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HEADING DOWN THE HOME STRETCH TOWARDS MARCH
February 8, 2007

SCS.com This is the best time of the year. Better than Christmas (well, maybe not), better than Thanksgiving (yes, even with turkey), better than anything you will find on the calendar. It's the stretch run of the college basketball, the last ten games that the Selection Committee finds oh-so-important. Key conference contests that will affect the league races and bubble games fill the remaining schedules of teams in the hunt for conference championships and NCAA Tournament bids.

There are less than five weeks until Selection Sunday, meaning there is little time for teams to enhance their Tournament profile enough to impress the Committee. However, it also means that some of the best basketball games of the year are going to be played in the next thirty-plus days. Here are the biggest of those games.

Note: I didnít want to repeat teams, so donít be upset there is no Duke-North Carolina or Indiana-Ohio State, etc.

Florida at Kentucky (February 10): Although Florida looks like they will easily run away with the SEC title, they are likely to fall somewhere during the stretch run. When the Gators visit Lexington on Saturday, it could be the best chance for someone to knock them off. The Wildcats have won 12 of their last 14 games, and are putting themselves in a position to get a Top-4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. A win here would really help their cause. Florida is playing arguably the best basketball of any team in the country, but five of their last eight games on the road. Expect them to slip somewhere along the way, and it might be against Tubby Smith and co.

Creighton at Southern Illinois (February 10): This one could be for the Missouri Valley title. Both teams are sitting at 10-3, tied for first place in the conference. Southern Illinois knocked off Creighton on the road the last time these two played in a classic contest. Creighton didnít have an impressive non-conference campaign, so they might need to finish in the top two of the conference for a shot at an at-large bid. SIU is looking like the best team in the conference, and if they go on to capture the regular season title, the Salukis could be looking at a Top-5 seed. Although it sounds surprising, when you combine their outstanding RPI, excellent road record, and 9-4 record vs. Top 100 record, it could happen.

North Carolina at Boston College (February 17): Right now, Virginia is in first place in the ACC at 8-2. Given that the Cavaliers have only 3 road games left, including two against Miami and Wake Forest, they have a legit shot at winning the conference title. However, they donít play either UNC or BC. With the Eagles and Tar Heels at second and third in the league, respectively, both squads will be fighting to keep pace with UVA. No one thought that UNC would be in third place in the conference at this point in the season, but their inconsistency on the road has hindered them. Boston College has played well without Sean Williams, but they have a murderous final stretch and canít afford a home loss.

Memphis at Gonzaga (February 17): The only non-conference game on this list, this inter-league contest is huge for both teams. Memphis is running away with the Conference USA title, with no team even remotely near them in terms of talent and depth. The Tigers are likely to run the table in league play, but that wonít prepare them well for March. This game will be a great test for John Calipariís bunch. For Gonzaga, this game is big for two reasons. One, the Bulldogs are not a guaranteed lock for the NCAA Tournament, given their poor RPI and record vs. Top 50. Secondly, like the Tigers, Gonzaga should win their league. They need to face a team that will be similar to what they will face should they reach the Big Dance.

Wisconsin at Ohio State (February 25): Arguably the best game the rest of the season. Both teams are tied for first place in the Big Ten, although the Badgers knocked off the Buckeyes in their first meeting. Moreover, both teams will be in the running for a top-seed come Selection Sunday. Wisconsin has a better resume overall than the Buckeyes, but a conference title could even things out a little for OSU. The Badgers ran big guy after big guy at Greg Oden the last time these two played, and they held him in check for much of the game. It might not be the same in Columbus. OSU is playing some of their best basketball of the season, and will be hyped for the rematch. The winner of this game will get a #1 seed; the loser might have to settle for a 2.

BYU at Air Force (February 27): Donít overlook this game. The Mountain West is on pace to get three bids to the NCAA Tournament, and these two are the main threats to win the conference championship. BYU is a game ahead of AFA after the Falconsí loss to San Diego State on Tuesday night. Moreover, the Cougars already defeated Air Force this season, so this game will be huge in order for the Falcons to even the stakes. BYU is nearly impossible to beat in Provo, though, so it will be different when the two teams face off at Air Force. If the Falcons are able to take advantage of their best season in years and get a Top-6 seed, they will need to win this game ó and possibly win the conference tournament. A win here, and BYU would be a lock to get into the Big Dance.

Texas A&M at Texas (February 28): Too bad Texas A&M and Kansas donít play another time after their classic game this past weekend in which the Aggies went into Lawrence and knocked off the Jayhawks. Therefore, we will have to settle for the Big 12 leaders against Kevin Durant in Austin on the last day of the month. The Aggies beat the Longhorns by 18 on Monday, but it was a lot closer than that throughout the game. A&M is two games ahead of Texas right now, but the Longhorns have somewhat of a favorable schedule the rest of the way, meaning this game could have a big impact on NCAA Tournament seedings as well as the Big 12 standings. However, if A&M goes into Austin and comes out the win, they have a shot at getting a potential #1 seed depending on what else happens around the nation.

UCLA at Washington State (March 1): Despite the fact that UCLA is the best team in the Pac-10, they are still only one game ahead of Washington State and USC. The Trojans and Bruins went head-to-head on Wednesday night, so this is the biggest test that UCLA has left. The Bruins knocked off the Cougars at home on December 28 by three, foreshadowing how good WSU would be in the Pac-10. After the USC game, the Bruins only have two more home games the rest of the season. In other words, if Washington State keeps up with UCLA in conference play, this game could be for the regular season title. Washington State is having its best season in years, and a win here would boost them to a Top-4 seed, while it could knock down UCLA to the second line.

New Mexico State at Nevada (March 3): Another under-the-radar game that will have a big impact on both the NCAA Tournament and the conference championship race. New Mexico State is on the bubble for the Big Dance, and their collection of bad losses and awful power numbers suggest they need to win out to have a chance. The Aggies beat Nevada the first time around, and a sweep over the Wolf Pack would be hard to pass up by the committee. Nevada is ahead of NMSU by one game in the WAC standings, and needs a victory in order to win the conference championship. A WAC title would give them a favorable seeding in March.

Pittsburgh at Marquette (March 3): This one could be for the Big East title, despite the fact that everyone is touting Pitt as the clear-cut best team in the conference. The Panthers are only one game ahead of the Golden Eagles in the conference standings, as a result of Marquette beating Pitt on the road a couple of weeks ago. That game has kept Marquette within striking distance of the Panthers, even though the Golden Eagles started 0-2 in Big East play. The Panthers could be in the running for a top-seed in March if they win the Big East championship with only one or two losses, while the Golden Eagles are looking at a potential 2 or 3 if they sweep Pittsburgh.

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