Picks: Which Teams Have the Edge in the First Big Weekend of Conference Play?

The first college basketball weekend of 2019 brings some exciting conference clashes, including a top-10 ACC matchup and multiple important Big Ten battles.
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The first weekend of January has arrived, which means that conference play is upon us in earnest. League play will dominate the rest of the college basketball season, with a few notable exceptions, such as the Big 12-SEC Challenge. This is an excellent slate to start the intraconference portion of the college basketball season, with four games between top-25 teams, including one that features two of the top-10 teams in the country, at least according to the rankings.

In addition to looking at the highest-profile games every weekend, we’ll also highlight at least one important game from a smaller conference in an effort to sniff out this season’s Loyola-Chicago, should there be one. With that, let’s get to the first big weekend of college basketball’s second semester.

All times Eastern.

No. 8 Michigan State at No. 14 Ohio State

Saturday, noon, FOX

The Big Ten is back this season, and these two teams are right at the top of the conference. Neither of them have lost since late November, and both are off to undefeated starts in conference play. Joshua Langford missed the Spartans’ win over Northwestern earlier this week because of an ankle injury, the first game he has missed during his time at Michigan State. He has a chance to return against Ohio State, but if he doesn’t the Spartans could be in some trouble. They handled Northwestern with ease behind 21 points from Nick Ward, and 13 points and 12 assists from Cassius Winston, but this Buckeye team is a much greater test. At the center of that is Kaleb Wesson, Ohio State’s literal center. He’s going to make Ward work on the defensive end, and if the Spartans are missing Langford’s scoring, a substandard offensive game from Ward could be too much for them to overcome.

Ohio State 77, Michigan State 71

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Creighton at Butler

Saturday, noon, FS1

One game into its conference season, Butler is in desperate need of a win. There wouldn’t have been shame in merely losing at Florida last week, but the Bulldogs got run out of the gym, going down 77–43. They followed that up with a home loss to Georgetown to kick off Big East play, and have now lost three of their last five games. Creighton, on the other hand, started its Big East season with an impressive win at Providence, its second meaningful victory away from home this season. As we’ve come to expect from the Bluejays, they’re one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, ranking fourth in three-point percentage. Ty-Shon Alexander, Marcus Zegarowski and Mitch Ballock are all shooting at least 43.8% from distance on no fewer than 44 attempts. Alexander and Ballock are already pushing 100 attemps from behind the arc, making them one of the most dangerous three-point shooting duos in the country.

Creighton 79, Butler 75

UCF at Connecticut

Saturday, noon, ESPNEWS

This is Johnny Dawkins’s third year in Orlando, and it feels like he has the Knights primed to break through in the AAC. Outside of Houston and Cincinnati, there’s no real power in the conference. UConn and Memphis are still down, though both are headed in the right direction. Wichita State has fallen off a cliff from where it was earlier this decade, and SMU is a few steps behind where it was just a couple seasons ago. The Knights did decent work in the non-conference portion of their schedule, beating Alabama and a couple of possible automatic qualifiers from one-bid leagues (Northern Kentucky, Western Kentucky, Rider), but these are the sorts of games they’ll need to win en masse if they are going to get an at-large bid. These two teams are a contrast in styles, with UCF ranking 331st in the country in kenpom.com’s adjusted tempo, and UConn at 21st. The Huskies are going to have to get the Knights out of their comfort zone to have any chance of winning this one.

UCF 74, Connecticut 65

No. 13 Kentucky at Alabama

Saturday, 1 p.m., ESPN

The last two times we’ve seen Kentucky, it beat No. 15 North Carolina on a neutral floor, and dispatched Louisville with relative ease in Louisville. The Wildcats are hitting their stride going into SEC play, and it’s hard to find a possible loss on their schedule until the middle of this month when they visit Auburn. Alabama has done a nice job of bouncing back after getting one year of Collin Sexton, but it’s a challenge to find any spot where it matches up well with the Wildcats. Kentucky freshman forward Keldon Johnson has really turned it on of late, scoring 24, 21 and 15 points on a combined 20-of-33 effort from the floor, including 11 of 19 from behind the arc. With his offense in gear alongside Tyler Herro and Reid Travis, Kentucky is becoming the powerhouse it looked like on paper to start the season.

Kentucky 83, Alabama 70

St. John’s at Georgetown

Saturday, 1 p.m., CBS

The Red Storm bounced back from their first loss of the season, a hard-fought, two-point reversal at Seton Hall, by waxing No. 16 Marquette by 20 points at home. Georgetown is flying high, as well, after going into Indianapolis and knocking off Butler earlier this week. We haven’t seen either of these teams in the NCAA tournament since 2015, but both could end those droughts this season. This should be a fun, uptempo game, with St. John’s ranking 31st in kenpom.com’s adjusted tempo, and Georgetown ranking 10th. The Red Storm, however, haven’t simply lived off racking up possessions, playing an efficient style of ball on the offensive end, highlighted by a 40.2% success rate from behind the arc, which ranks 11th in the country. They also have a couple of go-to scorers in Shamorie Ponds and Mustapha Heron, who can make all the difference against a fellow uptempo team like Georgetown. The Hoyas are dealing with a couple of big injuries, as well, with Mac McClung (ankle) and Trey Mourning (concussion) both uncertain for this game.

St. John’s 80, Georgetown 72

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Kansas State at No. 11 Texas Tech

Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPNU

This was supposed to be a potential Final Four year for Kansas State, which, just 10 months ago, was playing in the Elite Eight. That, of course, was before Kamau Stokes and Dean Wade suffered injuries, the latter of which could ruin the Wildcats’ season. Texas Tech pulled out an ugly win at West Virginia to kick off its Big 12 season, and while adding a check on the right side of the ledger is what ultimately matters, it would have been encouraging to see the Red Raiders step up on the road. Despite the gaudy record and the great defense that’s ranked second in the country in kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency, the Red Raiders don’t really have a win yet they can point to and say, “That’s why we’re a Final Four contender.” Their best non-conference win came against Nebraska, and while they led Duke in the second half in a game just a few days before Christmas, they got outscored 35–16 in the game’s final 13 minutes, 42 seconds, their vaunted defense abandoning them when they needed it most. Texas Tech should handle its business at home, but handling its business isn’t enough in this game. We should see a double-digit win from the Red Raiders, or we may need to start thinking about recalibrating our expectations for them.

Texas Tech 67, Kansas State 52

No. 9 Florida State at No. 4 Virginia

Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN2

This is the marquee game of the weekend, with 12–1 Florida State visiting 12–0 Virginia. The ACC goes through Duke and Virginia as conference play opens, but there are a number of teams just behind them, with the Seminoles possibly at the top of a class that also includes No. 10 Virginia Tech, No. 15 North Carolina and No. 19 NC State. The Seminoles are almost playing with house money here, so long as they don’t get blown out. Keep it close but lose, and they’ll still open some eyes, even though they’re already No. 9 in the country. Pull off the upset, and they’ll be considered a player not only in the ACC, but on the national stage. Sophomore M.J. Walker has played just one minute in the team’s last two games, and their chances of handing Virginia its first loss will take a significant hit if he can’t return on Saturday. On the other side, this could be Virginia’s best test of the season to date, as well, even though it’s at home. The Cavaliers best wins thus far have come against No. 22 Wisconsin and Maryland, and while both those games were away from home, Florida State may simply be a more talented team than either of those Big Ten squads. Despite that, it’s hard to see Virginia dropping this game in Charlottesville with all seven key members of its rotation healthy.

Virginia 72, Florida State 61

No. 5 Kansas at Iowa State

Saturday, 5 p.m., ESPN2

What a great way for the Jayhawks to kick off the road portion of their Big 12 schedule. True, this should be another season with few down games in the Big 12, but it will be fun to see Kansas in Ames against an Iowa State team that is already significantly outpacing expectations This was supposed to be a down year for the Cyclones, but Steve Prohm has rebuilt on the fly, behind Virginia transfer Marial Shayok and Michael Jacobson. Lindell Wigginton returned from a foot injury just before Christmas, and brings more scoring punch to a team already ranked 17th in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency. The Cyclones have the offense to stick with Kansas, but they’ll still need to do something few teams—somehow the two were Vermont and Eastern Michigan—have done this season: find a way to keep Dedric Lawson in check. The Jayhawks’ three-point shooting woes were again on display in the win over Oklahoma earlier this week, when they made just four of 21 attempts from distance. That’s going to be something to watch with this team all season.

Kansas 74, Iowa State 72

Western Kentucky at Old Dominion

Saturday, 7 p.m., Stadium Facebook Live

This should be a good year in Conference USA, with Old Dominion at the top of a talented group of teams that includes Western Kentucky, Louisiana Tech and North Texas, all of which could win this conference’s automatic bid and possibly pull off an upset in the Big Dance. Western Kentucky wrapped up its non-conference season in grand fashion, toppling Wisconsin, then ranked 15th in the country, last weekend. They did it behind a huge game from freshman center Charles Bassey, who not only scored 19 points and grabbed six rebounds, but frustrated Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Ethan Happ on the other end, holding Wisconsin’s senior center to 9 of 23 from the floor. Meanwhile, the Monarchs won nine straight games, including victories over VCU and Syracuse, before falling at home to Marshall on Thursday. Seniors Ahmad Caver and B.J. Stith carry the team on both ends of the floor, combining for 35.5 points, 12.6 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 2.7 steals per game. Start familiarizing yourself with these teams now. One of them could be playing the role of spoiler come March.

Old Dominion 66, Western Kentucky 64

Clemson at No. 1 Duke

Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN

Duke hasn’t played since Dec. 20 when it came from behind to beat Texas Tech at Madison Square Garden. For all the big names, all the highlights and all the preseason accolades this team racked up, they showed in that game just why they’re the most dangerous team in the country. Texas Tech, which, as we previously discussed, has one of the best defenses in the country, put the clamps on Duke better than any team has this season. Through 26 minutes of basketball, the Blue Devils had just 34 points, and seemingly couldn’t figure anything out on the offensive end. Then, in the blink of an eye, everything clicked back into place. They scored 35 points in the game’s final 14 minutes, and if you simply looked at the box score after the game was over, it would’ve looked like a relatively normal, if perhaps underwhelming, performance. Zion Williamson scored 17 points, R.J. Barrett poured in 16 and Tre Jones added 13. Yet, this was a game in which the country’s most ruthless offense couldn’t figure anything out for nearly 75% of game action, only to flip a switch and beat the current No. 11 team in the country going away. This is all to say that to beat Duke, as Gonzaga did back in November, you need to be able to score the basketball. Clemson can’t do that at an efficient enough clip, especially on the road.

Duke 88, Clemson 71

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No. 21 Indiana at No. 2 Michigan

Sunday, 4:30 p.m., CBS

The great weekend of action in the Big Ten that starts with Michigan State at Ohio State continues with three games on Sunday. This is the first, and best, of the three, with the Hoosiers heading to Ann Arbor to take on undefeated Michigan. Since losing to Duke, Indiana has won seven straight games, with victories over Northwestern, Penn State, Louisville and Butler in that span. Both of these teams are 3–0 in conference, with Indiana taking care of Illinois, and Michigan upending Penn State earlier this week. The matchup of Romeo Langford and Charles Matthews headlines this game, but it will be interesting to see how Archie Miller schemes his defense to try to handle freshman Ignas Brazdeikis. Miller’s Dayton teams mostly played man when he first started there, but he started adopting zone concepts in his final seasons with the Flyers, and has brought that shifting look to Bloomington. Brazdeikis is a unique scorer, a 6’7” slasher who shoots better than 40% from distance and can create his own shot on the bounce, as well. If Indiana is going to pull off the upset, it’s going to need to find a way to keep either Matthews or Brazdeikis at least relatively quiet.

Michigan 71, Indiana 65

No. 24 Nebraska at No. 25 Iowa

Sunday, 5:30 p.m., Big Ten Network

These teams enter this game inside the top 25, but neither may be there come Monday, regardless of the outcome of this game. Nebraska started its week by losing at Maryland, and while the SI.com Weekend Preview Committee (of one) wouldn’t penalize a team for losing a road game to a good opponent by two points, it unfortunately does not have a vote in the polls. Iowa, meanwhile, got crushed at Purdue on Thursday, and is now 0–3 in Big Ten play. These teams both expect to earn at-large bids, but have combined to lose five of their six conference games, with the only win between them a Nebraska victory over lowly Illinois. Iowa’s defense has been exposed in its last two conference losses, allowing 90 points to Michigan State and 86 to Purdue. That could be a problem against a Nebraska team raked 11th in the country in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency.

Nebraska 77, Iowa 72

Miami at Louisville

Sunday, 6 p.m., ESPNU

Miami appeared set for a statement win in its ACC opener, leading No. 19 NC State by 10 points with 9:53 remaining in the game. From that point forward, the Wolfpack would outscore the Hurricanes 23–8, racing out of Coral Gables with an 87–82 win. It gets no easier for the Hurricanes, with their next two games on the road against Louisville and Florida State. These two could both very well be on the bubble two months from now, making any such meeting a big game. Louisville can hang its hat on wins over Michigan State and Seton Hall, but it’s still going to need a .500 season in the ACC—much easier said than done—to feel good about its tournament hopes. Expect the Cardinals' Jordan Nwora to be the difference in this one.

Louisville 75, Miami 65