Ryan Arcidiacono and Trevor Cooney (Getty Images)
Two outstanding games highlight a weekend slate otherwise largely devoid of must-see matchups. Here's a look at what to watch this weekend with a big focus on Villanova-Syracuse and Kentucky-Louisville:
Villanova at Syracuse, Saturday, 2 p.m. EST: With Villanova beginning the season outside the Top 25 and Syracuse replacing its three best perimeter players, Saturday's clash once seemed destined to be the undercard to Kentucky-Louisville. Instead the matchup between former Big East foes is worthy of co-main event status since the Wildcats and Orange both take unbeaten records and top 10 rankings into the game. The bigger surprise is Villanova, which has gone back to its four-guard roots to topple Kansas and Iowa and blow out everyone else on its schedule. James Bell, JayVaughn Pinkston and Darrun Hilliard have propelled a perimeter-oriented offense, but the biggest reason Villanova has exceeded expectations is that small ball hasn't been detrimental defensively or on the glass. Despite typically playing nobody taller than 6-foot-7 whenever center Daniel Ochefu sits, the Wildcats have been effective rebounding the ball and dominant defensively, surrendering a Big East-best .89 points per possession and forcing 16.6 turnovers per game. Modest size and a lack of consistent 3-point shooting could be detrimental Saturday, however, against a Syracuse team that relies on a long, tall front court and a stifling zone defense. If freshman point guard Tyler Ennis can take care of the basketball and Syracuse can limit transition opportunities and force Villanova to score against a set defense, the Orange may have the edge at home. Projected winner: Syracuse.
Louisville at Kentucky, Saturday, 4 p.m. EST — Bragging rights aren't all that's at stake on Saturday when this year's edition of the nation's most intense rivalry tips off. The loser of Saturday's game will enter league play without a notable victory. Young but ultra-talented Kentucky (9-3) has lost to the three best teams on its schedule, falling at North Carolina and on neutral courts against Baylor and Michigan State. Defending national champion Louisville (11-1) has racked up 11 wins against modest competition but lost handily to North Carolina in its lone significant game of the season so far. The outcome of Saturday's matchup may rest on the answers to a handful of key questions. Can Kentucky avoid fast break-fueling turnovers against Louisville's pressure defense? Do the Cards have enough size inside to protect the rim and hold their own on the glass against the taller Wildcats? Who else will step up for Kentucky if Rick Pitino doubles Julius Randle in the post and forces the Wildcats to go to someone else for points? Kentucky seldom loses at Rupp Arena and Louisville isn't road-tested yet, but the youthful Wildcats have yet to look fully comfortable competing for 4o minutes in a marquee game on a big stage. Projected winner: Louisville.
Others to watch:
Nebraska at Cincinnati, Saturday, 12 p.m. EST — These are the types of games Cincinnati needs to win at home to ensure it makes the NCAA tournament. The much-improved Huskers are a respectable 8-3, but they've lost to the three best teams on their schedule. Projected winner: Cincinnati
Wake Forest at Xavier, Saturday, 5 p.m. EST — This year's Skip Prosser Classic pits a Wake Forest team with a good record but no quality wins against a Xavier team that has beaten Tennessee, Cincinnati and Alabama. The Deacs deserve to be taken more seriously if they win, but that's a tall order at the Cintas Center. Projected winner: Xavier
Providence at UMass, Saturday, 6 p.m. EST — For UMass to avoid undoing some of the good work it accomplished in non-conference play, it has to avoid a home loss to the shorthanded but still dangerous Friars. Providence is without point guard Kris Dunn for the rest of the season due to a shoulder injury and recently revealed the suspensions of its top two freshmen will last the remainder of the season. Projected winner: UMass
Missouri at NC State, Saturday, 8 p.m. EST — A homecoming game for Missouri coach and North Carolina native Frank Haith may not be very pleasant because the Wolfpack are playing their best basketball of the season. Behind the dynamic scoring of sophomore T.J. Warren and the steady development of freshman point guard Anthony Barber, NC State has won seven straight including a road victory at Tennessee. Projected winner: NC State
Georgia at Colorado, Saturday, 10 p.m. EST — Of the six teams Georgia has beaten so far this season, the best two are probably either Lipscomb or Western Carolina, both small-conference teams not expected to win their respective leagues. Colorado is way better than either of those two and this game is in Boulder, which means Georgia is probably out of its league. Projected winner: Colorado
Alabama at UCLA, Saturday, 10 p.m. EST — This could have been a more attractive matchup had former McDonald's All-American Devonta Pollard not left Alabama after a bizarre kidnapping case and standout guard Trevor Lacey not transferred to NC State. Instead the Tide come to Pauley Pavilion with a 5-6 record, though four of those losses were by five points or less. Projected winner: UCLA
Georgia Tech at Charlotte, Sunday, 7 p.m. EST — This is the closes to a notable game that Sunday can provide. Charlotte (8-3) has fallen back to earth since winning the Puerto Rico tournament with a loss to Davidson and a wipeout at Florida State, while Georgia Tech boasts a quality win over Illinois and discouraging losses against Dayton, Vanberbilt and Ole Miss. Projected winner: Georgia Tech
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