What to watch: Bronny James' debut? And the weekend's other top matchups to keep an eye on

ByMyron Medcalf ESPN logo
Sunday, December 10, 2023

On July 24, 2023, it wasn't clear if we'd ever see Bronny James on a basketball court again. That day, the son of NBA superstar LeBron James suffered cardiac arrest during a team workout. On Sunday, if all things go well, the USC Trojans freshman appears to be set to make his debut against theLong Beach State 49ers in Los Angeles, a miraculous return after months of uncertainty.

On Thursday, Bronny participated in his first full-contact practice with USC.

Forget his basketball lineage, his NBA dreams, his NIL value and his potential impact on USC's program for a moment. It's just good to see the 19-year-old back on a basketball court.

If Bronny plays Sunday, the game is arguably the most anticipated debut of a collegiate player in recent college basketball history. Yes, the arrivals of Michigan's Fab Five (1991), Kevin Durant and Greg Oden (2006), and Zion Williamson (2018) were all big moments in college basketball.

But Bronny James is the son of a player who is viewed as the greatest of all time by a generation of fans. And LeBron James, who said he wants to attend his son's first college game, might be in the building Sunday. And wherever he goes, other celebrities tend to follow.

Greatness rarely shows up, however, in the children of legends, especially in basketball.

Michael Jordan's sons played college basketball but didn't come close to the all-world status their father enjoyed with theNorth Carolina Tar Heels and beyond. Rick Barry's three sons played in the NBA, but they weren't all-time legends like their father, a member of the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team. The best example of a player mirroring a great father in basketball is probably Domantas Sabonis, who had a fine collegiate career at Gonzaga before a strong run in the NBA. But his father, Arvydas, is in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Bronny will face more pressure than those sons did. The spotlight -- he has 8 million followers on Instagram -- will stay bright throughout his time at USC.

That journey begins Sunday, when he faces Long Beach State in his first collegiate game.

Get your popcorn ready.

All odds from ESPN BET.

No. 23 Wisconsin (7-2) at No. 1 Arizona (7-0)

Saturday, 3:15 p.m. ET, ESPN

On paper, a daunting three-game stretch threatened to interrupt Wisconsin's nonconference season: It started with Marquette at home on Saturday, followed by Michigan State on the road Tuesday and finished with top-ranked Arizona on the road on Saturday. It was clearly one of the most difficult nonconference slates in the country. But the Badgers aim to go 3-for-3 when they take on the Wildcats on Saturday. They were dominant -- 114 points per 100 possessions on offense -- in a double-digit win over their in-state rivals and registered 123 points per 100 possessions in the double-digit win in East Lansing. A year after finishing 140th in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom, this team is top-15 entering Saturday.

That said, the No. 1 team in the country is an astute, talented and balanced assembly. The aforementioned Caleb Love (13.3 PPG) leads a group with six players averaging double figures. The Wildcats are also top-five in defensive efficiency and offensive rebounding rate. And they've made 38% of their 3-point attempts thus far. Arizona has it all. It looks like a Final Four team, and will be tough to beat.

Medcalf's pick: Arizona 80-74; Against the spread: Wisconsin (+9.5)

No. 20 Illinois (7-1) at No. 17 Tennessee (5-3)

Saturday, 12 p.m. ET, CBS

In a 98-89 victory over ranked Florida Atlantic at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, Illinois standouts Marcus Domask and Terrence Shannon Jr. combined to score 66 points. Brad Underwood has one of his most compelling teams at this juncture of the season. Illinois has a top-10 defense that's held opponents to a 38.2% clip inside the arc, the No. 1 mark in America, per KenPom. But Illinois will also travel to face one of the best defensive teams in America.

Rick Barnes sent a message to his Tennessee team in its loss to North Carolina last week when he benched veteran Santiago Vescovi in the second half. Although the Vols fought hard after a lackluster first half in Chapel Hill, they suffered their third consecutive loss to a ranked team outside their home floor. The good news for Tennessee is that top scorer Dalton Knecht (19.0 PPG, 39% from the 3-point line) will be available on Saturday. The other good news: Tennessee is home now.

Medcalf's pick: Tennessee 77-73; Against the spread: Illinois (+6.5)

Alabama (6-2) vs. No. 4 Purdue (8-1)

Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET, Coca-Cola Coliseum, Toronto, Ontario, FOX

The gap between Zach Edey and the field in the Wooden Award race gets wider by the day. Contenders such as Kyle Filipowski and Hunter Dickinson are still in the running. But Edey (23.7 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 2.9 BPG) is the most dominant force in college basketball for the second season in a row. He is on track to join Ralph Sampson Jr. as the only two-time winners of the Wooden Award. This game will be special for Edey. Alabama and Purdue will play in Toronto, Edey's hometown.

But an Alabama squad that plays at one of the fastest paces in America, while connecting on 41% of its 3-point attempts, will try to spoil Edey's homecoming. Corralling Mark Sears (19.0 PPG, 52% from the 3-point line) will be the priority for Matt Painter's program.

Medcalf's pick: Purdue 81-75; Against the spread: Alabama (+6.5)

Arkansas (6-3) vs. No. 19 Oklahoma (8-0)

Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Arkansas turned heads when it defeated Duke last week without Houston transfer Tramon Mark (17.0 PPG), the team's top scorer this season. Mark, Temple transfer Khalif Battle (16.8 PPG) and Louisville transfer El Ellis (7.7 PPG) have found a rhythm in recent weeks. And the team's overall defense is improving. The Razorbacks held the Blue Devils, a top-20 team in offensive efficiency, to under one point per possession in that win.

But an undefeated Sooners squad has won seven of its eight games this season by double digits. Porter Moser's group is a bouncy, energetic and versatile crew in 2023-24. With starters Milos Uzan and Sam Godwin on the court together this season, per EvanMiya.com, Oklahoma has held opponents to just 76.7 points per 100 possessions. That's impressive.

Medcalf's pick: Oklahoma 78-75; Against the spread: Arkansas (+4.5)

USC (5-3) vs. Long Beach State (6-4)

Sunday, Pac 12 Network, 4 p.m. ET

When he spoke with ESPN at his home in Los Angeles over the summer, Andy Enfield said he had not recruited Bronny James simply because he was the son of NBA legend, LeBron James. He said he had decided to pursue Bronny after he observed the freshman's high basketball IQ, defensive prowess and versatility in high school games. At 6-foot-3, Bronny also had a frame that suggested he could handle the physical transition to the collegiate game. While he's recovered from his medical emergency over the summer, USC has assembled one of America's best backcourts. That's the anchor of this operation for the Trojans. Fifth-year guard Boogie Ellis and freshman Isaiah Collier, the projected No. 1 pick in ESPN's latest 2024 NBA mock draft, have led an offense that has connected on 37 percent of its 3-point attempts and registered 116.2 points per 100 possessions on offense -- for reference, the Denver Nuggets are averaging 116.6 points per 100 possessions, 10th in the NBA -- with the duo on the court. But the team's defense has been ranked 231st in adjusted efficiency (barttorvik.com) during its current 1-2 stretch. And Collier's issues with turnovers (4.6 per game) are well-documented. That's where Bronny James can make an immediate impact. The four-star prospect gives USC a disciplined guard who can defend opponents on the perimeter. He's also strong enough to handle opposing players in the paint if necessary.

Long Beach State has an aggressive defense that has forced turnovers on one-fifth of its opponents' possessions. If Lassina Traore (11.6 PPG, 9.8 RPG) and Marcus Tsohonis (17.2 PPG) are both healthy, Dan Monson's squad could put up a fight. But it's difficult to see any upset possibilities in the most anticipated debut of a player in recent college basketball history.

Medcalf's pick: USC 85-67; Against the spread: USC (-13.5)


Medcalf's picks straight up: 10-4

Against the spread: 7-7

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