Packed weekend: Arizona-Purdue, UConn-Gonzaga and Bronny hits the road

ByMyron Medcalf ESPN logo
Saturday, December 16, 2023

It's never easy for college basketball to get the proper attention it deserves during the December sports slate.

Some coaches have even suggested moving the season so that it starts in January and ends later in the year. Why? Because college football, the NFL and the NBA tend to mask everything that happens at the end of every calendar year.

But the best way to shine some light on college basketball is to give the people captivating matchups before conference play hits the next gear.

Which is why we're grateful to the coaches, athletic directors and basketball operations folks who've continued to offer NCAA tournament-like matchups before Christmas.

Arizona vs. Purdue in Indianapolis on Saturday could be the preview of a Final Four matchup. Kentucky and North Carolina -- the ultimate blue bloods -- will battle in Atlanta, and the winner will secure a victory that will matter on Selection Sunday. Meanwhile, Dan Hurley and UConn will face another national title contender a week before league play begins in the Big East, one of the top conferences in America.

Bronny James & Co. will hit the road against Auburn on Sunday. USC's NET ranking (86) suggests Andy Enfield's team is an afterthought for the selection committee right now. Michigan State understands. Entering a game against Baylor this weekend, Tom Izzo is coaching a team that is on pace to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1997.

Yeah, the NFL is strong. The NBA is rolling, and the college football bowl games will begin soon.

But take a look at this weekend's slate. College basketball is trying to prove that it's worth watching, too.

All odds from ESPN BET.

No. 5 UConn (9-1) vs. No. 10 Gonzaga (8-2)

Friday, 10 p.m. ET, Continental Tire Seattle Tip-Off, Seattle, ESPN2

The Big East features three top-10 teams. But even knowing the upcoming arduous Big East schedule didn't stop Dan Hurley from creating a gauntlet of a nonconference schedule. Friday's game against Gonzaga will be UConn's third game against a top-10 opponent ... this month. But the Huskies might not have to worry. They've connected on 64.2% of their shots inside the arc, No. 1 in the country. Donovan Clingan also leads a defense that's held opponents to a 40.7% clip inside the arc.

Since 2012, Mark Few's Gonzaga teams have failed to connect on at least 37% of their 3-point attempts in a season just once. This year's squad, led by 6-foot-9 forward Graham Ike, is shooting 33.3% from beyond the arc. Those shooting woes could be the difference here.

Medcalf's pick: UConn 83-78; Against the spread: UConn (-3.5)

No. 6 Baylor (9-0) vs. Michigan State (4-5, 0-2 Big Ten)

Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, Detroit, Fox

When his team struggled against Duke in the Champions Classic last month, Tom Izzo said he wasn't concerned about their offensive challenges because the Spartans were taking good shots. Eventually, they would begin to fall, he said. But the Spartans have connected on just 29.5% of their 3-point attempts so far. Tyson Walker has been their only reliable scorer. And with five losses in nine games, they're desperate for a signature win.

Enter undefeated Baylor, a team that led the nation with a 46.1% clip from 3. RayJ Dennis, the former Toledo star who won MAC player of the year last season, has been one of the more impactful transfers in America.

Should Baylor win? Yes. But Tom Izzo's squad hasn't been this desperate in years -- don't count them out just yet.

Medcalf's pick: Baylor 80-73; Against the spread: Baylor (-3.5)

No. 13 Clemson (9-0) at Memphis (7-2)

Saturday, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN Plus

Brad Brownell is an annual inclusion on every preseason hot seat list. It always feels like the Clemson head coach is battling for his job. When his team missed the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row in 2022-23, the buzz about his future intensified. But Brownell thrives in these moments. His squad is currently undefeated and boasts a top-15 NET ranking. PJ Hall, the Tigers' 6-10 big man, is one the most dominant forces in the country.

But transfers David Jones and Jahvon Quinerly combined to score 53 points in Memphis' 81-75 win over ranked Texas A&M on the road. That duo is shaping into one of the most potent in the nation. In the win, the Tigers' defense on potential All-American Wade Taylor IV -- limiting him to just nine points -- was equally impressive.

Medcalf's pick: Memphis 77-72; Against the spread: Memphis (-3.5)

No. 1 Arizona (8-0) vs. No. 3 Purdue (9-1, 1-1 Big Ten)

Saturday, 4:30 p.m. ET, Indianapolis, Peacock

Caleb Love's ongoing growth as the leader of the best team in America is an important development entering this game. The former North Carolina star has made 55% of his shots inside the arc. He's connected on 38% of his 3-point attempts in his past two games. His speed helps Arizona play at a top-five tempo.

The Wildcats will try to disrupt Purdue and Zach Edey the way every opponent has thus far. They will play fast, stretch the floor (they've connected on 39% of their 3-point attempts this season) and hope they can put Edey in a defensive bind.

But Edey is also quicker this season. He lost 10 pounds during the offseason. Purdue is also 7-0 in games that featured 75 possessions or more. So the idea that opponents can just skate past the 7-4 reigning Wooden Award winner in a fast game is more conceptual than factual. It's not clear how to stop Edey & Co. But Arizona is built for the task.

Medcalf's pick: Arizona 86-82 Against the spread: Arizona (-1.5)

No. 9 North Carolina (7-2) vs. No. 14 Kentucky (7-2)

Saturday, 5:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Classic, Atlanta, CBS

The depth on both sides will be pivotal in this one.

In his team's 81-66 win at Penn on Saturday, a game that featured some unexpected turbulence for the Wildcats, Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham came off the bench for John Calipari. There's a lot of debate about Kentucky's starting line and whether those two freshmen are worthy of cracking it, but the analytics show that, more than anything, they can give Kentucky a spark Calipari hasn't had in years. Per, Kentucky has averaged 116.1 points per 100 possessions and held opponents under 84 points per 100 possessions when both are on the floor.

With the return of Armando Bacot, Hubert Davis has manufactured a team that's ranked seventh in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom, a year after the Tar Heels finished 51st. UNC's starting five is an explosive offensive unit that registered 100 points in a win over Tennessee last month. But Davis has not yet found consistency off the bench. That group has combined to score just 16 points over the past two games. That might be the difference here.

Medcalf's pick: Kentucky 87-83 Against the spread: Kentucky (+1.5)

USC (5-4) vs. Auburn (6-2)

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN

The hype around Bronny James' first collegiate game Sunday did not result in a win. Sure, the buzz might have led to an emotional game for the Trojans in their first home loss to Long Beach State since 1987, but now it's time to address the ongoing issues. The team committed turnovers on 23% of its possessions. Kobe Johnson had five and Isaiah Collier, the projected No. 1 pick per ESPN's latest NBA mock draft, had three. It's also not a great 3-point shooting team, and it has given up 173 points over the past two games. More than anything, in his first road game, James should get the chance to showcase his defensive tools. That's probably where he's most prepared to help right now.

Auburn, meanwhile, hopes to strengthen its résumé with a win and actually play to its potential. The same squad that scored 104 points in a victory over Indiana on Saturday has also lost a road game to Appalachian State. But five-star recruit Aden Holloway (24 points against the Hoosiers) looked comfortable in that game and should pose a threat Sunday.

Medcalf's pick: Auburn 82-76; Against the spread: Unavailable at time of publication


Medcalf's picks straight up: 14-5

Against the spread: 9-10

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