If you’re a college basketball junkie (and if you’re reading an article like this, I already know you are) then this really is the time of year where things start to get good.
We’re officially at that point in the season. The part where we have a feel for who is good, who isn’t and what’s at stake for each team, every time they step on the court.
Take this weekend for example.
Just about every relevant team, is playing for something – seeding in the NCAA Tournament, a league title, maybe even just to get off the bubble. Again, there are just an awful lot of games that matter this weekend.
So what’s at stake? And for who?
Let’s take a look.
The Pursuit of No. 1 seeds:
Oklahoma at No. 3 Kansas (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)
No. 14 West Virginia at No. 1 Baylor (Saturday, 4:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)
No. 4 San Diego State at Boise State (Saturday, 4:00 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)
No. 3 Gonzaga at Pepperdine (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN)
These four teams were projected as the No. 1 seeds when the first mock bracket came out last week, and to their credit, have taken care of business since, going 8-0 in the last seven days.
Still, three of these four teams could – at least in theory – face a challenge this weekend.
Kansas should cruise at home against Oklahoma, but Baylor has an increasingly interesting matchup with No. 14 West Virginia on Saturday. On the one hand, West Virginia has been seemingly fading down the stretch, and hasn’t won a road game in over a month. On the flip side, Baylor hasn’t exactly been lights out either. While they’re still in the midst of an insane 21-game win streak, the Bears have won their last three games by six, eight and seven points respectively, hardly blowing out the competition.
Could this be the weekend they finally take a loss? It at least seems possible.
Then there are San Diego State and Gonzaga.
For the “Gonzaga and San Diego State don’t play anyone” crowd, well I can’t really disagree with you this weekend. At the same time, each faces an opponent tougher than it might appear on paper. Gonzaga is at Pepperdine, a team which nearly beat Arizona (they lost by one) and Providence (they lost by three) earlier this year. Meanwhile, San Diego State visits Boise State, which has quietly won five of its last six games.
Still, if these teams really are “No. 1 seed worthy,” these are games that they simply have to have. Especially with a certain pair of ACC teams lurking, and looking to move up to the No. 1 seed line…
The Pursuit of No. 2 Seeds and the ACC Regular Season Title
Notre Dame at No. 7 Duke (Saturday, 4:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)
No. 5 Louisville at Georgia Tech (Saturday, 4:00 p.m. ET, ACC Network)
It’s fitting that Duke and Louisville are playing at the same time, against similar opponents on Saturday. You know, since they’re largely playing for the same thing.
In the micro, they’re each competing for an ACC title. With one more game played, Louisville currently holds a half-game lead in the standings over the Blue Devils. But with two losses apiece it is essentially tied with three weeks left in the regular season.
In the macro though, it isn’t really about a conference crown as much as “what a conference crown can do for their NCAA Tournament seeding.” And each is firmly on the two-line and flirting with the ability to jump up and grab a No. 1 seed. Neither team can afford a bad loss Saturday – not Duke at home to Notre Dame, and not Louisville coming off a loss at Georgia Tech earlier this week.
They also can’t afford it with Florida State, just one game back in the loss column, playing Syracuse at home and trying to keep pace.
The Pursuit of an SEC Title
Ole Miss at No. 12 Kentucky (Saturday, 2:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)
No. 25 LSU at Alabama (Saturday, 4:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
No. 11 Auburn at Missouri (Saturday, 6:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
How fitting that the three teams who are tied for first place in the SEC are all playing back-to-back-to-back on Saturday. As if, with each win throughout the day, the stakes will only get higher and higher.
With that said, if there was ever a (brief) moment in time for Kentucky to seize control of the league, this weekend has to be it, right? The Wildcats have a seemingly easy (if such a thing exists in SEC play) game against Ole Miss, while Auburn and LSU have to go on the road.
Considering how much Auburn has struggled on the road (3-2 overall, two of their wins coming in overtime) and considering how much LSU has just struggled in general of late (lost two of their last three, the sole win in a wild comeback against Missouri) this feels like the weekend where the Wildcats can create some breathing room.
And they may need it with a massive game coming at LSU on Tuesday night.
Maryland’s Pursuit of (Relative) Immortality – and a Big Ten title
No. 9 Maryland at Michigan State (Saturday, 6:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)
To fans of a certain age (say, 30+ years old) they remember a world where the Maryland Terrapins were actually one of the better programs in college basketball. In an incredible run that I think most have largely forgotten about, the Terps made seven Sweet 16 appearances in a decade from 1994-2003, culminating in the 2002 national title.
That’s also what makes the nearly two decades since just as tough, as the Terps have made one Sweet 16 appearance in the 17 years since 2003, with zero Elite Eight’s and Final Four’s. For some comparison, local schools George Mason and VCU have each made a Final Four since the last time Maryland was back on college basketball’s biggest stage.
Well, if there was ever year for the Terps to get back to that stage, this seems like it. And if they are for real, this seems like the weekend to prove it.
Maryland currently sits alone in first place in the Big Ten (arguably the toughest conference in college basketball) and have arguably their toughest test left in the regular season on Saturday against Michigan State in East Lansing.
The Spartans aren’t quite what we thought they’d be in the preseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not capable of winning this game outright in East Lansing.
For Maryland, this game is everything – a chance to distance themselves in the Big Ten race, to improve their NCAA Tournament seeding and prove that they belong in the discussion with the other national title contenders.
Now, whether they can prove that or not is another story altogether. We’ll find out this weekend.
Seton Hall’s Pursuit of (Relative) Immortality – and a Big East title
No. 10 Seton Hall at Providence (Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network)
Like Maryland, Seton Hall has some national, historical relevance, playing for a national title in 1989. And like Maryland, it’s been a long time since the Pirates have been this good, this late in the season.
To their credit, even after losing earlier this week to Creighton, the Pirates still hold a full two-game lead in the Big East standings, as they pursue their first Big East regular season championship since 1993.
In the process, they – like so many other teams – will try to continue to improve their NCAA Tournament seeding, after appearing on the three-line last week.
The Pursuit of a Tournament Bid
Purdue at Ohio State (Saturday, 12:00 p.m. ET, FOX)
Mississippi State at Arkansas (Saturday, 1:00 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Virginia at North Carolina (Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Indiana at Michigan (Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET, CBS)
Memphis at UConn (Sunday, 3:00 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Put simply, there are just way, way, WAY too many bubble games to hit them all in this section. So, if I skipped your favorite team well, deal with it. I didn’t want this last section to turn into 10,000 words.
Anyway, I digress because the bubble action starts early Saturday, with Purdue and Ohio State, two teams which showed up as a 10-seed and a nine-seed on Joe Lunardi’s most recent bracketology, and are probably closer to the bubble than anyone realizes. Each team can use a win here. Especially Ohio State, which is playing at home.
Speaking of “need a win” welcome to maybe the biggest bubble game of Saturday in Fayetteville. Arkansas is all the way down to “Last Four In” following a three-game losing streak that directly coincides with the loss of star Isaiah Joe to injury. They desperately need a win on Saturday, as does Mississippi State, which just took a weird loss to Ole Miss earlier this week.
To wrap up Saturday, for the first time in a long time Virginia finally finds itself on the right side of the bubble, and should stay there as long as they don’t take a bad loss at North Carolina. Incase you haven’t heard, the Tar Heels aren’t very good this year.
Moving to Sunday, Indiana finally has some momentum, but could use a home win over Michigan to help boost a suddenly sagging resume.
And finally, we wrap with Memphis.
Penny Hardaway wanted “all the smoke” in the preseason, only to see – as many predicted – his season largely go up in smoke since.
After losing at Cincinnati on Thursday night the Tigers are officially on the wrong side of the bubble, and if they want any shot at making the Big Dance need to beat UConn this weekend.
Enjoy the college hoops this weekend my friends.
There is plenty on the line.