College basketball picks: Virginia-Houston, Kentucky-UCLA, Arizona-Tennessee and more


Now this is more like it. Between the boring first week and the slow pace of December, what with all those final exams and the holidays, we could use a day like this one. We have five games between Top 25 teams and one between a ranked team and the preseason No. 1 squad. Things will get a lot quieter between now and the end of the year, so gather your multiple screens, settle into the couch and enjoy an amazing slate of games.

The drill, as usual, is I get 100 tokens to put on my picks against the spread, with a minimum of 10 tokens on each game. All lines are via BetMGM.

Providence at Seton Hall (-2 1/2), 12:30 p.m. ET, Fox. Shaheen Holloway has coached only 11 games at his alma mater, but it’s striking how much the culture already resembles the one he built at Saint Peter’s. The Pirates are offensively limited, so they are buttering their bread on defense (27th in adjusted efficiency, per KenPom; 10th nationally in 3-point D) and aggressiveness (No. 6 in offensive free-throw rate). They won’t beat you in a track meet (big losses to Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas), but they might slay you in a rock fight (as evidenced by Sunday’s 45-43 win at Rutgers). Providence is much the same way, but this team is still finding its identity, especially on the defensive end (112th nationally in efficiency). The Friars have played three KenPom top 100 teams and have lost to them all. They’re not ready to pull off this type of road win. The pick: 10 tokens on Seton Hall.

No. 15 Gonzaga at No. 4 Alabama (-1 1/2) in Birmingham, 1 p.m. ET, CBS. Depending on how you look at it, these teams are led by two of the most ambitious, or masochistic, coaches in the country. Gonzaga’s nonconference strength of schedule is ranked ninth nationally on KenPom; Alabama’s is 12th. This is an especially grueling stretch for the Crimson Tide, which won at Houston on Sunday and had to fight off a scrappy Memphis team Tuesday night in Tuscaloosa. Then again, this team relies heavily on four freshmen, who have young legs and eager hearts. That includes 6-foot-9 forward Brandon Miller, who erupted for 21 points in the second half of the 91-88 win over Memphis. The Tide are long and quick, and that spells trouble for Gonzaga, which has a national player of the year candidate in 6-10 senior forward Drew Timme (20.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists) but not the level of guard play it has enjoyed in recent years. The pick: 10 on Alabama.



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No. 14 Indiana at No. 8 Kansas (-6 1/2), noon ET, ESPN2. The good news for Indiana is it looks like Jalen Hood-Schifino will make his return. The 6-6 freshman point guard, who had 14 points, six rebounds and two assists in a 77-65 win over North Carolina on Nov. 30, missed the past three games because of a back injury, and the Hoosiers lost two of them. The bad news is it’s not easy for any freshman point guard to win in Allen Fieldhouse, much less one who is coming off an extended absence. This is one of the smallest teams Bill Self has coached at Kansas, and Indiana is bringing in one of the top post players in the country in 6-9 senior Trayce Jackson-Davis, who is averaging 16.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. The Jayhawks can decide to let Jackson-Davis get his 20 and 10 and shut everyone else down, or they can swarm TJD and force the other guys to beat them. Or some combination thereof. Despite its lack of size, Kansas ranks 10th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, and this isn’t Self’s first rodeo. I like his chances to figure it out, especially in the Phog. The pick: 20 on Kansas.

Freshman guard Jalen Hood-Schifino is expected to return for the Hoosiers on Saturday. (Trevor Ruszkowski / USA Today)

No. 5 Houston (-2 1/2) at No. 2 Virginia, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN2. The big question here is the status — and effectiveness — of Reece Beekman. Virginia’s 6-3 junior guard appeared to pull a hamstring early in a home game against James Madison on Dec. 6, and without him the Cavaliers had to fight their way to a 55-50 win. That came on the heels of a two-point win at Michigan and a five-point win over Florida State at home. Normally I’d worry about a team that hasn’t played for 11 days, but in this case, the Cavs needed the break. The larger problem is they are playing a Houston squad that I’m guessing had an unpleasant week of practice following Sunday’s home loss to Alabama. (The Cougars had an easy win over North Carolina A&T on Tuesday.) Virginia is well known for its defense, but the Cougars are every bit its equal: No. 2 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, and No. 1 in scoring defense (49.4) and field goal defense (31.6). First one to 40 wins. The pick: 10 on Houston.



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No. 23 Ohio State vs. North Carolina (-1 1/2) at Madison Square Garden, 3 p.m. ET, CBS. The Tar Heels-are-disappointing narrative is powerful yet tenuous. Yes, they have four losses, but they led Iowa State by seven points with four minutes to play; lost in quadruple overtime to Alabama; saw their best player, Armando Bacot, injure his shoulder early in the first half against Indiana; and did not have Bacot for the loss at Virginia Tech. Easy wins over Georgia Tech and The Citadel are encouraging signs that it’s only a matter of time until this team flips the script. I’m guessing that time is today. This group of players is made for bright lights and big stages, and I think it’s tired of hearing how it’s not measuring up. Moreover, it’s going up against an undersized, young Ohio State squad (super-senior point guard Isaac Likekele took a personal leave of absence, which moved freshman Bruce Thornton into the starting lineup) that was fortunate to beat Rutgers by a point at home on a game-winning bucket by Tanner Holden that should not have counted. The pick: 10 on North Carolina.

No. 16 UCLA (-1 1/2) vs. No. 13 Kentucky at Madison Square Garden, 5:15 p.m. ET, CBS. Gracious sakes alive, was UCLA’s defense good Wednesday or what? The Bruins went into the Xfinity Center in College Park and made Maryland’s offense disappear. The Bruins jumped to a 30-point lead, held the Terps to 60 points and coasted to their sixth straight win. Freshman forward Adem Bona had his best game of the season (14 points on 7-of-8 shooting, seven rebounds), which is important because he will be the Bruin most responsible for trying to contain Kentucky’s All-America forward Oscar Tshiebwe, who had 28 points and 12 rebounds in last Saturday’s win over Yale. The Wildcats can play some defense too (No. 7 nationally in adjusted efficiency) and are getting terrific 3-point shooting from Cason Wallace and Antonio Reeves, although they could use some help from 6-3 senior C.J. Fredrick, who is 6-of-23 from the floor over his past five games. Bona is talented, but he’s young and prone to fouling. It should be a great game, but in the end, as usual, Tshiebwe will be the difference. The pick: 10 on Kentucky.



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No. 3 UConn (-8 1/2) at Butler, 7 p.m. ET, FS1. I love the Huskies, but this is a lot of wood to lay on a conference road game. Thad Matta has been around the block a few times, and I trust he will come up with a game plan to at least make this game competitive. The Bulldogs have won four in a row (including two over top-80 KenPom teams) and have a veteran post player in 6-11 senior forward Manny Bates (13.9 points, 7.0 rebounds per game). Although they have been rocked by injuries, they are due to get an important piece back in Ali Ali, a 6-8 senior wing who averaged 13.9 points on 40.7 percent 3-point shooting last season for Akron but hasn’t played because of a concussion and broken nose he sustained in the preseason. That said, UConn has been the best team in the country this season. It has a devastating one-two punch in the middle in Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan, and it didn’t play a midweek game, so it should be plenty and rested. The Huskies will get the win, but they’ll have to fight for it. The pick: 10 on Butler.

No. 6 Tennessee at No. 9 Arizona (-3 1/2), 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2. What happens when two trains collide? Tennessee is ranked No. 1 on KenPom in adjusted defensive efficiency. Arizona is No. 1 in offensive efficiency. Arizona is the fourth-fastest team in the country. Tennessee ranks second in offensive rebound percentage. This will be Tennessee’s first true road game of the season, and the McKale Center is a tough place to play. Both teams have had their injury issues as well. Arizona point guard Kerr Kriisa played only five minutes in Tuesday’s win over Texas A&M Corpus Christi because of a non-COVID-19 illness, but he is expected to play. Jonas Aidoo missed the last game because of an illness, but I’m told the 6-11 sophomore will play. Less certain is Vols senior guard Josiah-Jordan James, who has been nursing a knee injury for the past month. He missed the win at Maryland last Saturday and is questionable for this one. When these teams played last year in Knoxville, Tennessee jumped out to a big lead and had to hang on for a 77-73 win. That was Arizona’s first loss of the season, and I think the Wildcats will be ready to return the favor on their home court. The pick: 20 on Arizona.

The Athletic’s 2022-23 ATS standings

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(Top photo of Virginia’s Kihei Clark: Geoff Burke / USA Today)


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