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December 27, 2010
The two weeks around New Year's Day is prime time for bowl games, but college basketball fans will get to see plenty of key matchups as 2010 ends.
The Big East and Big Ten begin conference play this week, starting with some key games that could be indications of where teams should finish in March.
Connecticut is one of eight remaining undefeated teams, and the Huskies have been somewhat quiet since the Maui Invitational. That changes on Monday when they face Pittsburgh, which suffered its only loss to Tennessee.
Here's a look at those games, the grudge match in the Bluegrass State and other games to watch this week. All times Eastern.
Game of the week: Connecticut at Pittsburgh, Monday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN2. The Big East schedule starts with a bang. Pitt was the preseason favorite, and outside of an 83-76 loss to Tennessee -- Pitt needed a late surge to make the final score look respectable after trailing by 20 in the second half -- the Panthers have looked strong enough to contend for the league title. UConn beat Michigan State and Kentucky on the way to winning the Maui Invitational title, but the Huskies have played only one team with a winning record since (Harvard). UConn point guard Kemba Walker hasn't scored fewer than 20 points since the opener, and he's shooting 51.5 percent from the field.
Don't overlook this one: Minnesota at Wisconsin, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2. Minnesota was one of the surprises of November when it defeated North Carolina and West Virginia to win the Puerto Rico Tip-off. The Gophers lost 87-79 to Virginia back on the mainland, but that was without PG Al Nolen. He returned against South Dakota State last Thursday. Minnesota needs him, as it opens Big Ten play in Madison, then faces Michigan State on the road on Dec. 31. The week will be a barometer for all three teams, but for Minnesota most of all.
Mid-major to watch: New Mexico at Texas Tech, Thursday, 8 p.m., local TV only, and New Mexico at Dayton, Saturday, 2 p.m., CBS College Sports. The Lobos haven't played that tough of a non-conference schedule, and they still lost to rebuilding California and Northern Iowa. New Mexico needs to improve its resume -- not that beating Texas Tech (2-5 since Nov. 26) will help that much. Dayton will be a tougher test because of its defense.
Coaching matchup to watch: Kentucky's John Calipari vs. Louisville's Rick Pitino, Friday, noon, CBS. A great rivalry has become even more interesting with Pitino facing Calipari every season. They also faced each other when Calipari was at Memphis and Louisville was a member of Conference USA. Calipari is still feeling out his lineup and working with a group of talented freshmen in Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb. These freshmen aren't as dominating as last season's, but they've been good enough to lead Kentucky to a 9-2 start. Louisville started 10-1, but there has been just one road game and the loss came at home to Drexel.
Injury update: Seton Hall G Jeremy Hazell suffered flesh wounds when was shot in an attempted robbery on Christmas. Hazell was released from the hospital Sunday, and Pirates coach Kevin Willard told reporters Hazell could miss the remainder of the season because of a wrist injury. Willard made no mention of the shooting. ? Louisville G/F Mike Marra will be out two to four weeks with a sprained ankle. ? Northwestern F John Shurna left a game against Mount St. Mary's with a sprained ankle, but the Wildcats have an eight-day layoff before facing Purdue on Dec. 31.
Stat watch: Villanova is 10-1, but its toughest opponent was UCLA. The Wildcats are shooting 44.9 percent from the floor, ranking 14th in the Big East in that category. It's not much worse than what the Wildcats shot last season. Still, Villanova faces Temple (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN2), which, as usual, is playing solid defense. The Owls are holding opponents to 37.7 percent shooting.
Tournament implications: Michigan plays host to Purdue on Tuesday (2 p.m., Big Ten Network). Michigan was picked at or near the bottom of the Big Ten in preseason polls, but the Wolverines enter conference play at 10-2. Michigan has been one of the best defensive teams in the Big Ten, but we'll learn how seriously to take the Wolverines when they face Purdue (11-1) in their Big Ten opener. If the Wolverines win, they become a Big Ten team with legit NCAA aspirations.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.