Early statement opportunity for VCU

Juvonte Reddic and VCU have a chance to make an early statement in their game against Memphis. Peter Casey/US Presswire

Football, turkey, blah, blah, blah. Here at GK Central, Thanksgiving is a chance to feast on college hoops, as this week might be the best opportunity we'll have all season to see legit mid-majors test themselves against top dogs -- or each other. The Battle 4 Atlantis alone figures to give us three days of tasty Giant Killer versus Giant matchups, including a pair of saucy opening-round games that we'll hit on below.

There's more -- oh yes, there's more -- to digest in the coming days. But if you can only watch four games (and if that's true, shame on you), these are the best of the bunch. Here's our look at what we stand to learn about each team.


Game to watch: Memphis Tigers versus Virginia Commonwealth Rams

Why watch: Because Memphis is ranked in the top 20, its fans are anticipating a deep tournament run ... and VCU actually may be the better squad. Plus, the Battle 4 Atlantis field is so stacked that VCU is guaranteed more than one shot against a Giant.

What we'll learn about Memphis: The Tigers were a tempo-free darling last season, ranking 21st in offensive efficiency and 12th in defensive efficiency. But a pair of lackluster wins against North Florida and Samford haven't inspired confidence, and Memphis might be the type of team that is vulnerable against a Giant Killer come March.

Memphis' 3-point defense has been absolutely brutal in those first two games (38.1 percent of opponents' points, 16th-highest in the nation), so that had better change in the Bahamas. Memphis is playing a big lineup, which puts even more pressure on mercurial guard Joe Jackson. VCU's pressure D will provide a fantastic test of whether he can run the show or whether the Tigers are in bigger trouble without Will Barton and Wesley Witherspoon than we thought coming into the season.

What we'll learn about VCU: Let's start with what we do know. The Rams are as active as ever on defense, leading the country in steal percentage. Briante Weber is reprising his role as a defensive dynamo off the bench, with 10 steals in three games despite playing just 19.7 minutes a game. Juvonte Reddic, at 6-foot-9, has emerged as a low-post threat. And VCU is shooting tons of 3-pointers while thwarting opponents beyond the arc.

But if the Rams want to achieve their patented GK status, they need someone to fill the role Brad Burgess played to perfection as an undersized 4 who can knock down triples. The best bet is 6-5 Treveon Graham, who actually started as the nominal 4 last game with 7-footer D.J. Haley coming off the bench. If Graham can stretch the floor and hold his own on D at the power forward spot, that will open up more minutes for Weber on the perimeter, and VCU's press will be that much better.

Game to watch: Louisville Cardinals versus Northern Iowa Panthers

Why watch: Because Louisville is ranked No. 2 in the country, but hasn't faced anything resembling a test yet. The Panthers could offer the first of three challenges in a row at the Battle 4 Atlantis, as UNI looks like a contender behind Creighton in the MVC.

What we'll learn about Louisville: Has the offense improved as much as necessary? The Cardinals were 103rd in offensive efficiency last season, and while they've looked better this season, the opponents have been Manhattan, Samford and Miami (Ohio). UNI offers a stingier D, so we'll see if Louisville remains as reliant on 3s as it has been in the first three games (45.3 percent of the team's shots), after launching just 32.1 percent of its shots from beyond the arc last season.

What we'll learn about Northern Iowa: How much does it matter for the Panthers to have four of their top six players back? Sure, there is continuity, but for UNI to emerge as a NCAA tourney team -- and a legitimate Giant Killer -- there must be improvement, too. So far, we've seen that from Deon Mitchell, who has increased his scoring from 7 ppg to 17.7. But as a group, other than crushing foes on the defensive glass and knocking down 3s, UNI had few statistical GK hallmarks last season. Let's see if this season's group can lock down teams beyond the arc, grab a few offensive boards and maybe even force some turnovers.

Game to watch: Drexel Dragons versus Saint Mary's Gaels

Why watch: Both of these teams have what it takes to knock out a top seed come March. So scout both of them in the first round of the Anaheim Classic, then see if the winner can take out Xavier (assuming the Musketeers get by Pacific).

What we'll learn about Drexel: Besides whether they can play a game that doesn't come down to the buzzer? The Dragons lost their first two games in overtime against Kent State and Illinois State, respectively, then beat Penn by two. That's not a great start, especially for a group that believed it was robbed of an NCAA bid last season and brought back four starters from that 29-7 squad. That team absolutely destroyed foes on the glass, grabbing offensive rebounds on 34.6 percent of possessions while allowing just 26.8 percent at the other end, and owned a hefty advantage from 3-point range as well (37.8 percent shooting on offense, 29.0 percent allowed). This season's squad hasn't shot nearly as well or held its own on the defensive boards (where the loss of Samme Givens is felt most). Thursday would be a good time to get back to basics.

What we'll learn about St. Mary's: This game and a December contest at Northern Iowa are pretty much the only ones remotely resembling quality matchups on one of the worst non-conference schedules you'll ever find. So if you want to see how St. Mary's looks against a solid team not named Gonzaga or BYU, you'd better be watching.

The Gaels allowed teams to shoot 36.6 percent from 3-point range last season, so this will be the first chance to see whether they've really improved -- their Division I foes are connecting on only 25.6 percent, but those teams are named Utah State and Eastern Washington. And though the return of Matthew Dellavedova is huge, St. Mary's still needs to find a way to replace Rob Jones' 10.7 rpg.


Game to watch: Florida Gators versus UCF Knights

Why watch: These teams likely are both better than you think. Florida easily handled a pair of tempo-free favorites in Wisconsin and Middle Tennessee and absolutely has to be considered a national championship contender. UCF, meanwhile, took care of South Florida (a tourney team last season) by 18 and has its own impressive statistical profile.

What we'll learn about Florida: Is there anything the Gators don't do well? So far, they are sixth in the nation in offensive efficiency and seventh in defensive efficiency. They throttle opponents beyond the arc and burn them with their own jumpers, while attacking and defending the rim at an even more efficient rate. Rebounding, forcing turnovers, blocking shots -- Florida does it all. Last season's crew didn't guard the arc, pressure the ball or pound the offensive glass nearly this well, and it ranked only 71st in defensive efficiency. So while UCF won't be a test on the order of, say, Kentucky, the game will clue us into how Florida might look against a pesky mid-major four months from now.

What we'll learn about Central Florida: Is this the season UCF makes the leap to true NCAA tourney status? The Knights won 21 games two seasons ago and 22 last season, including victories over UConn, Old Dominion and Memphis. Now, three of the top four scorers are back, and there have been few more impressive duos so far than Isaiah Sykes (21.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 5.3 apg, 2.0 spg) and Keith Clanton (17.7 ppg, 13.0 rpg, 2.3 bpg). Last season, UCF made a compelling GK case with impressive offensive rebounding and 3-point defense, but to emerge as a truly scary threat this season, they need to protect the ball better and knock down a higher rate of 3s. If the Knights can hang against the Gators, though, they can compete with anyone.