A look at the four most notable games on Thursday's schedule:
Minnesota at Michigan
Penn State's win over Illinois was punch in the stomach for Michigan, who was probably just starting to feel good about its at-large chances again. Now, even after their win over Northwestern last week, the Wolverines find themselves eighth in the Big Ten pecking order. There's no way the Big Ten is getting eight bids, and we aren't even confident that they end up with seven come Selection Sunday. To have any chance at an at-large, Michigan needs to get on major roll, and that roll needs to start tonight at home against the struggling Gophers. Minnesota has lost three of its last four (all on the road) and they've seen their seed fall from a 5 all the way down to an 8 as a result. The Gophers only have one quality road win in conference (at Wisconsin in OT back when the Badgers were playing awful), and overall they've lost four of their last five conference road games. That's music to Michigan's ears as they begin a tough five-game stretch to close out their season. They have three road games left, including a return date against these Gophers, and they also have to host a Purdue team that is playing some of its best ball of the season. If Michigan doesn't do better than 3-2 down the stretch, they are going to have to do some real damage in the Big Ten tournament, and hope for some other teams to start losing, to earn a bid.
Washington at UCLA
Just when we thought the Bruins were finally starting to live up to their preseason expectations, they went out and dropped two in Arizona, including a game against the Wildcats that they were never really in. They return home this week to take on the Washington schools, and tonight they need to beat the Huskies to avoid a season sweep. A win for the Bruins would keep them in the tight Pac-10 race, where five teams are currently within two games of first place. If Washington can pull off the road upset here, they would be in great shape to win the Pac-10 title. The biggest advantage the Huskies have over the other Pac-10 contenders is that this week's trip down to SoCal is their last road trip of the season. They do still have to play the Arizona schools at home, so by no means do they have an easy schedule left, but you would have to like their chances in those games since they have only dropped one game at home all season. If they go 1-1 this week against UCLA and USC, they'd have to be considered the clear favorite to win the Pac-10.
Washington State at USC
The Trojans dropped out of our bracket this week after losing three straight road contests. They are currently 6th in the Pac-10 pecking order, which is a bad place to be considering that it's the 5th rated conference and will likely not see more than half of its teams earn bids. This matchup against the middling Cougars is obviously a must-win to keep any tourney hopes alive. The Trojans did absolutely nothing OOC so a strong finish is required to get them back into the discussion. A 5-1 finish is within reason since they have four games left at home, where they have only lost once all season. If they can manage to win five of their last six, then they will be an interesting case on Selection Sunday. That scenario would give them an 11-7 conference record, which in most years would be a lock, and a top 40 RPI. Another win in their first game in the conference tourney would make them a lock. If the Trojans can manage to go 2-0 this week at home then we would have to take another look at putting them back in the bracket this weekend.
San Diego at St. Mary's
The Gaels' tournament hopes might be resting on what happens this weekend. But before they get a shot at Utah State in Moraga, they have to take care of business at home tonight against San Diego. The Toreros started off 4-0 in conference, but they have hit the skids in a big way ever since. They've lost six of their last seven games, including a 23-point home loss to the Gaels back on Jan. 22. Patty Mills had a big first half for St. Mary's in that game, but he won't be there to help out this time around. The Gaels are just 2-4 since their star guard went down, and if they don't beat the Aggies this weekend, their chance at an at-large, which is already in major trouble, will begin to look very, very bleak. If they slip up here against the Toreros, or lose any other WCC game down the stretch, those at-large chances would be near zero.
Also receiving votes: Duke at St. John's, Wisconsin at Indiana, Xavier at Charlotte, Western Kentucky at Arkansas-Little Rock