College basketball preview: Three top-15 matchups headline Saturday's action
With conference play in full swing, we’re in for some tasty matchups this weekend. Three top-15 games lead the slate. Let’s break them down.
No. 7 Duke at No. 14 Louisville
Noon ET, ESPN
Duke comes in fresh off of a 16-point loss to Florida State, and it has little time to recollect itself: a date with Louisville awaits. There are few days off in the ACC.
Amile Jefferson is unlikely to play, per reports, and that’s a massive hit to the Blue Devils. While Jefferson isn’t Duke’s best player, he’s its most irreplaceable; the trio of Harry Giles, Marques Bolden and Chase Jeter hasn’t been able to sniff the fifth-year senior’s production. Jefferson is averaging 13.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game this season, and the Giles-Bolden-Jeter combo was anemic in Duke’s loss to Florida State. In 39 minutes, they combined to score six points and collect eight rebounds. The Blue Devils will need one of those guys to step up against Louisville.
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The Cardinals have the top-ranked defense in the country, and there is no easy path to points against them. Opponents shoot 28.5 percent from 3-point range against Louisville, which is the fifth-lowest mark in the land. The Cardinals have the second-highest block rate in America, so challenging one of their four rim-protectors is usually a losing proposition. Louisville’s hybrid matchup zone can give teams that don’t have a true point guard fits; Rick Pitino’s squad switches defensive looks on the fly, leaving the offense a few seconds behind. It’s an unofficial stat, but Louisville likely leads the country in desperation end-of-the-shot clock heaves forced.
Despite its recent isolation tendencies, Duke’s offense hasn’t been a major issue. But its defense is so-so. Quentin Snider always tends to have his best performances in pressure-packed Louisville home games – look no further than his 22-point outing against Kentucky this season for evidence. A good Snider or Donovan Mitchell game along with a typical Louisville defensive performance could be enough to win it for the Cards.
No. 9 Florida State at No. 11 North Carolina
2:00 p.m. ET, ESPN
Florida State doesn’t have much time to celebrate its impressive win against Duke. A trip to the Dean Dome is next.
North Carolina makes the game simple: if the Tar Heels are hitting outside shots, they’re virtually unbeatable. If not, they’ll still be competitive; UNC is so talented in every other aspect of the game that it makes up for frequent shooting woes. They have so much speed, athleticism and shot-creation that good looks come fairly easy. Converting those quality looks, though, is often a challenge for the Heels.
That’s because they usually only have two above-average 3-point shooters on the floor at once. Take Joel Berry, for instance; Berry is canning a tidy 42 percent of his triples this season. In UNC’s three losses, though, he’s shooting a chilly 30 percent from deep. If Berry or Justin Jackson is having an off game, what do the Tar Heels do?
Florida State doesn’t have that problem. The Seminoles are loaded with depth; Leonard Hamilton used 12 players in the first half against Duke. If Dwayne Bacon is off, the Seminoles have Jonathan Isaac to create offense. If Isaac is off, there’s always Xavier Rathan-Mayes, who scored 21 points against the Blue Devils. PJ Savoy is making 44 percent of his 3s off of the bench, and he only played nine minutes against Duke. Top to bottom, Florida State is loaded.
If you’re a fan of athleticism, watch this game. Florida State and North Carolina may not be the two best teams in the country, but they’re two of the two most explosive. The most intriguing individual matchup will be Isaac vs. (likely) Isaiah Hicks; Hicks will have a hard time guarding Isaac out to the 3-point line, but if the Seminoles allow the Tar Heels to get post position and easy entries, Isaac will be toast. It’s rare for college basketball teams to boast two legitimate post options at the same time, which North Carolina does. If Isaac doesn’t exploit the mismatch on the offensive end, Hamilton will need to play bigger than he’s accustomed to.
If the Seminoles pull this game out, they could vault into the top five. But winning in Chapel Hill is a tough ask for any road team.
No. 15 Xavier at No. 12 Butler
2:00 p.m. ET, FS1
Xavier and Butler were both humbled in their previous outings. The Musketeers got smoked at Villanova, while the Bulldogs faltered against Creighton after knocking off the No. 1 team in the land.
Xavier has dominated this rivalry in recent years, but the Musketeers have looked like they’re missing a key ingredient or two all season long. The Jalen Reynolds-James Farr center combination was excellent last season; RaShid Gaston and Sean O’Mara haven’t been able to match their production level. Myles Davis returned for Xavier on Tuesday, but he went 0-for-5 in 13 minutes. He may need some time to shake off the rust.
Butler is deep, smart and talented, but it’s prone to a clunker here and there. Expect to see some cross matches in this game, which will create transition 3s for both teams. Butler will likely start Kamar Baldwin on Edmond Sumner and Tyler Lewis on the less threatening Malcolm Bernard (or Davis, if he starts). The Bulldogs haven’t been able to contain Sumner’s dribble penetration in the past; they also haven’t had a perimeter defender as good as Baldwin. Stifling Xavier’s drive-and-kick outfit starts with containing the head of the snake, which is Sumner. For the first time in recent memory, the Bulldogs have the tools to do so.
Though they likely won’t begin the game guarding one another, Trevon Bluiett and Kelan Martin are two eerily similar players that could determine this bout. Martin struggled mightily against Creighton, going 3-for-14 from the floor, and he’s barely hitting more than 40 percent of his shots on the year. But he’s still Butler’s leading scorer, and furthermore, its most talented offensive player.
Bluiett is leading Xavier in scoring, but he’s only shooting 41.1 percent. He went 2-for-10 against Villanova. Both of these guys are supremely talented; 6-6 powerhouses with 3-point range and touch around the basket don’t grow on trees. But both have been inconsistent in 2016-17. Chris Mack starts Bluiett at power forward; Holtmann uses two traditional bigs from the jump, but he’s not afraid to downsize. The Bluiett-Martin battle will go a long way in deciding this game’s outcome.