Weekend Picks: Texas-Kentucky, Gonzaga-Arizona lead matchups
Friday, 7 p.m., ESPN
People scoff at me when I suggest Kentucky is going to go undefeated, but they sure do have a hard time telling me which games the Wildcats are going to lose. It’s unfortunate the Longhorns will have to play without injured point guard Isaiah Taylor, because they would otherwise be the type of team that could have challenged UK. But if a Taylor-less Texas needed a three-point buzzer beater to win a road game at an undermanned UConn, then it is going to need a near-miracle to pull off this one in Rupp.
Kentucky 80, Texas 70
Friday, 9 p.m., ESPN
I’m sure this looked like a potential clash of the titans when it was set up, but neither of these teams has looked titanic lately. Count me among those totally mystified that freshman forward Kelly Oubre is averaging fewer than eight minutes per game for the Jayhawks. Some might see that as indication of a larger problem, but I see it as a measure of just how much this team can improve between now and March. Meanwhile, Florida simply cannot score. The Gators have yet to reach 70 points in a game this season, and Allen Fieldhouse is not a good place to start.
Kansas 79, Florida 63
Friday, 9:30 p.m., ESPNU
First-year Missouri coach Kim Anderson knows his program is low on talent, so he’s trying to slow games down as much as he can. The Tigers are ranked 288th nationally in tempo, but they still lost their opener at home to Missouri-Kansas City. Oklahoma isn’t as efficient offensively as it should be, but this has the potential to be Lon Kruger’s best defensive team since he came to Norman in 2011. The Sooners have had a full week to recover from their second-place performance at the Battle 4 Atlantis, so they will have fresh legs no matter how much Mizzou tries to slow them down.
Oklahoma 74, Missouri 60
Saturday, 12:30 p.m., CBS
I’m guessing the Badgers won’t be in a great mood after allowing Duke to shoot 65 percent on Wednesday night. The Golden Eagles have a pair potent offensive weapons themselves in Duane Wilson and Matt Carlino, but they are getting outrebounded by more than eight boards a game, and they are ranked dead last in the Big East in field goal percentage defense. Wisconsin has to be concerned with Sam Dekker’s lingering ankle injury, but even at less-than-full strength, it’s hard to imagine the Badgers dropping their second in a row, and one to their in-state rival, no less.
Wisconsin 72, Marquette 64
Saturday, 5:15 p.m., ESPN
The numbers tell me Arizona is a good offensive team (10th in the country in offensive efficiency, 30th in field goal percentage), but my eyes aren’t so sure. The Wildcats have a tendency to go through scoring droughts, but their defense is so overpowering that it gets them through. That will be harder to do against a team as skilled, big and deep as Gonzaga. The Zags are fifth in the country in offensive efficiency, they’re 13th in offensive rebound percentage and they’re ninth in effective field goal percentage (which gives extra weight to three-pointers). To be sure, it’s not easy to win in McKale, but I think Gonzaga is good enough to pull it off.
Gonzaga 75, Arizona 72
Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPNU
First of all, I love that this game is being played. Two excellent, classy programs from inside the same state squaring off -- and not at a neutral site, either. The Cavaliers may be hard-pressed to win if Justin Anderson is unable to play (he suffered an ankle injury in the second half of Wednesday's win over Maryland), but assuming he’s in the lineup, I’ll take the road team. VCU is getting 9.1 steals per game, but it ranks near the bottom of the Atlantic 10 in both field goal percentage defense (44.8) and three-point defense (39.7). The Rams will need to force turnovers to overcome the Cavs' maturity and efficiency, and I don’t think Virginia point guard London Perrantes and his teammates are going to give VCU that kind of help.
Virginia 69, VCU 64
Northwestern (5-2) at No. 23 Butler (6-1)
Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Fox
Chris Collins has the Wildcats off to a nice start, but their record is deceiving. They beat North Florida by two points and Elon by one point in overtime, both at home. Not only is this game going to be played in Hinkle Fieldhouse, but the Bulldogs are not the type of group to take any team lightly. They know they are not talented enough to do that. It’s also good news for Butler that 6-foot-6 junior guard Kellen Dunham got his stroke back, making all three of his long-range attempts in last weekend’s win over Indiana State.
Butler 70, Northwestern 59
St. John’s (5-1) at Syracuse (5-2)
Saturday, 5:15 p.m., ESPN2
I realize we’re not supposed to acknowledge moral victories, but St. Johns’ loss to Gonzaga during Thanksgiving week has to qualify. The Red Storm were down by 15 points in the second half to one of the top teams in the country and almost came all the way back. Now it’s time for the Johnnies to take that confidence into the Carrier Dome. Syracuse’s offense is heavily dependent on post scoring, but St. John’s has one of the nation’s top rim protectors in 6-10 junior forward Chris Obekpa, who ranks sixth nationally in blocks with 3.8 per game.
St. John’s 68, Syracuse 66
Saturday, 8 p.m., CBS Sports Network
Alabama has had some nice moments this season -- many of them provided by 6-5 senior guard Levi Randolph, the SEC’s leading scorer -- but if you can’t defend, it’s hard to beat good teams on the road. The Crimson Tide is ranked 13th in the SEC in defensive field goal percentage and 11th in rebound margin. Xavier, on the other hand, has one of the Big East’s best big man in Matt Stainbrook, who is averaging 16 points and 8 rebounds a game and ranks fourth in the country in field goal percentage (72.6).
Xavier 74, Alabama 66
No. 13 San Diego State (6-1) at Washington (6-0)
Sunday, 9 p.m., Pac 12 Network
Once again, San Diego State is one of the best defensive teams on the country. Once again, the Aztecs struggle on offense. They will be comfortable running with up-tempo Washington, but at some point, a team has to be able to score in the halfcourt, especially on the road. Huskies sophomore Nigel Williams-Goss might be the best point guard in the Pac-12 (and yes, that includes Arizona’s T.J. McConnell), but keep a close eye on 6-2 junior Andrew Andrews, who scored a game-high 20 points in Washington’s win over UTEP in Anaheim last weekend.
Washington 75, San Diego State 70