Weekend preview: Figuring out men's college basketball this season is one big headache

ByMyron Medcalf ESPN logo
Friday, February 9, 2024

There is an annual debate in college basketball about the value of momentum. Is it real? Does it really matter if it is? Some believe that a streak of four, five, six or seven wins in a row, etc., has no bearing on whether that team will win its next game. They're all separate events. Others believe it can fuel a team, especially entering the NCAA tournament.

Real or not, it seems easy to squander. In recent weeks, we've watched good teams fail to follow-up on strong victories or extend winning streaks in a puzzling stretch.

Houston had won five in a row and topped most metrics as the No.1 team in college basketball before it suffered a double-digit loss to Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday. Bill Self's team celebrated that victory, and then the Jayhawks made only three shots from beyond the arc in their overtime loss at rival Kansas State this week. Alabama had won four in a row, a stretch that started with a home win over Auburn, before Nate Oats' squad gave up 99 points in a loss to the Tigers in a rematch Wednesday. And BYU beat Texas last weekend but didn't show up during a loss to Oklahoma on Tuesday.

The North Carolina Tar Heels' loss to Clemson in Chapel Hill was the most surprising outcome of the week. The Tar Heels had dominated rival Duke on Saturday with a 93-point effort. On Tuesday, they looked like a different team against the Tigers.

On Saturday, Armando Bacot said the ACC title "runs through me." After the loss to Clemson, the veteran leader suggested the team had struggled to handle success.

Maybe momentum is fake, but the heartbreaking losses that have followed some big wins have been very real.

All odds from ESPN Bet.

No. 13 Baylor (17-5, 6-3 Big 12) at No. 4 Kansas (18-5, 6-4)

Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN

Kansas has emerged from a rough start in league play a few times under Bill Self. Even last year, the Jayhawks started 6-4 before they finished 7-1 and won the Big 12 regular season title. That could happen again this year, but the road will be more difficult. They still have road games against Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Baylor and Houston. For a team that's 1-4 in its last five road games, the final chapter of league play could cost Kansas in the Big 12 race and when seeds are announced on Selection Sunday. That's why Saturday's opportunity against Baylor, which leads the nation in 3-point shooting (41.2 percent), is significant. A loss to RayJ Dennis (13.8 PPG, 6.4 APG, 39 percent from the 3-point line), Ja'Kobe Walter (14.2 PPG) and the Bears would be a missed opportunity at home, just before a treacherous run to the finish line. The Jayhawks' opponents in their last four losses connected on 43 percent of their 3-point attempts, a good sign for Scott Drew's team, too.

Medcalf's pick: Kansas, 84-80; Against the spread: Unavailable at time of publication

No. 5 Houston (20-3, 7-3 Big 12) at Cincinnati (15-7, 4-5)

Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Per Joe Lunardi's latest bracketology, the Big 12 has nine NCAA tournament-worthy teams. Every coach in America believes their league is a "gauntlet." But it's true in the Big 12. There are no easy wins, but there are numerous opportunities to strengthen a resume. Cincinnati is listed in Lunardi's "first four out" category. But a win over a Houston team with top-seed aspirations could change Cincinnati's fortunes. Can they do it? The Bearcats are No. 2 in the league with opponents connecting on just 46.1 percent of their shots inside the arc. Since Jan. 1, Houston has connected on 46.8 percent of its 2-pointers, a sub-300 mark nationally, per Barttorvik.com. But the limited offensive firepower of John Newman (10.0 PPG, 5.3 RPG) and Co. will be difficult to overcome against the top defense in the country.

Medcalf's pick: Houston, 70-63; Against the spread: Unavailable at time of publication

Gonzaga (17-6, 8-2 WCC) at No. 17 Kentucky (16-6, 6-4)

Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, CBS

Entering the season, this looked like the perfect showcase for Super Bowl weekend. Gonzaga and Kentucky are perennial powers in college basketball. And if both had lived up to preseason projections, the winner of this game might have had a strong case for a top seed and favorable region in the NCAA tournament. Instead, this is a matchup between a pair of teams that stumbled into February after falling short of those preseason projections. For a Kentucky team that's lost two of its last three games, it's the defense. The Wildcats have a collection of pro prospects and a sub-100 ranking in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom. They're essentially the Harlem Globetrotters with a rim-protecting allergy on defense. Gonzaga? They need this win to secure at-large consideration. Seriously. The Bulldogs have an 0-5 record against Quad I opponents. But recent injuries also mean Kentucky might not play at full strength.

Medcalf's pick: Kentucky, 90-86 Against the spread: Unavailable at time of publication

Green Bay (15-9,10-3 Horizon League) at Youngstown State (17-7, 9-4)

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+

Ziggy Reid, a transfer from Merrimack, is proof that a player can dramatically improve during a collegiate career. Three years ago, Youngstown State's fifth-year standout connected on just 29 percent of his 3-point attempts as a sophomore at Merrimack. This season, the 6-foot-6 forward is top-50 in the country with a 45 percent success rate from beyond the arc. But lately, he's gone cold (5-for-16 in his last four games entering the week). If he can't find a rhythm, Youngstown State could fall to a Green Bay team that's made 39 percent of its 3-point attempts in league play. With a win, Green Bay could take sole possession of first place. With a loss, Youngstown State could sit atop the standings.

Medcalf's pick: Youngstown State, 76-70 Against the spread: Unavailable at time of publication


Medcalf's picks straight up: 28-19

Against the spread: 21-26

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