by Rob Joyce
March Madness is nearly here. For a few conferences their tournaments come later this week, while for the power conferences the final few games put a bow on the regular season. While there are some marquee games still to come (such as Duke-North Carolina) both of those teams are firmly in the NCAA Tournament.
What we’re looking for here are the games with the most NCAA Tournament implications on the line. If you’re on the bubble, this week is desperation mode, and these five games will be plenty of desperate players (which normally creates chaos!). Let the madness begin!
5) TCU vs. Kansas State:
The two teams come in with identical records: 17-12 overall, 6-10 in Big 12 play. The Wildcats boast a pair of wins over top-10 teams: at home to West Virginia in January, and at then-No. 2 Baylor early in February, but have lost five of six and just got smoked by 30 to a rebuilding Oklahoma team.
As for the Frogs, in search of their first NCAA Tournament since 1998, Jamie Dixon’s first year at his alma mater has been a success regardless of which postseason tourney they wind up in. Lacking a marquee win and losing five in a row, they’re sliding. Adding to the intrigue of this one is that the two teams are fighting for the sixth and final first-round bye in the Big 12 Tournament.
4) Utah vs. Cal:
Like TCU and K-State, the Utes and Bears are in a battle for a lone first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament. On a broader scale, both are trying to find a place in the postseason. At 19-9, Cal is among the more physical teams in the nation, but their lone win against a ranked team came against then-No. 25 USC, lacking some luster – though they don’t have a bad win on the resume.
The same can’t be said for the Utes. Aside from an underwhelming 18-10, Utah has the same win against then-No. 25 USC, but also has a glaring loss to Oregon State, the Beavers’ lone conference win of the season. Both need as many wins as they can get.
3) Dayton vs. VCU:
Two mid-major mainstays in the tournament, the Flyers are in first at 14-2 in the A-10… the Rams are 13-3. In a weakened conference, reaching seven, eight or nine losses might not be enough in a year where the bubble is quite soft. However, it’s likely one of these two takes the automatic bid. As for the other? Whichever it is, they won’t be able to afford more than a loss (MAYBE two) down the stretch.
2) Northwestern vs. Michigan:
A month ago things looked bright, and it appeared that the Wildcats would finally get over the hump and make their first-ever NCAA Tournament. Now that’s not nearly as certain following a stretch of five losses in seven games, including a late collapse against Indiana last time out. At 20-9 their prospects still look decent, but a victory over a peaking Wolverines team would certainly help. Michigan is 19-10 and coming off a convincing 12-point win against ranked Purdue over the weekend.
1) Syracuse vs. Georgia Tech:
The Orange are confusing, to say the least. Their losses include UConn, Georgetown, St. John’s and Boston College. They also have three wins against top-10 teams, including last week’s buzzer-beater against Duke, courtesy of John Gillon’s heroics. With 13 losses, their margin for error is slim as it gets.
The same goes for the Yellow Jackets, but no one expected them to be in this position. It wasn’t uncommon in the pre-season to predict two wins or fewer in ACC play. Instead, in his first year Josh Pastner has turned Atlanta into a very difficult place to play, and Tech is on the bubble. A win at the Carrier Dome, however, is a must.