A look at the 12 biggest games you need to work your Valentine's Day schedule around:
UCLA at Arizona
Less than a month ago, Arizona was 11-8 and 2-5 in the Pac-10, and more than a few stories were being written about how the Wildcats' long NCAA tourney streak was about to end in not-so-dramatic fashion. What a difference 22 days makes. The red-hot Wildcats have won six in a row, including a victory over fellow Pac-10 bubble boy USC at home on Thursday, and now they get a chance to jump up a few more seed lines in the bracket if they can knock off the Bruins today in Tucson. The key to Arizona's stunning turnaround has been the play of Chase Budinger. The junior is averaging 22 points a game over his last five games to lead an offense that is averaging 82 a game over its last six. They'll need to continue that scoring outsput against a UCLA team that - Thursday night's loss to ASU excluded - has been on a roll of late as well. The Bruins faded down the stretch against the Sun Devils, and as a result, created even more of a log-jam at the top of the Pac-10 standings. Washington, after its win over Oregon State on Thursday, enters the weekend with a half-game lead over the Bruins and a one-game lead over ASU. Two spots behind them is Arizona, who with a win here would get a single-digit seed next week, and maybe as high as an 8. UCLA needs a victory to stay on the end of the 3 line, while a loss would likely drop them to a 5.
Georgetown at Syracuse
Both teams need this game in the absolute worst way. The free-falling Hoyas have lost six of their last seven, and have dropped from a 3 seed all the way to the Last Four Out list. They're coming off what could be a resume-killing loss at home to fellow Big East bubble boy Cincinnati on Saturday, and if they don't win here, they have almost no chance at finishing .500 in conference. The Orange have been just as bad of late, but they are holding on to a 7 seed thanks to their OOC wins over Kansas, Florida, and Memphis. They've lost five out of their last six, and they only have one win so far over a tourney-worthy Big East team (West Virginia at home last week). The good news for Syracuse is that they play four of their last six games at home, where they've lost two games all season. Today they face a Georgetown team that has been awful on the road (they are 1-5 on the year). The Hoyas, fortunately for them, have just one tough road game left after this (at 'Nova), but they need to right the ship in a hurry if they want all of their winnable home games remaining to matter.
Cincinnati at Pittsburgh
Cincinnati made its bracket debut on Monday on the strength of its wins last week over Notre Dame and Georgetown. At 7-5 , the Bearcats are tied with Providence for sixth in the Big East, and are 2.5 games up on Georgetown, their biggest competition at the moment for the conference's eighth bid. A closer look at Cinci's resume, however, shows just how tenuous their position in the bracket really is. Their OOC resume is good but not great (they have wins at UNLV and at home against Mississippi State), and in conference play, they have yet to beat a team that is currently in the field. Their fate will ultimately be determined by how they fare over their next four games. They play at Pitt today, then return home for Louisville and West Virginia next week, and the week after that, they play what could be a huge game for both teams at Syracuse. If the Bearcats go 2-2 over their next four, and they win their final two games (at South Florida and home vs. Seton Hall), they'll almost certainly be dancing. If they go 1-3, they run the risk of finishing 10-8 in conference but being passed over in favor of a Big East team that finishes 9-9 but has a more attractive set of conference wins.
Florida State at Wake Forest
Is there a more puzzling team in the country right now than Wake? The Demon Deacons have not lost to a ranked team this season, and are 5-1 in conference games against ranked teams. Yet they're 0-3 in ACC games against unranked opponents, a record that has contributed in a big way to their seed falling from a 1 down to a 3. If they lose this game to Florida State and go 0-2 for the week, they'll probably be on the 5 line come Monday morning. Demon Deacon fans will can certianly cite their team's 10-1 home record and play-big-in-big-game reputation as reasons they like Wake's chances in this one, but it won't be easy against a Seminoles team that is just as big and athletic. FSU has proven it can win on the road, too; remember, they won Clemson last weekend and held the high-scoring Tigers to just 61 points in the process. If the 'Noles can pull another upset here, they would - we can't believe we're writing this - move up to a 4 seed next week. If Carolina were to lose at Miami on Sunday, FSU would enter its final five games just a half game out of first in the ACC.
Virginia Tech at Maryland
The next two games are the calm before the storm in Blacksburg, where Virginia Tech is trying to hang on to the final ACC bid. The Hokies swept N.C. State and Georgia Tech at home last week to stay on the 10 line, and now they hit the road for two straight must-wins given what they will face over their final five regular season games. After this game and Wednesday's game at Virginia, the Hokies host Florida State, then play at Clemson, home against Duke and Carolina, and at FSU to finish up. Wins in their next two would get them to 8-3 in conference and should guarantee them a 9-7 finish, but if they lose here, or even worse, lose against the Yellow Jackets, they'll be in a heap of trouble. They have no OOC resume whatsoever to fall back on, and even their quality ACC wins (at Wake and at Miami) have lost their luster a little bit. If Maryland comes out on top here, they become a very interesting bubble team. They've only won three of their last eight games, but they still have plenty of resume-building chances left with Duke, Carolina, and Wake coming in, and the two road games they have left (N.C. State and Virginia) are certainly winnable. Unlike Virginia Tech, Maryland has good non-conference wins, which means an 8-8 ACC finish could be enough to get a bid.
Minnesota at Penn State
When Penn State first made our Field of 65 after beating Michigan State, we included them with this cautionary note: their next six games were going to make or break their season. That six game stretch could not have begun in more disastrous fashion. The Nittany Lions have lost three straight, all by double digits, and twice have lost to teams they are directly fighting with on the Big Ten bubble. In those three losses, Penn State is averaging a pathetic 47 points per game - which is exactly how many they scored in Wednesday's blowout loss at Purdue. A loss here, especially considering what they have ahead of them (at Illinois and at Ohio State), and the Nittany Lions may be done for good. They would fall to 6-7 in conference and a drop few more notches below Wisconsin and Michigan in the Big Ten pecking order. A win by Minnesota would not only complete a season sweep of Penn State, but would cap a 2-0 week that would likely bump the Gophers up to a 6 seed.
Ohio State at Wisconsin
Wisconsin snuck its way back into the Field of 65 on Monday in large part because they completed a season sweep of Penn State last week. A closer look at their resume, though, shows just how thin the Badgers' margin for error is on ths point. They have just one decent OOC win (at Virginia Tech) and in conference, they have just one win over a team currently in the bracket (a home win over Illinois two weeks ago). They are going to need at least two more quality Big Ten wins to really feel safe. They still play Indiana twice (no help there) and at Michigan State (which they will most likely lose). That means the Badgers will have to win two of their other three remaining games - this one, home vs. Michigan on March 1, and at Minnesota on March 4 - to feel good about their chances as they enter the Big Ten tourney. Ohio State, on the other hand, is worried only about seeding at this point, and this week they check in at the bottom of the 4 line. The Buckeyes have won four in a row, and if they make it five today, they have a great chance with their remaining schedule of finishing 13-5 in conference. That mark, plus a semifinal run in the Big Ten tourney, could get them a 3 seed, and no worse than a 4, come Selection Sunday.
Kansas at Kansas State
The last time these two teams played in Manhattan, the game ended with one of the best and fastest court rushes of the year, as Michael Beasley and Co. celebrated Kansas State's first win over Kansas at home in its last 24 tries. This win wouldn't be rush-worthy, but it would be ginormous for Kansas State's tourney hopes. The streaking Wildcats, who have now won six in a row, made their bracket debut this week after polishing off Texas A&M and Texas Tech last week and improving to 6-4 in conference. They're on the 11 line for now, but with no quality OOC wins to speak of, their spot in the field is by no means secure, especially with Nebraska right on the heels (more on the Huskers below). A win here would work wonders for their resume, but it won;t come easy against an angry Kansas team that saw a solid road win - and a potential 3 seed - slip away in the second half against Missouri Monday night. The Jayhawks had won eight in a row before that loss - a streak that began at home against Kansas State, who they beat by 16 back in mid-January. Kansas got off to an early 18-0 lead in the first meeting, which is something the young Wildcats will want to avoid again if they are going to keep their rowdy fans in the game.
Nebraska at Missouri
At halftime of Missouri-Kansas on Monday, this game certainly didn't warrant Game To Watch status. But after the Tigers' huge second-half comeback and thrilling two-point win, the bracket ramifications of this one became pretty big. Missouri, which came into the week as a 5 seed, is worthy of at least a 4 if we did a new bracket today, and if they beat Nebraska here, they could very well sneak their way onto the 3 line tomorrow night. Overall, the Tigers have won eight of nine, and their RPI is up to 16. They're also a perfect 15-0 at home, which is bad news for the visiting - and suddenly relevant - Huskers. Nebraska's win at Texas last weekend moved them to 5-4 in conference and right behind Kansas State on the crowded Big XII bubble. If the Huskers were to pull the upset here, they and the Wildcats would have almost identical resumes, and a good case could be made for Nebraska being in the bracket over Kansas State. Nebraska's schedule is slightly easier from here on out, and the Huskers already beat the Wildcats at home last month.
Also receiving votes: Connecticut at Seton Hall, South Florida at Notre Dame, Kentucky at Arkansas, South Carolina at Alabama, Vanderbilt at Tennessee, Purdue at Iowa, Stanford at California, Texas A&M at Baylor, Wyoming at San Diego State, BYU at TCU, Utah State at Boise State, Portland at St. Mary's
North Carolina at Miami (FL)
Remember when Carolina was 0-2 in the ACC and playing like the third or fourth best team in their own conference? Yeah, we don't either. The scorching-hot Tar Heels have now own eight in a row, and even as UConn continues to dominate the Big East, there are a lot of people who have dubbed Carolina the favorite - once again - to win it all. We won't go that far just yet, but it's tough to argue with their performance at Cameron Indoor on Wednesday night. All five Carolina starters finished in double figures, led by Ty Lawson's season-high 25, and the Heels put up 101 points on a Duke team that had been playing great on the defensive end of late. The win gave the Tar Heels a one-game lead over the Blue Devils in the race for the ACC title and the number 1 seed that will go along with it. Their next step in maintaining that lead comes tonight against the desperate Hurricanes, who are do doubt still having nightmares about their OT loss to Duke last weekend. Had Miami won that game, they would have made it back into the bracket, but the loss knocked them to 4-6 in conference and kept them on the outside looking in. A loss here would mean the Hurricanes would have to win out (they still have games left with FSU and BC) to get to the magical number of nine wins in conference. A win and there's a very, very good chance they replace USC in Monday's field.
Duke at Boston College
Fresh off their spanking at home against Carolina, the Blue Devils head to Chestnut Hill to face a BC team that is just as desperate as Miami for a big ACC win. The Eagles lost at home to Clemson on Tuesday, and if they don't pull the upset here, they won't have any more chances to get a marquee conference win (we won't call winning at home against FSU in two weeks "marquee" just yet). Their current 9 seed would likely fall to an 11 if they lose this one, and they might be one of the last four teams in. For the Blue Devils, games like this are imperative to win if they have any thoughts of getting a 1 seed come Selection Sunday. They can't afford to fall too many games behind Carolina, and if they were to lose to the Eagles (and if Carolina wins at Miami) they would be two games behind the Heels in conference with four games to play. The Blue Devils have lost their last two ACC road games (at Clemson and at Wake), so this one should be close. But in the end, it's tough to pick against a Duke team that is hungry and out to prove they are still an ACC title contender.
USC at Arizona State
USC came into this week clinging to a bid, and after losing at Arizona on Thursday, they face a must-win here against the Sun Devils if they want to be on the right side of the bubble come Monday. Considering their road woes this season, that might be a lot to ask. The Trojans have solid home wins over ASU, Arizona, and Cal on their resume, but they have just two road wins all year, and those came at Washington State and at lowly Oregon. If they get a third one here, it would be a pretty big upset given the way Arizona State is playing right now. The Sun Devils have won three in a row, and they completed a ginormous season sweep of UCLA by beating the Bruins in Tempe on Thursday. ASU will get a big bump up from their current 7 seed as a result of that win, and if they can win this one too, they will probably be on the 5 line next week.
Also receiving votes: Michigan at Northwestern, Temple at Duquesne