New Year’s Eve lookahead: Pittsburgh aims to prove itself by beating Cincinnati

Before the party hats come out, the champagne starts flowing and the countdown to midnight begins, there are a handful of marquee college basketball games on New Year's Eve that will help the day pass by quicker.

Here's a look at four questions we'll better be able to answer by the time the calendar turns to 2013:

1. Is Pittsburgh's 12-1 start legit or a scheduling mirage?

Skim through Pittsburgh's schedule, and it's easy to see why the Panthers are still on the fringes of the AP Top 25 despite their gaudy record. They've yet to play a true road game. Their best win came over either Lehigh or Detroit. And they've lost the sole game they played against a quality opponent, a respectable 67-62 setback at the hands of Michigan in the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals. One game won't determine whether the Panthers are Big East contenders or not, but Monday's home game against Cincinnati (12-1) should at least provide a late-December barometer. Pittsburgh is No. 1 nationally in points per possession (1.26) and top 20 in points per possession allowed (0.86). If the Panthers even approach those statistics against a Cincinnati team with an elite backcourt and a stingy defense, they'll force the rest of the Big East to pay attention.

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2. Can Gonzaga sweep the Big 12?

Back in 1991, when the Atlanta Falcons swept six games against the San Diego Chargers, Los Angeles Raiders, Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers, coach Jerry Glanville unveiled a five-foot trophy signifying that his team was California's state champion. Perhaps Mark Few will embrace his rarely seen showman side and have a similar Big 12 championship trophy made for his team if it wins Monday. Gonzaga has already beaten West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kansas State and Baylor by an average of 20.5 points. Now the Zags will face maybe their toughest Big 12 test, a visit to Stillwater to face 10-1 Oklahoma State. The athleticism of Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash will test Gonzaga's suspect perimeter defense. And it won't help that mega-booster T. Boone Pickens bought up 4,000 tickets and handed them out to fans to ensure a sellout crowd.

3. Is Kwamain Mitchell healthy enough to provide Saint Louis a boost?

Having missed the first two months of the season with a fractured left foot suffered, Saint Louis point guard Kwamain Mitchell returned Friday night against SIU-Edwardsville and delivered four points, five assists and three boards. That was a solid performance for a guy who hadn't played in so long, but the Billikens will need Mitchell to be closer to his all-conference form Monday when they host New Mexico (13-1). Although Saint Louis has won six in a row, they're still looking for their first marquee win, having lost to Kansas, Washington and Santa Clara. Once Mitchell is back in shape enough to play 30-plus minutes, his return should improve Saint Louis' offense by allowing Mike McCall and Jordair Jett to play off ball, where they're more comfortable.

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4. Which Big Ten teams will get off to a good start?

League play in the nation's toughest conference tips off Monday afternoon with a pair of games between teams with NCAA tournament aspirations. Minnesota (12-1) hosts Michigan State (11-2) and Iowa (11-2) hosts Indiana (12-1). Two keys for the Spartans to pick up a road win at Minnesota will be limiting their turnovers and keeping the Gophers off the glass. Michigan State is averaging 15.6 turnovers per game and Minnesota is rebounding an astounding 48.6 percent of its misses. As for the other game, it will be a test of whether Indiana is at all vulnerable on the road. Iowa's 11-2 record and surprisingly effective defense suggests it can be a Big Ten sleeper, as do solid wins over in-state foes Iowa State and Northern Iowa.

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