Saturday Six-Pack: High-Pressure Conference Games Headline the Weekend

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Four college basketball matchups on Saturday pit two Top 25 teams head-to-head. Of those four, three feature teams ranked No. 19 or better. Oh yeah, the road to March is intensifying.

For several of the squads featured in this week’s edition of the Saturday Six-Pack, the weekend presents an opportunity for redemption. TCU and Texas Tech demonstrated what readers of Wendell Barnhouse’s Big 12 Notebook here at The Open Man already know: Every night in that conference is a dogfight.

Texas Tech dropped a tough decision to Oklahoma, which hosts TCU on Saturday. The Horned Frogs suffered maybe the most heartbreaking defeat yet of the 2017-18 college basketball season when guard Jaylen Fisher had a layup attempt in the closing seconds of a 99-98, double-overtime loss at Texas.

TCU isn’t necessarily in must-win territory, but they — like Texas Tech — have a prime opportunity to regroup with matchups vs. Top 10 opponents.

Likewise, Xavier tries to shake off its blowout loss to Villanova with another Top 25 date looming, while a pair of ACC biggies add to the weekend’s festivities.

This is arguably the best college basketball weekend yet, with an air of urgency typically reserved for February. So on that note…

LAST WEEK’S RECORD: 2-4

Florida’s last-second lay-in to beat Missouri and both Kansas and Seton Hall going on the road for big road wins doomed the first basketball Six-Pack to a losing record. The Open Man aims to bounce back strong in the second edition.

SEASON RECORD: 2-4

SATURDAY’S SIX-PACK: STONE RIPPER

Stone’s pale ale isn’t as heavy or as bitter as the North County San Diego-based brewery’s various IPAs, which is a nice alternative on a long Saturday of basketball-viewing. It also comes in cans, which I am an increasingly ardent advocate for.

No. 16 TCU at No. 9 OKLAHOMA

Tipoff: 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT
TV: ESPNU

TCU faced Oklahoma just two weeks on Dec. 29 and things did not go so well for the Horned Frogs. Jamie Dixon’s club got the full Trae Young experience. It takes a grinding style akin to that of West Virginia to truly throw a wrench in Oklahoma’s attack with the otherworldly freshman point guard driving it.

Though Dixon’s made his name coaching excellent defensive teams, this has been a TCU squad more reliant on pushing the pace this season. That’s also resulted in some high-scoring losses, including two last week to Kansas and Texas. Oklahoma boasts the nation’s highest-scoring offense, and ranks No. 11 in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom.com, while TCU checks in at No. 111 in adjusted defensive efficiency.

That’s not a recipe for success for the Horned Frogs, who are in danger of falling out of the Big 12 championship race early.

PREDICTION: OKLAHOMA 92, TCU 81

No. 2 WEST VIRGINIA at No. 8 TEXAS TECH

Tipoff: 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT
TV: ESPN

West Virginia put together a compelling case to be ranked No. 1 in the most recent poll. Though voters instead went with Villanova, the Mountaineers look very much like viable Final Four contenders this season. They won ugly earlier in the week against Baylor, shooting a miserable 31.1 percent from the floor.

Offensive firepower has indeed been this program’s Achilles’ heel of late, despite Bob Huggins’ aggressive pressing style of defense shaping it into a perennially success club. The likelihood of Saturday’s trip to Lubbock — the longest trek in the Big 12 — turning into trench warfare is very real.

Chris Beard’s implemented the same suffocating style that took Arkansas Little Rock to the Round of 32 in 2016 at Texas Tech. The Red Raiders are third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, with an opponent turnover rate that ranks fifth in the country. West Virginia’s one of the few defenses more adept at generating turnovers, with the high-energy press ranking second in turnover percentage.

If the day’s other marquee Big 12 matchup is a race to 100, this could very well be first-to-50-wins.

PREDICTION: WEST VIRGINIA 59, TEXAS TECH 50

No. 25 CREIGHTON at No. 10 XAVIER

Tipoff: 2 p.m. ET/11 a.m. PT
TV: FOX

The Open Man missed the memo, but the past week was National J.P. Macura Feature Story Week. Apparently, Jay Wright also missed the memo. Villanova routed Xavier in their Big East matchup earlier this week, with the Wildcats holding Macura to 2-of-9 shooting for five points.

It’s not just the pestering guard Macura who needs to regroup from Wednesday’s debacle with a good Creighton team coming to town, however. The Musketeers are coming off a night on which they shot 17 percent from behind the 3-point line, and now face a Blue Jays bunch that ranks seventh in the nation defending the 3-pointer.

In addition to outside shooting, a matchup of guards Marcus Foster and Trevon Bluiett is likely to dictate Saturday’s outcome. Both average right around 19 points per game and set the tone for their respective offenses. Foster feeds off backcourt mate Khyri Thomas, who is posting 15 points per game.

Creighton’s faster pace-of-play could cause Xavier problems. In three losses — including two in the Musketeers’ last two outings — XU is allowing an average of more than 90 points per game. Even in wins since the start of Big East play, Xavier’s struggled defensively. Marquette 87 against the Musketeers, and Butler notched 79.

The Blue Jays need to get over 85; if they do so, they’ll score an impressive road win while adding to Xavier’s recent woes.

PREDICTION: CREIGHTON 88, XAVIER 81

No. 18 MIAMI at No. 19 CLEMSON

Tipoff: 3 p.m. ET/Noon PT
TV: ESPNU

Since a confounding loss to Temple early in the season, Clemson got hot enough to be arguably the biggest surprise of the college basketball season. But since rattling off 10 straight wins, the Tigers suffered a devastating, one-point loss at NC State on Thursday.

It’s a short turnaround, as Clemson returns home to Littlejohn Coliseum against an outstanding defensive opponent in Miami.

The Hurricanes are ranked fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency, slightly ahead of 11th ranked Clemson. Neither is particularly outstanding on offense — 97 and 45 in AOE, respectively — so expect a slugfest. Miami’s two games removed from losing an ugly, 64-54 decision at Georgia Tech, but rebounded with an 80-74 defeat of Florida State. The difference for the Canes in the two contests? Bruce Brown.

The guard scored 23 points against the Seminoles, but just nine against Georgia Tech. His 3-point shooting as been wildly inconsistent — he’s hitting just 28 percent on the season — but if he can get rolling by attacking the rim, which resulted in 14 free throw attempts against Florida State, it opens the floor for Chris Lykes. Lykes has seen more looks recently, and scored 18 big points in the Florida State win.

Donte Graham and Elijah Thomas will do their part to close off the lane to penetration, and the Tigers’ ability to rotate to shooters should frustrate the Hurricanes.

PREDICTION: CLEMSON 68, MIAMI 62

No. 20 NORTH CAROLINA at NOTRE DAME

Tipoff: 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT
TV: ESPN

Defending national champion North Carolina already has two losses in ACC play. Notre Dame — which looked like a title contender at Thanksgiving — has suffered defeat and misfortune. The loss of Bonzie Colson resonated in a pair ugly games: one a win over Syracuse, the other a loss to Georgia Tech.

The Irish return home after dropping the latter, 60-53 on the road, having managed a grand total of 104 points in the two-game road swing. In contrast, North Carolina came just four buckets shy of that mark in a blowout win over a dangerous Boston College bunch.

The Tar Heels can score — sometimes. They managed just 49 points against Virginia, and mustered only 45 in a loss to Michigan State early in the season. But those are also two of the best defenses in college basketball. Notre Dame’s no slouch, No. 31 in defensive efficiency, and no opponent has scored into the 70s against the Fighting Irish since Dec. 19.

Notre Dame must find a way to grind the Heels down similarly; extend offensive possessions, limit North Carolina’s transition opportunities, and basically play like Virginia Lite. This isn’t the explosive Fighting Irish teams of recent years, particularly with Colson sidelined.

The Irish are meticulous on offense, turning it over at the ninth-lowest frequency in the nation. North Carolina ranks among the very worst in generation takeaways at No. 303, so don’t expect the Heels to be able to push in transition too often. But where North Carolina has an opportunity to exploit Colson’s absence is with Luke Maye, the assignment Colson likely would have drawn.

Maye has been explosive offensively at times, and comes in off a career-high in the BC win. Should he continue that hot hand, he’ll set the tone for the rest of the lineup — and North Carolina needs it. A game in the 70s is a Carolina win; anything lower is a loss.

PREDICTION: NORTH CAROLINA 71, NOTRE DAME 60

TEXAS A&M at No. 24 TENNESSEE

Tipoff: 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT
TV: SEC Network

Just how much of a must-win is a mid-January game? For Texas A&M, Saturday’s trip to Tennessee might be the peak.

Once looking very much like a Final Four contender, Texas A&M’s ongoing, four-game slide puts the Aggies in a precarious position. Two of those losses, both this week against LSU and Kentucky, were by a point a piece. Ouch.

Billy Kennedy’s done admirably with Robert Williams recovering from, but that isn’t necessarily enough to save Texas A&M’s standing for the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies need wins, and they need them soon. Despite opening SEC play with a pair of losses to Auburn and Arkansas, straits are not nearly as dire for Tennessee.

A win over Kentucky solidified Rick Barnes’ team as a bona fide contender in this deep conference. The difference between winning a championship and perhaps contending for a top four seed on Selection Sunday and falling into 8-9 game territory is holding serve at home against the middle portion of the conference. To that end, Texas A&M is a must-win for the Vols, too.

Tennessee’s potent offense could pose Texas A&M a challenge, particularly if Williams is not entirely 100 percent. Vols forward Grant Williams has been outstanding finishing around the rim, and the Aggies need to lose off the paint.

Texas A&M also has a psychological element at play. I try not to put emphasis on intangibles or mysticism to project the outcome of a game, but Texas A&M is facing a very real situation. The current losing streak, and the way in which the Aggies have lost their recent contests, could send them into a funk. Another defeat would effectively submarine their season. The energy level with which A&M attacks Saturday’s contest might well dictate the course of the rest of its entire season.

I see Texas A&M rising to the challenge and pulling out of the current tailspin.

PREDICTION: TEXAS A&M 77, TENNESSEE 73