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ACC Conference Reset: Get caught up on everything that’s happened this offseason

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone, and there are a dozen or so truly impactful decisions that are left to be made.

Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season.

The coaching carousel has come to a close.

The transfer market is slowly winding down.

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2018-19 season.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what has happened — and what will happen — in the ACC over the next six months.

KEY OFFSEASON STORYLINES

HOW WILL THESE DUKE FRESHMEN FIT TOGETHER?: To me, this is probably the most important storyline of college basketball’s offseason that does not involve the FBI or an NBA draft decision. On paper, this Duke team is going to be as talented as any team that we’ve seen in college basketball in recent memory. They have three of the consensus top five prospects — including the top two — coming into the program as well as the top point guard in the class. Those players they are adding (R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Zion Williamson, Tre Jones, Joey Baker) combined with some of the pieces already on the roster (Javin DeLaurier, Alex O’Connell) give the Blue Devils a roster that looks an awful lot like some of the NBA teams that are thriving in these playoffs. They finally have a steady point guard to replace Tyus Jones, and they surround him with big wings that are skilled and multi-positional defenders.

Put another way, this Duke team is built in a mold that is more similar to the Boston Celtics, the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors that anyone has been willing to mention. Hell, you can connect a lot of dots between the way that Villanova has been built in recent years and the way that Duke can, in theory, play this season.

That does not, however, mean that this experiment is going to work. For starters, the tie that binds all of those teams together is elite-level three-point shooting, and that’s not something that this Duke roster is going to have in abundance. The other part of it is on the defensive end of the floor. Just because players are switchable doesn’t guarantee that they are going to understand defensive concepts, be able to read where they are supposed to rotate to defensively or even be able to guard. There are plenty of great athletes that just don’t care about defending well.

Duke has had back-to-back ridiculous recruiting classes, and in those two seasons they’ve lost 12 ACC games and haven’t made it past the Elite Eight. Is this the year it all comes together?

JUST HOW GOOD IS NASSIR LITTLE?: At this point, I’m assuming that Luke Maye is not only coming back to school but that he will be the most accomplished returnee in the country. If you think that’s a weird think to say, imagine writing it. (More on Maye below.) But I’m not sure that Maye is going to be the best player on the Tar Heels next season, and that’s mostly because Nassir Little just won’t stop getting better.

Little had something of a tumultuous path to North Carolina. He was thought to be a heavy Arizona lean before the FBI’s investigation tied him to a deal that a Miami coach was allegedly working on to funnel his family $150,000 from Adidas in exchange for a commitment. He committed to North Carolina as a top 15ish prospect that did not have the greatest motor, jump shot or reputation for working hard. That’s changed. His was sensational during his senior season and on the all-star circuit, and suddenly he’s being talked about as a potential top three pick in the 2019 draft. A 6-foot-7 wing with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and the tools to guard bigger and smaller players, he’s turned into a star in a role that is becoming increasingly more valuable in modern basketball.

If he lives up to the hype, the Tar Heels are going to be in the mix for an ACC title.

CHRIS MACK SETTLING IN AT LOUISVILLE: Louisville made the hire of the offseason, reaching into Cincinnati and pulling Mack out of his alma mater, Xavier. Mack is a top ten coach in the sport, but given what Louisville has lost — Deng Adel, Ray Spalding, Rick Pitino, the 2013 title banner, their pride, their dignity, their recruiting class — the rebuilding (reloading?) job that Mack has in front of him is going to be large.

A big reason for that is due to the looming NCAA investigation into everything that happened with Brian Bowen and Rick Pitino. Who knows how long that is going to take to play out and whether or not the possibility of a postseason ban or the stink of a scandal that involved hookers on recruiting visits is going to limit who the Cardinals can get involved with on the trail. Mack will be hitting the road in July for his first summer with the Cards. It will be very interesting to see who he targets in the Class of 2019, and which targets are willing to hear him out.

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IS TYUS BATTLE COMING BACK TO SCHOOL?: Of all the stay-or-go decisions that are left to be made in the ACC, Battle’s is going to be the most important. The 6-foot-6 Syracuse guard averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore last season despite playing on a team that didn’t have another source of offense and played a pace that rivaled that of Virginia’s as the slowest in the league. Jim Boeheim really needs him back, and if he returns, there’s an argument to be made that the Orange are a top 25 team. O’Shae Brissett would be back in the fold and there is size, athleticism and wingspan at every position on the court the Orange zone might be impenetrable.

But all of that is assuming Battle is back.

Because if he’s gone, then Syracuse might struggle to crack 60 points per game next season.

WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE LEAGUE: There are seemingly a half-dozen teams that are not ACC title contenders but sure do look like they can be top 25 teams: Florida State, Virginia Tech, N.C. State, Clemson, Syracuse and Louisville. Who gets what back and adds which transfers? We’ll get into all that below.

WHO’S GONE?

  • ALL FIVE STARTERS, Duke: Duke will, once again, look entirely different next year. Their four star freshmen all declared for the draft and signed with an agent while Grayson Allen, the lone senior on last year’s roster, has graduated.
  • JOEL BERRY II, North Carolina: Berry had a long and illustrious career with the Tar Heels, winning a national title, making another national title game and playing a starring role for what felt like the better part of a decade. It’s going to be weird seeing UNC play without his hair bouncing around, bringing the ball up the floor.
  • MATT FARRELL and BONZIE COLSON, Notre Dame: It really is a shame how last season played out for the Fighting Irish, because these two — specifically Colson — deserved better than a senior season that ended in an injury-plagued trip to the NIT.
  • DENG ADEL and RAY SPALDING, Louisville: What separates these two from anyone else on this list is that they are not a) likely to get drafted or b) a senior. It would have ben nice for new Louisville head coach Chris Mack to have a pair of talented, all-ACC caliber seniors leading his roster next season. That is not going to be the case.
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WHO’S BACK?

  • LUKE MAYE, North Carolina: Maye averaged 16.9 points, 10.1 boards and 2.4 assists while shooting 43 percent from three on 116 attempts, finishing his junior season as an all-american one year after winning a national title in a tournament where he hit the shot that sent his team to the Final Four. That’s not bad, and it’s the reason that he is going to enter the 2018-19 season as a candidate for National Player of the Year and arguably the best returning player in college basketball.
  • DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia: For my money, the single-most important decision that has been made in regards to the NBA draft was Hunter’s decision to return to school for his redshirt sophomore season. There’s a chance that, as more of a focal point of Virginia’s offense, he could end up becoming a top ten pick in the draft. That’s a good thing for him. But he’s also the connecting piece to Virginia’s defense that allows them to match up with teams that go small. I fleshed that thought out more here, but suffice to say, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he was out of the lineup when the Cavaliers lost to UMBC as a No. 1 seed.
  • EVERYONE, Virginia Tech: The Hokies bring back seven of their top eight players from last season, including Justin Robinson, Chris Clarke, Kerry Blackshear. But the key for this team’s ceiling is going to be the development of their rising sophomore class: Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Wabissa Bede, P.J. Horne. We know how good Clarke, Robinson and Blackshear are, but if those three — specifically Alexander-Walker — take a step forward we could be looking at a top ten team.
  • ALMOST EVERYONE, Florida State: The Seminoles are coming off of a run to the Elite Eight as a No. 9 seed in which they upset No. 1 seed Xavier and played a brand of basketball that involved a lot of pressing, a lot of defensive versatility and enough perimeter firepower that they should enter this season as a top 20 team.

WHO’S COMING?

  • A NEW STARTING FIVE, Duke: paragraph
  • NASSIR LITTLE, North Carolina:
  • JAYLEN HOARD, Wake Forest:

COACHING CHANGES

  • CHRIS MACK, Louisville: For my money, Mack is one of the ten best coaches in college basketball. He’s young, he’s a high-level recruiter, he understands how to run a program in that part of the country, he’s dealt with a passionate fanbase at a basketball school. This was the hire, and Louisville got it done.
  • JEFF CAPEL, Pittsburgh: I think Capel is a good coach and a very good recruiter who doesn’t get enough credit for the job he did at VCU or at Oklahoma before everything blew up in his face post-Blake Griffin. He was overdue to get another shot at a high-major gig, and Pitt was able to land him. But I also think that Capel is going to have a nightmare of a time trying to rebuild this program, if, for no other reason, than the simple fact that Pitt is not what they once were. They’ve been to seven Sweet 16s in program history, and five of them came in a seven-year period from 2002-09. That was when the Panthers, who have no recruiting base to speak of, were pulling kids out of New York City with the pitch of being able to play in the Big East. Now? They’re in the ACC. That sale isn’t going to work, which means that Capel has to find a way to convince players to join a program that went 0-18 in the ACC last season.

WAY-TOO-EARLY ALL-ACC TEAM

DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia (POY)
R.J. BARRETT, Duke
CAM REDDISH, Duke
LUKE MAYE, UNC
NASSIR LITTLE, UNC

WAY-TOO-EARLY POWER RANKINGS

1. DUKE: As I wrote earlier, I have no idea whether or not it is all going to come together for Duke this season. What I do believe, however, is that this is the most talented team in the conference, and with the league’s other contenders losing key pieces, Duke should be the favorite to win their first regular season title since 2010.

2. VIRGINIA: I’m not worried about what happened in the NCAA tournament last year, but I am worried about how that is going to affect this group. An embarrassing loss like that is the kind of thing that can damage confidence and hang in the back of someone’s mind for a long time. Getting De’Andre Hunter back is incredibly important, and Tony Bennett’s teams are always going to defend, but it will be interesting to see just how bad the hangover ends up being.

3. NORTH CAROLINA: The key to the Tar Heel season is going to end up being their incoming freshman. Is Nassir Little as good as advertised? Can Coby White handle point guard duties? I think that there is going to be a sophomore big on their roster than can handle the big man duties, and Luke Maye is going to be awesome again. It’s those connecting pieces that I’m worried about.

4. VIRGINIA TECH: This is when it starts getting interesting in the ACC standings. I’m very high on this Virginia Tech team — I have them 11th nationally right now — but part of me is concerned over whether or not the pieces they are bringing back have maxed out on their talent. Does bringing back seven of your top eight from a borderline top 25 team make you an ACC title contender?

5. FLORIDA STATE: I was not sold on Florida State at all heading into the NCAA tournament. Now I have them 14th in my preseason top 25. I’m not really sure what to make of this group, but they have a nice combination of returning talent and players that can take a big step forward — M.J. Walker, Mfiondu Kabengele.

6. N.C. STATE: The Wolfpack lost a couple of valuable front court pieces, but they are going to be loaded with talented guards while playing for a coach that thrived running a pressing system at UNC Wilmington. They should be fun to watch.

7. CLEMSON: It’s tough to know precisely what to make of the Tigers without knowing where Shelton Mitchell and Marcquise Reed are going to be playing next season.

8. LOUISVILLE: Losing Deng Adel and Ray Spalding is going to be brutal. There is some young talent on this roster, and the Chris Mack factor will help, but the more I think about this group the less confident I am that they are going to be a top 25 team.

9. NOTRE DAME: Losing two four-year seniors like Farrell and Colson is a nightmare, although I do think that Temple Gibbs, D.J. Harvey and Juwan Durham is a solid core to build around. That said, this happens every year, and I’m going to regret this ranking, I know.

10. SYRACUSE: If Tyus Battle returns, the Orange might be closer to top seven. If he doesn’t, they might end up in the bottom four. This seems like a happy medium.

11. MIAMI: I’m not quite sure what to make of the Hurricanes right now. Losing the talent that they lost is not going to be easy to replace, but they’ve added a few transfers and they still have Chris Lykes and Dewan Huell. Having them 11th here doesn’t mean I can’t see them making an NCAA tournament.

12. WAKE FOREST: I know they have some talent coming into the program and that there is some talent leftover on the roster from last season, but I bought into Wake last season and that burned me. I’ll believe it when I see it.

13. GEORGIA TECH: Losing Ben Lammers hurts. Losing Josh Okogie would hurt even more.

14. BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles had a chance to make some noise if they had gotten Jerome Robinson back. Now that he’s gone? I don’t know.

15. PITT: Good luck, Coach Capel.

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.