Each Top 25 College Basketball Team's Most Difficult Conference Matchup

Scott Henry@@4QuartersRadioFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2014

Each Top 25 College Basketball Team's Most Difficult Conference Matchup

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    Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

    When conference play gets started, college basketball's elite show us what they're really made of. There are no more blowout wins over schools with compound-directional names (no offense, Southeast Missouri State) to pad the record. No more glorified exhibitions against things called St. Katherine or Tusculum.

    The Associated Press Top 25 schools are about to be judged by a group of their peers. Some of those peers will roll over and suffer blowout defeats just like any of those early-season cupcakes. Others will give even elite programs fits, especially in loaded leagues like the Big Ten and Pac-12.

    The following matchups willor in some cases, already have beenprove to be important tests for each of this week's Top 25.

    UPDATE: Each slide title includes the dates of the teams' remaining encounters this season. If there is no date, the teams have already played their only game this season.

    All links to KenPom.com (except this one) require subscription.

    Statistics and rankings accurate through games of January 8.

25. Kansas State vs. Baylor (Feb. 15/March 8)

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    The Kansas State Wildcats have collected some decent scalps during their recent 10-game winning streak, including Gonzaga and Big 12 contender Oklahoma State. They've done it through ball security, only twice turning the ball over on more than 22.5 percent of possessions in a game.

    Baylor is not a team that threatens the ball much anyway, so the Wildcats have that going for them. So what do the Bears bring that will seriously threaten K-State?

    Baylor's zone defense has been impressive at times, ranking in the national top 40 against two-point shooting, according to Ken Pomeroy (subscription required). Three-point shooters can get off against the Bears, however, making 34.5 percent for a middle-pack rank of 190th nationally.

    Unfortunately for K-State, they don't have very many three-point threats. Freshman guard Marcus Foster (36.7 percent) and senior Will Spradling (32.3) are the only Cats shooting better than 30 percent from the arc.

    Pomeroy lists six of Kansas State's streak victims as at least occasional zone teams. In those six games, KSU has recorded an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of only .488 based off of StatSheet.com's game totals. The Cats would need to beat Baylor on the glass to stay competitive. Of course, that's a much simpler feat than it should be, considering the Bears rank near the 200s in defensive rebounding.

24. Memphis vs. Cincinnati (Mar. 6)

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    We've already seen this one played out once, and it wasn't a pleasant sight for Memphis fans.

    The Tigers are a team that doesn't hit the three-point shot well, and that superseded the fact that Cincinnati isn't great at defending the arc, either. Memphis bricked 15 of its 17 triples in a 16-point home loss.

    The guard-oriented Tigers were routinely denied safe passage to the basket by Cincinnati forward Justin Jackson, who's fast becoming the marquee figure on the Bearcat roster. Jackson stuffed the box score to the tune of 13 points, eight rebounds and seven blocks. The presence of arguably the American's best rim protector made penetration very difficult for a team that needs to attack to thrive.

    Cincy isn't any bigger than Memphis, but it's a more physical team. That bruising style forced Tiger freshman Austin Nichols to the bench, never to be seen in the second half, and it also kept floor general Joe Jackson from cutting to the basket for open assists. Jackson ended the game with two dimes and five turnovers.

23. Illinois vs. Iowa (Feb. 1/Mar. 8)

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    Illinois has climbed into the Top 25 without playing a ton of quality opponents. The ones the Illini have facedOregon and Missouri in particularare guard-oriented outfits, not blessed with an abundance of size.

    There are many things we can say about Iowa, but we can't say that they're a small team. The Hawkeyes trot out only two players6'1" point guards Mike Gesell and Anthony Clemmonsshorter than 6'6". That length has the potential to frustrate an Illinois offense that can get too dependent on Rayvonte Rice creating in the lane.

    The 6'4" Rice has put up nearly 40 percent of his shots at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com, and he's made 70 percent of those attempts. He'll need to get wildly creative to get them off over long-armed rim protectors like 6'10" Gabriel Olaseni, 6'9" Jarrod Uthoff and 6'7" Melsahn Basabe.

    That's not even mentioning 7'1" Adam Woodbury, who's an underwhelming shot-blocker but still changes a bunch of attempts in the lane.

    Rice would often match up with Iowa star Roy Devyn Marble, who's not as bulky as the 235-pound Drake transfer. Still, Rice would have that same set of difficulties shooting over a 6'6" athlete like Marble.

    Finally, Illinois doesn't run tremendously deep, mostly sticking to an eight-man rotation. A whopping 11 Hawkeyes average double-figure minutes on the season.

22. Gonzaga vs. Saint Mary's (Mar. 1)

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    Like Memphis-Cincinnati, we've already seen this battle once, and it wasn't much of a battle. Gonzaga's 73-51 win tells us that despite some early injury woes, the Bulldogs may be prepared to once again run the table in the West Coast Conference.

    Still, the Gaels managed some encouraging signs for the eventual rematch in Moraga, Calif.

    The usually sure-handed Zags turned the ball over more than usual, with 15 giveaways compared to their 10.8 average. St. Mary's drew 27 free throws from a team whose opponents average 21.

    And that's about it.

    Gonzaga's Polish mountain man Przemek Karnowski absolutely dominated Gaels star Brad Waldow, outscoring him 15-5, pressing a 9-3 advantage on the boards and swatting seven shots.

    The Zags held SMC to 1-of-12 three-point shooting while making nine of 19 themselves. Both perimeter shooting and defense are usually points of pride for the Gaels.

    And still, St. Mary's will remain Gonzaga's most dangerous WCC challenger. The rest of the league simply lacks the horses to hang with even a hobbled Zags squad. You can hold out some hope for BYU, but they've already coughed up two WCC defeats themselves.

21. Missouri vs. Kentucky (Feb. 1)

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    Missouri's offense is aggressively guard-oriented, with Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross taking more than two-thirds of the Tigers' total shots this season. The trio all stand 6'5", making them one of the only backcourts in America that can match Kentucky's Harrison-Young-Harrison triumvirate for size.

    But oh, the humanity when Mizzou's frontcourt gets a load of Willie Cauley-Stein.

    The seven-foot sophomore is fourth in the nation at nearly four blocks per game, and he'll be salivating for a chance to go at the offensively limited crew of Ryan Rosburg, Johnathan Williams III and Tony Criswell. Not to mention the frequent forays to the basket by Clarkson, who takes more than half his shots in the paint, according to Hoop-Math.

    Kentucky also rank among the alpha cats in getting offensive rebounds and drawing free throws, with Pomeroy ranking them first and second, respectively, in those areas. Mizzou's last three opponentsIllinois, NC State and Long Beach Statehave all been able to make a dent on the offensive glass, while even the likes of Gardner-Webb and Nevada were able to stay in games by getting to the line.

20. Iowa vs. Michigan State (Jan. 28/Mar. 6)

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    Nearly every time I've brought up Iowa, I've made a point of emphasis out of their depth. It all started here back in July. Go through that comment thread and you'll see Michigan State fans come after a chunk of my hide when Sparty went unranked.

    Two months into the season, MSU may actually be getting the bench the fanbase thought it had back in the summer.

    Of course, a starting five featuring Gary Harris, Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson can hang with anyone in America. However, State's recurring health issues and the occasional discipline problem severely sapped the Spartans reserves. As injuries heal and suspensions endprops to Kenny Kaminski for some enormous shooting against Ohio StateTom Izzo gains options.

    Iowa can run hard for 40 minutes because Fran McCaffery has a huge supply of versatile reinforcements that foes like Thad Matta, John Groce and Bo Ryan can't quite match.

    A fully healthy Michigan State squad, however? That's dangerous. Defensive specialists like Alvin Ellis and Matt Costello combined with Kaminski's shooting and timely rebounds from Gavin Schilling can form a solid second unit when Izzo's top line needs help.

19. UMass vs. VCU (Feb. 21)

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    The turnover. Killer of rallies and breaker of spirits.

    UMass has somehow sustained a 13-1 start despite hocking the ball up on nearly 20 percent of its possessions, per Ken Pomeroy. Six of the Minutemen's first 14 opponents currently rank in the top 100 nationally in forcing turnovers.

    The name at the top of that list by a wide margin? VCU.

    The Rams haven't been shredded by hand-checking rules the way some analysts expected, meaning that not every game has deteriorated into an endless slog to the foul line. They're still the most dangerous foe in America for opposing ball-handlers, getting steals on 18.2 percent of opponents' possessions. Again, that's according to KenPom.

    Remember, that's just steals. That steal percentage is higher than the overall turnover percentage for about 160 teams.

    UMass' do-it-all point guard Chaz Williams averages 3.3 turnovers per game, which is actually a respectable figure for someone who handles the ball as much as he does. He gave it away 11 times in two meetings with the Rams last season, and that figure will need to come down if the Minutemen are going to realize their Atlantic 10 championship potential.

18. Kansas vs. Oklahoma State (Jan. 18/Mar. 1)

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    Kansas has a major size advantage in a matchup with Oklahoma State, especially now that Cowboy big man Michael Cobbins is out for the year. Still, the Jayhawks could struggle when the two teams hook up, even against a lineup lacking the traditional low-post player.

    KU's defense this season has struggled in three key areas: three-point shots, turnovers and free-throw attempts. Oklahoma State's Pomeroy rankings in 3P%, TO% and FT rate are 50th, 16th and ninth, respectively.

    Toledo stayed in its game at Allen Fieldhouse by shooting 56 percent from the arc. Before that, KU lost to a Florida team that hit 50 percent from deep. OSU has hit 40 percent or better from the arc eight times in 15 games, albeit only twice in the last nine.

    Kansas forced only eight turnovers at Colorado and seven at Florida, both losses. Conversely, Jayhawk PG Naadir Tharpe turns the ball over on 23 percent of his possessions. Marcus Smart will be salivating for that matchup.

    Finally, the Jayhawks put seven straight opponents on the line for 24 or more FTAs before the win over Toledo. Three came away with wins, while UTEP missed 10 freebies in a four-point loss. Smart, Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash all draw more than five fouls per 40 minutes (Pomeroy again), with Phil Forte and Stevie Clark not far off.

    A four-guard lineup with Nash as the lone forward could pull KU drive-stopper Joel Embiid out from the tin, giving Smart and his wingmen an ample runway for highlight-reel finishes or some heavy contact.

17. Oregon vs. Colorado

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    Two of Arizona's most prominent Pac-12 challengers squared off last weekend, and the result may have surprised many outside of Boulder.

    Oregon's guard-oriented lineup actually played Colorado's bigger, talented frontcourt to a standstill on the glass, impressive for a team sporting only three rotation players taller than 6'6". The Ducks pulled 19 of 46 available offensive rebounds, good for a 41.3 OR%. The Buffaloes surrender only 24.6 percent on the season, sixth best in America, according to KenPom.

    Colorado is not normally great at defending the arc, and Oregon did shoot 36 percent from long range. That's still down from the Ducks' 41 percent season mark. Still, CU's offense owned the area inside the arc, making 26 of 43 two-point shots for 60.5 percent.

    The Ducks can get caught in track meets, simply trying to outscore opponents. It didn't work in Boulder, especially with Colorado doggedly attacking the rim. The Buffs shot 39 free throws against 55 field goals, drawing 13 fouls from Oregon's top rebounding threats, Mike Moser, Richard Amardi and Elgin Cook.

    There will be no rematch in the regular season, so we won't get the chance to see how Oregon coach Dana Altman could adjust his defense to keep the Buffaloes from grazing on two-pointers.

16. Duke vs. Pittsburgh (Jan. 27)

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    Syracuse is the ACC's highest-ranked team right now, so one might expect it'd be the most dangerous opponent for everyone in the league, including Duke. Another Big East expatriate, however, might frustrate the Devils even more acutely.

    Duke has struggled to pull offensive rebounds and stop opponents from scoring inside the arc. The Pitt Panthers get nearly 58 percent of their points on two-point shots, taking only one of every four shots from the outside. They're an even smaller team than Duke in terms of height, but 6'9" Talib Zanna and Derrick Randall are more than big enough to get the better of the Devils post players.

    Zanna, Randall and freshmen Mike Young and Jamel Artis are all brutally tough to keep off the defensive glass, so when a shot goes awry, don't expect a second chance.

    Amile Jefferson is the only Dukie considered a major put-back threat, and coach Mike Krzyzewski is only recently giving him starter's minutes again.

15. Colorado vs. Arizona (Jan. 23/Feb.22)

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    The matchups this season between Colorado and Arizona will shape up as a battle between a top-10 offensive rebounding team and a top-10 defensive rebounding team. The Pac-12's two strongest, most-skilled frontcourts will come to play, so the whole thing could come down to backcourt execution.

    Neither set of guards are prone to turning the ball over, and neither defense pushes the issue to gamble for steals all that much. Wildcat point guard T.J. McConnell is the primary exception.

    McConnell pulls nearly two steals per game, which is actually down from the averages he carded at Duquesne. He's still among Pomeroy's top 100 in steal percentage after fitting into the top 20 in his first two seasons of college ball.

    A few turnovers at McConnell's hands could frustrate CU shooter Askia Booker and put him in the mood to chuck up ill-advised threes. He is the guy who went a combined zero of 13 against Baylor, Harvard and Colorado State, after all. For the season, he's under 30 percent from deep and Arizona holds opponents under 30 percent itself.

14. Kentucky vs. Florida (Feb. 15/Mar. 8)

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    When Kentucky gets a shot up on the glass, few teams can stop it from pouncing on the miss. Florida may well be one of them, and the Gators could even short-circuit some possessions before they even get started.

    The turnover-prone Wildcats, especially Andrew Harrison, will tower over Florida guards Scottie Wilbekin and Kasey Hill, but that may be all the better for UF's playmakers to pick some pockets. The two are among four Gators ranked in Pomeroy's top 500 in steal percentage, with Wilbekin in the top 70.

    The Gators also aren't far behind the Wildcats on KenPom's offensive rebounding charts, ranking 25th in a category Kentucky leads. The Cats are a mid-level defensive rebounding team, which can be a ticket to disaster against a voracious Florida front line.

13. San Diego State vs. New Mexico (Feb. 22/Mar. 8)

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    The Mountain West Conference isn't loaded to the point of five NCAA tournament bids this season, but San Diego State and New Mexico should both be expected to go dancing. The Aztecs and Lobos are arguably the two biggest, toughest and most talented clubs in the conference.

    SDSU has suffered only one loss this season, a tough home defeat against Arizona. It's since defeated Creighton, Marquette and Kansas, all teams with talented frontcourts, albeit ones not quite as cohesive as Arizona's.

    New Mexico's post duo of Cameron Bairstow and Alex Kirk may be one of the nation's five best interior pairs. Kirk, however, was exposed against Kansas, racking up as many fouls as points in grappling with Jayhawk freshman star Joel Embiid.

    Embiid had another good game against the Aztecs, but State post players Josh Davis and Skylar Spencer also combined for 23 points and 23 rebounds against KU. This matchup could be a push.

    State point guard Xavier Thames would hold the key to an Aztec win. He's had difficult nights against Arizona and Kansas, but New Mexico is not a tremendous perimeter defensive team. If he hits shots and the Spencer/Davis group is there to pluck the misses, expect San Diego State to be solidly in control.

12. Louisville vs. SMU (Jan. 12/Mar. 5)

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    Louisville is a dangerous offensive rebounding club. Or, at least it was when Chane Behanan was active and feeling his oats.

    SMU is still a dangerous rebounding club on both ends, and the Mustangs haven't lost any personnel to change that fact. Coach Larry Brown's charges include four players taller than 6'8" plus 6'6" swingman Sterling Brown, who will also swarm the glass when given the chance.

    Where the Mustangs will struggle is in ball security. A team that is prone to giving up stealsSMU is one of the 25 most-stripped teams in the nation, per Pomeroycould face a long night against Rick Pitino's army of ball hawks.

    Perhaps most impressive, the Mustangs aren't prone to awful shot selection. A 41 percent three-point shooting team, SMU still only takes the good ones, putting up more than three two-pointers per triple attempt. It doesn't like to get into shootouts, but it's equipped to win them if it does.

    A Mustang team that can control the glass and not cough up the orange like a Siamese cat with a hairball could give Louisville a very difficult game. The first test of this theory comes up this Sunday.

11. Oklahoma State vs. Iowa State (Feb. 3/Mar. 8)

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    The Cowboys and Cyclones are fairly similar in their makeups, especially now that OSU will lack the services of center Michael Cobbins for the rest of the season.

    Neither has a traditional post player with the size that we associate with the position. Both are led by point guards who are among the most gifted all-around players in the country. Both love to push tempo and aren't afraid to get into three-point shootouts.

    The true wild card in the teams' two meetings will be the play of forward Dustin Hogue. Hogue leads the Big 12 at 9.6 rebounds per game, and he's an inside-out scoring threat. His most likely matchup would be with OSU sophomore center Kamari Murphy, who's tough on the glass himself.

    Cowboy juniors Brian Williams and Le'Bryan Nash would draw an unenviable task in trying to contain Cyclone forwards Georges Niang and Melvin Ejim, the latter the defending Big 12 rebounding champ.

    As a whole, OSU isn't a great rebounding team with Cobbins in the lineup. Without him, the Cyclones' dogged defensive rebounders will attack in waves. Oklahoma State's shots must fall on the first try, because there may not be a second.

10. Florida vs. Kentucky (Feb. 15/Mar. 8)

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    Earlier, we talked about the possibility of Florida's Scottie Wilbekin and Kasey Hill victimizing the bigger ball-handlers from the University of Kentucky. But how does the matchup shake down if UF can't force a ton of turnovers?

    Florida is led by senior Casey Prather, an athletic forward who loves to attack the rim. Kentucky's defense is designed to lure such players in, only to slam the door in their faces with swats from human eraser Willie Cauley-Stein.

    Cauley-Stein is following well in the footsteps of predecessors Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel, as seen in this StatSheet.com comparison. He's a better offensive rebounder by percentage and every bit the shot-blocker, ranking fourth in America at 3.9 rejections per game this season.

    The rest of the Florida offense largely runs on mid-range jumpers, with Gator center Patric Young especially making his bones in that area. Florida could plan to use Young as a decoy to pull Cauley-Stein away from the rim, but Kentucky would more likely assign Julius Randle to shadow the veteran Gator big man.

    Young would also be a major factor on the defensive end, relied on to contain Randle at all costs. If he needs help on Kentucky's bullish freshman, that would leave extra openings for scorers like James Young and the Harrison twins.

9. Iowa State vs. Kansas (Jan. 13/Jan. 29)

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    Iowa State is a small team with some experience. Kansas is a young team with some size. Who you like in this matchup depends on whether you value potential or consistent execution.

    Even a great rebounding team like Iowa State will have its hands full with KU big men Perry Ellis and Joel Embiid, both of whom struck for double-doubles against Toledo. More recently, Embiid was one of the few bright spots in a rare home loss to San Diego State and Ellis lit up Oklahoma for 22 points and 11 boards in KU's Big 12 opener.

    The encouraging news for ISU came in its decisive win over Baylor. The Bears are an even bigger team than KU, and Cyclone playmaker DeAndre Kane had his way on dribble penetration.

    Kansas hasn't tried extremely hard to push tempo this season, but it's not at all afraid to do so. Three of the Jayhawks' five slowest games so far have ended in defeat. Another was KU's battle with UTEP, which the Miners gave away with weak foul shooting.

8. Villanova vs. Creighton (Jan. 20/Feb. 16)

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    Three-point shots will fly fast and furious when Villanova and Creighton get together. Both teams take approximately 45 percent of their shots from long range. Despite thator perhaps because of itboth are very efficient scoring teams inside the arc as well.

    The biggest difference lies in how many of those threes fall for and against either team.

    Villanova has made only 35 percent from deep this season, and that's with a 52 percent success rate over its last two games. Those are the first two times the Cats have sunk more than 40 percent of their triples in a game this year.

    Creighton, by contrast, carries a 43 percent mark on the season. Four Bluejays have made better than 40 percent, five if we count junior guard Devin Brooks and his 20 attempts.

    Nova allows 34 percent shooting, while Creighton has held its opponents below 32.

    In the odd event that fouls come into play between all the long bombs, the Jays make nearly 76 percent from the line, while Nova comes in below 72 percent.

    The Cats are a superior rebounding team, but for that to come into play, Villanova must make Creighton miss. And that's easier said than done so far.

7. Baylor vs. Kansas (Jan. 20/Feb. 4)

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    After Baylor went to Ames and laid an egg against a much smaller Iowa State team, everyone looks like a tough matchup for the maddeningly unpredictable Bears. Not to denigrate ISU, which richly deserves its top-10 ranking, but the tale of the tape suggests that Baylor should dominate.

    Asking the Bears to pick on someone their own size seems almost cruel, so let's consider a matchup with Kansas.

    Isaiah Austin vs. Joel Embiid reads like the main event, a player formerly considered an NBA lottery pick against a freshman who's threatening to steal his more celebrated teammate's thunder as a candidate for the top overall pick in 2014. Both 7-footers can protect the rim, but the spindly 225-pound Austin often prefers to float away from the paint.

    Where Baylor can build a lead is at the three-point line, where a hot shooting game from Brady Heslip or Gary Franklin could pull the Bears away quickly. Kansas can also be prone to putting opponents at the foul line, music to the ears of Baylor forwards Rico Gathers and Royce O'Neale. The two have taken 102 free throws to 108 field goals, but have also made a mere 62 of those foul shots (56 percent).

6. Wichita State vs. Indiana State (Jan. 18/Feb.5)

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    If there's a Missouri Valley Conference team that can knock off Wichita State, it's likely the Indiana State Sycamores.

    ISU has what's likely the best array of scorers in the MVC, and that includes the Shockers themselves. Four different Indiana State players are shooting at least 38 percent from long range, and All-MVC point guard Jake Odum is not one of them. He makes up for it by being one of the nation's better distributors and a very good free-throw shooter.

    The Sycamores are 14th in the nation from the three-point arc and 21st at the foul line, according to Pomeroy, and his team figures don't even include ISU's two non-Division I games.

    Indiana State will struggle with Wichita's size, as juniors Justin Gant and Jake Kitchell are the only rotation players taller than 6'7". Of course, height isn't everything, as even perimeter players like Ron Baker can get swats for the Shockers.

    Cleanthony Early has yet to be held to single figures, and it may be overly optimistic to expect the Sycamores to manage the feat. Point guard Fred VanVleet packs a ludicrous 4-to-1 assist/turnover ratio.

    Wichita's offense can hum with the best in America when everyone's on, and Indiana State has experienced some track meets so far. There will be plenty of points scored, and ISU will need to bring its A-game to end the Shockers' dream of an unbeaten season.

5. Michigan State vs. Wisconsin (Feb. 9)

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    After dominating wins over Penn State and Indiana to open the Big Ten season, Michigan State nearly spit the bit against Ohio State, blowing a 17-point lead and being forced to hang on in overtime. The Spartans never landed the knockout blow on the Buckeyes, and that would likely prove a fatal mistake against a skilled counter-punching team like Wisconsin.

    The Badgers have proven adept in winning at any pace this season, with possession counts ranging from a glacial 57 against Virginia to a more sprightly 74 against North Dakota. UW has scored everywhere from the 40s to the 100s.

    Sparty's not likely to get much help from the Badgers, not like it did against Ohio State. OSU committed a season-high 21 turnovers to put itself in a big hole. UW hasn't committed more than 12 in a game since its second outing of the season, a narrow win over Florida.

    Kaminsky and Adreian Payne will wage an interesting battle of perimeter-oriented big men, but MSU's big key will be rebounding machine Branden Dawson. The Badgers won't miss a ton of shots, but Dawson and Payne will be expected to vulture all the ones they do.

4. Wisconsin vs. Iowa (Feb. 22)

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    Unlike some of the matchups from this list that we've already seen on the court, Wisconsin-Iowa was every bit the slugfest we might expect. The emotional matchup saw Hawkeye coach Fran McCaffery blow his top and get himself ejected, a moment that finished what was already a sizable momentum swing.

    A UW team that doesn't make a living attacking the rim and drawing fouls took 26 free throws in the second half, including six after McCaffery's dismissal. The coach's frustration was justifiable, as his charges only shot 31 percent in the second half after making 47 percent in the first.

    When Mt. McCaffery erupted, the Hawkeyes had scored a mere six points in eight minutes. Their fortunes improved, but Wisconsin still held Iowa at arm's length for the rest of the game.

    The Badgers shot 10 of 22 from behind the arc, impressive against an Iowa team that has held its opponents to 28 percent shooting on the season. The rematch at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Feb. 22 will carry major implications for NCAA seeding, so McCaffery's defensive adjustmentsnot to mention his anger managementwill be major keys.

3. Ohio State vs. Michigan State (Mar. 9)

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    The Ohio State-Michigan State game was a major tussle between top-five opponents, and the moment seemed just a little too big for one of OSU's primary bell cows.

    LaQuinton Ross was given the Jabari Parker treatment, left on the bench for the final 10 minutes of regulation and the entire overtime period. When he was in the game, he took contested shots and repeatedly bobbled open passes as he looked to start his moves early.

    Reserves Sam Thompson and Marc Loving ignited the Buckeyes' 17-point second-half rally, and coach Thad Matta rewarded them by leaving them in the game until the end. The two combined for 28 points on 9-of-18 shooting, with Thompson accounting for 10 of the team's final 20 points in regulation.

    That kind of bench production will convince Matta to at least stay seven-men deep in his rotation, since backup center Trey McDonald and guard Amedeo Della Valle played a total of 11 minutes.

    Michigan State's athletes frustrated the Buckeyes' usually decent perimeter shooters, holding them to four of 18 from behind the arc. Where Ohio State succeeded in the rally was in forcing turnovers off the usually reliable Spartan ball-handlers. The 20-3 run that ended regulation featured nine MSU giveaways.

    Of course, if OSU could have held on to the ball themselves, it wouldn't have been in such a hole to begin with. The Buckeyes' 21 turnovers were one less than they'd committed in their past three games combined.

    When the two teams face off in the regular-season finale March 9, expect a Michigan State team more prepared for the Buckeyes' pressure, and perhaps one that sports a nine-man rotation as injuries heal.

2. Syracuse vs. Pittsburgh (Jan. 18/Feb. 12)

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    The key to attacking a zone defense is not simply raining three-pointers over the top, although if a team can do that, more power to it. Any zone, even the famous Syracuse 2-3, will leave the occasional driving lane that smart, athletic guards can exploit to set up teammates.

    Enter Pitt.

    Panther guards Lamar Patterson and James Robinson are both dangerous passers who sport assist percentages greater than 25, according to Pomeroy. Both make a habit of setting up their teammates for easy buckets.

    Hoop-Math shows the Division I average for percentage of rim baskets off assists at 41.8 percent. As a team, Pitt stands at a whopping 57.8 percent, good for 10th in the nation. Cameron Wright (65.6 percent assisted), Talib Zanna (72.3), Mike Young (63.2) and Jamel Artis (64.3) all benefit from Patterson and Robinson drawing defensive attention.

    The Orange excel at blocking shots and have a size advantage, but rotations will be key. While not a zone, Maryland's usually reliable defense suffered from frequent communication breakdowns against Pitt, as analyzed here by The Washington Post.

1. Arizona vs. Colorado (Jan. 23/Feb.22)

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    As discussed earlier, Arizona and Colorado could produce a pair of titanic struggles when they meet on Jan. 23 and Feb. 22. Two of America's most talented starting fives will need help from their backups if the game is played at Colorado's preferred pace, slightly faster than UA's.

    Arizona's shooters may get good looks against an occasionally shaky Buffalo perimeter defense, making Nick Johnson and possibly Gabe York major keys to the game. The two combine for nearly 40 percent shooting from the arc this season.

    York's feasted on weaker opposition, however, making only two of 12 against the Cats' Pomeroy top-100 opponents (San Diego State, Duke, UNLV, New Mexico State and Michigan).

    Colorado's Tad Boyle uses several more bodies off the bench than Arizona coach Sean Miller, and the Buffs will need the second unit to produce in Pac-12 play. Dustin Thomas' reboundinghe pulled five offensive boards against Colorado Stateand Jaron Hopkins' shooting (38.7 percent this season) will be most important.

    For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.