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CONFERENCE PLAY HEATS UP AS 2008 APPROACHES
December 31, 2007

SCS.comAs teams wrap up their non-conference schedules, several conferences begin conference play this week. The Big 12 and SEC will hold off until the following week, and the ACC will have just a few games played, but the Big 10, Pac-10, and Big East all feature competitive conference matchups to begin what should be another fantastic winter of hoops. Enjoy the bowl season, but as college football comes to a close, college basketball is ready for its time in the spotlight. It all starts this week, and there are even three games so good I just had to include them all as a “Games of the Week.”

GAMES OF THE WEEK

North Carolina at Clemson
Sunday 5:30 PM CST FSN

Believe it or not, when North Carolina visits Clemson on Sunday, it will be the Tar Heels most challenging test of the season so far. Sure, a few of the Tar Heels’ earlier opponents, BYU and Ohio State, may be formidable, but Clemson is arguably better than both those teams and road games within the conference are never easy. Roy Williams’ top ranked squad has rolled over its weak competition lately, and pre-season All-American Tyler Hansbrough has been dominant as usual. Wayne Ellington has even shown promising improvement, solidifying himself as North Carolina’s second scoring option after Hansbrough.

But what about Clemson? The Tigers are still ranked in the top 25 but recently lost to Mississippi, a game they make me look terrible in after I predicted them to win in a Dec. 21 article. Clemson’s schedule hasn’t been awful, but North Carolina is clearly on a different level than any of the opponents Clemson has faced. Clemson loves to press and get up and down the court, but that may not be such a good idea against a team with as many athletes as North Carolina, who can play as well as anyone at an extremely fast pace.

The Tigers, like pretty much every other team in Division I basketball besides a few exceptions, don’t have the horses to keep up with North Carolina. But at home, with forward James Mays back from an injury, don’t sleep on Clemson. Of course, don’t expect to see the Tar Heels knocked from their top ranking, but with some luck things could go the Tigers’ way.

Pittsburgh at Villanova
Sunday 11:00 AM CST Local coverage - Madison Square Garden (MSG) TV

The fact that Dayton beat Pittsburgh at home isn’t all that surprising. It is an upset, of course, but nobody could predict how the Flyers manhandled the Panthers in all facets of the game. Maybe the dramatic Duke win the week earlier had something to do with it, but Jamie Dixon better figure out what went wrong because it doesn’t get any easier with a trip to Villanova.

Even with all the inexperience Jay Wright has to deal with, the Wildcats have just one loss. Take a look at their schedule so far, though, and you will see why there is just one loss on it. Sophomore Scottie Reynolds has picked up where he left off last year, leading the team with 17 points per game, and Wright has played a lot of young players this year, mixing them in with his veteran players. There is a lot of talent and a lot of potential for this squad, but Sunday’s game will tell us a lot about the Wildcats. Specifically, we will find out if this is a team ready to compete for a Big East title this season, or just a team that will be mired in the middle of the conference.

Even with the poor performance on Saturday against Dayton, Pittsburgh may prove to be too much for Villanova. Mike Cook was a big loss for Jamie Dixon, and that may prove to be a critical injury as the season progresses. Still, this is a very deep Pittsburgh team that will be much better than any team Villanova has faced this season.

UCLA at Stanford
Thursday 9:30 PM CST FSN

Way back on Nov. 30, I ripped into Stanford’s embarrassing non-conference schedule. In fact, I said that after playing such a weak schedule, the Cardinal would “not even be close to the level of preparation needed” to play UCLA. I went even further- “Stanford doesn’t stand a chance,” I said. Well, a month later, I’m not reneging on my words. Brook Lopez is back, but the Cardinal needed every point of his spectacular second-half performance to edge a marginal Texas Tech team 62-61. Stanford rolls into this game at 11-1, but has played an assortment of major conference bottom feeders mixed in with low-major cupcakes.

There is a chance Stanford can make me look like a complete full. The Cardinal’s frontcourt is tough enough to keep Kevin Love in check, but where this game will be won is the guard position. Both Mitch Johnson and Anthony Goods have done a great job for Stanford so far in the backcourt, but again, that’s against the cupcakes of Division I basketball. When they face Darren Collison and company, it won’t be that easy. If Stanford can pull an improbable upset though, I will fully admit I know nothing about college basketball. With as harsh as I’ve been toward the Cardinal in this column, I know what I will be doing Thursday night- hoping more than ever that UCLA does not make me look like an idiot.

I suggest you tune in as well, but for a different reason, because even though I said “Stanford doesn’t stand a chance” a month ago, that isn’t completely true. Last January, Stanford shocked the world and knocked off UCLA in Palo Alto, so it’s definitely possible. It’s just not very likely.

MUST-SEE MATCHUPS

Marquette at West Virginia
Sunday 1:00 PM CST MSG

West Virginia could pick up a huge home win if it can somehow find a way past Marquette, who has been impressive so far. The Golden Eagles’ speed and superior guard play will be tough for the Mountaineers to handle. The leftovers from the John Beilein regime seem to be fitting right in this season. They are even still jacking up a lot of three pointers, which makes this team a dangerous one if they got hot from behind the arc. Don’t underestimate Huggins and his team, even though Tom Crean’s squad clearly has the upper hand in this one, especially from a talent standpoint.

Providence at Marquette
Thursday 8:00 PM CST

Marquette’s first two games against Providence and Marquette are very similar, as both should be penciled in as wins but could easily turn into losses. The Friars picked up a much needed victory over Florida State Dec. 22, and now they enter conference play with an 8-3 mark, in position to at least compete for an NCAA tournament bid. Like West Virginia, Providence has a chance for a marquee victory if it can upset Marquette.

Kansas at Boston College
Saturday 11:00 AM CST ESPN

At 13-0, Kansas can’t find a way past North Carolina and Memphis in the polls, but the Jayhawks have done all they can staying undefeated. After losing a great deal of production from last year’s team, Boston College has used strong play from star guard Tyrese Rice to begin the season 9-2. An upset isn’t out of the question but Kansas has shown up to play in every single game this year, and there is no reason to think they will slip-up in this one.

OTHER GAMES OF INTEREST

West Virginia at Notre Dame
Thursday 6:00 PM CST ESPN2

Two middling Big East teams face off in this match-up, and it’s a game both teams desperately need. As the first conference game for both Notre Dame and West Virginia, it is critical to start off well in the Big East, and it is especially important to win some of these “toss-up” games against beatable teams.

Ohio State at Illinois
Thursday 7:00 PM CST ESPN

The middle of the Big 10 is completely up for grabs, and Ohio State, Wisconsin, Illinois, and maybe even a few other teams will be jockeying for position behind Michigan State and Indiana as the season goes on. Whoever wins this game gains an early advantage in the conference standings.

Oregon at Arizona
Saturday 1:00 PM CST FSN

Oregon has been a huge disappointment this season, but Arizona has played well enough to be recognized as one of the Pac-10’s better teams. The Ducks could turn around their season with a win in Tucson, but a loss for the Wildcats here would be devastating.

Louisville at Kentucky
Saturday 3:00 PM CST CBS

Even though these two teams are bitter non-conference rivals, this year’s game will not be nearly as entertaining as it has been in the past. Louisville has struggled a bit early on, but at least Rick Pitino isn’t in Billy Gillispie’s position. Kentucky is in danger of letting this entire season fall completely apart, and a win here could at least give Wildcats’ fans something to be proud of.

UCLA at California
Saturday 5:00 PM CST MSG

California may be a team to watch in the Pac-10, and with two powerful big men in Ryan Anderson and Devon Hardin, could finish pretty high in the conference’s standings and make a push toward an NCAA berth. UCLA should win easily, though, even on the road.

USC at California
Thursday 9:30 PM CST

Since California plays UCLA on Saturday, Thursday’s Pac-10 opener against USC becomes more important. Both games are at home against two very good teams, and the Bears would be in good position with a split to begin the conference season. Losing both games and dropping to 0-2 will put the Bears in an early hole.

Arkansas at Baylor
Saturday 7:30 PM CST

In the midst of the opening of conference season, Arkansas and Baylor will face off in a non-conference battle. After the turmoil and scandal that happened at Baylor, it seems odd to say this, but Arkansas will need a great performance to beat the Bears. Baylor has been a pleasant surprise so far this year, and after beginning the season in the top 25, Arkansas has been nothing more than average.

Kansas State at Xavier
Monday 6:00 PM CST ESPNU

With so much talent and so many expectations, Kansas State’s modest 9-3 start has been a disappointment. The young Wildcats can grow up with a win on the road against Xavier though, who has dropped games against Arizona State and Tennessee after starting 8-1.

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