Picks: Two Title Contenders Face Off, Big 12-SEC Challenge Games and More

Two legtimate contenders for the national championship meet for the first time this season, Kansas looks to rebound from loss to Oklahoma, Big 12-SEC Challenge matchups and more games to watch this weekend.
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This weekend brings the Big 12-SEC Challenge, the final meaningful non-conference games of the regular season. The matchups leave a bit to be desired, which is a natural result of both conferences having surprise teams, such as Oklahoma (in a good way), Kentucky (in a bad way) and Auburn (which isn’t part of the event). While the Challenge will get its fair share of attention this weekend, the best game is in the ACC, where two legitimate contenders for the national championship meet for the first, and possibly only, time this season.

North Carolina State at No. 10 North Carolina

Saturday, 12 noon ET, CBS

It’s the last weekend of January and we still aren’t exactly sure what North Carolina is this season. The Tar Heels rebound the ball as well as any team in the country, but they aren’t dangerous from three, aren’t particularly efficient from two and aren’t elite defensively. Moreover, who gets them a bucket when they absolutely need one? Those deficiencies shouldn’t matter at home against the Wolfpack, but there are some real questions here that need answers. Otherwise, this is just a brand name with a Sweet 16 ceiling.

North Carolina 84, North Carolina State 70

No. 14 Texas Tech at South Carolina

Saturday, 12 noon ET, ESPN2

This is one of the games that kicks off the Big 12-SEC Challenge, along with Baylor at Florida. South Carolina is surging, with wins over Georgia, Kentucky and Florida in the last two weeks. Texas Tech, meanwhile, is headed in the opposite direction, dropping games to Texas and Iowa State and needing a furious second half rally to beat Oklahoma State at home earlier this week. Top to bottom, the Red Raiders are the better team, thanks largely to the clear advantages they have in the backcourt. This could be a bad matchup, however: Chris Silva and Maik Kotsar are tough covers inside. When Texas Tech lost to Texas, Mo Bamba went for 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting and grabbed 11 rebounds. In the surprising loss to lowly Iowa State, 6’9” de facto center Cameron Lard torched them for 18 points on 9-of-11 shooting.

South Carolina 65, Texas Tech 62

No. 2 Virginia at No. 4 Duke

Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, CBS

Get ready for what has the ceiling to be the best game played in college basketball to date this season. Virginia and Duke are elite national title contenders, and both are No. 1 seeds in our most recent Bracket Watch. They also couldn’t play more diametrically opposed styles, with Virginia leading the country in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency and Duke second in adjusted offensive efficiency. The Blue Devils want to get up and down the floor and create as many possessions as possible, while Virginia plays at literally the country’s slowest pace. When I look at a game like this, I ask myself which team is better equipped to handle the worst-case scenario. In this instance, playing in Durham, the answer is Duke. My prediction: it will be a close game that will come down to the wire and both teams will leave with their heads held high.

Duke 71, Virginia 70

Georgia at Kansas State

Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPNU

Kansas State is one of the hottest teams in the country, winning four of its last five, including victories over Oklahoma and TCU. The Wildcats’ lone reversal in that time was a one-point heartbreaker at Kansas. They’re somehow doing it without Kamau Stokes, who broke a bone in his foot early this month. Georgia, meanwhile, has lost four of its last five, suffering a damaging two-overtime loss at home to Arkansas on Tuesday. This game features a couple of great individual matchups, with point guards William Jackson and Barry Brown and big men Yante Maten and Dean Wade.

Kansas State 75, Georgia 67

No. 12 Oklahoma at Alabama

Saturday, 2:15 p.m. ET, ESPN

I was watching a game earlier this week and the announcer (I can’t remember who it was) said Trae Young and Collin Sexton are college basketball’s versions of Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook. I like that and I think that’s a fun, useful way to think about the two players who figure to dominate this matchup. Unless Alabama goes on a run in the second half of the SEC season, it will likely be a bubble team come March. Getting a win over Oklahoma could be a silver bullet of sorts and the Sooners are coming off a hard-fought, emotional win over Kansas. If Sexton’s size can bother Young, the Crimson Tide will have a chance.

Oklahoma 80, Alabama 75

Miami at Florida State

Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ACC Network

This is already the second meeting between these teams this season. Miami won the first game at home behind a combined 43 points from Bruce Brown and Dewan Huell. Florida State had an uncharacteristically terrible night from distance in that game, connecting on just five of 24 attempts from behind the arc. Even with the expected improvement there, they’ll have to do a much better job on Brown to even the season series. He got to the line 14 times, making 12 of them. If he can get that many easy points again, the Seminoles will be in trouble.

Florida State 77, Miami 70

Texas A&M at No. 5 Kansas

Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Jayhawks have to be kicking themselves after letting a 10-point lead with nine minutes remaining in Norman slip away. The resulting 85-80 loss to Oklahoma doesn’t look good in the box score, but the Jayhawks were so close to proclaiming clear supremacy in the Big 12. The Aggies are going to have to rely on their defense to pull off the upset and, on paper, they have the personnel to do it. Kansas is heavily reliant on the three-ball and Texas A&M limits opponents to 30.5% shooting from distance, the 15th-best rate in the country. And yet, the scales are still heavily in favor of Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and the Kansas offense. Playing at home, the Jayhawks should rebound from the tough loss at Oklahoma.

Kansas 77, Texas A&M 67


LSU at No. 19 Auburn

Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, SEC Network

Not every team from the SEC gets to participate in the Big 12-SEC Challenge and this game features two of the four squads left out. Back when the schedules were made, the SEC likely didn’t pay any mind to not including Auburn, but they’d like to have a mulligan on that. The Tigers are 18-2 overall, 6-1 in the conference, and one of the most exciting teams in the country to watch. Led by what’s essentially a four-man backcourt, they get up and down the floor, using their speed and athleticism to put defenses in uniquely uncomfortable situations. They make the most of it, too, with Mustapha Heron, DeSean Murray, Bryce Brown and Jared Harper all shooting at least 80.2% from the free throw line. If you haven’t watched much Auburn this year, make some time to do so on Saturday. You’ll thank yourself when you’re filling out your bracket in March.

Auburn 85, LSU 73

Kentucky at No. 7 West Virginia

Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Mountaineers have lost three of their last four games and are in desperate need of a headline-grabbing win. Even in a down year, Kentucky qualifies, and this is an excellent matchup for Bob Huggins’s squad. Kentucky turns the ball over on nearly 20% of its possessions and doesn’t seem to have the ball-handlers equipped to deal with West Virginia’s defense. The Mountaineers are still working Esa Ahmad into the offense, but this has the feel of a get-right game for a team still harboring legitimate Final Four aspirations. This was supposed to be the headliner of the Big 12-SEC Challenge, but I’m expecting the Mountaineers to run away with it.

West Virginia 81, Kentucky 69

Virginia Tech at Notre Dame

Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Notre Dame’s season is slipping away right before its eyes. The Irish have now lost four straight games, three of which came to at-large quality teams. They’re 1-4 against teams that look like safe bets for the tournament and also have losses to Ball State, Indiana and Georgia Tech. That’s a bad look and it would get worse with a home loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday. The Hokies, however, just beat North Carolina and can make a Notre Dame team missing Bonzie Colson very uncomfortable with its heightened pace of play. The Irish must find a way to slow this game down because if it becomes defined by possessions, they simply won’t have enough offense to keep up.

Notre Dame 66, Virginia Tech 65

No. 1 Villanova at Marquette

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, FOX

The big news heading into this game is Phil Booth’s injury. The Villanova guard broke a bone in his hand in the team’s win over Providence and will be out indefinitely. Booth may play a mostly-supporting role for the team but the Wildcats, for all their strengths, aren’t exactly the deepest squad in the country. Six players—the five starters and Omari Spellman—average at least 26 minutes per game. No one else plays more than 13 minutes per game. Without Booth, someone who hasn’t played much this year will have to step up. Marquette’s path to an upset in this one includes three-pointers—a lot of three-pointers. The Wildcats are ranked first in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency and effective field goal percentage. They will get theirs. Marquette, however, shoots 40% from behind the arc and gets 41.3% of its total points on threes, the 15th-highest rate in the country. Unless they get Giannis Antetokounmpo to stick around the Bradley Center for this one, I don’t think they’ll have enough.

Villanova 88, Marquette 77

No. 6 Michigan State at Maryland

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS

Sure, Michigan State probably shouldn’t get too excited about wins over Indiana and Illinois. Here’s the thing, though: they looked like the Michigan State team they’re supposed to be in both of those games. They scored 85 and 87 points in the wins and got 1.27 and 1.19 points per possession, respectively, and shot a total of 60.2% from the floor and 48.3% from three. Would we be more encouraged if those performances came against Purdue and Ohio State? Of course, but it was still reassuring to see the Spartans team at its peak, regardless of opponent. Maryland has settled in as the Big Ten’s likely best bubble team, which doesn’t say much this year. If they’re going to get an at-large invite, they’re going to need at least one win over Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State or maybe Michigan. They gave up 91 points to the Spartans the first time these teams met, including a combined 30 for Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson. It’s hard to imagine the Terrapins having a much better showing this time around.

Michigan State 78, Maryland 72

No. 18 Clemson at Georgia Tech

Sunday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPNU

The previously ascending Tigers just played their first game without Donte Grantham—and it didn’t go so well. Now, to be fair, they are far from the first (and won’t be the last) team to struggle offensively against Virginia this season. Still, they scored just 36 points and 0.58 points per possession, shooting 31.9% from the floor. The Tigers had more turnovers (19) in the game than made field goals (15). Georgia Tech is a bad team and one the Tigers should be able to handle without Grantham. Still, they’re going to have to adjust their offensive identity without their best player. Again, it’s hard to overstate how devastating this injury is for both player and team.

Clemson 68, Georgia Tech 58