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Weekend preview: Conference USA and the Mountain West will give you plenty to watch

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NCAA Basketball: UC Irvine at Nevada Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

We’re back!

Hope you had a great holiday and enjoyed plenty of basketball in between meals and moments with the relatives. I’m sure many of you will be going hard New Year’s Eve, but I’m comforted to know that NONE of you will watch any football this weekend. Because football should not exist. We all know this.

Anyway, while Alabama is Alabama-ing, you have more important things on your plate. Like the first full weekend of league play.

Here’s everything to keep an eye on before stumbling back into work next week.

5 Games to Watch

Indiana State at Missouri State, Sat., Noon, Fox Sports Midwest

This isn’t the sexiest matchup in the Valley, but it should be a good one. The Sycamores have a knack for sticking with teams they shouldn’t, while the Bears are looking to extend an unexpectedly strong start to the season. Missouri State is going for its sixth win in seven tries and a 2-0 start in conference with a game at Illinois State looming.

Rice at Old Dominion, Sat., 1 p.m., Conferenceusa.com

Both these teams have had their moments in the early season, but neither has shown it could compete with Middle Tennessee as the best team in Conference USA. The matchup to keep an eye on in this game is that of the 6’2 sophomores: Marcus Evans of Rice and Ahmad Caver of Old Dominion.

William & Mary at Northeastern, Sat., 2 p.m., CAA.tv

I’ll get into Northeastern a little bit below, but suffice it to say the Huskies might be good. We don’t know. Same with William & Mary, which just won at Old Dominion. The Tribe are led by upperclassmen who have one last shot at getting the program to its first NCAA Tournament ever. A win at Northeastern would serve as a wakeup call to the rest of the league.

Colorado State at Boise State, Sat., 6 p.m., ESPN3

The Rams have lost three out of four but beat UNLV to open conference play. They’ve already won at Colorado and beat New Mexico State at home, so we know they can hang with quality competition. Boise State has won four in a row and won at Utah State to open Mountain West play. Buckle up.

UAB at Middle Tennessee, Sun., 4 p.m., Campus Insiders

We’ve liked UAB’s potential this season but have had no on-court results to back-up our initial projections. Over 13 games, UAB has alternated wins and losses. Though all of their defeats are to top 150 teams, the Blazers need to get back on track with a string of solid wins. They get a Blue Raider team that has lost two in a row after a 10-1 start.

4 Players to Watch

Alize Johnson, Missouri State

When we were talking about the best teams in the Missouri Valley to start the year, it seems we forgot to mention the Bears. Johnson, a JuCo forward, has been a double-double machine, averaging 9.3 boards and an effective field goal percentage of 61.1.

Charles Minlend, San Francisco

The Dons are one of the surprise teams out west, and their 6’4 freshman is one of the reasons why. He’s shooting better than 50 percent from three and over his last three games, is 10-16 from long range. San Francisco visits Santa Clara on Saturday.

Cameron Oliver, Nevada

We’ll have more on Oliver soon, but in short, he is one of the best players you don’t watch regularly. As a forward who can score, block, rebound, and shoot the three, he is a KenPom dream that is only a sophomore and has realistic NBA aspirations.

Darral Willis Jr., Wichita State

Willis has scored in double figures in his last five games and has posted better than 20 points and 10 rebounds in two of his last three. The Shockers are the best team in the Valley, and probably by a lot, and Willis is a main reason why.

3 Storylines to Follow

The struggle for supremacy in the Mountain West and Missouri Valley

So far, the Mountain West and Missouri Valley have looked like nothing more than solid one-bid leagues. Unfortunately for them, both conferences will probably beat each other up as conference play gets going. On the other hand, Nevada can get a solid win by beating Fresno State on the road and Wichita State can keep its strong season going by beating Bradley. The top of both these leagues need to win and win a lot.

Northern Iowa’s chance to salvage the season

The Panthers lost to a better-than-expected Missouri State team to open Valley play for their third-straight loss. With the possibility of an at-large bid long gone, Northern Iowa needs to start asserting itself in conference. A game at Evansville on Sunday could be the start of that. The Purple Aces are 9-5 with a win over Boise State, but not much else.

Proving time for the Southland

Stephen F. Austin might still be the best team in the Southland, but the Lumberjacks are far from where they were a year ago. Now that conference play is starting, other teams can start to make their statements. Houston Baptist gets the first crack at SFA, but keep an eye on Texas A&M-CC, which is playing at New Orleans. The Islanders are the only team in the league in the KenPom top 200.

2 Questions We Have

What should we make of Northeastern?

Northeastern is weird. The Huskies won at pre-injury UConn, Michigan State, Vermont, and Oakland, but have lost games to LIU-Brooklyn, Cornell, and Stony Brook. They host William & Mary on New Year’s Eve to open conference play. Perhaps 18 games against teams projected around their level will give us some clarity.

Who is the second best team in Conference USA?

The best team is Middle Tennessee, even though the Blue Raiders have dropped two straight. After that, three teams — Louisiana Tech, Old Dominion, and Rice — sit within 11 spots of each other in KenPom. The Owls visit the Monarchs this weekend, so that will give us some answers. Meanwhile, if Louisiana Tech can’t beat Southern Miss, well, there might be some problems in Ruston.

1 More Unbeaten

Gonzaga got through the non-conference slate unbeaten and thumped Pepperdine by 30 in its conference opener. Next up, it’s a three-game road trip, taking the Zags through Pacific, San Francisco, and Portland. The Dons and Pilots are both under-the-radar quality teams, so the Bulldogs can’t afford to look past this early portion of the conference schedule. As of today, KenPom gives Gonzaga an 8.3 percent chance of finishing the regular season unblemished.