Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Weekend Shootaround: Louisville is Shook, Auburn is Unaccomplished, and Tom Izzo is Revengeful
By: MIKE McCURRY3 VIRGINIA (-5.5) AT NO. 18 LOUISVILLE—12:00 PM ET, ACC NETWORK
Virginia, KenPom’s top-ranked team entering Saturday, is 23-0 this season versus teams not named Duke. The Cavaliers have already notched impressive road wins at Maryland, UNC, and most recently Virginia Tech and can add to that total at Louisville, where De’Andre Hunter and company somehow won last year despite trailing by four with a second remaining. Though UVA’s offense has not been as crisp lately, committing turnovers galore by their standards, Kyle Guy (21.7 PPG, 15-32 3FG in last three games) appears to be on a mission.
Since Louisville led Duke 59-36 with ten minutes left a few weeks back, the Cardinals have mustered just 115 points in 90 minutes. To be honest, I can’t think of any worse matchup for a struggling offense entering the final game of a brutal seven-game stretch than Tony Bennett’s Pack Line defense. The erratic up-and-down play of senior point guard Christen Cunningham has not helped matters.
5 TENNESSEE (-1.5) AT NO. 13 LSU—12:00 PM ET, ESPN
Tennessee leads the SEC by a game over both LSU and Kentucky. The Vols have gotten to this point by thriving on physicality and toughness until they were manhandled at their own game a week ago at Kentucky. Will it be déjà vu for Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, and Kyle Alexander on Saturday against LSU’s frontcourt quartet of Naz Reid, Kavell Bigby-Williams, Emmitt Williams, and Darius Days? While this game will be won in the trenches, Tennessee could open things up down low by breaking out of their mini shooting slump (13-46 3FG, 28% in last two games), notably Jordan Bowden (0-6 3FG, 7 total points in last two games).
LSU, coming off an overtime loss to Florida at home on Wednesday, can defend the Maravich Assembly Center by getting back to their ferocious turnover-forcing ways and exposing Tennessee’s vulnerability at limiting second-chance points. The Tigers, trending as a projected 4-seed currently, look to improve to 7-2 in Quad-1 games this season.AUBURN AT NO. 4 KENTUCKY (-7.0)—1:30 PM ET, CBS
Life without Reid Travis (right knee sprain) officially begins for Kentucky, who is expected to be without their starting center for at least two weeks. Nick Richards and EJ Montgomery should be capable fill-ins so long as they limit the fouls and do the dirty work to free up PJ Washington—arguably the best player in college basketball over the last month (20.7 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 54% FG in last nine games).
UK has already beaten Auburn once, 82-80 back on January 19 in a thriller despite Bryce Brown’s best efforts (28 points) thanks to Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro, each of whom dropped 20. That’s been the story all year for Bruce Pearl’s club, whose ten-man rotation is beloved by the peripheral metrics (14th in KenPom) with little to show for it (1-6 record vs. Quad-1 opponents). If the Tigers can come close to their 17 three-point field goal total against Arkansas on Wednesday and receive quality production off the bench from the trio of Samir Doughty/Danjel Purifoy/Austin Wiley, dare I say they can steal one at Rupp?
16 FLORIDA STATE AT NO. 8 UNC (-7.0)—3:45 PM ET, CBSUNC, Duke, and Virginia are all tied atop the ACC at 11-2 after the Tar Heels made their living in the paint while destroying Duke at Cameron Indoor on Wednesday. The issue for Cam Johnson (last two games: 26.5 PPG, 70% FG) and friends have been sustaining energy and intensity back-to-back games facing elite competition. Florida State, who has quietly reeled off eight straight, qualifies as such.
Crazy as it sounds, this might be Leonard Hamilton’s best team at FSU. The Seminoles are long-limbed and stingy on the interior, holding ACC opponents to a league-best 43% showing on two-pointers, and have a rather imposing center platoon system in 7-foot-4 senior Christ Koumadje and 6-foot-10 sophomore Mfiondu Kabengele. A little different than Jack White, eh, Luke Maye?
12 KANSAS AT NO. 14 TEXAS TECH (-5.5)—8:00 PM ET, ESPN
A hoop junkie’s dream, both Bill Self and Chris Beard had six full days to prepare for Saturday. This is the first of two huge games in a three-day span for Kansas, who hosts Kansas State on Monday. Because I know you were wondering, Kansas State’s magic number to end The Streak (Kansas has won 14 straight Big 12 regular season titles) is down to 5. The Jayhawks will benefit in Lubbock from the expected return of Marcus Garrett, their best perimeter defender who has missed the last five games with a sprained ankle.
Three weeks ago, Kansas blew out Texas Tech, 79-63, in Lawrence behind 25 & 10 from Dedric Lawson and 20 from Devon Dotson, beginning the freshman point guard’s stretch of improved play. The Red Raiders, who boast the nation’s best defense per KenPom, have responded by winning four straight on the strength of uncharacteristically shooting the cover off the ball as well as taking better care of the rock. Jarrett Culver, who hasn’t always shown up versus great teams this season, needs to have a monster game on Saturday for Texas Tech.
10 MICHIGAN STATE AT NO. 7 MICHIGAN—SUNDAY, 3:45 PM ET, CBS
Note that this heavyweight matchup is occurring on Sunday, meaning you can clear your schedule entirely without having to worry about flipping back-and-forth between 100 games. Heading into the first of two meetings between Michigan State and Michigan this season, these fierce Big Ten rivals are tied atop the conference at 13-3 (though Purdue can join them with a win at Nebraska on Saturday). John Beilein has defeated Tom Izzo three straight times. It’s the best offense in Big Ten play (Michigan State) versus the best defense in Big Ten play (Michigan). Cassius Winston versus Zavier Simpson, the latter of whom won both head-to-head battles last season. Need I say any more?
Aside from Winston/Simpson, the matchup to hone in on is Xavier Tillman vs. Jon Teske. Tillman, who exploded for 19 & 10 against Rutgers on Wednesday in the absence of Nick Ward (left hand surgery), is better suited than Ward to guard UM’s stretch bigs in Teske (three made threes at Minnesota on Thursday) and Isaiah Livers (43% 3FG) due to superior mobility and quickness. How does Beilein counter this? How does Izzo counter that? This will be a fascinating 40-minute chess match.
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.