Three matchups between teams in first and second place in their respective leagues highlight this weekend's enticing college hoops slate. Here are some projections and analysis for the best games of the weekend:
Florida at Kentucky (Saturday, 9 p.m. EST): This is an essential game for Kentucky if the Wildcats are going to make the SEC title race competitive and put themselves in position for a top three seed in the NCAA tournament. Entering Saturday, Kentucky has a quality win against Louisville and a handful of victories against bubble teams Ole Miss, Tennessee, Missouri and Providence. A win gives the Wildcats another resumé-boosting victory and propels them within a game of Florida for first place in the SEC. A loss enables the Gators to take a commanding three-game lead and leaves the Wildcats in a position where they will have to either win in Gainesville or beat Florida in the SEC tournament to secure a second marquee victory. What's the key to Kentucky's bid to end Florida's 16-game win streak? Avoiding turnovers against the Gators' pressure defense, not settling for quick shots and getting second-chance points via the offensive glass. Projected winner: Kentucky.
Villanova at Creighton (Sunday, 5 p.m. EST): The last time Villanova squared off against Creighton, the Bluejays drilled a Big East record 21 threes and cruised to a 28-point rout of the Wildcats in Philadelphia. You can bet the Wildcats spent much of their practice time this week working on defending the 3-point arc. The challenge for any team trying to defend Creighton is that its big men, forwards Doug McDermott and Ethan Wragge, are its best perimeter shooters. The mobility of Villanova center Daniel Ochefu will be tested as he tries to defend the perimeter. In addition to the revenge factor, the stakes in this game are high for both teams. Creighton can move into a first-place tie in the Big East with a victory, or Villanova can take a commanding two-game lead with a month to play. Projected winner: Creighton
Pittsburgh at North Carolina (Saturday, 1 p.m. EST): Well, it's come to this for the Panthers. If they don't win Saturday in Chapel Hill, they will enter the ACC tournament having not beaten a single surefire NCAA tournament team or anyone with an RPI above 40. Oh sure, there have been plenty of close calls. Monday's loss at the buzzer to Syracuse on Tyler Ennis' 35-foot game winner was especially painful, as were a one-point home loss to Cincinnati and a three-point home loss to Virginia. But close calls won't matter when the selection committee seeds the bracket and Pittsburgh is in jeopardy of sliding toward an 8 or 9 seed if it loses Saturday in Chapel Hill. To win Saturday, the Panthers will have to beat a Tar Heels team that has won five straight against lower-echelon ACC teams but is seeking validation against a higher-caliber opponent. North Carolina has had a week without a game thanks to the postponement of Wednesday's matchup against Duke. Projected winner: North Carolina
VCU at Saint Louis (Saturday, 2 p.m. EST): The Atlantic 10's two premier teams both excel defensively, but that's the extent of the similarities. Saint Louis grinds down opponents with physical, mistake-free man-to-man. VCU thrives on forcing turnovers via its frenetic, swarming full-court pressure. A year ago Saint Louis beat VCU both times they played en route to the A-10 regular season and tournament titles, the first time because it committed only eight turnovers and the second time because it limited the Rams to only 33 percent shooting. VCU has plenty of incentive to avoid a third straight loss. A win will move the Rams within a game in the loss column of Saint Louis with the Billikens still due to visit the Rams in two weeks. A loss gives Saint Louis a commanding lead in the A-10 title race and leaves the Rams in a crowded race for second place. Projected winner: Saint Louis.
Arizona at Arizona State (Friday, 9 p.m. EST): Five wins in six games have Arizona State in fairly good position to return to the NCAA tournament for the second time in Herb Sendek's tenure. A victory over conference-leading Arizona would all but seal it for the Sun Devils (18-6, 7-4) barring a late-season collapse. Arizona State was overmatched in its first meeting with the Wildcats in Tucson, but the two teams both look a bit different now. Arizona has lost forward Brandon Ashley for the season, depriving it of a big man who can rebound, defend the interior and stretch a defense via his ability to sink jump shots via the pick-and-pop. Arizona State has regained the services of second-leading scorer Brandon Marshall and has inserted sophomore Eric Jacobsen in the starting lineup in place of junior Jonathan Gilling at power forward. With Marshall available and center Jordan Bachynski coming off two of the best games of his career, the Sun Devils figure to have more ways to score against Arizona's vaunted defense, but they'll have to keep the Wildcats off the offensive glass to take advantage. Projected winner: Arizona
Others to watch:
Wisconsin at Michigan (Sunday, 1 p.m. EST): Was Wisconsin's three-game win streak a sign it has emerged from its January funk or a product of a soft stretch of the Big Ten schedule? Sunday's outcome should provide an answer.
Memphis at UConn (Saturday, 12 p.m. EST): If Memphis is going to avenge its home loss to the Huskies from earlier this season, the Tigers need to build on the momentum from their defensive performance in the last four minutes against Gonzaga last weekend.
Georgetown at St. John's (Sunday, 7 p.m. EST): Two teams who were struggling just a few weeks ago have since surged within sight of the bubble entering this critical matchup. St. John's has won six of seven since an 0-5 start to league play. Georgetown has won four straight including an upset of Michigan State.
Maryland at Duke (Saturday, 6 p.m. EST): This rivalry deserves a better sendoff than what this game will likely be. Maryland hasn't shown it has firepower to go into Cameron Indoor Stadium and win in what will likely be the last meeting between the two longtime ACC foes for a long time.
West Virginia at Texas (Saturday, 8 p.m. EST): For West Virginia to parlay its sudden hot streak into an NCAA tournament bid, the Mountaineers will have to prove they can win on the road in the Big 12. A win at second-place Texas will not be easy to secure, however, as the Longhorns rebound and protect the rim as well as anyone in the league.