Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Six Pack For Thursday

A look at the six most notable games on Thursday's schedule:

Clemson at Virginia Tech
No team had a better week last week than the Hokies did - they went from off the bubble radar altogether to a nine seed in our Field of 65 after their ginormous road wins against Wake Forest and Miami. Those victories jumped them up to 4-1 in conference, and a game ahead of Clemson, who they welcome to Blacksburg tonight. The Tigers bounced back from their beatdown in Chapel Hill last Wednesday by winning at home against Georgia Tech over the weekend. If they lose to the Hokies here, and Virginia Tech wins at BC (which won't be easy) on Saturday, there's a good chance these two teams will be just a seed line apart in next week's bracket. Clemson has won the last three games in this series, but five of the last six games between the two have been decided by two points or fewer.

Illinois at Minnesota
Almost halfway through the Big Ten season, it's still anybody's guess who the league's second-best team is. That honor (for now) goes to the Illini, who are coming off two big wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin last week. Illinois moved past Purdue onto the four line with those victories, which is one seed line better than the Golden Gophers, who host the Illini tonight. Minnesota halted its two-game Big Ten skid by winning at Indiana on Sunday, and with road games at Ohio State and Michigan State looming next week, they really need to win this game to avoid a potentially steep fall in the bracket. To get a victory, the Gophers will have to find a way to crack an Illinois defense that has allowed an average of just 50 points per game in its last four wins.

Nevada at Utah State
Given how dominant Utah State has been in conference so far, there probably aren't a whole lot of people paying attention to this game - especially considering it's in Logan, where the Aggies never lose. But if the second-place Wolfpack could ever pull off an upset here, it begins to open up the possibility of the WAC being a two-bid league in our Field of 65. Nevada isn't going to get an at-large, but if these two teams end up splitting their two games this season, if Utah State loses just 1-2 conference games, and if Nevada beats Utah State in the WAC tourney final (remember: this year's tourney is in Reno) it's going to be impossible for the committee to leave the Aggies out. A Nevada win tonight would establish (a.) the fact that Utah State is beatable and (b.) that Nevada has the talent to beat them. If some more bubble teams lose this week, there's an outside chance we go with the scenario above and put Nevada in as a placeholder in next week's bracket.

California at UCLA
Two weeks ago, the Bears and Bruins were seeded on the three and four lines, respectively. Since then, they've lost a combined four games and have seen Arizona State and Washington move past them in the Pac-10 standings as well as in our Field of 65. Cal got derailed by Oregon State last week and UCLA fell at Washington to set up a head-to-head battle for the third Pac-10 bid. The game kicks off a huge four-game homestand for the disappointing Bruins, who welcome Stanford this weekend, and then host USC and Notre Dame next week. Cal's loss to the Beavers was especially damaging because of their not-so-easy upcoming schedule. After this game, the Bears play at USC on Saturday and then return home next week to face a red-hot Huskies team that hasn't lost since Cal beat them in Seattle on Jan. 10.

Stanford at USC
Ever since Arizona fell off the map, these two teams have been battling for the fifth Pac-10 bid. USC has held that spot for a couple of weeks now, and stayed in the field this week over Stanford by splitting two road games against the Washington schools. The Trojans' loss at Washington on Thursday opened the door for Stanford to overtake them and make the field, but the Cardinal went out and laid an egg at home against (Obama-inspired?) Oregon State to stay on the outside looking in. This game amounts to a play-in game for a spot in next week's bracket, and the slight edge has to go to USC. The Trojans have played well in their conference home games, beating Arizona and Arizona State and losing a close game to UCLA, while Stanford is 0-2 in conference road games, getting swept at the Washington schools three weeks back.

St. Mary's at Gonzaga
This is the first of three likely matchups between these two WCC powers. Come Selection Sunday, these two may be the hardest teams to seed. Both teams have started conference play with five straight wins, but have seen their RPIs drop 30 points (into the 50s) because the WCC is so weak. Neither team's RPI is likely to rise dramatically, so it will be interesting to see what the committee does with them. St. Mary's comes in with a national best 15-game win streak, but you have to like Gonzaga's chances in this one since they haven't lost to the Gaels at home since 1995.

Also receiving votes: Michigan State at Iowa, Washington at Arizona, Washington State at Arizona State, Alabama at Arkansas, Saint Louis at Dayton

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