Picks: Virginia-Duke, Kentucky-Auburn and More of the Weekend's Best Action

Michael Beller
Sports Illustrated

Virginia at Duke. It isn’t the only game of the weekend, but if it were, we’d still be excited about a great slate of college basketball action. The huge meeting between two of the best teams in the country that could swing the balance of power in the ACC highlights the weekend schedule, but there are also key matchups in the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Big East.

All times Eastern.

No. 19 Maryland at Ohio State

Scroll to continue with content

Friday, 6:30 p.m., FS1

It’s not possible for two teams to start a calendar year as differently as Maryland and Ohio State have kicked off 2019. The Terrapins have won six straight games, with victories over Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana and Wisconsin, all likely at-large tournament teams. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, are 0–3 since the new year, which includes a loss at lowly Rutgers. After hosting Maryland, Ohio State plays Purdue, Nebraska and Michigan in succession, with the last two of those three coming on the road. This is a huge spot for the Buckeyes in what is a wildly competitive Big Ten. They’re desperate for someone to step up as a reliable scoring option alongside Kaleb Wesson. During their three-game losing streak, it has basically been Wesson or bust, and that’s not going to work against any Big Ten team worth its salt. Conversely, Maryland is getting major contributions from Anthony Cowan, Bruno Fernando and Jalen Smith, and looks like it’s the best team in the conference not from the state of Michigan. Smith should get the primary assignment on Wesson thanks to his length and athleticism, which makes it even more crucial that someone like C.J. Jackson or Luther Muhammad steps up for the Buckeyes on Friday. Things could get really ugly for the Buckeyes over the next two weeks if they drop this game.

Maryland 71, Ohio State 70

Who Made SI's 2018–19 Midseason All-America Team?

No. 2 Michigan at Wisconsin

Saturday, noon, ESPN

The Big Ten dominates the early part of the weekend, with Maryland-Ohio State kicking things off Friday, and Michigan-Wisconsin one of the best games among Saturday’s brunch offerings. Wisconsin has dropped a couple of heartbreakers in a row, losing to Purdue in overtime last weekend, and then rallying back from a 21-point deficit at Maryland to take a brief lead with two minutes left in the game, only to lose 64–60. Michigan’s last heartbreaking loss was in last year’s national championship game, because the Wolverines are still undefeated this season. Ethan Happ has found another level this season, averaging 19.4 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game while shooting 57.1% from the floor. Jon Teske, however, is one of the few big men in the country who can stick with Happ, which could partially neutralize Wisconsin’s biggest threat. The Badgers are going to need good shooting days out of D’Mitrik Trice and Brad Davison if they are going to pull off the upset.

Michigan 65, Wisconsin 63

Arkansas at No. 18 Mississippi

Saturday, 1 p.m., SEC Network

This is a critical bounceback game for Mississippi, which got run out of its own gym by LSU earlier this week. The Rebels have been one of this season’s biggest surprises, with wins over Auburn and Mississippi State highlighting their résumé. After the Arkansas game Saturday, they visit Alabama, host Iowa State in the Big 12/SEC challenge, and take a trip to Gainesville to face the Gators. That’s a tough three-game stretch, and they don’t want to go into it on a two-game losing streak. Arkansas is down this year, but its frenetic pace can still be unsettling for some teams, especially one ranked 189th in turnover rate like Mississippi. It will be incumbent upon primary ball-handlers Breein Tyree, Devontae Shuler and Terence Davis to keep this game under control. The bet here is that they can do it.

Mississippi 82, Arkansas 70

No. 25 Indiana at Purdue

Saturday, 2 p.m., FOX

Indiana comes into this game reeling, losers of three straight to fall to 3–3 in the Big Ten. While there’s no shame in losing to Michigan, Maryland or Nebraska, the first two of which came on the road, the string of losses does force us to recalibrate where Indiana stands in the conference. It gets no easier for the Hoosiers with a trip to West Lafayette to take on a Purdue team that seems to be finding itself offensively. The Boilermakers put up 84 points in an overtime victory at Wisconsin last week, then scored 89 in a drubbing of Rutgers earlier this week. It’s still the Carsen Edwards show for the Boilermakers, but they’re starting to get some support from the likes of Ryan Cline, Trevion Williams and Nojel Eastern. Williams’s potential midseason emergence could be a big story, especially with Matt Haarms failing to inherit the mantle left behind by Isaac Haas. Rob Phinisee played 27 minutes in the loss to Nebraska, the most he has played since returning from his concussion, which was a silver lining from the game. If he can be mostly himself on Saturday, they’ll have a chance at getting the much-needed win.

Purdue 77, Indiana 68

GREENE: The Most Impressive First-Year Coaching Jobs So Far

Pittsburgh at Syracuse

Saturday, 2 p.m., ACC Network

Ten days ago, this game may not have been on our radar. Since then, Pittsburgh has picked up wins over Louisville and Florida State, and Syracuse knocked off Duke in Durham. This is suddenly a big conference game with repercussions that could be felt in March. Pitt is unimpressive both behind the arc and on the offensive glass, which tilts the matchup significantly in Syracuse’s favor. It’ll be interesting to see who the Panthers rely on as their key man getting to the middle of the Orange’s 2–3 zone, and the thinking here is that they’ll lean on freshman Au’Diese Toney and junior Malik Ellison. Getting into the middle of the 2–3 is always critical in beating it, but even more so for a team that simply isn’t a threat from distance. The only easy buckets from Pitt are going to come from forcing Syracuse to honor the middle of the paint, which means whoever does get to that spot will need to be a willing shooter and able passer.

Syracuse 66, Pittsburgh 58

Charleston at Hofstra

Saturday, 3 p.m.

This game features the two best teams in the Colonial, and assuming one of these two gets the conference’s automatic bid to the tournament, you’re going to want to be familiar with that team when you’re filling out your bracket. Hofstra hasn’t lost since Thanksgiving weekend, ripping off 12 straight wins and racing out to a 5–0 start in the CAA. Charleston entered this season as the favorite to win the league, and while it has dropped conference games to both James Madison and Drexel, it remains dangerous offensively thanks to its two-headed monster of Grant Riller and Jarrell Brantley, who are averaging 41.2 points combined. Hofstra senior guard Justin Wright-Foreman is the odds on favorite to win CAA Player of the Year, averaging 26.9 points per game, shooting 50.3% from the floor, 39.8% from behind the arc, and 87% at the line, all while playing nearly 38 minutes per game.

Hofstra 75, Charleston 67

No. 12 Kentucky at No. 14 Auburn

Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN

It would admittedly be a stretch to call this a do-or-die game for Auburn. The Tigers are 13–3 overall, 2–1 in the SEC, ranked 14th in the nation, and 22nd in NET. Barring a monumental collapse, they will be a tournament team, and are certainly a threat to reach the Sweet 16. Still, what have they really accomplished this year? Their best wins to date came against Arizona and Murray State. The three best teams they’ve faced, according to both NET and kenpom.com, have been Duke, NC State and Mississippi, and they lost all three of those games. Protecting their home floor against Kentucky would show that they might be every bit as good as they were expected to be at the start of the season. The concern for Auburn is that Bryce Brown and Jared Harper are going to have their hands full on the defensive end of the floor, particularly Brown who will likely match up with Tyler Herro most of the afternoon. Auburn doesn’t play much zone, and Bruce Pearl has never really embraced the zone at any point in his head coaching career, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Tigers go to a base 2–3 or 1-3-1 to take some strain off its perimeter defenders. Not only do they need Brown and Harper on the other end, but Kentucky typically doesn’t make teams pay from behind the arc.

Auburn 77, Kentucky 72

TCU at Kansas State

Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN2

Dean Wade returned earlier than expected from a foot injury, getting back on the floor for Kansas State’s win at Iowa State last week. He played 22 minutes in that game and scored just two points, but the mere fact that he was on the floor was huge for the Wildcats. They followed that up with a win at Oklahoma earlier this week where we saw the Wade of old. He scored 20 points in 25 minutes, going 8 for 14 from the floor. With Wade back, order is restored in Manhattan. On one hand, that’s bad news for TCU for obvious reasons. On the other, it’s good news for a team that’s still looking for an impressive conference win. A victory on the road over Kansas State with a healthy Wade would mean a lot more than one without him. TCU typically plays at a much faster tempo than Kansas State, and it will ll likely try to pick up the pace even more than usual with Wade still working back into his usual game shape. It the Horned Frogs can’t speed this game up, they’re going to have trouble getting that first meaningful Big 12 win.

Kansas State 68, TCU 61

St. John’s at Butler

Saturday, 4:30 p.m., FOX

The Big East has diverged from its recent history this season, and we’re still trying to feel out the hierarchy of teams, especially in the middle. Villanova and Marquette are starting to separate themselves as the two best teams in the conference, though neither may be true Final Four material. St. John’s and Butler are in that second tier, likely with Seton Hall. They may be the only three in the tier, which makes this a softer year in the conference than we’ve seen in a long time. The Red Storm got Shamorie Ponds back in their win over Creighton earlier this week, and he looked great in his return, scoring 22 points and dishing out five assists while shooting 8 for 17 from the floor. With Villanova on tap to start next week, this is a huge game for Butler. The Ponds-Kamar Baldwin matchup could very well determine which team comes away with the win.

St. John’s 74, Butler 69

Bracket Watch: Virginia Takes Over No. 1 Overall Tournament Seed

No. 4 Virginia at No. 1 Duke

Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN

Well this one should be fun, huh? Yeah, it lost some of its luster with Tre Jones out indefinitely after suffering a sprained shoulder in Duke’s loss to Syracuse earlier this week, but this remains a matchup between two of the five best teams in the country. Kenpom.com ranks Virginia first and Duke second. The NCAA’s NET ratings have Virginia first and Duke fourth. Bart Torvik’s T-Rankings also have them one and two, with the Cavaliers first. They’re the only two teams in kenpom.com’s top five for both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Jones’s absence cannot be overstated, even with this game in Durham. So what’s this game going to swing on? I’d pay attention to two things. First, who wins the battle of the glass when Duke is on offense? The Blue Devils rebound nearly 40% of their misses, while Virginia ranks 24th in the country in defensive-rebounding rate. Second, Virginia’s three-point shooting. The Cavaliers are going to do what they do offensively, which means long, methodical possessions. While that will slow Duke’s offense down a bit, it won’t mean much if they aren’t getting points at the end of those possessions. Virginia ranks seventh in the country in three-point percentage, led by Kyle Guy (46.7%) and Ty Jerome (41.2%). Duke can throw size at Virginia, and without Jones it wouldn’t be a surprise to see R.J. Barrett check Guy. Those two factors could determine who comes away with a win in this meeting of ACC titans.

Duke 72, Virginia 68

South Carolina at LSU

Saturday, 6 p.m., SEC Network

Obviously we all had these two teams sitting at a combined 7–0 in conference play at this point of the season, right? There was clearly something to like about an LSU squad that returned many key players from last year’s team that was a No. 3 seed in the NIT, but South Carolina really came out of nowhere. The Gamecocks have wins over Florida and Mississippi State among their four SEC victories, but the schedule is about to stiffen up this weekend. After visiting LSU, they host Auburn and Tennessee, so that 4–0 could turn into 4–3 in a matter of weeks. South Carolina was able to effectively control the tempo against Florida and Mississippi State, two teams that prefer to slow things down on offense. LSU, however, wants to play a brand of basketball similar to South Carolina’s, which will give it a different look than it has seen thus far in conference play. Tremont Waters, Ja’vonte Smart and Naz Reid, one sophomore and two freshmen, are starting to build something special in Baton Rouge, and just may be arriving one year sooner than expected.

LSU 84, South Carolina 71

No. 20 Oklahoma at Texas

Saturday, 8 p.m., Longhorn Network

When Oklahoma has gotten into trouble this season—for example, in its four losses—it has really struggled offensively. The Sooners scored 58 points in a loss to Oklahoma, 63 against Kansas, 59 against Texas Tech, and 61 against Kansas State. They don’t shoot it well from distance, and can’t rely on their best scorers, Christian James and Brady Manek, to go get a bucket when they need one. That could be a problem against a Texas team that really makes its opponents work on offense, with an average defensive possession length of 17.8 seconds, the 279th longest in the country. Texas has a couple of impressive wins over North Carolina and Purdue, proving it can play with the big boys. In losses to Michigan State and Texas Tech, the Longhorns held their opponents under their season averages in points per possession. When the shot clock ticks down for the Sooners on Saturday, as it will again and again, who do they trust to make something happen? If they don’t come up with an answer to that question, they’ll fall to 2–4 in the Big 12.

Texas 67, Oklahoma 60

What to Read Next