A friendly word of advice for college basketball fans this weekend: Try to be in front of your TVs at 4 p.m. EST on Saturday afternoon. That time slot will feature three of the biggest regular season league games of the year so far.
The marquee game will be a Big East showdown between league title favorites Louisville and Syracuse. In case that turns out to be a dud, first place will be on the line in the Pac-12 and Missouri Valley when Oregon visits UCLA and Creighton travels to Wichita State.
So while Sunday will be all about the NFL in the sports world, Saturday is a day for college hoops. Here's a look at the weekend's biggest matchups:
1. Syracuse (16-1) at Louisville (16-1) (Saturday at 4 p.m. EST)
Storyline to watch: This isn't merely a showdown between the two best teams in the Big East. It's also a game rife with a handful of intriguing individual matchups on both ends that will go a long way toward determining the final outcome. Can Syracuse point guard Michael Carter-Williams continue to perform at his usual high-efficiency level against Louisville's relentless ball pressure? Can Syracuse limit its turnovers and missed shots enough to keep Louisville from getting easy buckets in transition? If the Orange can slow down the tempo, can the Cardinals sometimes erratic perimeter shooters knock down enough jump shots against Syracuse's trademark zone? The Orange match up fairly well against Louisville, but the absence of perimeter shooter James Southerland (academically ineligible) will not help their bid for an upset. Predicted winner: Louisville
2. Gonzaga (17-1) at Butler (Saturday at 9 p.m. EST)
Storyline to watch: Anyone who thinks Butler has no chance in this game as a result of Rotnei Clark's absence hasn't paid attention to how Butler has played since its star went down with a sprained neck in the first half against Dayton last Saturday. First the Bulldogs outplayed the Flyers on the road in the second half without Clark. Then they pounded the ball inside and smothered Richmond with tough, gritty defense on Wednesday to earn a 15-point victory. The key matchup for Butler in Saturday's non-conference showdown will be if center Andrew Smith will have as much success defending Kelly Olynyk as he did Cody Zeller earlier this season. Smith bothered Zeller with his physicality, but the versatile and skilled Olynyk has been on a roll lately, scoring at least 20 points in six straight games including 33 and 31 against Santa Clara and Saint Mary's. Predicted winner: Butler
3. Missouri (13-3) at Florida (13-2) (Saturday at 2 p.m. EST)
Storyline to watch: If Missouri has any hope of upsetting Florida without Laurence Bowers, the Tigers better play the way they did in their second game in his absence rather than their first. Against Ole Miss last Saturday, Missouri trailed wire-to-wire, managed just 49 points and lost by 15 in their first SEC road trip. Against Georgia on Wednesday, the Tigers rebounded thanks to an efficient 13-point, eight-rebound night from Alex Oriakhi and six combined 3-pointers from Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross. Missouri will need to be at its best to challenge a Florida team that currently tops the KenPom rankings and leads the SEC in both points per possession and points per possession surrendered. If streaky Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario have it going from the perimeter, the Gators are very hard to beat. Predicted winner: Florida
4. Oregon (15-2) at UCLA (15-3) (Saturday 4 p.m. EST)
Storyline to watch: If Oregon wins at UCLA on Saturday, the Ducks won't just emerge as the Pac-12's top challenger to Arizona the way some have suggested. They'll be able to make a strong case for themselves as Pac-12 favorites considering they'll be in first place in the league standings and they'll have no more games against both the Wildcats and Bruins for the rest of the regular season. Winning at Pauley Pavilion will not be easy considering UCLA has reeled off 10 straight wins and is 5-0 in league for the first time since Ben Howland's first season in Westwood nine years ago. UCLA has won lately thanks to a high-octane offense and a defense that has improved recently, but Oregon's quickness off the dribble on the perimter will pose a matchup problem, as will the Ducks' rebounding ability. Predicted winner: UCLA
5. Creighton (17-1) at Wichita State (16-2) (Saturday, 4 p.m. EST)
Storyline to watch: It's unfortunate this game tips off at the exact same time as two of the above matchups because a showdown between the Missouri Valley Conference's best teams deserves national attention. Creighton is undefeated in the Valley. Wichita State is still stinging from a loss to Evansville on Sunday, but the Shockers are back at full strength with leading rebounder Carl Hall set to return after missing seven games with a thumb injury. If Creighton can go into Wichita and hand the Shockers a loss, it will go a long way toward securing the Valley regular season title for the visitors. Creighton would have a two-game lead on likely its strongest challenger and would have a road win in hand. The key for Wichita State will be slowing down a 3-point-heavy Creighton attack headlined by All-American Doug McDermott. The national player of the year candidate is averaging 24 points per game this season and erupted for 39 and 31 in his last two. Predicted winner: Wichita State
Other games to watch:
UNLV at Colorado State (Saturday, 7 p.m. EST): Before Wednesday's breakthrough win at San Diego State, the Rebels were just 2-8 on the road under Dave Rice in Mountain West play. Can UNLV win a second straight difficult road game against a Rams team that is playing very well right now? It will be tough, especially if satisfaction from Wednesday's win saps the Rebels' motivation.
Ohio State at Michigan State (Saturday, 6 p.m.): A lack of offensive weapons besides Deshaun Thomas remains an issue for Ohio State, but the Buckeyes showed off their defensive prowess last weekend in a win over Michigan. They'll need Aaron Craft to stymie Keith Appling the way he did Trey Burke to have a realistic chance of a road win.
Marquette at Cincinnati (Saturday, 7 p.m.): Thanks to overtime victories over UConn and Pitt, a one-point win over Georgetown and a seven-point victory at Seton Hall, Marquette is one of three unbeaten Big East teams left. Cincinnati will be the Golden Eagles' toughest challenge yet though because of their smothering defense, veteran backcourt and ability to control the offensive glass.
Maryland at North Carolina (Saturday, 12 p.m.): Both these teams are coming off badly needed wins, with Maryland upsetting NC State and North Carolina earning a road victory at Florida State. The winner of this game will feel OK about where it stands in the ACC. The loser will again be trying to climb out of a hole.
Arizona at Arizona State (Saturday, 2:30 p.m.): Check out the efficiency stats in Pac-12 play, and you may be surprised to learn that the Wildcats and Sun Devils' have virtually identical numbers through four games against the same opponents. That suggests the Wildcats better be on guard against an improved Sun Devils team. The loser of this game will fall two games behind either Oregon or UCLA (and also perhaps Washington) for first place in the conference.
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