TSFJ's NCAA Box And One, Week Eight: New Year, Familiar Opponents

Happy New Year! The 2018-19 NCAA college basketball season has made its turn on the calendar. From now until April, we'll be following along, closely watching. But instead of just box scores and highlights, we're going to profile a player from each class, plus one additional story. With TSFJ and the help from Josh Naso, we present to you The Sports Fan Journal's Box And One.

In The Zone

While this doesn't quite apply to the Big Ten, as conference games started a month ago, the new calendar year means it's time for conference play in college basketball. No more holiday tournaments and non-conference matchups against opponents that will test the strength of a team. Instead, teams are getting ready to face off against foes in games that are already set. There doesn't need to be any bargaining of a home-and-home series. Conference rivals await.

For me, this begs an existential question: is it more difficult to beat an opponent never faced before or one faced many times? Of course college sports operate on a different level of familiarity as players have a set number of years in which they're members of teams. But the sentiment is the same, as those players who become upperclassmen develop within those storied conference rivalries, adding their names and eras to the decades-long lore.

Sure, the non-conference portion of the schedule allows for games we won't see in conference play and can only hope to see depending on Tournament brackets. But I believe that those conference rivals, especially the ones that have extended history, are just as motivating for all involved.

The fabulous Duke freshmen probably chose that school in part because of being able to experience playing in games against North Carolina. And while those individual players possess a newness and unfamiliarity that both teammates and opponents have to account for, it does seem that those games against storied rivals and conference opponents tend to have more than a hint of recognizable energy. Freshmen may have not been here before, but it won't feel that way to them.

So while that existential question from earlier has no definitive answer, let's appreciate this time of the year where we renew old competition with new and familiar faces.

Freshman: Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton

Every team needs a player off the bench who can be productive on a consistent basis. The Creighton Blue Jays have that in guard Marcus Zegarowski. He has not started in any of the team's 14 games, but he's playing 22 minutes per game and averaging 10 points. He's shooting lights out as well, at 53 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3. Creighton isn't ranked right now, but the 10-4 Blue Jays should be in the mix come March.

Sophomore: Destiny Slocum, Oregon State

In the western part of the country, there is a sophomore guard that has helped propel the Oregon State Beavers to the #11 rank in women's basketball. Destiny Slocum, at 5'7", leads the team in scoring and assists. Usually, Oregon and Stanford garner a lot of the attention out west. But Slocum and Oregon State have upped the profile of the program. Slocum is a solid shooter and playmaker and maximizes her time on the floor. Fourteen points and five assists in just a little more than half the game is the kind of productivity that will help Oregon State advance in the PAC-12 and NCAA tournaments.

Junior: Tyus Battle, Syracuse

Tyus Battle averaged 39 minutes a game last season. That means he rarely, if ever, came out of the game for Syracuse. Normally, that will cause a player's production to dip because of fatigue. But Battle was sturdy and consistent, almost netting 20 points per game as a sophomore. This year, his minutes have decreased slightly to under 36 per game, but he's right there at 18 points per contest. Battle can flat out score. It is his best attribute and a necessary one if the Orange are going to have a deep run in March like Head Coach Jim Boeheim is used to.

Senior: Caleb Martin, Nevada

Here's a hot take...Nevada is the best men's basketball program few people pay attention to. Moreover, if you're streaming sports online and need a late night watch, the Wolfpack are an excellent choice. They've taken the mantle of very good and unheralded from Gonzaga now that Gonzaga has further been appreciated nationally. The Wolfpack have had good players in their history, but the team success has not been this high. A big part of that success can be attributed to senior Caleb Martin, who is the leading scorer on this very deep and well-coached Nevada team. At 18 points a game with a knack for taking over and making huge shots in key moments, Martin is a solid pro player in the making and is someone I'm betting on to be a finalist for a lot of late-season hardware.

And One:

UCLA fired Steve Alford on Monday, relieving him of the job he held since 2013. His record is not bad at 124-63, but it was this recent skid the Bruins are on that did him in. UCLA has currently lost four in a row, including defeats at the hands of Belmont and Liberty. Despite midseason firings of college basketball coaches being very uncommon, a high-profile program such as UCLA does not settle for mediocrity. With conference play set to begin for them on Thursday, the search begins for a replacement head coach who can restore UCLA back to prominence.

Eleven weeks down, and we're still in the zone. Enjoy the college basketball season, folks.

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