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January 3, 2011

Weekly Watch: Big games for little guys

As conference play begins in earnest, the most important league matchups may not necessarily be played in the "power" conferences in the first full week of the year.

The Mountain West, Missouri Valley, Horizon League and Colonial Athletic Association have games that look more like projected conference tournament finals or semifinals.

Two of the top three teams in the Mountain West face each other this week when BYU meets UNLV. In the Missouri Valley, Missouri State will face two other top league contenders on the road (Creighton and Wichita State). Cleveland State (15-1) is off to a sizzling start, and the Vikings meet Horizon standard-bearer Butler in Indianapolis. Two teams in the CAA will get an early season boost in the standings when Drexel faces VCU and George Mason meets Old Dominion.

In addition to the action in the mid-majors, the Big East has some key games this week. After beating West Virginia on New Year's Day, Marquette will try to score a rare win at Pittsburgh's arena. Cincinnati also will find out this week where it stands among other league contenders.

Here's a look at the top games and matchups for the week in college basketball. All times Eastern.

Individual matchup of the week

Kentucky F Terrence Jones
vs. Georgia F Trey Thompkins
Saturday, 4 p.m., SEC syndication/ESPN FullCourt

Jones' production has tailed off of late, but Kentucky might be better for it. The Wildcats have become more balanced with G Doron Lamb scoring more and F Josh Harrellson grabbing rebounds to take the load off Jones and Brandon Knight. Jones will be a key player in Athens with his matchup with Thompkins. After missing the first three games with an ankle injury, Thompkins is getting stronger with each game, but the Bulldogs haven't faced this tough an opponent since losing back-to-back games to Notre Dame and Temple in the Old Spice Classic.

Game of the week: Marquette at Pittsburgh, Saturday, 2 p.m., Big East syndication/SportsNet New York/Mid-Atlantic Sports Network/ESPN FullCourt. Marquette is 10-4, with all the losses coming to NCAA tournament contenders (Duke, Gonzaga, Wisconsin and Vanderbilt). The Golden Eagles were competitive in each game, losing none of those by more than five. A Jan. 1 win over West Virginia is a positive statement, but the Mountaineers also lost to St. John's at home last week. Pitt dominated Connecticut 78-63 last week, but Marquette may be a more balanced team than the Huskies. Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom both topped 20 points against West Virginia on a day when Jimmy Butler only scored 10.

Don't overlook this one: BYU at UNLV, Wednesday, CBS College Sports, 10 p.m.: Along with San Diego State, BYU and UNLV are the top contenders in the Mountain West. This is a déjà vu game: Both teams have the same non-conference record (BYU 14-1, UNLV 12-2) they had last season, when they faced each other in their MWC opener. BYU has lost eight in a row to UNLV in Las Vegas, including Mountain West tournament games.

Mid-major to watch: Missouri State: The Bears could take early control of the Missouri Valley race this week; they have three games, including two road contests against other league contenders. The Bears visit Creighton on Tuesday (8 p.m., Missouri Valley syndication/Fox Sports Midwest) and Wichita State on Sunday (8:30 p.m., ESPNU). All three teams are 2-0 in the league, but Missouri State already has won at Northern Iowa. The Bears' toughest remaining road game after this week may be Southern Illinois on Feb. 23. In addition, keep an eye on a pair of games between the top teams in the Colonial Athletic Association: Drexel at VCU on Wednesday and George Mason at Old Dominion on Saturday (2 p.m., Comcast Sports Net Washington/ Comcast Sports Net New England/Comcast Sports Net Philadelphia).

Coaching matchup to watch: Duke's Mike Krzyzewski vs. Maryland's Gary Williams, Sunday, 8:30 p.m., ESPNU. Krzyzewski now is No. 2 in wins among Division I coaches, trailing only Bob Knight. Williams is No. 4, and between the two, they have 1,536 career wins and 495 ACC victories. Krzyzewski has a commanding edge in the series against Williams -- 36-12 -- since Williams arrived at Maryland in 1989.

Injury update: Louisville's injury list continues to grow, with F Rakeem Buckles now out for a couple of weeks with a broken finger. F Jared Swopshire likely will miss the season with a groin injury. ... Arizona State leading scorer Trent Lockett (toe) missed the past two games, against Oregon and Oregon State, and is questionable to play against Stanford on Thursday.

Stat watch: Cleveland State is the most anonymous of the three teams in the country with 15 wins; the other two are Syracuse and San Diego State. That's with good reason. Cleveland State is ranked 157th in strength of schedule at collegerepi.com. The Vikings lost their toughest test of the season, at West Virginia, by 11 points. Cleveland State has a chance to redeem itself and take an early lead in the Horizon League standings when it faces Butler on Friday (7 p.m., ESPNU). Since starting 4-4, Butler has won six in a row, including the Diamond Head Classic title.

Tournament implications: Cincinnati is one of seven remaining undefeated teams, but the Bearcats have the least impressive resume of any of them. The Bearcats have a stout defense, but their best win is over Dayton, though they doubled up the Flyers 68-34. This is a big week for Cincinnati; it plays hosts to crosstown rival Xavier (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN2) and visits Villanova (Sunday, noon, Big East syndication/MSG network/Fox Sports Ohio/Mid-Atlantic Sports Network/ESPN FullCourt).

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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