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November 27, 2009

December wins can lead to March grins

December is a tough month for college sports fans. Bowl games are starting up, and holiday obligations make viewing games a challenge.

And if a basketball fan has an hour or two for some December hoops, there's always the possibility it's finals week for one team and a non-conference tune-up for another.

Yet this is the time when NCAA tournament at-large bids can be won or lost. Some teams, such as Syracuse (with convincing wins over California and North Carolina), boosted their resumes in November. Others, such as UCLA (with a loss to Cal State Fullerton), dug themselves into a hole through the first few weeks of the season.

Here's a quick guide to 12 teams that have a lot to gain or lose before the calendar turns to 2010.

THE GAMES: at Providence (Nov. 28), at Michigan (Dec. 2), Miami (Dec. 6), South Carolina (Dec. 30).
THE BUZZ: Boston College started the season 3-2 and already has lost to Saint Joseph's and Northern Iowa, making the next month that much more important. BC faces Providence and Michigan on the road before an eight-game homestand. The December home schedule starts with an early ACC game against Miami.

THE GAMES: Georgetown (Dec. 8 in New York), Ohio State (Dec. 12), Xavier (Dec. 19).
THE BUZZ: Butler should breeze to the Horizon League title. That makes December critical for seeding purposes. The Bulldogs face Georgetown in the Jimmy V Classic and Xavier at home. The most intriguing matchup might be with Ohio State in Indianapolis; that will showcase versatile wings Gordon Hayward of Butler and Evan Turner of Ohio State.

THE GAMES: Radford (Nov. 29), Pittsburgh (Dec. 2 at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh), at West Virginia (Dec. 9).
THE BUZZ: Duquesne should make the Atlantic 10 season interesting for contenders Xavier, Dayton and Temple, so a big December could serve notice to the rest of the league - or show that the Dukes aren't ready to build on last season's NIT appearance. The small and quick Dukes face physical teams in Radford, which won the Big South tournament last season, and rebuilding Pittsburgh. For good measure, Duquesne also visits West Virginia.

THE GAMES: Butler (Dec. 8 in New York), Washington (Dec. 12 in Anaheim, Calif.), St. John's (Dec. 31).
THE BUZZ: A narrow 46-45 victory over Temple on Nov. 17 raised some questions about Georgetown's ability to regroup for an NCAA tournament run this season after missing the Big Dance last year. The Hoyas will have opportunities to rebound before conference play, starting with Butler in New York. The toughest test could be a Dec. 12 trip to Washington in a matchup of contrasting styles. The Hoyas cap the month with a conference game against St. John's on New Year's Eve.

THE GAMES: Washington State (Dec. 2), Wake Forest (Dec. 5), Duke (Dec. 19 in New York), Oklahoma (Dec. 31).
THE BUZZ: As usual, the non-conference schedule will test the mettle of Gonzaga. The Bulldogs' new-look lineup looks much stronger than expected. The Bulldogs took Michigan State to the wire in East Lansing, then won the Maui Invitational. Even coach Mark Few seems surprised by the good start. Gonzaga will be challenged to sustain that success with home games against Washington State, Wake Forest and Oklahoma and a Dec. 19 game in New York against Duke. The challenging slate spills into January, when the Bulldogs face Illinois in Chicago on Jan. 2.

THE GAMES: Washington State (Dec. 5), Xavier (Dec. 8), UNLV (Dec. 12 at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas), Alabama (Dec. 19 in Mobile, Ala.).
THE BUZZ: The Wildcats fell short of the NCAA tournament last season, but a strong returning cast means they should be in the mix this season. Kansas State won the consolation game in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, beating Dayton 83-75. Kansas State's loss to Ole Miss in the second round in San Juan hurts, but the Wildcats have time to recover with a four-game stretch of tough - but winnable - non-conference games. The first two are at home against teams with first-year coaches (Washington State and Xavier). Then Kansas State will play UNLV and Alabama in quasi-road games.

THE GAMES: Old Dominion (Dec. 2), at VCU (Dec. 12), at South Carolina (Dec. 16), Florida (Dec. 19 in Sunrise, Fla.), at Wake Forest (Dec. 31).
THE BUZZ: Richmond is another potential contender in the Atlantic 10, but the Spiders already have a road loss to William & Mary, picked by Rivals.com to finish last in the Colonial Athletic Association. That's not a good sign for a couple of reasons. First, Richmond faces Old Dominion - the projected CAA winner - on Dec. 2. It could end up being the second meeting in five days between the Spiders and the Monarchs, who could face each other in the South Padre Island Invitational. Richmond plays VCU, which has already defeated Oklahoma this year, before facing South Carolina, Florida and Wake Forest.

THE GAMES: St. John's (Nov. 27 in Philadelphia), at Georgia Tech (Dec. 2), at Northern Iowa (Dec. 12), Rider (Dec. 23).
THE BUZZ: A mid-major darling, Siena is already showing some cracks despite a 3-1 record. The Saints' bench barely contributed in a narrow victory over Northeastern and in a 73-69 loss to Temple. Siena will be tested over the next month, starting Friday against St. John's. Siena also has road games against Georgia Tech and MVC favorite Northern Iowa. The Saints can get a leg up on (or fall behind) some of their competition in the MAAC when Rider visits Dec. 23.

THE GAMES: Kansas (Dec. 6), Mississippi State (Dec. 12 in Anaheim, Calif.), at Notre Dame (Dec. 19).
THE BUZZ: UCLA's schedule gets tougher after playing in the 76 Classic over the Thanksgiving weekend - certainly tougher than facing Cal State Fullerton, which beat the Bruins 68-65 in double overtime on Nov. 16. Normally, a game against Kansas would be a can't-miss matchup. Maybe not this season, though. The Bruins will get veteran forward Nikola Dragovic back from suspension in time for their December games. After facing Kansas, the Bruins should be more evenly matched against Mississippi State in Anaheim, Calif., and on the road against Notre Dame.

THE GAMES: Louisville (Nov. 28), at Arizona (Dec. 2), Kansas State (Dec. 12).
THE BUZZ: Every contender in the Mountain West lost its top scorer, making the conference race that much more of a mystery. Tre'Von Willis has stepped up for the Rebels and Kentucky transfer Derrick Jasper is running the point. Their effectiveness will be tested against Louisville on Saturday. The Willis-Jasper guard combo will have major tests against Arizona's Nic Wise and Kansas State's Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen.

THE GAMES: Missouri (Dec. 2), DePaul (Dec. 5), at Illinois (Dec. 8), Western Kentucky (Dec. 11).
THE BUZZ: Hopes are high for Vanderbilt to make noise in the SEC East. But right now, Vanderbilt is just trying to hold its own during a trip west. The 'Dores won at Saint Mary's on the road, but they lost to Cincinnati in the first round of the Maui Invitational. When Vandy returns home, it will have a chance to boost its win total and its RPI with games against Missouri, DePaul and Sun Belt favorite Western Kentucky. A road trip to Illinois on Dec. 8 will be the key game, though.

THE GAMES: at K-State (Dec. 8), Cincinnati (Dec. 13), at Butler (Dec. 19), LSU (Dec. 29).
THE BUZZ: The December schedule does new coach Chris Mack few favors. After the Old Spice Classic over Thanksgiving weekend, Xavier faces teams looking to prove themselves on a national stage. While Kansas State and Cincinnati didn't make the NCAA tournament last season, both return enough talent and experience to make a run this season. Mid-major fans will be in heaven when Xavier visits Butler on Dec. 19. A bonus: Xavier visits Wake Forest on Jan. 3 before starting conference play.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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