No. 4 Louisville (12-1) at No. 3 Kentucky (12-1)
When and where: Saturday (CBS, 12 p.m. ET), Rupp Arena (Lexington, Ky.)
Overview: Kentucky is the most talented team in the country and has a nice mix of super-talented freshmen and experienced players. This could very well be the season John Calipari gets his first national title. The Cats have speed and length and are rated as the fourth-most efficient offensive and defensive team in the country. UK sets the tone on the defensive end, where the Wildcats are holding opponents to just 35 percent from the floor, best in the country. The long-armed and athletic Cats also lead the nation in blocked shots, swatting away around 10 shots per game.
No player in this game plays any harder than Kidd-Glichrist. He competes on every play and Calipari never has to coach his effort. MKG is averaging over 13 points and seven rebounds and has shot the most free throws on the team. Jones has struggled, first with his performance at Indiana that created questions and then with a hand injury that had him sitting out. He needs to play well for his confidence, but Kentucky needs him to play well also.
Smith is a dynamic guard who has been on a roll of late, and he is not afraid to assert himself. He is sixth on the Louisville team in minutes played, but he is second in scoring and shot attempts. Over the last seven games, Smith has averaged over 16 points per game and stands second in the Big East in steals. Kuric is the team’s top scorer and an excellent guard rebounder. His toughness will be essential if Louisville is to pull off a win in Lexington.
Davis is the most talented player on the floor in almost every game he plays. The long, athletic and versatile forward is averaging 11.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 4.5 blocked shots and is shooting 63 percent from the floor. Davis does not need to have a play run for him and doesn’t need the ball to play. He is a low-maintenance star who needs only to be more assertive to be one of the five best players in the country. Dieng has improved greatly from last season and had five straight double-doubles prior to the Cards’ loss to Georgetown. Over the last six games, Dieng has averaged 13 points and 12 rebounds, including six offensive rebounds per game.
Key stat: Rebounding
Who wins: The Wildcats are at home and can score much easier than Louisville. I see Lamb having a big game, but the most important factor will be Marquis Teague (recruited heavily by Louisville) making good decisions against the UL pressure and its changing defensive looks. The Cats will take this one.
No. 2 Ohio State (13-1) at No. 15 Indiana (12-1)
When and where: Saturday (ESPN, 6 p.m. ET), Assembly Hall (Bloomington, Ind.)
Overview: Ohio State is one of the four best teams in the country, and Indiana is way ahead of schedule in Tom Crean’s monumental rebuilding task. I believe Thad Matta has the three best players in the Big Ten at their respective positions. Jared Sullinger, when healthy, is the best post player in the country. William Buford averages 21 points per game against ranked teams and is one of the most underrated players in the country. And Aaron Craft is a machine at the point. There is not a better on-ball defender in the country.
With Sullinger back and healthy, it is really difficult to speed up the Buckeyes and change their pace of play. Ohio State spreads the floor around Sullinger and forces its opponent to make a decision on doubling him. I have marveled at OSU’s defense, primarily at the impact of Craft. The Buckeyes are rated the second-most efficient defensive team in the country, and they do not allow second shots. Against Ohio State, teams get one challenged shot and that is it.
Indiana is having a terrific season, largely because of the tremendous job that Crean has done over the past few years. IU runs good offense and is one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. Crean makes good use of the 3-point line, and the Hoosiers have shot the ball well from deep. But the games will get more physical in the Big Ten, and offense will be tougher to run. Indiana has to be tougher as well.
OSU go-to guy: Jared Sullinger
Zeller is a skilled and strong post player who is a focal point of the Indiana offense. He is averaging over 14 points and seven rebounds per game while shooting 65 percent from the floor. He is also a good offensive rebounder and will be going against the nation’s stingiest team in allowing second shots.
He was my X factor in Indiana’s game against Kentucky, but the shot he hit to win it was a springboard to much greater confidence. Since then, Watford has averaged 16 points per game and has made 13-of-21 from 3-point range.
Indiana and Ohio State shoot a lot of free throws relative to their opponents, with OSU making more than its opponents attempt (IU has made the exact number its opponents have attempted). The Hoosiers shot only nine free throws at Michigan State on Wednesday, and the Bucks play good defense without fouling. Indiana has to put itself in a position to get fouled and to finish plays. Ohio State does not turn the ball over much, and the Buckeyes are among the nation’s leaders in forcing turnovers.
Who wins: Indiana could not have had a tougher draw out of the gate in the Big Ten with a road game at Michigan State and a home game against Ohio State. I favor the Buckeyes in this one, but only by a bucket. This should be a great game in a tremendous atmosphere.
A dozen more to track
St. Joseph’s at Harvard (4 p.m. ET): This is the Crimson’s last tough nonconference test before the Ivy grind begins. St. Joe’s is more than capable of pulling off an upset. The Hawks will try to push the tempo in this game, but can they score well enough against a stingy D? A Harvard win will cement its spot in the top 25 for the time being.
UCLA at California (4 p.m. ET): If we are to take Cal seriously in the race for the Pac-12 title, the Bears must sweep the homestand against the L.A. schools. They started with Thursday’s win against USC. The Bruins dropped a heartbreaker at Stanford in the opener and really need a win at Haas to get this season back on track. They have improved, but the bottom line is still 7-6.
Creighton at Wichita State (6 p.m. ET, ESPNU): Creighton was stunned at home by a solid Missouri State team. Now the Bluejays have to find a way to win at Koch Arena or face 0-2. Yikes. That’s only the toughest place to play in the Missouri Valley (ask UNLV). But beat the Shockers and you put a rival and fellow MVC contender in a bit of a hole. The Valley race will be one of the best in the country this season and games like this are the reason why.
Saint Louis at New Mexico (6 p.m. ET): These two didn’t end up meeting at the 76 Classic. Instead, the Lobos get Rick Majerus back in one of his favorite road stops while he was a head coach at Utah. This is a win-win for SLU as long as it’s not blown out. Few teams win at the Pit, which means a Billikens victory would resonate nationally and a competitive loss would be fine. A UNM win should also signal that the Lobos are ready for the challenge of a Mountain West title race with UNLV and SDSU.
Gonzaga at Xavier (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2): This was my upset pick of the week. The Musketeers will have the best player on the floor in Tu Holloway. But Gonzaga has better mojo right now. The Robert Sacre-Kenny Frease matchup should be gritty. The key will be how well Dez Wells gets back into the lineup after his four-game suspension. Can he guard Elias Harris? Will Kevin Pangos be able to get off his shots going against Holloway and Mark Lyons? This is a huge game for X. For Gonzaga, a win will mean the Zags are a serious threat to do more than just win the WCC.
Oregon at Washington (10 p.m. ET, ESPN2): The Ducks are playing better with the more experienced Devoe Joseph instead of Jabari Brown. But can the Ducks actually win a key road game in the Pac-12? The home loss to South Dakota State was a huge red flag for the Huskies, but they did cruise past Oregon State in their league opener. The talent of Tony Wroten Jr. and Terrence Ross should be enough to carry this team in a weak Pac-12, but it’s hard to get behind UW right now since this team can’t stay consistent.