The college football bowl season begins on Saturday, and that's obviously a great thing. But the matchups aren't exactly all that exciting. However, in NCAA basketball there are several very good matchups in what is the final big nonconference Saturday of the regular season with the holidays coming up and then major conference play beginning. Here are three games that really caught my eye Saturday.
No. 11 North Carolina vs. No. 22 UCLA (+6.5)
It's a 1 p.m. tipoff on CBS from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. You might not recognize the Tar Heels here as they are going to wear all-black uniforms. The school has never done that, but they are awesome and still feature UNC's traditional light-blue and white colors on the piping and side panels.
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Kudos to UCLA for scheduling such a challenging nonconference schedule; so basically the Bruins are the opposite of Baylor football. The Bruins have played UNLV (won), Kansas (lost), Kentucky (won) and last Saturday at Gonzaga. That was on my Dec. 12 3-Point Play story , and I recommended UCLA +9. The Bruins won 71-66. The Heels might be the last ranked team that UCLA plays this regular season other than Arizona because the Pac-12 is weak again. The Bruins avoided a trap game Tuesday ahead of this one with an 89-80 win over Louisiana Lafayette, their fifth straight victory. Leading scorer Bryce Alford had a season-high 27 points. Starting center Thomas Welsh was out with a stomach virus. I'm presuming he plays here. Welsh, a sophomore, averages 12.8 points and 7.2 rebounds.
North Carolina, an upset loser at the buzzer last week at Texas, bounced back Tuesday with a 96-72 win over Tulane on Wednesday. That was UNC's first game without starting forward Kennedy Meeks. He's out at least two weeks with a bone bruise on his knee. Meeks was averaging 12.3 points (59.5 percent from field) and pulling down 7.4 rebounds. Brice Johnson stepped up big against Tulane with a career-high 25 points and 10 rebounds. Roy Williams started 6-foot-11 senior Joel James in Meeks' spot, and James had four points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes.
Key trends: The Heels are 6-1 ATS in their past seven vs. the Pac-12.UCLA is 2-5 ATS in its past seven vs. teams with a winning record. The Bruins are 0-4 ATS in their past four neutral-site games.
I'm leaning: I don't like West Coast NFL teams playing these 10 a.m. Pacific time starts, so why should I here? Last year, UCLA dropped a 78-56 decision to No. 5 UNC in the Bahamas. I'll take Carolina here -- feel better about it if Welsh doesn't play.
Northern Iowa vs. No. 5 Iowa State (-7)
This is a neutral-site game -- part of the Big 4 Classic -- from Des Moines and tips at 7 p.m. ET on ESPNU. The Cyclones can claim total state supremacy here as they already have beaten blood rival Iowa on a last-second shot Dec. 10, rallying from a 20-point deficit. Unbeaten ISU followed that up with a 73-64 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff last Sunday. The team got some bad news this week, however, as it was announced senior guard Naz Mitrou-Long would miss the rest of the season with hip problems. He had surgery on his left hip April 1 and on his right hip shortly after. Mitrou-Long, whose first game missed was vs. UAPB, averaged 12 points in 31.6 minutes. He will seek a medical redshirt. Matt Thomas had 17 points starting for Mitrou-Long against UAPB. ISU was only about seven players deep when healthy, so this could be a problem later in the season. But the Cyclones will get Marquette transfer Deonte Burton eligible for Saturday's game.
Northern Iowa is an annual NCAA Tournament team and upset North Carolina when it was No. 1 and visited Cedar Falls early this season. However, the Panthers enter having lost two of three, albeit to good teams Richmond and New Mexico -- both on the road. UNI leads the Missouri Valley Conference in 3-pointers made (84) and in its six wins has limited the opposition to 62.7 points per game. It's always a great defensive team. Northern Iowa has won six of the last nine matchups against Iowa State. The most recent was a 91-82 OT loss to the Cyclones in December 2013. UNI has posted two wins all-time over ranked foes on neutral courts -- both of those in the NCAA Tournament.
Key trends: UNI is 9-1 ATS in its past 10 neutral-site games. ISU is 7-1 ATS in its past eight on Saturday. The underdog is 4-1 ATS in the past five meetings.
I'm leaning: ISU wins but NIU covers.
UNLV at No. 13 Arizona (-11.5)
This tips at 9:30 p.m. ET from Tucson on ESPN2. UNLV already has wins over ranked Indiana and Oregon, both at neutral sites, although the Hoosiers and Ducks are no longer ranked. The Rebels come off a 66-56 home loss to Arizona State on Wednesday. The Runnin' Rebels finished the game missing 14 of their final 15 shots from the field. They led by 12 at halftime but had only 19 points after intermission. Not one player scored in double digits. Leading scorer Patrick McCaw (15.8 ppg) had just five points and was in foul trouble, thus had a season-low five shot attempts. Starting guard Andre Spight had none in 17 minutes. The loss is tougher to take because ASU's best player, Savon Goodman, who played at UNLV as a freshman, was out injured.
Arizona has won five straight since a close loss to Providence. The Wildcats crushed Northern Arizona 92-37 on Wednesday. With a huge size advantage, Arizona had a 50-14 advantage in the paint and 24 more rebounds. It stretched UA's home winning streak to national-best 45 straight games and was the biggest margin of victory under Coach Sean Miller. Arizona allowed the second-fewest points ever under Miller. The Wildcats played their third straight game without backup forward Elliott Pitts, who is out because of an unspecified issue. And starting center Kaleb Tarczewski hasn't played since Nov. 26 due to a foot injury and won't be back until conference play.
Key trends: UNLV is 5-0 ATS in its past five after a loss. Arizona is 5-0 ATS in its past five. UNLV is 5-0-1 ATS in the past six meetings.
I'm leaning: UNLV beat visiting and No. 3 Arizona 71-67 last year, the Wildcats' only regular-season nonconference loss. Cats will win, but I'll take the points.
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