Here's a look at what to watch this weekend highlighted by the rivalry game between Kentucky and Louisville and two crucial matchups with ranked teams for UCLA and North Carolina.
1. Kentucky (8-3) at Louisville (11-1), Saturday 4 p.m. EST
Storyline to watch: Has any team faced more of a must-win game in December than this one for the Cardinals? They've lost four in a row to Kentucky in the John Calipari era, they have the deeper, better, more experienced team for the first time in that period and they're playing at home. What will go a long way toward determining Kentucky's upset chances is how point guard Ryan Harrow fares against Louisville's vaunted pressure. Harrow has played better recently, but the Cardinals are a long way from the Marshalls and Lipscombs of the world. The Cardinals force the second most turnovers in the nation, they've been by far the country's stingiest defense and they get shot-blocking center Gorgui Dieng back from injury Saturday. Projected winner: Louisville
2. UNLV (11-1) at North Carolina (9-3), Saturday 2 p.m. EST
Storyline to watch: No longer is this all about revenge for last year's upset loss in Las Vegas for North Carolina. Right now, the Tar Heels are simply in dire need of a marquee win to demonstrate they're still a viable contender in the ACC. Although North Carolina's 9-3 record is respectable, the Tar Heels have lost by double figures to the three quality teams they've faced. They do get UNLV at home, but they'll need to hit the offensive glass, free up their 3-point shooters and find a way to hold Anthony Bennett in check to pull out a win. Bennett, the leading contender for national freshman of the year honors, has helped UNLV absorb the loss of Mike Moser to injury by averaging 19.5 points and 8.5 rebounds on 55.7 percent shooting. Projected winner: North Carolina
3. Missouri (10-1) at UCLA (9-3), Friday 10 p.m. EST
Storyline to watch: Speaking of teams who really need a marquee win to quiet their restless fan base, UCLA may be under even greater pressure than North Carolina. This home game against seventh-ranked Missouri represents a chance for the Bruins to quiet their critics, notch a marquee win and demonstrate they're still a viable contender in the Pac-12 this season. UCLA's offense should keep it competitive, but the key will be whether the Bruins' suspect man-to-man defense can keep the vastly more athletic Tigers out of the lane and off the offensive glass. Does Larry Drew II have any chance to keep Phil Pressey in front of him if Ben Howland sticks with his man-to-man, as he has said he will, and doesn't zone? Consider me skeptical. Projected winner: Missouri
4. Baylor (8-3) at Gonzaga (11-1), Friday 8 p.m. EST
Storyline to watch: Who's the best Big 12 team besides Kansas? In an odd way, it may be Gonzaga by the end of the month. The Zags have already thumped West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kansas State by a combined 75 points. Now they'll host Baylor on Friday night before visiting Oklahoma State on New Year's Eve. While home court advantage would seem to favor Gonzaga, Baylor already ended Kentucky's winning streak at Rupp Arena this season and Illinois punctured the Zags' aura of invincibility in Spokane with an upset earlier this month. The rebounding battle will go a long way toward determining the outcome of this game, as will Gonzaga's defense on Pierre Jackson. He is averaging a Big 12 best 19.0 points per game to go with 6.3 assists and his quickness could give Kevin Pangos problems. Predicted winner: Gonzaga
5. Washington (8-4) at UConn (9-2), Saturday 7:30 p.m. EST
Storyline to watch: From Rip Hamilton's buzzer-beating fadeaway in the 1998 Sweet 16 to Rashad Anderson's last-gasp game-tying 3-pointer in the same round eight years later, UConn has twice been responsible for postseason heartbreak for Washington. The two schools will square off again Saturday, this time with merely momentum heading into conference play at stake. Although Washington has won four in a row against meager competition, the Huskies haven't accomplished enough to suggest they're capable of stopping UConn's guards or earning a road win of this caliber. They've defended poorly and, besides C.J. Wilcox, lack the usual offensive firepower to make up for it, leading to uncharacteristic home losses to Albany and Nevada in addition to an 18-point rout at the hands of Colorado State. Predicted winner: UConn
Other games of note:
Virginia Tech (9-3) at BYU (9-4), Saturday 2 p.m. EST: Despite Erick Green's 25.4 points per game, Virginia Tech enters this game having lost three of five including a humbling 88-52 setback against Colorado State. BYU badly needs a quality win and a consistent third scoring threat besides Tyler Haws and Brandon Davies.
Valparaiso (9-4) at Murray State (9-2), Saturday 3 p.m. EST: The Racers are looking for a bounce-back win after falling at Dayton last week. To get it, they'll need better perimeter defense and more production on offense out of guys besides Isaiah Canaan and Ed Daniel.
Air Force (8-2) at Florida (8-2), Saturday 4:30 p.m. EST: Is Air Force's 8-2 start merely a product of soft scheduling? Will Kenny Boynton rediscover his wayward jump shot? This game will provide a barometer for both of those questions.
Xavier (7-4) at Tennessee (7-3), Saturday 6 p.m. EST: Xavier's overachieving start has taken some body blows in recent days thanks to losses to middling Vanderbilt and lightly regarded Wofford. This is a chance for the Musketeers to regain their momentum before Atlantic 10 play against a Tennessee team that defends very well but often struggles to score.
Butler (9-2) at Vanderbilt (5-5), Saturday 8 p.m. EST: Even though Butler has beaten the likes of Marquette, North Carolina and Indiana, this is a tricky game for the Bulldogs. Vanderbilt is rebuilding after losing all five starters from last year, but the Commodores can still be tough to beat at home.
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