Friday, January 17, 2014
Weekend Picks: Tennessee over Kentucky?
By Myron Medcalf
Well, that didn’t go well.
North Carolina, why do you consistently confuse me/us? I mean, I had no business picking the Tar Heels to win at Syracuse last weekend. But they’ve done the unthinkable all season against ranked teams and unranked teams. Figured it would happen again. It didn’t.
And Orange sophomore forward Jerami Grant might be my preseason pick for national player of the year in 2014-15 if he sticks around for another season. (He won’t.)
I also figured Iowa State would survive in Norman. That didn’t happen, either.
So, remember all of that as you read this leading up to one of the biggest weekends of the year.
And when you consider my overall record (20-10) thus far, remember what Meat Loaf said. “Two out of three ain’t bad.”
No. 22 Pitt at No. 2 Syracuse, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN: Nope. Nope. Not again. Not doing it. I’ve learned my lesson about picking against the Orange in Syracuse, N.Y., this season. Not happening this time, even though I think Pitt could pull off the upset. Pitt has kicked off ACC play with a league-leading 51.6 percent clip from the field. And James Robinson has the country’s top assist-to-turnover ratio (5.33). That will be critical against a Syracuse squad that’s fourth in defense turnover rate, per Ken Pomeroy. But Durand Johnson's knee injury puts even more pressure on Lamar Patterson (2.4 TPG) to be a playmaker and 3-point shooter. By forcing things, he committed seven turnovers in a win over Georgia Tech earlier this week. And when a team is rattled, Syracuse will pounce. Jerami Grant is capable of dominating this game. And Tyler Ennis will be a problem all afternoon for Pitt on both ends of the floor.
Prediction: Syracuse 76, Pitt 70
Indiana State at No. 5 Wichita State, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Will Saturday be the day that Wichita State suffers its first loss of the season? Maybe. Before Missouri Valley play began, Gregg Marshall dismissed the talk about the Shockers going undefeated during the regular season. Last weekend, Missouri State nearly gave the Shockers their first loss, but they came back after being down by 19 points. Wichita State's Cleanthony Early and Fred VanVleet combined to shoot 7-for-25 from the field. Indiana State, which boasts the MVC's top scoring offense through five games at 72.0 PPG, will make the Shockers pay if they’re off again. The challenge, however, is that Wichita State is usually steady, even in tough stretches, because it doesn’t commit a lot of turnovers. VanVleet is one of the country’s best point guards. His 4.55 assist-to-turnover ratio is the No. 2 mark in America. Wichita State averages only 8.4 turnovers per game in league play. And Early, VanVleet and Ron Baker make up a potent offensive trio that Indiana State will struggle to contain.
Prediction: Wichita State 78, Indiana State 76
No. 9 Oklahoma State at No. 15 Kansas, 4 p.m. ET, CBS: There will be a lot of great games on TV this weekend. But if I had to pick one, I’d choose this matchup. Marcus Smart versus Andrew Wiggins. The battle for the early “best team in the Big 12” title. Another chance for Kansas to showcase its maturity. An opportunity for Oklahoma State to halt the Jayhawks’ progress. In Allen Fieldhouse. Get some popcorn ready. I mean, this is why OSU's Smart returned, right? Sure, he wants a national championship. But he also wants a Big 12 title. And he wants to prove that he’s top dog in this conference. Here’s his chance. But here’s the problem. KU's Joel Embiid has dramatically changed Bill Self’s program. The surging big man has been a critical element in KU’s rise. According to Group Stats’ lineup statistics, the Jayhawks’ offensive rebounding rate decreases by 14 percent when he’s not in the game, while their opponents’ free throw rate increases by nearly 20 percent. That has to be a concern for an Oklahoma State team that’s entering this key matchup without injured big man Michael Cobbins. Although “Smart versus Wiggins” is the obvious pregame storyline, Embiid will be the greatest factor on Saturday.
Prediction: Kansas 90, Oklahoma State 87 (overtime)
Tennessee at No. 13 Kentucky, noon ET, CBS: Last summer was a busy time for Tennessee. Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes decided to return. Jeronne Maymon got healthy. Antonio Barton arrived after Trae Golden was dismissed. All the pieces were there for a team that underperformed last season. And here we are in January, and an 11-5 Vols squad is running out of opportunities in a weak SEC to prove that it’s more than a bubble team. Saturday will be the program’s only shot at Kentucky this season. Both teams are top-10 in offensive rebounding rate, per Ken Pomeroy. The Wildcats have more talent. And before that loss to Arkansas earlier this week, it looked like they were beginning to put it all together. But their turnovers continue to be a burden (174th in offensive turnover rate). For everything that Julius Randle can do on the floor, his 3.3 turnovers per game should worry NBA scouts. James Young has star power, too, but he can’t find his shot (32 percent from the 3-point line). Tennessee needs a win to compete for a spot in the top tier of the SEC and help its case for a tourney bid. Kentucky has to keep battling so that it reaches its potential come March. This game is significant for both.
Prediction: Tennessee 85, Kentucky 82
No. 18 Louisville at UConn, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: The Huskies attained some serious momentum via Thursday night’s 83-73 win at No. 17 Memphis. Let’s talk about UConn forward DeAndre Daniels. He had 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks against the Tigers. That’s the DeAndre Daniels that coach Kevin Ollie needs the rest of the way. When Daniels is that effective, the Huskies can play with any team in America. He could be the difference on Saturday. Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell is a force, too. And as much as the battle between Louisville's Chris Jones/Russ Smith and UConn's Shabazz Napier/Ryan Boatright will be crucial, Daniels and Harrell could decide the game inside. Oh, and turnovers too. Connecticut is 90th in offensive turnover percentage, per Ken Pomeroy, while Louisville forces turnovers on 24.9 percent of its opponents’ possession (fifth in America), which is remarkable.