The No. 9 Duke Blue Devils will make their final trip to Chapel Hill in the Coach K era on Saturday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App), meeting the North Carolina Tar Heels in one of three compelling Sonic Blockbuster matchups on this weekend's slate. Saturday also sees the No. 8 Baylor Bears traveling to meet the No. 10 Kansas Jayhawks (4 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App) in a top-10 matchup at storied Allen Fieldhouse, while the streaking No. 5 Kentucky Wildcats travel to meet an up-and-down but immensely talented Alabama Crimson Tide squad (8 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App).
With that in mind, ESPN's college basketball team of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi made their predictions for all three big games on the Saturday slate, while also ID'ing some of the other top matchups of the first college basketball weekend of February.
What has surprised you most about North Carolina (16-6, 8-3 ACC) in Year 1 of the Hubert Davis era? What do the Tar Heels have to do to beat Duke?
Lunardi: Don't look now, but North Carolina could take over the top spot in the ACC with a win over Duke. That's a commentary on the lackluster ACC, of course, but also on UNC's resilience. The Tar Heels seemed destined for the bubble after back-to-back losses at Miami and Wake Forest -- by a combined 50 points! -- but have righted the ship with a four-game winning streak. A friendly schedule has helped, along with some friendly whistles at Louisville, but February ain't about style points.
The surprise, then, is Carolina even being in this position. Can the Heels keep it going and upset the hated Blue Devils? Let's say "yes," as Hubert Davis takes one from Coach K on his last official visit to Chapel Hill.
Lunardi score prediction:: North Carolina 76, Duke 73
Dajuan Harris throws it up to David McCormack, who flushes it home for Kansas.
Medcalf: I'm surprised that Hubert Davis has a real shot at the ACC crown in Year 1. I think the transition is difficult for any head coach in their first gig -- even the head coaches with significant experience as assistants. Davis learned a lot in nine years next to Roy Williams, but he has taken a vastly different approach. This team is taking more 3-pointers (32.1% of its shots are from beyond the arc, compared to 22.3% last season) and Davis has emphasized the positionless basketball he embraced as a combo guard in the NBA. This isn't the aggressive offensive rebounding team UNC fans are accustomed to seeing, and Davis has had to implement multiple new players into an evolving system. That's a challenge, and you've seen those growing pains throughout the season.
This isn't a great UNC squad, but it's doing enough to hang around the top tier of a lackluster ACC. I'm surprised this UNC-Duke game is for more than bragging rights, honestly. At this stage, in this league, I didn't expect UNC to be in this position to move into first place in the league with a win over its archrival. Sure, it says a lot about the state of the ACC. But UNC is also surging at the right time.
Medcalf score prediction: Duke 84, North Carolina 81
Borzello: I've been surprised with how average Carolina's defense has been, pretty much since the start of the season. The Tar Heels beat Brown in the second game of the campaign but got beat time and time again on pick-and-rolls, and Carolina's inability to consistently defend ball screens hasn't really improved against teams with capable guards. Some of that stems from Davis' preference for playing with a more skilled power forward as opposed to the two-big lineups under Roy Williams. The Tar Heels are just not as physically overpowering as they were with those iterations and, while Brady Manek adds a different dimension with his ability to step out and make 3s, he's not overly impactful as a half-court defender. The defense had actually improved at the start of ACC play, but has now allowed at least one point per possession in five of its past six games. It's part of the reason the Tar Heels went from a preseason top-20 team with plenty of talent to a group squarely on the bubble.
Borzello score prediction: Duke 79, North Carolina 72
Flo Thamba buries the and-1 bucket for Baylor
Gasaway: I've been surprised by how a blueblood like North Carolina has blown hot and cold for much of the season. On paper this has, by a hair, been the second-best team in ACC play after Duke. But that paper masks both the highs and the lows experienced by fans of the Tar Heels. One day, UNC is blowing out Michigan and Virginia, then the next this same team is being run off the floor by Miami and Wake Forest. The Heels won in overtime at Louisville this week, and that was arguably the first close game this group has played in almost a month. Win or lose, North Carolina has seen its share of lopsided results.
It's possible that some of this inconsistency stems from UNC's defense. This team doesn't force many turnovers, and, despite the outstanding defensive rebounding of Armando Bacot, conference opponents have recorded a high number of attempts against the Tar Heels.
Gasaway score prediction: Duke 81, North Carolina 75
Kansas and Baylor have both had their shaky moments in recent weeks. Which team do you have more long-term faith in, and why?
Medcalf: Both teams can make a Final Four run and compete for a national championship. Relative to those ambitions, I'll go with Baylor. It's still weird to me that Remy Martin's role is unclear. The Jayhawks have handled good teams without him. But the plan was to take a guy who scored 19.1 PPG in his last two seasons at Arizona State and turn him into another scoring threat/distributor. That hasn't happened. And I think the Kentucky loss really scripted the blueprint for beating Kansas: Glue a defender to Ochai Agbaji and hope for the best while taking David McCormack out of the game. I think Bill Self has a number of good role players around Agbaji. And that works when he's on. It's less effective when he needs one of those Robins to play Batman.
I think Baylor, however, is a more complete team -- when it's healthy. If it ever gets healthy. When you plug James Akinjo, LJ Cryer, Adam Flagler and Kendall Brown -- Baylor's top four scorers -- into hooplens.com, you find that there is not a significant drop-off when those players are not available. Baylor is still a great 3-point-shooting team that defends like its life depends on it and crashes the offensive glass even if one or two of those players are missing. That says a lot about the depth on this squad, which is why I'm more bullish on Baylor than Kansas long-term.
Medcalf score prediction: Kansas 79, Baylor 76
Jacob Toppin's swat sets up a bucket for Kentucky on the other end
Borzello: I really want to say Kansas. I think the Jayhawks, on paper, are a more complete team when everyone is healthy and firing on all cylinders. But something is just off about Kansas in terms of how the Jayhawks fit as a group -- so I'll go with Baylor.
The Bears looked like arguably the best team in the country through 15 games, a legitimate contender to win back-to-back national championships. Then Jeremy Sochan got hurt, then James Akinjo got hurt, then LJ Cryer got hurt, then Adam Flagler got hurt. We haven't seen full-strength Baylor since the Bears won at TCU on Jan. 8. But if everyone gets fully healthy soon -- and by soon, I mostly just mean before the postseason -- I think Scott Drew has the pieces to make another deep run in the NCAA tournament. The personnel is very different from last season, but Akinjo is outstanding off the bounce and will be critical late in games. Flagler, Cryer and Matthew Mayer can all make shots. Sochan and Kendall Brown are versatile pieces who are difference-makers defensively, and Baylor has its collection of role players and rebounders up front. More time for the defense to develop will only help, too.
Borzello score prediction: Kansas 74, Baylor 72
Gasaway: I have more long-term faith in Baylor even though I do expect the Bears to lose in Lawrence. In Big 12 play both BU and Kansas have been about the same on offense (excellent), but Scott Drew has the superior defense. It's not the best defense in the Big 12 and it's definitely not as good as it looked against Villanova earlier in the season, but it is better than KU's.
What's striking about the Jayhawks is that conference opponents are turning the ball over about 16% of the time -- in a league where the average turnover rate is (a rather high) 21%. Mind you, I'm tempted to keep the faith with Kansas because this is a veteran group that features two likely first-round picks in Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun. But the picture of this defense in the NCAA tournament going against a truly low-turnover opponent does give me pause. (There really isn't a low-turnover opponent in the Big 12 this season other than Kansas State.) I'll park my faith in Waco for now.
Gasaway score prediction: Kansas 68, Baylor 66
Jahvon Quinerly grabs 20 points for the Crimson Tide as Alabama gets the upset win versus No. 4 Baylor, 87-78.
Lunardi: Having picked the Jayhawks to win it all back in November, it pains me to say my faith in KU is wavering big-time. It's the rare Kansas team for which the whole seems less than the sum of the parts. Either that or last week's Kentucky beatdown is overstimulating our evaluation in a negative direction.
What's next for Kansas and Baylor? The Bears have been the opposite of KU, seemingly overachieving after losing four starters from the NCAA champions. And they have, in Akinjo, the most dangerous player in a one-possession game. I like these teams to split their regular-season meetings, each winning on the other's court.
And I like Kansas to advance further in the NCAA tournament, if only because we know to expect the unexpected.
Lunardi score prediction: Baylor 76, Kansas 75
Kentucky looked like a vintage UK team in last Saturday's rout of Kansas. What's the ceiling for this team, and what worries you the most about the Wildcats headed into Saturday's trip to Tuscaloosa?
Gasaway: The ceiling is that there is no ceiling for UK, right? The team that blew away Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse would have defeated any opponent in the country up to and including Auburn or Gonzaga. When you have Oscar Tshiebwe, Keion Brooks Jr. and TyTy Washington Jr. all healthy and pulling together, you're in a basketball space with a very, very high ceiling.
Then again, this team is nothing to write home about in terms of interior defense. And among elite teams nationally, two of the better 2-point-scoring offenses belong to -- well, isn't this a coincidence? -- Auburn and especially Gonzaga. Kentucky is legit, but John Calipari can tell his players about another even more fearsome UK team from seven years ago and what happened there. The Wildcats will have to stay hungry.
Gasaway score prediction: Kentucky 88, Alabama 79
Gonzaga's Andrew Nembhard lobs it to Chet Holmgren in transition for a two-handed dunk.
Borzello: The ceiling is a national championship. Since the loss to Notre Dame on Dec. 11, Kentucky is the second-best team in the country according to the metrics at BartTorvik.com, behind only Gonzaga. The Wildcats figured out that playing more aggressively defensively, forcing turnovers and pushing the tempo with the backcourt of Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington has been their best way to win games. Kellan Grady is hitting shots, Oscar Tshiebwe might be the best player in the country, and Keion Brooks is playing the best basketball of his career over the past couple of weeks. There are options off the bench, there's size, there's experience, there's shooting. And I think they're still improving.
My biggest concern -- assuming Wheeler and Washington don't continue to get injured in the same game -- comes on the defensive end. I like the Wildcats' individual defense on the perimeter; Grady did a terrific job on Ochai Agbaji last weekend and Wheeler really gets into his man. But it's not an elite shot-blocking unit and teams have been able to get open shots around the rim. For example, Auburn shot nearly 68% on 2s in the Tigers' win over Kentucky.
Borzello score prediction: Kentucky 91, Alabama 86
Lunardi: If we had to bet a mortgage payment -- today -- on the composition of the Final Four, is there anyone who wouldn't seriously consider Kentucky? Recency bias alone would shine a favorable light on the Wildcats, with UK having won six of seven, losing only at top-ranked Auburn in the game Washington left due to injury.
I like the Wildcats to keep on winning, including Saturday at Jekyll-and-Hyde Alabama. If they stay healthy, this is a stealthy No. 1 seed candidate.
Lunardi score prediction:: Kentucky 74, Alabama 70
Medcalf: This team can win a national championship. John Calipari has a bunch of older guys who just went into the Phog and blasted a really good Kansas team. If you go back to that game, there is a moment where Dajuan Harris scores back-to-back buckets in the first half as KU is trying to cut into Kentucky's lead. Calipari calls a quick timeout and the Wildcats come back out and continue to dominate. I don't think some of Calipari's younger teams would have been able to maintain their composure in that environment in that critical juncture. Listen, the Wildcats have the most dominant big man in college basketball with Tshiebwe. They're the top offensive rebounding team in America and they lead the SEC with a 38% clip from the 3-point line.
The Wildcats are also playing top-20 defense. They have it all. But they don't always have every player. The biggest concern has to be the injuries this team can't seem to avoid. Every time you turn on a Kentucky game, it seems as if another player is headed to the locker room. Tshiebwe and Grady are the only two players who've competed in all 22 games for Kentucky. If Kentucky can stay healthy, it can battle any team in America. However, Alabama has feasted on top-25 teams in Tuscaloosa this season.
Medcalf score prediction: Kentucky 87, Alabama 83
Give us one other game you're looking forward to on this weekend's slate.
Borzello: UConn at Villanova, Saturday, 12 p.m. ET (Fox). Both teams are coming off a loss -- UConn at home to Creighton and Villanova at Marquette -- but the loser of Saturday's matchup is likely out of the Big East title hunt. Providence has a two-game lead in the loss column on both teams and a fourth loss would be tough to overcome. Villanova had a six-game stretch early in Big East play where it looked like the Wildcats were finding their rhythm and ready to sprint through the rest of the schedule, but they've lost two of five (both to Marquette) and the schedule is about to get tougher. Similarly, UConn saw its five-game winning streak snapped and could really use another high-level win for seeding purposes. The Huskies are about to enter a brutal seven-game stretch bookended by games against Villanova.
Gasaway: Michigan at Purdue, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET (Fox). The Wolverines have been on the dark side of the attention moon ever since they lost four of five games straddling calendar years 2021 and 2022. But, just for the sake of discussion, consider what a win in West Lafayette would do for this profile. You would then be looking at a NET ranking in the 40s for a 12-8 team that's 6-4 in the Big Ten with road wins at Indiana and Purdue. Sounds bubbly and possibly even worthy of attention, no? Now, is a road win against the Boilermakers likely? No, but Wisconsin at least proved it can be done. Go strong, UM.
Medcalf: I'll join John and go with Michigan at Purdue. Still don't know what's going on with this Michigan season, but the Wolverines are 4-1 in their past five games. They have been destroyed on the road for the past two months, though. But maybe there is new life for this group. More than anything, I want to see how the Wolverines compete in a hostile environment. They have withered in recent weeks in these situations. And this feels like a make-or-break moment for that team. The Wolverines might not win, but if they come out flat again, there won't be any reason to have a lot of hope in their prospects going forward. Let's see if Michigan competes against a team with Final Four talent. Feels like the Wolverines have to convince themselves they can hang with a team at Purdue's level.
Lunardi: Gonzaga at BYU, Saturday, 10 p.m. ET (ESPN and ESPN App). Two years ago, pre-pandemic, the top-ranked Zags went to Provo and got blasted by a BYU team that was Sweet 16 good. These Cougars aren't quite at that level, but it's possible that neither are the Zags. Nothing would help the WCC's case for a record four NCAA bids more than for one of the others -- BYU, Saint Mary's or USF -- to knock off the league's 800-pound gorilla. This might be the best chance for it to happen.