With football in the rear-view mirror and the NBA about to hit the All-Star break, the nation’s eyes turn to college hoops. Even though the sport is just getting its first attention of the season, the action and storylines are far closer to a conclusion than you might think.
It’s a tad jarring to see how few games remain on the college basketball calendar, yet what we lack in quantity, we find in quality. So many of the games left yet to play have taken on greater significance at the top of conference standings or for bubble teams clawing towards a tournament bid.
With just more than a month left until Selection Sunday, these five games carry the greatest importance in the college basketball landscape.
5. Dayton at Rhode Island, March 4
Dayton has earned a reputation as a top-10 team and national title contender by starting the season 22-2. The Flyers entered the national conversation by outperforming expectations at the Maui Invitational in November. In hindsight, however, Dayton’s wins that week over Virginia Tech and Georgia have proven to be less impressive. In conference play, the Flyers have started with 11 straight victories, of varying degrees of difficulty. A home win over VCU is nice and wins at Richmond and Duquesne can’t be ignored, yet you can’t blame the national media or the Selection Committee if they want to see a bit more from Dayton.
March 4 offers that chance, with a road date against the Atlantic-10’s second best team. Fatts Russell and the Rams should be in March’s NCAA Tournament but can really help their resumé with a victory over the Flyers. Seeding and bragging rights are on the line, and this game should be heated as soon as the ball is tipped.
4. Colorado at Oregon, Feb. 13
In recent seasons, the Pac-12 has become college basketball’s forgotten conference. That’s no different this year, with most of the attention on the West Coast being sucked up by mid-majors San Diego State and Gonzaga. The top teams in the Pac-12 aren’t fighting for No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament and aren’t even ranked in the top 15 of the AP Poll. Yet anyone ignoring the top of the Pac-12 as Final Four-caliber teams must be falling asleep before the games out West get started.
Colorado and Oregon can both win games in March, thanks to veteran-laden rosters that play well together. Whichever of the two can emerge from the pack in the conference will likely catch some momentum and start to raise a few eyebrows nationally. You can bet good money that the winner of this game will be the team that enters the Pac-12 Tournament with some swagger and a chance to parlay that success deep into the Big Dance.
3. Maryland at Michigan State, Feb. 15
The Terps currently hold a one-game lead in the Big Ten standings over Penn State and two over Illinois. Maryland swept two meetings with the Illini but lost their only date with the Nittany Lions. The two most daunting games on the Terps’ remaining slate are both matchups with Michigan State. This week, the Spartans became the first preseason No. 1 team to fall completely out of the AP Poll during the season since Kentucky did so in 2013 (thanks to an injury to Nerlens Noel). Despite their struggles, Sparty is still treading water and sits two games behind Maryland in the loss column, with two chances to beat the Terps.
If Michigan State wants a chance to be the top-seeded team from the Big Ten, their opportunity begins on Saturday. If the Spartans lose, they’ll drop from the Selection Committee’s top-16 teams, as they were in the preview rankings this past weekend, and into the murky area where a first-round upset is dangerously possible.
2. Louisville at Florida State, Feb. 24
The ACC is at its lowest point in years, if not decades. KenPom pegs the ACC as the nation’s fifth-best conference, and right now, only three ACC teams are solidly in the NCAA Tournament. Duke, Florida State and Louisville should all be high seeds with chances to reach the Final Four, with reigning champs Virginia hovering on the bubble for now. That is highly unusual for a league that typically sends half a dozen or more teams to the NCAA Tournament. Despite all of that, if one team can stand atop the ACC standings at the end of the regular season and finish the job at the ACC Tournament, they’d be a prime candidate for a top seed in March, or at worst a No. 2 seed. The Semioles and Cardinals each faced Duke only once this season, both at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Louisville grabbed a leg up with a win, while Florida State lost a tight game Monday night.
The first time these two teams met, Florida State made a giant statement with a win on Louisville’s home court. The Cardinals could return the favor later this month and solidify themselves as the team to beat in the ACC.
1. Kansas at Baylor, Feb. 22
The Big XII is home to the two teams with the best tournament resumes in all of college basketball. Baylor and Kansas rank 3rd and 4th in the NET rating, respectively, just behind the West Coast mid-major pair of San Diego State and Gonzaga. Yet thanks to their power conference status, the Bears and Jayhawks have had far more opportunities against top competition.
Gonzaga has five Quadrant 1 wins and San Diego State has four. Baylor has nine such wins and Kansas leads the nation with ten Quad 1 victories.
Not only are the Bears and Jayhawks tussling for the Big XII regular season title, the top seed in the conference tournament, and a top seed in the Big Dance, the winner of this game has the inside track to be the No. 1 overall seed in March Madness. For Baylor, that would mean locking down second weekend action played in nearby Houston.
Resumes and seeds aside, these are conference rivals and could be the two best teams in the nation. Both have great guards and athletic big men. Kansas failed to win the Big XII last season, ending a streak of over a decade. I’d imagine Baylor is motivated to keep the Jayhawks away from sharing the title this season, too.
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