is grab a beer (or beverage of your choice), plop down on the couch, sit back, and enjoy.

2 Questions We Have:

Is this UMass’s time?

We’ve been waiting for the Minutemen to emerge as Atlantic 10 contenders. Their 0-3 start to conference play made it easy to forget some good wins in the non-conference and their lack of any bad losses whatsoever. Then they beat Dayton by double-digits at home. Was that a result of an off night from the Flyers’ best players, or is UMass ready to reel off a few solid wins? We can find out Sunday when the Minutemen travel to Kingston to face Rhode Island.

Can we get some clarity in the NEC?

It’s still early, but the Northeast Conference standings are a mess. LIU Brooklyn, Fairleigh Dickinson, and Mount St. Mary’s are all tied for first at 4-1, with St. Francis (PA) right behind at 3-2. After that, five teams are tied with 2-3 records. That means one game separates a team that would host a conference tournament game if the season ended today from a team that would not even make the conference tournament (the top eight in the conference qualify). St. Francis (PA) at Mount St. Mary’s should be the most intriguing game of the weekend, but also keep an eye on the Battle of Brooklyn between St. Francis Brooklyn and the Blackbirds.

1 More Unbeaten:

Is this the weekend we see Gonzaga go down? The Gaels are the only other clear West Coast Conference contender, and they have the talent and experience to get it done. Of course plenty of other great teams have left the Kennel with a loss…

KenPom unbeaten probability: 15.5%