Tennessee maintains a tenuous grip on the No. 1 spot in the AP poll, but Duke‘s exploits threaten to help the Blue Devils overtake the Vols. A victory for UT over Kentucky in Lexington on Saturday could help solidify its top status. So, do our experts see it happening? And, even if it does, would that signify that Tennessee could take Duke down come tournament time? We posed both of those questions to the group:
Tennessee at Kentucky (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN) is your marquee game of the weekend. Who you taking?
Jeff Borzello, college basketball Insider: Give me Tennessee on the road. I think the Volunteers will pose too many issues for Kentucky with Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield, as PJ Washington can guard only one of them. I also think Tennessee offers a little bit more from the perimeter — which could be the difference in a game where both teams prefer to live in the paint.
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I love this matchup. And I think we’re going to see a great game that won’t be decided until the final minutes. But I’m going to pick Tennessee because, like Jeff said, I think Rick Barnes has variation in his lineup that John Calipari’s squad can’t match. Look for Barnes to go with Williams at the 5, Schofield at the 4 and Jordan Bowden at the 3 early in this game to see how Kentucky’s bigs handle it.
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: I like Barnes’ guys to stay undefeated in the SEC. The collision between the Tennessee offense and the Wildcats’ D — both of which are absurdly good — promises to be epic. I suspect, however, that LSU just showed the blueprint for how to score points against UK at Rupp. Basically, the cheat code here is normal shooting (which against Kentucky is outstanding) plus zero turnovers and an offensive board on one in every three shots you miss. The Vols are eminently capable of checking all of those boxes.
Jordan Schultz, Insider/analyst: Kentucky has clearly turned the corner and become a legitimate Final Four threat. Tennessee, however, remains the better, more experienced team. Both teams possess tremendous frontcourt play — Kentucky leads the SEC in rebounding — but Williams is on another planet right now. He can score from anywhere and does real damage inside the arc, hence his 19.4 points per game and 61.4 percent shooting on 2s. This is a good test for both teams, but I like the Vols to send Calipari to a rare loss at Rupp, and his second this week.
Duke and Tennessee on a neutral floor in Minneapolis on April 8. How much would you hesitate in picking the Blue Devils?
Medcalf: I wouldn’t hesitate at all because I just watched Duke beat Virginia by double digits on the road and then launch a 23-point comeback in the final 10 minutes against Louisville. We’re still talking about a Duke team that’s lost one game at full strength — against Gonzaga in November, 4,000 miles from home in Maui, Hawai’i — and the Blue Devils haven’t lost on the road. RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish have found a rhythm at the right time, so I’d definitely pick Duke.
Borzello: Not much. I do think Duke and Tennessee are probably the two most complete teams in the country, but the Blue Devils are just overwhelming with their talent. To me, they have the size on the wings and at the forward spots to match up with Schofield and Williams, and Tre Jones can help minimize Jordan Bone — the catalyst for much of what the Volunteers do. Duke’s my pick right now to win it all, so I would pick the Blue Devils to beat Tennessee, too.
Gasaway: I don’t hesitate to take Duke, and I say that as someone who just picked the Vols to win at Kentucky. The thing with Coach K’s team is that, the first 30 minutes against Louisville notwithstanding, it feels like these guys are just beginning to realize how good they can be on defense. (And, of course, they’re already quite good.) Fun fact: Zion Williamson and Reddish both have higher per-possession steal rates on the season than Jones.
Schultz: Quite a bit, actually. While Duke is the most talented team in the country — Williamson, Barrett and Reddish could be the first three picks in the draft — Tennessee is a different animal. KenPom’s second-most efficient offense in the country, the Vols also boast the second-best 2-point defense in the rugged SEC, as Borzello points out. As a whole, the Vols’ blend of interior and perimeter play will make them a very tough out in the tournament. Additionally, Barnes has a terrific lead guard in Bone, whose ability to control tempo and make enough plays would also help neutralize Jones, Duke’s defensive genius.
Last season it was Trae Young. This season it’s Zion Williamson. Tell us who we will be talking about at this time next year as college basketball’s No. 1 must-watch attraction?
Borzello: This is a tough one. Young captured the nation’s attention with his outrageous points and assists numbers. Williamson was a celebrity before college and might be something we’ve never seen before in the game. There’s not going to be anyone like Williamson for a long time and there’s no one like Young in terms of production in the 2019 class — beside maybe Cole Anthony — so I’m going to hope Marquette’s Markus Howard returns for his senior season. If he does, Steve Wojciechowski will have a top-10 team all season long, and as we’ve seen, Howard can put up insane scoring numbers.
Medcalf: I’ll join the party and say Anthony, only because I think Howard can’t really do anything he hasn’t already done to elevate his draft stock so he’ll probably leave. But I also think we’re going to look back at Williamson and Young and realize how unique these experiences were. Not sure when we’ll see something like this again.
Gasaway: I see what you did there, unseen editor. Your question’s sentence construction and name-checks imply we should select a 2019-20 freshman, but you don’t actually come out and say “freshman.” I will gladly jump through that loophole (next year’s freshmen … what am I, Jeff Borzello?) and get on the Tyrese Haliburton bandwagon for 2020. This season’s Iowa State freshman will be next season’s super sophomore, dazzling casual fans and draft grunts alike with his passing and defense.
Schultz: Give me Anthony every day of the week and twice on Sundays. A brilliant playmaker with an NBA-ready first step and Russell Westbrook-type finishing ability above the rim, Anthony is the best point guard to enter the college basketball landscape in quite some time. I have watched the fearless 6-foot-3, 185-pounder up close during the infamous Lifetime Athletic at Sky summer runs and he does not disappoint. In fact, Anthony’s tight handle, explosiveness and natural ball skills hold their own and then some against the NBA’s best. He’s that good.
ESPN.com expert picks for this weekend’s top games
(Lines, published as they become available, from the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.)