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Conference battles heating up as weekend approaches

Last week, Kentucky shook up both the SEC and NCAA standings by knocking off then-No.1 Florida for the third straight time in Gainesville, Fla. With the Gators suffering their first loss of the season, Penn State now takes over as the new number one, but five different programs (including the aforementioned Wildcats) received at least one first place vote from the committee this week.

As we get set for what is sure to be another exciting weekend, with conference positioning continuing to shift almost daily, here are three matches to keep an eye on:

[More from Excelle: Colorado native Alexa Smith at home leading Buffs]

No. 9 Wisconsin (14-4, 5-4 Big Ten) vs. No. 5 Minnesota (18-2, 7-2 Big Ten)

Saturday 7:30 p.m. CT 

Wisconsin has won three straight Big Ten games since dropping three in a row earlier this month, with Coach Kelly Sheffield collecting his 400th victory last night in the win against Maryland. Wisconsin is very familiar with Minnesota, as the two sides faced off in Madison, Wisc., two weeks ago, with the Golden Gophers walking away with a tight five-set match win. If the Badgers want to reverse the score this time around, they will need to come up big defensively in a hostile road environment. In 15 of their 18 matches this season, Wisconsin has won the block battle, and facing a lethal Gophers attack Saturday, the Badgers will want to make that number 16 of 19. Tionna Williams has bounced back after a violation of team rules last month, as the junior is averaging 2.54 kills per set.

Minnesota dispatched Ohio State Wednesday night, and will have to turn around quickly as a red-hot Badgers team awaits them Saturday. Minnesota has been as consistent as any team in the country this season, and will look to continue that trend in order to keep pace with Penn State in the crowded Big Ten. Samantha Seliger-Swenson has been arguably the best setter in the country this season. The junior leads the Big Ten in assists per set at 12.29 (second nationally), helping the Gophers to .291 hitting clip on the season. Stephanie Samedy has had a break out freshman campaign, leading the team with 280 kills.

No. 19 USC (14-5, 6-2 Pac-12) vs. No. 12 Utah (16-3, 7-1 Pac-12)

Sunday 1:00 p.m. MT 

USC started off conference play 4-0, including a win over crosstown rival UCLA, but the Trojans have split their last two weekends, and will be looking for two road wins over Colorado and Utah in order to stay in contention with Stanford for the conference title. The Trojans continue to execute their 6-2 system, with setters Reni Meyer-Whalley (6.36 assists per set) and Cindy Marina (5.42 assists per set) consistently feeding their big hitters, including Khalia Lanier (4.08 kills per set). The Trojans are 16-3 all-time against Utah.

Utah has a big weekend ahead of them as they welcome No. 13 UCLA to town before facing off with the Trojans Sunday. The Utes are riding a five-match conference win streak, the longest they have had since joining the Pac-12 back in 2011. Coach Beth Launiere’s squad is one of the most effective offenses in the country, ranking in the top 10 in both kills (7th, 14.66 per set) and assists (4th, 13.90 per set). Senior outside hitter Adora Anae continues to be a steadying force for the Utes, and earlier this season became Utah’s all-time leader in kills.

NC State (13-7, 8-1 ACC) vs. Pittsburgh (15-4, 8-0 ACC)

Sunday 1:00 p.m. ET

With all the talk surrounding the Pac-12, SEC, and Big Ten, the conference race in the ACC has gotten lost in the shuffle. NC State dropped its first conference match of the season last night at rival North Carolina, but still boasts an 8-1 record in ACC play and currently sits only a half game behind Pitt for the conference lead. Since starting the season 0-5, the Wolfpack have won 13 of 15 and their senior middle blocker Kaitlyn Kearney is a big reason why. The Frisco, Texas native, with five blocks Wednesday, became the programs all-time leader in blocks (501). To add to her accolades, Kearney needs only 13 kills against the Panthers to reach 1,000 for her career.

Pitt started the season off slow as well, sitting with a 3-4 record before its current 12-match winning streak. The Panthers have been the most dominant team in the ACC this season, and they have yet to go the distance in any match. They rank in the top-25 in multiple offensive statistical categories, including kills (16th, 14.38 per set), assists (23rd, 13.24 per set) and hitting percentage (14th, .281 percent). Slovenian Nika Markovic has been the catalyst thus far (4.04 kills per set), and will look to guide her Pitt team to another perfect weekend as they face North Carolina Friday before the conference showdown Sunday with the Wolfpack.

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