This Saturday marks perhaps the most exciting slate of college basketball games we’ve seen all season. Two thirds of the way into the season, we’re finally starting to get an idea of which teams are for real. That being said, the amount of parity and lack of elite teams this year has made it hard to decipher which programs we can trust. With many of the nation’s top teams facing off against ranked or high level opposition, we will surely have a better idea of where everyone fits into the college basketball landscape by the end of today.
The Big 12/ SEC Challenge will bring about a number of intriguing matchups; but none more important than the tilt between #7 West Virginia and Kentucky. While the Mountaineers and the Wildcats provide the most important matchup of this challenge event, the game between #12 Oklahoma and Alabama is sure to provide the most excitement. The Sooners and the Crimson Tide boast two of the nations most electrifying players in the country in country in freshmen point guards Trae Young and Collin Sexton. This matchup of two of the premier guard prospects in this year’s draft class will almost certainly spell fireworks. Another Big 12/ SEC matchup surrounded with intrigue is that of #5 Kansas and Texas A&M. With both teams trending in opposite directions this year, it will be fascinating to see how this one plays out. Other notable games include #14 Texas Tech vs South Carolina and #20 Florida vs Baylor. I for one couldn’t be more excited to see two of college basketball’s top conferences square off. But with all of the hubbub about the Big12/ SEC challenge it would be easy to forget about the headline matchup of the day. But come 2 o’clock, all eyes will be on #2 Virginia and #4 Duke. The matchup between Virginia’s defense and Duke’s offense will surely shed some light on the question of who is the best team in the ACC. Moreover, the winner of this game will see their odds of securing a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament increase ten fold. As if that wasn’t enough college basketball for you, today also brings games between #10 North Carolina and NC State, #22 Tennessee vs Iowa State, #11 Arizona vs Utah, #19 Auburn vs LSU, and #21 Arizona State vs Colorado. The excess of games this Saturday should fill some of the hole left by the fact that college football is over. But let’s take a closer look at some of today’s marquee matchups.
#2 Virginia at #4 Duke (2:00 pm)
First and foremost, let’s dive deeper into the biggest game of the day. In order to win this game, the Cavaliers will have to keep this a low scoring affair. Although they boast one of the best defenses in the country, that will prove no easy feat against a Duke team stacked with talent on offense. Duke is currently the number one ranked offense in the country averaging 91.7 points per game. Despite the presence of sharpshooter Kyle Guy, Virginia simply doesn’t have the offensive fire power to trade baskets with the Blue Devils. Quite frankly no one does. Who could possibly match Marvin Bagley, Grayson Allen, Wendell Carter, Trevon Duval, and Gary Trent. That being said, if any defense could stop the Blue Devils it may be Virginia’s. Not once this season has Virginia let up more than 67 points. Moreover, they’re coming off a performance against #20 Clemson in which they only surrendered 36. So I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cavaliers manage to keep this one close. Nevertheless, Duke’s offense is an entirely different animal. To put things in perspective, Duke is averaging 91.7 points, while Virginia’s highest total all season is 93 (only once scored over 82). An anemic offense simply will not be able to keep pace with the blue Devils. Therefore I expect Duke to take care of Virginia.
#12 Oklahoma at Alabama (2:15 pm)
As I mentioned before, Oklahoma vs Alabama pits two of the country’s most electrifying players against one another. Both top prospects in the upcoming draft, more eyes will be on the individual play of Trae Young and Collin Sexton than the actual outcome of this game. It is estimated that an outrageous number of 55 scouts from 25 different NBA teams will be on hand to take in this matchup. While Sexton generated more hype in the lead up to this season, it has been Trae Young who has emerged as college basketball’s premier point guard. As expected, both players have been integral parts of their teams’ success throughout the season. However, what was not expected is the absurd usage rate of both Young and Sexton, with both of them well over 30%. Oklahoma has been markedly more successful up to this point on the back of their player of the year favorite. Nevertheless, I’d expect the Tide to show up on their home court. Even on the road Oklahoma will rightfully be favored, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Tide pull off the upset. I’m an SEC guy through and through, so I am rolling with the SEC and rolling with the tide.
#5 Kanas vs Texas A&M (4:30 pm)
Kansas vs Texas A&M is a matchup of polar opposites. The Aggie’s Strength lies within their the front court; one that is likely the most talented in the country. Tyler Davis and Robert Williams have the ability to absolutely dominate down low, as evidenced by their opening day dismantling of West Virginia. DJ Hogg has also proved to be a great shooter and scoring option at small forward. Yet after starting out looking like one of the best teams in the country, Texas A&M has imploded down the stretch. Suspensions to some of their top players have also plagued an undisciplined Aggie team. As the Aggie’s have trended downward, Kansas has reemerged as on the country’s preeminent teams. A rocky stretch midway through the season had many wondering if the Jayhawks would finally fail to win the big 12. But Bill Self’s team has come roaring back to reestablish itself as the best team in the conference. Whereas the Aggies are strong in the front court and weak in the backcourt, the Jayhawks are exactly the opposite. Led by Devonte Graham, Kansas’s backcourt has been stellar, including Lagerald Vick and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. Former Mississippi State transfer and 5 star recruit Malik Newman’s emergence as of late has also powered the Jayhawks. Bill Self forecasted in the preseason that Newman may lead the team in scoring, and we are finally starting to see that potential. As for their weakness, the Jayhawks are have a concerning lack of depth in the frontcourt. Udoka Azubuike is the only talent to speak of. But the sophomore cannot hit free throws to save his life leading many opponents to employ the Hack-a-Shaq technique. Despite this weakness, I’d still expect the Jayhawks to win. The inconsistency Texas A&M has been playing with is alarming as the team may struggle to even make the tournament at this point. Nevertheless, on their day A&M may be one of the best teams in the country. Earlier in the season I would’ve picked the Aggies for sure. Yet the way they’ve been playing lately I simply trust the Jayhawks far more. But as an SEC guy, I wouldn’t be mad if I was wrong.
#7 West Virginia vs Kentucky (7:00 pm)
Bob Huggin’s Press Virginia will take on a Kentucky team that is unranked for the first time since 2014. But he should be wary of underestimating his friend John Calipari’s Wildcat team. Kentucky is still perhaps the most athletic team in the country. If the wildcats could just shoot the ball better they’d likely find themselves in the Top 10 this year. Although this matchup may not come with the same fanfare as it would have in years past, it is still vastly important. Both teams haven’t exactly been in inspired form lately as the mountaineers have dropped 3 of their last 4. Kentucky fortunes haven’t been much better as they’ve lost 2 of their last 3. A loss for either team would be a tough pill to swallow. A West Virginia team that entered the week in the top 10, will likely fall into the bottom half of the top 25 with a loss. But a loss for Kentucky would be more catastrophic. I can already hear the murmurs about the Wildcats unthinkably missing the tournament. The Mountaineers are heavily favored in this game by 10 points. But I actually like the Wildcats to win. If you’re a gambler they should cover if nothing else. Their athleticism matches up well against the press. Moreover, Kentucky still has a roster full of some of the talented individual players in the country with Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (among others). If the youthful Wildcats can figure things out, few will want a piece of them come tournament time.