Why you should pay particular attention to Michigan State, Houston,

  • Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff WriterJan 26, 2024, 08:14 AM ET


    • Covers college basketball
    • Joined ESPN.com in 2011
    • Graduate of Minnesota State University, Mankato

The storylines sometimes overshadow talk about teams that have quietly hit their stride at this stage of the season.

This week alone, Purdue and Kentucky both claimed they had a “Big Z” in Wooden Award winner Zach Edey and new arrival Zvonimir Ivisic, respectively. DePaul fired Tony Stubblefield after his team’s 3-15 start. Now, a new coach will try to rebuild DePaul and lead the program to its first NCAA tournament appearance in 20 years. Good luck.

Illinois’ Terrence Shannon Jr., who was arrested in December on a felony rape charge, returned to the court after a federal judge granted his request for a temporary injunction on the school’s decision to suspend him. And the South Carolina Gamecocks, who one year ago won just 11 games in Lamont Paris’ first season at the helm, is already well past that number of victories, highlighted by beating ranked Kentucky for the second year in a row Tuesday.

But the North Carolina Tar Heels haven’t seen themselves mentioned much in national headlines in recent weeks. The Tar Heels probably don’t care, though. They haven’t lost since Dec. 16 and they’re the best defensive team in the ACC. They also lead the league in offensive rebounding rate. Then there’s DaRon Holmes II and Dayton, who have won 13 games in a row and should be favored in every Atlantic 10 game the rest of the way. Auburn meanwhile had not only entered the week on a wild 11-game winning streak, it also won every game by an average of 20.9 PPG before its first SEC loss Wednesday at Alabama.

Right now, some of the best teams in America are quietly marching toward the NCAA tournament while other teams get the headlines. Perhaps that will make them even more dangerous in the postseason.

All odds from ESPN Bet.

Friday, 8 p.m. ET, FS1

Editor’s Picks

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Tom Izzo said the shots would fall — eventually. Following a loss to Duke in the Champions Classic, Michigan State’s 3-point percentage through three games (8-for-50) was the program’s worst start in 25 years. A stunning turn for a squad that had made 39% of its 3-point attempts (No. 3 in the nation) last season. But Izzo was right. The shots began to fall again.

Entering its road game at Wisconsin, Michigan State had made 40.5% of its 3-point attempts in Big Ten play. The Badgers (42% in league play) have been better. But they’re facing a Spartans team that has won eight of its past 10 games. Greg Gard’s team crushed Michigan State in East Lansing earlier this season, but Izzo has defeated Wisconsin on the road in four of their past five meetings in Madison.

Medcalf’s pick: Michigan State, 78-75; Against the spread: Michigan State (-2.5)

Kansas State (14-4, 4-1 Big 12) at No. 11 Houston (17-2, 4-2)

Saturday, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN

The season didn’t exactly start out as planned for Jerome Tang. Desi Sills, Keyontae Johnson and Markquis Nowell, three key players from the magical Elite Eight run last March run, moved on to pursue pro careers. Then, Nae’Qwan Tomlin (10.4 PPG last season) was suspended and subsequently removed from the team after an incident at a bar. Still, the Wildcats entered the week with a 4-1 record in Big 12 play, which was good enough for a first place tie with Texas Tech.

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They’ve also entered, however, their most difficult stretch, beginning with Houston. The Cougars stumbled early in their new league with back-to-back road losses at Iowa State and TCU this month, but have now won three in a row and sit at first in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom. Nine of their opponents this season have failed to score more than 50 points against them. Plus, L.J. Cryer (11-for-23 from the 3-point line over the past three games) is on fire right now.

Medcalf’s pick: Houston, 63-53; Against the spread: Unavailable at time of publication

No. 7 Kansas (16-3, 4-2 Big 12) at No. 23 Iowa State (14-4, 3-2)

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET, CBS

At this point in the season, every coach in the country hopes to solidify their rotations. Sure, eight or nine guys might have played in most of the games in November and December. Once you reach late January, however, it’s time to identify the starting five and one or two players who can come off the bench. The latter is often the difference between who survives in March and who goes home early.

Over the last week, both Kansas and Iowa State have found a spark in their rotation that has strengthened their postseason hopes. In four games as a starter for the Jayhawks, 6-foot-9 Australian forward Johnny Furphy has averaged 14.5 PPG and connected on 48% of his 3-point attempts after replacing four-star recruit Elmarko Jackson. Meanwhile for the Cyclones, Curtis Jones has stepped up. On Saturday at TCU, with Tamin Lipsey (14.5 PPG, 5.6 APG) out due to a shoulder injury, the 6-4 guard finished with 17 points and seven steals in the 73-72 win. Both are promising developments for both teams.

Medcalf’s pick: Kansas, 83-81; Against the spread: Unavailable at time of publication


Medcalf’s picks straight up: 26-15

Against the spread: 19-22

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