Today's Specials: Illinois needs a win at Michigan State

Brandon Paul and Illinois need to avoid dropping to 2-6 in the Big Ten against Michigan State on Thursday. (US Presswire)

With so many games on Wednesday, there was bound to be some noteworthy action. And there was. Blowouts, upsets, buzzer-beaters, statement wins -- it had everything. Thursday also has a deep slate of games, although there aren’t too many chances for upsets or surprises. Mid-major conferences have some nice battles, though.

Note: All times are Eastern, and the rankings are according to the AP Poll.

Best game: Illinois at No. 13 Michigan State (7 p.m., ESPN). Remember when Illinois was 12-0 heading into a pre-Christmas battle with Missouri? Since then, the Fighting Illini are 3-6 -- including a 2-5 record in the Big Ten. They do have the good wins over Butler, Gonzaga and Ohio State, but they need to shape up in the league -- and the next three games are against Wisconsin, Indiana and Minnesota. Michigan State is playing its best basketball of the season, despite its loss over the weekend at Indiana. The Illini need to get back on track from the perimeter and also force turnovers.

Second-best game: No. 9 Butler at Saint Louis (9 p.m., CBS Sports). Back in the summer, this looked like a game that could have possibly been between the top two teams in the league. Butler is atop the standings while Saint Louis is in a logjam of nine teams that are within 1.5 games out of first place. Yes, the Atlantic 10 is going to be crazy over the next five or six weeks. If Saint Louis is to pick up the marquee win, it needs to defend the perimeter far better than it has this season. Offensively, Kwamain Mitchell needs to shoot the ball. He has been too inconsistent.

Another one to watch: Iona at Niagara (7 p.m., ESPN3). Heading into the season, Loyola (Md.) and Manhattan were picked atop the MAAC with Iona among the contenders and Niagara somewhere in the middle of the pack. Well, with one month left in the season, Niagara is in first at 9-1 with Iona sitting just one back in the standings. Both teams like to get out in transition and score points, and there are plenty of quality perimeter players. Iona has Momo Jones and Sean Armand, while Niagara counters with Juan’ya Green and Antoine Mason.

Guaranteed win: A couple of teams in smaller conferences should cruise on Thursday and stay in the race for first place. First, Davidson hosts Samford (7 p.m.) in a game that might look closer on paper than it will be. Samford has won four of its last five, but the Bulldogs will have trouble going on the road and beating the Wildcats. Also, Oral Roberts welcomes Nicholls State (8:30 p.m.) to town. ORU won the first teams' matchup by 13.

Potential upset: With Oregon getting blown out by Stanford on Wednesday, No. 8 Arizona is right back in the thick of the Pac-12 race. But will the Wildcats get by Washington (9 p.m., ESPN)? The Huskies have lost three in a row since starting 4-0 in the league, but they knock down perimeter shots and don’t allow too many openings inside the arc. If Arizona isn’t hitting shots and continues to turn it over, Washington could keep it close.

Three things to keep an eye on:

  1. Five teams are tied atop the Atlantic Sun with 6-3 records, and two of them do battle on Thursday: Stetson at Jacksonville (7 p.m.).
  2. After crushing UCLA last weekend, Arizona State can move one game back of first place with a win at Washington State (11 p.m., Pac-12 Network).
  3. No. 7 Gonzaga looks for its 20th win of the season with a road trip to Loyola Marymount (11 p.m., ESPN2).

Other games to watch:

For more college basketball news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnCBB on Twitter, subscribe to our RSS Feed and subscribe to our College Basketball Newsletter. You can follow Jeff Borzello on Twitter here: @jeffborzello

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