UCLA found a new and inventive way to blow one of the biggest leads of the season.
The Bruins led Utah at home by 17 points at the half. They led by as many as 22 points in the second half. They were up 17 points with 6:19 to play. With 2:50 left in the game, the Bruins were up 83-70.
And they still found a way to lose despite fouling when up three.
Here’s what happened: The Utes were able to chip away at the lead until a Both Gach three with eight seconds left cut the lead to 89-88. After two David Singleton free throws made the lead three, UCLA fouled Sedrick Barefield before he had a chance to get a shot off. After Barefield made both of his threes, Singleton was again fouled, but he only hit one of the two free throws.
This isn’t even the wildest finish to a game that UCLA has been a part of.
Last month, they trailed Oregon 72-59 with less than 2:30 on the clock and found a way to win. The end of that game was even crazier, as Oregon fouled UCLA up 80-77 with three seconds left, but UCLA hit the first free throws, missed the second and then got an and-one layup off of an offensive rebound with one second left. They missed the free throws, but ended up winning in overtime.
What a time to be alive.
Fouling up three goes wrong for Oregon in loss to UCLA
Oregon has had a rough go of it this season. The Ducks opened the year a top-20 team, but already has losses to fringe-NCAA tournament teams like Iowa and Baylor. Then there was the home loss to rival Oregon State last week, and of course that loss to Texas Southern in November. Their star recruit, Bol Bol, has also been lost for the year with injury.
So, the Ducks could use a win.
It didn’t happen Thursday, and in particularly painful fashion.
Oregon blew a late lead against UCLA, culminating in a fouling-up-three-late gone wrong in regulation and then an overtime 87-84 loss to the Bruins, who aren’t yet a month removed from losses to Belmont and Liberty, in Eugene.
The Ducks led by as many as 17 points in the second half, but saw that cut to three with just over 3 seconds to play. That led to Dana Altman calling for his team to foul, preventing UCLA from getting a chance to put up a game-tying 3.
Jaylen Hands went to the line, made the first and intentionally missed the second. Well, instead of collecting the rebound and putting the game away, well, the Ducks let UCLA’s Chris Smith slide in to get the rebound, a bucket AND get fouled to get a chance to win the game with 0.7 seconds left.
College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.
To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason recaps to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.
Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?
Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?
What have we learned about the conference hierarchy?
What is still left for us to figure out?
We break it all down here.
Today, we’ll be taking a look at the Pac-12.
MIDSEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tres Tinkle, Oregon State
The Pac-12 doesn’t have a ton of great teams and star power this season. But the 6-foot-8 Tinkle has been the league’s best and most consistent player to this point.
Averaging 19.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.4 steals per game, Tinkle rates in the top seven among Pac-12 players in all of those categories. While Tinkle is a noted scorer and double-double threat, his passing has improved over the course of his college career as he’s smart enough to find the open man when opposing defenses collapse.
Consistency has also been a huge part of Tinkle’s year. Only once has Tinkle played less than 33 minutes in a game this season while 12 points is his season low.
THE ALL PAC 12 FIRST TEAM
Tres Tinkle, Oregon State
Luguentz Dort, ArizonaState: Surprising many with his play as a true freshman, Dort narrowly missed mid season Player of the Year honors. Dort is putting up 18.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, but he’s struggled over the past few weeks to find his offense.
Robert Franks, Washington State: The Pac-12’s leading scorer is putting together a solid senior season. Franks is averaging 22.1 points, 7.9 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the floor. Clearly Washington State’s best player, the Cougars recently lost multiple games while Franks dealt with a hip issue.
Bol Bol, Oregon: Much like Dort, this freshman big man would in the thick of the league’s POY race if he was healthy. Bol is averaging 21.0 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game, but he’s been sidelined with a foot injury since mid-December.
Jaylen Nowell, Washington: The sophomore has blossomed into one of the league’s best all-around guards. Nowell is putting up solid numbers as he’s at 17.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game for the season while shooting 52 percent from the floor and 38 percent from three.
NCAA: Arizona State, Oregon
NIT: Arizona, Washington, Colorado, Oregon State
OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: UCLA, USC, Stanford, Washington State, Utah, Cal
THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED
1. The Pac-12 is dreadful
It’s a new year, so I’ll try to be as nice as possible while describing the atrocity that is Pac-12 basketball. But this league is horrendous, so that is going to be tough.
There are numerous other metrics that point to the Pac-12’s overall awfulness. The eye test is probably all you need. Every Pac-12 team has at least three losses, with a sizable chunk of those losses coming in buy games. They are, as a league, 4-31 in Quadrant 1 games. They are 7-10 against the WCC. Nine teams have beaten two Pac-12 teams already this season. Among them: San Francisco (Stanford, Cal), Santa Clara (USC, Washington State), San Diego (Colorado, Washington State), Seattle (Washington State, Cal) and Hawaii (Colorado, Utah).
No team in the Pac-12 currently has more than a two-game winning streak. While I don’t believe the Pac-12 will end up a one-bid league this season (more on that below), it’s definitely a conversation we might still be having in March.
2. Arizona State has a chance to be pretty good thanks to freshman Luguentz Dort’s breakout start
Arizona State freshman guard Luguentz Dort has been perhaps the Pac-12’s most positive surprise through the first part of the season. Although Dort was regarded as a consensus four-star prospect and top-50 type of talent, not many envisioned that Dort would immediately be this good.
Over the last several weeks, however, Dort has seen his blistering start slow down. The past four games, Dort is only shooting 9-for-45 from the field as his high point total is 13 over that span. Arizona State is still talented enough to knock off Kansas while Dort was in the midst of his funk. The Sun Devils were also bad enough to drop a home game to Princeton during Dort’s worst outing of the season.
So what happened to Dort these last few weeks and how will it impact Arizona State going forward? Was it merely a hot start? Are opposing defenses catching on to Dort’s tendencies and slowing him down? If Dort plays at the level he displayed to start the season, then the Sun Devils should have no issues making the NCAA tournament. But it remains to be seen how Dort will handle conference play and how he breaks out of this slump.
3. Younger players will determine the outcome of this league
College basketball has increasingly become an underclass game at the high-major level as the years have rolled along.
But this year’s Pac-12 is particularly young. Many of the league’s best players thus far have been freshmen and sophomores. And most of the teams hoping to make the NCAA tournament will have to rely on those same players to come through and take them to March.
Given the shaky start of the league this season, that’s not guaranteed to happen. Some talented young teams like UCLA have already fizzled out. Others like Oregon need to get healthy. Many of these teams are going to depend on freshmen for the rest of the season and it’s going to come with mixed results.
THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW
1. Can the Pac-12 rebound and get multiple teams in the NCAA tournament?
So, we already know the Pac-12 is really bad. Can the league still rebound and salvage the season?
It will likely take a few of the top teams like Arizona State, Oregon, Arizona and Washington pooling together and beating up on the other teams in the conference to create a lead pack. As things currently stand, those are the only four programs rated in the top 75 on KenPom with any sort of chance at making an at-large bid.
As long as those four teams don’t suffer horrible losses to teams like Cal, while winning some games against each other, the Pac-12 will have plenty of chances to improve its at-large status before March.
2. Can Arizona get over the hump and make it back to the tournament?
This season was always going to be a difficult one for Sean Miller and Arizona. The FBI’s college basketball corruption scandal hit the Wildcats hard.
It led to many of Arizona’s top recruiting targets going elsewhere. Yet Arizona still finds itself at 9-4 and in good position to make at least some kind of postseason. Whether that’s the NCAA tournament or not remains to be seen.
Arizona finally had its seven-year non-conference home winning streak snapped this season. They haven’t defeated anyone of note besides for Iowa State and UConn. But there’s just something about this team that’s intriguing for some reason. The Wildcats usually defend at a high level. Miller is still one of the best coaches in the country. The three-point shooting has been dreadful at times, but Arizona has still managed. If the Wildcats can figure out some things on offense, then they could be a dangerous team in a down conference.
3. The health of Oregon
Oregon has a chance to figure things out and be pretty good. It all starts with getting healthy.
Freshman Bol Bol has been sidelined with a left foot injury since mid-December as he’s missed the past four games for the Ducks. Head coach Dana Altman has been pretty vague about Bol’s injury, so there’s some uncertainty as to when he might return to the team.
Big man Kenny Wooten will also be sidelined four-to-six months after suffering a broken jaw. And another highly-touted freshman, Louis King, is still working himself back into proper game shape after missing the first several weeks of the season.
If Oregon is able to get fully healthy, they have the weapons to be the best team in the Pac-12. But for right now, that’s a major question mark
1. The Pac-12 goes winless in the NCAA tournament after getting two teams in
The Pac-12 went 0-3 in the 2018 NCAA tournament. And two of those teams were featured in First Four games.
While I don’t think the Pac-12 is so bad that it’s only a one-bid league this season, things are certainly trending in a negative direction once again. Even if the Pac-12 gets multiple teams into the Field of 68, none of its teams are going to have a desirable enough profile to merit a great seed. The entire process is going to be an uphill battle.
And while Arizona State knocked off Kansas, there haven’t been a lot of marquee wins against quality competition for the Pac-12 this season. Even if the Pac-12 is fortunate enough to get multiple teams into the tournament, I don’t have confidence that they’ll win any games once they get there.
2. Arizona State wins the Pac-12
To this point in the season, Arizona State has defeated two top-25 teams. The rest of the Pac-12 combined has one top-25 win.
And while Arizona State has shown plenty of flaws in some recent losses — particularly some woeful stretches of poor shooting — they have the talent to compete with any team in the country. Dort has looked like a go-to player at times this season and he’s flanked by three more double-figure scorers in Remy Martin, Kimani Lawrence and Zylan Cheatham. The Sun Devils currently have a top-50 defense.
In a league that doesn’t have any truly goodteams it says something when Arizona State knocks off a national title contender like the Jayhawks. Unless Oregon gets healthy and figures it all out, the Sun Devils look like the favorite in the league at this point.
3. The UCLA coaching search becomes more interesting than the on-court action
Let’s be honest, with the Pac-12 being as bad as it is on the court this year, the off-court movement of the UCLA coaching search is going to be more fun to watch (or hear about).
The Bruins likely won’t be able to start conducting serious interviews until the end of the season — since most of their presumed targets are currently coaching. But if UCLA decides to make some early moves on an out-of-work coach like Fred Hoiberg or Earl Watson then things could get really interesting.
To be clear, UCLA is not making a change for this current season. But the framework will be put in place for the coaching search, as we’ll start to hear names trickle out of the Westwood over the next several months. The UCLA job isn’t what it used to be. It’s still an elite program with an unmatched history conducting a coaching search with big names being thrown around in the middle of the season. That sort of thing rarely, if ever, happens in college hoops.
College basketball’s biggest storylines heading into 2019
We saw what might have been the best team in college basketball history win a title as Villanova landed their second ring in the last three years. We saw the sport get turned on its head as an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball led to trials, convictions and some of the secrets as to how the sausage is made in recruiting. That investigation also led to the NCAA changing a number of rules that don’t really make all that much sense.
With 2019 now just around the corner, here are the biggest storylines to follow for the rest of the season and the upcoming year.
This is the biggest, most exciting story in college basketball this season. Zion Williamson is an absolute sensation, and rightfully so. We have never seen anything like him before in college hoops — there’s a reason that we are looking at him as the clear-cut favorite to be the No. 1 pick in June — and he is far from alone on this Duke roster. R.J. Barrett could be the No. 2 pick. Cam Reddish could be the No. 3 pick. Tre Jones could be a lottery pick. We’ve never seen anything like that.
But there is certainly some question as to whether or not this is a team that can win a national title. For starters, the other six teams that are currently sitting at the top of the college hoops hierarchy are loaded with veterans; there’s a reason that only two teams built around freshmen have won the title in the one-and-done era. It’s hard to do, and that’s before you consider some of the issues that Duke has had. For example: Reddish has struggled to figure out what, exactly, his role is and how, exactly, he fits as a guy wired to play on the ball while being asked to play off it. Another example: Can Barrett figure out how to be a playmaker while defenses get tailored to his tendency to barrel into defenders in the paint?
This is the most entertaining team in the country and loaded with talent. Seeing whether or not they can finish it off with a ring is the biggest story in the sport.
IS THE PAC-12 A ONE-BID LEAGUE?
If the season ended today, it probably would be. Outside of Arizona State, no one in the conference has done anything that would earn them consideration as an at-large bid. UCLA is such a dumpster fire that Steve Alford has already lost his job — more on that in a second. USC isn’t much better, as the Trojans have a matching 7-6 record while their star player, Kevin Porter Jr., may have disappeared. Oregon is losing buy games to Texas Southern. Washington is 8-4 on the season. No one in the league has less than three losses. As a league, they are just 7-9 against the WCC, and if you look at the conference ratings on KenPom, the conference belongs in the same tier as the American and the WCC, not the Big East or the SEC or the rest of the big boys.
This reminds me of the 2011-12 season, the year that Washington went 7-6 in league play, won the Pac-12 regular season title and missed the NCAA tournament as Colorado — a No. 11 seed — and Cal — a No. 12 seed — were the only two programs from the conference to get into the tournament.
That leads me into the next question …
HOW MUCH COACHING TURNOVER WILL THERE BE IF IT IS?
We already have an answer on one program in the Pac-12 — UCLA will be hiring in March, and who fills that job could be the kind of thing that launches the coaching carousel. For example, what if it is Notre Dame’s Mike Brey that gets the job? Or TCU’s Jamie Dixon? Or N.C. State’s Kevin Keatts?
(Also, what if it is Rick Pitino, although that is an entirely different — and much more interesting — can of worms.)
And that could end up being far from the only job that opens up in the league. Cal’s hire of Wyking Jones has been an abject disaster. Ernie Kent is in his fifth season at Washington State and has yet to win more than 13 games in a season. Andy Enfield has USC at 7-6 on the season after his program spent the last year in the FBI’s crosshairs. Wayne Tinkle is in year five at Oregon State and has as many NCAA tournaments to his name as he has five-win seasons. Even Washington is something to keep an eye on, as Mike Hopkins will be the obvious name to keep an eye on if this is finally the year that Jim Boeheim retires.
As one Pac-12 coach put it, the Pac-12 has only “two established, highly successful coaches.”
NEVADA’S UNDEFEATED RUN
I don’t know if the Wolf Pack is actually good enough to go undefeated heading into the NCAA tournament, but I do know they have the best chance of anyone in college basketball to get it done this season. The Mountain West is actually deeper than anyone initially thought — both Utah State and Fresno State should give Nevada a fight when they play, and both have a shot at getting an at-large bid should they upset Eric Musselman’s program — but Nevada is going to be the heavy favorite every night they take the court the rest of the season.
Personally, I want them to make a run at an undefeated record in the regular season. It would be great for the sport the same way that Wichita State, Kentucky and Gonzaga going on prolonged undefeated runs in the last five seasons was.
CAN VIRGINIA GET TO THE FINAL FOUR?
They are coming off what may be the most embarrassing loss in college basketball history, becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament. This season, they may actually be better than they were last year, as Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter both look like first round picks while the rest of that program is as solid as you would expect a Virginia team to be. Three years ago, we all thought Villanova were choke artists. You can’t win the big one until you win the big one.
TEXAS TECH TO MAKE ANOTHER RUN AT KANSAS?
The Red Raiders would have won the Big 12 last season if Keenan Evans hadn’t broken his toe. This year, with Jarrett Culver running the offense, can Chris Beard’s team make another run at knocking off Kansas? I’ll say this: Tech is the best team in the Big 12 that is not named Kansas, and while the Jayhawks have struggled through the start of the season, I do think their upside is immense. Udoka Azubuike is back and Quentin Grimes illl, eventually, get right. (Right?) Either way, I’m hoping that Texas Tech at least makes it interesting.
There are still two more trials scheduled to happen stemming from the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball, although at least one of those defendants — former USC assistant coach Tony Bland — is on the verge of taking a plea. Will either of those trials take place? If they do, what kind of dirt is going to arise from the evidence that the FBI has collected? Will any of this impact coaches that are currently employed at powerhouse programs (looking at you, Bill Self)? When will the NCAA investigations begin in full, and what is the timetable for those investigations to be completed?
The FBI investigation changed the way that a lot of things happen in college basketball. For starters, if high school kids are allowed to take $125,000 to go play in the G League, is this something that the elite of the elite are truly going to consider? If they don’t, will the extra scrutiny on recruiting as a result of this investigation change where some of these kids end up? No rule change the NCAA has implemented has been ripped more consistently than their changes to the recruiting calendar, which goes into effect in the coming months. Will the NCAA backtrack on those changes?
Oh, and what about the NET rankings? They looked like an abject failure a month ago, but not so much today. How will they turn out come March, and will it change the way that teams are determined for the NCAA tournament?
The news that we were all waiting for hit right around 2 a.m. on the east coast on Monday morning: Steve Alford is now the former head coach of the UCLA basketball program.
Rumors had been swirling all weekend that UCLA would buyout the rest of Alford’s contract after a 15 point home loss to Liberty, the fifth consecutive defeat suffered by the Bruins, dropped the team to 7-6 on the season. Seth Davis of The Athletic was the first to report the UCLA brass had made the decision to move on.
This was Alford’s sixth season with the program. He had been to four of the previous five NCAA tournaments, finishing his tenure with a 124-63 record overall and a 55-35 mark in league play. He reached the Sweet 16 three time, most recently in 2017, when Lonzo Ball turned the Bruins into the most high-powered offense in the sport.
The timing of the decision is unfortunate, but it makes plenty of sense. The Bruins have more talent than anyone else in the Pac-12, but this team has quit on Alford. As one source close to the program phrased it, “they hate him.” Coaching is hard enough when you have a roster full of players that want to play for you. It’s impossible to win when those players have tuned you out, and that’s exactly what happened to UCLA and Alford. If UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero can find an interim that the guys will play hard for, there is no reason this team cannot win the Pac-12. Remember, the “best” team in the conference, Arizona State, just lost at home to Princeton.
The problem there is that there is no guarantee that will happened. There is talent on the UCLA roster — they have three five-star prospects, seven players that were top 100 recruits and four or five players, if not more, that will play in the NBA at some point — but it is a roster that is fatally flawed. There is no point guard on this roster. There are no shot creators. Sophomore point guard Jaylen Hands is supposed to be the leader, but he’s a selfish, shoot-first lead guard that isn’t quite as good as he thinks he is and defends with the same intensity as a rocking chair. Kris Wilkes is a scorer on the wing, but he’s out to prove that he can play in the NBA more than he is interested in making UCLA a winner. Moses Brown is a 7-foot-1 center that has looked like Kareem in stretches and like a totem pole in others.
Can a roster full of players that have to be taught to play hard, play unselfishly and care about defense win with anyone as their coach?
As of now, it is unclear who will serve as the interim head coach for the rest of the season. If the program is looking to get someone that the players like, the answer is associate head coach Duane Broussard. If they are looking for a program legend to appease a fan base for three months while they figure out what the next step is, the answer is Tyus Edney. If they simply want someone they can cut ties with come March, it’s Murry Bartow.
(UPDATE: UCLA tabbed Bartow as the interim. Take that as you will.)
Either way, I don’t see this thing getting turned around.
Which brings us to the next question: Who does UCLA hire? Better yet, who can UCLA hire?
The question of whether or not the Bruins are still a member of college basketball’s royalty is going to be something that is discussed ad nauseum over the course of the next four months, and the truth is this: UCLA is still one of the most storied programs in sports. Period. But it’s also true the program has been unable to dig itself out of a handful of bad coaching hires. The Bruins have won just a single title since 1975. That was in 1995. That title, and Ben Howland’s three straight trips to the Final Four from 2006-2008, are the only times that UCLA has played on the final weekend of the college basketball season since 1980.
Think about that.
UCLA has been to four Final Four in the last 38 years. North Carolina has been to 13. Duke has been to 12. Kentucky and Kansas have been to nine. UConn has won four titles in that time frame. Villanova has won three.
Part of the problem is that UCLA has whiffed on a couple hires since Wooden left — Steve Lavin was not exactly John Wooden. Part of the issue is that the AAU programs in the area have gained major influence over the program in recent years — Ben Howland’s firing had a lot to do with the fact that he had a falling out with the coaches in the area, although that was more or less a self-inflicted wound.
But the biggest issue is that the Bruins has not invested in the sport like the programs they pretend to compete with. Steve Alford made $2.6 million annually, which is a lot of money. It’s also less than what Avery Johnson is making at Alabama, Cuonzo Martin is making at Missouri, Will Wade is making at LSU and Larry Krystkowiak is making at Utah. It’s a third of the salary that Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari get paid. It’s half of what Bill Self is paid. Tom Izzo and Sean Miller are making more than $4 million. All of that is before you factor in the cost of living in Westwood vs. the random college towns where the rest of those coaches reside.
UCLA has finally invested in a Pauley Pavilion upgrade and added a practice facility, which matters, but they still don’t charter flights. To put that into perspective, Dayton charters flights. Wichita State charters flights. If you want to be considered an elite program, you cannot have your seven-footers sitting in airports for three hours after a flight delay only to spend a four hours sitting coach on a cross-country Southwest flight.
It’s laughable, quite frankly.
There are going to be plenty of big names that get linked to this opening. Here are the six that are most likely to seriously consider the job:
Fred Hoiberg will be linked to the job because he was fired by Chicago and runs the kind of uptempo style that LA fans want out of their hoops. His agent, Debbie Spander, also works for Wasserman, who the UCLA football center is named after.
Rick Pitino would be an obvious name for UCLA to target, as he is one of the best basketball coaches on the planet. The question is whether or not the program would be willing to hire someone with his reputation.
Jamie Dixon is a native of Southern California that has turned TCU from the laughing stock of the Big 12 in to a program that won the NIT in 2017, reached the NCAA tournament in 2018 and has started out this season 11-1.
Eric Musselman has turned Nevada into a superpower in the Mountain West and has NBA pedigree, but like Hoiberg, he relies heavily on the transfer market to succeed. There are also concerns about the way that he treats people within his program.
Earl Watson is a UCLA alum and a former NBA point guard and head coach that has strong ties to Under Armour, the apparel company UCLA signed a $280 million sponsorship deal with.
Mike Brey is a name that has popped up because of the success that he has had at Notre Dame. The fit makes a lot of sense: UCLA, like Notre Dame, is a high-academic school that is affiliated with Under Armour.
The program should be flush with cash thanks to that Under Armour deal. They just committed $25 million to Chip Kelly to coach the football program.
And if they are willing to spend the money, there’s no reason that the Bruins can’t hire the guy they want and make it back amongst the elite in college hoops.
But you can’t expect to win if you don’t want to invest in the program.
College Basketball Best Bets: Where do you want to invest your money this weekend?
Let’s take a look at this weekend’s college basketball games from a betting perspective.
At the time this was published, the Vegas lines for the games have not yet been released, so we will be using KenPom’s projections, which are generally pretty close to what Vegas produces.
No. 16 KENTUCKY at LOUISVILLE, Sat. 2:00 p.m.
LINE: Kentucky (-1)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Kentucky 74, Louisville 73
This is quite clearly the biggest game of the weekend in the college basketball world, and for good reason: Kentucky and Louisville is as fierce as any rivalry in American sports, and both teams are trending up this season and playing for a chance at landing a critical non-conference win on their resume.
Kentucky is coming off of their first dominant performance of the season, as they knocked off North Carolina last Saturday in the CBS Sports Classic in a game here the Tar Heels never really looked to be threatening for the final 30 minutes. Louisville, on the other hand, was able to pick off Michigan State at home already this season and has also beaten Seton Hall on the road while losing one-possession games against Marquette on a neutral floor and Indiana in Bloomington.
It’s important to recognize here that this Louisville team is different than Louisville teams that we became accustomed to under Rick Pitino. This group is not the pressing type. They are not out there gambling for steals. They are not playing that hybrid man-zone defense that Rick Pitino teaches. Mack runs the Pack-Line defense, the same style of defense that is employed by Sean Miller, Archie Miller and, most notably, Tony Bennett at Virginia. The theory is simple: don’t gamble for steals, force opponents into contested jumpers and pounds the defensive glass.
This actually matches up fairly well with this Kentucky team. The Wildcats are one of the nation’s best offensive rebounding teams and, at times, their best offense has been a missed shot. It’s going to be hard to get a ton of second chance points against this Louisville team, and while Kentucky has shot the ball better from beyond the arc this year, they’re making 36.6 percent of their threes but taking just 30.5 percent of their field goal attempts fro beyond the arc; only 20 teams shoot fewer threes.
Where Kentucky is going to have their greatest advantage is in the backcourt, where Ashton Hagans has proven himself to be a game-changer defensively. It will be interesting to see how Mack schemes playmaking duties away from whoever Hagans is guarding. The reason that matters is that Kentucky has really struggled running opponents off of the three-point line this season. Louisville has shooters, but I’m worried about how those shooters are going to get themselves free if Hagans takes the Cardinals out of their stuff.
I think it’s also important to note here that both Kentucky and Louisville are among the very best in the country at drawing fouls, getting to the foul line and converting once there. No team in the country gets a higher percentage of their offense from the foul line than Louisville, and Kentucky is seventh. Conversly, Kentucky is one of the best in the country at avoiding fouling — their defensive free throw rate is top 25 nationally — while Louisville is middle of the road.
PICKS: The line on KenPom is (-1), and I would expect it to be a bit more skewed towards Kentucky when the lines are released late on Friday night or early Saturday morning. I think Kentucky ends up winning this game even though it is on the road. On paper, the Wildcats are clearly the better team, and as I discussed on the podcast above, Kentucky appears to have turned a corner. I also think that it is worth noting that Louisville was able to close out the win over Michigan State in November because Cassius Winston made a terrible decision that led to him fouling out with four minutes left, leaving a freshman to play the point because MSU’s back-up point guard was injured. I’d take Kentucky up to about (-4.5), depending on the odds I can get.
I do think that this will be a game that is played at a slower pace, but I would probably stay away from the under. Kentucky tends to run only when their opponents want to run, and Louisville is not going to want to run with UK. That said, the amount of fouls both of these teams draw combined with the fact that I’d expect referees to be fast and loose with the whistle in what will assuredly be a testy rivalry game makes me think we’ll be in the bonus early and spending plenty of time at the charity stripe. If you have to bet the total, I’d take the over, but I’m probably staying away.
ST. JOHN’S at SETON HALL, Sat. 8:30 p.m.
LINE: Seton Hall (-3)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Seton Hall 79, St. John’s 76
My analysis for this game is pretty simple, honestly: I think Seton Hall is good and I don’t think St. John’s is as good as their record. The Pirates have beaten Miami, Kentucky and Maryland on the road. The Johnnies have just one win against a top 100 KenPom opponent — No. 74 VCU — and that came in an overtime game where officials swallowed their whistles on a foul call at the overtime buzzer.
PICKS: I’ll be all over the Pirates at (-3).
BUTLER at FLORIDA, Sat. 4:00 p.m.
LINE: Florida (-4)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Florida 66, Butler 62
I’m probably going to be staying away from this game because I don’t really have a great feel for either of these teams. The guys I thought were the two best players on the Gators — Kevaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson — haven’t really done anything noteworthy this season even as this group has struggled to score. And while Butler has looked good in flashes, they’re 9-3 on the season and their only good win was … a 61-54 victory over Florida on a neutral court.
I did think this was important to mention here because both of these teams could really, really use the win on their tournament resume. They have lost seven games between them, but both are still top 30 teams on KenPom.
PICKS: If I’m betting anything here, it’s the under. I’ll let someone else try to figure out what these two teams are.
BELMONT at PURDUE, Sat. 4:30 p.m.
LINE: Purdue (-11)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Purdue 86, Belmont 75
Belmont is fresh off of a win at UCLA and sitting pretty with a 9-1 record that also includes a sweep of Lipscomb and home win over Western Kentucky. Winning at Purdue would certainly get them into the bubble conversation if they roll through an OVC schedule that only sees them face Murray State once.
I do not expect the line to be (-11). Purdue is 7-5 on the season, with all five losses coming to teams ranked in the top 55 on KenPom away from home. Their best home win on the season (Maryland) was by two points. If you can slow down Carsen Edwards, you can beat Purdue.
PICKS: I don’t think Belmont beats Purdue — although I could be talked into taking the Belmont money line if the odds are good enough. I do, however, think Belmont covers 11. If you can get that line, jump on it.
No. 6 NEVADA at UTAH, Sat. 2:00 p.m.
LINE: Nevada (-10)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Nevada 78, Utah 68
I think this is a dangerous spot for Nevada. They’re coming off of a holiday layoff and heading to play in one of the tougher gyms in the country to win in: The Huntsmann Center, at roughly a mile above sea level. The Wolf Pack have played with fire all season long, digging themselves massive holes they find a way to dig out of. This is a game that the Utes desperately need if they want any prater of getting into the NCAA tournament, and I think they show up.
PICKS: I think Nevada gets out of Salt Lake City with a win, but if you’re giving me 10 points I’m taking them. I would not be shocked to see that line creep higher as well.
No. 15 WISCONSIN at WESTERN KENTUCKY, Sat. 5:30 p.m.
LINE: Wisconsin (-8)
KENPOM PROJECTION: Wisconsin 71, Western Kentucky 63
I do not think that Western Kentucky has a shot of hanging with Wisconsin, not with the way Ethan Happ can dissect a defense and not when Rick Stansbury has to try and outcoach someone. I do, however, think it’s worth mentioning the game here simply because seeing Happ square off with Charles Bassey will be entertaining. My gut says that it is very clear by 7:30 p.m. on Saturday that Bassey is a freshman and Happ is a three-time All-American.
PICKS: Wisconsin (-8)
DAVIDSON at No. 14 NORTH CAROLINA, Sat. 12:00 p.m.
LINE: North Carolina (-15)
KENPOM PROJECTION: North Carolina 87, Davidson 72
This game loses quite a bit of its appeal if Kellan Grady can’t play. He practiced on Friday, but he has missed the last three games.
LIBERTY at UCLA, Sat. 6:00 p.m.
Liberty lost by nine at Vanderbilt, by 10 at Georgetown and by nine to Austin Peay on a neutral court. #FadeCLA is still in effect.