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What to watch this weekend: Battle for first in the Big Ten highlights solid slate

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine (Getty Images)

Michigan at Michigan State (Saturday, 7 p.m. EST): Michigan State has made a habit of winning without key players this season, but this first-place showdown in the Big Ten is probably their most daunting challenge yet. Not only is Michigan entering on an eight-game win streak, the Spartans will likely be without two key members of their frontcourt. Definitely out is forward Branden Dawson, who will miss 4 to 5 weeks after breaking his hand slamming it on a table during a film session Thursday. Likely also sidelined is forward Adreian Payne, who has missed the past four games with a right foot injury. The only saving grace for Michigan State is that the Mitch McGary-less Wolverines aren't equipped to exploit the Spartans inside. Unless Payne plays, this will probably be a perimeter battle. Projected winner: Michigan

Kansas State at Iowa State (Saturday, 1:45 p.m. EST): To say this is a big game for the Cyclones is a massive understatement. They've already lost three straight games since a 14-0 start and their next three after Saturday are at Kansas, at home against Oklahoma and at Oklahoma State. To snap the losing streak, Iowa State needs to rediscover its typically reliable outside shooting touch. The Cyclones are 21 of 83 from behind the arc in their past three games, a stat that shows both their shooting woes and their over-reliance on the deep ball. Kansas State is one of the better defensive teams in the country, but Iowa State can create mismatches with its perimeter-shooting big men. Though Thomas Gipson should own the paint against Iowa State, he'll also likely struggle to defend the perimeter. Projected winner: Iowa State

Cal at UCLA (Sunday, 8 p.m. EST): The kiss of death in the Pac-12 the past few weeks has been being labeled as the biggest threat to Arizona. It started when Oregon nosedived and dropped five in a row. Next up was Colorado, which promptly lost top player Spencer Dinwiddie to a season-ending ACL tear. Cal made its case by winning its first five league games in impressive fashion, but then the Bears took a step backward with a surprising loss at rebuilding USC on Wednesday. Now it's safe to say the winner of Sunday's game between Cal and UCLA will have the strongest case to be known as the Pac-12's second best team. To win on the road, the Bears will need to be better in all facets than they were against USC, from interior scoring, to perimeter defense to getting production off the bench from Jabari Bird. Projected winner: UCLA

Villanova at Marquette (Saturday, 2 p.m. EST): If Marquette has any chance of making a late run at an NCAA tournament bid, this is a victory it probably needs to get. The Golden Eagles won at Georgetown in their most recent game, but they're still just 11-8 overall and 3-3 in the jumbled Big East. A win over Villanova would boost Marquette's chances considerably, but it won't come easy against a Wildcats team looking to atone for its miserable defense against Creighton earlier in the week. Villanova surrendered 21 3-pointers and trailed by as many as 40 points in an embarrassing home loss. One piece of good news for the Wildcats: Marquette isn't likely to duplicate those shooting numbers. Perimeter scoring has been a season-long issue for the Golden Eagles. Projected winner: Villanova

Clemson at North Carolina (Sunday, 6 p.m. EST): The longest home winning streak by one Division I school over another began before the Great Depression. North Carolina has beaten Clemson in Chapel Hill an unfathomable 56 straight times, a streak that started in 1926 and has included everything from comeback victories, to one-point escapes to blowouts. A Clemson team that has ridden a formidable defense to a 4-2 ACC record would seem to have a realistic chance against this year's unpredictable North Carolina team. The Tar Heels are just 1-4 in the ACC and lack any semblance of outside shooting with P.J. Hairston off the team and Leslie McDonald in a slump. Still, until the Dean Dome clocks read triple zeroes and Clemson has more points, it's impossible to go against history. Projected winner: North Carolina

Other games to watch: Florida State at Duke (Saturday, 12 p.m. EST), Tennessee at Florida (Saturday, 4 p.m. EST), BYU at Gonzaga (Saturday, 10 p.m. EST), Georgetown at Creighton (Saturday, 8 p.m. EST)

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