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2019 Mock NBA Draft: Who are the 30 best prospects in college basketball?

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Periodically, over the course of the coming seven months, we will be posting an updated mock draft here on College Basketball Talk.

This will be different than other mocks, mind you. We’re not as much projecting who is going to be picked where — that is impossible to do right now, as the NBA season is six weeks old and the NBA changed their lottery rules to flatten out the odds of who gets the first pick — as much as take a look at where, in a vacuum, a player should be picked. 

With that in mind, one of the objectives of this mock will be to take a deeper dive into a handful of the most intriguing prospects in the mock each and every week. This isn’t meant to be just a place to rank prospects, the goal is to open up the floor for some discussion about the players that need the most discussing. 

Oh, and one other note: We’re only talking about the college kids here. I could sit here and pretend like I know something about Sekou Doumbouya beyond what I Googled and found on YouTube, but the truth is I don’t know a damn thing about him.

I’ll stick to what I know for now.

And that is these prospects:

1. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke

I’ll take the L on Zion. Prior to the start of the season, I had Zion ranked as a mid-to-late lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. I didn’t know how the athleticism would translate, and I didn’t know just how good of a feel he had for the game. He’s a pretty good passer. He’s a better shooter than people gave him credit for, even if that is still the weakness in his game. He’s got some handle. He blows by defenders on the perimeter like they’re cops with a radar gun.

Oh, and the athleticism?

It translates. The rebounding, the shot-blocking, the ability to grab-and-go in transition. He’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the NBA, an amalgam of Julius Randle and Draymond Green, only wildly marketable and already a star with a massive brand.

The only concern that I have taking him No. 1 is the weight, and it’s not because I’m all that concerned about whether or not, at 6-foot-6 and 272 pounds, he can move around the court the way that he needs to. As long as his wind and conditioning are where they need to be, he should be fine.

My issue is the wear and tear that will come with that added weight. His vertical is somewhere in the neighborhood of four feet, give or take an inch or three. Go jump off of something that is four feet tall and see if you feel it in your knees and your ankles. Now imagine doing that over and over and over again — hundreds or thousands of times per week — with 272 pounds landing on those joints.

That’s where the concern lies for Zion. Wipe that away, and to me, he is the clear-cut No. 1 pick in this draft.

2. CAM REDDISH, Duke

3. R.J. BARRETT, Duke

This may be a bit of a controversial take, as Barrett has been the go-to guy for Duke through the first three weeks of the season while Reddish has been forced into a complimentary role. It’s something of an odd dynamic. Reddish has spent the majority of his basketball playing life as a lead ballhandler, and now he is being asked to play as the floor-spacing jump-shooter on a team with three other stud freshmen that can operate as lead ballhandlers.

What sets Reddish above Barrett for me is that I think Reddish fits seamlessly into the NBA while Barrett projects more as a guy that might have a tough time finding a position. Reddish, at 6-foot-9, is bigger with better physical tools. He’s a much better shooter and scorer in isolation — as the saying goes, he’s got some sh** to his game — and, as I mentioned, he’s played as a primary ball-handler. I can picture exactly what role he’ll play at the next level.

With Barrett, I’m not so sure. He’s not the shooter that Reddish is. He’s “only” 6-foot-7. The intrigue with him is the idea that he can play as a secondary point guard, if not a primary point guard, but he hasn’t shown any consistency with his ability to make reads and correct passes. Barrett is nearly a full year younger than Reddish, and he’s been dominant at every level of basketball to date. I don’t think you can go wrong either way, but I’d rather have the guy I know can shoot, all things considered.

4. KEVIN PORTER JR, USC

Porter is a guy that I will likely be higher on than most, and the reason for that is pretty simple: I think that he is going to end up averaging 20 points in the NBA, if not more. I don’t think that it is a stretch to say that he is the best offensive weapon in this draft. He’s got it all in his bag. He’s 6-foot-6, he’s an explosive athlete, he has the frame to be able to handle the weight that comes with an NBA strength and conditioning program and he knows how to use that strength already:

That’s all well and good, but what sets him apart from other guys in this class is his ability to create on his own. There is not a player in this draft class that is as good as Porter when it comes to getting his own shot. He’s got it all. The amount of space that he can create in isolation is ridiculous. His balance, his footwork, his handle. It’s all at an elite level right now.

I mean, just watch this:

There is no doubt in my mind that he is going to be a weapon as a scorer in the league.

The question with Porter has more to do with maturity, both on the floor and off it. The latter really depends on where he ends up and the support he gets from his organization. The former, however, manifests itself in how he operates in a team setting offensively and defensively. I think the truth of it is this simple: He’s never really been coached on how to do that stuff. In high school and AAU, he was always a ball-dominant lead guard. He didn’t need to know how to work off the ball. Defensively, he wasn’t being asked to make defensive rotations or drilled on how to help off the ball the way he will be in the NBA.

Put another way, in the right situation, those flaws can be coached out of him.

And given what his ceiling is with that scoring ability and athleticism, it’s worth the risk to reach and take him.

5. NASSIR LITTLE, North Carolina

Little is an interesting case. The 6-foot-7 wing has yet to play his way into the starting lineup for the Tar Heels, averaging just 19.5 minutes per game. He’s been productive in those minutes — 11.8 ppg and 4.8 rpg — but he has not yet been able to join fellow frosh Coby White in the starting five. There are a couple of reasons for this:

  • He’s playing behind a pair of potential All-Americans at the forward spot in Luke Maye and Cam Johnson.
  • Roy Williams has, to date, steadfastly refused to go all-in on the small-ball movement, meaning that Garrison Brooks remains a starter.
  • And, most importantly, Little is still working through how to be a team defender and learning what Williams wants out of him on the offensive end — more to the rim, less settling for deep threes.

I’m not too worried. North Carolina was torched at Michigan on Wednesday night after losing to Texas last week, and part of the reason is their inability to guard teams that spread them out. I don’t believe the issue is Williams insistence on not playing freshman — look at the leash he’s given White — as much as it is Little’s learning curve being steeper at a position where there are veterans in front of him.

6. DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia

I love De’Andre Hunter. I’m probably higher on him than anyone else that will put out a mock draft. He’s 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan. He can play the three, the four or even work as a small-ball five if you’re feeling frisky. You know he can guard since he played for Tony Bennett. He’s a career 39.7 percent three-point shooter and hits 76 percent of his free throws. He may not have the ceiling of younger guys that will get drafted over him, but he’ll start in the NBA for a decade and be ready to contribute the day you draft him.

7. KELDON JOHNSON, Kentucky

I don’t see Johnson becoming a star in the NBA, but I think his floor as a role player at the next level is really, really high. He reminds me a bit of Miles Bridges in the sense that he is a perfect complimentary piece. He’s a versatile defender, he’s athletic, he can make a jumper, he can attack a closeout, he can play a role on a team. I don’t know if you want him being your best player or your go-to guy offensively, which isn’t good for Kentucky but helps to make him a better fit in the NBA.

8. JA MORANT, Murray State

Morant is the latest lottery point guard to come through the mid-major ranks. At 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds, he’s is a high-flying athlete that has been unbelievably productive through four games as a sophomore: 27.8 ppg, 9.0 apg, 7.5 rpg and 2.0 spg. The last two games that he has played have been ridiculous. He had 29 points, 13 boards and 12 assists against Missouri State before following that up with 38 points, nine boards and five assists (plus ten turnovers) in a six-point loss at Alabama with seemingly the entire NBA in attendance.

Barring a run to the NCAA tournament, that was one of just two games that Murray State will play against high-major competition this season; they’re at Auburn in December. He fared well. The turnovers are not a major concern, as he is carrying an unbelievable load offensively for a team that doesn’t have all that much talent, and a handful of them came in the final minutes, as the Racers were rushing to try and comeback late.

What pops about Morant initially is his athleticism. He has the quicks to get into the paint just about whenever he wants, he’s really good at reading ball-screens and he’s an explosive finisher off of two feet. His body control is impressive, and he’s shown a knack for being capable of finishing around (and sometimes over) the big bodies in the lane:

I’ve also been really impressed with his passing ability. He does have a habit of trying to get too flashy, but he can make those highlight reel plays along with making the right reads in ball-screen actions. He could have had 12 assists against Alabama if his teammates were able to finish at the rim.

There are still concerns about his jumper. He made 6-of-12 3s against Missouri State. He’s made two other 3s this season and has just 35 made in his college career. I also wonder about what he’ll be defensively in the NBA. He’s athletic and does have impressive anticipation in passing lanes, but he needs to get stronger and has some bad tendencies when it comes to losing track of his man off the ball and dying on screens.

Some of that can be coached out of him, and some of it will be fixed when he gets stronger and is no longer asked to expend so much energy offensively. He’ll be viewed as something of a boom-or-bust prospect, given what happened with Cam Payne coming out of Murray State after his sophomore season.

9. ROMEO LANGFORD, Indiana

Langford has mostly lived up to the hype for Indiana, becoming one of the best scorers in the Big Ten, but it’s worrisome that his jumper has not yet gotten more consistent and that he struggled as much as he did against the athletes of Duke. He has also gotten lost defensively more often than would be ideal, but freshmen will be freshmen. The big concern is the jump shot. The rest of his game is limited enough that if he’s not an efficient scorer and shooter, there isn’t much appeal.

10. DARIUS GARLAND, Vanderbilt

I really feel for Garland. After a promising start to his freshman campaign, he saw any hope of trying to play his way into the being the first point guard drafted go up in smoke after tearing the meniscus in his left knee and undergoing season-ending surgery. That’s tough. But Garland was impressive in flashes — particularly in the first half of Vandy’s win at USC — and not only should he be healthy by the time NBA teams can start bringing players in for workouts, meniscus tears are not considered to be career-altering injuries.

11. JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech

Culver is a guy that has stood out to me as much as anyone early on this season. A 6-foot-5, 195 pound guard, Culver was not ranked among the top 300 in the Class of 2017, according to 247 Sports. As a freshman, he averaged 11.2 points, but that number has jumped to 18.8 points through six games this season.

What’s more notable, however, is that Culver has developed into a guy that can play the point for the Red Raiders. The expectation heading into the season was that he would replace the role vacated by Zhaire Smith. That hasn’t been the case. He’s the new Keenan Evans. He is the guy that Chris Beard runs his offense through. As a sophomore, nearly 25 percent of his offense is coming through ball-screens, according to Synergy, and that number bumps up to 32 percent when passes are factored in. When he was a freshman, those numbers were 9.8 percent and 14.5 percent, respectively. He’s currently in the 95th percentile in points-per-possession in ball-screen actions.

So let’s put it all together.

We have a 6-foot-5 guard that can play on the ball and operate in ball-screens. He’s shooting 39.6 percent from three on more than 160 attempts through two seasons, meaning he can play off the ball. He’s coming from a program that preaches toughness and defense, and he is a late-bloomer that is still growing into his frame.

To me, Culver is a guy that is going to continue to climb up draft boards as people realize just how good Texas Tech is this season and just how influential he is in that success.

12. DANIEL GAFFORD, Arkansas

Gafford has all the tools that a player needs to really thrive as a five-man in the modern NBA. He’s a rim-protector defensively that is athletic enough where becoming a switchable defender is a real possibility. He’s a vertical-spacer offensively that will be a lob target both in transition and as the roller in ball-screen actions. He can rebound. He’s even knocking down the occasional jumper this year.

13. BOL BOL, Oregon

For my money, the son of the late Manute Bol is going to be the most difficult player to project in this draft. He is a unicorn in the sense that he is a super-skilled, 7-foot-2 center (with a 7-foot-8 wingspan) that was, quite literally, the best three-point shooter in the EYBL during his final year on the circuit. Seeing him block a shot, go coast-to-coast and knockdown a pull-up 15-footer is just not something we see people his size do. He’s also an elite shot-blocker when he is engaged, the kind of athlete that is going to be able to chase smaller defenders off of the 3-point line.

He is what I like to call a layup line scout. You don’t have to do any more than watch him during warmups to see what his potential is and what his potential can be.

The problem is that there are some very real concerns about whether or not Bol actually likes playing basketball, and if he has the toughness — or, given his slight frame and incredibly high hips, the strength — to ever be something more than an interesting physical specimen and complimentary piece.

He also has a habit of being a statue defensively. For a player that, when engaged, is one of the best shotblockers I’ve ever seen in the high school ranks, he is a horrid defender:

Bol is going to make a lot of money playing basketball. If he ever reaches his ceiling, he will be an incredible weapon. The question that teams drafting him are going to have to ask is whether or not the risk of Bol ending up being a total bust is worth the reward of the lottery ticket being a winner.

For me, the risk would be worth it at the back-end of the lottery, and if I am an NBA GM, I let someone else take that shot.

14. NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech

Nickeil Alexander-Walker has been a sleeper in NBA draft circles since his senior season in high school ended. He’s an ambidextrous, 6-foot-5 combo-guard that shoots it at nearly 40 percent from three. The cousin of current Clippers point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nickeil has all the tools to be a really effective complimentary piece in an NBA backcourt.

The physical tools are there to guard wings. He’s up to 205 pounds, according to Virginia Tech’s official site, and reportedly has a wingspan of 6-foot-9. He can play off the ball, as evidenced by the fact that, you know, he plays off the ball for the Hokies and is a career 39.3 percent 3-point shooter on more than 175 attempts.

The difference this season, and the reason that he is starting to intrigue NBA teams, is that he’s fulfilling his potential as a lead guard. Last season, less than 10 percent of his offense came in pick-and-rolls, and he averaged all of 0.657 points-per-possession in those actions.

This year, 36.4 percent of his offense has come in ball-screens — a number that jumps to over 44 percent when you factor in passes, according to Synergy — and he checks in at the 96th percentile with 1.278 PPP. He’s averaging 4.2 assists this year, up from 1.5 a season ago.

We’ll need to monitor this as Virginia Tech starts to play better competition, but the early returns are very promising for Alexander-Walker longterm.

15. QUENTIN GRIMES, Kansas

Grimes scored 21 points in his first college game, hitting six of his first seven threes, notching four assists and becoming the star of Kansas’ season-opening win over Michigan State. Since then, he’s shot 3-for-12 from three, scored a total of 24 points and got benched against Tennessee for K.J. Lawson and Charlie Moore. I think this is as much about Grimes figuring out what his role is with Kansas as much as anything, but we haven’t seen him look confident as a shooter, driver or penetrator since, really, the first half of his first game. I think he’ll get there.

16. RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga

Rui has been one of the breakout stars of college basketball this season, averaging 21.9 points for what is now the No. 1 team in the country. He was awesome in the win over Duke, going for 20 points, seven boards, five assists and three blocks. Maybe I’m overthinking this, but there are two reasons I’m concerned about Rui at the next level: He struggles to defend in isolation and, in three years at Gonzaga, he’s 14-for-50 (28%) from 3. Those are two very important skills to have at the position we project Hachimura to play in the NBA, and it’s why I lean heavily toward Hunter over him.

17. ERIC PASCHALL, Villanova

I’m still on the Eric Paschall bandwagon even if he hasn’t been as effective as he was last season. He’s shooting just 28.6 percent from 3 this season and six of the ten made 3s he has came in one game. But he’s also being asked to play a role that will be much different from the one he’ll be asked to play in the NBA. He’s Villanova’s All-American go-to guy this season, and that’s not what he does best. He’s a complimentary piece, and athletic and versatile defender that makes threes, attacks close-outs and understands where he fits in a system. You’re drafting him to be O.G. Anunoby, not James Harden, and he can do that.

18. JALEN MCDANIELS, San Diego State

Jalen isn’t even the best prospect in his family — his younger brother, Jaden, might end up being the No. 1 pick in 2020 — but he has developed into a player with quite a bit of potential. There’s still some work to do on his body, as he’s 6-foot-10 and just 190 pounds, but he has perimeter skills and some longterm upside. He’s a risk, but he’s a home run if it pays off.

19. LUGUENTZ DORT, Arizona State

Dort might be the biggest surprise for people that haven’t been paying attention. Arizona State’s Canadian freshman is off to a rollicking start, averaging 22.3 points, 7.3 boards, 2.7 assists and 2.3 steals while shooting 34.5 percent from three on nearly five 3s attempted per game. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, he’s drawing comparisons to Marcus Smart due to his competitiveness and build. The Sun Devils host Nevada and Kansas in December. We’ll have a better feel then.

20. JALEN SMITH, Maryland

Smith is off to a productive start as a freshman, scoring, rebounding and creating at a respectable level — 12.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 2.1 apg. He needs to get stronger (although it was impressive to seem him big boy Virginia’s bigs) but the key to his future lies in his ability to become a floor spacer and rim protector. He’s 1-for-9 from three with just five blocks in seven games.

21. JAYLEN HOARD, Wake Forest

Hoard is a 6-foot-8 forward with impressive mobility that profiles as the kind of athletic wing that NBA teams are looking for. He’s putting up impressive counting stats for a bad Wake Forest team, so it will be interesting to see how his efficiency holds up. Can he ever become a threat from the perimeter? Whoever gets convinced that he’ll be able to make NBA 3s will likely be the team that ends up taking him.

22. BRANDON CLARKE, Gonzaga

Clarke is just such an exceptional athlete that it is getting hard to ignore. He’s proven himself as a rim protector, blocking 4.1 shots per game for the Zags after being known as a rim protector while as San Jose State. He’s a finisher around the basket as well, shooting 78 percent from the floor on the season while averaging 15.9 points and 7.4 boards. I could see him end up doing what Jordan Bell is doing in the league.

23. TRE JONES, Duke

Jones is never going to get the attention that he deserves this season because of his vaunted teammates, but I think he’s fine with that and I also don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing when projecting his future in the NBA. He’s not going to be Chris Paul. He’s going to be piece, and as long as he continues to defend, avoid turnovers (41 assists to eight turnovers), knockdown threes (46.2 percent) and make his floaters, he should have success.

24. CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue

For me, the end of the first round should be a place where good teams can pick up players that will be contributors and thrive in a role on the cheap. That’s precisely what Edwards can and will do. He’s a bowling ball of a lead guard, a 6-foot-1 lightening bolt that is averaging 25.1 points and 4.1 assists this season. I think he’s a great fit as a spark plug off the bench and can operate as a microwave scorer against NBA second teams.

25. TALEN HORTON-TUCKER, Iowa State

With Lindell Wigginton on the mend, Horton-Tucker has been the Cyclone who has stood out early on this season. The weight is a bit of a concern — he’s 238 pounds at just 6-foot-4 — but he has an awkward game that might just be unique enough to work in the league. He has a 7-foot wingspan. He can play as a creator or off the ball, although it would be nice to see his shooting percentages come up. He’s tough, and he’s very young; his 18th birthday was Nov. 25th. The 26 points, 14 boards, six assists and three blocks he had against Illinois in Maui put him on the map.

26. JONTAY PORTER, Missouri

Porter tore his ACL and MCL in October, which means we won’t have a chance to see what he can be as a sophomore. What we do know is this: He’s young for his grade, he can make threes, he’s a good passer and his has the kind of high hips and slow feet that make people wonder what he’ll be defensively. Here’s to hoping he gets healthy.

27. TY JEROME, Virginia

Jerome is, to me, a guy that will play point guard for 10 years in the NBA. He has the IQ, the toughness, the competitiveness, the leadership. He’s a career 39.5 percent three-point shooter on more than 250 attempts. There are, of course, question marks when it comes to Jerome’s athleticism at the next level. He’s capable of creating space with step-backs, and he’s shown flashes of being able to get to the rim, but mostly I’m not overly concerned. Tony Bennett teaches his guys to guard, Jerome has positional size and he can play off the ball. Fred VanVleet had some of these same question marks, and he’s doing fine as a backup point guard.

28. KILLIAN TILLIE, Gonzaga

The concern with Tillie is that he is currently battling a stress fracture. The upside with Tillie is that he is a 6-foot-10 former volleyball player (read: bouncy) that shoots it at 48 percent from three. Let’s see how the ankle holds up this season.

29. IGGY BRAZDEIKIS, Michigan

Brazdeikis is just so tough. At 6-foot-7 and 215 pounds, he’s built in the mold of a player that can guard up in the NBA with the perimeter skills to be able to take advantage of slower defenders. He’s a dog. I’m not totally sold on the jumper yet, but he’s making 38.9 percent of his threes and 78.6 percent of his free throws, and if he’s going to be Julius Randle lite at the next level, he’ll need to get a bit stronger. Is he a four that can guards fives or a three that can guard fours?

30. JAXSON HAYES, Texas

This pick would be entirely based on upside, but given his size, athleticism, length, hands and the simple fact that he’s a late-blooming blank canvas, he’s got a chance.

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.

GAMES LEFT TO PLAY

CLEMSON (NET: 39, SOS: 38) at No. 16 Louisville, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPN)
OKLAHOMA (NET: 41, SOS: 14) at TCU, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPN2)
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.

LeBron on the Zion recruiting trip: ‘I didn’t talk to anybody’

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The story that overshadowed the story Duke’s win at Virginia last Saturday was the presence of LeBron James and his agent Rich Paul sitting courtside in John Paul Jones Arena.

Were they simply there to watch two of the best teams in the country? Were they just trying to catch a glimpse of The Zion Show before LeBron is forced to call him a competitor? Or was this Paul and LeBron on a recruiting trip for Klutch, the agency that Paul runs and LeBron is a client of?

According to the GOAT himself, it’s the former.

“I love what those young boys are doing over there,” he told ESPN in a story published on Friday. “I love what Zion and RJ [Barrett] and Cam [Reddish] and Tre [Jones], I love what they’re doing. So, [the trip] was a no-brainer. It was easy.”

LeBron also bristled at the notion that this was anything more than taking his chance to see the rematch of what was the biggest game of the year in college hoops.

“A recruiting trip? I didn’t talk to anybody,” James said. “They’re only saying that because it’s Rich. When Shaq came to see me play in high school, when A.I. came to see me play in high school, they weren’t saying it was a recruiting trip then. But because it’s Rich Paul and LeBron, now it’s a recruitment trip.

“Now Rich is a threat to everybody, and they look at it and they want to keep trying to jab my agent and jab my friend. And what is he doing that’s wrong?”

As far as Zion himself, LeBron’s read on the super star is … well, not all that different from everyone else. He was impressive with his “agility and quickness for his size” as well as his athleticism, but this nugget was more interesting.

“When they asked him about, you know, guys in our league and people who cover our league talking about, ‘If I was Zion Williamson, I would sit out for the rest of the year,’ he was like, ‘That’s [silly]. Why? I’m here to play basketball. I love to play basketball. I’m here at Duke, I’m having fun. These are my friends. I’m having a great time. Why would I sit out?'” LeBron said.

“That’s the type of s— that strikes me.”

No. 3 Gonzaga uses late run to defeat Loyola Marymount

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LOS ANGELES — Third-ranked Gonzaga was trailing midway through the second half and the nation’s highest-scoring team was being slowed.

The Bulldogs came up with a late burst to extend their winning streak to 15 games.

Gonzaga closed the game with a 20-6 run to beat Loyola Marymount 73-60 on Thursday night. It was only the second West Coast Conference game that the Bulldogs (24-2, 11-0) have not led by at least 20 at some point.

“They were a tough out tonight. They would have been a tough out for a lot of teams tonight,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said.

Rui Hachimura led Gonzaga with 22 points and Brandon Clarke added 17 points and 12 rebounds for his eighth double-double of the season.

The game was close until late in the second half. Loyola Marymount took a 54-53 lead with 8:45 remaining on Joe Quintana’s 3-pointer, before the Bulldogs took control.

James Batemon’s jumper brought Loyola Marymount (17-9, 5-7) within 60-58 with 4:59 remaining but Gonzaga scored 13 of the game’s last 15 points. The game was similar to Gonzaga’s Jan. 12 victory at San Francisco, where it trailed late before going on a 17-2 run in the final four minutes.

“They did a good job taking us out of our normal pace of offense,” said Zach Norvell Jr., who had 13 points, including a pair of 3-pointers late in the second half. “Once we settled down and found holes, we were able to pick them apart.”

Gonzaga finished 21 of 22 from the foul line.

The Bulldogs came in leading the nation with 91.4 points per game but had their lowest-scoring half of the season, as they led 32-31 at halftime. It was only the fourth time this season they have been held under 80 points in a game.

Gonzaga opened the second half with 3-pointers by Josh Perkins and Corey Kispert. The Lions fought back though and kept it close until the final six minutes.

“We just stayed poised and not get caught up in the moment. We did a good job of having a mature approach and getting stops on our end,” Clarke said.

Dameane Douglas led Loyola Marymount with 13 points, Batemon added 12 and Mattias Markusson and Eli Scott scored 11 apiece. The Lions had a 15-6 edge in offensive rebounds and controlled the inside with a 38-30 edge in points in the paint. They also had an 18-2 advantage in second-chance points but were 1 of 14 on 3-pointers.

“We didn’t allow them to push it out until the end. The bottom line is we missed some layups late. Against a team that is third in the country, those are empty possessions,” Loyola Marymount coach Mike Dunlap said. “Statistically there is a lot to put your teeth into that positive, but how do you take it the rest of the season and go forward?”

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: The Zags came into the game as the nation’s top shooting team (52.8 percent) but were just 9 of 28 in the first half. They improved greatly in the second half, going 14 of 22.

“Loyola beat us up and was physical. We settled too much in the first half and missed a bunch of layups,” Few said. “We settled things down and got to the rim a little bit more and guys made 3s in the second half.”

Loyola Marymount: The Lions have dropped 21 straight to Gonzaga, and 25 of their last 26 Their last win in the series came on Feb. 18, 2010.