A plethora of intriguing out of conference contests, including a number of in-state rivalries, headline a solid slate of games on the hardwood Saturday afternoon.
Here are my thoughts on a few of the bigger games on December 8th in NCAA Basketball:
#9 Kentucky Wildcats vs Seton Hall Pirates
Kentucky got off to a poor start to the season when they were blown out by Duke 118-84 in their season opener. The Wildcats have not necessarily dazzled since the loss in the Champions Classic, but they have rattled off seven straight wins. They have not faced any Power 5 conference teams over the winning streak, but as usual, John Calipari’s squad has plenty of talent with the goal to be at their best come March.
Kentucky has been dominant on the offensive glass in 2018 but has struggled to guard the three-point line. The good news for UK is that they meet a Seton Hall squad on Saturday in Madison Square Garden that has struggled behind the arc. The Pirates shot a solid 38.1% from three-point land in their win against New Hampshire on Tuesday night, but when they have taken on quality competition they have not come close to that level of success from downtown.
I expect Kentucky to control the boards and use their size and athleticism to win relatively easily in the “Big Apple.”
Pick- Kentucky (-6.5)
#10 Michigan State Spartans at Florida Gators
Michigan State brings a 7-2 record into their game in Gainesville, including a 2-0 record in Big 10 play. They really put things together at home on Monday in a 90-68 win against Iowa where they were able to dissect a less than impressive Hawkeyes defense due to strong play from their talented backcourt of juniors Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford, as well as the interior presence of Kenny Goins and Nick Ward.
Michigan State’s two losses have come away from home and in both contests, the Spartans got off to poor starts before rallying late but falling just short. On Saturday they meet a different challenge than they have encountered thus far in 2018 in the Florida Gators. Mike White’s squad should make things much more difficult for the Spartans than Iowa with their stifling half-court defense and slow pace of play, but in the end, I wonder if they can score enough to get a huge win in Exactech Arena.
Pick- Michigan State (-1.5)
Xavier Musketeers at Cincinnati Bearcats
Throw out the records in the “Crosstown Shootout.”
Cincinnati and Xavier are separated by just three miles and while neither team is likely to replicate the success they had last year, this should be a dogfight in the newly renovated Fifth Third Arena.
The Bearcats got off to a bumpy start to the season when they struggled to score in a 64-56 loss to Ohio State, but have won eight straight, albeit against lesser competition than the Buckeyes. The key of late has been giving leading scorer Jarron Cumberland some help on the offensive end. In fact, they had five guys post double figures in their win Tuesday against Northern Kentucky.
Not only did Xavier lose a ton of production from their Big East regular-season championship team from last year, but they also lost head coach Chris Mack. The Musketeers have struggled against quality competition to start the year, but enter Saturday on a four-game winning streak after struggling most of the way and eventually pulling away late against Ohio U Wednesday night. It would be the biggest win of Travis Steele’s young career if he could spring the upset on Saturday.
I am always leery to lay points in a rivalry game like this, but Cincinnati has been the better team early in 2018.
Pick- Xavier (+7)
Louisville Cardinals at Indiana Hoosiers
The Hoosiers bring a 7-2 record into their game with Louisville, but outside of the play of freshman sensation Romeo Langford I have not been overly impressed with what I have seen thus far. Sure, they have been banged up and should get better as head coach Archie Miller molds them into his type of team, but they have turned the ball over too frequently and have struggled to guard inside the arc enough for me to lay points with them against a quality opponent like Louisville.
IU beat Northwestern at home by 2 to start their Big 10 season and escaped with a road victory in State College on Tuesday night, but that was in large part due to Penn State shooting a pathetic 11-for-26 from the charity stripe. Indiana will need to play better to win and cover against a Louisville team that beat Michigan State and gave Tennessee and Marquette all they can handle.
Pick- Louisville (+6.5)
#12 Wisconsin Badgers at Marquette Golden Eagles
The two strongest programs in the state of Wisconsin meet on Saturday when the Badgers travel east on Interstate 94 to take on the Golden Eagles. The road team has won four straight in this rivalry, including an 82-63 Marquette victory in the Kohl Center last year.
The Badgers have rebounded in a big way after missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in twenty years last season. Greg Gard’s squad enters Saturday with a record of 8-1 with their only loss coming at the hands of undefeated Virginia in the Battle of Atlantis on November 23rd.
It will be a challenge for the Badgers to stop guard Markus Howard and win in a hostile environment, but if they continue to get solid contributions from role players like Brevin Pritzl, Nate Reuvers, Aleem Ford, and Kobe King, their depth should be too much for Marquette.
Pick- Wisconsin (Pick’em)