College Basketball Saturday Six-Pack: Prime Opportunities for Outsiders

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After last week’s slate loaded with Top 25 matchups, this Saturday features just one. Nevertheless, conference play around college basketball presents some teams that have either underachieved or are in need of a major breakthrough with opportunities to emerge. 

This Saturday also features some intrigue from mid-major conferences, particularly those out West. Teams with viable at-large NCAA Tournament aspirations play in potentially under-the-radar games well worth your attention. 

LAST WEEK’S RECORD: 3-3

SEASON RECORD: 5-7

Putting faith in Creighton and Texas A&M to score upsets on the road doomed last week’s picks to .500. Texas Tech beating West Virginia in a thriller by one bucket is hardly a misfire the caliber of those other two predictions.

No. 11 XAVIER at No. 19 SETON HALL

Tipoff: 2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 a.m. PT
TV: FOX

The tale of how deep and treacherous the Big East basketball slate is can be gleaned through Xavier and Seton Hall. The Musketeers endured a losing skid ahead of their matchup with Creighton last Saturday, but rallied to blow out the Blue Jays.

Creighton turned around and blasted Seton Hall this week, just two games removed from the Pirates suffering a 20-point blowout loss at Marquette.

How much bearing does each team’s respective hiccups have heading into Saturday? Very little, most likely. It’s just another difficult day in the Big East.

Xavier scored 92 and 88 points in its two most recent wins, continuing along a fascinating trend that sees the typically defensive-oriented program emerge as one of the most explosive offenses in college basketball. The Musketeers rank eighth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency.

Seton Hall has the players on the perimeter to counter Xavier’s outstanding guard play. Khadeen Carrington and Myles Powell against Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura should be entertaining, but the X-factor is Angel Delgado. His offensive role has been limited somewhat this season compared to last; Seton Hall needs to attack with him aggressive. Make Kerem Kanter prove he can stop Delgado inside, which should also aid in slowing the Musketeers’ tempo.

PREDICTION: SETON HALL 80, XAVIER 79

No. 24 TCU at KANSAS STATE

Tipoff: 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT
TV: ESPNU

Just a few weeks ago, TCU was one of the last few undefeated teams remaining in college basketball. The Horned Frogs have since slipped to 14-4, and at 2-4 in conference, find themselves in the lower half of the Big 12 standings.

Add this week’s news that guard Jaylen Fisher is injured and out indefinitely, and TCU’s dream season has taken a nightmarish turn.

Among those ahead of TCU in the Big 12 is Kansas State, a team that quietly put a shock into some top level competition before finally scoring its breakout earlier this week. The Wildcats deployed an aggressive defensive strategy against Oklahoma guard Trae Young, forcing 12 turnovers from the National Player of the Year frontrunner. After losing to Arizona State and Kansas by three combined points, it was evident K-State could hang.

Working over Oklahoma showed the Wildcats are capable of more than just sticking around.

With Barry Brown beginning to emerge as one of the nation’s best players, K-State has reason to play with confidence. Add the Wildcats rocking some lavender throwbacks, and the Octagon should be fully swagged out.

K-State’s cause for confidence stands in stark contrast to TCU. While I’d prefer Jamie Dixon coaching my team rather than Bruce Weber 100 times out of 100, the loss of Fisher takes away a huge cog in both defending and attacking K-State’s surging Brown.

PREDICTION: KANSAS STATE 70, TCU 64

UTAH VALLEY at NEW MEXICO STATE

Tipoff: 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT
TV: ESPN3

NCAA Tournament regular New Mexico State’s building momentum to return to the Big Dance in 2018 — and the Aggies might not need win the WAC Tournament to do it.

OK, so the Aggies probably shouldn’t leave fate in the selection committee’s hands — they have not exactly been kind to mid-majors in recent years — but New Mexico State is building a compelling at-large case. NMSU ranks No. 52 in KenPom, ahead of such noteworthy names as UCLA, LSU, Georgia and Saint Bonaventure, and the Aggies check in the magic Top 50 of the RPI. Maintaining such standing will be difficult, given the weakness of the bottom of the WAC. Seattle, Cal State Bakersfield and UMKC are all No. 218 or worse, and Chicago State is an awful 348.

However, Utah Valley comes to Las Cruces sporting a Top 100 KenPom ranking, which would bolster NMSU’s resume…but only if the Aggies win. Mark Pope has a strong contender to the WAC crown, currently rolling on a seven-game winning streak. Former Oklahoma center Akolda Manyang’s been resurgent at UVU, and the 7-footer might be the best individual talent the WAC has to offer.

The Aggies don’t have the size to matchup with Manyang, but the defensive intensity Chris Jans has maintained in his first season will test Utah Valley’s ability to feed the post. With this marking New Mexico State’s first game at the Pan American Center in a month, and the Arizona Bowl-winning football team being honored the same day, expect an electric effort from this surprise at-large contender.

PREDICTION: New Mexico State 73, Utah Valley 58

FLORIDA at No. 18 KENTUCKY

Tipoff: 8:15 p.m. ET/5:15 p.m. PT
TV: ESPN

Who would have guessed before the season that this wouldn’t be the marquee matchup of this weekend? Kentucky and Florida felt like programs destined to lead the loaded SEC in 2017-18, but the conference’s resurgence has cost both.

Florida’s winning streak of six games snapped this week at Ole Miss, a loss that illustrates the depth of this league. The Gators rebounded at the expense of Arkansas, a 2017 Tournament team and preseason dark horse that’s now fading fast.

Losing in Oxford underscored the challenge of going on the road in the SEC, something Kentucky knows well after dropping a 76-68 decision this week at South Carolina. The Wildcats squandered a lead in Columbia, which highlighted something interesting about this team: John Calipari lamented its defensive woes earlier in the season, but a lack of consistent offense has been more damning for the Wildcats.

The Wildcats rank 45th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, down from 12 in 2016-17; 5 in 2015-16; and 6 in 2014-15. Kentucky’s arrogance has also been an issue, according to Calipari.

Florida’s been effective on offense — No. 17 nationally — due to excellent ball control (third nationally in turnover percentage) and a solid outside shooting touch. Kentucky hasn’t shown the offensive firepower to keep pace in a shootout, so the Wildcats must instead keep Florida’s 3-point shooting in check.

The Gators were well below their season average in losses to Loyola and Ole Miss, and Kentucky comes in ranked sixth in the nation defending the 3-pointer.

PREDICTION: KENTUCKY 68, FLORIDA 65

MISSISSIPPI STATE at ALABAMA

Tipoff: 8:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. PT
TV: SEC Network

The SEC is going to have an overflowing bubble come Selection Sunday, and both Alabama and Mississippi State would sit squarely on it if decision day was now. The Crimson Tide scored a needed signature win over Auburn earlier this week, made all the more impressive by Collin Sexton’s absence. The Tide have three straight Top 100 wins, and can make it four in a row with a defeat of Mississippi State.

The Bulldogs sit at No. 77 in KenPom rankings and No. 78 in RPI. They have just one win over KenPom Top 100 competition, but Alabama kicks off a make-or-break seven-game stretch of matchups with Top 100 opponents. Ben Howland’s team can play its way into an NCAA Tournament bid over this stretch.

Sexton’s status for Saturday is up in the air, which could dramatically impact the complexion of this one. Neither Mississippi State nor Alabama is particularly good on offense, but both flourish on the defensive end. The explosive Sexton makes a world of defense — though Alabama did put up 76 against Auburn last time out.

Mississippi State is a horrible 3-point shooting team, but rebounds on the offensive end effectively. Alabama’s strategy should not be as simple as daring the Bulldogs to pull up from deep. Instead, look for the Tide to try generating turnovers to pick up the tempo and score in transition when they’re not trying to spring John Petty for clean 3-point looks.

PREDICTION: ALABAMA 71, MISSISSIPPI STATE 63

BOISE STATE at NEVADA

Tipoff: 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT
TV: ESPNU

The Mountain West is a lot of fun, with a great deal of parity this season, but Nevada and Boise State have separated themselves as clear frontrunners. Both could land in the NCAA Tournament, which would mark the conference’s first multi-bid campaign since 2015. Despite their solid standing at present — Boise State is No. 48 in KenPom rankings, and Nevada is No. 19 — both would benefit from a marquee win or two.

Saturday presents such an opportunity.

Boise State comes in trailing Nevada by a game in the loss column of the Mountain West standings, but matches the Wolf Pack’s six conference wins. The Broncos won a couple of Top 100 games against San Diego State and at Fresno State, then survived a sluggish performance against Utah State, all by a combined 13 points. Nevada, meanwhile, won each of its last three by double digits.

The Pack seems to have recovered from an absolutely stunning loss to San Francisco, going undefeated since that slip up. Kendall Stephens has come alive over that stretch, putting up 19 points or more in four games. Should Stephens continue scoring, that spells big problems for Nevada’s competition, as the Pack already have three other capable scoring options in the Martin twins and Jordan Caroline.

Chandler Hutchinson is putting up almost 20 points per game for Boise State and more than eight rebounds. He’ll need a monster performance, and Boise State’s Top 20 defense must slow down the tempo on Nevada’s potent offense. If Nevada hits 75 or more, it’s lights out for the Broncos.

PREDICTION: NEVADA 81, BOISE STATE 69