Pre-March Madness Games Not to Miss
January 29, 2014 by Andrew Jones • Print Story •
While true college basketball fans have been sizing up their March Madness picks since November, most of us are usually late to the game and have to make a New Year's resolution to pay attention and win their pool this year. So if you don't watch 10 games a week, allow me to give you some regular season games you shouldn't miss if you want to make educated picks come March.
#1 Arizona at Utah – February 19
Despite playing at home on Sunday, the Wildcats only managed to squeak by the Utes 65-56. Utah was winning with under 11 minutes to play. Arizona had an off night shooting, but still managed 20 offensive rebounds. Arizona doesn't have a ranked team remaining on their regular season schedule, which shows the weakness of the Pac-12. If they are going to lose pre-tournament, Utah could be the team to do it. At Cal on February 1 could also be trouble.
#2 Syracuse at #17 Duke – February 22
While Arizona has a shot to run the table, Syracuse has a much tougher road to perfection. They play Duke twice, at Pitt, and at Virginia. The hostile environment of Cameron will show what kind of chops the Orange have. Neutral wins against Minnesota, Cal, and Baylor were good, but those teams are not nearly of the caliber of Duke. A win at Cameron Indoor Stadium could make Syracuse the last team standing in a lot of brackets come March.
#3 Florida at #11 Kentucky – February 15
I don't know why the AP has Florida at No. 3. I'm not impressed. Their best win is over Memphis on a neutral court. Their road wins at Arkansas, at Auburn, and at Alabama were all too close against such relatively poor teams. At Kentucky will show if Florida is for real or not. Then they'll have at Ole Miss a week later to show if you should think about letting Florida take an early exit pre-Sweet 16.
#4 Wichita State vs. Missouri State – March 1
The Shockers' closest game this season was at Missouri State where they needed overtime to win by three. They have Missouri State on March 1 — their final game of the regular season. You can bet Missouri State will be about as upset minded as a team can be. Also of note is that at home, the Shockers beat Indiana State by 20. We'll see how they manage on the road on February 5. I would think an undefeated Wichita State would earn a No. 1 seed, though there are no guarantees there. Their most impressive win is at Saint Louis — currently ranked #19, not a team to sneeze at. Is that enough? Considering the weakness of the other candidates — or rather — how much the Big Ten and Big 12 are beating each other up, I think it is very possible.
#5 San Diego State at New Mexico – February 22
The Aztecs' only loss (by 9-point to Arizona in November) might be one of their biggest strengths in evaluating them. Winning at Kansas was obviously more impressive, but this team can stick with anybody. Their defensive strength, allowing 56.1 points per game, good for third in the nation, is a major strength come tournament time. Teams go cold and teams get hot, but good defense is good defense. It is one consistent you can count on. But New Mexico is nothing to sneeze at. They beat Cincinnati and Marquette back in December.
#6 Kansas at Baylor – February 4
Every year, I think somebody will finally stomp on Kansas and dethrone them from a place of dominance in the Big 12. And every year I'm wrong. I know Baylor is flailing and that Kansas has more difficult games on paper than Baylor, but it is still a losable game. Baylor is like a low seed in the tournament. They could make a run and cause some real problems. They probably won't, but if they catch fire for a game or three, that could spell trouble. They have the talent. Knocking off Kansas would be a hell of a jump start. If Kansas can dominate at Baylor, I like their chances of responding well to the pressure of the tournament.
#7 Michigan State at #10 Michigan – February 23
Who doesn't like a good revenge story? The Spartans have managed three overtime wins against conference foes, but Michigan is their only conference loss. With the toughness of the Big Ten, I doubt it will stay that way. At Wisconsin, at Purdue, home vs. Iowa, and at Ohio State could all be problems for the Spartans. The Spartans didn't show up against North Carolina back in early December, but for the most part I think we're seeing a solid team that will be battle tested and ready for the tournament ... if they aren't completely and totally worn down.
#8 Oklahoma State at #16 Iowa State – March 8
Winning away from home has been a problem for the Cowboys. They lost to Memphis on a neutral court, lost at Kansas State, lost at Kansas, and lost at Oklahoma. They have a few games to figure out the road thing, but their final test heading into tournament play is at Iowa State. That game will be a great indication of whether or not Oklahoma State has figured out how to win away from home.
#9 Villanova at #20 Creighton – February 16
I think Villanova surprised a lot of people when they beat Kansas and Iowa in back to back games on a neutral court back in late November. I think Villanova surprised a lot more teams when they got destroyed at home by Creighton last week. You can't shine a 28-point loss no matter how hard you try. Yes, Creighton hit 21 three-pointers, a feat they're likely not to repeat, but allowing a team to hit that many three pointers is just bad defense. Ethan Wragge went 9-14 from beyond the arc and didn't shoot another shot all night, not even a free throw. We'll see if 'Nova learns how to play defense when they meet Creighton again.
#13 Cincinnati at #12 Louisville – January 30
These two teams sit atop the new to the world "American Conference." Good matchups between these two and Memphis will help to make this conference more legitimate. SMU and UConn seem reasonably decent teams, but the rest of the conference looks quite weak right now. Is it a conference that has three teams in the tournament or five? Watching Louisville and Cincinnati face off may help you determine that. They also play on February 22 at Cincy.
#14 Wisconsin at #15 Iowa – February 22
Wisconsin won its first 16 games, then lost three straight. So it goes in the Big Ten. Road wins are hard to come by, even against the sixth and seventh best teams in the conference (and sometimes even lower on the scale). Iowa at Wisconsin was a great matchup where the Badgers came out on top by four points. Look for the rematch to have a similar quality.