We split our NCAA picks in about as dramatic a fashion as possible. Providence was a large road underdog at Hinkle Fieldhouse, yet handled the Butler Bulldogs with aplomb en route to an 81-73 win. The game was just the second time Butler has hosted a meeting of top 15 (some had Providence 10th, making it a “top ten matchup”) in the 87-year gym history. Suffice it to say, the fans went home a little disappointed after Kris Dunn solidified his Naismith front-running status with a 20 point, 9 assist, 7 rebound gem. Ben Bentil was also awesome, as he has been all year, and they got 25 and 10 from 6’8’’ sophomore Rodney Bullock. It was as impressive of a win as any team has notched this season, and with the disastrous performance from Xavier added in, don’t be surprised to see th Friars as high as 7 or 8 in Monday’s poll.
Meanwhile, let’s talk about the Xavier loss. It was ugly. Soul crushing. It was an “immediately invalidates the entire pre-conference results” kind of road trip. Villanova absolutely manhandled the previously undefeated Muskies. And NO EXCUSES, they lose that game 99 of 100 times, but seeing their most important player, Edmond Sumner, strapped to a stretcher and carried off the floor and taken to the hospital before the first television timeout dramatically changes the complexion of that game. It will be interesting to see how they rebound Saturday night hosting a similarly-angered Butler.
There isn’t a lot of college hoops to ring the first day of the New Year, but the Pac-12, perhaps the nation’s most-balanced good league, starts play today, so let’s dive in with a winning play to start the year off right.
Today’s Free Pick:
Utah Utes -5 at Stanford Cardinal
The Utes will get a lot of national perception mileage out of their gutty overtime win against Duke in New York, but in truth, it was a pretty mixed bag in the pre-conference season for the Utes. The Duke win was nice. Wins over Texas Tech, Temple and BYU don’t hurt the profile. A 24-point loss to Miami and a 17-point loss to Wichita State are concerning. This team could still win the Pac-12, but they could also find themselves needing some wins in February to feel good on Selection Sunday. The Pac-12 is incredibly balanced. Aside from Arizona, I’m not sure anyone can be conclusive labeled as “tourney lock” and I’m not sure a single team can be classified as NO SHOT. Stanford, Washington, Wazzou, and Oregon State all have some talent. Meaning, this league is going to be insane.
The Cardinal enter with the worst record in the Pac-12 at 7-4, but in fairness, they have played a tougher slate than their Washington brethren. Stanford has losses to SMU, St. Mary’s, Texas and Villanova. The problem is only the Texas loss was close (2 points). They don’t have a ton of good wins to balance it out either. The best wins are Arkansas and Green Bay. This is likely a rebuilding year for the Cardinal, and tonight’s game may be an indication of just how tough it will be. They are playing a better team, but they are playing at home.
Utah hasn’t been as sharp as expected, but has looked better since the Wichita State debacle. They were a good road team in league play last year, and despite the loss of Delon Wright, returns a lot of their core, including All American candidate Jakob Poetl. Stanford has lost it’s only games to ranked opponents by a TON of points. I don’t think they have the talent to win tonight, even at home. I like Utah to win and think they could very well do it easily. Either way, five is slim enough to eat the points and take the far superior team. Stanford could very well finish last in the balanced league. They aren’t awful, but they sure aren’t very good either.
Utah beat Stanford twice last year by a combined 40 points. Granted, none of those games were in Palo Alto, but I don’t think the change of scenery is enough to change the Cardinal fate. Look for Poetl to have a big game but also get plenty of help from an admirable big and athletic supporting cast including 6’6’’ Jordan Loveridge (12.9 ppg) and 6’9’’ Kyle Kuzma (12/6.2)