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Weekend Preview: Breaking down Saturday’s loaded slate

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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 7 Duke at No. 14 Louisville, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPN)

The most interesting matchup of the day might not end up being all that exciting of a game. Louisville is a smothering defensive team, one not so much built on forcing turnovers like past teams were, but a team built on making it tough to run offense and forcing you to take bad shots. This is a problem for the Blue Devils, because they are a team without a point guard at the moment. Grayson Allen is doing the job pretty well, but he’s a playmaker built to attack, not a guy that is a natural facilitator.

And then there is the issue of Duke’s defense. It’s not very good. At all. That’s good news for a Louisville team that struggles to score at times. Then consider that Duke’s best interior defender and defensive rebounder, Amile Jefferson, is not expected to play, and the No. 13 team in offensive rebounding percentage should have a field day pushing around Harry Giles III and Marques Bolden.

But here’s the most important thing to remember: In 2015, Duke was in the midst of a similar crisis of identity. They had just lost at N.C. State and been blown out at home by Miami. They were 2-2 in the ACC and everyone in the world was questioning whether a team with Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow actually deserved the hype they had entering the season and whether they were actually tough enough to defend at the ACC level. Their next game was at Louisville, a top ten team that looked the part of an ACC title contender, and Duke smoked them. They were up 32-20 at the half. They pushed that lead to 20 in the second half.

The Blue Devils, if you recall, won the national title that year.

  • PREDICTION: The biggest difference between 2015 and 2017? Coach K is not on the bench this year. I’ll take Louisville (-4).
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25: Dwayne Bacon #4 of the Florida State Seminoles drives to the basket against the Illinois Fighting Illiniin the second half during the consolation game of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Barclays Center on November 25, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Dwayne Bacon (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

No. 9 Florida State at No. 11 North Carolina, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)

The Seminoles are one of just two undefeated teams in the ACC as of today, and their schedule has been anything but fluff. They won at Virginia, which is not an easy thing to do or as impressive as their 16 point win over Duke on Tuesday night. This is probably the best team that Leonard Hamilton has ever had in Tallahassee, and if they can somehow manage to land a win at North Carolina on Saturday, it will be time to call them the favorite to win the league.

But the Tar Heels are not going to roll over easy. This is a team that has been as impressive as anyone in the country when they’re playing at full health against teams not named Georgia Tech. Justin Jackson vs. Dwayne Bacon may be the best individual matchup that we get on Saturday.

  • PREDICTION: I do think that UNC wins this game, but I don’t think that Florida State gets run out of the gym. Seminoles (+7.5) is pretty tasty.

No. 15 Xavier at No. 12 Butler, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (FS1)

It’s hard to know which of these two teams need this win more. Xavier hasn’t done anything yet this season to warrant their rankings – we’ll get into that later on in this column, I promise – while Butler has one of the weirder résumés in the sport. The Bulldogs have beaten Villanova, Arizona, Cincinnati, Indiana and won at Utah. They’ve also lost to Indiana State and St. John’s and got obliterated by Creighton on Wednesday night. Both of these teams really, really need a win to get things headed in the right direction.

  • PREDICTION: Butler’s three losses all have something in common: they came on the road. Xavier? They lost by 15 at Baylor, at Colorado and by 25 at Villanova. Butler (-4.5).

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No. 21 Saint Mary’s at No. 5 Gonzaga, Sat. 10:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

You’re going to have to stay up late to watch this one, but who are we kidding. It’s a Saturday night. You’re going to be up late anyway, so it will be worth your time to check out one of the most underappreciated rivalries in the country getting played in one of the best atmospheres you’ll find in sports anywhere. And should I mention that both of these teams are pretty freakin’ good this season? I know we say this every year, but I think this is finally the team that gets Mark Few to the Final Four, while Randy Bennett has a talented, veteran group built around point guard Emmett Naar and potential all-american big man Jock Landale.

  • PREDICTION: You don’t win at Gonzaga, and you don’t hang with Gonzaga in the Kennel. Zags (-6).

FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • No. 19 Virginia at Clemson, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ACC Network): After losing to Georgia Tech during the week, Clemson is digging themselves a hole they may not be able to get out of. The good news? The ACC is strong enough they’ll have plenty of chances. Prediction: Clemson (+2.5)
  • No. 20 Notre Dame at Virginia Tech, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ACC Network): The Fighting Irish have developed quite a reputation winning close games this season. They’re 4-0 in the ACC and all four wins are by single-digits. Prediction: Notre Dame (+2.5)
  • No. 1 Baylor at No. 25 Kansas State, Sat. 4:30 p.m. (ESPNU): No team in college basketball has had worse luck in conference play. They lost at Kansas because Svi Mykhailiuk cannot travel and they lost at Texas Tech when the referees swallowed their whistles. Prediction: I liked Kansas State (+1), and I think KSU wins, but I don’t love the Wildcats (-2)
  • No. 4 UCLA at Utah, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (Pac-12): Utah is coming off of a 20-point win over No. 25 USC on Thursday night. UCLA will play their second game at elevation in three days. Prediction: (UCLA (-5)
  • Wichita State at Illinois State, Sat. 8:00 p.m. (ESPN2): Two 5-0 teams in the Missouri Valley square off on Saturday night. Prediction: Wichita State (-2.5)
CHAPEL HILL, NC - DECEMBER 11: Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after a play during their game against the Tennessee Volunteers at Dean Smith Center on December 11, 2016 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Justin Jackson (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

FIVE STORY LINES TO KEEP AN EYE ON

1. We’re going to have a much clearer picture of the ACC hierarchy after Saturday: The way I see it, there are five teams that can legitimately win the ACC regular season title right now: No. 7 Duke, No. 9 Florida State, No. 11 North Carolina, No. 14 Louisville and No. 20 Notre Dame. On Saturday, Duke plays at Louisville and Florida State plays at North Carolina.

If Florida State wins at UNC, it may be time to pencil the Seminoles in as the outright ACC title favorites. They would have wins at Virginia and at North Carolina under their belt with a 16-point home win over Duke as well. The loser of the Duke-Louisville game, then, would likely be out of the running for a regular season title already. That would be loss No. 3 for either team.

2. Just how long will Gonzaga remain undefeated?: There is just one undefeated team left in college basketball today, and that is Gonzaga. And like the run Wichita State made during the 2013-14 season (and, frankly, like Kentucky the following season) the Bulldogs play in a conference where running the table is very possible. It’s not going to be easy, as every gym Gonzaga will walk into will be rocking as they play in their opponent’s Super Bowl, but the Bulldogs will be the heavy favorite in essentially every game they play the rest of the season.

Except for when they square off with Saint Mary’s, a top 20 team in their own right. The Bulldogs host the Gaels on Saturday night. They visit Moraga on Feb. 11th. If the Zags are going to have their undefeated run ended before March, it will probably happen in one of those two games.

3. Does Baylor avoid losing two in a row as the No. 1 team in the country?: The feel-good story of the season came crashing back to earth on Tuesday, as Baylor, then-undefeated and No. 1 for the first time in program history, went into Morgantown and got absolutely mollywhopped by No. 10 West Virginia. The Bears turned the ball over 29 times and, frankly, we made to look like an overmatched buy-game opponent instead of a legitimate contender to the Big 12 title. That came after Baylor struggled to dispatch Iowa State and Oklahoma State at home.

This weekend, the Bears head right back out on the road, playing at a Kansas State team that is better than you probably realize. The Wildcats would’ve had a chance to beat Kansas in Phog Allen Fieldhouse had someone called Svi Mykhailiuk for a travel on the final play. They also would’ve beaten Texas Tech on the road if the referees in Lubbock hadn’t swallowed their whistles. Bruce Weber has himself a squad, and going into the Octagon of Doom is not an easy task for anyone.

Here’s the catch – if Baylor really is going to be a Big 12 title contender, if they are going to push a Kansas team that hasn’t been anywhere other than the top of the conference standings for the last dozen years, they have to do things like bounce-back from getting whooped to beat a good team on the road. That’s what conference champions do.

Can Baylor do it?

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins brings the ball up the court against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. UCLA won 86-73. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Lonzo Ball (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

4. UCLA is going to be tested by Utah: The nicest thing that Colorado ever did for UCLA was to let them get a relatively easy win on Thursday night, because that means that the Bruins didn’t have to burn through their legs playing at altitude when they have to make the trip to Salt Lake City to face off with the Utes 48 hours later.

And, it should be noted, that Utah is much better now than they were a month ago. On Thursday night, they smoked No. 25 USC, a win that propelled them to 3-1 in the league. Their only loss came at Arizona, who is a game ahead of the pace. The difference came when Sedrick Barefield and David Collette were able to get eligible in December, meaning that the Utes now have depth and balance and a response when teams are able to slow down Kyle Kuzma and Lorenzo Bonam. This game will be the chance Utah needs to prove themselves a threat in the league race.

5. What has Xavier done to make us believe they should be ranked where they are?: The Musketeers entered the season as a top 10-15 team, depending on where it is you go to get your college basketball team rankings. They’re currently ranked 15th, but what have they done this season to justify that ranking? A neutral court win over Clemson back in November? Because since then, they’ve lost at Baylor, they’ve lost at Colorado and they got smoked at Villanova. None of the wins they’ve landed since then are worth much of anything. On Saturday, they play at Butler. We’re halfway through the season, and there’s nothing on the Musketeers résumé to prove to us that this is a team that’s good.

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 20: Edmond Sumner #4 of the Xavier Musketeers reacts after a play in the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 20, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Edmond Sumner (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.