This is the week teams in their respective conference races start to truly separate into contenders and pretenders. Games become especially important in expanded leagues like the ACC, in which staggered schedules mean there’s only one shot to face a certain opponent.
Such is the case in the Big Ten. Iowa travels to Maryland in what may be the game of the week on Thursday. There are plenty of other games important to conference standings, albeit not involving two ranked teams.
That means predicting these outcomes just got a bit tougher, too:
No. 20 Duke at No. 15 Miami (Coral Gables, Fla.), 7 p.m. Monday, ESPN: The Blue Devils snapped a three-game losing streak by winning at NC State on Saturday. Amile Jefferson even appeared on the sidelines without crutches and with his right foot no longer in a boot. His return to the lineup is still unknown, though, which means I’m sticking with the Canes at home.
Prediction: Miami 84, Duke 78.
No. 3 Kansas at No. 19 Iowa State (Ames, Iowa), 9 p.m. Monday, ESPN: Another Big Monday in Ames. Last week, the Cyclones took down Oklahoma in Hilton Coliseum. Iowa State begins the toughest three-game stretch on its schedule with Texas A&M and West Virginia to follow. The Jayhawks have lost their past two road games, at West Virginia and Oklahoma State. But here is where their deep bench saves the day.
Prediction: Kansas 80, Iowa State 77.
Creighton at Georgetown (Washington, D.C.), 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, FS1: Both teams are locked in a four-way tie for second place with Xavier and Providence in the Big East standings. Creighton is a Kris Dunn buzzer-beater away from being tied for first place in the loss column with Villanova. The Bluejays are a trip to D.C. away from being knocked back to third place.
Prediction: Georgetown 73, Creighton 66.
No. 25 Indiana at Wisconsin (Madison, Wis.), 7 p.m. Tuesday, ESPN: Indiana has straight pummeled the middle-of-the-pack and lower-tier Big Ten teams that have opened up its conference schedule and will enter the Kohl Center riding a 12-game win streak. The Badgers have won 13 straight games against the Hoosiers at home. Make that one tradition Greg Gard keeps going.
Prediction: Wisconsin 72, Indiana 70.
No. 5 Xavier at No. 16 Providence (Providence, R.I.), 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, FS1: The matchup features arguably the nation’s best point guard in Providence’s Kris Dunn, against who could be his heir apparent in Xavier’s Edmond Sumner. The winner will remain tied with either Creighton or Georgetown for second place in the Big East. The Friars became the first team to take Villanova down a notch after their 82-76 overtime win in Philadelphia on Sunday. They return home where, oddly enough, they’ve been vulnerable this season.
Prediction: Xavier 77, Providence 75.
California at Utah (Salt Lake City, Utah), 11 p.m. Wednesday, ESPNU: The Utes pulled off a big 80-75 overtime win at Washington on Sunday. The Bears pulled off an even bigger 74-73 win against Arizona at home. The loser could end up being a team that flirts with the NCAA tournament bubble. Utah may play the best defense in the conference, but it has to because the Utes have arguably the toughest time scoring.
Prediction: California 71, Utah 67.
Cincinnati at Connecticut (Hartford, Conn.), 7 p.m. Thursday, ESPNU: SMU’s first loss of the season brought the Mustangs one game closer to the pack in the American. The Huskies and Bearcats will try to take advantage. UConn is on a modest three-game win streak after beating old Big East foe Georgetown 68-62. Mick Cronin won his 200th game as coach of Cincinnati on Sunday. He’ll have to wait for No. 201.
Prediction: UConn 64, Cincinnati 59.
Notre Dame at Syracuse (Syracuse, N.Y.), 7 p.m. Thursday, ESPN2: The Orange cooled off at Virginia when the interior of their zone was exploited. Fortunately for Syracuse, Notre Dame will float on the perimeter more than it wants to pound the ball inside. There’s no luck with the Irish against the ACC’s No. 1 team in 3-point field goal percentage defense.
Prediction: Syracuse 80, Notre Dame 76.
No. 9 Iowa at No. 7 Maryland (College Park, Md.), 7 p.m. Thursday, ESPN: Arguably the best matchup of the week, one that could have lasting implications on the Big Ten title race, pitting the current leader (Hawkeyes) in the standings versus the preseason favorite (Terrapins) in their only regular-season meeting. It will end with Iowa dropping its first conference game.
Prediction: Maryland 76, Iowa 71.
Oregon at No. 12 Arizona (Tucson, Ariz.), 9 p.m. Thursday, ESPN2: Oregon entered the week tied with Washington for first place in the Pac-12. Arizona entered one game back -- along with five other teams tied for third place. The Wildcats have won 49 straight games at the McKale Center, including 23 straight against Pac-12 opponents. The Ducks will become victim No. 24.
Prediction: Arizona 88, Oregon 80.
Last week’s record: 5-3 (.625)
Season record: 54-26 (.675)