It’s almost time for conference play to begin in college basketball. But as 2012 ends and 2013 approaches, there are still a few intriguing non-conference games that deserve our attention. That’s what this weekend is all about. A few teams have a lot on the line as they build their resumes for NCAA play.
Here are five games you don’t want to miss (all times ET):
Kentucky (8-3) at No. 4 Louisville (11-1) (Saturday, 4 p.m., CBS)
Everything shuts down in the Bluegrass State for this game. The only way this game could be bigger would be to play it at the Final Four. But we’ve seen that too, haven’t we? The whole John Calipari vs. Rick Pitino has elevated this series to new levels. But don’t forget the teams are good too. This time around, Louisville will be favored, especially at home at the KFC Yum! Center. Center Gorgui Dieng is expected to return to the Louisville lineup, bringing the shot-blocking element back to Louisville’s defense – which is already so difficult to crack. It should be interesting to see how Calipari tells his young team to attack that Cardinals defense. Louisville guard Russ Smith, averaging 19.7 points, is building his case for national player of the year.
No. 20 UNLV (11-1) at North Carolina (9-3) (Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN2)
This is a big non-conference game for both teams. UNLV has been playing very well despite the loss of injured star Mike Moser, who will miss the game with a dislocated right elbow he suffered on Dec. 9. With the emergence of freshman Anthony Bennett, the Rebels have the look of a major-conference team right now. UNLV brings a nine-game winning streak into the game at the Smith Center. North Carolina coach Roy Williams, like most NCAA coaches, saw a lot of Bennett on the recruiting trail and is impressed by his 57.4 percent shooting in the absence of Moser. The Tar Heels will need to improve their three-point shooting against a UNLV team that is holding opponents to 37.1 percent shooting overall. Carolina has won 63 consecutive non-conference home games.
No. 7 Missouri (10-1) at UCLA (9-3) (Friday, 10 p.m., ESPN2)
Missouri demonstrated some toughness, especially inside, in its 82-73 Braggin’ Rights Game victory over Illinois. After a break for the holidays, the Tigers face another major challenge. UCLA may not be the UCLA of the past – or even the Bruins that fans expected this season. But it’s still not an easy task to travel to Los Angeles and enter Pauley Pavilion to play the ghosts of UCLA teams past. UCLA has one problem after another this season and now it appears coach Ben Howland is coaching to keep his job. Job number one for the Bruins in this game will be to keep Missouri off the boards. The Tigers lead the nation in rebounds per game, averaging 47.2. Led by senior Laurence Bowers and junior Phil Pressey, Missouri has a big advantage in the experience department as well. Howland needs Shabazz Muhammad, Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson to starting growing up – and fast. This is their first test against a Top 10 team.
Baylor (8-3) at No. 13 Gonzaga (11-1) (Friday, 8 p.m., ESPN2)
Team Inconsistent vs. Team Impressive. Baylor leaves you scratching your head. Gonzaga is so good and the Bulldogs just keep getting better by playing a tough non-conference schedule. Gonzaga is home again and the Bulldogs are tough to beat with the support of The Kennel, also known as McCarthey Athletic Center. Coach Mark Few has an offensive machine has been constructed to win. Gonzaga ranks third in field goal percentage (52.0), 15th in points scored (80.8) and 31st in assists per game (16.4). That’s the definition of efficiency and sharing the ball. Baylor’s not bad. The Bears are 24th in field goal percentage (47.9), 41st in points (76.9) and 53rd in assists (15.5). When senior guard Pierre Jackson is on top of his game, the Bears can be as good as anybody. Baylor will need him, Brady Heslip, and a lot more to pick up this road win.
Northern Iowa (7-5) at Wichita State (11-1) (Sunday, 6 p.m., ESPN3)
The Missouri Valley is ready to go with conference play and this matchup is one of the best the league has to offer. Wichita State got attention early in the season with victories over VCU, DePaul, Iowa and Tulsa. But after moving into the polls, a 69-60 loss at Tennessee knocked the Shockers back among others and out of the Top 25. The problem for Wichita State now is the loss of Carl Hall with a thumb injury. Hall had been the Shockers top scorer (13.9 points) and rebounder (7.6 rpg). The hope is that Hall will be back for the big showdown with Creighton on Jan. 19. Freshman Ron Baker (7.3 ppg) also has been out the last two games. Northern Iowa has lost to Louisville, Stanford, Memphis, Iowa and UNLV.