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November 28, 2011

Week 4 Watch: Top 5 teams fall

We're less than 20 days into the basketball season, and fans already can disregard the preseason polls.

On Friday, defending national champion Connecticut took its first loss of the season, falling 68-63 to a UCF team led by Marcus Jordan, the son of Michael, in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. The following day, preseason No. 1 North Carolina lost 90-80 to UNLV in a game in Las Vegas that technically was played at a neutral site.

Both losses came because of big second-half surges by the winners. UCF outscored Connecticut 39-25 in the second half, while UNLV outscored North Carolina 52-38 in the final 20 minutes.

North Carolina has a chance to reclaim some lost luster with a trip to Kentucky on Saturday. Meanwhile, other top teams in the SEC, Big East, ACC and Big Ten can build (or weaken) resumes with this week's conference challenges.

We'll take a look at the three conference challenges (ACC-Big Ten, Big East-SEC, Missouri Valley-Mountain West) on Tuesday, but there's plenty of action outside of those events to examine in our weekly watch. Here's a look at the week ahead.

All times Eastern.

game of the week

North Carolina at Kentucky
Saturday, noon, CBS

Both are expected to get to the Final Four, but for now, both teams have some issues to work on. North Carolina's defense was an issue against UNLV, and the Tar Heels inexplicably also got beat up on the glass. Kentucky is 6-0, but the Wildcats' freshmen still look like freshmen at times.

Don't overlook this one: Marquette at Wisconsin, Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Big Ten Network. Jordan Taylor is one of the nation's best point guards, and his supporting cast has carried the load through a 6-0 start. Ben Brust was 7-of-10 from 3-point range in a 73-56 win over BYU, and Jared Berggren is averaging 12.3 points per game. The Badgers may need to rely more heavily on Taylor in this game. Marquette's Darius Johnson-Odom remains a high-level scorer, and sophomore G Vander Blue is playing like the top recruit he was.

Mid-major of the week: Long Beach State at Louisville, Monday, 7 p.m., ESPNU. Long Beach State had an 86-76 win at Pittsburgh on Nov. 16, but the 49ers haven't been able to build on that. They lost in overtime to San Diego State and on the road to Montana since beating the Panthers. Their remaining non-conference schedule is brutal, starting with Louisville; after that, Long Beach State faces Kansas, North Carolina and Xavier. Long Beach State standouts Casper Ware, Larry Anderson and T.J. Robinson will have their hands full in the next month.

Individual matchup of the week: Kentucky G Marquis Teague vs. North Carolina G Kendall Marshall. Teague, a touted freshman, has struggled at times, with 24 assists to 20 turnovers, but he is averaging 11.7 points. If there's a good time for Teague to start to hit his stride, it's Saturday. Marshall has been an assist machine for the Tar Heels. He has a 4.3-1 assist-turnover ratio (65 assists, 15 turnovers), but he has struggled on the defensive end. He had trouble with UNLV's Oscar Bellfield in Saturday's loss.

Interesting coaching matchup: Texas' Rick Barnes vs. UCLA's Ben Howland, Saturday, 4:30 p.m., Fox Sports Net. Barnes and Howland have 985 wins, 28 NCAA tournament appearances and four Final Fours between them, but this isn't shaping up as a banner season for either. Texas has lost to Oregon State and North Carolina State, but that's nothing compared to what UCLA has gone through. C Josh Smith has struggled to control his weight, and Reeves Nelson hasn't exactly been a model player. UCLA also endured its third and fourth losses of the season in the Maui Invitational.

Storyline you might be missing: Notre Dame wasn't going to be an elite team with F Tim Abromaitis this season, but the Irish might miss the tournament without him. Abromaitis will miss the rest of the season after sustaining a torn ACL on Friday. The Irish will get an idea of what life will be like without him this week with a road trip to Gonzaga (Wednesday, 11:15 p.m., ESPN2) and a game against Maryland (Sunday, 4:45 p.m., Versus) in Washington D.C. A split in the two games this week would be a positive.

Stat watch: With the conference challenges and other top non-conference matchups, the top 10 likely will continue to change. A big reason for that could be poor free-throw shooting. A handful of top teams are struggling in that department: North Carolina is shooting 60.7 percent from the line, Florida is shooting 60.8 percent and Xavier is at a dreadful 55.7 percent. Only two top-10 teams are shooting better than 70 percent from the line: Baylor (75 percent) and Memphis (74.3 percent). Even Wisconsin, which led the nation at 81.8 percent last season, is struggling. The Badgers are shooting 62.1 percent from the line.

Tournament implications: Last season, Xavier beat up on the Atlantic 10, going 15-1 in league play. But Xavier's 8-5 non-conference record likely cost the Musketeers a high NCAA seed; they ended up as a No. 6. This week, Xavier can make some non-conference noise. The Musketeers visit Vanderbilt on Monday (7 p.m., ESPN2) and play host to Purdue on Saturday (3 p.m., ESPNU).

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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