WEEKEND PREVIEW: The ACC’s first place battle and a renewed Big Ten rivalry

(AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
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GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 11 Miami at No. 5 North Carolina, Sat. 1:00 p.m.

Believe it or not, but when North Carolina hosts Miami on Saturday afternoon, the winner will be walking out of the Dean Dome sitting all alone in first place in the ACC standings.

And that’s probably not even the most important thing about this game for either team.

Hear me out.

The Tar Heels are coming off of one of their most disappointing losses since this group kids has been together. They blew a lead at home to a Duke team that was down to essentially five guys thanks to an ankle injury to Matt Jones, combatting UNC’s overwhelming front court with Marshall Plumlee — who had four fouls for the final 14 minutes — and Brandon Ingram — who looks like he could struggle to curl a pipe cleaner. It was their third loss in last five games, and with road trips left against Virginia and Duke, this may be their last chance at landing an elite win this season.

Miami, on the other hand, has been playing some great basketball. They’ve won eight of their last nine games, with wins over Duke and Notre Dame in the process, but the rest of their league schedule is brutal. At UNC, home for Virginia and Louisville before a road trip to South Bend. Getting their momentum heading in the right direction for this one is big, but it’s also worth mentioning that few outside of the college hoops media and the good folks of Coral Gables probably realize just how good this Miami team is. They’re good enough to win the league title, they matchup well with a UNC team that struggles to guard ball-screens and they’ll have a chance to prove it in a game that will be featured nationally on CBS.

This is a bit of a statement game for Miami.

And I think they’ll get it done.

THE OTHER GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 3 Oklahoma at No. 10 West Virginia, Sat. 4:00 p.m.

Hopefully, the rematch will be as entertaining as the original. When these two teams last squared off, West Virginia was just five days removed from picking off then-No. 1 Kansas in Morgantown, and they followed that up by going into Norman and losing to the then-No. 2 Sooners on a last-second tip-in from Khadeem Lattin. Oklahoma is reeling. They’ve lost three of their last four games and have fallen two games off Kansas’ pace atop the Big 12. WVU sits a game behind the Jayhawks, meaning that a win will at least give them hope that they can earn a share of the league title. The good news for Oklahoma? Jaysean Paige and Jevon Carter, West Virginia’s two most dangerous perimeter scorers, are both banged up.

FIVE MORE GAMES TO KEEP AN EYE ON

  1. I can’t be the only one that’s fired up that the Purdue-Indiana rivalry is relevant again. On Saturday night at 8:30 p.m., the No. 17 Boilermakers will make the trip to Bloomington to take on the No. 22 Hoosiers in a game with more significance than you probably realize in the Big Ten race. Indiana is currently tied with Iowa — who may or may not be on the precipice of their typical late-season swan dive — for first place in the conference, sitting a game in front of Maryland — who lost their second straight game last night to … Minnesota (gross). The idea of Indiana winning a Big Ten regular season title isn’t as insane as we thought it was as recently as a month ago, and I’m sure there’s nothing that would make Purdue happier than doing everything in their power to make sure that doesn’t happen. Let’s get it!
  2. A month ago, we probably would have written a blurb about No. 14 Kentucky’s trip to Texas A&M with the spin that it was a chance for Kentucky to prove they’re still relevant to the SEC race. Fast forward to today and Jamal Murray looks like Steph Curry while Tyler Ulis is playing like the best point guard in the country, meaning Kentucky’s Final Four dreams are very much alive. The Aggies? They snapped a four-game losing streak with a win over Ole Miss during the week, meaning the 6:30 p.m. Saturday tip is their last opportunity to keep their SEC regular season title dreams alive.
  3. What Duke has done the last ten days should not be overlooked by anyone. Playing with a six-man rotation — that may be five again on Saturday, depending on Matt Jones’ ankle — the Blue Devils have reeled off three straight wins over ACC contender, beating Virginia and Louisville at home before Wednesday’s win in the Dean Dome. On Saturday at noon, No. 20 Duke will look to make it four straight over ranked teams at No. 18 Louisville. Can they win another when they’re so short-handed? I think the obvious answer is no, just like the obvious answer was that they couldn’t win in the Dean Dome on Wednesday.
  4. The last time that No. 8 Xavier and Georgetown got together, the Hoyas managed to find a way to dissect the Musketeer 1-3-1 zone while picking up a win over a then-top five team on the road. That win also happened to be the last time that Georgetown was seriously discussed as a bubble team. So while there is a revenge factor in Xavier’s return trip to D.C., it’s going to be more interesting to see if head coach Chris Mack has found a way to solve his issues with stopping the Hoya attack that day.
  5. I honestly have no idea what to make of either No. 25 Baylor or No. 24 Texas. I think Texas is good — they’ve won eight of their last 11 with the only three losses coming at Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa State — but then I remember they’re the one team that loss to TCU. I don’t think Baylor’s really all that good but am I just going to ignore the sweep of Iowa State? In other words, this is life in the Big 12.

WHO’S GETTING UPSET?: No. 2 Kansas at Kansas State, Sat. 6:00 p.m.

This is as heated of a rivalry as you’re going to find in the Big 12, and while Kansas State has not exactly been great this season, they have been a thorn in the side for some of the nation’s better teams. They beat Oklahoma. They’ve taken both West Virginia and Baylor to double-overtime. They’re better and tougher than their record would indicate, and nothing would take the sting off of an ugly season quite like a win over their in-state rivals.

WHAT WE’LL BE TALKING ABOUT ON MONDAY: For all the talk about how crazy and unpredictable this season as been, when you look around some of the biggest leagues in the country, the usual suspects seem to be populating the top of the standings.

Villanova has a two-game stranglehold on the Big East. Kansas and Kentucky are all alone in first place in the Big 12 and SEC, respectively. Arizona has climbed back into sole possession of first place in the Pac-12. North Carolina owns a share of the ACC lead and, with a win on Saturday, will have the top spot all to themselves. Saint Joseph’s, VCU and Dayton are all tied atop the Atlantic 10. Gonzaga, Wichita State and San Diego State are all leading their respective conferences.

The Big Ten standings look the weirdest, but Indiana is still sitting tied for first place while Michigan State appears to be the best team in the league; they might be up there with Indiana if Denzel Valentine’s surgery didn’t throw them for a three-week loop at the start of league play. I’d argue that the American is the only conference that looks out of whack, but that probably has quite a bit to do with the fact that SMU has fallen off a cliff since their run at an undefeated season went ‘poof’.

The upsets have been fun to follow, but the cream is still rising to the top.