Watch to watch for in the week ahead
Duke at North Carolina (ESPN2/ESPN3.com, 7 p.m. ET): The Blue Devils have won just once in their past six trips to Chapel Hill, so home-court advantage isn't without meaning. In terms of trends that have more to do with the players currently on hand, we might know how things are going to go by the second television break. In North Carolina's three losses, its opponents averaged 52.3 percent in the first half. Only Georgia Tech didn't eclipse 50 percent en route to victory, and it got to the free throw line 20 times before halftime. As for Duke, the less said the better about its first half at Connecticut last week. The Blue Devils attempted just five 3-pointers in Thursday's 82-58 victory against Miami, their fewest all season and the first time in single digits.
Tennessee at Kentucky: It's a road game for Tennessee against perhaps its closest challenger, and it's a game in which Pat Summitt's team is likely to still be without Angie Bjkorklund. In other words, SEC supremacy might not be on the line for Kentucky, but as a representative of the 11 teams chasing Tennessee, SEC self-respect is at stake. Kentucky wins games by dominating the turnover battle and surviving on the boards. That's not a great matchup against a team that can survive a few turnovers, in part by winning the rebounding battle. Kentucky is 10th in the SEC against the 3-pointer. Can the Lady Vols' Taber Spani, coming off back-to-back 18-point performances and a 10-of-17 effort on 3-pointers in the past four games, stay hot?
DePaul at Syracuse: As Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma noted after Saturday's game, DePaul came into Storrs playing like a team that thought it could win in a place the home team rarely loses. The resulting effort, especially during a first half in which the Huskies didn't get separation until late, added to a résumé already suggesting the Blue Demons can fight Notre Dame for second in the Big East and make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. But the second part of the equation comes with a game such as Tuesday's at Syracuse -- a challenging game in a tough place to play, but a game that an elite team should win.
Connecticut at West Virginia: This game isn't as enticing as it might have been a few weeks ago, but a wounded West Virginia team (in Madina Ali's case, a literal description, as she plays through a stress fracture in her leg) could be a dangerous opponent at home. Whether a cause or effect of West Virginia's woes in losing three of four, including Saturday's setback against Pitt, the Mountaineers are losing their edge on the glass. They're still running a substantial surplus on the season, but a one-rebound edge against Providence is the only time in the last four games they weren't beaten soundly in that category. On the other side, Stefanie Dolson isn't Tina Charles at this point, and nobody is asking her to be, but the Huskies' freshman is emerging as a go-to post scorer.
Oklahoma at Texas A&M: For what it's worth, Oklahoma beat Tennessee in its first game after Carlee Roethlisberger's brother last played in a Super Bowl (it also happened to be the game in which Courtney Paris' double-double streak ended). Of more pressing concern for the Sooners might be a second half against Iowa State on Saturday in which Sherri Coale's team nearly squandered a 14-point halftime lead before pulling out a 65-62 victory at home. Danielle Robinson was simply sensational in scoring 33 points when these teams met a little more than two weeks ago in a Texas A&M win, but she did have six turnovers. That's important only because a player who had a 1.78 assist-to-turnover ratio in nonconference play is down to 1.06 in the Big 12.
Xavier at Richmond: The Musketeers must be glad to be done with Dayton, at least until the Atlantic 10 tournament. Xavier is beating the rest of the A-10 by an average of 26.8 points per game, but Saturday's overtime victory at Dayton marked the second time Kevin McGuff's team was pushed to the limit by its in-state rival. Richmond gave Xavier a game in the Atlantic 10 tournament last season, getting 21 points on 10-of-21 shooting from Brittani Shells. Richmond's star hit just 6 of 29 shots in the two games preceding that in the series. Any scenario that involves the Spiders gaining at-large NCAA consideration, and there aren't many, hinges on winning this one.
Michigan State at Penn State: No team in the nation had a better stretch of seven days to open the new month than Penn State. The Lady Lions followed up a home victory against Ohio State last Sunday with road wins at Michigan on Thursday and at Iowa on Sunday. All of a sudden, Thursday's game could be the turning point in the regular-season race in the Big Ten. Penn State freshman Maggie Lucas just keeps knocking down shots, but credit also to Alex Bentley. The sophomore put up 21 points and seven assists against Ohio State and 25 points and five assists against Iowa.
Maryland at Miami: Monday's Tobacco Row game is the ACC headliner, but does it involve the league's best team? Maryland continues making at least a case for that label. Last Thursday's victory at Georgia Tech was the first significant road win in conference play for the Terrapins, and they get another chance at Miami. On the other side, the Hurricanes need some outside cover. When they beat Georgetown early in the season (despite being outrebounded 55-33), Stefanie Yderstrom hit three 3-pointers and players other than stars Shenise Johnson and Riquna Williams hit five. In eight ACC games, with last week's loss at Duke the latest example, players other than Johnson and Williams have hit just 16 3-pointers.
Creighton at Northern Iowa: With its 67-59 victory at Missouri State on Sunday, Northern Iowa improved to 2-1 on the road against its three closest challengers in the Missouri Valley. But far from finding breathing room, the Panthers only guaranteed themselves a continued hold on first place through Thursday, when second-place Creighton visits. Jacqui Kalin scored 29 points in the victory at Missouri State and scored a game-high 19 points when Northern Iowa beat Creighton in Omaha on Jan. 13. This is a matchup of two good passing teams -- they rank first and second in the league in assists, even though no player on either team averages more than 3.2 assists per game.
Montana State at Northern Colorado: An encumbered view at the top of the Big Sky standings will be up for grabs when the Bobcats visit the Bears. Montana State claimed sole possession of first place over the weekend by virtue of a pair of victories and Northern Colorado's loss at Portland State and already owns a win in the first meeting between these two teams on Jan. 8. The regular-season champion hosts the conference tournament in the Big Sky, so there's more than pride at stake for two programs with limited postseason histories.