After a slow week on the hardwood, things pick back up this weekend in college basketball as a number of top-tier schools look to pick up key out of conference wins before 2018 concludes.
Here are a few games I will have my eye on this Saturday:
#21 Villanova Wildcats at #1 Kansas Jayhawks (Saturday, Dec 15 – 12 pm ET)
The defending champions are off to a slow start to the season. Villanova was blown out at home by Michigan in Philadelphia and then fell to undefeated Furman in overtime 76-68. Since then the Wildcats started to value the ball much more and rattled off six victories in a row, but reverted back to poor habits in a 78-75 loss to inter-city rival Penn 78-75 on Wednesday night.
Not only did Nova turn the ball over nearly twice as much as they assisted teammates on baskets in that loss at the Palestra, but their half-court defense did little to make life difficult on the Quakers. They will need to clean things up to have a chance in Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday afternoon in a rematch of the 2018 Final Four semifinal that Nova won 95-79.
The Jayhawks are number one in the polls and come into their ninth game undefeated, but they have not been as dominant as their record may suggest. Bill Self’s team struggled with New Mexico State last Saturday and had to go to overtime earlier in the season to get the best of both Tennessee and Stanford.
Kansas will once again be without big man Udoka Azubuike who sprained his ankle against Wofford, so they will rely heavily on junior forward Dedric Lawson who leads the teams in points (19.1 per game), rebounds (10.6), and assists (2.9). No doubt the Jayhawks will need Azubuike to be at their best come February and March, but they should have more than enough firepower to beat a Villanova team that needs to get more out of senior Eric Paschall if they hope to have any chance of making another run in March.
Villanova plays better than they did in the loss to Penn, but it is not enough to beat the Jayhawks on their home floor.
Pick- Villanova (+7.5)
Butler Bulldogs at Indiana Hoosiers (Saturday, Dec 15 – 3:45 pm ET)
These two Indiana schools meet in the second half of the Crossroads Classic after fellow in-state rivals Notre Dame and Purdue battle it out in the first half of the doubleheader at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Saturday afternoon.
Indiana has won three straight games by 2 points or less, including a 68-67 win in Assembly Hall against Louisville. During the winning streak, the Hoosiers have done a better job of valuing the basketball and, more importantly, guarded their opponent well. Freshman star Romeo Langford has carried the load in terms of scoring and is the team’s best offensive weapon, but fellow frosh Rob Phinisee has impressed as well. He has made key shots down the stretch to take some of the load off of both Langford and senior Juwan Morgan. IU will need the 6-1 guard to continue to play well if they want to keep this winning streak going.
Butler has won four of their last five games with their lone loss coming at Saint Louis on December 1st. It sounds simple, but when the Bulldogs have shot the ball well they have looked great. When they have struggled to put the ball in the hoop, like they did against the Billikens, they are very beatable.
Indiana’s half-court defense has been solid all year under second-year head coach Archie Miller, which could make things difficult for Butler. I expect this one to come down to the wire in a low-scoring affair in Indianapolis.
Pick- UNDER the total (141.5)
#6 Gonzaga Bulldogs at #12 UNC Tar Heels (Saturday, Dec 15 – 7 pm ET)
This should be a fun one as the top-ranked team in Kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency meets the school currently ranked fourth. Expect this one to be up and down from start to finish as Gonzaga looks to bounce back after their first loss of the season to Tennessee, 76-73, last Sunday.
North Carolina enters this one with a record of 7-2, but they have lost to the two best teams they have faced thus far in 2018. The common theme in those games was the Tarheels inability to defend their opponent.
In their 92-89 loss to Texas on November 22nd, North Carolina allowed the Longhorns to shoot 20 of 35 from inside the arc and 11 of 24 from downtown. On November 28th against undefeated Michigan, poor defense was once again an issue for UNC. They let the Wolverines connect on 20 of 32 from two-point-land and 11 of 22 from three. They will need to crank things up on the defensive end of the court if they hope to beat the Zags.
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few will once again be without forward Killian Tillie who has been out all year with an ankle injury. The Bulldogs have shown the ability to beat the best while short-handed, defeating previously unbeaten Duke 89-87 in Maui. The key for the Zags will be to keep North Carolina off the offensive glass, which is easier said than done. I expect them to play well and avoid back-to-back losses away from home.
Pick- Gonzaga (+2.5)