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  • There are plenty of ranked teams facing intriguing tests this weekend, with none bigger than Kansas’s trip to Arizona State and UNC’s neutral site meeting with Kentucky.
By Michael Beller
December 21, 2018

College basketball has one more great weekend of action for us before packing it in for a few days. The sport knows how to take a break, though, giving us three meetings of top-20 teams this weekend, including one featuring two of the biggest name brands in the sport.

All times Eastern.

No. 24 Furman at LSU

Friday, 8 p.m., SEC Network

Furman has surged into the Top 25 behind a 12–0 start, which includes wins over Villanova and Loyola-Chicago. The Paladins haven’t been tested since their upset of the defending champions, but that changes with a trip to Baton Rouge on Friday. If this is your first time watching Furman, get ready for the inside-outside game of Matt Rafferty and Jordan Lyons, who are averaging a combined 35.4 points per game. The point guard battle between Lyons and Tremont Waters figures to be the best individual matchup in the game. This is suddenly a résumé-building opportunity for the Tigers, who have yet to win a game against a team guaranteed to be of at-large caliber.

LSU 75, Furman 70

No. 14 Buffalo at No. 20 Marquette

Friday, 8:30 p.m., FS1

Furman isn’t the only undefeated mid-major climbing up the rankings. Buffalo, however, didn’t come from out of nowhere, after knocking off Arizona in the NCAA tournament last season. The Bulls started the week with an impressive win at Syracuse and can end it with another one in Milwaukee. The Golden Eagles have won six straight games, with victories over Louisville, Kansas State and Wisconsin making up part of the streak. With two big scorers on both sides—C.J. Massinburg and Nick Perkins for Buffalo, and Markus Howard and Sam Hauser for Marquette—expect the winner of this game to need 80-plus points.

Marquette 84, Buffalo 81

Oklahoma at Northwestern

Friday, 9 p.m., Big Ten Network

Oklahoma is one of these teams quietly lurking before conference play, sitting at 10–1 with its only loss coming to Wisconsin. The Sooners have won six straight, knocking off Notre Dame and Creighton in that stretch. This is their last game before Big 12 play begins, and it starts for them with a trip to Lawrence to take on the Jayhawks. Northwestern is still hunting for its first meaningful win of the season, and this is its last opportunity to get one before jumping back into conference play. Vic Law and Dererk Pardon have held up their end of the bargain for the Wildcats, but they aren’t getting anything consistent out of their new-look backcourt. Oklahoma could make life tough on such a team, given that they rank 10th in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency and 39th in adjusted tempo. If the Sooners can bottle up Northwestern’s guards, who have been a strength of the team this season, they can get out and run against a team that prefers to slow things down.

Oklahoma 73, Northwestern 68

Penn State at Alabama

Friday, 9 p.m., SEC Network

Alabama rode star freshman Collin Sexton to the NCAA tournament last year, and holdovers John Petty, Donta Hall and Dazon Ingram, along with Sexton’s replacement, freshman Kira Lewis, have the Crimson Tide looking like a fringe tournament team again this season. A win over Penn State, even in Tuscaloosa, could end up being a big one when the committee is sizing up résumés. Penn State already has five losses, but it has played well against Maryland, Indiana and NC State, all of which look like they’ll be easy tournament teams. The 17-year-old Lewis makes Alabama’s offense go, and he will be tested by Penn State’s 12th-ranked defense by kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency.

Alabama 68, Penn State 62

Providence at Texas

Friday, 9 p.m., ESPN2

The Longhorns have rebounded from three straight losses to win games against Purdue and Grand Canyon. The Friars, meanwhile, are going through a bit of a rebuilding year, and this is their last game before Big East play begins for them on New Year’s Eve against Creighton. Shaka Smart, unsurprisingly, has the Longhorns playing some of the best defense in the country, ranking ninth in kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency. The problem is on the offensive end, where they simply haven’t found any measure of consistency. They scored 92 points in an upset win over North Carolina and 72 in the victory against Purdue but just 53 in a loss to VCU and 59 in a shocking loss to Radford. A team led by upperclassmen Kerwin Roach, Dylan Osetkowski and Elijah Mitrou-Long should figure it out sooner rather than later, but now would be the time to do so. They begin Big 12 play right after the calendar turns to 2019 with games against Kansas State and West Virginia.

Texas 77, Providence 65

No. 15 Ohio State vs. UCLA (in Chicago at the United Center)

Saturday, 3 p.m., CBS

Before North Carolina and Kentucky get together at the United Center in Chicago, Ohio State and UCLA will open the fifth annual CBS Sports Classic. The Buckeyes have quietly reloaded after losing Keita Bates-Diop to the NBA, starting out 10–1 with wins over Cincinnati and Creighton thus far. UCLA has lost two straight, dropping games to Belmont at home and at Cincinnati by 29 points. This is a huge game for the Bruins considering that the Pac-12 is staring down one of its worst seasons, top to bottom, in years. In other words, the Bruins, and every other team in the conference, won’t get many résumé-building opportunities once conference play begins. The Buckeyes still feel like a work in progress offensively when you watch them, but between Kaleb Wesson, C.J. Jackson, Keyshawn Woods and Luther Muhammad, they have enough scoring punch to keep them in most games.

Ohio State 72, UCLA 66

Murray State at No. 7 Auburn

Saturday, 4:30 p.m., SEC Network

I keep wanting to single out one game as the can’t-miss game of the weekend, but then I remember the big one coming at the very end of the column. Still, this is going to be a great matchup, pitting one of the country’s most dynamic scorers against a top-10 team and legitimate Final Four threat. That scorer is Ja Morant, Murray State’s sophomore point guard. Morant is averaging 22.6 points per game while shooting 52.5% from the floor. Oh yeah, he’s also averaging 9.6 assists and 6.9 rebounds per game. He’s basically putting up close to Trae Young numbers while also leading his team in rebounds. Having said that, Murray State lost to the only quality opponent it has faced, Alabama, racking up wins over the likes of Wright State, Southern Illinois and Evansville. This could be the Racers’ only opportunity to get a win over an at-large quality opponent all season. Given the way the committee has treated teams like Murray State in recent years, a loss at Auburn on Saturday would almost certainly mean that it’s auto-bid or bust come tournament time. The responsibility for slowing down Morant will likely fall to Jared Harper and Bryce Brown, and they can more than lean on their teammates in the frontcourt to pick up the scoring. Auburn ranks ninth in offensive-rebounding rate, while Murray State is 282nd in defensive-rebounding rate.

Auburn 77, Murray State 71

No. 9 North Carolina vs. No. 19 Kentucky (in Chicago at the United Center)

Saturday, 5:15 p.m., CBS

This meeting of blue bloods is the nightcap (or afternoon-cap, I suppose) of the CBS Sports Classic, taking place at the United Center. The Tar Heels just played their best game of the season, piling up 103 points and 1.23 points per possession while shooting 54.7% from the floor in a win over Gonzaga. They’re one of the easiest teams in the country to watch, ranking third in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency and eighth in adjusted tempo. They’ve got three players (Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Nassir Little) shooting at least 50% on two-pointers on no fewer than 56 attempts, and two(Johnson and Coby White) connecting on at least 40% of their threes. Kentucky, meanwhile, has all the talent in the world, but has to be concerned that it has dropped both of its games against quality opponents (Duke and Seton Hall). The team is also still dealing with the immediate fallout of Quade Green’s transfer, which changes its entire rotation. The switch could flip at any moment, though doing so with the way the Tar Heels are playing is a tall order.

North Carolina 89, Kentucky 80

Seton Hall at Maryland

Saturday, 5:30 p.m., FS1

This is the under-the-radar big game of the weekend, with both Seton Hall and Maryland out to surprisingly strong starts this season. I don’t think anyone would’ve been surprised if the Pirates were down a bit this season, but the win over Kentucky two weeks ago, combined with a wide-open Big East, has them in strong position heading into conference play. The Terrapins are 1–1 in the Big Ten, and have a good opportunity for a strong non-conference win before getting back into conference play after the new year. With Myles Powell and Sandro Mamukelashvili on one side and Anthony Cowan and Bruno Fernando on the other, this is all but guaranteed to be one of the sleeper games of the first half of the college basketball season.

Maryland 74, Seton Hall 68

Vanderbilt vs. Kansas State (in Kansas City)

Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN2

Vanderbilt is coming off its best win of the season, an 81–65 upset of Arizona State earlier this week. They did it by clamping down on one of the best offenses in the country, holding the Sun Devils to 0.9 points per possession and limiting Luguentz Dort to 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting from the floor. What’s most surprising about that is that defense isn’t exactly the Commodores’ calling card. In fact, they’ll be dealing with one of the best defenses in the country on Saturday, with Kansas State ranked second in kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency. Of course, that hasn’t exactly helped the 8–2 Wildcats, who lost to Tulsa and have yet to pick up a win over a team that seems a good bet for an at-large bid. Kansas State was having enough trouble finding consistent scoring before senior center Dean Wade tore a tendon in his foot, putting more pressure on Kamau Stokes and Barry Brown. In their first game without Wade, the Wildcats managed just 55 points in a win over Southern Miss. That won’t get it done against Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt 66, Kansas State 65

No. 1 Kansas at No. 18 Arizona State

Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPN2

Here’s the game of the weekend. Unbeaten, No. 1 Kansas heads to Tempe for a true road game against Luguentz Dort and No. 18 Arizona State. Dort, the freshman point guard who has already made a star turn for the Sun Devils, is averaging 19.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game and is going to put a ton of pressure on Bill Self’s defense. Kansas does play a little bit of zone, but in man situations the 6'2" Devon Dotson would have to check the 6'4" Dort. If Dort owns that matchup, expect more zone than usual from the Jayhawks. They’re likely willing to take their chances in zone, given that Arizona State is connecting on just one-third of their attempts from distance this season, ranking 200th in the country. The Sun Devils can throw size at Dedric Lawson, but as Villanova and Tennessee have learned recently, that isn’t enough to handle the skilled big man. If you watch one college basketball game this weekend, make it this one.

Kansas 80, Arizona State 77

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