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Missouri-UCLA, Louisville-Kentucky and more weekend hoops picks

The Weekend Forecast
 
Friday, Dec. 28
 
10 p.m., ESPN2 No. 7 Missouri (10-1) at UCLA (9-3)
To predict a game is to anticipate the swing of the pendulum. Will Missouri continue to surge after its enervating win over Illinois? Or will the Tigers come into Pauley emotionally spent and regress to the mean? I think UCLA is going to have a hard time keeping Mizzou off the boards, but I also think the Bruins will come ready to play. Shabazz Muhammad is averaging 24 points per game over his last three outings. Point guard Larry Drew and freshman forward Kyle Anderson appear on the road to something resembling coexistence. There's no reason to believe UCLA will win, except the Bruins are desperate, and they're at home. That's the formula for an upset. The pendulum swings westward.
 
8 p.m., ESPN2 Baylor (8-3) at No. 13 Gonzaga (11-1)
This is the beginning of an absolutely brutal stretch for the Zags. After playing the Bears, Gonzaga travels to Oklahoma State for a New Years Eve game. Then it has four of the next five on the road, including at Butler on Jan. 19. That, combined with the lingering disappointment from the loss to Illinois two weeks ago, ought to be enough incentive for Gonzaga to get off to a good start against the Bears. Pierre Jackson has been tearing it up for Baylor, but I like Gonzaga's balance, and I especially like the steady production they're getting in the frontcourt from Elias Harris.
 
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Saturday, Dec. 29
 
4 p.m., CBS Kentucky (8-3) at No. 4 Louisville (11-1)
Surprise, surprise, Gorgui Dieng is gonna play. Louisville's shot blocking stud had been out of action since breaking his wrist in the Bahamas. We don't know what kind of conditioning and timing Dieng will have, but we know that he will make an already smothering defensive team that much more effective. Kentucky point guard Ryan Harrow is coming along nicely, but he and the rest of the Kitty Cats are not ready to handle this type of pressure.
 
8 p.m. Evansville (7-5) at No. 16 Creighton (11-1)
Don't you just love the sound of the Missouri Valley Conference season cracking open? Try not to be fooled by Evansville's record. Four of the Aces' five losses came against likely NCAA tournament teams, and they boast one of the best-kept secrets in the country in Colt Ryan, a 6-foot-5 senior guard who is ranked in the top 10 in the league in scoring (13.7), assists (4.0) and steals (1.8). Creighton got some bad news this week when senior guard Josh Jones had to end his playing career because of a heart ailment. Still, Creighton is the better team and it's playing at home, but it will have to play well to win.
 
8 p.m., ESPNU No. 18 Butler (9-2) at Vanderbilt (5-5)
I know Vanderbilt is struggling right now, but I love the way Brad Stevens schedules. You can't convince your players that they're big-time unless you make them play big-time teams, and a road win against any SEC team is no cupcake. The Bulldogs have only played once since their upset of Indiana, so they should be fresh and ready to go. The Commodores have a pretty good guard in 6-4 sophomore Kedren Johnson, but unfortunately they don't have much else right now.
 
2 p.m., ESPN2 No. 20 UNLV (11-1) at North Carolina (9-3)
From North Carolina's standpoint, this is about as big as a game can get for late December. The Heels haven't just lost the only three tough games they've played, they were outright embarrassed. Yes, they're young but they're also not very tough, ranking 335th in the country in free throw rate. That makes them overly reliant on outside shooting, and when their threes aren't falling (such as their 3-for-19 performance against Texas) then they are very mediocre. Teams tend to shoot better at home, which should augur a victory, but somehow I'm not feeling it. UNLV is still without junior forward Mike Moser, but the Rebels still have one of the most dominant frontcourt players in freshman Anthony Bennett and appear to have gotten a nice boost with the addition of Pitt transfer Khem Birch, who had 20 points and eight rebounds in a win over Canisius.
 
6 p.m., ESPNU Xavier (7-4) at Tennessee (7-3)
Don't look now but the Gang That Can't Shoot Straight has reeled off three straight wins, including one over ranked-but-injury-riddled Wichita State. Meanwhile, Xavier, which gave off some good vibes by beating Butler in its second game, has now lost three out of four, having followed up its disappointing showing against Cincinnati by losing to Wofford at home. These are two teams going in different directions, and I don't anticipate either one changing course.
 
7 p.m., Big East Network George Mason (7-4) at South Florida (7-3)
South Florida may not be pretty to watch, but the Bulls know who they are and they stick with their gameplan. They have a steady point guard in Anthony Collins, whose job is to take care of the ball and maintain a slow-as-molasses tempo. George Mason likes to get out and go a little bit more behind junior guard Sherrod Wright, who is the CAA's best three-point shooter and averages 16.9 ppg, but when a team is playing at home, it's usually able to control the pace of the game.
 
7:30 p.m., ESPN2 Washington (8-4) at UConn (9-2)
Washington started the season by losing three of its first five, including at home to Albany. UW has since won six of its last seven against mostly weak competition. Now it gets to play four consecutive road games. This will be an important test, but it will be more important for UConn, which needs to hold serve at home against a borderline-NCAA tournament team. UConn is a pretty bad defensive team that gets pushed around inside, but I've got to believe the perimeter crew of Ryan Boatright (career-high 26 points in the win over Fordham), Shabazz Napier and Omar Calhoun will figure out a way to win.
 
Sunday, Dec. 30
 
1 p.m.? Illinois State (9-3) at Indiana State (7-4)
Indiana State pulled off a dramatic come-from-behind win to knock off Miami in overtime in the consolation game of the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu. The comedown from that emotional high, the long trip home, and the toughness of the competition all spell trouble -- even though the game is in Terre Haute. The Redbirds have a terrific inside-outside combo in Jackie Carmichael and Tyler Brown, and if they want to stay in the hunt for an at-large bid, they're going to need to win these types of games. And they know it.
 
Last Week: 5-5
 
Season Record: 37-23
 

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