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December 30, 2008

Strong slate this week in Big Ten, Pac-10

League play in most conferences begins this week, and this is an especially good week for games in the Big Ten and Pac-10.

Still, the best game this week involves the Big East, with the guards at Marquette and Villanova on view in a special New Year's Day showdown. Hey, if you're tired of football, flip on ESPN2 to catch the action.

The schedule gets back in full swing Saturday, and that's when we'll have our "Weekend 5 to Watch" feature.

This week's five to watch

Illinois at Purdue, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2: Purdue was the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten, and its league opener is against an Illini team that has been a big surprise. Illinois is 12-1, with the lone loss a two-point setback against Clemson. Illinois is playing lockdown defense: Clemson is the only team that has scored more than 64 points against the Illini and nine opponents have been held to 59 or fewer points. If the Illini pull the upset, they have to be taken seriously as a league title contender.

Michigan State at Minnesota, Wednesday, noon, Big Ten Network: The Golden Gophers are the Big Ten's only unbeaten team, and three of their first four league games are at home. The Spartans, on the other hand, play three of their first four conference games on the road. As would be expected from a Tubby Smith-coached team, Minnesota is playing good defense, and a win over the Spartans could serve as a springboard to a 4-0 start in league play.

Wisconsin at Michigan, Wednesday, 2 p.m., ESPN2: This is another Big Ten opener. The Wolverines own wins over Duke and UCLA, and it's safe to say the players now seem accustomed to coach John Beilein's offense. Sophomore guard Manny Harris is playing superb basketball, and the Wolverines' role players are proving to be good fits for what Beilein wants them to do. But Wisconsin's size and bulk will pose problems for Michigan. Expect a grind-it-out affair.

Iowa at Ohio State, Wednesday, 4 p.m., Big Ten Network: This is yet another Big Ten opener. Iowa is 10-3, but the thought is the Hawkeyes still look more like an NIT team than an NCAA tourney-bound squad. Ohio State was mauled by West Virginia in its last game, but the Buckeyes still own nice wins over Butler, Miami and Notre Dame. After this, Ohio State plays at Minnesota and at Michigan State, so a loss in this one could mean a 0-3 start in league play.

Villanova at Marquette, Thursday, 2:30 p.m., ESPN2: This is the Big East opener for both. While Marquette owns a nice win over Wisconsin, the Golden Eagles are 1-2 against the only other legit foes they've played (a win over NC State and losses to Dayton and Tennessee). Villanova's loss was by 11 to Texas. There will be two excellent backcourts on display, which means this one easily could be decided by which team's frontcourt is more productive.

Others to keep an eye on

UAB at Butler, Tuesday, 7 p.m.: Butler is off to a 10-1 start, with the only loss by three at Ohio State. UAB wants a fast pace, but it's doubtful the Bulldogs will let that happen.

George Mason at Dayton, Tuesday, 7 p.m.: Another intriguing mid-major matchup. George Mason is 8-2 and Dayton is 11-1. The winner gets an impressive notch on its non-conference résumé.

Clemson at South Carolina, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN FullCourt: The Gamecocks are 9-1, but they've beaten no one. Their strength of schedule going into Monday was 342nd in the nation – next-to-last. Clemson is 12-0 and has impressive road wins over Miami and Illinois.

Oklahoma at Arkansas, Tuesday, 8 p.m., ESPN FullCourt: The Razorbacks are 9-1, but as with SEC rival South Carolina, they've beaten no one. Oklahoma is 12-0, and big man Blake Griffin could have his way down low against Arkansas.

UNLV at Louisville, Wednesday, 6 p.m., ESPN2: Louisville routed UAB in its last outing and gets another strong mid-major in this one. UNLV is going to have problems with Louisville's talented frontcourt.

Arizona at California, Friday, 8:30 p.m., Comcast SportsNet California: The Pac-10 opener for both. Cal is 11-2, but are the Golden Bears really that good? Arizona plays four of its first six league games on the road.

Arizona State at Stanford, Friday, 10:30 p.m.: The Pac-10 opener for both. Arizona State plays five of its first seven league games on the road, and the first is against an unbeaten Stanford team. New coach Johnny Dawkins has Stanford playing tough defense, but can the Cardinal contain James Harden?

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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