Picks: Tennessee-Kentucky Leads Pivotal Weekend for the NCAA Tournament Picture

Whether conference leaders or bubble teams, there's a lot on the line in a weekend that's headlined by Saturday's SEC showdown between Tennessee and Kentucky at Rupp Arena.
Publish date:

Friday night is back in play in this edition of the Weekend Preview with a big game in the MAC, and wraps up Sunday with one intriguing game apiece from the Big Ten and Big East. Saturday, of course, is the big day, with three games featuring top-25 teams, including a monster showdown between Tennessee and Kentucky, the first of two games still left between the SEC powerhouses in the regular season.

All times Eastern.

No. 25 Buffalo at Toledo

Friday, 7 p.m., ESPNU

In this week’s Bubble Watch, we discussed how and why Buffalo isn’t yet locked into an at-large bid. Part of the reason rested on Friday’s game at Toledo. The Rockets are ranked 54th in the NET and 51st on kenpom.com and are absolutely a threat to win this game on their home floor. Even though it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad loss, Toledo isn’t all that close to earning an at-large bid itself. Buffalo has little room for error given that its best win of the season came against Syracuse and that it already has losses to Northern Illinois and Bowling Green on the résumé. A loss on Friday would have the Bulls feeling the heat the rest of the season.

Buffalo 78, Toledo 72

No. 24 Maryland at No. 6 Michigan

Saturday, noon, FOX

Maryland is flying high after a win over Purdue earlier this week, while Michigan suffered a shocking loss at the hands of Penn State. Despite their recent fortunes, this matchup still favors Michigan significantly. All three of the Wolverines’ losses have come on the road, while Maryland’s best true road win was against Ohio State. The Terrapins may not be as bothered by Michigan’s stout half-court defense given that they don’t force tempo and are comfortable running their offense through big men Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith, but that style remains a better fit for a Michigan team playing at home with an elite defense. If Maryland is going to pull off the upset, it’ll matter more what it does on defense, finding ways to slow down Ignas Brazdeikis and Jordan Poole. Maryland is a dangerous team, but this has the look of a game where Michigan shakes off the ugly Penn State loss and gets right at home.

Michigan 71, Maryland 63

GEARY:A Crowded Big Ten Race Is Set for a Dramatic Finish

Clemson at No. 16 Louisville

Saturday, noon, ESPN

Both these teams are licking their wounds after brutal losses earlier this week that could have major effects on their tournament lives, relative to where they stand in the overall picture. Louisville is already a lock for the dance, but it may never fully get over losing a 23-point second-half lead against Duke. A win there could’ve completely changed the Cardinals’ seeding equation, especially if they manage to take one of their two remaining games with Virginia. Clemson is at the opposite end of the tournament spectrum, needing every possible win it can get its hands on to earn an at-large bid. That’s what made its one-point loss at Miami so disconcerting. It isn’t easy to win on the road, but if you’re a tournament team you need to win games against teams like Miami, which has no at-large hopes and entered the game at 2–9 in ACC play. A win at Louisville would wash the taste out of Clemson’s mouth, but this is a particularly bad matchup for a team that lives on its defense. Clemson’s one truly notable ACC win came at home against a Virginia Tech team playing without Justin Robinson. Even if the Tigers find a way to slow down Jordan Nwora, Dwayne Sutton and the rest of Louisville’s offense, it’s hard to see them getting it going on the other side of the floor in this one. Unless the Tigers can make this a rock fight where the first to 60 wins, they’re going to be in a lot of trouble.

Louisville 77, Clemson 61

Oklahoma at TCU

Saturday, noon, ESPN2

Oklahoma is suffering through an all-too-familiar slide, bringing back echoes of last season when it nearly played its way out of the tournament field. The Sooners have lost five straight games, and five of their six remaining regular season contests are against guaranteed or likely tournament teams. TCU is in much better shape, thanks in large part to last weekend’s win at Iowa State, but lost to Oklahoma at home the first time these teams met. The Sooners got a great performance in that game from Kristian Doolittle, who scored 24 points on 12 field goal attempts. He hasn’t been anywhere near as good since then, averaging 9.9 points per game in his last nine. Oklahoma has played well defensively during its five-game losing streak, but has been absolutely dreadful on offense, a formula that cannot work no matter how good the defense is. Someone among Doolittle, Christian James and Brady Manek is going to have to step up offensively if Oklahoma is going to right the ship and get into the tournament.

TCU 68, Oklahoma 61

Baylor at No. 15 Texas Tech

Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN

The Big 12 action keeps right on rolling, with Baylor-Texas Tech taking the baton from Oklahoma-TCU. The calculus is different in this one, considering Texas Tech is a lock for the dance, while Baylor would need to suffer a disastrous finish to fall out of the field of 68. Baylor won the first meeting between these teams last month in Waco, racking up 1.12 points per possession against Texas Tech’s vaunted defense. That’s unlikely to happen again, especially if King McClure is unable to return from his knee injury in time for the game. Baylor’s ability to pound the offensive glass could be the equalizer here, but Texas Tech should ultimately take care of business at home.

Texas Tech 66, Baylor 56

Bold Predictions for the Final Month Before Selection Sunday

Indiana at Minnesota

Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN2

This is an enormous matchup that we could eventually look back on as an elimination game for the loser. Indiana has lost eight of its last nine games, but is still getting by thanks to huge victories over Michigan State, Louisville and Marquette. Minnesota, meanwhile, has lost four straight games, though wins over Wisconsin, Washington and a full-strength Nebraska have it on the right side of the bubble. Both have tough remaining schedules, a fact of life in the Big Ten this season, and while it’s tempting to believe that either one could pick up the signature win that gets them into the tournament, it’s more realistic to expect them to lose their remaining games with at-large locks, given the way they’ve played to this point of the season. That makes wins over a fellow bubble teams critical for both Indiana and Minnesota. The Golden Gophers are at their best when they can get out and run, something they haven’t been able to do in losses to Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Nebraska. Indiana, however, presents the sort of matchup they can exploit, especially at home. Indiana plays quick on offense, but is inefficient, with an effective field goal percentage that ranks 105th in the country. Minnesota should take advantage.

Minnesota 73, Indiana 67

No. 23 Iowa State at No. 18 Kansas State

Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN2

Kansas State started turning its season around last month in Ames when it upset the Cyclones. Including that game, the Wildcats have won eight of their last nine and head into this one in first place in the Big 12. In that first game, the Wildcats suffocated the Cyclones’ high-powered offense, holding it to 0.93 points per possession. Marial Shayok scored just nine points while shooting 4 for 9 from the floor, and Nick Weiler-Babb was the only Cyclone in double-figures. Kansas State is going to do what it can to produce the same game script and force Iowa State to use as much of the shot clock as possible on every offensive trip. Remember, too, that the previous meeting was Dean Wade’s first game back from a foot injury. His presence made a difference, but he played just 22 minutes in the game and scored two points. In eight games since then, he has averaged 15.8 points.

Kansas State 68, Iowa State 64

VCU at Dayton

Saturday, 4 p.m., NBC Sports Network

No matter how hard you try to build an at-large case for an Atlantic 10 team other than VCU, you can’t do it. Dayton and Davidson have their supporters, but the quality wins just aren’t there, especially when neither team is going to get in with overwhelmingly strong metrics, a path that is open to other teams without great victories, such as Utah State or UNC-Greensboro. The only way the A-10 is getting two teams into the dance is if VCU dominates the rest of the regular season, and then loses deep in the conference tournament. In other words, this is a key game for the Rams’ at-large chances. This is their toughest remaining game in the regular season. Frankly, it’s their only game left before the A-10 tournament that has any business being close. This won’t be easy on Dayton’s home floor, but VCU’s defensive efficiency is the lone elite trait in the A-10. When it shows up, the Rams typically win.

VCU 68, Dayton 59

NC State at No. 2 Duke

Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN

Is Duke going to lose again this season? I don’t just mean in the regular season. I’m talking about the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament, too. It’s a fair question after its last two games, an 81–71 win over Virginia in Charlottesville and a dramatic comeback win at Louisville, erasing a 23-point deficit in the final nine minutes of the game for a 71–69 win. NC State can get hot from behind the arc with Braxton Beverly, Markell Johnson and C.J. Bryce all shooting it at 39.3% or better on 74 or more attempts. If we’re being realistic here, and we like to think we are, those three must have a great game from distance if the Wolfpack have any hope of pulling off the upset.

Duke 90, NC State 74

GREENE: One of These Eight Teams Will Win the National Title

Temple at South Florida

Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPNU

Temple has been teetering on the edge of the last in/first out border for weeks now, staying just barely on the right side of the divide in our estimation thanks to their big win over Houston. South Florida is no pushover, though, and a loss here would likely have the Owls on the outside looking in at the field of 68. What’s more, without any games remaining against Houston or Cincinnati, it could be tough for the Owls to play their way back into the field should they fall out. They needed overtime to beat South Florida at home last month, in a game that proved the Bulls are a particularly bad matchup for the Owls. South Florida is especially good at two things: offensive rebounding and getting to the free throw line. The Bulls grabbed 12 offensive boards in the game and shot 25 free throws. The problem, though, was that they made just 10 of them. The Bulls aren’t a terribly good free throw shooting team, converting at a 63.6% rate this season, but the 40% they made in the loss to Temple doomed them. A similar game script to the first meeting would favor the Bulls, and that’s bad news for Temple.

South Florida 67, Temple 64

UNC-Greensboro at Wofford

Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN Plus

This game doesn’t have nearly the juice it would’ve had UNC-Greensboro won at Furman on Thursday. That loss may have dashed the Spartans’ hopes for an at-large bid, and a loss on Saturday would certainly make it SoCon tourney champs or bust for them. Still, we’ll keep it in the preview because Wofford could turn into a March darling this season. The Terriers completely dominated the first game between these two, scoring 1.22 points per possession and holding the Spartans to 0.73 points per possession in a 72–43 win. They rank 14th in kenpom.com’s adjusted offensive efficiency and fourth in the country in three-point percentage, connecting on 41% of their attempts. If you’re looking for an under-the-radar tournament hero, pay close attention to Wofford’s Fletcher Magee, who’s averaging 20 points per game while shooting 40.5% from behind the arc.

Wofford 78, UNC-Greensboro 66

No. 1 Tennessee at No. 5 Kentucky

Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN

This is the game that could come close to locking Tennessee in as a No. 1 seed. Yes, the Volunteers still have a return date with Kentucky in Knoxville, as well as games with LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State and Auburn in the regular season, but add a win in Lexington to their already-impressive résumé, and they’ll be awfully close to cementing their spot on the top line. The frontcourt battle in this game is going to be fascinating. How will John Calipari scheme to slow down Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield with Keldon Johnson, P.J. Washington and Reid Travis. That could very well decide the game, though the point guard matchup of Jordan Bone and Ashton Hagans is going to be a ton of fun, too. Kentucky can flip this game by doing what it does best, cleaning up its own misses on offense. Not only will that lead to the second-chance points that have been so critical for the Wildcats this season, but it will also slow down Tennessee’s offense, ranked second in the country by kenpom.com’s adjusted efficiency.

Kentucky 77, Tennessee 75

Roundtable: Looking at Saturday's Kentucky-Tennessee Showdown

Ohio State at No. 11 Michigan State

Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS

Michigan State has righted the ship after a three-game losing streak, beating Minnesota at home and Wisconsin in Madison its last two times out. The first game between these two in Columbus was close for the first 30 minutes or so, and Ohio State had the lead at halftime. Michigan State ultimately pulled away behind Cassius Winston and Nick Ward, who combined for 46 points. We’ve discussed Illinois’s return to respectability a few times this season, but that doesn’t mean Ohio State can easily absorb the home loss to the Illini it took on Thursday. The Buckeyes were in a position where they needed to take care of business against the teams they should beat and pick off one more meaningful win to ensure a tourney bid. Thursday’s loss could change that, but they’re still more likely than not to get an invite to the dance. Including this weekend, they have home games with Iowa and Wisconsin ahead, and trips to Michigan State, Maryland and Purdue. If they pick off one of those five games and handle themselves in their other two games, both against Northwestern, they won’t be in any danger on Selection Sunday. The bet here is that the big win for the Buckeyes does not come this weekend.​

Michigan State 78, Ohio State 65

No. 13 Villanova at St. John’s

Sunday, 5 p.m., FS1

The first time these teams met back on Jan. 8 in Philadelphia, St. John’s led for most of the game. The Red Storm led by as many as 13 in the first half and were up by five with just less than four minutes to go. From that point forward, the Wildcats outscored them 14–4, coming away with a 76–71 win. It was the Phil Booth and Eric Paschall show for the Wildcats in that game, with the seniors combining for 48 of the team’s 76 points. Since then, Collin Gillespie has taken on a much larger role in the offense, and when he’s hitting it’s nearly impossible to slow down this offense. With that in mind, it’s helpful to consider how St. John’s held Marquette in check in its sweep of the only Big East team to beat Villanova to date. The Red Storm held Marquette to 69 points in both of their meetings and a combined one point per possession, far below its season mark of 1.14 points per possession. Markus Howard struggled in both games, combining for 25 points on 7-for-32 from the field, including 6-for-16 from distance. The big difference, though, is that Villanova isn’t dependent on one scorer/creator like Howard, which means Shamorie Ponds has much less of an impact on defense against the Wildcats than he does against the Golden Eagles. Even if Marquette is a better overall team than Villanova, the latter presents a tougher matchup for St. John’s.

Villanova 77, St. John’s 70