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February 8, 2006

SCS.comThis 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:

LSU at Florida, February 11th - The Tigers and the Gators are two of the three teams in the running for an SEC title. LSU lost their last game to Alabama, while Florida has bounced back well from losing two in a row a few weeks back. Neither team was supposed to really be in contention for a league championship, after each lost several key players from last season. However, LSU might be the most talented team in the conference, while Florida has more balance than any team out there. LSU is currently leading the SEC West and is tied with Tennessee for the overall SEC lead. Florida is one game back of both of those teams. If any of those three squads can run away with the SEC, a #2 seed could be in the offing.

Connecticut at Villanova, February 13th & Villanova at Connecticut, February 26th - Might be the best combination of games the rest of the season. Both teams are in contention for a #1 seed, and these games could settle the Big East regular season championship. Villanova has struggled somewhat lately, while Connecticut has been playing the best basketball in the country. Many experts are jumping on the bandwagon of UConn winning the national championship, while several people are cooling on Villanova's potential to make a run at the Final Four due to their lack of guards.

Michigan State at Iowa, February 14th - Surprisingly, Iowa is at the top of the Big Ten while Michigan State is back in third place. However, when these two teams faced off two weeks ago, the Spartans blew the Hawkeyes out of the building by 30. Iowa is a different team at home than they are on the road. They have wins over Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Indiana on their homecourt. On the other hand, they are only 4-4 on the road. Michigan State is starting to hit their stride, but they too have struggled on the road at 4-4.

Connecticut at West Virginia, February 18th - West Virginia is currently at the top of the Big East standings, but they have only faced one tough team, Villanova. They are extremely difficult to beat at home, while Connecticut will face yet another road test against the Mountaineers. This should be an interesting matchup, as UConn is known for mental lapses and sloppy play, while West Virginia executes to near-perfection every time they take the court. The Huskies' frontline is going to have a huge advantage of West Virginia's frontcourt.

Georgetown at Villanova, February 19th - The Hoyas have quietly crept into a position in which they can sneak up and grab the Big East regular season championship. However, they have not shown they can win on the road. This would be a good opportunity. Georgetown has a team that can matchup well with the Wildcats, as their forwards can guard players like Allan Ray and Randy Foye. Villanova is ahead of UConn in the Big East standings, but the 'Cats are not getting the sort of hype that the Huskies are getting. A win over UConn on February 13th and a 'W' here would get them back in the Final Four discussion.

Tennessee at Florida, February 22nd - Similar to the aforementioned Florida-LSU game, this matchup will have serious SEC title implications. The Volunteers are currently one game ahead of the Gators, and also own a head-to-head victory over UF. Both teams are athletic and like to pressure the ball, which will make this an exciting contest to watch. If Tennessee wins this one and only loses only one other game the rest of the season, they will definitely get a #2 seed thanks to their RPI and power numbers. On the other hand, Florida could use some quality wins along the way. Both teams are playing some of their best basketball of the season, which makes for a hard-fought SEC contest.

Kansas at Texas, February 25th - Surprisingly enough, this game could decide the Big 12 Championship. Kansas, as bad as they have looked at times this season, is only one game behind the Longhorns in the standings. They are also improving with each game and could be a team to be reckoned with come March. Texas is obviously the most talented team in the Big 12 and has blown out every team other than Oklahoma. However, they can be beaten if their bigs get in foul trouble and they turn the ball over. Kansas plays excellent defense and could pose problems.

Iowa at Illinois, February 25th - Two of the three teams that have a legit chance at a Big Ten title. If Iowa defeats Michigan State on February 14th, the Hawkeyes will have beaten the top six teams in the Big Ten at home. They are going to be the only team able to say that. Illinois lost the first head-to-head meeting between the two teams, as Iowa shut down Dee Brown. The Fighting Illini has struggled lately, including losing to Penn State at home this past weekend. A third scorer needs to step up and produce consistently. In addition, Dee Brown needs to break out of his slump, and James Augustine needs to start dominating down low again. Iowa does not play as well on the road, which will hurt them in Champaign.

Memphis at UAB, March 2nd - Don't sleep on this game. UAB hung with the Tigers in the first meeting on Memphis' home floor and might be the only team outside of UConn that has the athletes to keep up with the Tigers. They pressure the ball non-stop and force turnovers. Memphis is slipping in the RPI but is still running through any opponent in their way. Interestingly enough, they are undefeated against teams not in the top five of the polls. If things play out the way they should, UAB will have one loss going into the game, while Memphis should be undefeated. Therefore, this game could be for the Conference USA championship. Memphis-haters, circle this game.

Illinois at Michigan State, March 4th - Always one of the best games of the season, this Big Ten clash could decide the conference championship. However, I have a feeling Iowa is going to get in the way of this being the de facto title game. Illinois won the first meeting between these two teams in Champaign. Michigan State was woeful on offense and never really got going. Things are going to be very different in East Lansing. The Fighting Illini looks like they could be ready for a serious dip in the standings, but I can't see Bruce Weber letting that happen. However, the Spartans don't lose at home down the stretch.

North Carolina at Duke, March 4th - Do I even need to discuss how big this rivalry is? If you don't know, you shouldn't be reading this article. This year, it will not really have much of an effect on the standings, as Duke is running away with the ACC. However, North Carolina is improving steadily with every game and will not be run out of the building by the Blue Devils. The freshmen group of the Tar Heels will have their first experience of Cameron Indoor Stadium. If they get past their initial nervousness, this could be another classic game in the Duke-UNC series.

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