Duke and Syracuse will take the floor on Saturday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN) after a truly eventful week for both programs. Also, a whole mess of key men’s basketball games dot the Big Ten schedule, culminating in Sunday afternoon’s in-state battle between Michigan and Michigan State in Ann Arbor. Our experts weighed in on those matchups and the surprise teams (good surprises and otherwise) from the 2018-19 season in college basketball.
Emotions are going to be high on both sides of this week’s Duke/Syracuse matchup. How do you see it playing out on the floor?
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: This is a difficult situation for everyone involved. I’m not sure how players, coaches and others attached to this game will process everything that surrounds it. I wouldn’t be surprised by a Syracuse upset, although I think Duke will win. Zion Williamson is the most effective player Duke has to put in the middle of that zone, but he seems unlikely to play. And that could lead to another 3-point barrage for a Duke squad that’s connected on 29.2 percent of its 3-point attempts in ACC play. Still, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish will cause problems for Cuse.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: This one is really tough to read due to the emotions of this week. There are questions about Zion Williamson’s availability, and there are questions about whether Jim Boeheim will coach. On the floor, though, Syracuse goes for the sweep of the Blue Devils. In the first meeting, it was sort of a perfect storm for Syracuse: Tre Jones injured after six minutes, Cam Reddish not playing, Duke going 9-for-43 from 3-point range. This time around, Williamson likely will be very limited even if he plays and the Blue Devils looked awfully vulnerable without him against North Carolina on Wednesday — at both ends of the floor. That said, I still don’t see Duke losing two in a row. There’s too much talent on that roster and they’ve now had a few days to adjust to life without Zion.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: May I repeat one thing Jeff said about the first game? Duke shot 43 times from beyond the arc, and the Blue Devils missed 34 of those. Now, granted, the game went to overtime, but that’s still a lot of perimeter shooting. The interesting thing is, even without Jones in the lineup, Duke was able to get inside the zone and make about 60 percent of its 2s. Shot selection and success will even out this time and the Blue Devils will win.
Jordan Schultz, insider/analyst: Duke wants to exact a dose of revenge, and even with Zion’s health in question, I don’t love the Orange’s chances. Defensive maestro Jones and big-shot maker Reddish are both in the lineup. More importantly, we should expect a monstrous showing from Barrett, who went 8-for-30 and a miserable 4-for-17 from 3 in the first meeting. Give me the Blue Devils.
Meanwhile, the Big Ten has a whole bunch of meaningful games this weekend, capped off by Michigan State at Michigan on Sunday. Who ya got in Ann Arbor?
Borzello: Give me Michigan. Had Nick Ward been healthy, I think it would have been a toss-up, but I just don’t see how Michigan State can consistently score against the Wolverines’ defense without Ward. There’s going to be a lot on Cassius Winston’s plate, and Michigan has one of the best defensive point guards in the country in Zavier Simpson. I see a fairly low-scoring home win for the Wolverines.
Medcalf: Winston is an All-American, but he’s missing Ward and that matters. What else matters? I’m still not sure how good this Michigan State team really is, which is an even bigger concern with the recent injuries. Its résumé is anchored by wins over Wisconsin, Texas, Iowa and Purdue, but I think Michigan has a higher ceiling than those squads and the Wolverines are playing top-three defense right now, so I’m picking the Wolverines.
Gasaway: I like the Spartans in this one. Tom Izzo’s guys won at Wisconsin with Ward having a very normal and unspectacular 24-minute cameo. MSU, as always, has options at that spot (Xavier Tillman), and the Michigan offense hasn’t flashed the old high-efficiency, 2013-vintage statistical look against an at-large-caliber opponent since the Purdue game on Dec. 1. Shorthanded MSU pulls the upset.
Schultz: Not only is this game in Ann Arbor, but Michigan is the better, healthier team. Ward is the type of physical paint presence that Tom Izzo’s best teams always seem to have. He is not replaceable. Michigan, meanwhile, will lean on its leading scorer in freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis, whose offensive versatility now becomes that much more of an issue for Sparty without Ward.
Fill in these blanks: Out of 353 Division I teams, I’m most shocked that ______ isn’t better, and that ______ is as good as it is.
Medcalf: Clemson and Purdue. Marcquise Reed, Shelton Mitchell and Elijah Thomas all returned this season with ACC contention aspirations after a Sweet 16 run. But the Tigers have damaged their postseason hopes with a 5-8 start in ACC play and committed turnovers on nearly 26 percent of their possessions in the ACC. And I still can’t understand how Matt Painter is chasing a title in America’s deepest league after losing one of the nation’s top senior classes. Despite losing every top-five scorer not named Carsen Edwards, Purdue’s offense is still top-five and its defense has maintained a similar top-40 clip too.
Borzello: Oregon and VCU. I was outrageously high on Oregon coming into the season. I even had it in my preseason Final Four (even though I’ve tried to get that document redacted and scrubbed off the interwebs). But the Ducks, like pretty much everyone else in the Pac-12, stink. Some of it is Bol Bol’s injury, but look, they lost to Texas Southern at home with Bol scoring 32 points. On the other side, I think an easy answer is Houston, but let’s show some love to Mike Rhoades and VCU. The Rams were picked seventh in the preseason Atlantic 10 poll, but they’re atop the league standings and also have a case for an at-large bid. The Rams have an elite defense and they’ve won seven in a row.
Gasaway: Miami and Texas Tech. Maybe I didn’t pick the Hurricanes for the Final Four, but there wasn’t a doubt in my mind they’d be a tournament team. Basically, I thought we’d get the version of the Canes we saw in the overtime loss at North Carolina. Instead, opponents are finding success scoring in the paint, and Jim Larranaga’s guys are nothing special in terms of shooting from either side of the arc. On the flip side, there’s no way I expected Texas Tech to be in contention for a top-four seed. Chris Beard is a wizard. I feel like my preseason read on the Red Raider offense was about right, and also that it hasn’t mattered one bit. Beard’s defense has rendered that whole question moot.
Schultz: Washington and Indiana. The Huskies’ 12-1 league record is its best since 1953, and coach Mike Hopkins is an absolute star. Senior wing Matisse Thybulle — who averages a potentially record-breaking 3.4 steals and 3.1 blocks per game — is a defensive genius and the key to the Huskies’ 2-3 matchup zone. Additionally, senior big man Noah Dickerson is a load underneath, while sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell (16.5 points per game on 51.5 percent shooting) is a bona fide pro. Meanwhile, while the Big Ten has a host of tournament teams, much to my surprise, Indiana is not one of them. The Hoosiers have been atrocious, dropping 11 of their past 12 games. Blue-chip freshman Romeo Langford has flashed, but Archie Miller’s team has been far too undisciplined and lackluster offensively (104th in efficiency, per KenPom, 215th in possessions) to generate any sort of consistency
ESPN.com expert picks for this weekend’s top games
(Lines, published as they become available, from the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.)
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