Picks: UNC-Louisville, Kansas-Texas Tech and More Pivotal Conference Clashes

Before Sunday's Super Bowl, there's plenty of exciting college hoops action to be found. Who has the edge in the weekend's best matchups?
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For the last time all season, college basketball will have to share the weekend spotlight with football. We absolutely grant that the Super Bowl is, you know, worth watching, but we’re also ready for college hoops to take center stage. This is a great weekend for the transition to begin, with four games featuring two ranked teams and multiple huge matchups in the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC, easily this season’s three best conferences.

All times Eastern.

No. 5 Michigan at Iowa

Friday, 7 p.m., FS1

Iowa hit a little speed bump last week, losing to Michigan State and Minnesota. The Hawkeyes are now 5–5 in the Big Ten, and it’s worth noting that they’re 0–4 against Michigan State, Wisconsin and Purdue, likely three of the four best teams in the conference. The fourth of those is, obviously, Michigan, which visits Iowa City on Friday. The Wolverines have held their last two opponents, Indiana and Ohio State, to fewer than 50 points, and are now ranked first in kenpom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency. The styles of these respective teams suggest this should be a fun game, but the impartial college basketball fan in us is a little concerned that Michigan can really run away with this one. Tyler Cook and Luka Garza are Iowa’s best scorers, and Michigan can counteract the former by making him chase Ignas Brazdiekis on the defensive end, and the latter with Jon Teske. There’d be no shame in a home loss to Michigan, but if Iowa drops to 0–5 against the four best teams in its conference, with three of those games coming at home, it would not bode well for its long-term future.

Michigan 75, Iowa 68

No. 21 Maryland at No. 24 Wisconsin

Friday, 9 p.m., FS1

These teams played two weeks ago, with Maryland earning a 64–60 win in College Park. That score, however, does not come close to telling the story of the game. Maryland led by as many as 21 points, only for Wisconsin to fight all the way back and take a brief lead with two minutes left in the game. The Badgers played probably their worst half of basketball all season in that first half, scoring 15 points. The Terps did a great job on Ethan Happ, limiting him to 10 points on 5 for 10 from the floor, which made a huge difference in the game. As ugly as it was for Wisconsin offensively, they did a great job on the other end, limiting Maryland to 1.05 points per possession while holding them to 8 for 31 on two-point field goals. Playing one another a second time in so short a window guarantees that both teams should have some new wrinkles to work in, but the matchup is trending in Wisconsin’s favor, especially with the game in Madison.

Wisconsin 70, Maryland 60

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No. 12 Virginia Tech at No. 23 NC State

Saturday, noon, ACC Network

This is a big game in the middle of the ACC, with Virginia Tech still hunting for a win in conference against a team likely to get an at-large bid, unless you’re already counting on the Orange making the dance. Virginia Tech’s zone will be a good test for the Wolfpack, who haven’t seen much of the look this season. They’ve got the shooters to go over the top of it with Braxton Beverly, Markell Johnson and C.J. Bryce, but you have to break down the zone before you can shoot over it, and that’s a challenge for a team who hasn’t faced it much this season. The Hokies’ struggles when they’ve stepped up in weight class are concerning, however, and we like homecourt to tilt this one in favor of the Wolfpack.

NC State 78, Virginia Tech 76

St. John’s at No. 2 Duke

Saturday, noon, ESPN

Duke lost the first leg of this home-and-home last year in a stunner, which has absolutely nothing to do with Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and the rest of this year’s Blue Devils. Still, it’s worth remembering, if only because that loss last year would be only slightly less surprising than if the Red Storm can pull it off again on Saturday. To be honest, we’d love to just fast-forward through the next week of Duke basketball. Beginning next Saturday, the Blue Devils will play Virginia, Louisville, NC State, North Carolina and Virginia Tech in a 17-day, six-game span that would be more daunting than what they’d face on the road to a national championship. Can that stretch just get here already?

Duke 93, St. John’s 72

No. 9 North Carolina at No. 15 Louisville

Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN

The first time these teams met three weeks ago, the Cardinals went into Chapel Hill and handed the Tar Heels an 83–62 loss. Dwayne Sutton, Jordan Nwora and Steven Enoch all scored 17 points in that game, and the Cardinals held Luke Maye and Coby White to single-digits. It was one of North Carolina’s least efficient games of the season, with the Tar Heels scoring just 0.87 points per possession. Even with this game being at home, Louisville can’t count on suffocating North Carolina’s offense in quite the same fashion this time around. The Cardinals did an excellent job of keeping the Heels from getting out in transition, where they’re at their most dangerous, but the Tar Heels also shot themselves in the foot with an uncharacteristically terrible day from behind the arc, connecting on just three of their 22 attempts from distance. Expect this meeting to be a whole lot closer.

North Carolina 81, Louisville 80

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Texas at No. 20 Iowa State

Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN2

Texas knocked off another big name, taking down Kansas earlier this week. That gives the Longhorns three high-profile wins—North Carolina and Purdue, in addition to Kansas—with strong second-tier wins over Kansas State and Oklahoma. Despite some ugly losses, the Longhorns have proved they can play with anyone in the country. Iowa State has won two straight games and four of five, with the only loss mixed in a four-point reversal at Kansas. We’ve seen Iowa State at its ceiling a handful of times this year, and it’s a scary sight for the other team on the floor. Texas plays the right brand of defense to slow down the Cyclones, but they’ve been so good at home this year that it’s hard to see them not coming away from this one with a win.

Iowa State 77, Texas 65

No. 22 Mississippi State at Mississippi

Saturday, 3:30 p.m., SEC Network

The first meeting between these in-state rivals was an 81–77 win for the Rebels on the road behind 26 points from Blake Hinson, and 19 from Breein Tyree. Both teams shot it well that game, a likely preview for what this weekend’s game will look like. Little has gone right since then for the Rebels, losing four of their last five games. The Bulldogs have gone 3–2 since then, with two solid wins over Florida and Auburn. With two teams like this, it’s going to be a perimeter-oriented game, and while both teams have players who can take over, that does favor the Rebels on their home court.

Mississippi 79, Mississippi State 73

No. 7 Kentucky at Florida

Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN

This is a huge spot for a Florida team that has been living on the bubble all season. A win over Kentucky on Saturday would likely have the Gators on the right side of the bubble at the start of February. That’s much easier said than done, especially with Kentucky starting to get things together offensively. It wasn’t too long ago that we were wondering when exactly that would happen. The Wildcats are now 16th in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency and are still elite on the defensive end, ranking ninth. What’s scary is the diverse ways in which Kentucky can beat teams. Keldon Johnson, PJ Washington, Tyler Herro and Reid Travis are all averaging between 12.3 and 14.4 points per game with varying skill sets that make a one-size-fits-all defense unworkable against Kentucky. Florida must grind this game to a halt when it’s in its halfcourt offense, and create and take advantage of live-ball turnovers—Florida is second in defensive turnover rate—if it’s going to have any chance at pulling off the upset.

Kentucky 67, Florida 60

No. 16 Texas Tech at No. 11 Kansas

Saturday, 4 p.m., CBS

Just a few weeks ago, Texas Tech and Kansas were a combined 8–1 in the Big 12, and threatening to run away with the conference. The Red Raiders are 2–3 since then, while the Jayhawks are 1–3, and now both are looking up at Baylor and Kansas State in the Big 12. The Red Raiders have righted the ship of late, beating Arkansas and TCU in their last two games, but offense is still an issue for this team far too often. That was to be expected. Kansas suddenly turning into a pedestrian offensive team recently is a shock, even with Udoka Azubuike out for the season. Things have gone so off the rails in Lawrence that Lagerald Vick did not start in the team’s last game, a 73–63 loss to Texas. The Jayhawks have yet to lose at home this season, but it’s a very real possibility on Saturday. Should that happen, it would really be time to worry about them, even though it would be against a quality opponent like Texas Tech.

Kansas 73, Texas Tech 65

Indiana at No. 6 Michigan State

Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN

Back in the first weekend of January, both Michigan State and Indiana were 12–2 overall and 3–0 in the Big Ten. Since then, the Spartans have gone 6–1, finally losing their first conference game last weekend at Purdue, while Indiana has gone 0–7, capped off with an ugly loss at lowly Rutgers earlier this week. Indiana is in real danger of falling out of the tournament picture, and the loaded Big Ten isn’t going to do the Hoosiers any favors. They still have single games with Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan this season, and four more against potential or likely tourney teams in Iowa, Ohio State and Minnesota. This should be a get-right game for the Spartans after last weekend’s loss to the Boilermakers. Indiana is simply too much of a mess on the offensive end to stick with one of the best teams in the country.

Michigan State 82, Indiana 65

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George Mason at VCU

Saturday, 6:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network

George Mason enters this game in first place in the Atlantic 10, which is increasingly looking like a one-bid league this year. VCU and Davidson will both have cases for at-large bids if they don’t win the conference tournament, but no one from this conference is commanding a bid from the committee, and they’re not getting any help in conference with the league down across the board. This is a great opportunity for the Rams to reassert themselves as the best team in the conference after losses to Davidson and Rhode Island have them fifth in the A-10 standings. This probably isn’t the Patriots-Rams matchup most people are looking forward to this weekend, but it’s a key game for seeding purposes if only one A-10 team is going to go dancing. There are playmakers on both sides of the matchup, with Justin Kier leading the Patriots at 15.1 points per game, and Marcus Evans checking in at 13.8 points per game for the Rams. The bet here is that the Rams finally start to find their footing in a conference that’s theirs for the taking.

VCU 71, George Mason 60

TCU at Baylor

Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPNU

Baylor is among the hottest teams in the country, ripping off five straight wins, including victories over Texas, Alabama and Oklahoma. They were at their best in the win at Oklahoma, holding the Sooners to 0.7 points per possession, while shooting 54.4% from the floor. These two teams kicked off their Big 12 seasons playing one another, but Baylor looks like a much different team since then. The Horned Frogs have stalled offensively of late, scoring no more than 65 points in their last four games. Despite everything we’ve seen from these teams this season, this is a tough game to get a read on because neither team has one trait that really stands out. That makes it one of the more unpredictable games of the weekend.

TCU 73, Baylor 71

Alabama at Auburn

Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN2

Auburn remains one of this season’s most disappointing teams, still hunting for a win over a guaranteed at-large team. Alabama, on the other hand, has been a bright surprise, especially in SEC play where it owns victories over Kentucky, Mississippi and Mississippi State. It may not seem like it, but Auburn is really desperate for this game. Barring some sort of disaster over the next six weeks, the Tigers will be in good position to make the tournament, but they need to start racking up résumé-building victories sooner, not later. This is a game they should reasonably expect to win, and it could go down as their best victory of the season to date, depending on what you think of Washington. There’s little reason for Jared Harper and Bryce Brown to not carry the Tigers to a win at home in this one.

Auburn 84, Alabama 71

Minnesota at No. 17 Purdue

Sunday, noon, Big Ten Network

Over the last few weeks in this space, we’ve sounded some alarms about Purdue “starting to find itself.” After beating Michigan State last weekend, it’s safe to say that the Boilermakers have completed that process. They’ve now won six straight games and look like one of the most dangerous teams in the country, thanks to an offense that ranks second in kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency. Minnesota has one huge road win to its name this season, a 59–52 victory over Wisconsin in Madison, but, as you can guess from that score, it was an ugly affair characterized by bad offense has much as good defense. You don’t see a lot of bad offense from Purdue, so the Gophers can’t count on bulldozing their way to a “first to 60 wins” type of victory. Their offense has faltered when they’ve played the best the Big Ten has to offer, and if that happens again on Sunday, they won’t have any chance of pulling off an upset.

Purdue 84, Minnesota 69