Heartbreak fuels Renardo Sidney’s new sense of purpose

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source: Getty Images
Mississippi State v Vanderbilt

Renardo Sidney no longer wanted to be one of The Best That Never Was. We’ve heard that before, again and again, but this time it was different. This time he had a daughter on the way, due to be born in the summer of 2014. Sidney’s paternal instinct kicked in. He wanted to support her, provide for her, take care of her. “She’s the reason I got back out there to start working out,” Sidney said. “Having a kid, I wanted her to have anything [she wanted].”

On June 28, 2014, Madison Olivia Sidney was stillborn.

source:
Photo via Renardo Sidney

“That was my first little girl,” Sidney said. Her name is now tattooed on his arm. He was heartbroken. “After she passed, it just felt like a light that came on that told me to get up off my butt. I’m still young. I could still keep trying.”

He couldn’t be the can’t-miss prospect that missed, a cautionary tale of all that can go wrong in grassroots basketball. He couldn’t keep watching guys that were once ranked below him by every recruiting outlet in the country — guys likes John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, Kawhi Leonard and Eric Bledsoe — make a lasting mark in the NBA while he watched on TV, his only lasting impression being the grooves he made in the couch.

The kid everyone once knew as Big Sid was up to 340 pounds, a year removed from a stint with the LA Defenders of the NBA’s D-League, and he was finally ready to make his comeback.

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Renardo Sidney is anything-but a household name, but it wasn’t supposed to be that way.

His name may conjure up memories of an NCAA suspension or a brawl in the stands during a game in Hawaii. Some of the more dedicated college hoop fans out there may remember the season and a half that he actually played at Mississippi State before going undrafted in 2012.

What you may not know, however, is that Sidney was a surefire lottery pick before he ever set foot in a high school classroom. He exploded onto the recruiting scene in 2005 as a rising freshman at Sonny Vaccaro’s famed ABCD All-American Camp. Here was a 6-foot-8, 230 pound, 14-year-old from Jackson, Miss., blessed with the physique of a college senior before he could grow a mustache.

And he was torching everyone at the best summer camp in high school hoops.

“Of all the players I’ve ever seen in the summer, I’ll put Renardo Sidney against any in the last 15 years,” said ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman, then a National Recruiting Analyst for Scout.com. “He was probably one of the top five talents I’ve ever seen at that stage of their career.”

The setting for these showcase camps are tailor-made for players with perimeter ability. Free-flowing, back-and-forth basketball with limited defense, one-on-one play emphasized and a priority made on highlighting the matchups that will draw the most attention. It was all about exposure and Sidney’s unique skill set made him impossible to ignore. He could handle the ball, he could shoot, he could lead the break, he could throw no-look passes, he could back you down and dunk on you. He was a right-handed Lamar Odom, another Chris Webber. Some thought him the second-coming of Magic Johnson.

The camp’s all-star game is where the Legend of Sidney really began to grow. As Goodman put it, “it was the Renardo Show. No one could handle him.”

“You never know how a player will eventually develop,” said Mark Gottfried, “but it’s hard to imagine there have ever been better, more skilled [prospects] at that age. He also had a high basketball IQ for his age. It was like, ‘Man, this kid is really advanced.'”

Gottfried is now the head coach at N.C. State, but back then he was coaching Alabama. Prior to Sidney’s arrival at ABCD, Gottfried had Sidney on campus for the Alabama team camp and actually landed a verbal commitment from the young star.

“At that point in time, it wasn’t taken very seriously,” he said. “You kind of knew that there was going to be a lot of twists and turns, and this thing is going to be all over the place.”

And all over the place it was.

Sidney didn’t play as a freshman at Piney Woods HS in Mississippi after being ruled ineligible due to illegal recruiting. Still, his stock continued to soar, as he teamed with with Pat Barrett’s Southern California All-Stars, a Reebok-sponsored program that some believe is the most talented AAU team ever assembled. It featured the top player in the Class of 2007 (Kevin Love), 2008 (Brandon Jennings) and 2009 (Sidney, at the time) while also featuring Taylor King (Duke and Villanova), Daniel Hackett (USC) and Malik Story (Indiana and Nevada). Sidney’s father, Renardo Sr., would eventually sign on with Reebok as a consultant, a job that reportedly paid him $20,000.

Sidney’s summer in 2006 pre-empted the family’s relocation to Los Angeles, where he finally played his first season of high school hoops. But as the hype grew, Sidney’s ability began to stagnate. He put on weight, he got overwhelmed — or swallowed up, depending on who you ask — by the amateur hoops scene in LA. Things began to spiral.

“I could honestly say I probably was ‘Hollywood,'” Sidney said. “I just thought I made it. I thought that my talent would get me to the NBA.”

“The worst thing he did was move to California,” said Wayne Brent, who coached Sidney in high school in Mississippi. Brent is now the head coach at Jackson State.

Sidney’s ranking fell. He tried to commit to both USC and UCLA; neither school would allow him admission. He ended up at Mississippi State, where he was suspended for the entirety of the 2009-10 season and the first nine games of the 2010-11 season for illegal benefits the NCAA determined that he and his family received. After he was finally ruled eligible to play in college, he got in a fight with teammate Elgin Bailey in the stands of a nationally televised game in a Christmas tournament in Hawaii:

He averaged 9.7 points and 5.2 boards for the Bulldogs in 2011-12 before turning pro. He went undrafted and spent a short time in the D-League before his professional career stalled. He wouldn’t suit up against until he made the move to Canada in the fall of 2014.

“Just trying to find myself,” he said of his time away from the game. “I let a lot of stuff go on as a kid and it bothered me as a man. I just took a couple months off just to get myself together. Find out what I really want to do, if I really want to play basketball or not.”

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The only person that’s ever stood in the way of Renardo Sidney is Renardo Sidney.

His attitude, his work ethic, his inability to keep weight off. Talk to him now and Sidney will freely admit that he thought that he had made it when he was 16. He thought the free shoes and the cross-country flights and all the attention and adoration he received as a high school phenom meant that his matriculation to the NBA was simply a waiting game. Kill time until you’re old enough to go pro, become an international mega-star.

That was the way it played out in his head.

“You’ve got to stay humble and stay hungry,” Sidney said. “I wish I could have told myself or someone would have told me that coming up.”

“I was getting all kinds of gear and clothes and shoes and I was No. 1 in the country. The internet and the TV. It kind of got to me, and as a young kid at that age, you just feel like you’ve made it already. I stopped working.”

Work ethic has been a struggle for Sidney, dating all the way back to his time back in Jackson. Brent has coached a number of highly-touted recruits during his time as a high school coach in Mississippi. In addition to working with Sidney during his one season at Piney Woods, Brent coached LaQuinton Ross, who was once the No. 1 recruit in his class, and Malik Newman, a top five prospect in the Class of 2015, at Calloway HS in Jackson. He also was an assistant at Ole Miss in the late ’90s.

And Sidney, Brent says, was far and away the most talented player he’s ever coached. The problem? He never committed to getting into shape. He never wanted to work hard.

“He was so talented and it was that his downfall was work habits,” Brent said. “He couldn’t sustain anything for a very long period of time. The talent was there. Is was just, can he push through the grind to really become something special?”

That issue was exacerbated by his move to Los Angeles, where Sidney latched on with teams and coaches that enabled him.

“He played for two or three teams where he didn’t practice,” Brent said. “If Renardo said he didn’t want to practice, he didn’t practice.”

“I’ve been around a lot of kids. If you let them do that, than that’s what they do. You have a 15, 16 or 17-year old that already doesn’t want to work that can just say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to work today?’ [It would have been different] had he went somewhere where they had said, ‘if you ain’t gonna work, you need to get your stuff and leave.'”

The circus that was surrounding his recruitment only added to the problem. Not his college recruitment, but to a shoe company. Would he play for a Reebok, Nike or adidas AAU team? His father told the Washington Post at the time that his job as a consultant with Reebok was simply to “make sure he gets to [ABCD Camp] and Las Vegas” for the company’s tournament in July, and that he received repeated offers from rival shoe companies and competing tournaments to shuttle the younger Sidney to those events.

source: Getty Images
Renardo Sidney at the 2009 McDonalds All-American game (Getty Images)

Sidney said the hype started to weigh on him, the pressure of having a target on his head every time he stepped out on the floor became hard for him to handle. He was his family’s meal ticket before he had a driver’s license, and it made the game less enjoyable.

“It’s scary. You can’t live your life as a teenager,” he said. “You can’t have a normal life as a normal kid. I couldn’t go to Universal Studios like I wanted to. I couldn’t go to the movies or go bowling. All you’ve got to do is basketball, basketball, basketball. It’s tough as a kid because you see all your friends going out and you’ve got to get up and go to the gym. It’s kind of overwhelming.”

Sidney became an example used for the ills of AAU basketball. The excess, the instant celebrity, the marketability of hype, the prioritization of the grassroots circuit over the high school season. To the casual observer, he was the personification of all that’s wrong with American basketball, a teenager who was surrounded by adults trying to find a way to get a cut of his future earnings.

It only got worse in college, as Sidney’s off-the-court issues exacerbated his declining skill set.

“Once I got to college and my dad wasn’t around a lot, I felt like I could do what I wanted to do,” Sidney said, taking the blame for his tumultuous three-year stop in Starkville. “I stopped listening to the coaches. That’s when the immaturity kicked in.”

From there, it snowballed. Every mistake he made — and there were plenty — resulted in another story vilifying him, and perhaps the biggest mistake he made was to read every one of them. It was too much for Sidney to handle.

“I didn’t play for two years and people were still writing negativity about me, and I haven’t even played in two years,” he said. “I just wanted to fall off the face of the earth. Because it was stressful. It was very stressful. To think that a lot of people think you’re a headcase, which I’m not.”

“A lot of people just think I’m a bad person and all I wanted to do was play basketball. It was overwhelming.”

That’s what led to Sidney ballooning up to 340 pounds. That’s what led to his two-year hoops hiatus. That’s what led to a basketball prodigy refusing to watch NBA games — refusing to watch guys he still considers friends, still talks to on a regular basis — because he couldn’t handle the stress or the disappointment.

“It’s tough,” he said. “It’s tough knowing you’re supposed to be in the league and you’re not.”

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Renardo Sidney made his return to professional basketball this past fall. He had already dropped 35 pounds when he was signed by the Island Storm of Canada’s NBL, the same team that had sparked former Arizona guard Josiah Turner’s return from basketball exile. It was Sidney’s chance to prove to everyone that this change in attitude that he’s been promising was actually coming to fruition, that the life-altering moment of having a stillborn child had turned him into a different person.

Sidney lasted five games with the Storm before being released.

That sounds bad, but Storm head coach Joe Salerno insisted that the issues that precipitated his release had more to do with Sidney’s conditioning than with his attitude.

“It was a good experience, better than I had anticipated,” Salerno said. “When his name came across my desk this summer while we were recruiting, I had read all the baggage and kind of knew his history but it was just too big of a talent not to take a risk on. I certainly had some reservations before we signed him and I was curious to see how it went.”

“It was fun working with him. As a person, I was pleasantly surprised. He had a great character. All the guys on the team enjoyed him off the floor, and he certainly came in with all the right intentions.”

source:
Photo via the Island Storm facebook page

The issue was that, despite losing those 35 pounds, Sidney just didn’t have his “basketball wind”. He couldn’t play long stretches without having to take plays off. He couldn’t be on the court for eight or nine minutes at a time without becoming a major liability on the defensive end of the floor. “When you’re trying to still get in shape during the season, it’s difficult to do,” Salerno said. “He wasn’t in horrendous shape. He was in decent shape for what he was.”

It created a conundrum for Salerno and his staff. Sidney was too talented offensively to simply cut ties with — he scored 17 points in 17 minutes in his first game with the Storm — but he still had a long way to go until he was in good enough shape to play an entire game. Eventually the coaching staff settled on a rotation for Sidney: three minutes on, three minutes off.

That didn’t work out.

“When any frustrations came out,” Salerno said, “it was because he wasn’t able to play long shifts,” noting that he believed Sidney had put in the effort, he just needed more time to get into shape.

And right now, time is all Sidney has. He’s still living on Prince Edward Island in Canada, training with a former teammate as he prepares for workouts that he hopes will lead to a spot in an NBA Summer League which, in turn, will land him a contract with a team in the NBA D-League.

At least that’s the plan.

Sidney says he is down to 290 pounds. His goal, according to his agent, Zachary Charles of 3pt Sports Management, is to get down to 275 pounds. Charles, who is at least the fourth agent that Sidney has had since leaving school, believes that this time it will be different. He believes that this is a new Renardo Sidney, that all he needs is an opportunity to prove it.

For the first time in his life, Charles says, there’s a plan of action, there’s a structure that Sidney is buying into.

“When it comes to work and dedication,” Charles said, “sometimes it takes a kick in the pants to understand what you had and what you lost.”

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Renardo Sidney has fooled us before.

He’s told us that he’s getting in shape. He spent time working out with John Lucas, readjusting his attitude and his work ethic. He’s turned over a new leaf so many times that we’ve stopped counting, and he understands why there are people that won’t believe what he has to say. He knows that another story about his return to hardwood glory will be met with skepticism.

He knows he has to prove it before people will start paying attention.

“All I can say is just watch out for me,” he said. “I’ve been saying this over the last couple of years. A lot of people are tired of hearing it, but I’m tired of saying it. I can’t really tell you, because all I’ve been doing the last couple of years is talking. Now I’ve got to do the walking.”

“Just look out for me. That’s all I could say.”

Johnson, No. 8 North Carolina roll past Wake Forest 95-57

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Cameron Johnson scored 27 points, and eighth-ranked North Carolina scored the game’s first 18 points in Saturday’s 95-57 win over Wake Forest.

Freshman Coby White added 10 points, five rebounds and six assists for the Tar Heels (20-5, 10-2 Atlantic Coast Conference), who dominated from the tip following their first loss in a month.

The Tar Heels, who lost to fourth-ranked Virginia on Monday, ran out to leads of 18-0, 25-3 and 35-7. They shot 74 percent in the opening half and finished at 62 percent while making 16 of 25 3-pointers, with Johnson making his first eight shots and six from behind the arc.

Freshman Jaylen Hoard scored 17 points in an ugly afternoon for the Demon Deacons (9-15, 2-10), who suffered their most lopsided loss in three decades at Joel Coliseum.

Wake Forest shot 33 percent.

BIG PICTURE

UNC: The Tar Heels got anything they wanted to start a game that resembled more of a November tuneup than a February league date. Johnson led that effort by making 10 of 13 shots and 7 of 10 3-pointers. Still, there was at least one apparent concern: the health of freshman reserve Nassir Little. He was a gametime decision after rolling his right ankle early against Virginia and felt good enough to play 11 first-half minutes, but he wasn’t on the bench after halftime.

Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons found reason for hope with a Jan. 15 win against then-No. 17 North Carolina State, but they had won just once since with five losses coming by at least 16 points. Things began badly Saturday when Hoard didn’t start after arriving late for a pregame shootaround. And they got no better, most notably with leading scorer Brandon Childress (15.1 points) going scoreless on 0-for-12 shooting with six turnovers.

No. 6 Michigan starts fast, beats No. 24 Maryland 65-52

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Charles Matthews scored 14 points and Iggy Brazdeikis added 13 to lift No. 6 Michigan to a 65-52 victory over No. 24 Maryland on Saturday.

The Wolverines (23-3, 12-3 Big Ten) rebounded from their loss at Penn State earlier in the week. Michigan raced out to a 14-2 advantage and led by as much as 15 in the first half. It was a struggle for the Wolverines after that, but the fast start was too much for Maryland (19-7, 10-5) to overcome.

Bruno Fernando scored all 12 of his points in the second half for the Terrapins.

Michigan led 27-18 at halftime. Maryland turned the ball over 13 times in the first half. The Terps had only three turnovers in the second, but the damage was done.

With Maryland down five, Anthony Cowan Jr. had a chance to cut further into the lead, but he missed an easy layup, and Brazdeikis made a 3-pointer at the other end to make it 50-42.

BIG PICTURE

Maryland: The Terrapins are 6-3 when trailing at halftime this season, including 5-2 in Big Ten games. But that’s a tough trend to rely on against good teams on the road. Fernando was impressive early in the second half, but that wasn’t enough, and Maryland missed a bunch of 3-pointers toward the end.

Michigan: This was a crucial win for the Wolverines in their chase for the Big Ten title. Michigan still has two games left against Michigan State and a rematch at Maryland. When the Wolverines defend like this, they can win in spite of poor outside shooting, but their 7-for-26 showing from 3-point range Saturday leaves plenty of room for improvement.

WATCH LIVE: Triple-header of A-10 action highlighted by VCU-Dayton

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There is a triple-header of Atlantic 10 games on NBCSN on Saturday afternoon, capped by one of the best games of the day.

It starts with George Washington paying a visit to Duquesne at noon and is following by Fordham taking on Rhode Island at 2:00 p.m., but the highlight of the day is VCU’s trip to Dayton at 4:00 p.m., a game that has very real Atlantic 10 title and bubble implications.

VCU is currently sitting just a half-game out of first place in the conference, one win off of Davidson’s pace, and they are playing for a shot at getting an at-large bid as well. A win at Dayton would be a very, very nice win for the Rams resume, and it would also keep them on pace to win the league title. Dayton is just a game out of first place themselves, and they happen to have one of the very best home court environments in the country.

Here is the full schedule:

GEORGE WASHINGTON at DUQUESNE, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (NBCSN)
FORDHAM at RHODE ISLAND, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (NBCSN)
VCU at DAYTON, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (NBCSN)

Bubble Banter: All of the weekend’s bubble action in one spot

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There is not just under a month left in conference play, so it is time for us to go all-in on the “who’s-in-who’s-out” discussion. Bubble Banter has never been more important!

Some quick housekeeping before we dive into it:

  • This page will be updated throughout the weekend, so be sure to check back on Friday, Saturday and Sunday as the games get played. 
  • We’ll update them best that we can, but the NET rankings will be accurate through Friday morning. 
  • If you see something we missed, if you have an issue with a team we left out or if you want to congratulate us on a job well done, drop a comment below or hit us up here: @RobDauster.
  • The cut-off we will be using this year for teams that are “on the bubble” is the No. 9 seed line. If your favorite team is seeded as a No. 9 or better in our most recent bracket, they will not be discussed below. This does not mean that those teams are locks, but it means they need to do something dumb before they are in danger of missing out on the tournament. 
  • On Thursday, our Dave Ommen released an updated bracket, and these eight teams were placed in an 8-9 game: Mississippi State, Washington, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, Auburn, Texas, Baylor and Syracuse.

Onto the weekend’s action.

WINNERS

OKLAHOMA (NET: 41, SOS: 12): The Sooners finally snapped a five-game losing streak by going into Fort Worth and picking off TCU, 71-62. I still think that the Sooners are in a tough spot as it stands, but they now how four Q1 wins and just one loss to a team outside the top 35 in the NET — at West Virginia (115), a Q2 loss. A 4-8 mark against Q1 is not great, and neither is their 16-10 record or 4-9 mark in the Big 12, but OU does have three more shots at Q1 wins, and that doesn’t count Texas at home. Their bid is in their hands.

LOSERS

CLEMSON (NET: 42, SOS: 33): The Tigers had a shot to land their second Q1 win of the season, but after erasing and eight point lead in the final minute and forcing a turnover with 3.5 seconds left, the Tigers had a layup blocked with that would have won the game. The result doesn’t really hurt their profile other than the opportunity cost — this is the kind of win that, on this year’s bubble, can jump Clemson up four or five spots in the seed list. That’s a tough miss.

GAMES LEFT TO PLAY

Oklahoma State at TEXAS (NET: 34, SOS: 6), Sat. 1:00 p.m. (CBS)
BAYLOR (NET: 32, SOS: 53) at No. 15 Texas Tech, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)
INDIANA (NET: 49, SOS: 36) at MINNESOTA (NET: 58, SOS: 62), Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN2)
FLORIDA (NET: 42, SOS: 43) at ALABAMA (NET: 44, SOS: 19), Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPNU)
VCU (NET: 43, SOS: 41) at Dayton, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (NBCSN)
UTAH STATE (NET: 38, SOS: 126) at Air Force, Sat. 4:00 p.m.
LIPSCOMB (NET: 30, SOS: 188) at Kennesaw State, Sat. 4:30 p.m.
N.C. STATE (NET: 37, SOS: 239) at No. 2 Duke, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN)
Memphis at UCF (NET: 45, SOS: 83), Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN2)
TEMPLE (NET: 55, SOS: 58) at South Florida, Sat. 6:00 p.m.
UNC GREENSBORO (NET: 46, SOS: 191) at WOFFORD (NET: 28, SOS: 167), Sat. 7:00 p.m. (ESPN+)
DePaul at BUTLER (NET: 53, SOS: 25), Sat. 8:00 p.m. (FS1)
Northwestern at NEBRASKA (NET: 40, SOS: 70), Sat. 8:30 p.m. (BTN)
BELMONT (NET: 60, SOS: 166) at Tennessee Tech, Sat. 8:30 p.m. (ESPN+)
Mississippi State at ARKANSAS (NET: 63, SOS: 45), Sat. 8:30 p.m. (SECNET)
ARIZONA STATE (NET: 72, SOS: 67) at Utah, Sat. 10:00 p.m. (FS1)
SETON HALL (NET: 69, SOS: 39) at CREIGHTON (NET: 57, SOS: 16), Sun. 3:00 p.m. (FS1)

Best Bets: Previewing Tennessee-Kentucky, Iowa State-Kansas State, weekend’s biggest games

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Here is everything you need to know when betting the biggest games this weekend.

As always, this is coming out before the Vegas lines for Saturday’s games, so we are using projections from KenPomTorvik and Haslametrics to walk through how the game will play out. 

No. 1 TENNESSEE at No. 5 KENTUCKY, Sat. 8:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Kentucky 74, Tennessee 72
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Kentucky 74, Tennessee 72
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Kentucky 75, Tennessee 73

There are a number of reasons that this battle of top five teams is one of the most interesting matchups of the season, and perhaps the most relevant is the obvious: These are both top five teams! I know Kentucky just lost to LSU in Rupp Arena, but that still doesn’t really change the fact that Kentucky is, legitimately, one of the eight-to-ten teams that are the most likely to earn a spot in Minneapolis for that first weekend in April.

Kentucky still gets two shots at Tennessee, who also must travel to LSU. A SEC regular season title is still very much in the cards for the Cats.

And all of that is before you get to the actual personnel matchups here, which should be terrific. Grant Williams, for my money, is No. 2 in the National Player of the Year voting. He’s been dominant on the block for the Vols this season, and he will be asked to go up against P.J. Washington and Reid Travis on Saturday afternoon. The more intriguing matchup of the two will be Washington, who himself has been playing like a first-team All-American over the course of the last three weeks.

It is precisely that frontcourt battle that is going to play a major role in determining the outcome of this game. For starters, it will be strength on strength. Tennessee’s offense runs through Williams. Kentucky’s offense runs through Washington and Travis. We also need to note that the Wildcats can be absolutely dominant on the offensive glass. They are third nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. They know that there are times where their best offense is a missed shot, and the Vols have not been great on the defensive glass this season.

The perimeter battle may actually end up being more interesting. As we discussed on the Why Your Team Sucks podcast, the concern for both of these teams is whether or not there is enough firepower in their backcourts to win at the level they expect to win. For Kentucky, the concern is obvious: Ashton Hagans, as good as he is defensively, is not a threat on the offensive end of the floor while Tyler Herro and Keldon Johnson have gone through the bouts of inconsistency that you expect out of freshmen.

The conversation is a bit more nuanced with Tennessee. Their backcourt is not overloaded with high-end talent, and if there is an issue standing between them and a national title, it’s whether or not those guards are going to be able to win them close games against elite teams. We will get that answer on Saturday night.

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

PICKS: All three metrics project this game to be play in the mid-70s with the line landing at Kentucky (-2). Frankly, I am not sure what side I want to be on here. On the one hand, Kentucky is coming off of a home loss, they are hosting the No. 1 team in the country in their building and they have a roster that has more talent on it. It’s also worth noting here that while Tennessee is on a 19 game winning streak, the only surefire NCAA tournament team they’ve beaten in that streak was Gonzaga on Dec. 9th. The best team they have played in the last two months was … Alabama? Florida? This will be their first major test in a long, long time.

That said, there is a very real difference in toughness and experience on these two teams. This is the same Tennessee roster that won the SEC last year. They have been through the rigors of a title race. They are also a much older and tougher group of guys that were overlooked throughout their career, and I can guarantee that there is nothing they would love more than pounding on some highly-touted freshmen that haven’t had to fight the fights they’ve fought.

Tennessee is the most complete team in the country, but I just cannot bring myself to pick against Kentucky after the way they lost on Tuesday. If the line opens at (-2), I’ll probably be on the Wildcats, but here’s to hoping the total opens in the high-140s and we can bet the under instead.

No. 23 IOWA STATE at No. 18 KANSAS STATE, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Kansas State 64, Iowa State 63
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Kansas State 65, Iowa State 64
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Iowa State 66, Kansas State 65

Might we be getting a battle between the two best teams in the Big 12 on Saturday afternoon? That could very well be the case.

The first time these two teams got together, Kansas State won 58-57 in Ames after an Iowa State defensive breakdown in the final seconds gave Barry Brown an easy bucket for the win. I do not expect the rematch to be quite as ugly as the first battle, and the reason for that is the return of Dean Wade. He played 22 minutes in the first game, but he was not back to being himself after battling a foot injury. He is now, and he’s playing the all-american we predicted him to be.

And for my money, he will be the most important player in this game, especially with Cartier Diarra out after undergoing surgery on his hand. Iowa State plays four perimeter players at almost all times, meaning that Wade is going to be the mismatch. He’ll have smaller players — Talen Horton-Tucker? — on his when he’s at the four and will be guarded by slower bigs when he is at the five. If he can win those matchups on the offensive end, it will be tough for Iowa State.

Wade’s return has boosted Kansas State offensively. There was one point this season where they ranked outside the top 200 in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric, and while they are hardly last year’s Villanova with Wade — their best shooter and best passer — back, they have worked their way back to 109th in KenPom’s rankings. In conference play alone, they are the fifth-best offensive team, one spot in front of Kansas, and that includes their 0-2 start to league play where they scored 47 points against Texas and 57 points against Texas Tech.

PICKS: This could be the game that wins Kansas State the outright Big 12 title. They currently hold a two-game lead over the field in the loss column, and their schedule really lightens up down the stretch. Their next two games are at West Virginia and Oklahoma State at home. They still have to go to Allen Fieldhouse, but they end the season with Baylor at home, TCU on the road and Oklahoma at home.

Win on Saturday, and Kansas State can afford a loss at Allen Fieldhouse and still control their own destiny.

I will be very curious to see where this line opens. The metrics still are underrating Kansas State because of how dreadful they were without Wade, so if this opens around Kansas State (-1), then I will hammer the Wildcats.

No. 24 MARYLAND at No. 6 MICHIGAN, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (FOX)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Michigan 67, Maryland 60
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Michigan 68, Maryland 61
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Michigan 66, Maryland 62

This could be the worst possible time for anyone to play Michigan. The last time we saw the Wolverines, they were getting embarrassed by the last place team in the Big Ten as Penn State went up 13 points at halftime as John Beilein was tossed before he even made it back to the locker room for the break.

Michigan is now tied for first in the league instead of having sole possession of first place, and they’re heading home pissed off after a loss where they played terribly?

That’s a tough spot before you consider that Maryland just does not matchup well with Michigan. Anthony Cowan will have to deal with Zavier Simpson. Bruno Fernando will have Jon Teske to battle with. They are Maryland’s two major sources of offense.

PICKS: I tend to lean towards Michigan here, even if the line opens at (-7) or so. I just don’t know where Maryland gets offense from.

(Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

No. 13 VILLANOVA at ST. JOHN’S, Sun. 5:00 p.m. (FS1)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Villanova 73, St. John’s 72
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: St. John’s 75, Villanova 74
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: St. John’s 76, Villanova 72

I actually think St. John’s is a difficult matchup for the Wildcats because of the way the Johnnies play. Like Villanova, they essentially role five switchable perimeter players out there without much, in any, interior scoring presence. For years, Villanova has thrived on their ability to create mismatches all over the floor, and I just don’t know if they’re going to be able to do that against the Johnnies. The first time they played this year, St. John’s led for most of the game before a late Villanova run won it.

That said, there is no comfort betting on a team that is as inconsistent as St. John’s is. They are currently 6-6 in Big East play with home losses to DePaul, Georgetown and Providence, but they’ve also swept Marquette this season.

PICKS: I have no idea what this line is going to be. KenPom is favoring Villanova by one point. Torvik has St. John’s winning by one. Haslametrics has the Johnnies winning by four. If St. John’s ends up favored, I’ll probably bet Villanova simply because I am not in the business of betting against Villanova, especially when Jay Wright is going up against Chris Mullin.

N.C. STATE at No. 2 DUKE, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Duke 89, N.C. State 70
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Duke 93, N.C. State 73
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Duke 94, N.C. State 72

I have a feeling that this game is going to get really ugly, really quickly.

The way to beat Duke is proven. Defensively, you stay disciplined, you pack the paint, you gap them and you dare them to beat you with jumpers. Offensively, you need to slow the game down and control tempo, avoiding quick shots and live-ball turnovers that lead to layups. N.C. State wants to press, they want to run and they want to gamble to force turnovers.

I just don’t see that working out all that well.

PICKS: The projections suggest Duke should be roughly a 20 point favorite, although I think the line will be closer to (-17ish). I like the Duke side if that is the line, but I like the over even more, assuming it opens around 160. For perspective, when N.C. State played North Carolina, the final scores were 90-82 and 113-96.

BAYLOR at No. 15 TEXAS TECH, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)

  • KENPOM PROJECTION: Texas Tech 66, Baylor 58
  • TORVIK PROJECTION: Texas Tech 67, Baylor 58
  • HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Texas Tech 68, Baylor 56

The question that you have to ask here is whether or not you buy the Texas Tech that we’ve seen of late. After a swoon in mid-January that saw Chris Beard’s club lose three in a row, they’ve won five of their last six, including a pair of blowout wins in the last two weeks that have seemingly given them their confidence back on the offensive end.

And that’s where I think this game will be won. Baylor runs a wonky zone that is somewhere between a 2-3 and a 1-3-1, and the issue that the Red Raiders face is that they can really go through droughts offensively, especially when Jarrett Culver isn’t on his game. They aren’t a great shooting team or a great passing team, and those are the two things you need to be able to do to beat a zone.

That said, the shots have been falling of late. They made 22 threes in their last two games.

Two other things to note: Baylor has lost two of their last three games, but Makai Mason returned to action on Monday after missing last Saturday’s game against Kansas State. There is no word yet on King McClure’s status. The first time these two teams played this year, Baylor won 73-62 in Waco.

PICKS: I’ve long been a believer in Texas Tech, and I think that the Bears are going to come back to earth hard over the final stretch of the season. They won three of their first four road games in Big 12 play, but those were wins at Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Oklahoma, the bottom three teams in the league standings. Their four road trips to end the season: Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State and Kansas. If this line opens at (-8), I’ll be on the Red Raiders.