Duke forward Mason Plumlee and the Blue Devils meet rival Maryland in an ACC clash on Saturday. / Mitch Stringer, USA TODAY Sports
We've seen the No. 1 team in the country go down the last two Saturdays with down-to-the-wire upsets-North Carolina State knocking off Duke and then Syracuse clipping Louisville.
With conference races starting to heat up as we get closer to March, this Saturday's slate of games showcases another buffet of must-watch showdowns. Here's a look at our best five games to watch:
No. 5 Louisville at Georgetown | Saturday, Jan. 26, noon, ESPN
About the Cardinals (16-3): Louisville spent a mere five days as the top team in the country, only to fall of its mantle with a close loss to Syracuse last Saturday that snapped an 11-game winning streak. In that game, the Cardinals went cold in the second half (shooting 29%). That loss preceded another letdown in a 73-64 setback against Villanova. Louisville's defense isn't nearly as suspect as its offense but Russ Smith (18.7 points per game) always gives the team oxygen oftentimes. Others will need to step up to avoid costly scoring lapses and losing to mediocre teams like Villanova. Peyton Siva had only three points on 1-for-9 shooting against the Orange.
About the Hoyas (13-4): Georgetown's pedestrian 3-3 start in the Big East is surprising, even in a packed league. Losses to Marquette and Pittsburgh are understandable but a loss to South Florida questions whether this team can finish .500 in the league after entering conference play with one loss (in overtime against Indiana). A 63-47 road win against a ranked Notre Dame team earlier this week was a big step, but playing a Louisville team eager to bounce back is a bigger step. Sophomore Otto Porter (14.6 points, 7.7 rebounds per game) and Greg Whittington (12.1 points, 7 rebounds per game) pace an offensively challenged Georgetown team that ranks 255th in scoring nationally.
The matchup: Despite Smith and Porter's offensive brilliance this season, let's not expect any type of shootout. This will be a battle between two defensively sound teams who often fall into offensive lulls. Georgetown's 28-point loss to Pittsburgh proves it's vulnerable at home. Louisville's backcourt should have no issue scoring against the Hoyas' inferior guards.
Our pick: Louisville
Maryland at No. 1 Duke | Saturday, Jan. 26, 1 p.m., CBS
About the Terrapins (15-4): Maryland has been hot and cold since starting ACC play 3-3 after a 12-1 non-conference slate. The Terrapins show signs of brilliance-beating N.C. State 51-50 and Virginia Tech by 23 points-and also signs of struggle-falling to Florida State, Miami and North Carolina. A win at Duke would practically solidify an NCAA tournament automatic bid. Big man Alex Len (13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2 blocks per game) forces teams to adjust on both sides of the ball. Xavier transfer Dez Wells (11.8 points per game) is a steady scorer, but the Terrapins have struggled to find other offensive threats.
About the Blue Devils (16-2): Duke's first loss of the season-an 84-76 court-storming loss to North Carolina State-cost the team the top ranking in the country. Then they climbed back atop the rankings at the beginning of the week, but they'll dip once again, this time more significantly, after a 27-point loss to Miami (Fla.) on Wednesday. Still, the Blue Devils haven't been at full health as starter Ryan Kelly is out with a foot injury. Duke will need to win games at home against sub-par teams if it plans to win a wide-open ACC, as Miami, N.C. State and North Carolina are all challengers. Mason Plumlee (17.3 points, 11.4 rebounds per game) carries a offense. Seth Curry (15.9 points per game) went scoreless against Miami. That can't happen again.
The matchup: The Terrapins couldn't have picked a worse time to play their arch rival, as the Blue Devils are surely looking to bounce back from an embarrassing ACC loss. The individual matchup between the two 7 footers-Plumlee and Len-will make this an enticing game to watch, but this game could get out of hand if Duke's guards are shooting well. Maryland leads the country in rebounds, and second-chance points will be crucial.
Our pick: Duke
No. 14 Minnesota at Wisconsin | Saturday, Jan. 26, 2 p.m., Big Ten Network
About the Gophers (15-4): Three consecutive losses derailed a hot start in the Big Ten for Minnesota. Playing on the road is never easy, but if the Gophers want to win a heated conference, they'll need to beat teams like Wisconsin away from home. Despite a this latest skid, this team has only lost to Northwestern and three top 10 teams in Duke, Indiana and Michigan. Andre Hollins (13.8 points per game) and Austin Hollins (11.2 points per game) make for a fearsome backcourt, but Minnesota's key to victory is using its aggressive defense to create easy transition buckets. That's been lacking in recent losses.
About the Badgers (13-6): Wisconsin looked like it would be the last undefeated team in the Big Ten after knocking off then-No. 2 Indiana on the road last week, but a surprising four-point loss to Iowa on Saturday followed by a two-point loss to Michigan State this week halted the Badgers' momentum. Seniors Jared Berggren (12.5 points, 6.4 rebounds per game) and Ryan Evans (10.9 points, 7.8 rebounds per game) lead a balanced offense and make Wisconsin tough to guard on the interior, and freshman Sam Dekker has been a nice addition to Bo Ryan's squad.
The matchup: Minnesota and Wisconsin should finish in the top half of the Big Ten, but both teams have hit road blocks in the midst of strong seasons. This will be another defensive showdown, as both teams rely on their defense to score. Wisconsin leads the country in forced turnovers but isn't as efficient as Minnesota in half-court situations.
Our pick: Minnesota
North Carolina at No. 18 North Carolina State | Saturday, Jan. 26, 7 p.m., ESPN
About the Tar Heels (13-5): After starting ACC play 0-2, North Carolina has regained its stride, rattling off three straight wins against Florida State, Maryland and Georgia Tech. But playing N.C. State on the road is a different challenge. The Tar Heels rebound the ball better than any team in the country, averaging a nation-best 43.1 boards per game, but their biggest strength might be sharing the ball. UNC ranks third in assists per game with 18.1 per game. James Michael McAdoo (14.7 points, 8.3 rebounds per game) provides a difficult matchup for most teams, while swingman Reggie Bullock (14.3 points, 5.8 rebounds per game) has stepped up on the perimeter-scoring 24 points in UNC's win against Maryland.
About the Wolfpack (15-4): North Carolina State followed up its huge victory against Duke with a 51-50 loss to Maryland last week, then beat a mediocre Clemson team on Sunday before stunningly losing to bottom-of-the-barrel Wake Forest during the week. That inconsistency has all but eliminated the ACC title/Sweet 16 talk, as Mark Gottfried's group tries to find answers. If the Wolfpack want to win the ACC as projected at the beginning of the season, they'll need to take care of business at home. This N.C. State team has plenty of weapons, as five players average double figures, including C.J. Leslie (15.3 points and 6.8 rebounds per game) and Lorenzo Brown (12.8 points, 6.9 assists per game). Freshman T.J. Warren has been inconsistent, going scoreless against Maryland and then finishing with 21 points against Clemson.
The matchup: North Carolina State needs this win more than ever if it hopes to contend in the ACC. So it's bad fortune that North Carolina is playing at a high level coming into the game. Leslie is a game-changer for N.C. State but so is McAdoo for UNC. The Wolfpack haven't lost a game at home since November and UNC doesn't play particularly well on the road. Both teams are athletic, however N.C State wins in the experience department.
Our pick: North Carolina State
No. 17 New Mexico at No. 25 San Diego State | Saturday, Jan. 26, 4 p.m., NBC Sports
About the Lobos (17-2): New Mexico has emerged atop the Mountain West as the only current team without a conference loss, posting wins against contenders UNLV, Boise State and Colorado State. The Lobos' two deceiving losses have come against top-tier mid-majors South Dakota State and Saint Louis, however the team's only noteworthy non-conference win came against an up-and-down Connecticut team. Kendall Williams (14.1 points and 4.6 assists per game) controls the tempo, while 7-footer Alex Kirk (11.8 points, 7.6 rebounds per game) corrals the paint and Tony Snell (12.6 points per game) can be a difference-maker with his length.
About the Aztecs (15-4): Back-to-back Mountain West losses to UNLV and Wyoming set a once-surging San Diego State team off course. The Aztecs shot an abysmal 29% from the floor against Wyoming, including 2-for-18 from three. As good as San Diego State has been this season, it hasn't beaten a premiere team, with its best wins coming against UCLA and Colorado State, making a win against New Mexico all the more valuable. A resurgent 21-point drubbing against Nevada was a necessary bounce-back victory. Jamaal Franklin (17.8 points, 9.6 rebounds per game) carries the team too much at times, scoring 27 points in the UNLV loss. SDS plays its best when Franklin isn't trying to do too much, so strong performances from Chase Tapley (14.9 points per game) and Xavier Thames (9.7 points per game) are essential.
The matchup: While it's a loaded conference this year and the leaderboard looks kind of hazy, these could easily be the top two teams in the Mountain West. San Diego State isn't playing its best basketball, while New Mexico has more momentum. New Mexico will need to limit Franklin, while San Diego State has to find an answer for New Mexico's size.
Our pick: San Diego State
5 other games worth watching Saturday: Syracuse at Villanova (11 a.m., ESPNU), UCLA at Arizona State (4 p.m, Fox Sports Net), Oklahoma at Kansas (4 p.m., ESPN), Vanderbilt at Missouri (5 p.m., ESPNU), Temple at Butler (6 p.m., ESPN2).
Best games on deck Sunday: Michigan State at Indiana (1 p.m., CBS), Michigan at Illinois (6 p.m., Big Ten Network)
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