Holiday weekend matchups include Arizona-FAU, Illinois-Missouri rivalry

ByMyron Medcalf ESPN logo
Friday, December 22, 2023

A few years ago, a Division I head coach told ESPN that he always worries about games during the holidays. Strange things can happen as players think about going home and seeing family members they haven't seen in years, he said. Players are fatigued. They need a break. And who could blame them for thinking about a good home-cooked meal and a chance to rest?

This stretch matters, though, because every coach in the country wants to go into the break with some momentum; a good win, before everyone hops onto flights or into cars, could follow teams into late December and January, the critical period when most teams begin the bulk of their conference schedules. A loss? That could linger and weigh a team down for weeks. Maybe longer.

For this weekend, we've listed a handful of games with obvious implications, and a few others that feature teams that crave a big win. Or any win. Last week, we perfectly predicted Kentucky's 87-83 victory over North Carolina. But we had no clue Michigan State would dominate Baylor the way it did.

That's how it goes throughout the holiday season. There will be joy, mixed with some heartbreak.

All odds from ESPN BET.

Maryland (7-4) at UCLA (5-5)

Friday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2

The preseason was promising for these teams, with both receiving votes in the AP preseason poll. They appeared to be squads with NCAA tournament ambitions. But neither the Terps (losses to Davidson, UAB) nor the Bruins (loss to Cal State Northridge) are mentioned in Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology. They're past the point of desperation as they entered the week with sub-100 NET rankings.

UCLA's Adem Bona (12.8 PPG) has flirted with his ceiling but hasn't quite reached it. And Maryland's Jahmir Young (17.7 PPG, 4.3 APG) has 12 turnovers over the past three games (which the Terps won). A victory for either would be a good holiday gift.

Medcalf's pick: Maryland, 70-66; Against the spread: Maryland (-3.5)

No. 13 Illinois (8-2) at Missouri (7-4)

Friday, 9 p.m. ET, St. Louis, FS1

On Dec. 12, 2020, Illinois had just come off a win at Duke when it met longtime rival Missouri. Brad Underwood's squad, ranked sixth in the country entering the game, suffered an 81-78 loss that night to the unranked Tigers. Rivalry games are weird like that.

Today, it feels as if Dennis Gates and Missouri are a long way from the squad that won 25 games a year ago. The Tigers have lost back-to-back games to Kansas and Seton Hall, and Iowa State transfer Caleb Grill (8.4 PPG) is out indefinitely with a wrist injury. Plus, they have a résumé-shattering loss to Jackson State.

For Illinois, Terrence Shannon Jr. and Southern Illinois transfer Marcus Domask are a strong tandem, and the Illini are top 15 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Should be an easy night for them, then, right? We said the same thing about the top-10 Baylor Bears before they got bullied by Michigan State last weekend.

Medcalf's pick: Illinois, 79-72; Against the spread: Illinois (-6.5)

Butler (10-2, 1-0 Big East) at Providence (10-2, 1-0 Big East)

Saturday, noon ET, FS1

Entering the season, both teams were afterthoughts in the Big East race. Providence, which lost former head coach Ed Cooley to Georgetown, had been picked to finish seventh in the league's preseason poll. And Butler, coming off a 14-18 season, was picked to finish 10th. Both, however, are in the 50s in the NET rankings entering this matchup. That's bubble territory.

Bryce Hopkins and Devin Carter have combined to average more than 32 points per game for the Friars, while Pierre Brooks (16.5 PPG) hopes to lead the Bulldogs to their eighth win in a row. This game will be important for a pair of teams chasing an NCAA tournament at-large bid.

Medcalf's pick: Butler 76-73; Against the spread: Unavailable at the time of publication

No. 4 Arizona (8-1) vs. No. 14 Florida Atlantic (9-2)

Saturday, 3 p.m. ET, Las Vegas, FOX

During its run to the Final Four last season, FAU's strength was its ability to stall the ambitions of elite guards. Kendric Davis, the former American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, finished 5-for-15 in Memphis' first-round loss against the Owls. Tennessee's Santiago Vescovi and Josiah Jordan-James combined to go just 6-for-22 in the Sweet 16. Even Kansas State's Markquis Nowell finished 3-for-10 inside the arc in the fabulous Elite Eight matchup against FAU.

The Owls will have to take the same approach to stop Caleb Love -- who scored 29 points (4-for-9 from the 3-point line) in Arizona's 92-84 loss to Purdue on Saturday -- if they hope to have a chance to beat the hungry Wildcats.

Medcalf's pick: Arizona 88-84; Against the spread: Unavailable at the time of publication


Medcalf's picks straight up: 18-7

Against the spread: 11-14