Thursday viewing guide: Bubble teams, powerhouses take the floor
After a round or two of well-earned rest, it’s time for many of the best teams to begin playing in conference tournaments on Thursday. Today's games will be the first true opportunities for signature wins for those teams on the bubble. And for you fans at home, today is a good chance to make sure your television remote technique is in postseason form—the Big Dance begins a week from today.
Both the ACC player of the year, Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, and the runner-up for that award, Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant, are in action today looking to fend off bubble teams that gave their squads trouble during the regular season. On Jan. 7, the Fighting Irish struggled to put away Miami at home, winning by five points. On Jan. 11, the Blue Devils traveled to N.C. State and lost by 12. That win helped announce the Wolfpack as an NCAA tournament-worthy team, and a win on Thursday could boost them up a seed line in the bracket. A win over Notre Dame would also help Miami’s cause, but the Hurricane are likely looking for a pair of signature wins during this tournament.
But the game of the day in ACC play is the grudge match between North Carolina and Louisville. This was one of the best rivalries during the regular season. On Jan. 10, the Tar Heels beat the Cardinals at home by one on a Marcus Paige layup after trailing by 13 with under nine minutes to go; then on Jan. 31, North Carolina opened an 18-point lead early in the second half before Louisville rallied to win by 10 in overtime. The Cardinals looked like they were going to limp into the postseason after the dismissal of starting guard Chris Jones, but their last game was a two-point home win over the top dog in the ACC, Virginia. A win over the Tar Heels would help show that Louisville can still make noise in the NCAA tournament.
No. 8 UMass vs. No. 9 LaSalle, noon, NBC Sports
No. 5 VCU vs. No. 12 Fordham, 2:30 p.m., NBCS
No. 7 St. Bonaventure vs. No. 10 Saint Joe’s, 6:30 p.m., NBCS
No. 6 George Washington vs. No. 11 Duquesne, 9 p.m., NBCS
The best action in the A-10 doesn’t get underway until Friday, when Davidson, Dayton, Rhode Island and Richmond try to work their way into the NCAA tournament field. In his latest Bubble Watch, SI’s Michael Beller doesn’t give any team playing in Brooklyn today—except for, of course, VCU—a chance to make the Big Dance. But keep an eye on George Washington. Junior forward Kevin Larsen and freshman forward Yuta Watanabe are star-caliber players, and the Colonials beat Wichita State in December. George Washington knows it likely needs the automatic bid to qualify, and that makes it one of the most dangerous teams in action today.
No. 8 Illinois vs. No. 9 Michigan, noon, Big Ten Network
No. 13 Penn State vs. No. 5 Iowa, 2:25 p.m., BTN
No. 7 Indiana vs. No. 10 Northwestern, 6:30 p.m., BTN
No. 11 Minnesota vs. No. 6 Ohio State, 8:55 p.m., BTN
There are two bubble teams to watch in the Big Ten on Thursday: Indiana and Illinois. At one point, the Hoosiers seemed like a lock to make the Big Dance, and the calls for Tom Crean’s head had quieted. Then they lost eight of their last 12 and nearly fell all the way out of the field. If they can beat Northwestern, they should feel secure. The Wildcats are under .500, but they’d be eager to end their season on a high note by keeping a conference rival out of the NCAAs.
Illinois, meanwhile, is looking to make up for missed opportunities at the back end of its schedule. The Illini lost to Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa and Purdue in their last six games, and they’ll probably need a pair of wins in Indianapolis to feel good about their chances on Selection Sunday. Unfortunately for them, their draw is against the Wolverines, a team they lost to in overtime on Dec. 30 and beat in overtime on Feb. 12. The 15-15 Wolverines are playing for pride, and they’ll be a tough out.
No. 4 Baylor vs. No. 5 West Virginia, 12:30 p.m., ESPN2
No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 9 TCU, 2:30 p.m., ESPN2
No. 2 Iowa State vs. No. 7 Texas, 7 p.m., ESPN2
No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 6 Oklahoma State, 9 p.m., ESPNU
Texas survived its first test, beating Texas Tech on Wednesday, and now wants to put an exclamation point on its NCAA tournament resume. Even a close loss to Iowa State should keep the Longhorns in the field, but they would feel much better about their chances if they didn’t lose to the Cyclones for the third time this season.
Oklahoma State is also trying to avoid the sweep against in-state rival Oklahoma. After a solid showing in the beginning of their Big 12 schedule, the Cowboys limped to the finish, losing five of their last six games. Our bracket expert Michael Beller predicts that they’ll make the field even if they lose, but that’s a gamble they shouldn’t want to take.
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 9 Marquette, noon, Fox Sports 1
No. 4 Providence vs. No 5 St. John’s, 2:30 p.m., FS1
No. 2 Georgetown vs. No. 10 Creighton, 7 p.m., FS1
No. 3 Butler vs. No. 6 Xavier, 9:30 p.m., FS1
St. John's looked like one of the hottest teams in the country heading into its March 7 matchup with Villanova, having won seven of its nine previous games. Then the Wildcats drubbed the Johnnies, 105-68. They're not in danger of missing the NCAA tournament, but they do have a chance to set themselves up for a revenge game if they take care of Providence today and Villanova beats Marquette.
On the other side of the bracket, Butler and Xavier split their regular-season matchups. Both teams appear safely in the field of 68 regardless of the outcome of this game, but if Butler can make it to the championship game, the Bulldogs could move up from the 5-seed line to a No. 4 or even a No. 3.
In true Pac-12 fashion, the game of the night will tip off after most of America has gone to bed. Stanford desperately needs a signature win, and beating the Utes would fit the bill. Utah ended its season by losing three games out of five. Beating a good team like Stanford could increase the Utes' confidence before a potential matchup with Oregon in the semifinals.
The battle for Los Angeles will also be an intriguing contest. After looking like a borderline NIT team in January, UCLA has turned its season around and could still make it into the NCAAs. A win here would put them in a potential game with Arizona, and a win there would be a ticket-puncher.
No. 8 Florida vs. No. 9 Alabama, 1 p.m., SEC Network
No. 13 Auburn vs. No. 5 Texas A&M, 3:25 p.m., SECN
No. 7 Vanderbilt vs. No. 10 Tennessee, 7 p.m., SECN
No. 11 South Carolina vs. No. 6 Ole Miss, 9:25 p.m., SECN
The Wildcats don't pick up their the pursuit of perfection until Friday, but there are two teams here that need wins to keep their NCAA tournament dreams alive. Texas A&M has beaten Auburn twice this season and needs to avoid a loss in this game if it wants to avoid sweating on Sunday. Ole Miss also needs to beat an enigmatic South Carolina team to make sure that it stays in the field.