College Basketball Weekend Preview: Jan. 19

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Syracuse and Louisville face each other for the top spot in the Big East

<p> Louisville's loss to Syracuse at the end of the 2011-12 regular season was a turning point for the Cardinals. Rick Pitino's team has been at the top of its game since then, but Syracuse remains a Big East leader. Missouri-Florida, Oregon-UCLA and Creighton-Wichita State are among other key games this week.</p>

The last time Louisville faced Syracuse, the Cardinals weren’t in great shape. Syracuse’s 58-49 win to end the regular season handed Louisville its eighth Big East loss and fourth loss in six games on March 3. Syracuse, meanwhile, won its 30th game of the season.

Louisville didn’t lose again until the Final Four to eventual national champion Kentucky. Since the Syracuse loss last season, Peyton Siva and Russ Smith have thrived on both sides of the court as the Cardinals have gone 24-2 since then.

It was a clear turning point for Louisville, but Syracuse is doing OK, too: The Orange reached the Elite Eight and started 16-1 this season.

While Louisville returns most of the cast that defeated Syracuse at the end of the regular season, the Orange brings some personnel making its first run through the Big East -- and personnel that will be worth watching in their first major road trip of the season.

Point guard Michael Carter-Williams, one of the major surprises of the season, will face Louisville’s press for the first time. And the roster is looking for a new scorer with James Southerland ineligible.

A game against this week’s No. 1 team will be a good time to confirm Syracuse’s spot among the elite, with or without Southland.

GAME OF THE WEEK
Syracuse at Louisville
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Where: KFC Yum! Center
(cap. 20,000)
TV: ESPN
Syracuse probable starters
G Michael Carter-Williams (6-6/185, So.)
G Brandon Triche (6-4/205, Jr.)
F C.J. Fair (6-8/215, Jr.)
F Rakeem Christmas (6-9/242, So.)
C DaJuan Coleman (6-9/288, Fr.)
Louisville probable starters
G Peyton Siva (6-0/185, Sr.)
G Russ Smith (6-0/165, Jr.)
G/F Wayne Blackshear (6-5/230, So.)
F Chane Behanan (6-6/250, So.)
C Gorgui Dieng (6-11/245, Jr.)

Game-defining matchup: Michael Carter-Williams vs. Russ Smith
Louisville’s Russ Smith is one of the nation’s most frustrating defenders, and he may be charged with disrupting the nation’s top assist man. Carter-Williams has cooled a bit since his hot start (but the numbers remain pretty good at six assists per game in the last three). He’s also shooting 10 of 38 from the field in the last three games. Smith will look to bottle up Carter-Williams and limit his playmaking ability, especially with Southerland out.

Player we’re watching: C.J. Fair
The Syracuse forward has been the team MVP the last two games, topping 20 points against Villanova and Providence to help fill the void left by Southerland. Fair is also 16 of 18 from the free-throw line in the last two games. Will that continue against a better team in Louisville?

Stat that matters: 20 bench points for Syracuse against Villanova
Southerland was one of Syracuse’s best scorers even if he didn’t start. Who will fill the role of Southerland’s 13.6 points per game and 5.2 rebounds. In the 72-61 win over Villanova, Syracuse got 20 points from its bench. Jerami Grant led the way with 13. But again, Villanova is no Louisville.

How Syracuse can win: Backcourt emerges more fearless
Brandon Triche can hit the big shot. Carter-Williams, clearly, is a major catalyst. But the Syracuse backcourt will need to be at its best against Smith and Peyton Siva and their ability to force turnovers. Beyond ball handling, Syracuse will need to be much better from the perimeter after the Orange are 11 of 52 (21.2 percent) from the three-point line in the last three games.

How Louisville can win: Cardinals counter Syracuse’s size in the frontcourt
Syracuse has been great on the offensive glass this season, grabbing 42 percent of offensive rebounds to lead the Big East. Louisville hasn’t been shabby, either, as the Cardinals rank in the top four in the Big East in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. Gorgui Dieng, especially, has been effective on the glass since returning from injury. He has 14.3 rebounds per game in his last four.

Prediction
Louisville 72, Syracuse 67


WEEKEND ON TAP
All times Eastern

Connecticut at Pittsburgh (Saturday, noon, ESPN2)
The stats suggest Pittsburgh is a top-20 caliber team — the Panthers are ranked ninth nationally by KenPom.com — but Jamie Dixon’s club has been given us reasons to be skeptical. The Panthers opened Big East play with a 2–3 record, including home losses to Cincinnati and Marquette and a defeat at Rutgers. UConn is playing spirited ball under first-year coach Kevin Ollie, but the Huskies lack the talent up front to be a factor in the Big East title race.

Maryland at North Carolina (Saturday, noon, ESPN)
The Terrapins recovered after losing back-to-back games to Florida State and Miami by defeating NC State 51-50 on Wednesday. North Carolina also ended a two-game losing streak last weekend. One team will have momentum on its side after this game, the other will be looking for answers.

Missouri at Florida (Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN)
This is a key game between two teams that should remain in the hunt for the SEC title. Missouri hopes to regain the services of big man Laurence Bowers, who missed the Ole Miss game with a sprained MCL. The Gators have been banged up as well with Erik Murphy, Mike Rosario and Casey Prather facing injuries. All but Prather played against Texas A&M on Thursday.

Kansas at Texas (Saturday, 2 p.m., CBS regional)
Texas is off to its worst start of the Rick Barnes era. The Longhorns dropped to 8–8 overall and 0–3 in the Big 12 with a 20-point loss at Iowa State last weekend. To avoid an 0–4 start in the league — which hasn’t happened since Tom Penders’ final season in 1998 — Texas must find a way to knock off the mighty Jayhawks. Kansas, which beat Baylor on Monday night, is 15–1 and well on its way to its ninth straight Big 12 championship.

Arizona at Arizona State (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., Fox Sports Network)
After flirting with disaster several times this season, Arizona finally suffered its first defeat  — by four points at Oregon. The Wildcats will be challenged by a much-improved Arizona State team that is 3­–1 in the Pac-12. Redshirt freshman guard Jahii Carson has been terrific for Herb Sendek. The Arizona native is averaging 17.1 points and 5.2 assists.

Creighton at Wichita State (Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN2)
Creighton is 4–0 in true road games, with wins at Cal, Nebraska, Illinois State and Missouri State. Wichita State, which lost three double-digit scorers from last year’s 27-win team, is NCAA Tournament-worthy once again. Senior forward Carl Hall, the Shockers’ top rebounder (7.6 rpg) and second-leading scorer (13.9 ppg), returned Wednesday after missing seven games with a thumb injury. He scored two points in 23 minutes off the bench.  

Oregon at UCLA (Saturday, 4 p.m., CBS)
Arizona still might be the team to beat in the Pac-12, but Oregon and UCLA are playing very well as conference play heats up. The Ducks, who handed Arizona its first loss of the season, are 14–2 overall and 3–0 in the league. UCLA has bounced back from a tough start and won nine straight games. Freshman Shabazz Muhammad has scored 20-plus points in five of his last eight games.

Oklahoma at Kansas State (Saturday, 4 p.m., Big 12 syndication)
Kansas State is thriving with first-year coach Bruce Weber. The veteran Wildcats struggle to score at times, but they are solid on defense and crash the boards. Oklahoma, as expected, continues to improve under respected coach Lon Kruger. The Sooners would love to pick up a résumé-building road win.

Ohio State at Michigan State (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN)
Ohio State has nearly a week off to recover from its emotional win over Michigan on Sunday. The Buckeyes don’t have a ton of offensive weapons, but their No. 1 option, senior forward Deshaun Thomas, is an explosive scorer. Michigan State is 3–1 in the Big Ten, but we still don’t know too much about this team. This will be a tough test for Tom Izzo’s club.

Marquette at Cincinnati (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPNU)
Cincinnati raced out to a 12–0 record this season but has struggled a bit of late, especially at home. The Bearcats have lost three straight at Fifth Third Arena, including two in league play. Marquette won its first three Big East games by the slimmest of margins. The Golden Eagles have overtime wins over UConn and Pittsburgh and beat Georgetown by one point at home.

UNLV at Colorado State (Saturday, 7 p.m., NBC Sports Network)
UNLV hopes to flex its muscles in the Mountain West race after defeating San Diego State 82-75 on Wednesday. The Rebels shot 56.8 percent (29 of 51) from inside the three-point line against the Aztecs while outrebounding San Diego State 41-28. Colorado State is an NCAA contender with a good frontline of Colton Iverson (a Minnesota transfer) and Pierce Hornung.

Gonzaga at Butler (Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPN)
This is great matchup between two programs outside the power conferences that have found a way to win consistently. Gonzaga is an elite offensive team that can beat you from the perimeter or the paint. Butler will not be at full strength due to Rotnei Clarke’s injury. The senior sharpshooter suffered a neck injury in last week’s win at Dayton. Brad Stevens will have to be at his very best to put Butler in position to win this game — even at home.

Athlon Sports managing editor Mitch Light contributed to this report.

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