The Big 12/SEC Challenge and some important tussles in the Big 10 and Atlantic Coast Conference highlight a busy final Saturday of January in NCAA hoops.
Here are my thoughts on a few of the day’s most intriguing matchup: (Note – Picks will be added when spreads come out on Friday evening)
#9 Kansas Jayhawks at #8 Kentucky Wildcats
(6:00 PM EST)
Two bluebloods go at it in Rupp Arena when the Jayhawks travel to Lexington to take on Big Blue Nation.
Kansas started the year with 10 consecutive victories, but they have come back down to earth losing three of their past nine contests. The loss of center Udoka Azubuike has really hurt Bill Self’s, squad forcing them to lean heavily on the play of leading scorer and rebounder Dedric Lawson. Lawson has been awesome averaging 19.5 points per game and 10.9 boards, but this young Kansas team has yet to illustrate they can perform at their best in a hostile environment.
The Jayhawks rebounded from a one-point loss at West Virginia last Saturday with a hard-earned 80-76 victory at home over a strong Iowa State squad Monday night. The question is whether or not the Jayhawks can beat a top-tier team like Kentucky away from Allen Fieldhouse. I have my doubts.
Kentucky has continued to turn the ball over too often, but freshmen backcourt stars Ashton Hagans and Tyler Herro have taken their games to the next level of late, especially Hagans who has emerged as Calipari’s best overall player. If they can get more consistent play out of P.J. Washington and Reid Travis upfront, they have what it takes to get back to the Final Four for the first time since 2015.
I expect Kentucky to dominate Kansas on the boards and win their sixth straight since being upset by Alabama on January 5th in Tuscaloosa.
Pick- Kentucky (-5.5)
Ohio State Buckeyes at Nebraska Cornhuskers
(12:00 PM EST)
Nebraska enters Saturday’s home contest in Lincoln with a record of 13-6 SU, but are currently 3-5 SU in conference play and badly in need of a win after losing two straight games. On their best day, the Cornhuskers look like a legitimate threat to make the Sweet 16, but like many teams, they have been unable to play with consistency away from home.
With four players averaging double-digits, including James Palmer Jr. who leads the team with 19.4 points per game, Tim Miles’ squad has the firepower to keep up with the teams at the top of the Big 10 standings. However, their lack of size has hurt them on the glass at times during the 2018-2019 campaign, including when they were outrebounded 44-34 in a disappointing road loss at Rutgers on Monday.
Nebraska gets a favorable matchup on Saturday afternoon against an Ohio State team that started 12-1 SU, but has lost five consecutive games for the first time since the 1997-1998 season when they dropped 17 in a row. Big man Kaleb Wesson has been a force for the Buckeyes but has found himself in foul trouble too often as of late. With forward Kyle Young sidelined indefinitely with a leg injury, the Buckeyes will need to shoot the ball like they did in their second half loss on Wednesday to Purdue to have any shot of beating the Cornhuskers in Pinnacle Bank Arena.
I expect to see Nebraska’s “A” game on Saturday. A double-digit win is well within the range of potential outcomes.
Pick- Nebraska (-7)
#3 Virginia Cavaliers at Notre Dame Fighting Irish
(1:00 PM EST)
The Fighting Irish return home after a two-point loss at Georgia Tech on Tuesday night. Mike Brey’s squad has lost five-of-six to start the ACC campaign and now must take on one of the country’s best teams in UVA.
Like Brey’s teams have done for a long time, Notre Dame has done a great job of valuing the basketball this season but has struggled to shoot the rock. In fact, their effective field goal percentage of 48.3% on Kenpom.com ranks a troubling 265th in the nation heading into this weekend.
It is hard to expect a top offensive output from the Irish on Saturday as they take on one of the nation’s best defensive teams in South Bend. Points are likely to be at a premium at the Joyce Center, so not only will the Irish need to defend better than they have as of late, but they will also need to find a way to knock down some shots from behind the arc if they want to any chance of springing the massive upset.
Virginia has done very little wrong this season and are a team I have promoted as a good value play to win the national title (+1000 currently on BetAmerica). Their lone loss was a hard fought 72-70 defeat in Cameron Indoor last Saturday to Duke where they struggled to contain “diaper dandies” Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett. The “Hoos” bounced right back off of the tough defeat in Durham and took it to an overmatched Wake Forest squad on Tuesday night 68-45.
This will be a tough game for the Irish to pull off outright, but I expect them to play with desperation on their home court which could make this one tougher for the Cavaliers than it may look on paper.
Pick- Notre Dame (+11.5)