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December 12, 2006

A slow week, but a good one

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With exams and Christmas break approaching at most universities, this tends to be a down time in college basketball. But anyone tuning out this week will miss plenty of intriguing matchups and storylines.

A pair of top-10 teams face one another, a heated rivalry will be held in one of the most basketball-crazed states and a slew of mid-major programs face big tests.

We preview it all in A Look Ahead (all times are Eastern):

Top 10 Matchup
Game: No. 2 Pittsburgh (10-0) at No. 7 Wisconsin (9-1)

Date: Saturday, noon
Two Final Four contenders meet up here with a chance for each to land a signature victory. The Panthers survived a scare from Buffalo last week, but otherwise they've rolled past most opponents. The team is built around seven-foot center Aaron Gray (16.8 ppg) - one of the nation's top post players. Gray is the focal point, but the Panthers are also balanced and very deep. Nine players have scored in double figures this season. The Badgers are riding a five-game winning streak, capped by a big win over at in-state rival Marquette on Saturday. The Big Ten power is more reliant on one player, Alando Tucker (20.2 ppg). The small forward does most of his damage in the mid-range area and the paint. The Badgers also possess the size and interior defense to match up with Gray. Wisconsin has three players that stand 6 feet 10 or taller and weigh at least 240 pounds.
Rivalry Game
Game: Kentucky (6-3) at Louisville (5-2)

Date: Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
Not being ranked is far from the only similarity these tradition-rich programs share. Both have multiple freshmen playing heavy minutes, and each team is searching for an identity. Kentucky coach Tubby Smith recently made freshman Derrick Jasper his starting point guard. The move has been met with mixed results. The Wildcats' main problem has been turnovers - they are averaging 19.4 miscues in their last four games. The Cardinals have been improving of late, winning three games in three days last week. Coach Rick Pitino has been experimenting with his starting lineup, and rookies Edgar Sosa (12.7 ppg), Jerry Smith (9.3 ppg) and Derrick Caracter (7.0 ppg) are all playing major roles.
Mid-Major Tests
Game: Purdue (8-1) at No. 18 Butler (10-1)

Date: Saturday, 1 p.m.
This matchup could play a pivotal role in seeding for the NCAA Tournament. The Bulldogs and Boilermakers already have a handful of impressive wins on their resumes, but neither faces any more quality non-conference opponents. The Bulldogs are coming off their first loss of the season to Indiana State, where they shot just 33 percent from the field. Don't expect a repeat performance. Their roster is loaded with savvy players. Butler has worn down more athletic teams with its methodical style. The Boilermakers have been the biggest surprise of the Big Ten so far, with wins over DePaul, Oklahoma, Virginia and Missouri. Big man Carl Landry (20.0 ppg) has bounced back from a knee injury and is playing better than ever. Landry must come through with a big game for the Boilermakers to emerge with another win.
Game: Western Kentucky (8-2) at Tennessee (7-2)

Date: Saturday, 4 p.m.
The Volunteers have two big games coming up with No. 15 Oklahoma State (in Nashville) and a visit from Texas. But looking ahead would be a big mistake. The Hilltoppers have one of the nation's top mid-major teams. Western Kentucky is more than capable of pulling off an upset here. Small forward Courtney Lee (19.1 ppg) would be a star in some major conferences. The Vols are coming off their best performance of the season, an 18-point win over No. 19 Memphis. Handling the Vols' defensive pressure will be pivotal for the Hilltoppers. How they choose to defend UT guard Chris Lofton (20.3 ppg) will be crucial as well. One of the nation's top shooters, Lofton continually got open looks against Memphis and scored a career-high 34 points.
Game: Southern Illinois (7-1) at Indiana (5-3)

Date: Sunday, 8 p.m.
Indiana actually has much more to lose here. The Hoosiers don't have a good non-conference win yet, and the only top 25 team they'll face outside of Big Ten play is No. 8 Connecticut on the road Jan. 20. The key to new coach Kelvin Sampson's team is D.J. White (13.9 ppg). The power forward is coming off his best game of the season, a 23-point outing in a loss to Kentucky. The Salukis, who have made five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, are an extremely frustrating team to face. The Missouri Valley Conference power has mediocre athleticism and quickness. They rely on stingy man-to-man defense and a very patient offense. Their balance makes them tough to prepare for as well. All five starters are capable of leading the team in scoring.

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