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December 20, 2010

Weekly Watch: A few holiday treats

The final weeks of 2010 have brought new questions for some teams and new players for others.

Last week was full of shocking upsets, perhaps none bigger than projected Horizon League also-ran Illinois-Chicago over Big Ten contender Illinois on Saturday. Elsewhere, Tennessee, a team that had beaten Big East heavyweights Villanova and Pittsburgh on neutral courts, lost to Oakland at home and Charlotte on the road. Like the Volunteers, Louisville started the season on a hot streak, but the Cardinals were humbled in front of the home crowd in a loss to Drexel. And UNLV lost 68-62 to UC Santa Barbara -- the same Gauchos team that lost by 26 to San Diego State three days later.

While those teams may have to do some soul-searching, others may be getting stronger. Kansas' 70-68 win over USC featured season debuts from Jayhawks freshman point guard Josh Selby (21 points) and Trojans guard Jio Fontan (15 points), a transfer from Fordham. In addition, Mississippi State forward Renardo Sidney played his first college game and had 12 points, but the Bulldogs were crushed 88-57 by Virginia Tech.

With two weeks left in 2010, teams are putting the final touches on their non-conference resumes before league play begins. Here's a look at the top games and matchups of the week; all times Eastern.

Individual matchup of the week

Oakland C Keith Benson vs.
Ohio State C Jared Sullinger
Thursday, 8 p.m., Big Ten Network

Sullinger is a freshman who is living up to the hype, and he looks as if he could make a run at first-team All-America honors. He is coming off a 30-point, 19-rebound effort against South Carolina, his fifth double-double of the season. Benson (18.2 points, 11.2 rebounds) is an example of a mid-major senior who has improved each season. Sullinger has about 50 pounds on Benson, but Benson has the experience and a lot of offensive skill.

Game of the week: Texas at Michigan State, Wednesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2. Texas is looking to build momentum going into Big 12 play. The Longhorns beat North Carolina 78-76 on Saturday on a jumper from freshman point guard Cory Joseph. Meanwhile, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo will return from his one-game suspension for a secondary rules violation. The Spartans have looked more like the inconsistent team from the 2009-10 regular season rather than the team that regrouped to reach the Final Four.

Don't overlook this one: Georgetown at Memphis, Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPN2. Georgetown and Memphis are guard-oriented teams with one loss each, but the teams have taken different paths. Led by veterans Austin Freeman, Jason Clark and Chris Wright, Georgetown is one of the nation's most efficient teams, shooting 52.5 percent from the field. Memphis, a team starting three freshmen now that Wesley Witherspoon is out, dodged Austin Peay in overtime last week.

Mid-major to watch: Drexel at Syracuse, Wednesday, 7 p.m., Big East syndication. Drexel already beat one Big East team on the road this season, upsetting Louisville 52-46. Can the Dragons do it again? Drexel plays stingy defense and wants a slow pace, but Syracuse is starting to get into an offensive groove. The Orange are shooting 53.4 percent from the floor in their past three games (compared to 43 percent in the first eight) and hitting 36.1 percent from 3-point range over the same span (compared to 29.7 percent in the first eight games). Can the Dragons slow down the Orange?

Coaching matchup of the week: USC coach Kevin O'Neill at Tennessee, Tuesday, 7 p.m., SEC syndication. It may be safe to say the Volunteers -- who have lost two in a row -- aren't too excited to see USC. O'Neill will make his return to Knoxville, where he coached from 2004-07. Last season, O'Neill and USC beat then- No. 9 Tennessee 77-55 in Los Angeles. Since the start of December, the Trojans have played inspired basketball. They routed Texas 73-56 on Dec. 5, and fell 70-68 at Kansas on Saturday.

Injury update: Clemson G Demontez Stitt, the Tigers' leading scorer, could be out for two weeks after arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. Clemson hopes to have him back for a Jan. 8 game against Miami. Illinois G Brandon Paul suffered an ankle injury late in the loss to UIC, leaving his status questionable for Wednesday's game against Missouri in St. Louis. Following the embarrassing loss to UIC, the Illini will need all of their ballhandlers to be available when they meet Mizzou, which is going to press all night.

Stat watch: Kansas State started the season as one of the Big 12 favorites, but the Wildcats have a glaring flaw that has cost them already and could cost them more during the season. The Wildcats are second-to-last nationally in free throw shooting at 54.5 percent. In its two losses, to Duke and Florida, Kansas State was 22-of-42 from the line (52.4 percent). For a team that relies heavily on G Jacob Pullen, Kansas State needs as many free points as it can get. The Wildcats face UNLV in Kansas City, Mo., on Tuesday (9 p.m., ESPN2).

Tournament implications: Most of the in-season tournaments took place over the Thanksgiving weekend, but one more will be critical to a handful of teams. The Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu features NCAA tournament contenders Baylor, Butler, Florida State, Mississippi State and Washington State. The Cougars could have the most to gain in the event. They have started 7-1 but their only signature win is over Gonzaga; Wazzu won that easily, 81-59. Washington State faces Mississippi State in the first game. If the Cougars advance, their likely second-round opponent would be Baylor, which lost to Gonzaga on Saturday. Butler (6-4) also has a chance to pick up a good win or two; the Bulldogs could meet Florida State in the second round. The final of this tournament should be a good way to wrap up Christmas Day (9:30 p.m., ESPN2).

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

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