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The last weekend before the New Year’s Eve Conference Marathon offers four games whose outcomes carry implications for the conference as well as the individual teams. The Big East gets another shot at the Big Ten as DePaul visits Northwestern; Xavier and Wake Forest renew their annual tribute to Skip Prosser; Providence visits Massachusetts to renew their regional rivalry; the last two undefeateds from the ACC and Big East will clash when Villanova takes on the Syracuse under the Dome.

Depaul LogoDePaul at Northwestern (Friday December 27, 8:00 pm CT, Big Ten Network) — Though the two Chicagoland schools have recorded games going back to the 1910-11 season, this is not a rivalry renewed annually. Both schools however see an advantage to playing game number 40 in their series this season. Northwestern’s rookie coach Chris Collins, a native of Northbrook, Illinois (about 5 miles north of the Northwestern’s Evanston campus) wants to establish the local pecking order, and no better place to start than the city’s largest university, located in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. DePaul no doubt sees a win over suburban (and Big Ten member) Northwestern as a way to raise its profile. DePaul has an interesting mix of seniors led by guard Brandon Young and forward Cleveland Melvin, a dynamic inside/outside threat that shows flashes but not consistent domination of opponents. A smattering of juniors and sophomores suppport the Young/Melvin pairing, but it is the most promising freshman class in Purnell’s tenure that could potentially elevate the seniors’ play and the Blue Demon program. Northwestern’s senior guard Drew Crawford headlines a squad balanced with juniors and sophomores (with one or two promising freshmen).

The keys to the game will not be the strengh-on-strength elements of the two squads, but rather which squad’s weakness will sabotage their chances to win. Northwestern’s struggling offense faces off against a porous DePaul defense that tends to give up points quickly. Northwestern’s conversion rate inside and outside the arc is average-to-poor and they struggle to rebound for second chance opportunities, but DePaul’s defense gives up two pointers consistently and doesn’t rebound well on the defensive side of the ball. DePaul’s offense is turnover prone, but Northwestern’s defense does not force turnovers. Will the Wildcats be able to exploit the obvious Blue Demon weakness? One stat of interest will be blocks. Northwestern has a problem getting their shots off, and the DePaul’s front court rotation of Melvin, fifth year senior Sandi Marcius and freshman Tommy Hamilton are all among the best shot blockers in Divsion I.

DePaul’s Melvin/Young combination will, along with freshmen guard Billy Garrett and center Hamilton will put points on the board. The question is whether that lineup can get enough defensive stops to win the game. Northwestern’s off guard and second leading scorer JerShon Cobbs has missed the last two games with an ankle sprain and it is not certain he will be available to play Friday. Junior back up Dave Sobolewski has started in Cobb’s absence, and averaged 4.0 in the two games. Cobbs averages 13.6 points per game in his ten appearances.

(Credit: Xavier University)

(Credit: Xavier University)

Xavier vs Wake Forest (Saturday December 28, 5:00 pm ET, Fox Sports 1) — This season will mark the 4th meeting of the unprecedented 10 year commitment the two schools made to play annually in honor of Skip Prosser, the coach who led each of those programs during his career. Wake Forest leads the series 2-1, and this season’s matchup may be the most competitive since year one. This season’s Deacons are the closest to Coach Jeff Bzdelik’s ideal than any in his four seasons in Winston-Salem. They  convert their shots proficiently, value the ball (few turnovers) and rebound aggressively. Sophomore guard Codi Miller-McIntyre is the Demon Deacons’ first option on offense, but Bzdelik can look to a front court rotation of forwards Devin Thomas, Tyler Cavanaugh and Travis McKie as reliable second, third and fourth options. Xavier center Matt Stainbrook will have his hands full with Thomas, a 6-9, 245 pound sophomore with a knack for rebounding at both ends. That matchup should be a good one and a key to the outcome of the game, especially since both have struggled with fouls.

On paper Xavier has the strong offense and defense, and despite playing in Winston-Salem, should be favored to win. This should be a good benchmark for the X-men who will have to win on the road in conference play if they hope to finish among the top five in conference play.

Providence at Massachusetts (Saturday December 28, 6:00 pm ET, ESPNU) — New England’s six oldest Division I basketball programs (Boston College, Brown, Connecticut, Massachusetts Providence and Rhode Island) have maintained a loose rotating annual rivalry for nearly a 100 years. Aside from Connecticut and Massachusetts regional fans can expect all six to schedule at least three-four rivals in any given season. Conference affiliations may change, but for Providence this season, the local rivalry continues as the Friars have met (and beaten) Rhode Island, Brown and Boston College in the run up to their trip to Amherst to play the Coach Derek Kellogg’s Minutemen. UMass’ loss at Florida State December 21 will temper any Top 25 expectations should the Friars pull off the upset.

Suspensions and injuries have depleted what was shaping up to be a deep roster for Coach Ed Cooley’s Friars last October. Providence has yet to fill the void left by Vince Counsel’s graduation — Kris Dunn’s shoulder injury closed off that option — but sophomore Josh Fortune has had his moments. Cooley has worked with smaller rotations in seasons past; he should be able to develop answers as the season progresses, but news that freshmen Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock will not suit up at all this season means progress has to come from the eight players currently logging game time. Providence’s five starters typically play 70+% of the minutes available, with transfer center Carson Desrosiers first off the bench as a legitimate rotation player. Seniors players Lee Goldsbrough and Ted Bancroft, two “deep benchers” last season are filling in around the edges. The lack of depth (and dropoff in talent from the four and five spots in the lineup) will have little effect in this early season game, but expect the Friars to lose an inch in their leap and a step or two in their stride by mid-late February.

The Minutemen took a big leap forward, in the off season. Chaz Williams is as good as advertised. UMass fans have suffered through two seasons of Cady Lalanne’s trials and tribulations adjusting to college, and this season they get to celebrate the low post force Lalanne has become. When forward Raphiael Putney finds the range from outside, Coach Derek Kellogg’s squad has three legititmate scoring threats who can attack the defense in the low post, beyond the arc and just about anywhere in between, making this the most offensively accomplished team he has assembled in his six seasons mentoring the Amherst, Massachusetts school.

Friar combo guard and lead scorer Bryce Cotton will feel pressure to match Chaz Williams point-for-point, but the more interesting matchup will come in the low post when Lalanne and Providence senior Kadeem Batts tangle. Both are legitimate second options on offense and excellent rebounders under both baskets. Early fouls may decide who gets to stay and play. Kellogg has several good options (go to Tyler Bergantino or slide Sampson Carter over to the 5 and bring in Maxie Esho), while Cooley’s choices have a decidedly more Hobbsian edge to them.

On paper UMass is the stronger team, and given the location, should be winner albeit by a margin consistent with the closely matched talent and coaching. Cotton and Batts could have a career night, or Josh Fortune could find his stroke (or the Tyler Harris/LaDontae Henton combination could explode…), but the more realistic takeaway from this game is a better sense of Providence’s ceiling this season.

Villanova at Syracuse (Saturday December 28, 2:00 pm ET, CBS) — What a difference a year makes. Long time Orange and Wildcat fans can be forgiven if they check their calendars as this game would normally be scheduled for early February. The date is not the only confusing element.

Senior wing CJ Fair leads a squad composed largely of sophomores (Jerami Grant, Trevor Cooney, Michael Gbinije and DaJuan Coleman) along with junior Rakeem Christmas, but leans most heavily on freshman Tyler Ennis to man the all-important point guard spot. This is Coach Jim Boeheim’s youngest squad since the 2010-11 team that went 27-8, losing to Marquette in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Boeheim will rotate the starters Fair, Christmas and Coleman with backups Grant (first off the bench), Gbinije, and senior Baye Moussa-Keita along the back line of his 2-3 zone while Cooney and Ennis will man the top with occasional help from Gbinije, Fair or freshman guard Ron Patterson, which makes the front of the 2-3 zone even longer.

Villanova will pair Ryan Arcidiacono with Darrun Hilliard in the back court to start, with Danial Ochefu, JayVaughn Pinkston and James Bell in the front court. And then the substitutions and combinations begin. Transfer Dylan Ennis (brother of Syracuse’s Tyler), Tony Chennault, Kris Jenkins and Josh Hart will check in and play with just about any combination of starters in a pattern that at times seems to have no pattern at all. Everyone except Arcidiacono and Chennault will guard virtually any one of the Orange’s 2 through 5 spots (although it is not uncommon to see Arcidiacono or Chennault switched onto an opponents’ center for a few moments).

The game may turn on how easily Villanova allows Cooney to get to his spots on the arc, whether Coach Jay Wright uses traps to disrupt Syracuse’s ability to start their half court offense, the Grant/Roberson/Coleman combination can rebound offensively as easily as they have against other early season opponents and whether Grant and Fair can score as easily on the inside as they have through their first 11 games.

Syracuse wins 84% of their home games, but Villanova is 4-4 in Carrier Dome games since 2004. Neither team will be intimated nor confused by what the other does offensively or defensively. Villanova knows how to stretch Boeheim’s zone and find the seams, while Syracuse should know by now who they must edge off the line and stop from getting to the soft middle of their zone. Talent favors the Orange (it usually does); that does not tend to bother the ‘Cats.

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