Picks: Butler-Purdue, Villanova-UVa highlight jam-packed weekend
South Carolina (9–0) at Clemson (7–3)
Greensville, S.C., Friday, 7 p.m.
The Gamecocks enter mid-December undefeated, yet we still don’t know how good they are because their schedule has been weak. We know they have a terrific point guard, Sindarius Thornwell, who excels on both ends of the floor. We know they have a pretty good defense (19th nationally in efficiency) and love to run (29th in tempo). Clemson has lost a couple of tough ones on the road to Minnesota and at home against Alabama, and the Tigers will be amped for this one. The fact that they’ve been tested gives them the edge.
Clemson 64, South Carolina 62
New York, Saturday, noon, ESPN
The Blue Devils suffered a serious blow this week when senior forward Amile Jefferson broke his foot in practice. They will be smaller and younger until he gets back, but they still have too much perimeter firepower for the Utes to deal with—especially at Madison Square Garden, aka Cameron North.
Duke 78, Utah 65
Georgia Tech (7–2) at Georgia (4–3)
Saturday, noon, SEC Network
This will feature a battle between two pretty good big men. Georgia has Yante Maten, a 6'8" sophomore forward who is in the top 10 of the SEC in points (16.9), rebounds (8.6) and blocks (2.14). Georgia Tech has 6'8" senior Charles Mitchell, who is ranked fourth nationally in rebounds at 12.8 per game. The Yellow Jackets would like to keep the momentum going from their win at home over VCU on Tuesday, but the Bulldogs, who couldn’t quite knock off Kansas State at home two weeks ago, really need a win over a decent opponent. I spy a desperate home team.
Georgia 65, Georgia Tech 61
Saturday, noon, ESPN2
Talk about an early Christmas gift! Two terrific teams doing battle who mirror each other in more ways than you might think. Both are in kenpom.com’s top five in defensive efficiency and play two scoring point guards, yet both are ranked near the bottom nationally in free throw attempts per game. At some point, Villanova needs to do a better job utilizing Daniel Ochefu on the block and stop jacking threes, but going up against Tony Bennett’s pack-line D in Charlottesville isn’t the best place to start.
Virginia 67, Villanova 62
No. 11 North Carolina (8–2) vs. No. 22 UCLA (8–3)
Brooklyn, Saturday, 1 p.m., CBS
With 6'9" junior forward Kennedy Meeks shelved for two weeks because of a bone bruise in his left knee, Brice Johnson stepped up to score a career-high 25 points in the Tar Heels’ 24-point win over Tulane. The competition will be a lot stiffer in Brooklyn, however, as UCLA has wins over Kentucky (home) and Gonzaga (road), and two of its losses were one-possession games. Even with Meeks in the lineup, the Tar Heels gave up 16 offensive rebounds in last weekend’s loss at Texas. UCLA’s frontcourt tandem of Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh is coming into its own, but I predict the difference will be Bruin guard Bryce Alford, who scored 27 points in a win over Louisiana-Lafayette Tuesday night. He seems to really love the big stage.
UCLA 85, North Carolina 80
Indiana (8–3) vs. Notre Dame (7–2)
Indianapolis, Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN2
It’s hard to imagine a team needing a win more than Indiana needs this one. The Hoosiers have been playing better defense of late, but that has come against three low-major teams. IU will be tested on that side of the floor by an Irish team ranked second in the country in offensive efficiency, but given how poorly Notre Dame defends the three (39.3 percent, ranked 317th in the country), I imagine the Hoosiers will enjoy the target practice.
Indiana 78, Notre Dame 72
No. 4 Kentucky (9–1) vs. Ohio State (5–5)
Brooklyn, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS
There’s no mystery as to what is going on with Ohio State this season. The Buckeyes are young, and they are sloppy with the ball (278th in the country in turnover percentage). That will spell doom against the Wildcats, who finally had a decent shooting stretch during the second half of Saturday’s 14-point win at home over Arizona State.
Kentucky 84, Ohio State 64
No. 23 Cincinnati (9–2) at VCU (5–4)
Saturday, 4 p.m., CBS Sports Network
There’s not much reason to believe VCU will win this game except that it’s playing at home. That’s enough for me. The Rams are going to have their hands full inside with Cincy’s Octavius Ellis and Gary Clark, but even without Shaka Smart on the sidelines, they are creating plenty of havoc this season (10.6 steals per game, ranked fifth in the nation). They also have a dead-eye shooter in Melvin Johnson and have been toughened by a schedule that included games away from home against Duke, Wisconsin, Florida State and Georgia Tech.
VCU 74, Cincinnati 73
Indianapolis, Saturday, 5 p.m., Big Ten Network
Gracious sakes alive, this is a wonderful matchup. The Boilermakers have a few decent wins in their undefeated record, but this will be the first sure-fire NCAA tournament team they’ve played. Yes, the Boilermakers have an otherworldy frontcourt, but they are also a terrific passing team. In their last two games, they have totaled 54 assists to just 16 turnovers. Taking care of the ball will be critical given how much Butler guard Kellen Dunham loves to score on transition threes.
Purdue 72, Butler 69
Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPNU
The last thing the rest of the Big 12 needs is to see Rico Gathers become a big-time scorer. Baylor’s burly 6'8", 275-pound senior forward had a career-high 31 points (to go along with 21 rebounds) in the Bears’ win over Northwestern State on Dec. 8, and he leads the team with a 15.7 average. The Aggies are a veteran, deep team with some good wing scorers, but I don’t think they can match Baylor’s overall length and athleticism, even in College Station.
Baylor 82, Texas A&M 78