Race to March Madness: The top games left in the season you won't want to miss
The regular season expires in less than three weeks, so here are the best games remaining
Here's your newsflash, sports fans: college basketball's regular season has less than three weeks remaining.
On the heels of Saturday's big reveal from the NCAA Tournament selection committee about the top 16-seeded teams, we have a general sense of the hierarchy in the sport this season. With that, we can look at the remaining games on the schedule and see which ones should have the most urgency. So let me help you plan out the rest of your February and into early March. Here are the 20 biggest and/or most crucial games in college hoops until the postseason begins.
Louisville Cardinals at Syracuse Orange (Monday): Right away, here we go. This game is going down Monday. Syracuse is an interesting bubble team, and a win here would do wonders for its at-large resume. Louisville, ranked as a No. 2 seed by the committee on Saturday, still has a shot at a No. 1 seed, but it's going to need to steal games on the road to have a chance. Quentin Snider is now back in the fold for the Arizona Cardinals , meaning Louisville's offense can round into shape.
West Virginia Mountaineers at Kansas Jayhawks (Monday): And look at that: another Monday night game makes the list. This one is big for WVU, because a win would mean a sweep of Kansas. If that happened, the Big 12 could be in Baylor Bears 's hands. And WVU would have a real shot at landing a No. 2 seed eventually, if it didn't take any bad losses. I think many people underestimate how good the Mountaineers' resume has potential of becoming. For Kansas, the win is vital to staying on the 1 line, though not mandatory. Plus, it's always great to see Huggins' teams go against Self's squads.
Duke Blue Devils at Virginia Cavaliers (Wednesday): Duke looked good in defeating UNC last Thursday, then was sluggish in just slipping by Clemson Tigers . Now Virginia, which was pegged as a No. 3 seed before falling in double overtime on Sunday night at Virginia Tech Hokies , is in a big spot. The Cavs have the home floor and will need to win this game in order to have any chance at winning the ACC. Duke has basically reached the status of an NFL team, in that many feel compelled to critically evaluate the team based on every single game.
Kansas at Baylor (Saturday): One of the three or four biggest games remaining this season. The Jayhawks won 73-68 at home against Baylor of Feb. 1. Both teams are 22-3 as of now, with Kansas holding a one-game lead in the loss column in the Big 12 standings. Not only could this game keep the Big 12 race tight, it also would be a boon to Baylor's hopes of getting a No. 1 seed. This type of game could also be one that helps or hurts Frank Mason III's Player of the Year standing.
Maryland Terrapins at Wisconsin Badgers (Sunday): Wisconsin's home loss to Northwestern Wildcats on Sunday night set up some doubt in the Big Ten. The Badgers still lead the league, having two losses, but Maryland's got three, and this game could be huge for Maryland in terms of national respect, overall pecking order from the selection committee and Melo Trimble 's profile this season. Wisconsin's got a 21-4 mark as of now, but needs more good wins to break through to the 4 line.
South Carolina Gamecocks at Florida Gators (Tue., Feb 21): An SEC game not involving Kentucky Wildcats . The Gators were tabbed as a No. 3 seed by the committee, and Mike White would make my top 10 list for Coach of the Year candidates. Frank Martin at South Carolina would be close there, too, and South Carolina will be going for the sweep here. Southern California Trojans won the first game 57-53, on Jan. 18. If the Gamecocks can win in Gainesville, it would give the conference a good chance at having three teams as 6 seeds or higher.
Louisville at North Carolina Tar Heels (Wed., Feb. 22): North Carolina's remaining schedule is ridiculous. I could've easily put four UNC games on this list. This one will be really entertaining, and UNC will be in the midst of trying to get a 1 seed while trying to keep grip on the ACC in the standings. Not sure how UNC will respond down the stretch. The Tar Heels' schedule sets up to where UNC could be anything from a 1 to a 4 come Selection Sunday.
Florida at Kentucky (Sat., Feb. 25). Gators got UK in Gainesville, now this is Kentucky's only chance left in the regular season to get a win over an NCAA Tournament team. The Wildcats' best wins are over North Carolina, South Carolina and ... Michigan State Spartans . The Spartans wouldn't be in the NCAA Tournament if it started today. So this game will be very big for UK. Florida will be playing with some house money here.
Northwestern at Indiana Hoosiers (Sat., Feb 25): The Wildcats have so many big games remaining, but that victory Sunday night at Wisconsin was huge to getting NU into the NCAAs for the first time in program history. This one's on the list because a win here would mean a lock to the point of no return, truly, for the program, while Indiana losing would signal the nadir for Tom Crean's team this season. IU is not out of the tourney picture, either, and this game qualifies as must-win for the Hoosiers.
Brigham Young Cougars at Gonzaga Bulldogs (Sat., Feb. 25): The WCC always wraps up its league schedule early, so Feb. 25 is the final day of the regular season for the Zags. A win here, and the program completes its first undefeated regular season ever. It means 30-0. It means Gonzaga would become the third team in four seasons to not lose a game prior to postseason play. I think that's pretty cool. And I think Gonzaga beats BYU by 20 here; 30-0 is happening.
UCLA Bruins at Arizona Wildcats (Sat., Feb. 25): Arizona holding serve on its home floor would mean a sweep of UCLA, and quite possibly capturing the Pac-12 title. If both happen, Arizona's shot at a 2 seed would be very good. UCLA having stake to anything higher than a 4 seed would require reaching the Pac-12 title game, I think. A regular-season game with significant consequences here. If UCLA wins, then the Bruins would have three really good wins (Kentucky, Oregon Ducks , Arizona) and would be on their way to a chic national title pick.
Wisconsin at Michigan State (Sun., Feb. 26): The Spartans simply have to win this game in order to have any chance at making the NCAAs. Wisconsin will be trying to hold off Purdue Boilermakers and Maryland for the Big Ten regular season title. The Badgers and Spartans often put on really close matchups, and I'd expect the Breslin Center to be at full throat here. Plus: Miles Bridges . Always watch Miles Bridges, people.
Butler Bulldogs at Xavier Musketeers (Sun., Feb. 26): The best remaining opportunity/opponent for Xavier, which is still hard to peg in terms of eventual seed spot. The Musketeers are 18-7 as of this post's publishing, and I think X could land anywhere from the 5 line to the 10 line depending on how the next three weeks go. Not having Edmond Sumner means the committee will evaluate the team as is. For Butler, this group has good wins but bad losses, and good luck trying to predict what it'll do in March. Ultimately, Butler-Xavier is one of the better rivalries that isn't considered an out-and-out rivalry.
UNC at Virginia (Mon., Feb. 27): This is the return game, as UNC hosts the Hoos on Feb. 18. It could decide the ACC, and more. The league is providing such compelling and interesting and seed-shifting games by the day, it's easy to get lost in what games really mean the most, etc. Sometimes, games are just good games. This one should qualify. I think Virginia will win this, though the safe call is to state that if either team is able to sweep the series, that team will be the ACC champion.
West Virginia at Baylor (Mon., Feb. 27): I don't discount West Virginia's Big 12 title hopes, but the fact is WVU needs to win at Kansas and at Baylor in order to accomplish the feat. Very tall task. This one's about Baylor maybe being in a spot to keep pace with KU atop the standings, while WVU could need the W to avoid slipping not just in the standings, but in the chain of command on the NCAA's 1-68 seed list. Remember, WVU gave Baylor its first loss of the season, an 89-68 creaming back in Morgantown on Jan. 10. Revenge game?
Florida State Seminoles at Duke (Tue., Feb 28). Florida State was a No. 2 seed in Saturday's bracket reveal, then promptly lost to Notre Dame Fighting Irish . The Seminoles are essentially a No. 3 right now, and with a lot of good wins, they'll probably still maintain good standing, so long as they don't take another bad loss. Here, this game could create some separation. If Duke wins and FSU loses, the teams could wind up flipping spots in the hierarchy, and Duke doesn't play another home game after this one. You see how many games we've gone through to get to this point? Yeah, now remember that this game is 15 days away. We are entering a cram.
VCU Rams at Dayton Flyers (Wed., March 1): Big game for the Atlantic 10, which is trying to send both of these teams to the Dance. Currently, both have five losses and are tied in the league standings with two scars apiece. VCU won the first game, on Jan. 27, by five points. Dayton has the better resume. It's better for the A-10 if Dayton wins this, but that is me projecting that both teams don't lose prior to this matchup, which I think is unlikely. Been an unusual season for that conference.
Duke at UNC (Sat., March 4): The final day of the regular season in the ACC will probably mean more for North Carolina than Duke. The Blue Devils are highly unlikely to be playing for the top seed in the league tournament, while UNC will be wrapping up a hellish schedule before turning around and getting even more doses of legitimacy in the ACC bracket. UNC played a very good game -- without Isaiah Hicks -- at Cameron. It would be damaging to its profile if it got swept by Duke.
Kansas at Oklahoma State Cowboys (Sat., March 4): Oklahoma State will be playing for its NCAA Tournament life (give me Jawun Evans in the bracket, please), while Kansas might need to win this game, on the road and against a good backcourt, in order to secure the Big 12 regular-season title. This game doesn't seem like a huge one right now, but I have a strong sense this will be one of the three biggest games on the final weekend of the regular season.
Purdue at Northwestern (Sat., March 4): This is merely a big game because it could decide the Big Ten regular season title, and could be the difference with Northwestern landing a 6 seed or a 7 seed. To have Northwestern playing relevant games in March, it's a really cool thing for college basketball. Also, Caleb Swanigan having a huge game here could lift him to National Player of the Year. A lot to look forward to on that final Saturday.
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