Dribble Handoff: What to watch for on historic college basketball weekend featuring four top-10 matchups

The first weekend of February is bringing a college basketball bonanza in the form of a record-breaking schedule. Never before have there been four top-10 matchups during a regular-season weekend. But as Matt Norlander pointed out in this week’s Court Report, that’s what we’re in store for Saturday and Sunday.

Among them is the first of two scheduled showdowns between Duke and North Carolina as the No. 3 Tar Heels host the No. 7 Blue Devils. UNC may have been caught looking ahead to the rivalry tilt when it was taken down by Georgia Tech on Tuesday night.

No. 5 Tennessee also got caught in a trap spot on Tuesday, falling 63-59 at home to South Carolina before its trip to play No. 10 Kentucky on Saturday. The outcomes should serve to send the intensity into overdrive for the Volunteers and Tar Heels as they seek atonement in huge rivalry games.

Also on the docket is No. 4 Houston’s first trip to Kansas as a member of the Big 12 as the No. 8 Jayhawks seek to teach the Cougars a lesson about life in the nation’s toughest league. Finally, on Sunday, Big Ten heavyweights will clash when No. 2 Purdue travels to No. 6 Wisconsin for a 1 p.m. ET battle on CBS.

Between those games and No. 1 UConn’s Saturday trip to face St. John’s and Rick Pitino (and another half-dozen terrific games), we’re in store for a great weekend. For this week’s Dribble Handoff, our writers are previewing the best storylines of the historic slate.

All times ET

No. 1 UConn at St. John’s

Saturday, Noon | Fox,  fuboTV (Try for free) 

Because I’ll be seeing this one in person, allow me to call dibs on the earliest tip of the five most anticipated matchups this weekend — and the only one that isn’t a top-10 affair. But this one has the juiciest coaching storyline, with unapologetic egos on full display. Saturday’s game will be at Madison Square Garden. But if Rick Pitino gets his way, it will be the last UConn at St. John’s game played at the World’s Most Famous Arena for as long as he’s there. 

“Right now, the only game that’s going to be played in Carnesecca is Connecticut,” Pitino said in December. “Every other game, we’re going to negotiate.”

Pitino knows that UConn fans will be well-represented at MSG; he wants the bandbox of Carnesecca Arena to host the Huskies moving forward. UConn fans have taken this request and mocked Pitino because of it. Dan Hurley responded to this a month ago by accurately reminding everyone that Connecticut is now the big dog and it’s understandable why St. John’s would try and do what it needs to in order to gain an edge.

“There are programs who haven’t been to a Final Four, or haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament in 20 years, so there’s obviously a lot of punching up,” he said.

St. John’s assistant Steve Masiello followed that up with a tweet that reminded everyone Pitino has been to seven Final Fours. Pitino recently said he doesn’t act unruly and go after officials because, to him, that feels like “cheating.” 

Mmmmmm, yeah. Let’s get spicy!

Reminder: These two coached against each other in the NCAA Tournament just last year! Pitino’s Iona team led Connecticut at the half before the Huskies pulled away en route to a dominant title strut. 

God, I can’t wait for this weekend. What an excellent game to kick off the day. Hopefully this is the first of two meetings in 2024. Hoop gods: Get these two to square off again in the Big East Tournament, OK? If nothing else, I hope Saturday is as good as this throwback from 1999.  — Matt Norlander

No. 4 Houston at No. 8 Kansas

Saturday, 4 p.m. | ESPN,  fuboTV (Try for free) 

No. 4 Houston at No. 8 Kansas has everything you want in a college basketball game on Saturday. A top-10 matchup (one of only three on Saturday), a meeting between the two best teams in the best basketball conference in America, and Houston going into a hornet’s nest against a team that has arguably the best homecourt advantage in all of college basketball?

Yes please!

This will feel like an Elite Eight island game in a juicy time slot to boot leading into Duke-UNC.

Stylistically this one will be tons of fun, to say nothing of the stakes that come with the two best in the Big 12. Houston has bangers everywhere and the No. 1 defense in adjusted efficiency with a roster top to bottom that plays like its well-being depends on physicality. Kansas has size and skill everywhere, with Hunter Dickinson, Kevin McCullar and KJ Adams all gritty enough to potentially neutralize some of Houston’s best strengths.

A win by the Coogs puts them in the catbird seat to win the league in its first season. A loss by Houston puts the Big 12 up for grabs with further proof that the league — as ever — runs through Kansas. Can’t wait. — Kyle Boone

No. 7 Duke at No. 3 North Carolina 

Saturday, 6:30 p.m. | ESPN,  fuboTV (Try for free) 

We never get Duke-North Carolina too early in the calendar — evidence being that the Blue Devils and Tar Heels haven’t played before February in more than two decades. The first of two scheduled meetings is always either just before the Super Bowl or just after. We’ll get this season’s first meeting this weekend.

It should be awesome.

It typically is.

As Matt Norlander detailed in Tuesday’s Court Report, Saturday will represent the 49th time Duke and UNC will meet as top-10 teams. That’s 35 times more than any other two schools have met as top-10 teams, which is among the reasons Duke-North Carolina is widely regarded as college basketball’s best rivalry. Plus, you might’ve heard, the campuses are separated by just nine miles. And, believe it or not, the programs are 24-24 in the previous 48 top-10 matchups with each other. Because of course.

This meeting will be highlighted by the presence of two possible First Team All-Americans — Kyle Filipowski at Duke and RJ Davis at North Carolina. The advantage obviously goes to the home team; the Tar Heels will be favored. But I’ve been covering this series long enough to have seen North Carolina upset Duke at Duke, Duke upset North Carolina at North Carolina and everything in between. So ruling anything out or making big guarantees is often a fool’s errand. That’s why it’s usually best to just sit back and enjoy it, the latest highly anticipated meeting between two of the biggest brands in college athletics. — Gary Parrish

No. 5 Tennessee at No. 10 Kentucky

Saturday, 8:30 p.m. | ESPN,  fuboTV (Try for free) 

Rick Barnes is 10-9 vs. Kentucky since taking the Tennessee job for the 2015-16 season. The mark includes three victories inside Rupp Arena and another two on neutral courts in SEC Tournament play. None of John Calipari’s SEC peers in 15 seasons on the job have enjoyed as much consistent success against the Wildcats as Barnes. But UK began turning the tide last season with its first regular-season sweep of Tennessee since Donnie Tyndall’s lone season coaching the Vols in 2014-15. The Wildcats did it by holding Tennessee to 54 and 56 points in their two meetings as the Volunteers shot a combined 9 of 48 from beyond the arc against UK.

This time around, both teams have been infused by offensive playmakers and are playing faster. It’s made them both more fun to watch, but there are still questions both need to answer. For Kentucky, it’s about the defense and whether or not the Wildcats are solid enough on that end to compete for a national title. For Tennessee, it’s whether Dalton Knecht is getting enough offensive help for the Volunteers to be potent in March. — David Cobb

No. 2 Purdue at No. 6 Wisconsin

Sunday, 1 p.m. | CBS, CBSSports.com, CBS Sports App (Free) 

Sunday will mark the sixth top-11 opponent Purdue has faced this season. The Boilermakers are 7-2 against Quad 1 opponents (tied with Houston and UConn for the most in the country) but this weekend will mark the first time they have faced a ranked opponent on the road. 

Purdue has arguably the best resume in the sport with wins over Gonzaga, Tennessee, Marquette, Arizona, and Illinois and this game against Wisconsin could be its biggest challenge yet. The Boilermakers have only two losses and both have come on the road against Big Ten competition.

The Badgers are red hot and have won 15 of their last 17 games. Wisconsin is currently sitting alone atop the Big Ten standings with an 8-1 record and Purdue isn’t too far behind with a 8-2 mark. This game could go a long way in deciding the potential Big Ten regular-season title. Ironically, Purdue and Wisconsin will meet on the final day of the regular season in West Lafayette, Indiana, on March 10. I can’t think of a better way to cap one of the best weeks of college basketball than this game. — Cameron Salerno

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