Picks: Kansas-Kentucky Leads the Big 12/SEC Challenge and the Weekend’s Best

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This is the first weekend without football of the college basketball season, and we must say that the schedule could have been planned a little better. Still, there are plenty of great games, highlighted by Kansas at Kentucky, the showpiece game in the Big 12/SEC challenge. There are two more games between two ranked teams, and there probably would be three if the pollsters had a better idea of just how good Purdue is. With the Super Bowl next week, college basketball is about to take center stage in the sports world, and not a moment too soon in what is shaping up to be an excellent finish.

All times Eastern.

No. 5 Michigan at Indiana

Friday, 6:30 p.m., FS1

I’m not sure it’s possible for the No. 5 team, which has all of one loss, in the country to be reeling, so let’s say it’s been a disquieting week for the Wolverines. They lost at Wisconsin last weekend, then needed a Charles Matthews buzzer beater to take down Minnesota at home. On the other hand, Indiana is absolutely reeling, losers of five straight after starting the Big Ten season at 3–0. What’s most troubling is the breakdown of the Hoosiers’ wins and losses by quality of opponent. Their three conference wins came against Northwestern, Penn State and Illinois. Their losses, meanwhile, were against Michigan, Maryland, Nebraska, Purdue and Northwestern. In other words, they don’t have a quality win in conference play, and haven’t defeated an at-large quality team since early December when they beat Louisville. Put simply, offense has been an issue. Romeo Langford has been streaky, they’re terrible from distance, and no one outside of Langford and Juwan Morgan has emerged as a consistent threat. That’s a bad formula against a Michigan team that’s among the best defensive squads in the country.

Michigan 69, Indiana 60

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No. 24 Iowa State at No. 20 Mississippi

Saturday, noon, ESPN

This clash of ranked teams is one of the first games of this season’s Big 12/SEC challenge, a great way to kick off what has become a fun midseason event. When the conferences put the matchups together, they probably didn’t plan on either of these teams being ranked, let alone both. It will be interesting to see how Kermit Davis schemes to slow down Marial Shayok, who could be too big for Terence Davis, and too quick for Blake Hinson. It’s likely that Hinson will get primary duty on him, with Davis doing what he can to lock down Talen Horton-Tucker. Shayok and Nick Weiler-Babb give Iowa State a size advantage on the perimeter that could be decisive in this game. Mississippi can counteract that with its speed and pace, but that requires a big game from at least two of Davis, Breein Tyree and Devontae Shuler.

Iowa State 77, Mississippi 71

Florida at TCU

Saturday, noon, ESPN2

Florida looks like it will be a true bubble team the rest of the season, which makes games like Saturday’s at TCU huge. A road win against an at-large quality opponent is exactly what the Gators need to add to their résumé. The opportunity for TCU isn’t as large, but, as a bubble team, it needs to project its home floor against a team it has been better than to this point of the season. This game is a contrast in styles, with TCU ranked 83rd in kenpom.com’s adjusted tempo, and Florida ranked 340th. There’s a reason why the Gators have fallen short against every at-large quality opponent they have played this season, and it’s largely because those teams are able to get them to play at a pace where they aren’t comfortable. TCU should be able to do the same.

TCU 73, Florida 66

Ohio State at Nebraska

Saturday, noon, FS1

Ohio State has fallen apart since the calendar turned to 2019. The Buckeyes are winless in the new year, dropping games to Michigan State, Rutgers, Iowa, Maryland and Purdue. Outside of Rutgers, there’s nothing wrong with any of those losses, but, as we discussed earlier with Indiana, it certainly changes the equation when a team loses to every quality team it plays. The Buckeyes can’t find any consistent offense outside of Kaleb Wesson, and other teams know it, frequently doubling Wesson and forcing other people to beat them. So far, no Buckeye has been up to the challenge. Nebraska has lost its last two games, and will play Wisconsin, Maryland and Purdue all over the next two weeks. That makes this a critical game for the Cornhuskers, who at one point looked like they could be at the top of the Big Ten’s second tier. James Palmer Jr. is a brutal cover for an Ohio State team that is small on the perimeter, which could make all the difference if the Cornhuskers are able to limit Wesson.

Nebraska 74, Ohio State 63

Alabama at Baylor

Saturday, noon, ESPNU

Alabama’s résumé is pockmarked with some ugly losses—Northeastern, Georgia State and Texas A&M—but it also features wins over Kentucky and Mississippi. Every bubble team has proved it can lose, so the ones that also show they can beat at-large quality teams with some degree of consistency deserve special notice. Alabama has done that, as has Baylor recently, with victories over Iowa State and Texas Tech. The Bears have adjusted to life without Tristan Clark, but his absence looms large for a team that was already smaller than the average high-major. That lack of size will be tested by an Alabama team that is big in the backcourt and on the wing, which could create issues for Makai Mason, Jared Butler and King McClure.

Baylor 70, Alabama 67

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Pittsburgh at No. 23 Louisville

Saturday, 2 p.m., ACC Network

Pitt got itself into the at-large discussion with wins over Louisville and Florida State, but it has since lost to Syracuse and Duke. Still, the last two weeks have been a significant net gain for the Panthers, and now they get a return matchup with a team they’ve already defeated this season. Louisville responded to that loss to Pitt by running North Carolina out of its own gym, and has since taken care of business against Boston College and Georgia Tech. Pitt has yet to win a true road game this season, a possible sign of its youth, with three freshmen—Xavier Johnson, Trey McGowens and Au’Diese Toney—leading the team in minutes. Louisville can be a brutal environment for a team like that, especially with the Cardinals offense clicking the way it has the past two weeks.

Louisville 77, Pittsburgh 61

No. 9 Kansas at No. 8 Kentucky

Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN

This is, quite obviously, the headliner in the Big 12/SEC challenge, as well as the entire weekend. Kansas bounced back from last weekend’s loss to West Virginia with a win over Iowa State earlier this week. Kentucky has won five straight games after dropping its SEC opener to Alabama. Bill Self has always relied on a man defense during his coaching career, but this season’s Jayhawks have mixed in some zone and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them deploy it on Saturday to counteract some of Kentucky’s size and athleticism on the wings. On the other side of the ball, Devon Dotson is showing he can be the reliable third scorer alongside Dedric Lawson and Lagerald Vick with Udoka Azubuike out for the season. Dotson could be troubled by size, with the Wildcats likely to throw Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley at him. Kansas is going to do what it can to make this game as fast-paced as possible, which will require a herculean effort on the boards. Kentucky ranks seventh in offensive-rebounding rate, and Kansas already struggled a bit on the glass before Azubuike’s injury. That factor could swing this game.

Kentucky 75, Kansas 72

Vermont at Stony Brook

Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN3

Vermont has been in control of the America East all season, but a loss to UMBC earlier this week has the Catamounts half a game behind Stony Brook in the conference standings. Vermont junior forward Anthony Lamb, who leads the team at 20.6 points per game, missed the loss to UMBC because of a concussion, and his absence wasn’t hard to notice. The Catamounts scored just 0.97 points per possession against a Retrievers squad ranked 141st in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency. Lamb could miss this game, as well, which would likely make Stony Brook the favorite. Vermont is the better team at full strength and will be favored to win the conference tournament, but a loss in this game would be huge because the America East does not hold its tournament at a neutral site. Rather, the top seed hosts every game. If Vermont falls two games behind Stony Brook in the standings, it could have to win a true road game or two to get to the big dance.

Vermont 71, Stony Brook 64

Syracuse at No. 10 Virginia Tech

Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN

As we highlighted in our most recent Bracket Watch, Virginia Tech has amassed a gaudy record without beating many teams of note. The Hokies did take down Purdue before Thanksgiving, but that’s their only win to date against a team likely to get an at-large bid. When they’ve stepped up in weight class recently they’ve been blown out, losing to Virginia by 22 and North Carolina by 21. This is a crucial get-right game for the Hokies, with NC State and Louisville right around the corner. Syracuse, meanwhile, is doing what has become familiar over the last half-decade or so, losing head-scratchers to teams like Old Dominion and Georgia Tech, only to then beat Duke, arguably the best team in the country, on the road. This is a great test for Virginia Tech’s three-point based offense, with Syracuse locking down on the perimeter with its 2–3 zone. The Hokies rank third in the country in three-point percentage, while the Orange are 23rd in three-point defense.

Virginia Tech 74, Syracuse 68

No. 16 Auburn at No. 22 Mississippi State

Saturday, 8:30 p.m., SEC Network

These two teams were left out of the Big 12/SEC challenge, so they’ll play a regular old conference game this weekend. Auburn has maintained an impressive ranking all season, but it all stems from the love pollsters gave them before the season started. The Tigers still don’t have a win over a team likely to get an at-large bid. Their three best wins over the season came at the expense of Murray State, Washington and Arizona, all of which could be realistically left out of the dance. It’s curious, too, considering Jared Harper and Bryce Brown comprise one of the best backcourts in the country. This is a team that should have broken through against at least one of the quality opponents it has played, but it just hasn’t happened. The matchup between Harper and Lamar Peters will be one of the best games-within-a-game this weekend, especially considering what Harper can do to a defense when his primary defender can’t stay in front of him. Mississippi State’s defense is going to need to show up if it is to protect its homecourt. The Bulldogs won’t win this game if it takes 80 points to get it done.

Auburn 80, Mississippi State 76

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No. 6 Michigan State at Purdue

Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS

This is the first Sunday of the college basketball season without football, and CBS and the Big Ten couldn’t have picked a much better game to welcome fans just making the transition over to the hardwood. Michigan State hasn’t lost since late November, and is the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region in our most recent Bracket Watch. Purdue, meanwhile, has hit its stride in the new year, racing out to a 5–1 start in 2019, with wins over Wisconsin (in Madison), Iowa, Indiana and Ohio State. Trevion Williams is starting to emerge for the Boilermakers, and with Ryan Cline finding his stroke from behind the arc, Carsen Edwards is finally getting the offensive help even a player as good as he is needs. Containing Edwards is key to slowing down Purdue’s sixth-ranked offense by kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency, and the Spartans have the right guy to do it in Cassius Winston. When these teams met in East Lansing earlier this month, Edwards scored just 11 points while shooting 3 of 16 from the floor, including 2 of 13 from three. Winston, meanwhile, poured in 23 points, dished out five assists, and grabbed six rebounds. That script is unlikely to repeat in West Lafayette, and the Boilermakers have the right bodies to throw at Nick Ward.

Purdue 78, Michigan State 77

Seton Hall at No. 18 Villanova

Sunday, 2:30 p.m., FOX

Seton Hall has lost three straight games and four of its last five, including a season sweep at the hands of DePaul. The Pirates are coming apart at the seams, and non-conference wins over Kentucky and Maryland aren’t going to carry them forever. This is an opportunity, but also a tough spot with Villanova playing its best basketball of the season. The Wildcats have won seven straight games and have found their footing after the exodus of so many key players from last season’s national championship team. Eric Paschall and Phil Booth are still doing most of the heavy lifting, but they’re now getting help from sophomore Collin Gillespie and freshman Saddiq Bey, among others. If those two can find another level in the second half of the season, Villanova is going to be one dangerous team going into the tournament.

Villanova 81, Seton Hall 68

No. 19 Iowa at Minnesota

Sunday, 5 p.m., FS1

Iowa won five straight games before Thursday’s loss to Michigan State, though we should pump the brakes a little considering four of them were against fringe bubble team Northwestern, fading Ohio State, likely NIT-bound Penn State and hopeless Illinois. Still, five wins is five wins, especially for a team that has victories over Iowa State and Nebraska, and played Wisconsin close. Iowa is obviously the more talented of these two teams, so Minnesota will have to muck it up to get a win, as it did in Madison at the start of this month, holding the Badgers to 52 points and 0.8 points per possession. Tyler Cook may technically get most of his minutes at the four, but expect to see Amir Coffey on him, or at least helping on him quite often in this game. He’s the only Gopher who can hope to slow down Iowa’s best player.

Iowa 78, Minnesota 69

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