3 rivalries that will likely decide conference titles, top NCAA seeds and bragging rights

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (handshake-line etiquette lessons sold separately at USC and Colorado, where the coaching staffs got into it after the Buffaloes won in Los Angeles on Saturday):

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THE BEST IS YET TO COME

The three best home-and-home series of the season haven’t even started yet. That will change this weekend in Rupp Arena, and the following weekend in Cameron Indoor and the Crisler Arena. Get ready for six rivalry games that will go a long way toward deciding conference championships, top NCAA seeds and bragging rights. The list:

Tennessee (21) vs. Kentucky (22). First meeting: Saturday in Lexington. Second meeting: March 2 in Knoxville. Current status: The Volunteers are ranked No. 1 and lead the Southeastern Conference at 10-0; the Wildcats are ranked No. 5 and tied for second in the league at 9-1. Rivalry history: Kentucky leads, 154-71. With the current coaches: Tennessee and Rick Barnes lead Kentucky and John Calipari, 4-3.

The Volunteers are veterans who came out of high school as relative unknowns and coalesced into a great team under Barnes. The Wildcats are the customary collection of youthful five-star talent, plus a grad transfer (Reid Travis) thrown in for seasoning. Tennessee has the better record and higher ranking, but Kentucky is red hot, riding a nine-game winning streak, and playing at home in the first meeting. Sophomore forward PJ Washington is becoming a star for the Cats.

Minutes prediction: Series split, with each team winning at home.

Potential complication: LSU (23) was tied for second in the league with Kentucky before beating the Wildcats with a controversial last-second tip-in on Tuesday in Rupp. But LSU has several losses left on its schedule in the closing weeks.

Michigan (24) vs. Michigan State (25). First meeting: Feb. 24 in Ann Arbor. Second meeting: March 9 in East Lansing. Current status: The Wolverines are ranked No. 5 and lead the Big Ten by half a game at 11-2; the Spartans are a game back at 10-3 and ranked No. 11. Rivalry history: Michigan leads, 93-81. With the current coaches: Michigan State and Tom Izzo lead Michigan and John Beilein, 11-9.

Prepare for a pace tussle between stout defensive teams — the Wolverines will be more deliberate, while the Spartans will look for transition opportunities. Michigan State is reconfiguring itself after losing guard Joshua Langford for the season, and could benefit from a consistent second option to guard Cassius Winston. Michigan needs to keep forward Ignas Brazdeikis from hitting the freshman wall — he’s been really good, but Wisconsin provided Tom Izzo a blueprint for how to play him in holding him to a total of two points in two meetings, on 1-for-14 shooting.

Minutes prediction: Another series split, with home teams winning both.

Potential complication: Purdue (26). The Boilermakers are between the Wolverines and Spartans in the league standings at 10-2, and have an easier schedule down the stretch. (Average Pomeroy rating of Purdue’s eight remaining opponents is 48th. Michigan’s is 29th and Michigan State’s is 33rd.) Beware the Boilers.

Duke (27) vs. North Carolina (28). First meeting: Feb. 20 in Durham. Second meeting: March 9 in Chapel Hill. Current status: The Blue Devils are ranked No. 2 and leading the ACC at 9-1. The Tar Heels are ranked No. 8 and third in the league at 9-2 after losing Monday night at home to Virginia. Rivalry history: North Carolina leads, 137-111. With the current coaches: Duke and Mike Krzyzewski lead North Carolina and Roy Williams, 19-13.

They play compatible styles — they’re the two fastest teams in the ACC (Carolina at 75 possessions per game, Duke at 73) and both are excellent offensive teams. But don’t disrespect the defense — the athletic Blue Devils lead the nation in block and steal rates; and this Carolina team simply shuts down second-chance opportunities.

Minutes prediction: Duke in a sweep.

Zion Williamson and Duke are still scheduled to play hated rival UNC at least twice this season. (AP)
Zion Williamson and Duke are still scheduled to play hated rival UNC at least twice this season. (AP)

Potential complication: Virginia (29). As the Cavaliers showed in their late rally to win at North Carolina Monday, they cannot be counted out yet despite two losses to the Blue Devils. (Yes, it helped that two Tar Heels rolled their ankles in the game and missed significant time.) Now Virginia will need some help — perhaps from Carolina — to defend its league title.

POWERHOUSE GAMES OUTSIDE THE POWER SIX

Here’s hoping the NCAA tournament selection committee takes a glance at five games outside the mainstream this week, because one or both teams involved could be potential candidates for at-large bids if they don’t win their league tournament. The list:

Liberty at Lipscomb (30), Wednesday. The two top teams in the Atlantic Sun: Liberty is 21-5, 10-1 in the league; Lipscomb is 20-4 and 11-0. Lipscomb has a sassy No. 30 NCAA NET ranking, while Liberty is No. 61. The Bisons won the first meeting in a rout on the road, and are on an 11-game winning streak. If the Flames don’t beat them here, Lipscomb should run the table in the league.

Buffalo at Toledo (31), Friday. The Bulls (No. 22 in the NET) have been the darling of mid-major hoops this season, and for good reason — namely, wins at West Virginia and Syracuse. But they’re not the only quality team in the Mid-American Conference. The Rockets (No. 54 in the NET) are worth a look as well. They need a quality win, and this is their best opportunity for one before the MAC tourney.

Northern Kentucky at Wright State (32), Friday. NKU has been the best team in the Horizon League all season, but a couple of recent road losses opened the door to the Raiders, who won the conference tournament last year. Wright State has won seven of its last eight and will be looking to avenge a four-point road loss to the Norse last month.

UNC-Greensboro at Wofford (33), Saturday. If any mid-major conference deserves a long look at multiple bids, it’s probably the Southern. There are four very good teams at the top, and these are two of them. The sharpshooting Terriers (No. 27 in the NET) are 13-0 in the league and would be the top at-large candidate from the SoCon. Greensboro, which beat Wofford by a point in the SoCon semis last year and went on to the NCAA tourney, is 11-1 in the league — but that one loss was by 29 points at home to Wofford.

VCU at Dayton (34), Saturday. The Atlantic-10 has seen better days, but these are two of the three teams that matter (Davidson is the third). This is the 19th straight winning season for VCU, spanning six different coaches, and the Rams are the league’s front-runner in the analytics (No. 44 in the NET).

STAT OF THE WEEK

Eight steps, give or take a hop. Somewhere between 35-40 feet of ground covered. Three seconds elapsed time. Those are the numbers behind the mind-boggling blocked shot by resident thrill-maker Zion Williamson (35) on Saturday night at Virginia.

Plenty of people are knocking the Cavaliers’ DeAndre Hunter for his slow catch, gather, rise and release of the shot that was Zionized into the fifth throw at John Paul Jones Arena. And he was painfully deliberate. But seriously: What player could have foreseen an offensive tackle bolting from outside the 3-point arc on the opposite side of the court, into the paint, then out to the corner and launching in time to not just alter … not just tip … but totally obliterate the Hunter jumper?

Who does that? Nobody does that.

Colleague Pete Thamel noted that the college block most reminiscent of that play was by Syracuse’s Hakim Warrick (36) to help cinch the 2003 national championship, in the final seconds against Kansas. That block certainly carried more gravitas, but less degree of difficulty. Warrick was in the middle of the paint and took four steps to the corner to make the block, covering about 22 feet.

Williamson went further and probably jumped higher — while taking more weight along for the ride with him. Of all the plays on the Zion highlight reel from his one and only season at Duke, two against Virginia should probably be at the top: the right-handed, and-one dunk off the full court drive in Durham last month; then this monstrous display in Charlottesville.

UNDER THE RADAR LOVE

Each week, The Minutes makes note of a player doing good work outside the power conferences. This week’s subject: Chris Clemons (37).

If Clemons hits his nation-leading scoring average of 29 points Wednesday night against Hampton, the Campbell Camels senior guard will move into the Top 10 in career scoring in Division I history. The player he will be passing: Danny Manning. Next on the list: Oscar Robertson.

With 2,930 points, Clemons is a virtual lock to become the ninth 3,000-point scorer in history. Depending how far Campbell (14-10, 7-3 in the Big South) can go in the postseason, he could crack the all-time top five. (Right now No. 5 is Doug McDermott, who scored 3,150 points at Creighton.)

It’s been a good run for a 5-foot-9 guard who came out of Raleigh, North Carolina, without drawing a scholarship offer from an ACC school.

Clemons has scored in double figures in 98 straight games, and 109 out of the 110 he’s played in college. He’s averaged 34.3 over the last four games, including 39 in a road upset of league-leading Radford.

Two years ago in the Big South tournament, Clemons put the Camels on his back and took them to the championship game, averaging 37 points per game in the first three rounds, before falling to Winthrop with an NCAA bid on the line. He’ll give it another run this March. It would be fun to see one of the most prolific scorers in college hoops history have a March Madness moment, just to see what he could do.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

John Becker (38), Vermont. Earlier this month, when the Catamounts beat UMass Lowell, Becker won his 100th conference game as a head coach — the fastest coach in America East history to reach that milestone, needing just 120 league games to do it. In NCAA history, these are the only coaches to get to 100 conference wins as fast or faster than Becker: Gonzaga’s Mark Few (112 games in the West Coast Conference), Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp (116 games in the SEC), Temple’s John Chaney (118 games in the A-10) and Kansas’ Bill Self (120 games in the Big 12). At 9-1 in league play this year, Vermont is a game ahead of Stony Brook in the battle for the AE title — and the right to host all its games in the tournament.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Archie Miller (39), Indiana. When the Hoosiers were 12-2 and 3-0 in the Big Ten, with wins over Marquette and Louisville, a return to the NCAA tournament seemed like a sure thing. Now, after nine losses in the last 10 games, including the last four at home, the Big Dance looks like a long shot. Miller’s team is clunky on the offensive end, sketchy from the 3-point line and lousy from the foul line, and has the glazed on-court look of a group that is adrift and unsure how to pull an unraveling season back together. Seemingly, the coach could help with that.

BUZZER BEATER

When hungry in the worldly locale of Palo Alto, The Minutes recommends a Middle East immersion at Oren’s Hummus (40). Start with one of the many varieties of hummus (duh), then add a beef kebab and a Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA for a delightful meal. Thank The Minutes later.

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