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December 6, 2010

Weekly Watch: A few classic matchups

Almost a month into the season, basketball finally will have the college sports spotlight to itself.

Only one regular-season college football game remains (Army-Navy on Saturday) and the first bowls are two weeks away. In-season basketball tournaments are over and conference challenges are winding down, but a few major marquee non-conference games remain before teams start to head into holiday breaks in the coming weeks.

This week's major action begins Tuesday with the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden, when Syracuse faces Michigan State and Kansas plays Memphis. The doubleheader includes three of the nation's 19 remaining undefeated teams in Syracuse and Kansas.

Of the remaining unbeaten teams, some aren't a surprise (Duke, Ohio State), some will be tested further this week (Notre Dame, Louisville, UNLV, Pittsburgh, Tennessee) and others could continue to surprise (Georgetown, Cincinnati, UCF, Cleveland State) in the coming weeks.

Individual matchup to watch

Washington State G Klay Thompson
vs. Gonzaga G Steven Gray
Wednesday, 11 p.m., Fox Sports Net

This will be a meeting of two guards averaging more than 20 points per game, though Gray is coming off a frustrating game against Illinois. Thompson is off to another hot start despite playing only one game with standout PG Reggie Moore, who missed five games with a wrist injury. Washington State's defense has improved from last season; opponents are shooting just 36.4 percent from the floor, compared to 44.8 percent last season.

Game of the week: Syracuse vs. Michigan State in New York, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN. Syracuse is 8-0 despite dreadful shooting for most of the season. While the problems seemed to be solved against Georgia Tech and Cornell, Syracuse relapsed against North Carolina State, going just 23-of-60 from the field, including an unsightly 2-of-16 from 3-point range. The Orange escaped, but they can't have that type of shooting against Michigan State. The Spartans have been torched by a couple of point guards (Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving), and now they face Scoop Jardine, who scored 23 on NC State (albeit on 7-of-21 shooting).

Don't overlook this one: UNLV at Louisville, Saturday, noon, ESPNU. Louisville has started 6-0, but the Cardinals haven't been challenged since defeating Butler 88-73 in the opener. The Cardinals have been well-balanced, with five players averaging in double figures. UNLV, one of three undefeated teams in the Mountain West, owns victories over Wisconsin and Virginia Tech. But the Rebels haven't had a tough road game yet.

Mid-major to watch: Oakland. The Golden Grizzlies have one of the nation's most brutal non-conference schedules. Expected to win the Summit League, they already have lost to West Virginia and Purdue, and now they face the toughest stretch of their schedule in the next two weeks with road trips to Illinois (Wednesday), Michigan State (Saturday), and Tennessee (Dec. 14). There's also a road game against Ohio State on Dec. 23. Of course, Oakland's NCAA tournaments hopes will depend on the Summit League tournament, but this stretch could be an indicator of how the Golden Grizzlies would fare if they reach the NCAAs. They're led by 6-foot-11 center Keith Benson, who is averaging 19.1 points, 12.3 rebounds and 3.5 blocks.

Coaching matchup to watch: Tennessee's Bruce Pearl vs. Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon, Saturday, 3:15 p.m., ESPN. Since the start of last season, Pearl's team seems to be at its best when the news off the court is at its worst. The Volunteers beat then-No. 1 Kansas last season following the arrest of four players, including star forward Tyler Smith. After Pearl was hit with sanctions from the SEC office this season, the Volunteers won the Preseason NIT by defeating Villanova. Dixon, too, knows about getting the most out of a team with a chip on its shoulder. Both coaches get their players to play tough, aggressive defense, so this likely will be an ugly game.

Injury update: Gonzaga F Elias Harris returned Saturday in the Zags' loss to Illinois after missing a game with an Achilles injury. He scored 12 points, all in the first half. Minnesota G Al Nolen never has been a big scorer, but he's the Gophers' point guard and best defender. The Gophers will be without him for a couple of weeks because of his foot injury, and his absence already has been felt as Minnesota allowed a season-high 87 points in a loss to Virginia. The Gophers' schedule is manageable until a Dec. 28 road trip to Wisconsin. Purdue G John Hart (8.4 points per game) will miss at least a month with a broken foot.

Stat watch: Georgetown made quite the statement last week, defeating Missouri 111-102 in overtime in Kansas City, Mo., and Utah State 68-51. The Hoyas shot up to No. 2 in the RPI, behind No. 1 Tennessee, collegerpi.com shows. The Hoyas have played out of character by firing away from 3-point range -- they're 77-of-176 this season (an average of 22 attempts per game). Against a deliberate Utah State attack, Georgetown showed it can win without the "3" by rolling past the Aggies despite going just 2-of-9 from beyond the arc.

Tournament implications: Notre Dame has a chance to improve its NCAA tournament credentials in the next week. Behind the play of seniors Carleton Scott, Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis, the Fighting Irish won the Old Spice Classic with victories over Georgia, California and Wisconsin. This week, the Irish get Kentucky in Louisville (Wednesday, 9:30 p.m., ESPN) and Gonzaga at home (Saturday, 8:30 p.m., ESPN2).

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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