Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
By: MIKE McCURRY
Alas, the calendar has flipped to the best month of the year.
March Madness is already upon us, too. The Atlantic Sun and Big South have begun their conference tournaments, with America East, Northeast Conference, and Ohio Valley Conference postseason action beginning today.
Wednesday’s slate features just four ranked teams—three of whom are heavy home favorites—but provides plenty of bubble matchups worth perusing.
Before LaVar Ball issues another quixotic statement, let’s pop some bubbles.
Note: The Bracketology projections referenced for Popping Bubbles are courtesy of ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, unless otherwise noted.
Michigan (8-seed) at Northwestern (10-seed): 7:00 p.m., BTN
Michigan has won five of six games, vaulting themselves onto the right side of the bubble thanks to the Big-10’s top offense. Derrick Walton Jr. has done most of the heavy lifting, averaging 18.4 points, 6.3 boards, and 5.3 assists over his last nine games.
Tonight is all about Northwestern, which has dropped five of seven as the pressure mounts for the program to reach its first-ever NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats need to return to full health quickly—Scottie Lindsey (14.4 PPG) is averaging just seven points on 27 percent shooting in three games since returning from mono, while Vic Law (12.6 PPG) is suffering from a bad cold and an even worse slump: 15 total points, 3-of-18 from the field in his past three contests.
Washington State at USC (11-seed, Last Four Byes): 10:00 p.m., Pac-12 Network
This is simply a game that USC, which has lost four straight, can’t afford to lose. The Trojans are coming off their first RPI sub-100 loss of the season, at Arizona State on Sunday. They can’t have any more of those. Andy Enfield and his guys should be in solid shape as long as they take care of both Washington schools this week and don’t hurt themselves in the Pac-12 Tournament.
Marquette (11-seed, Last Four In) at Xavier (9-seed): 9:00 p.m., Fox Sports 1
Marquette controls its own destiny, with dates at Xavier on Wednesday and versus Creighton on Saturday to close out the regular season. The Golden Eagles’ RPI sits at 72, but they downed Villanova at home and could complete the sweep of the Musketeers tonight.
Xavier, meantime, is no lock to go dancing. They’ve lost five straight, largely due to a combination of clanking three-pointers (X has hit only 27-of-100 threes) and being even softer than normal on the defensive interior (opponents have cashed in on 58 percent of their twos). Chris Mack would be well served to center the scouting report around Markus Howard, who dropped 34 on Xavier on February 18 in a 22-point Marquette win.
Louisville (2-seed) at Wake Forest (First Four Out): 9:00 p.m., ACC Network/Watch ESPN
Doesn’t everyone want to see potential ACC Player of the Year John Collins (19.1 PPG, 9.8 RPG) in the NCAA Tournament? Collins and Wake Forest appear headed to the NIT unless they can gather that elusive marquee victory.
The Demon Deacons are 0-7 against RPI Top-25 teams this season. Lucky for them, Louisville (3rd overall per RPI) awaits them tonight in the form of another golden opportunity.
Danny Manning’s offense is elite, as Wake makes a living at the free throw line and does not turn the ball over. Trying to counter that will be Louisville, which is 5th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings and possesses one of the greatest assemblages of long, athletic rim protectors in America.
Rhode Island (First Four Out) at St. Joe’s: 7:00 p.m.
URI head coach Danny Hurley turned down bigger offers elsewhere precisely to take this Rams team to the NCAA Tournament. That won’t happen (barring an Atlantic-10 Tournament title, of course) if Rhode Island was to lose a must-win game tonight in Philadelphia.
Auburn at Georgia (First Four Out): 6:30 p.m., SEC Network
In the absence of Yante Maten (18.7 PPG, 6.9 RPG), who remains out with a right knee sprain, Georgia’s J.J. Frazier has put the team on his back in an effort to push the Bulldogs into the NCAA Tournament, potentially saving head coach Mark Fox’s job in the process.
Frazier is averaging 31 points over his last three contests, shooting 53 percent from the field and 29-of-36 from the line in that duration. UGA has won four of its last five, with the only loss in that span coming via a five-point setback against Kentucky, the game in which Maten went down two minutes in.
Tennessee (Next Four Out) at LSU: 7:00 p.m., SEC Network
Have the Vols run out of gas? Rick Barnes and his boys have dropped two straight, including an uncompetitive 27-point loss at South Carolina over the weekend. It might be time to write Tennessee’s obituary should they lose at LSU.
Tennessee’s (increasingly improbable) path to the NCAA Tournament is as follows: a win over LSU on Wednesday, a win over Alabama on Saturday, and a prayer that the Vols will run into Kentucky, Florida, or South Carolina in the SEC Tournament on one of UT’s good days.
Kansas State (Next Four Out) at TCU (Next Four Out): 9:00 p.m., ESPNU
This is a potential elimination game. Kansas State is looking to forget last week, when they lost to Oklahoma State by 12 and an NIT-bound Oklahoma squad by 30. TCU, on the other hand, has lost five straight games.
Exactly one month ago, the Horned Frogs won the first meeting between these two schools, 86-80 in overtime. A similarly close score is expected tonight, especially when you factor in all that’s on the line.
While it’s hard to pinpoint which 2016-17 version of these two teams needs this win more, it’s easy to choose the program that is starved of March success. Jamie Dixon, in his first year on the job, is vying to lead his alma matter to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 1997-98 season.
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