As we take one step closer to March Madness, regular-season games across the board become more critical for seeding purposes, conference titles and the chase for the bubble.
Last week on ESPN+, the focus was heavily on mid-major clashes, but over the next seven days, we have two Top 25 showdowns in the Big 12 and a reeling Power 5 school looking to right the ship.
ESPN’s streaming service still provides a dose of potential Cinderellas, and the top two games are must-see matchups for any college hoops fan.
1. No. 3 Kansas Jayhawks at No. 13 West Virginia Mountaineers (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET, Big 12 Now on ESPN+)
With Baylor sporting a perfect conference record and a 20-game winning streak, Kansas can ill afford to fall two games behind in the Big 12 standings if it wants to capture the regular-season crown.
The Jayhawks’ latest task may be one of their more difficult of the season as Morgantown presents an extremely raucous environment and only increases the intensity of West Virginia’s pressure defense. In the teams’ first meeting in Lawrence, the Mountaineers had a six-point lead at the break before the Udoka Azubuike was unleashed in the second half.
Expect Kansas to feed Azubuike early and often in this one, but the keys to the game for Bill Self’s group will be limiting turnovers — they had 14 in the first matchup — and receiving more production from the bench.
2. No. 13 West Virginia Mountaineers at No. 1 Baylor Bears (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, Big 12 Now on ESPN+)
Is there any program that faces as arduous of a week as West Virginia? First Kansas and then a trip to Waco to face the No. 1 team in America? Not an easy task.
In a season that has been defined by more chaos than usual, Baylor has become the consistent best team in the country. Its defense is elite (59 points allowed per game, which is 5th in the nation), Jared Butler is a star and the two transfers, MaCio Teague and Davion Mitchell, have been a huge lift.
The Bears average just under 12 turnovers a game, turning this into a poor matchup for the Mountaineers. WVU already struggles to score in the half court, so if its defense is unable to create takeaways and turn them into easy points, the Mountaineers will have to feast on the offensive glass to have a chance at an upset.
3. Kansas State Wildcats at TCU Horned Frogs (Saturday, 5 p.m. ET, Big 12 Now on ESPN+)
It’s desperation time for TCU. With losses in their past five games, the Horned Frogs have taken a tumble down the Big 12 standings.
The lack of offensive production beyond Desmond Bane, Kevin Samuel and RJ Nembhard has begun to take a toll on the Horned Frogs. In fact, the last time a player not named Bane, Samuel or Nembhard scored in double figures was Jan. 18 vs. Oklahoma.
Thanks to their defense, Jamie Dixon & Co. have outdone expectations thus far — the Horned Frogs were picked last in the preseason coaches poll — despite their current problems. A win vs. Kansas State won’t completely help them turn the corner, but it could give them a boost before March.
4. Illinois State Redbirds at Northern Iowa Panthers (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET)
While Northern Iowa will surely be seeking revenge for its disappointing loss earlier this season to Illinois State, the top reason to watch this game is because of UNI’s status as one of the top mid-majors in the country.
Just look at how the Panthers have responded to losses. After a defeat at the hands of West Virginia, they turned around and upset both South Carolina and No. 24 Colorado. Also, surprising losses to Illinois State and Southern Illinois resulted in coach Ben Jacobson’s unit ripping off big winning streaks.
This group was undervalued coming into this campaign, but the Panthers’ depth, experience and scoring punch certainly sets them apart from the rest of the Missouri Valley Conference.
5. Bowling Green Falcons at Akron Zips (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET)
For all the talk about Akron this season, Bowling Green tops the MAC East division even after missing its leading scorer, Justin Turner, for a portion of the season due to injury.
As Akron attempts to climb back into the driver’s seat, the Zips must try to contain the junior guard, who has scored 20-plus points in every game since Jan. 18. That assignment will likely fall in the hands of 6-foot-5 senior Tyler Cheese who’s averaging a team leading 0.8 steals per game.
Will the Zips be able to bounce back following their recent two-game losing streak? Or will the Falcons take their success to the next level with a victory over the league favorite?
6. Yale Bulldogs at Penn Quakers (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET)
Two of the better teams in the Ivy League square off at The Palestra in what could be a critical matchup in the race for the regular-season title.
The Bulldogs are a solid all-around group whose only losses have come in true road games against San Francisco, Oklahoma State, Penn State and North Carolina, and in a heartbreaker vs. Harvard. Led by Paul Atkinson and Azar Swain, Yale is disciplined and efficient offensively as the Bulldogs average 13.2 turnovers per game and shoot 47.4 percent from the field as a team.
On the flip side, the Quakers have a collection of outstanding wins — Temple, Harvard, UCF, Providence and Alabama — and are extremely feisty at home. AJ Brodeur and Jordan Dingle will lead a roster that is balanced and also very efficient.
7. Florida International Panthers at Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET)
While Louisiana Tech is looking up at North Texas in the Conference USA standings and doesn’t control its own destiny, it still has a shot to win its first regular-season championship since 2015.
With only two outings remaining, the time is now for the Bulldogs as they play host to a dangerous FIU squad that has eight wins in league play.
The key to capturing this must-win game is finding a way to stop the Panthers’ Osasumwen Osaghae on offense while attempting to pull the top shot-blocker in the nation away from the rim on the other end. The Bulldogs will also need to use their incredible balance — six players averaging 8.3 points or more — to keep up with their opponents’ 26th-ranked offense.
8. Richmond Spiders at La Salle Explorers (Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET)
If you watched the Spiders take on Fordham on Saturday on ESPN+, you saw the return of Wagner transfer Blake Francis. He has been Chris Mooney’s best player this season — and certainly the team’s best scorer — so this gives the Spiders the opportunity to make a push up the Atlantic 10 standings now that they’re at full strength.
La Salle has been a disappointment but does feature a pair of talented guards in Isiah Deas and David Beatty. It will be entertaining to see how those two match up against the backcourt-heavy lineups that Richmond likes to play.
9. Fordham Rams at Davidson Wildcats (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET)
It seems like Fordham makes its way onto this list one way or another despite sitting near the bottom of the league standings. But this game is less about the Rams and more about Jon Axel Gudmundsson, Kellan Grady and Davidson.
While Gudmundsson and Grady haven’t lived up to expectations this season, the duo has started to play much better as of late, helping Davidson win four of its past six games.
Despite Fordham’s astonishing defensive numbers — it allows only 61.0 points per game, 16th in the nation — the two talents could have their way and show off their squad’s potential before the league’s postseason tournament.
10. Radford Highlanders at Winthrop Eagles (Monday, 7 p.m. ET)
These names won’t jump off the screen, but Winthrop and Radford are the two top teams in the Big South.
The Eagles lead the conference with a 12-0 record, are on a 14-game winning streak and posted a victory over Saint Mary’s back in November in Moraga, California. Their offense is elite, they distribute the ball at a high level and are one of the better offensive rebounding teams in the nation.
Meanwhile, the Highlanders have experience playing in the NCAA tournament, especially their leading scorer Carlik Jones, who nearly dropped a triple-double in the First Four vs. LIU Brooklyn in 2017-18. Meanwhile, Travis Fields Jr. is averaging 12.5 points and has led the team in scoring twice in the last two weeks.
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