• Thu. Jul 25th, 2024

Weekend preview: The first conference weekend is here with Illinois-Purdue, Kentucky-Florida, more


Jan 5, 2024 #Sports


At this stage of the men’s college basketball season, nothing is ever real. While the sport has staged a multitude of high-profile matchups, most teams took their foot off the gas in December. The schedules were easier. There were bigger gaps between games. Players got time off — a break they all deserved.

But this weekend marks the first true weekend of conference play, and you can’t hide in conference play.

That conversation will begin in Clemson, South Carolina, where North Carolina hopes to extend its three-game winning streak. If Clemson beats UNC, it will remove any doubt that it’s a real ACC contender, maybe more.

The SEC? Who knows what’s real in that league? Ole Miss has been playing the game on “easy” for the last two months. Undefeated, yes. But the résumé is full of sub-100 opponents. If Chris Beard’s team goes on the road and beats Tennessee, however, the conversation will change.

Iowa State is good. We’ll find out if the Cyclones are a Big 12 team to fear when they go to Oklahoma on Saturday. Illinois aims to prove it is still a Big Ten threat without Terrence Shannon Jr. That mission will begin in West Lafayette against the No. 1 team in America.

The real play time is here. This weekend, some of the frauds will be exposed.

All odds from ESPN Bet.

No. 9 Illinois (11-2, 2-0 Big Ten) at No. 1 Purdue (13-1, 2-1 Big Ten)

Friday, 8:30 p.m. ET, FS1

In the final month of his last season at Utah Valley in 2022-23, Justin Harmon averaged 18 points per game. In wins over Fairleigh Dickinson and Northwestern after transferring to Illinois, he used his scoring touch to register a combined 38 points, a welcome contribution off the bench with the loss of Terrence Shannon Jr. — who is facing a rape charge and is suspended indefinitely. In those two games without Shannon Jr., Illinois has connected on 44% of its 3-point attempts.

But Purdue is 4-0 against Top-50 KenPom squads. Zach Edey is America’s best player. And the Boilermakers’ margin of victory at home this season is 30.8 PPG. Still, this Illinois squad will be, by far, the toughest opponent Matt Painter’s squad has faced in their building in 2023-24.

Medcalf’s pick: Purdue, 86-77; Against the spread: Illinois (+10.5)

No. 8 North Carolina (10-3, 2-0 ACC) at No. 16 Clemson (11-1, 1-0 ACC)

Saturday, 12 p.m., ESPN2

In the first five minutes of the Tigers’ 93-58 win over Radford on Friday, PJ Hall hit a couple of 3s, saved an errant pass on the baseline, made key defensive stops and scored on multiple post-ups. He’s one of the most versatile players in the country right now. With a combination of size (6-foot-10) and range (40% from the 3-point line). On film, you can see the way he creates space for Joseph Girard III, the former Syracuse star, and the rest of his teammates.

UNC will have to chase him all afternoon to come out with the road win. In the three games since suffering back-to-back losses to UConn and Kentucky, however, the Tar Heels’ defensive pressure has improved (their opponents have connected on just 39% of their attempts inside the arc, per barttorvik.com). They’ve also hit 39% of their 3-point attempts during that span. Should be a great game.

Medcalf’s pick: Clemson, 82-79; Against the spread: Unavailable at time of publication

No. 6 Kentucky (10-2, 0-0 SEC) at Florida (10-3, 0-0 SEC)

Saturday, 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

It’s no secret freshmen Rob Dillingham (14.3 PPG, 4.5 APG, 45% from 3) and Reed Sheppard (12.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 4.3 APG, 56% from 3) might be Kentucky’s best players, even though they’re coming off the bench. But Antonio Reeves has been the steadying, veteran presence for a Kentucky squad with national title aspirations.

During their current six-game winning streak, however, Walter Clayton Jr. and Co. have excelled in ways that could help them challenge the Wildcats. Over that span, Florida has thrived off second-chance opportunities (offensive rebounding rate of 41.2%) while also upgrading its defensive efficiency (opponents have shot just 41.7% from inside the arc). Can the Gators continue that kind of performance against a national powerhouse? We’ll see.

Medcalf’s pick: Kentucky, 87-80; Against the spread: Unavailable at time of publication

No. 22 Ole Miss (13-0, 0-0 SEC) at No. 5 Tennessee (10-3, 0-0 SEC)

Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, SEC Network

On Rotten Tomatoes, the website that reviews movies and TV shows, sometimes the audience and critics strongly disagree. In college basketball, Ole Miss supporters (voters) and critics (analytics) have different views of Chris Beard’s undefeated program.

At 13-0, Ole Miss entered this week’s AP poll ranked No. 22. On KenPom, however, Ole Miss is 79th. The NET rankings? 60th. A home win over Memphis is its best victory to date. A road win over a battle-tested Tennessee squad — the Vols are second in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom with wins over Wisconsin and Illinois — would validate the pollsters who are bullish on the Rebels.

Medcalf’s pick: Tennessee, 79-72; Against the spread: Unavailable at time of publication

Iowa State (11-2, 0-0 Big 12) at No. 11 Oklahoma (12-1, 0-0 Big 12)

Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN+

In 2018, Tyrese Haliburton was an Iowa State freshman who averaged just 6.8 PPG in his Division I debut. A year later, he made a jump and averaged 15.2 PPG and 6.5 APG before entering the NBA draft. This past summer, the Indiana Pacers star signed a $260 million extension.

Current Cyclones star Tamin Lipsey might not necessarily have the same NBA future, but his leap in Year 2 and the numbers attached to it are strikingly similar to Haliburton’s collegiate career. A year after he averaged 7.3 PPG, the 6-1 guard has gone to a new dimension: 15.5 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 6.1 APG, 3.6 APG, 43% from the 3-point line.

He hasn’t hit the national radar yet, but a big performance and a road win over a top-15 Sooners squad would change that and toss Lipsey in the national player of the year conversation.

Medcalf’s pick: Iowa State, 75-72; Against the spread: Unavailable at time of publication


Medcalf’s picks straight up: 20-9

Against the spread: 15-14


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