At first glance it may appear that there are a dearth of games to get excited about on Saturday. There are no games between top ten teams and very few games between two top 25 teams at all. Don't be fooled. This is one of the biggest Saturdays of the college basketball season. Why? Well, for starters, the term "ranked" implies poll rankings, which have absolutely zero tangible value to the NCAA selection process. But I digress. There are a ton of games between top teams and teams who are either fighting for an at large bid or teams who can all but seal an at-large bid with a signature win. Let's briefly discuss today's top three games, who will play key roles, and what it will mean in the grand scheme of things.
3) Michigan at Wisconsin (12:00 EST, ESPN)
This game is huge for the Badgers, but they don't need this win. However, a victory would all but lock up an NCAA bid, as it would give them their third signature win and put them at eight wins in Big Ten play. Why is that important? The threshold for teams in top ranked conferences to get an NCAA bid is typically to get within two games of .500 in conference play. If Wisconsin wins today, the worst they could do is finish 8-10 in the Big Ten and 17-16 overall. In that worst case scenario, they'd still have wins against Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, and two against Illinois. That would still be worthy of an at-large selection. How do they come out with a W? A slow pace must be established early on. The Badgers have serious depth issues and the Wolverines love to make the game a track meet. In order to prevent this from happening, Wisconsin has to methodically work for good shots that either drop or don't cause long rebounds. Jared Berggren has been an enigma this season, but he has the potential to have a breakout game in the front court. If they find ways to get him isolated and get open shots, they can pull this out. If they don't, they'll play right into Michigan's hands, who is great at forcing a lot of low percentage shots. This in turn gets them great opportunities to get down the floor with numbers.
Afternoon update: Berggren and Evans will get recognition for their scoring (24 points between them), but defensively they were great today. While the Badgers needed a prayer at the end of regulation, those two deserve a lot of credit for keeping the game close. Three pointers aren't easy to knock down against Michigan, but Brust and Jackson can thank the big fellas for giving them room to get off decent shots. Congrats to the Badgers, they are now an absolute lock for the NCAA tournament, which will make 2013 their 15th (!) consecutive appearance.
2) North Carolina at Miami (2:00PM EST, ESPN)
The Tarheels have been playing better of late and have steadily improved their at-large profile, but they have yet to get a signature win. A win at Miami today would give North Carolina a solid grip on an at-large and increase their seeding greatly. There's no need to beat around the bush, this team was terrible defensively in the first two months, giving up 80+ points with regularity (including East Carolina!). Since mid-January they've played with a lot more discipline, allowing 72 points or more just once. It's no coincidence that they've won five of six. They'll need to keep that up today, as the Canes have multiple guys who can shoot it quite efficiently. Miami loves to set screens for Durand Scott, who in turn will either slash and score or (if the defense collapses) kick it out to shooters like Shane Larkin. They key will be to not have to switch and help a lot on screens and drives. While a tall task, it can be done. Roy Williams would be wise to give extra minutes to Dexter Strickland, as he can match up from a size and experience perspective with Scott.
Post-game Update: The Tarheels didn't accomplish any of what was discussed in the game preview. Their defense was totally dictated by what Miami wanted to do. Larkin and Scott were able to get open and find the open man on nearly every possession. Teams don't shoot 57% from three because they are simply "hot." They shoot like that because they've found serious holes in the opposing defense. North Carolina has to be very careful. They are a bubble team because their resume is very shaky, they have not done much away from Chapel Hill, and have not passed the eye test. Miami, on the other hand, is cruising. Even if they lose a couple more games the remainder of the season, I can't see them going any lower than a two seed.
1) New Mexico at UNLV (9:00PM EST, NBC Sports)
I'm pretty sure the "Worldwide Leader" doesn't want you to know that the Mountain West is the third best league in the country this season. After all, they don't have a contract with the conference and can't show any of their games in which half of the teams are likely to make the tournament this season. Forget College Gameday and Notre Dame-Louisville, the Lobos and Running Rebels are playing the game of the day. This rivalry is quickly becoming one of the best in college basketball and will have huge ripple effects for both teams, win or lose. One bad loss to South Dakota State aside, New Mexico is quietly building one of the best resumes in college basketball this season. They already have neutral court/away wins against Connecticut, Indiana State, Boise State, Wyoming, and Cincinnati and home wins against UNLV and Colorado State. The Lobos are a ridiculous 5-1 against the RPI top 50 through today. UNLV, on the other hand desperately needs a win to stop the bleeding. The Rebels appeared to be destined for a high seed in mid-January, but have lost three of their last five since, clearly struggling on the road.
What has gone wrong for UNLV? While Anthony Bennett is getting well deserved consideration for freshman of the year, he's come back down to Earth slightly after starting the season white hot. In the first 17 games, Bennett shot 56% from the field and 40% from three point range while leading the Rebels to a 14-3 record. In their last five games, he's still been good, shooting at a 45% clip, but he's been a putrid 2-14 from three and gotten into foul trouble in two of those losses. Freshman deep threat Katin Reinhardt has gone cold as well, shooting just 23% in the three most recent defeats. What's the answer? Veteran Anthony Marshall hasn't cooled off at all and is an extremely reliable scorer. The Runnin Rebs should run the offense through him during every possession. If the Lobos try to deny him the ball, set double screens and get him free. If New Mexico over commits, Bennett will get open under the basket and easily score. Remember, Bennett is too good for New Mexico (or anyone) to double team Marshall.
On the other side of the ball, New Mexico's guards will decide this game, unlike their first tilt in Albuquerque when Alex Kirk dominated down low. Because of Kirk's inside presence, it seems like a safe bet that there will be minimal defensive help with the guards. The problem with that is that there isn't anyone who can defend Tony Snell playing man to man without help. He's less effective against the zone, but then Kendall Williams will find open spaces on the floor and either make shots or find someone who is open (and against a zone, Hugh Greenwood and Chad Adams will get open and make shots).
I think this comes down to turnovers. If UNLV turns over the ball more, Williams and the Lobo guards will find open spaces and make shots, thereby controlling the pace. If it's New Mexico with the high amount of turnovers, Bennett and Marshall will dictate the game. At the end of the day, I don't trust Anthony Bennett offensively to make consistently solid decisions. New Mexico will take advantage and will get a huge road win. Lobo fans take note: A win will put them in strong contention for a 2 seed in March.
Post-game Update: I had it all wrong yesterday. UNLV committed itself to stopping the New Mexico guards and were willing to live with Kirk and Bairstow getting theirs. That team is hard to beat at home, especially when Bennett sticks to what he does best. Credit the Runnin Rebels defense for defending the three the way they did last night. Dave Rice is finally starting to figure out that Moser has hurt the team more than helped since he came back from injury. They are a different team away from Thomas and Mack, though. It has to be frustrating as a Lobo fan that the MWC tournament is on UNLV's home court. The selection committee will hold them accountable for that, though.
The loss does not hurt the Lobos from a seeding perspective. They had more to gain on Saturday than they had to lose. Other than the game at CSU, the away schedule is favorable. As long as they get back on track at Fresno, this game will be a distant memory.
Growing up outside of Richmond, Virginia in the heart of ACC Country, college hoops was set into the fabric of Rusty Tutton at an early age. A 2008 graduate of VCU, he lives in the Fan District of Richmond and works full-time in higher education.