Weekend preview: Houston-Kansas, Duke-UNC lead a packed slate

ByMyron Medcalf ESPN logo
Sunday, February 4, 2024

For a chunk of the country, college basketball will begin this weekend. With just one more game on the NFL slate and the college football playoffs complete, college hoops will take center stage in the weeks ahead.

And what a weekend slate to start watching.

This weekend's games are all about the NCAA tournament stakes, the rivalries, conference championship races and star power.

Duke-North Carolina is the anchor. It's the beacon of the entire sport. No matter what is happening in college basketball in a given year, this one has always been a show that transcends the sport. And it won't be any different this season, with the winner earning bragging rights and more believers in their respective Final Four dreams.

Speaking of dreams, Dalton Knecht played at Northern Colorado a year ago and now he's the player Kentucky will have to stop to beatTennessee. Also, Wisconsin is fun again. (No, seriously.) And Houston at Kansas would have been the biggest game in the sport on any other weekend.

This will be fun. Enjoy.

All odds from ESPN Bet.

No. 4 Houston (19-2, 6-2 Big 12) at No. 8 Kansas (17-4, 5-3)

Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN

Perhaps this one, and the repeat in the season finale in Houston on March 9, will decide the final outcome of the Big 12 race. Once the league announced the additions of Houston, UCF, Cincinnati and BYU, this was the date men's college basketball fans circled on their calendars. But we never anticipated that the Cougars and Jayhawks would face this kind of competition leading up to it. The Jayhawks enter this matchup behind the Cougars, Texas Tech and Iowa Statein the standings. And Kevin McCullar Jr. (19.8 PPG) missed Tuesday's win over Oklahoma State with a bruised knee.

Kansas, which lost to Iowa State last weekend in Ames, faces its toughest start in league play since going 4-4 in the first eight Big 12 games during the 2020-21 season. Baylor won the conference title that year. Since their two-game losing streak last month, meanwhile, the Cougars have been first in adjusted defensive efficiency and held their opponents to a 42.4% clip inside the arc, per barttorvik.com. But they also have made just 44% of their 2-pointers during their current five-game winning streak.

This is one of the most highly anticipated clashes in college basketball this season. And the stakes are high for a pair of programs seeking a high seed in the NCAA tournament.

Medcalf's pick: Kansas 71-68; Against the spread: Kansas (+1.5)

No. 7 Duke (16-4, 7-2 ACC) at No. 3 North Carolina (17-4, 9-1)

Saturday, 6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Hubert Davis started each of his first two seasons as a head coach in Chapel Hill with a 15-6 record overall and a 7-3 record in league play at the end of January. Both those seasons had different outcomes, however: the 2021-22 campaign ended with a run to the national title game, while season saw the Tar Heels finish without an invitation to the NCAA tournament. This year's group -- led by RJ Davis, arguably the top guard in the country -- is chasing a top seed after winning its first nine games in ACC play. But the Tar Heels couldn't avoid late-January concerns before Saturday's game. Tuesday's loss at Georgia Tech (128th in the NET rankings) has dented the teams' odds of securing a 1-seed on Selection Sunday.

But the Blue Devils have their own concerns. Jeremy Roach has played through knee and ankle injuries in recent weeks. Kyle Filipowski, a national player of the year contender and a projected lottery pick in this summer's NBA draft, is just 1-for-10 from the 3-point line in his past three games. And Duke was 57th in adjusted defensive efficiency in the month of January, per barttorvik.com. Jon Scheyer's squad, however, has more depth and scoring options. Let's face it: Duke has more talent, while North Carolina has been the better team. Get your popcorn ready.

Medcalf's pick: Duke, 77-74; Against the spread: Duke (+4.5)

No. 5 Tennessee (15-5, 5-2 SEC) at No. 10 Kentucky (15-4, 5-2)

Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

With his team down 59-53 with 41 seconds to play, Tennessee star Dalton Knecht hit a pair of 3s to keep his team alive just a bit longer in Tuesday's eventual loss to South Carolina. That has been the theme for the Vols -- and the problem. Knecht is one of America's greatest scoring threats (20.1 PPG, 40% from the 3-point line) and the anchor for one of the best defensive teams in the country.

But he's now facing Kentucky, a team that is stacked with NBA talent. Antonio Reeves (19.5 PPG, 43% from the 3-point line) has also quietly been putting together a case to be a first-team All-American. The Wildcats are an overwhelming crew offensively, but 75th in adjusted defensive efficiency. The latter metric matters because it's often an indicator of a team's ceiling. It's also the reason the Wildcats have a loss to UNC Wilmington on their résumé.

Medcalf's pick: Kentucky, 78-74; Against the spread: (Kentucky +1.5)

No. 2 Purdue (19-2, 8-2 Big Ten) at No. 6 Wisconsin (16-4, 8-1)

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS

You'd think Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky were back on the roster with the way the Badgers have executed on offense. Wisconsin hasn't finished top five in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom since the 2014-15 campaign, the year it went to the national game. Greg Gard, a disciple of Bo Ryan, has earned his accolades by coaching a Badgers team that has six top-30 finishes in defensive efficiency during his tenure. This year's group is his best offensive team, registering five games of 80 or more points -- an impressive mark for a group that's one of the slowest in the country (sub-300 in tempo).

The Badgers will need that offensive juice in the first of their two matchups against the Boilermakers -- games that will likely determine the Big Ten champion -- who have hit the 90-point mark in regulation twice in league play. We know what Purdue is. It's Zach Edey and a talented group of contributors (see: Braden Smith with 12.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 7.0 APG, 44% from 3) that are top-10 in 3-point percentage (40%). They'll still have to contend with AJ Storr (15.9 PPG) and a fleet of six Wisconsin players who are averaging at least 7.5 PPG.

Medcalf's pick: Wisconsin, 83-80; Against the spread: Wisconsin (+2.5)


Medcalf's picks straight up: 27-16

Against the spread: 20-23