Weekend Preview: The first weekend of the conference is here with Illinois-Purdue, Kentucky-Florida and more

At this point in the men’s college basketball season, nothing is real. While the sport has hosted a multitude of high-profile matchups, most teams stopped accelerating in December. The schedules were easier. There were bigger gaps between the games. The players had free time, a rest that 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 is a true ACC contender, maybe more so.

The second? Who knows what’s real in that league? Ole Miss has been playing “easy” for the past two months. Undefeated, yes. But the resume is full of opponents under 100. However, if Chris Beard’s team goes on the road and beats Tennessee, 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 remains a Big Ten threat without Terrence Shannon Jr. That mission will begin in West Lafayette against the No. 1 team in America.

The real game moment is here. This weekend, some of the frauds will be exposed.

All ESPN Bet odds.

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

Friday, 8:30 pm ET, FS1

In the final month of his final 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 record a combined 38 points, a welcome contribution off the bench with the loss of Terrence Shannon Jr., who faces a rape charge and is suspended indefinitely. . . In those two games without Shannon Jr., Illinois made 44% of its 3-point attempts.

But Purdue is 4-0 against KenPom’s top 50 teams. Zach Edey is the best player in the United States. And the Boilermakers’ margin of victory at home this season is 30.8 points per game. Still, this Illinois team will be by far the toughest opponent Matt Painter’s team has faced in their building in 2023-24.

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

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

Saturday, 12:00 p.m., ESPN2

In the first five minutes of the Tigers’ 93-58 win over Radford on Friday, PJ Hall hit a pair of 3-pointers, saved an errant baseline pass, made key defensive stops and scored on multiple post-ups. He is 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). In the 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 it all afternoon to achieve the road victory. However, in the three games since suffering back-to-back losses to UConn and Kentucky, the Tar Heels’ defensive pressure has improved (their opponents have connected on just 39% of their attempts inside the arc, according to barttorvik.com). They also made 39% of their 3-point attempts during that span. Should be a great game.

Medcalf’s choice: Clemson, 82-79; Against the spread: Not available at time of publication

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

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

It’s no secret that rookies Rob Dillingham (14.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 45% from 3) and Reed Sheppard (12.5 rpg, 4.7 rpg, 4.3 points per game, 56% from 3) might be Kentucky’s best players, even though they come off the bench. But Antonio Reeves has been the steady, veteran presence for a Kentucky team with national title aspirations.

However, during their current six-game winning streak, Walter Clayton Jr. and company have stood out in ways that could help them challenge the Wildcats. During that span, Florida has taken advantage of second-chance opportunities (41.2% offensive rebound rate) while also improving its defensive efficiency (opponents have shot just 41.7% from inside the arc). Can the Gators continue that type of performance against a national power? We’ll see.

Medcalf’s choice: Kentucky, 87-80; Against the spread: Not available at time of publication

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

Saturday, 6 pm ET, SEC Network

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

At 13-0, Ole Miss entered this week’s AP Poll at No. 22. In KenPom, however, Ole Miss is No. 79. The NET rankings? 60. A home win over Memphis is their best win to date. A road win over a battle-tested Tennessee team (the Vols rank second in adjusted defensive efficiency in KenPom with wins over Wisconsin and Illinois) would validate pollsters who are bullish on the Rebels.

Medcalf’s choice: Tennessee, 79-72; Against the spread: Not available 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. Eastern, ESPN+

In 2018, Tyrese Haliburton was an Iowa State freshman who averaged just 6.8 points per game in his Division I debut. A year later, he took a leap and averaged 15.2 points per game and 6.5 points per game before entering the NBA draft. Last summer, the Indiana Pacers star signed a $260 million extension.

Current Cyclones star Tamin Lipsey may not necessarily have the same future in the NBA, but his Year 2 jump and the numbers associated with it are strikingly similar to Haliburton’s college career. A year after averaging 7.3 points per game, the 6-1 guard has moved to a new dimension: 15.5 points per game, 5.9 points per game, 6.1 points per game, 3.6 points per game, 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 team would change that and put Lipsey in the national player of the year conversation.

Medcalf’s choice: Iowa State, 75-72; Against the spread: Not available at time of publication


Medcalf’s choices are clear: 20-9

Against the spread: 15-14

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