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Picks: NCAA Tournament Bubble Teams Take Center Stage This Weekend

With only a handful of games remaining in the regular season, this weekend's slate focuses on bubble teams who are in need of resumé-building wins.

This is the final weekend of the regular season for the country’s smaller conferences, as well as the Big Ten, which will play its tournament one week earlier than usual. Teams in the major conferences have no more than three games left in the regular season, which puts the focus of the weekend squarely on bubble teams. Bubblers such as Syracuse, Louisville and Baylor all have real resumé-building opportunities, while those like UCLA, USC, Marquette and LSU need to hold serve against teams that likely aren’t part of the at-large picture. The bubble is likely the home of this weekend’s best action.

Baylor at TCU

Saturday, noon ET, ESPN2

Baylor’s winning streak finally came to an end at five games with a loss to West Virginia earlier this week, but even still, the Bears are now on track to get back to the dance, which seemed impossible no more than a month ago. Alex Robinson has done an admirable job stepping into the starting point guard role for the injured Jaylen Fisher, stabilizing TCU’s offense, which is the team’s overwhelming strength. Jo Lual-Acuil won the battle of the big men over Vlad Brodziansky the first time these teams played, but Brodziansky’s Horned Frogs came away victorious on the road in overtime. Still, if Lual-Acuil is as good this weekend as he was in that came, the scales could tilt in Baylor’s favor.

TCU 75, Baylor 69

Louisville at Virginia Tech

Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS

Louisville’s season is on the line the next few weeks. The Cardinals have not done enough to be an at-large team. They need at least one more resumé-building victory and they’ll have to avoid a damaging loss in the ACC tournament. They get Virginia and NC State next week, but the importance of a win on Saturday cannot be overstated. It would be one of their best wins of the season and their first against a potential at-large team in six weeks. Virginia Tech is electric from deep with four players shooting better than 40% on at least 104 attempts from behind the arc. The Cardinals will have to find a way to slow that down to get the much-needed win.

Virginia Tech 77, Louisville 70


No. 3 Villanova at Creighton

Saturday, 2:30 p.m. ET, FOX

Few people expect Creighton to win this game and no one would fault the Bluejays for losing, but this is suddenly a crucial game for them. They’ve lost five straight games to certain or potential tourney teams, with their last win over an at-large quality team back on Jan. 17 against Seton Hall. They’re still on relatively safe ground, but an upset over Villanova on Saturday would make them feel a whole lot better. That is, of course, much easier said than done. The Wildcats expect to get Phil Booth back for this one. That should immediately improve their perimeter defense, which is critical when playing Creighton’s backcourt combo of Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas. If Creighton can keep it close, this should be one of the weekend’s most explosive games.

Villanova 88, Creighton 82

USC at Utah

Saturday, 2:30 p.m., ET Pac-12 Network

Utah picked up a big win Thursday, knocking off UCLA 84-78 at home. That didn’t vault the Utes into the field of 68 just yet, but it did further jumble the mess of Pac-12 teams just nearly on the wrong side of the bubble. USC is another one of those teams, making this a huge game on both sides. USC cruised to a 17-point victory the first time these squads met behind a balanced scoring effort with four players in double-figures. The Trojans, of course, had Bennie Boatwright in that game. They’ve won their first two games since he suffered a season-ending knee injury, but those were against Oregon State and Colorado. Utah is in a higher weight class.

Utah 75, USC 74

No. 8 Kansas at No. 6 Texas Tech

Saturday, 4:15 p.m. ET, ESPN

From now on, we should all just assume that Kansas’s Big 12 regular season championship streak will extend in perpetuity. After another round of “this could finally be the season” declarations shortly after Big 12 play began, the Jayhawks have once again asserted their primacy in the conference. A win in Lubbock on Saturday would guarantee them a share of the Big 12 regular season title for the 14th straight season. Texas Tech won the first meeting between these teams in Lawrence back on Jan. 2, holding the mighty Jayhawks to 1.01 points per possession. Keenan Evans is still dealing with a toe injury, and while he played 25 minutes in the team’s loss to Oklahoma State earlier this week, he clearly wasn’t himself. The Red Raiders need him at or near full strength if they’re going to pull off the season sweep of the Jayhawks.

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Kansas 76, Texas Tech 71

Arkansas at Alabama

Saturday, 6 p.m., SEC Network

Both of these teams are on relatively solid ground with respect to the tournament and that will remain so regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s game. The winner, however, will score a crucial victory going into the final week of the regular season. This is the first meeting between these teams this season, and it’ll be a lot of fun to watch Collin Sexton share the floor with Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon. Arkansas speeds teams up as much as any team in the conference other than Auburn, and while that helps them force a ton of turnovers, they take care of the ball remarkably well. Turnovers have been an issue for Alabama this season, and that could be the difference in this game, even with the Crimson Tide playing at home. Neither team is a powerhouse, but this could be one of the best games of the weekend.

Alabama 74, Arkansas 73

Kansas State at Oklahoma

Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Oklahoma is absolutely desperate for a win. At this point, it could come against Norman North High School and it would feel like taking down Kansas. The Sooners aren’t in any danger of missing the tournament, as I explained in the most recent Bracket Watch, but they need to start winning games. Now. The Wildcats, meanwhile, have won three straight, four of five, and seven of 10. They, too, are in a good spot to make the dance, and likely need only one more win the rest of the way to have a worry-free Selection Sunday. Kansas State won the first meeting between these teams, holding Trae Young to 20 points on 21 field goal attempts. They also didn’t have Kamau Stokes in that one and that could change the complexion of the rematch. The bet here is that Oklahoma’s desperation and its ability to speed up a famously slow-paced Wildcats team will win the day.

Oklahoma 79, Kansas State 72


Syracuse at No. 5 Duke

Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN

Syracuse is about as true a bubble team as we have in the country this season, along with Louisville, UCLA, USC, St. Bonaventure and a handful of others. A win at Duke would do wonders for the Orange’s at-large case, and could be the golden ticket, assuming they didn’t suffer any unsightly losses the rest of the way. Marvin Bagley has missed four straight games with a knee injury, but the Blue Devils will still be overwhelming favorites in this game if he sits again. Syracuse needs to grind this game to a halt to have any chance of pulling off what would be a stunning upset in Durham.

Duke 80, Syracuse 63

Missouri at Kentucky

Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN

Kentucky has righted the ship with two big consecutive wins, knocking off Alabama and Arkansas, the latter on the road. The Wildcats return home this weekend to take on a Tigers team that kicked off their four-game skid three weeks ago. Missouri stifled Kentucky in that game, limiting the Wildcats to 0.86 points per possession. The Wildcats were just 2-for-20 from behind the arc in the loss, and no matter how strongly the college game tilts toward the three-point shot, that simply is not their strong suit. Jarred Vanderbilt has played a larger scoring role for the Wildcats in their last two games, and could be carving out more meaningful playing time for himself the rest of the season. He and Kevin Knox could make life tough on Missouri’s frontcourt.

Kentucky 74, Missouri 65

No. 12 Auburn at Florida

Saturday, 8:30 p.m., SEC Network

The Tigers handled their business in earlier this week when they cruised to a 90-71 win over Alabama. It was their first game without Anfernee McLemore and Mustapha Heron also sat due to illness. He should be back for the trip to Gainesville, a game the Gators could desperately use. They’ve lost three straight and end their season with games against Alabama and Kentucky next week. There’s a very real chance they go into the SEC tournament on a six-game losing streak, which could send them tumbling down the seed list. The plodding Gators will have to find a way to contain an Auburn offense that plays at the fastest tempo in the SEC.

Auburn 81, Florida 77

Penn State at Nebraska

Sunday, 5:15 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network

This is the second-to-last Big Ten game of the regular season, with the conference starting its tournament one week earlier than usual in order to play at Madison Square Garden. This amounts to an elimination game for the conference’s only bubble teams, but that doesn’t mean the winner will necessarily be on its way to the dance. In fact, no matter which team wins this game, it will need to do some serious damage in the Big Ten tournament to get an at-large bid. They have three Q1 wins between them and both have sustained ugly losses. Penn State won the first meeting between the two, a 76-74 triumph in overtime. Mike Watkins was the star of that game scoring 20 points and grabbing 15 rebounds, but he hurt his knee in Penn State’s loss to Michigan on Wednesday. If he’s unable to go, the Nittany Lions are going to have an awfully tough time in Lincoln.

Nebraska 68, Penn State 63

No. 25 Florida State at NC State

Sunday, 6 p.m., ESPNU

We’re likely to see both of these teams in the field of 68, almost regardless of what happens the rest of the season. They’ve both racked up the sort of high-profile, Q1 wins that the committee will not be able to overlook. Both teams have beaten North Carolina and Clemson, with NC State topping UNC on the road and adding wins over Duke and Arizona as well. This is all about seeding, most immediately for the ACC tournament, with the Wolfpack one game ahead of the Seminoles in the conference standings. These are the two most up-tempo teams in the ACC which should make for an entertaining watch.

N.C. State 82, Florida State 80