• Can UNC recover from its shocking loss to Wofford? Can Northwestern find an answer for Oklahoma star Trae Young? Plus Kentucky-UCLA, Xavier-Northern Iowa and more of the weekend's top matchups.
By Michael Beller
December 22, 2017

This is the final weekend of the season before conference play begins, and with Christmas on Monday, there are no college hoops games on Sunday. That makes this the lightest college basketball weekend of the season. On the plus side, every weekend starting next week through Selection Sunday will have hundreds of college basketball games, with an untold number of them carrying significant implications. We’ve got one more week of taking it easy before the best part of the college basketball season gets underway.

Temple at Georgia

Friday, 1 p.m. ET, SEC Network

Temple started the season strong with wins over Auburn and Clemson, but losses to La Salle and George Washington took some of the bloom off the rose. A win at Georgia before getting into AAC play would be a great way to end the non-conference portion of the schedule. If Georgia is going to make the dance this year, protecting its home floor against decent, but not great, teams like Temple will be crucial. Temple has the size to match up with Georgia’s 6’8” senior Yante Maten, but the Bulldogs should be in good shape in Athens.

Georgia 70, Temple 64

Northwestern at No. 17 Oklahoma

Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2

No team has found a way to stop Trae Young this season, and just one (Arkansas) has figured out a way to beat Oklahoma. Young leads the country in points and assists per game—in fact, he tied the NCAA single-game assist record with a 22-assist (26-point) performance against Northwestern State on Tuesday. Northwestern can’t possibly keep up in a high-scoring affair, and the best way to keep Young from running all over them is by being efficient on the offensive end. If the Wildcats’ three-point shooting was going to show up in any game, this would be the one to choose.

Oklahoma 88, Northwestern 79

St. Bonaventure at Syracuse

Friday, 7 p.m. ET, ACC Network

The Bonnies have rebounded from an opening-season loss to Niagara, going 8-1 since then, with their only loss coming to No. 15 TCU. They struggle to score in the paint, though, ranking 219th in the country in two-point percentage. That’s not a trait you want to have against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone. That look could make life tough on the Bonnies, unless senior guard Matt Mobley gets it going from distance. In addition to the 2-3, Syracuse’s size on offense, led by Tyus Battle, will be too much for the undersized Bonnies.

Syracuse 72, St. Bonaventure 60

Texas vs. Alabama (in Birmingham)

Friday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2

It’s still too early to start thinking about the backend of the NCAA tournament field, but it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which both the Longhorns and Crimson Tide are bubble teams. That means the winner of this game could ultimately come away with a key non-conference win. This game is a contrast in styles, with Texas ranking 235th in kenpom.com’s adjusted tempo and Alabama slotting 56th. Pace will be a key factor and when that’s the case, I trust the team with the better point guard.

Alabama 73, Texas 67

No. 9 Xavier at Northern Iowa

Friday, 9 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network

The Musketeers continue to roll, with their only loss of the season coming to No. 3 Arizona State. The Panthers could make some noise in the Valley this season, but it’s hard to imagine them keeping pace with Xavier. They’ll desperately need to slow the game down, but that’s easier said than done with Trevon Bluiett playing the best basketball of his college career and Quentin Goodin proving a capable floor general. J.P. Macura and Kaiser Gates could both miss this game due to injury, but that shouldn’t be an issue for the Musketeers.

Xavier 72, Northern Iowa 62

Loyola-Chicago at Missouri State

Friday, 9 p.m. ET

These could be the two best teams in the best non-power conference in the country. Loyola, which owns a monster win over Florida in Gainesville, stumbled in its last game, losing to UW-Milwaukee. These teams both play at a slow pace, but that’s where the similarities end. Loyola ranks third in the country in three-point percentage but can’t protect the ball (276th in turnover rate) or get second chances (326th in offensive-rebounding rate). The Bears are the opposite, pulling down 35.7% of their misses, but ranking 210th in three-point percentage. The clashing strengths should make for a fun showdown in the first flag-planting game of the season in the Valley.

Loyola-Chicago 68, Missouri State 67

No. 21 Tennessee at Wake Forest

Saturday, 12:30 p.m., ESPN2

The Volunteers can hold their heads high after last weekend’s nail-biter of a loss to North Carolina. If they’re as good as they think they are, they’ll rebound by going into Wake Forest and knocking off a Demon Deacons team that, while solid, simply isn’t as good as the Vols. Freshman Grant Williams will make it hard for Wake to play small, which is its preference. Four of the Demon Deacons top-five players in minutes are 6’3” or shorter. That won’t fly with the 6’5” Williams leading Tennessee in scoring.

Tennessee 73, Wake Forest 68

Ohio State vs. No. 5 North Carolina (CBS Sports Classic, in New Orleans)

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET, CBS

The win at Tennessee was North Carolina’s best game of the season. The loss to Wofford was its worst and could go down as the biggest head-scratcher of the season. For now, we can chalk it up to an “anything can happen” situation. With the gauntlet of ACC play right around the corner, they can’t look past an Ohio State team that owns wins over Wisconsin and Michigan this season. The Buckeyes can’t hope to hang with the Tar Heels if the latter show up to their fullest, but with Jae’Sean Tate and Keita Bates-Diop, the Buckeyes have enough talent to beat North Carolina at less than its best. The Tar Heels may be playing teams like Florida State and Virginia to start the new year, but they can’t just skate right past the Buckeyes without expecting a challenge. 

North Carolina 85, Ohio State 75

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No. 7 Kentucky vs. UCLA (CBS Sports Classic, in New Orleans)

Saturday, 4 p.m., CBS

That the Wildcats are still searching for an offensive identity yet rank 23rd in the country with 114.7 points per 100 possessions says a lot about their ceiling and the direction in which they’re headed. Five of the six players getting at least 20 minutes per game for John Calipari are freshmen. UCLA is much more of a finished product, but it can’t attain the heights that this Kentucky group can. Hamidou Diallo will be a serious matchup problem for the Bruins on Saturday.

Kentucky 87, UCLA 74

Illinois vs. Missouri (in St. Louis)

The Border War is always a fun game, even when one of the teams—in this case Illinois—isn’t quite ready for the big stage. The Illini are a work in progress as they implement Brad Underwood’s fast-paced offense, and while that could pay dividends in the near future, the team is at least a year away. Missouri, meanwhile, is proving it wasn’t going to be all Michael Porter Jr. this season behind big leaps from Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett. Chalk up another rivalry game win for the Tigers.

Missouri 75, Illinois 67

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