There aren't a ton of titanic showdowns between ranked teams this weekend, but a handful of teams play games that could have a significant impact on their NCAA tournament hopes next month. Here are five teams that I think most need to win this weekend in order to feel confident about their at-large chances:
1. Middle Tennessee State (20-2, 9-0): Even with victories over Ole Miss, UCLA, Akron and Belmont, Middle Tennessee State's impressive record is still lacking a signature victory strong enough to make it feel good about its at-large chances. Thankfully the Blue Raiders have one more chance to get that on Saturday when they visit Vanderbilt for a rare late-January non-league game that surely is more difficult than what the Commodores envisioned when they scheduled it. A win Saturday gives Middle Tennessee the chance to earn an at-large bid with a dominant record in the Sun Belt. A loss and even if the Blue Raiders win at North Texas and Denver next week, the only way they can feel secure about their NCAA tournament chances is to win the Sun Belt tournament.
2. Alabama (13-8, 2-4): Unlike last season when Alabama went 12-4 in the SEC and still missed the NCAA tournament, it won't be the Tide's performance out of league this season that relegates them to the NIT. Alabama beat Wichita State, Purdue, Oakland, VCU and Maryland in November, but the Tide haven't won a significant game since. A four-game losing streak in SEC play culminating in Wednesday's ugly loss at South Carolina has put pressure on Alabama to avoid a loss at home against surging Arkansas on Saturday. The Tide still has a Top 50 RPI and a favorable second-half SEC schedule, but they'll be leaving themselves little margin for error in February if they fall to 2-5 in SEC play.
3. North Carolina State (15-6, 4-2): The ACC appears assured of four bids from Florida State, North Carolina, Duke and Virginia, but at this point there's certainly no guarantee the league will command a fifth. The team with the best chance of becoming that fifth team is NC State, whose lone quality win is against a Texas team in the midst of a transition season. The Wolfpack looked outclassed against North Carolina in a 74-55 beatdown on Thursday night, but they'll get another chance at a marquee win Saturday when they host Virginia. With only a few chances for marquee wins left on the schedule, this is the type of game NC State needs to win.
4. BYU (18-5, 6-2): The combination of a home loss to Loyola Marymount and a dearth of quality non-league wins had BYU looking as though it could be NIT-bound before the Cougars got a desperately needed win at Virginia Tech on Wednesday. Now BYU returns home to play perhaps its two biggest games of the season: Saint Mary's on Saturday and Gonzaga on Thursday. If BYU avenges a Dec. 29 loss in Moraga on Saturday and wins its home game against the Zags five nights later, the Cougars will be in great position entering the final six games of the regular season. A split of those two games will leave BYU in precarious position and a pair of losses could force the Cougars to win the WCC tournament to earn an NCAA bid.
5. Stanford (15-5, 5-3): Believe it or not, Stanford's non-conference wins against Colorado State, North Carolina State and Oklahoma State are the best trio of victories any Pac-12 team could muster. Regardless, the league is so weak that the Cardinal won't be able to parlay those victories into an NCAA bid unless they win the conference title outright or at the very least get to 12 or 13 Pac-12 victories. That appeared to be a possibility before Stanford endured a road sweep at the hands of the Washington schools last week, dropping its Pac-12 record to a pedestrian 5-3 entering Sunday's road game at first-place Cal. Win that, and the Cardinal add a solid win to their resume and remain within striking distance of the conference lead. Lose that, and it's very difficult to envision Stanford winning enough games in the second half of conference play to merit an NCAA bid.
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- Middle Tennessee State
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