Weekend Preview: New Orleans is the place to be for college hoops this weekend

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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

OHIO STATE vs. No. 5 NORTH CAROLINA (-6), Sat. 1:30 p.m. (New Orleans)

I went into this week thinking that I needed to change how I viewed North Carolina. All season long, I had thought that they were somewhat overrated. Luke Maye would, eventually, come back to earth. Kenny Williams wasn’t going to shoot 55 percent from three all season long. Their freshmen front line would let them down at some point. But the Tar Heels were 10-1 after winning at North Carolina, and Maye was, at worst, a second-team all-american.

I changed my mind.

Then UNC went out and lost at home to Wofford.

Granted, Wofford is better than you think, and there are a lot of teams that are going to struggle in their last home game before Christmas, but every single one of the concerns that I’ve had for this group all season long showed up on Wednesday night. I’m not convinced that Ohio State is all that good, but they do have some solid pieces on their roster – Jae’Sean Tate, Keita Bates-Diop – and a terrific coach in Chris Holtmann, and usually that is enough to make a game interesting.

  • PREDICTION: I think Ohio State finds a way to keep this one close, and I think that the line ends up moving towards North Carolina so you can get another point or two. Buckeyes (+6)

No. 7 KENTUCKY (-7) vs. UCLA, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (New Orleans)

Kentucky is a team that continues their steady improvement towards being the team that they want to be this season. Credit to John Calipari: the way he scheduled this year was very smart. He has an incredibly young team, so his schedule was front loaded with teams that his group could beat simply by showing up. And now, seven weeks into the season, they are starting to show flashes of being a team with Final Four potential.

I don’t think they’re there yet, and I don’t think they’re a top ten team in the country yet, but they’re getting closer every game.

I also don’t think they’ll have all that much trouble dispatching a UCLA team that seems distracted and has looked no where near as good as the talent on their roster indicates that they should be. Kentucky has something to prove in this game. I’m not sure UCLA does, or at the least cares that they do.

  • PREDICTION: It’s simple, really: I just don’t think that UCLA is all that good this season, particularly when they have to travel halfway across the country for a game that is being played two days before Christmas. Kentucky (-7)

WHAT ELSE IS WORTH WATCHING?

  • NORTHWESTERN at No. 17 OKLAHOMA (-8), Fri. 7:00 p.m.: I think the Sooners should steamroll Northwestern. But this is something of a trap game. Christmas is coming up in three days. Oklahoma starts Big 12 play immediately after Christmas. They are coming off of a mammoth win at Wichita State and a ridiculous performance from Trae Young where he tied the Division I record in assists. Northwestern? They have to win this game if they want to feel really good about their NCAA tournament chances heading into Big Ten play. I would not be surprised to see Northwestern show up and play well tonight. PICK: Northwestern (+8)
  • DIAMOND HEAD CLASSIC: Another tournament out in Hawaii during the holidays. Davidson, Middle Tennessee State and New Mexico State will all have chances to add big wins, but this thing really only becomes must-see TV if USC and Miami meet in the finals.
  • No. 9 XAVIER (-5) at NORTHERN IOWA, Fri. 9:00 p.m.: This depends somewhat on who is healthy for Xavier, but regardless, I do think UNI and their defense can keep this thing close and low-scoring. I like Xavier, but the best bet in this game? The under.
  • TEXAS vs. ALABAMA (-1), Fri. 9:00 p.m.: If you can get Alabama (-1) in this game with Andrew Jones out, bet the mortgage. PICK: Alabama (-1)
  • No. 21 TENNESSEE (-1) at WAKE FOREST, Sat. 12:30 p.m.: Tennessee is looking for a bounce-back win, and they’ll have a chance to do that at Wake Forest, who has not been as good as I thought they would be this season. PICK: Tennessee (-1)
  • UCONN at AUBURN (-10), Sat. 2:30 p.m.: Never bet on UConn, especially in a road game but especially in a road game where they played another road game on the other side of the country 36 hours earlier. PICK: Auburn (-1)