Minnesota-Indiana, Duke-North Carolina State Among Top Matchups As College Basketball Conference Play Begins

Indiana Penn St BasketballThe college basketball season has moved into conference play, which means several good matchups are lined up this week. Minnesota will be highlighted in the Big Ten, challenging Illinois and then Indiana, both on the road. Meanwhile, the Duke Blue Devils will face a stiff test Saturday from an upstart North Carolina State team.

Here’s a look at the four best matchups for this week:

Minnesota Golden Gophers at Illinois Fighting Illini — Wednesday, Jan. 9

This is a matchup that a lot of national college basketball watchers have been waiting for. Minnesota and Illinois have not been a part of the Big Ten’s power structure over the past several seasons, but that’s changing. For Illinois, John Groce has taken over the program from Bruce Weber, who was fired at the end of last season.

Illinois has dropped decisions to Missouri and Purdue, but otherwise, the Illini have been one of the most pleasant surprises in the Big Ten this season. Meanwhile, Minnesota has avoided the injuries and transfers that have crippled the program in the past. The winner joins the conversation as a Big Ten title contender.

UNLV Running Rebels at New Mexico Lobos — Wednesday, Jan. 9

This is one of the foremost battles in the Mountain West Conference, a league that is expected to be extremely contentious and competitive. The Mountain West is comprised of three very likely NCAA tournament teams: UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State. Colorado State, Wyoming and Boise State have also made noise in the Mountain West, forming stiff competition for the elites in the league.

UNLV and New Mexico both know it’s important to get off to a good start. The visiting Rebels might be playing with a bit of house money, while the host Lobos know they need to hold serve on their own floor.

Minnesota Golden Gophers at Indiana Hoosiers — Saturday, Jan. 12

When Minnesota gets through with its visit to Illinois, the Golden Gophers will make their way to Bloomington to take on the preseason Big Ten favorite. Indiana was lights-out at home last season, so Minnesota will face a tall order in trying to take down the Hoosiers. But the Gophers, with a rugged front line and a strong defense, have a good chance of slowing the game down, owning the glass and winning a slugfest near the basket.

Meanwhile, Indiana wants a full-court game with a fast pace. Tempo figures to loom large in how this game will be played. If Minnesota loses to Illinois, this game will become more urgent for coach Tubby Smith‘s team.

Duke Blue Devils at North Carolina State Wolfpack — Saturday, Jan. 12

This is one of the high-profile games in the 2013 Atlantic Coast Conference season. North Carolina State was the popular preseason pick based on its Sweet 16 showing and the fact that it was returning the bulk of its starters this season. Yet Duke — with coach Mike Krzyzewski doing his thing — has become the No. 1 team in the country. This is a huge moment for North Carolina State. It’s an occasion in which to announce its presence in the ACC and to say that it can back up the hype that engulfed the Wolfpack earlier this year.