While the big-time non-conference battles are not yet complete, now is the time of year when conference play really gets rolling. An early Saturday afternoon showdown between Villanova and Texas may be the biggest game of the weekend, but it's also a monstrous couple days in the Big Ten as well. Michigan and Illinois meet Saturday before a huge matchup of Michigan State and Ohio State takes place on the campus of the Buckeyes on Sunday. Other key games to keep an eye on across the country this weekend include Washington's trip to UCLA in the Pac-10, Tennessee's visit to LSU down in the SEC, and Syracuse's venture to Cincinnati in the Big East.
MUST-SEE THIS WEEKEND
(#3) Villanova at (#10) Texas
Arguably the week's top game, this one matches the red-hot, highly-ranked Longhorns against the even higher-ranked Wildcats. Both teams are playing great ball right now, and with the exception of the Horns' two-game slip in mid-December, each has played well all season. Rick Barnes' squad has been led by forwards P.J. Tucker and LaMarcus Aldridge, averaging 18 and 17 points respectively. The former is again showing why he's one of the country's best players, while the latter is emerging as a new star on the college hoops scene. The four-guard Nova attack is led by seniors Randy Foye and Allan Ray, a pair that averages nearly 40 points per game combined. Fellow guards Mike Nardi and Kyle Lowry put in about a dozen each. It will be interesting to see whose style prevails and if the Longhorns can continue their hot streak or if the Wildcats will capture another monstrous RPI-building win.
Washington at (#13) UCLA
After dropping a disappointing home decision to rival Washington State last weekend, the Huskies got back on track Thursday with a victory over USC on the road, moving UW back to the .500 mark in conference play. UCLA, along with California, is sitting atop the Pac-10 standings heading into the weekend, though the Huskies were the preseason favorite out west as little as two weeks ago. There's much hoops left to be played, but this one is huge. Two of the conference's top four scorers, Washington's Brandon Roy and UCLA's Arron Afflalo, will meet on the same court, so that should be interesting as well. Before their win over WSU on Thursday, the Bruins' previous home game ended in disappointment in a loss to in-state rival California on New Year's Eve. UCLA can't afford to drop another home game, and if they could pick up this win, it would be even bigger considering the opponent.
Michigan at (#15) Illinois
This pair has combined to lose just three times this season, though each has dropped one of their first two Big Ten games. The Wolverines quietly sprinted out to a 10-1 start before splitting their first two league games, the loss coming by seven at Indiana. Illinois, ignoring the fact that they lost a ton of talent from last year's squad, has been led by all-American Dee Brown, who is scoring almost 15 points per game. The Illini won their first fifteen games of the campaign before losing at Iowa last week, shooting 35% for the game and a dismal 19% from downtown. The Wolves have the talent to pick up the win, but seeing Illinois drop two straight, especially one of those at home, would be very surprising.
Xavier at Charlotte
Along with GW, these two have been the best in the A-10 this season and should remain near the top of the league standings throughout the season. After a slow 5-5 start, the 49ers have rebounded to win five straight, including their first three in conference play. A win this weekend would be their most impressive to date, though. That's because Xavier brings in a 10-2 overall mark and a A-10 record that is also umblemished. The Musketeers have also won five straight, and the team's two losses have come by a combined five points. The winner here steps up early as GW's biggest challenger in the conference.
Syracuse at (#12) Cincinnati
The Orange was impressive in a road win at Notre Dame Wednesday evening, but Saturday night's challenge will be much more difficult. The Bearcats are 13-3, and up until their loss at UConn on Monday, they were one of America's hottest teams. UC has been led by a trio of double-figure scorers in James White, Eric Hicks, and freshman Devan Downey, one of the country's top first-year players. The 'Cuse, meanwhile, have gone about their business quietly this season. SU boasts four double-figure scorers, led by senior Gerry McNamara who tosses in more than 17 per contest. If Jim Boeheim's squad is to win this one, McNamara - and a few others - will have to bring their A-game.
Tennessee at LSU
The SEC is as wide open as I can ever remember. With the exception of Florida, no team has been consistently good yet this season. And even the Gators are young, so they are not untouchable. With the recent struggles of Arkansas and the loss of Chuck Davis for Alabama, LSU appears to be the favorite in the West. The Tigers knocked off UA in Fayetteville mid-week and could gain some huge momentum before this coming week's trip to Mississippi State if they can knock off the Vols. But that won't be easy. First year head coach Bruce Pearl has led his team to an 11-1 start, thanks partially to four outside shooters who are connecting on 42% or more of their tosses from downtown. Look for a scrappy, high-scoring game in Baton Rouge.
(#7) Pittsburgh at Louisville
One of three remaining unbeaten teams in the country, the Pitt Panthers have been somewhat of a surprise this season. The team did not play a game decided by less than 11 points until their last four against South Carolina, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, and DePaul. Those battles were decided by an average of a seven points each. The competition has gotten tougher over the past few weeks, and it will get even tougher when the Panthers march into Louisville Sunday afternoon. The Cardinals have not fared well against quality competition recently, dropping decisions to both Kentucky and Villanova in the past few weeks. It's another huge Big East showdown; there are more than ever this year with the league's expansion, so stay tuned!
Michigan State at (#9) Ohio State
This is the second of two huge games in the Big Ten over the weekend. After dropping their first two conference games of the season, the Spartans got on track with a win over Indiana on Wednesday. MSU's murderous row in early January continues, though, with a trip to once-beaten Ohio State. The Buckeyes have played as well as any team in the Big Ten this season, but their next two games (this one, and vs Wisconsin on Wednesday) will help show the world which direction the Buckeyes are heading in. Coach Tom Izzo's team really would like to avoid another early-season loss, but coming away with a victory won't be easy. Should be a good one!
YOU'LL WANT TO CATCH THESE, TOO
California at Stanford - Friday 9:00 PM CDT
Miami at North Carolina - Saturday 11:00 AM CDT
Georgetown at (#5) Connecticut - Saturday 11:00 AM CDT
Iowa State at Texas Tech - Saturday 11:00 AM CDT
Virginia Commonwealth at Old Dominion - Saturday 11:00 AM CDT
Georgia Tech at NC State - Saturday 11:00 AM CDT
Mississippi State at Mississippi - Saturday 12:00 PM CDT
Alabama at Kentucky - Saturday 12:00 PM CDT
Holy Cross at Bucknell - Saturday 12:00 PM CDT
St. Joseph's at George Washington - Saturday 1:00 PM CDT
Oklahoma at Texas A&M - Saturday 1:00 PM CDT
Florida State at Boston College - Saturday 1:00 PM CDT
(#1) Duke at Clemson - Saturday 1:00 PM CDT
Marquette at (#14) West Virginia - Saturday 1:00 PM CDT
Northwestern at (#11) Wisconsin - Saturday 1:30 PM CDT
Georgia at South Carolina - Saturday 2:00 PM CDT
Vanderbilt at Arkansas - Saturday 2:05 PM CDT
Oklahoma State at Baylor - Saturday 3:00 PM CDT
Auburn at (#2) Florida - Saturday 5:00 PM CDT
Colorado at Missouri - Saturday 5:00 PM CDT
Missouri State at Wichita State - Saturday 7:05 PM CDT
Wake Forest at Maryland - Sunday 6:30 PM CDT