It was last Saturday, in front of an ESPN audience, that Michigan State went to Columbus, held Ohio State to 26 percent shooting from the floor, and came up with a road win that turned the Big Ten race into a dead heat coming down the stretch. The Spartans and Buckeyes both answered tests during the week, beating Wisconsin and Minnesota respectively. Now they both face stern tests again on Saturday, each on the road.
ESPN’s Gameday will make the trek to Ann Arbor, where Ohio State visits Michigan (9 PM ET). The Wolverines are the one team left who can still get into the title picture, trailing the co-leaders by a game (Wisconsin fell by the wayside with their loss in East Lansing last night). Is homecourt, combined with the scoring Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke in the backcourt enough to beat an Ohio State team that can play the inside-out game with Jared Sullinger and William Buford? In fairness, that soundbite, doesn’t adequately factor in a depth advantage for Michigan. My problem is that here in the latter part of February I don’t know what to make of Ohio State. They go into Madison and get a nice road win, but then can’t seal the deal on their home floor. Call it a gut feeling, but I think the Wolverines, with the home crowd behind them, are able to ride out some big stretches from Sullinger and win this one at the wire.
On Sunday, it’s Michigan State-Purdue, and I would presume will be on CBS, given the 1 PM ET tip-time, but for some reason the network remains non-committal about its Big Ten game—as though Wisconsin-Penn State or Indiana-Iowa are better fare. As a Badger fan whose good friends with a Nittany Lion fan I appreciate the thought, but let’s get real—the Spartans-Boilers should be the showcase game. I like Michigan State’s chances a little better on the road. Robbie Hummel is capable of carrying Purdue, who is in a must-win spot in the race for the NCAA Tournament, but Tom Izzo has produced a team that rebounds the ball well and just seems very mentally tough, as last week’s road win shows. I like Michigan State to do it again and take sole possession of first place with two weeks to go.
Here at TheSportsNotebook we’ve been talking Bracket-Busters all week, in looking at the mid-major conferences. If you missed it, be sure and read this week’s overviews of Conference USA, the Missouri Valley and an eclectic mix of Harvard, Long Beach State and the Colonial’s Big Three (I don’t really know if that mix is “eclectic” but it makes me sound hip. Or stupid). And there’s previous material on Gonzaga, BYU & St. Mary’s, plus a piece on Murray State, which are a little more dated, but still relevant if you’re looking for a crash course on the midmajors. The two biggest games of Saturday’s feature will be St. Mary’s-Murray State (6 PM ET, ESPN) and Long Beach State-Creighton (10 PM ET, ESPN2). Of those four teams, St. Mary’s is the only I’d feel confident about getting an at-large bid to the NCAA if they lose the conference tournament. Murray and Long Beach would still have reasonable shots, but I think Creighton either must win this game or must win the automatic. And don’t overlook Yale-Harvard, where the Yalies can pull into a tie with the Crimson in a race where the regular season championship settles the NCAA bid.
Elsewhere around the country…
BIG EAST: When you have a 16-team league, you’re going to have a lot of big NCAA bubble games this time of year. None are bigger than Seton Hall-Cincinnati, where I think the Bearcats could come close to sealing the deal if they win at home, and the Pirates really need a signature win. UConn needs to win a home date with Marquette on noon ET on ESPN, while the Golden Eagles still nurse an outside shot at catching Syracuse for first place.
PAC-12: Arizona-Washington is a monster battle here. The Huskies won a previous meeting by two points and are tied for first with Cal, with the Wildcats only one game back. Playing up in Seattle, I like Lorenzo Romar’s team to defend their home floor, but if you’re looking at a hot team who will be affordably seeded *in the NCAA bracket, Arizona’s one to watch.
MOUNTAIN WEST: Another big one in the West is UNLV-New Mexico. After an entire season of being comfortably ensconced in a UNLV-San Diego State paradigm in this conference race, the Lobos have jumped up and taken sole possession of first. They lead each rival by one game. Saturday’s game tips at 1 PM ET and will share CBS coverage along with a meaningless UCLA-St. John’s game. By “share” I’m sure that means pockets of Las Vegas and Albuquerque will get the good game, while the rest of us get stuck with the big market teams that are going nowhere.
ACC: Duke’s rally to beat N.C. State last night kept this a three-way tie, along with North Carolina and Florida State, and also denied the Wolfpack a chance for a badly needed win to secure an NCAA bid. Now N.C. State comes home and it’s Florida State that’s on the docket. North Carolina’s got a winnable home game with a respectable, if not NCAA-caliber Clemson team, while Duke visits lowly Boston College on Sunday night. In another bubble game, Miami absolutely must take care of Wake Forest.
BIG 12: It’s a Missouri-Kansas race to the finish, with a head-to-head war in Lawrence still ahead. Mizzou takes to the road against Texas A&M. I can’t rule out a trap spot here, but the Tigers have been generally pretty good about avoiding such, save one defeat to Oklahoma State, and there’s nothing special that they’re coming off that would leave them susceptible to being trapped. Kansas has an easy win at home against Texas Tech. On the bubble, Texas visits Oklahoma State, and the Longhorns recent strong play means that a couple more wins and it’s time to take them off the bubble and put them in.
SEC: Mississippi State is ranked 23rd, but if you’re looking for a Top 25 team begging for a come-uppance on Selection Sunday the Bulldogs are it, and they need to take care of business at Auburn. Kentucky has this league title wrapped up and host an Ole Miss team that still has a shot at playing its way into the NCAA field and missed an opportunity last night with a 102-96 overtime loss to Vanderbilt. Arkansas can also still play its way in, but needs to get a marquee home win over Florida.
ATLANTIC 10: The Battle Of Western Ohio Disappointments features Dayton-Xavier. The Flyers aren’t getting an at-large bid, and the Musketeers are in jeopardy. Xavier desperately has to win this game. The conference leaders, Temple and St. Louis, have winnable home dates with Duquesne and Fordham respectively.