Weekend watch: Big East breathing room

It’s hard to believe, but we’re already to the last weekend of January, which means conference races are getting serious.

Brandon Triche and the Orange aim to put some distance between themselves and West Virginia.
(US Presswire)

This is a big weekend in the Big East, both for the team at the top (Syracuse) and some of the teams chasing the Orange (Louisville, Seton Hall and West Virginia).

The weekend’s biggest game, though, might be in the Big Ten; two of the teams tied for the league lead meet Sunday when Michigan visits Ohio State.

Here’s a look at the key games this weekend. All times Eastern.

Top five games to watch

West Virginia at Syracuse, Saturday, 1 p.m., ESPNU: Syracuse leads the Big East, and WVU, which has three conference losses, needs a win to stay in contact with the Orange in the league race. WVU has been getting steady play from F Kevin Jones and G Truck Bryant. This is the teams’ only meeting this season.

Mississippi State at Florida, Saturday, 1:30 p.m., SEC syndication/MSG network/ESPN FullCourt: Mississippi State can make a case that it is the second-best team in the SEC with a victory; the Bulldogs already have won at Vanderbilt and beaten Alabama. The Gators won at Ole Miss on Thursday, but the Rebels cleaned up on the glass. That has to worry Florida coach Billy Donovan because of the Bulldogs’ physical nature. The Gators are 10-0 at home this season, and while Mississippi State won at Vandy, it also lost at Ole Miss and Arkansas.

Louisville at Seton Hall, Saturday, 8 p.m., Big East syndication/Sportsnet New York/MASN/ESPN FullCourt: Seton Hall started 15-2 but has lost three in a row, and none of the losses came to a Big East power (USF, Villanova and Notre Dame). This is the first game in a huge three-game stretch for the Pirates, who have road games against Marquette and UConn after this. Louisville has won two in a row after a stretch in which it lost five of seven. Neither of these teams is going to win the league title, but this is the type of game each needs to win if it wants to finish in the top five or six in the league.

Saint Mary’s at BYU, Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPNU: Saint Mary’s beat BYU by 16 at home in late December, and the Gaels also own a league win over Gonzaga. A loss in this one would make it extremely unlikely that BYU could win the WCC regular-season title. The Cougars play extremely well at home.

Michigan at Ohio State, Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS: These are two of the three teams tied for the Big Ten lead (Michigan State is the other). The Wolverines are 2-4 in true road games, but one of those wins came Tuesday against Purdue. This will be the first game in a stretch in which the Buckeyes play three of four at home.

[The Dagger: Nine former college hoops champs will go gray]

“Mid-major” game of weekend

Southern Miss at UCF, Saturday, 7 p.m., Comcast-Charter Sports Southeast: Southern Miss is the biggest surprise in Conference USA and is tied with Memphis for the league lead. The Golden Eagles are 18-3 overall and face UCF, which is a game back in the league race, twice in the next two weeks. UCF (15-5) has wins over UConn and Memphis but is coming off an upset loss to Tulsa.

Rick Majerus leads Saint Louis into a key A-10 showdown at UMass.
(US Presswire)

Something to prove

Massachusetts. The Minutemen are one of six teams with two league losses in A-10 play, which puts them tied atop the conference. They play host to Saint Louis, another one of those teams, on Saturday (2 p.m., A-10 syndication/Comcast Sports Net New England/Comcast-Charter Sports Southeast). UMass has benefited from an easy early league schedule, and it’s easy again after the visit from the Billikens. A win and UMass should contend until the end.

[Video: Blindsided: St. Joseph’s pranked with short shorts]

Keep an eye on

Illinois: The Illini had been alone in first place in the Big Ten, but they have dropped two in a row heading into Saturday’s game at Minnesota (8 p.m., Big Ten Network). This is the second contest in a key seven-game stretch for the Illini. Are they really Big Ten contenders, or are they a middle-of-the-pack team?

Middle Tennessee: The surprising Blue Raiders are 20-2 and running away with the Sun Belt title. Saturday, they play at nearby Vanderbilt (the campuses are about 40 miles apart). MTSU owns a neutral-court win over Ole Miss, but a victory over Vandy would be on a different level. So, how good are the Blue Raiders?

Purdue: The reeling Boilermakers have lost three of four and four of six heading into Saturday’s game at Northwestern (4 p.m., ESPN2). Northwestern could use a win, as well. Purdue has five road games remaining, and this looks to be the easiest one.

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Mike Huguenin is a Yahoo! Sports college sports editor. Send Mike a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Jan 26, 2012