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  • Will Kentucky or Louisville earn rivalry bragging rights this year? Can Seton Hall hand St. John's its first loss? Here's our final weekend picks of 2018.
By Michael Beller
December 28, 2018

It’s a light weekend on the college basketball landscape, which is typical of this specific time on the calendar, especially when the holidays fall where they are this year. It also comes just in advance of conference play starting (or re-starting in the Big Ten’s case) for most major leagues, another reason why many of their teams are taking the weekend off. However, we still have a solid slate of games that bears watching with conference play just around the corner.

All times Eastern.

BYU at No. 19 Mississippi State

Saturday, noon, ESPNU

BYU is down from where it’s been in recent years, losing six of its first 14 games, including reversals against Illinois State, Weber State and UNLV. The Cougars remain a good test for No. 19 Mississippi State, however, thanks to their offensive style. They’re going to do what they can to get up and down the floor, ranking 35th in adjusted tempo, while turning the ball over on fewer possessions than all but six teams in the country. You beat BYU by outscoring it, which should give us a good look at Quinndary Weatherspoon, Lamar Peters, Aric Holman and the rest of the key players for the Bulldogs. As good a test as this should be, it would be a major disappointment if the Bulldogs didn’t pass it.

Mississippi State 87, BYU 73

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Davidson at No. 14 North Carolina

Saturday, noon, ESPN2

The Tar Heels haven’t played since losing to No. 16 Kentucky last weekend. This is not their last game before ACC play begins, as they’ll also host Harvard in the middle of next week. Kentucky shut down North Carolina like no other team—not even No. 2 Michigan—has done this season, holding the Heels to 0.87 points per possession. This should be a get-right game for North Carolina, which has the firepower to run Davidson right out of the gym. If the Wildcats can find a way to slow the game down and keep the Heels off the offensive glass, though, they’ll have a chance to pull off a shocker. Jon Axel Gudmundsson will be the key for the Wildcats. The best way to slow down a team like North Carolina is to put the ball in the basket, and Gudmundsson is their go-to scorer with Kellan Grady out.

North Carolina 89, Davidson 74

No. 16 Kentucky at Louisville

Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN2

Kentucky and Louisville enter their annual showdown not at opposite ends of the spectrum, but certainly with different expectations for the rest of the season. After a slow start to a season in which it has Final Four aspirations, Kentucky is coming off its best win of the season, an 80–72 result over No. 14 North Carolina last weekend. Realistically, Louisville is exceeding expectations in Chris Mack’s first season, with wins over No. 8 Michigan State and Seton Hall, and narrow losses to Marquette and Indiana. Still, the Cardinals will begin the ACC season in the middle of the pack, while the Wildcats seem to be rounding into form. In a divergence from recent Kentucky teams that have started the year slow (for the program’s standards) this team is getting it done better on the offensive than defensive end, thanks, in part, to an offensive-rebounding rate that ranks third in the country. If the defense kicks into gear—and we just discussed what it did against North Carolina—this is going to be one of the scariest teams in the country.

Kentucky 75, Louisville 66

Penn at Toledo

Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN Plus

This isn’t a typical weekend preview game, but don’t think it’s only here because of the light slate this weekend. Both of these teams could be dancing in March. Penn is co-favorites, along with Yale, in the Ivy League, while Toledo is certainly capable of busting someone’s bubble by winning the MAC tournament in place of No. 21 Buffalo. Penn, of course, upset Villanova a couple weeks ago, but also beat Miami in the first week of December. Toledo doesn’t have any big wins to its name, but the Rockets are one of the best shooting teams in the country, ranking 15th in three-point percentage and second in free throw percentage. They get 38% of their points on threes, which ranks 47th in the country. Toledo senior forward Nate Navigato is shooting 52.1% from distance on 71 attempts, making him a key player for Penn to check on Saturday. Penn does more of its damage on the interior behind A.J. Brodeur and Michael Wang, which should make this game a fun contrast in styles.

Toledo 80, Penn 71

Butler at Florida

Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPNU

This is a huge non-conference game for a couple of teams that could find themselves on the bubble in about 10 weeks. Both the Bulldogs and Gators have had decent non-conference seasons, but neither has what we’d call a truly signature win. They already played earlier this year, meeting one another in the Battle 4 Atlantis during Thanksgiving weekend. Butler won that game, 61–54, behind 19 points, six rebounds and five assists from Kamar Baldwin. Neither team has done much meaningful damage since then, though Florida did pick up a win against a West Virginia team that’s down this season. The 115 points these teams combined for in the Bahamas was not an aberration. These are two of the slowest teams in the country, with Butler ranking 319th in kenpom.com’s adjusted tempo, and Florida ranking 331st. Expect more of the same on Saturday.

Butler 64, Florida 60

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Belmont at Purdue

Saturday, 4:30 p.m., FS1

Purdue has been one of the most disappointing teams in the country over the season’s first two months, going 7–5 in its first 12 games. There’s not a bad loss on the Boilermakers’ resumé, but, at the start of the season, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to expect them to beat at least two or three of the five teams they’ve fallen against—No. 10 Virginia Tech, No. 9 Florida State, No. 2 Michigan, Texas and Notre Dame. Belmont is no pushover, one of the favorites in the Ohio Valley Conference, along with Murray State. The Bruins have two wins over Lipscomb (more impressive than it sounds; we’ll get to that shortly), and also beat UCLA. If you haven’t yet seen Belmont this season, you’ll want to tune into this one. They rank seventh in the country in kenpom.com’s adjusted tempo, playing at a pace similar to North Carolina. If the Bruins can find a way to contain Carsen Edwards, they can absolutely pull off an upset in West Lafayette.

Purdue 83, Belmont 77

St. John’s at Seton Hall

Saturday, 8:30 p.m.

St. John’s is one of the five remaining unbeaten teams in the country, joining Michigan, Virginia, Nevada and Houston. Those four teams, however, are ranked second, fourth, sixth and 22nd, respectively, in the country. St. John’s is unranked, though it is one of the top teams in the “others receiving votes” section of both polls. That will happen when your only win over a top-100 kenpom.com team comes over No. 74 VCU. In other words, the Big East season can’t be starting sooner from the perspective of the Red Storm. Chris Mullin has his team playing an uptempo game that will be tested against a Seton Hall squad that owns wins over Kentucky and Maryland this season. Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron has been a great addition for the Red Storm, with his three-point shooting leading the team to the 14th-best percentage from behind the arc in the country. Still, the Pirates will be a tough nut to crack at home, especially with Myles Powell playing so well of late. The junior guard has scored at least 27 points in three of his last four games.

Seton Hall 76, St. John’s 75

Lipscomb at Clemson

Sunday, 3 p.m., Raycom Sports

Lipscomb? Really? Yes, Lipscomb. Among the top-60 teams on kenpom.com, nine are from mid- or low-major conferences. Lipscomb is one of those nine, and the only one from a conference that is all but guaranteed to get just one ticket to the Big Dance. Lipscomb lost those two aforementioned games to Belmont by a combined six points, and lost by just four at Louisville. The Bisons, meanwhile, have wins over SMU and TCU, making this a strong non-conference season for the favorite in the Atlantic Sun. Clemson will have its hands full, especially if the scoring woes that have plagued the Tigers from time to time this season crop up on Sunday. If you’re tuning in for Lipscomb—and let’s be honest, you should be since you’ll have plenty of opportunities to watch Clemson this season—pay close attention to its senior pairing of Garrison Mathews and Rob Marberry. If the Bisons turn into a darling in March, it will be because of those two.

Clemson 75, Lipscomb 73

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