Today's Specials: Big games tip off before ball drops

By Jeff Borzello | College Basketball Writer
Talib Zanna and Pittsburgh look for a statement win when Cincinnati comes to town. (US Presswire)

Happy New Year's Eve, folks. Although most of the focus on Monday will be on the final few hours before the ball drops, there are some big-time college hoops games to watch while getting ready throughout the day. Three games feature ranked teams going head-to-head, while a top-five team heads on the road to open conference play.

Note: All times are Eastern, and the rankings are according to the AP Poll.

Best game: No. 8 Cincinnati at No. 24 Pittsburgh (12 p.m., ESPN2). The Big East opener. Yes, I'm excited. Cincinnati's loss to New Mexico last week takes some of the luster off this one, but it should still be a very good game. To be honest, the jury is still out on both teams. Cincinnati is great defensively and has some terrific veteran guards, but what is the Bearcats' ceiling? On the other side, Pittsburgh hasn't really beaten anyone, but the only loss is to Michigan. It wouldn't surprise me to see either team finish in the top three of the Big East this season. Tempo will be a factor -- but can Pittsburgh knock down outside shots? Cincinnati guards the 2-point shot better than nearly anyone.

Second-best game: No. 19 Michigan State at No. 11 Minnesota (2 p.m., ESPN2). The Big Ten opener. Yes, I'm excited. Both teams will be in the thick of the conference race, with Minnesota off to a surprising 12-1 start. Michigan State seems like a typical Tom Izzo-coached team, built to peak late in the season. The Spartans have had some slip-ups but are still very talented. For Minnesota, keeping Branden Dawson and co. off the offensive glass will be important, while Michigan State needs to take care of the ball. Expect this game to come down to the wire; does Michigan State have the leadership to get a tough road win?

Another one to watch: No. 13 Gonzaga at No. 22 Oklahoma State (6 p.m., ESPN2). Both teams had plenty of momentum to start the season. And while both have slipped up once this month, it's still a big-time contest. Gonzaga had a home loss to Illinois but has beaten Kansas State and Baylor since then. Oklahoma State has rolled off five in a row since dropping one to Virginia Tech. Will the Gonzaga guards be able to contain Marcus Smart, and can they create enough from the perimeter? Meanwhile, Le'Bryan Nash has to play big against Gonzaga's inside depth.

Guaranteed win: While there are three games involving two ranked teams, there are also a few ranked teams that should ease through a final tune-up before conference play. No. 23 N.C. State seems to be getting some momentum, and the Wolfpack get a visit from UNCG (5 p.m., ESPNU). Kansas State shouldn't have much trouble with South Dakota (2 p.m., FOX Affiliates), while Syracuse also should cruise against Central Connecticut State (3 p.m., ESPNU).

Potential upset: Is it conceivable that preseason No. 1 Indiana will lose its Big Ten opener? The Hoosiers head on the road to face Iowa (4 p.m., ESPN2). The Hawkeyes are expected to be a borderline bubble team come March, and they have started off 11-2, with wins over Iowa State and Northern Iowa. Indiana is still a national title favorite, but it could have trouble in Iowa. Will the Hoosiers get knocked off? Iowa has to keep them off the offensive glass, and also knock down some perimeter shots.

Three things to keep an eye on:

  1. Harvard picked up a major win over the weekend at California, and now the Crimson go for another win out west at Saint Mary's (8 p.m., ESPN2).
  2. Saint Louis received a boost with the return of Kwamain Mitchell; will he be the difference against New Mexico (7:30 p.m., CBS Sports)? New Mexico is coming off a big road win at Cincinnati.
  3. Two games that looked better in the preseason: Saint Joseph's at Drexel (4 p.m., Comcast Network) and North Texas at Middle Tennessee (8 p.m., ESPNU).

For more college basketball news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnCBB on Twitter, subscribe to our RSS Feed and subscribe to our College Basketball Newsletter. You can follow Jeff Borzello on Twitter here: @jeffborzello

 
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