You assumed the end of the college football season meant no more Saturday Six-Pack?
This marks the first weekend of January, and the march to March truly intensifies over the coming weeks now that basketball owns the sports spotlight. Conference play begins in earnest — we’ll just ignore the Big Ten tipping off more than a month ago — and it’s in these coming weeks of league action that legitimate contenders separate from the herd.
Every weekend for the remainder of the college basketball season, the Saturday Six-Pack will sling those hot previews and predictions like Doc Holliday (the famed Old West gunman, not the Marshall football coach). The first edition features some outstanding matchups, so if you’re looking for a guide through this slate, The Open Man is indeed your huckleberry.
SATURDAY’S SIX-PACK: Coronado Brewing Co. Snowy Plover IPA
Much of the country is snowed in this weekend. To those of you on the East Coast hit with this winter cold-front, I offer you cheers from Southern California with this San Diego-made seasonal IPA. Nothing beats spending a cold, January day with a full docket of basketball and a nice brew.
No. 12 NORTH CAROLINA at No. 8 VIRGINIA
Tipoff: 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT
It’s best not to gauge perception of a program on social media, but I couldn’t help but feel some level of panic emanate from Tar Heel Twitter in recent weeks. Since scoring an impressive road win at Tennessee last month, the defending national champions are 2-2 with a home loss to Wofford, and most recently an ACC defeat to a surprising Florida State bunch.
North Carolina follows one difficult road trip in conference play against a Top 25 with another, and this time to one of the most imposing venues in the ACC. Playing a Tony Bennett-coached Virginia team, particularly at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, has a quality to it not unlike the end-scene of the 1981 horror film The Beyond.
Yes, that’s a Lucio Fulci reference in a college basketball preview. That’s the kind of groundbreaking material we’ve got here at The Open Man.
Challenging UVa, you will face the sea of darkness in the form of a No. 1 overall adjusted defensive efficiency rating. Remarkably, this may be the best defensive team Bennett’s had in Charlottesville, holding opponents below 30 percent shooting from 3-point range, generating turnovers on nearly one-quarter of all possessions, and holding teams to a 42.6 effective field goal percentage. On the season, just three Cavaliers opponents have scored 60 points or more — and none have scored into the 70s.
North Carolina defends well in its own right, ranking No. 12 in adjusted defensive efficiency, but in typical Roy Williams fashion, the Heels push the tempo. They’ve scored at least 73 in every game but one, the PK80 Championship loss to Michigan State. Virginia’s the best defensive opponent UNC has seen since then, and on that night, Joel Berry II managed just seven points. Luke Maye scored eight.
Berry’s coming off a 28-point performance in Wednesday’s loss at Florida State, while Maye finished with 14. The two got to the foul line for just two attempts combined, so they’ll likely look to attack more aggressively against UVa. More so than simply attacking the defense, however, UNC has to worry about Virginia’s own offensive touch.
The Cavaliers don’t score much, but with Kyle Guy, Devon Hall and Ty Jerome all shooting 42 percent or better from 3-point range, they hit on back-breaking baskets.
PREDICTION: VIRGINIA 64, NORTH CAROLINA 58
FLORIDA at MISSOURI
Tipoff: 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT
A preseason favorite to contend for the Final Four, 2017 Elite Eight participant Florida hit the skids before Christmastime. The Gators dropped three straight over a stretch, losing a blowout to rival Florida State and suffering a confounding defeat to Loyola. Florida went 1-4 over the coinciding five-game stretch, squandering any momentum gained with a grinding win against Cincinnati by dropping a two-point decision to breakout contenders Clemson.
Florida’s seemingly picked it up over the past week, culminating this week with a blowout win over Texas A&M. But because the SEC features impressive top-to-bottom depth this season, it’s right back to the grinder for the Gators — this time on the road at Missouri.
The early-season loss of standout recruit Michael Porter Jr. to injury dimmed the spotlight on the Tigers, celebrated as dark-horse contenders before the campaign. Though losing Porter erased some of Mizzou’s luster, Cuonzo Martin’s club has been a surprise nonetheless — perhaps more so, given the circumstances. The Tigers are 11-3 with Top 100 wins over fellow at-large challengers St. John’s, UCF and South Carolina, and all three of their losses came against Top 100 opponents (including a four-point loss to West Virginia in November).
Still, Missouri needs a truly signature win to bolster its resume. Florida would qualify, despite the Gators’ recent struggles.
Martin’s teams have typically flourished with defense, but this Missouri bunch finds its strength on the offensive end. A balanced approach with six players who average between 7.1 and 15.6 points per game share the load. As a team, Missouri shoots a hair below 40 percent from 3-point range, with Kassius Robertson setting the pace (41.2). Florida’s defense has been rough; the Gators rank 235th nationally with opponents shooting 36.3 percent against them.
Chris Chiozza and Jalen Hudson shoot at clips above 43 percent from deep, but Missouri’s been a much more effective team defending the 3 — as is Martin’s M.O.
PREDICTION: MISSOURI 78, FLORIDA 73
No. 21 SETON HALL at BUTLER
Tipoff: 2:30 p.m. ET/11:30 a.m. PT
Butler’s upset of previously unbeaten Villanova last Saturday sent shockwaves through college basketball. The Bulldogs were to be in rebuild mode with Chris Holtmann leaving for Ohio State. But after knocking off the top-ranked Wildcats, then giving a legitimate Final Four contender in Xavier all it could handle on the road, LaVall Jordan seems to have one of the biggest surprises of this college basketball season.
Seton Hall comes to Hinkle Fieldhouse, the third straight Top 25 opponent on Butler’s docket. The Pirates rebounded well from losing a head-scratcher to Rutgers on Dec. 16, and now sit atop the very early Big East standings alongside Xavier. Conference-opening wins against St. John’s and Creighton are impressive, but going on the road to knock off upstart Butler would mark Seton Hall’s most meaningful victory since beating Texas Tech in November.
Both Butler and Hall defy expectations of Big East teams, averaging more than 80 points per game at this juncture. Their offenses rank No. 38 and No. 25 nationally in adjusted efficiency, and both can attack from the interior or perimeter. Butler goes inside with Kelan Martin, who has stepped out significantly more to shoot almost seven 3-pointers per game, but his strength is scoring in the paint.
Seton Hall big man Angel Delgado’s offensive production is down, but the Pirates also need him to carry less of the load with Myles Powell, Khadeen Carrington and Desi Rodriguez combining to average more than 50 points per game. Paul Jorgensen and Kamar Baldwin will have their hands full on the perimeter, but Sean McDermott — who has seen an increase in usage of the last three games — could be Butler’s X-factor. He has double figures in rebounding two of the last three times out, and may prove vital in limiting Delgado’s second-chance opportunities.
PREDICTION: BUTLER 81, SETON HALL 74
No. 22 ARKANSAS at AUBURN
Tipoff: 6 p.m. ET/3 p.m. PT
In previewing Florida-Missouri, I noted the depth of the SEC. Arkansas’ trip to Auburn might be the quintessential example of that strength in 2018. A Razorback bunch with wins over Tennessee and the lone blemish on Oklahoma’s record comes into Auburn in need of a win to avoid a road doughnut, fresh off a close loss at Mississippi State.
Arkansas shot a dismal 41.7 percent from the free throw line in Starkville, but got to the line for just 12 attempts to Mississippi State’s forty. Yeah, that’s a bit of a disparity. Perhaps Saturday’s game will be a bit more free-flowing: the Razorbacks and Bruce Pearl’s Tigers both play much more offensively open styles than Mississippi State’s Ben Howland prefers. Both Arkansas and Auburn rank in the Top 20 of offensive efficiency, and Auburn comes in having scored at least 79 points in every game since Dec. 3.
Jared Harper, Mustapha Heron and Bryce Brown give the Tigers a nice punch on the perimeter, combining for just south of 45 points per game. That trio against Arkansas’ Jaylen Barford and and Daryl Macon will set the pace, but how Auburn addresses the post presence of Daniel Gafford could ultimately shape the outcome. The freshman big man is starting to find his touch, coming off games of 17 and 15 points in SEC play, with field goal percentages in the 70s in both contests.
If Arkansas can integrate him into the offense effectively early, I like the Razorbacks to open things up for their perimeter players in the second half.
PREDICTION: ARKANSAS 92, AUBURN 85
No. 7 OKLAHOMA at No. 6 WEST VIRGINIA
Tipoff: 7:15 p.m. ET/4:15 p.m. PT
What a clash of styles in what is arguably the game of the day. Oklahoma, the nation’s highest scoring team at 95.8 points per game, squares off with Press Virginia. Morgantown should be on fire — allusions to certain WVa. traditions very much intended — for one of the best college basketball games this season to date.
West Virginia’s a winner of 13 straight since laying an egg in the opener against Texas A&M. The Mountaineers are one of only three teams in the nation unbeaten on American soil; two-loss Purdue and three-loss Arizona took their Ls in the Bahamas, while West Virginia lost in Germany.
Bob Huggins’ bunch proved it could hang with a similarly defensive-minded team, out-grinding Virginia in a rock fight last month. Oklahoma presents the polar opposite kind of challenge. Freshman point guard Trae Young has energized the Sooners, who are cruising along at a brisk pace akin to the university’s football program. Young is basically Basketball Baker, and as The Open Man’s Wendell Barnhouse reported from the scene of the biggest Oklahoma win to date last Saturday at TCU, game-planning for the nation’s leader in both points and assists is futile.
All the buzz Young’s generated early on probably hasn’t gone unnoticed in Morgantown. West Virginia has its own outstanding point guard in Jevon Carter, and the veteran will counter the exciting style of Oklahoma’s freshman with the Chicago-tough brand that shapes the Mountaineers’ identity.
West Virginia is scoring more effectively than it has in recent years. With Oklahoma putting up the nation’s highest point total, expect a healthy output — but also look for West Virginia’s core of veterans to work the press just enough to throw the Sooners out of rhythm more than they’ve been accustomed to this season.
PREDICTION: WEST VIRGINIA 88, OKLAHOMA 81
No. 10 KANSAS at No. 16 TCU
Tipoff: 9:15 p.m. ET/6:15 p.m. PT
The inevitability of Kansas winning the Big 12 regular-season championship feels almost taken for granted. It’s the kind of mythical dominance reserved for eras when teams weren’t guaranteed to have 12 players who understood the basic concepts of the sport, say nothing of the high-stakes game D-1 basketball is now.
It might take the streak ending to gain a true appreciation of its significance. Should the Jayhawks lose at TCU in Saturday’s prime-time showcase, the streak is far from over — but it faces peril unlike anything Bill Self’s endured in recent years.
Part of Kansas’ Big 12 dominance is staked on its invincibility at Phog Allen Fieldhouse. Losses there to Arizona State and Texas Tech over the span of a few weeks damaged some of that reputation, but also exposed this Jayhawks team as perhaps not as strong as some of the more recent squads Self’s had. Certainly no one has completely filled the void 2017 National Player of the Year Frank Mason III left with his graduation — though Devonte’ Graham has come pretty damn close.
Graham is averaging 17.9 points and 7.5 assists per game, in addition to a robust 1.8 steals per game. With Svi Mykhailiuk findhing his offensive rhythm of late, and the sudden star turn of Lagerald Vick, Kansas has an outstanding trio on the perimeter. But the loss at Texas Tech demonstrated just how important it is for the Jayhawks to get contributions from all three when up against quality opponents, as Vick managed just two points against the Red Raiders.
TCU counters with Kenrich Williams, Desmond Bane and Jaylen Fisher, all of whom are hitting at a pace better than 41 percent from behind the 3-point line. But where the Horned Frogs have a distinct advantage is with Vladimir Brodziansky and J.D. Miller on the interior.
TCU’s inside-outside balance is the best Kansas has seen since Arizona State with Romello White complementing Tra Holder and Remy Martin. TCU’s guards don’t attack offensively as aggressively, but they’re adept at picking their spots.
The Frogs also have a distinct advantage in seeing Graham just one week after facing Trae Young. The guards play somewhat comparable styles, which could factor into Jamie Dixon’s strategy.
PREDICTION: TCU 74, KANSAS 71