A look at the five most notable (bubble) games on Thursday's schedule:
Providence at Villanova
Who said life on the bubble was hard? Providence hasn't played a game since Sunday, but in the four days since then, the Friars have gone from the outside of the bracket looking in to pretty solidly in as the eighth and final Big East bid. The good fortune for Providence started on Monday when Notre Dame lost at home to Villanova, and it continued in a big way Tuesday night, when Georgetown choked away a double-digit second half lead to St. John's in the Garden (we still can't believe the Red Storm won that game) and Cincinnati lost on the road to lowly South Florida. Those three losses might have locked up a bid for the Friars even if they lose tonight on the road against the Wildcats. Providence will still finish 10-8 in conference with a loss here, which is a game better than Cincinnati can finish, plus the Friars beat the Bearcats twice. As long as Providence doesn't follow up a loss tonight with a first-round exit in the Big East tourney, they should be fine. If they do lose in the first round, they'll have to hope the committee sees 10 Big East wins as an automatic dance ticket, or hope that none of the other former Big East bubble teams make a miracle run to semifinals or finals of the Big East tournament.
Illinois at Penn State
Doesn't it feel like every Penn State game since Christmas has been a Six Pack game or a Game To Watch? That streak continues tonight as the Nittany Lions attempt to finally lock down an at-large bid by beating the Illini at home. Everyone remembers the first meeting between these two teams because of the final score - Penn State won 38-33 in Champaign - but lost in all that ugliness was how important the win was for the Nittany Lions' at-large chances. A win tonight would give Penn State a key season sweep of Illinois and give them six Top 50 wins on the year, which is just as many as Purdue has and one more than Ohio State and Minnesota have. If the Nittany Lions don't win tonight, they will be left with some work to do if they want to end their eight-year tourney drought. They would first have to beat Iowa on the road on Saturday and then win their first game in the Big Ten tournament next week. That game (right now) looks like it will be against Wisconsin, who beat the Nittany Lions twice during the regular season. In their most recent meeting - at Penn State on Feb. 8 - the Badgers held the Nittany Lions to just 37 percent shooting in a 54-44 loss.
Tennessee at South Carolina
We're still trying to wrap our heads around the fact that Florida and Kentucky laid ginormous eggs in must-win games last night. The SEC is looking more and more like a three-bid league right now and there's almost no chance the league gets the five bids it was projected for just last week. Two of the "safest" teams - Tennessee and South Carolina - face off tonight in Columbia. The Vols are almost a lock for a bid at this point because of their strong OOC resume and their season sweep of Florida. If they can beat South Carolina tonight, and complete a season sweep of the Gamecocks, they will move their way up the 8 line - and maybe onto the 7 line - in Friday's bracket. South Carolina might be able to join Tennessee in the "lock" category if they can pick up the win tonight at home. A victory would get the Gamecocks to 10-5 in conference, and if they beat Georgia on the road on Saturday, they would win the SEC East crown. Even if they lose tonight and then beat Georgia, South Carolina would enter the SEC tourney as the third best SEC team. One win might be enough to get them in at that point.
Dayton at Xavier
This game is all about seeding for Xavier and all about confidence for Dayton. The Flyers have lost two of their last three, but they're still in the field as an at-large thanks to their 28 RPI and their wins over Xavier, Marquette, and Temple. As long as they can split their last two games - they host Duquesne in their season finale Saturday - they will be in pretty good shape going into the A-10 tournament. The only team that could prove to be a thorn in Dayton's side is Rhode Island. URI just beat the Flyers this past weekend, and if the Rams win the A-10 automatic and go through the Flyers in the semifinals to win it, Dayton could be in a little trouble. The committee could point to their third place finish in the A-10 (URI will finish second) as a negative and leave the Flyers out. On the flip side, if Dayton were to beat Xavier tonight, they would finish off a season sweep of the Muskeeters and see their 9 seed turn into a 7. That result would also knock Xavier, who has lost three of six, down another seed line; a win tonight would bump the Musketeers (who, don't forget, have OOC wins over Memphis, Missouri, and at LSU) further up the 5 line. If Xavier wins the A-10 tourney, they'll be no worse than a 4 seed on Selection Sunday.
California at Arizona
There are a lot of warts on this year's crop of bubble teams, but not many of those warts are as gross as Arizona's 2-9 record in true road games. A record like that would normally kill a team's at-large chances, but the Wildcats have been able to offset it with some huge home wins (Kansas, Washington, UCLA, SDSU) and a neutral court win over Gonzaga. The only thing standing in Arizona's way of a bid now is an above-.500 record in the Pac-10. Given the schedule they have left (and more importantly, where those games are being played) we like their chances to finish 10-8. They host Cal tonight and then welcome Stanford, who has yet to win a conference road game, on Saturday. A pair of wins would make the Wildcats a lock heading into the Pac-10 tournament. A split means Arizona would have to win one (and maybe two) games in the Pac-10 tourney to feel completely safe. Cal, meanwhile, needs to go 1-1 this week to avoid falling into the 8/9 game. The Bears, who have lost two of their last three, checked in at a 7 seed this week after losing at home to UCLA on Saturday.
Also receiving votes: Oregon State at UCLA