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Mike Lopresti | NCAA.com | December 23, 2020

The 7 days from Christmas to New Year’s Eve are packed with enticing college basketball games

College basketball rankings: Kansas, Rutgers make a statement in Power 36

Christmas Day, and the stocking stuffed with Big Ten basketball?

Kentucky vs. Louisville, and nobody's ranked?

Gonzaga meeting Virginia in Fort Worth, Texas, for a top-25 game that didn't even exist seven days ago?

Yeah, it's still 2020. Chaotic, bizarre, unprecedented, tomorrow-is-never-certain 2020. For one more week, anyway, so there’s still time for a few last screwball things to happen. You can tell by looking at the remaining schedule, which contains various reminders of how strange these times are.

We can count down those final seven days in college basketball, one at a time, to midnight New Year's Eve. That’s when 2021 can hopefully come in to give us some normalcy — or at least an NCAA tournament.

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Never been a Christmas Day like this one in the Big Ten. Four games, from noon to night. That scheduling decision was made since teams were staying together in their bubble, anyway.

"If we’re going to be here over the break, then we need to play games," said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, whose Hawkeyes will be at Minnesota for the holiday. "I think every coach in America wants their kids to have the opportunity to be home for Christmas, and be with their families. I think every coach wants to be with his family. We won’t be.

"It’s a unique year."

As far as Minnesota’s sports information folks can tell, this will be the first time a Gopher team has played on Christmas in any sport.

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The Christmas headliner will be the early game, with No. 9 Wisconsin at No. 12 Michigan State, two programs who have never played on Christmas in their history. They’ll be arriving from different directions. The Badgers come off smashing Louisville with offense — the 85-48 blowout was their biggest over a ranked opponent in school history — and then subduing Nebraska with defense. Michigan State comes from a 79-65 pummeling at Northwestern that Tom Izzo called "One of the more inept performances of my 26 years."

The other two entrees on the holiday menu are Maryland at Purdue and Michigan at Nebraska. One of the eight teams — the name will go unmentioned to protect the surprise — has collected videos from family members to show the players and coaches on Christmas.

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Kentucky at Louisville on Dec. 26. This game has become a familiar sight over the holidays, but this isn’t: Neither is ranked, and that hasn’t happened in 13 years. The Cardinals, down to eight scholarship players because of injuries and virus protocol, suffered the program’s worst loss in more than 60 years against Wisconsin, but recovered to beat Pittsburgh, who was short-handed, too. Kentucky is 1-5 for the first time since the 1920s, and John Calipari just had to ask one of his freshmen to take a timeout from the program. The Wildcats haven’t won a game in a month, and at last check, were 320th in the nation in 3-point shooting, and 300th in assist-turnover ratio. These are unsettled days in the Bluegrass.

But not at Gonzaga, where the top-ranked Zags are putting up 94.7 points a game. That includes a scoreboard-smoking 96-point average against the three top-15 opponents — Kansas, West Virginia and Iowa — they have already beaten. Only two other teams in history had three victories in their first four games against Associated Press top-15 teams; UCLA of 1968-69 and Indiana of 1974-75. Gonzaga heads for Fort Worth — one of those last-minute blind dates so popular these days, as schools frantically try to repair their fractured schedules — to put all that offense against the defensive ways of No. 16. Virginia. The Cavaliers struggled early with a loss to San Francisco and overtime escape against Kent State. Presumably, their defense will come around, because it always does. Tony Bennett will find out a lot more in this one.

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Evansville at Southern Illinois on Dec. 27. The Salukis are worth noticing. They just ended the nation’s longest homecourt non-conference winning streak at 59 games, by barging into Butler and taking down the Bulldogs. If they beat Evansville, they’ll be 7-0 for the first time since 1947.

DePaul at Providence. DePaul had 10 games cancelled or postponed before finally opening the season Wednesday night against Western Illinois. Another example of this season’s uneven road: As of Wednesday, the Blue Demons' Big East colleague St. John’s had already played 10 games. On Dec. 27, DePaul finally gets around to conference play. Maybe.

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Fresno State at Colorado State on Dec. 28.  Fresno State — the team with three 7-footers — leads the world in field goal percentage defense, allowing 31 percent shooting, which is positively Arctic. OK, maybe that’s come against opponents named William Jessup and Fresno Pacific, since all the Bulldogs’ Division I games have been wiped out. So this is their D-I and Mountain West opener. Colorado State is 3-1 but against the Fresno State defense, will want to avoid any reprise of the ugliness in the game at Saint Mary’s. The Rams lost 53-33 for their second lowest point total in the shot clock era, and had four more turnovers than field goals.

HOLIDAY WISH LIST: What 9 March Madness contenders might put on their wish lists this year

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Pittsburgh at Duke on Dec. 29. By then, Duke will have played only one game in 20 days, presumably time for Mike Krzyzewski to continue tinkering with his team, addressing the needs of youth. He’s already started nine different players. The 3-2 Blue Devils, who went nearly 20 years without losing a home game to a non-conference opponent, dropped two in eight days. Then again, the opponents were Illinois and Michigan State. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, hasn’t won in Cameron Indoor Stadium since 1979. The Panthers are 5-2 and showed early juice with wins over Northwestern and Miami, but now face all varieties of adversity. Justin Champagnie — averaging nearly 18 points and 12 rebounds — is out for weeks with a knee injury. Second leading scorer Au’Diese Toney missed the Louisville loss Tuesday with a bad ankle. Head coach Jeff Capel tested positive for the virus. Other than that, Pitt had a swell week

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Tennessee at Missouri on Dec. 30. For a team picked to finish 10th in the SEC, Missouri’s stock has gone to Pluto. The 6-0 Tigers have beaten ranked Oregon and Illinois, went on the road to defeat Wichita State, and won against Bradley Tuesday with a conventional 3-point play in the last second. They’ve soared from not getting a single vote in the AP preseason poll to No. 14 this week. Tennessee goes into Wednesday night’s game with South Carolina Upstate with a 5-0 record and average winning margin of 29.8. This carnage has been done with balance, as seven different Volunteers chip in between 12.2 and 7.8 points a game.

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Spend New Year’s Eve with the Pac-12. Six conference games are scheduled, at least until the virus test results come back. The first month has been a tad ragged for the league.

The Pac-12 is 0-6 against ranked opponents outside the conference.

RESILIENT: Patient, grateful Kvonn Cramer returned after 1,366 days between basketball games

Oregon, who hosts California on Dec. 31, is at the moment the only ranked team, at No. 25. Last week, the conference had nobody in the top-25. The Ducks and pre-season favorite UCLA play were set to play Wednesday in an early showdown. Nope, postponed hours before tipoff. One of the officials apparently tested positive. 2020. Sigh.

Arizona State, picked second in the Pac-12 and formerly a top-25 team, is now 4-3 and just lost to UTEP by 13 points, going scoreless the final 5:34 and missing 17 of 18 from the 3-point line. "We have to decide if this is important enough to commit the emotional attachment to appear like you’re really interested in playing and competing hard through the whole game," coach Bobby Hurley said after that one. "For 20 minutes, it was mysterious how inept we were in terms of competing and giving energy."

On Dec. 31, Arizona State will go to Washington State. The Cougars are 7-0, pending Wednesday night’s game with Northwestern State. That, by the way, will be Northwestern State’s fifth game in six days, in four different gyms. Trying to squeeze in as much basketball as possible, the Demons started in Tulsa on Friday, then to Missouri State Saturday, then off to No. 1 Gonzaga for two games Monday and Tuesday. If this is Wednesday, it must be Pullman. They have lost the first four games by 27, 27, 38 and 17.

But this being 2020, just being able to play is a victory. Which is one reason college basketball, and nearly everyone else, will be glad to see 2021.

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