With just two weeks remaining until conference tournaments in the major conferences begin, jockeying for seeding in both league tourneys and the 2010 NCAA Tournament is coming down to the wire. Nothing is locked up at this point, meaning that the conference clashes down the stretch will be more heated than ever. Even in conferences that are seemingly in the bag for the favorite, there are still spots where the leader can fall and potentially open the door for a sleeper to sneak in and grab first-place. With that in mind, I’ve decided to take a look at each of the major conferences (sorry, Pac-10, you don’t even count this year) and pick one game that will either determine the league champion or could see the league leader lose. As you can see, this coming Saturday is going to be jam-packed with big-time battles.
Duke at Maryland (Wednesday, March 3): Right now, Duke is comfortably in first place in the conference, but sit only 1.5 games ahead of Maryland in the standings. The Blue Devils won the first meeting between the two teams, getting an absurd 16 points and 17 rebounds from Brian Zoubek en route to a 77-56 thumping of the Terrapins in Durham. The return trip to College Park won’t be so easy. Maryland has lost just one game on its home court this season, a surprising six-point defeat to William & Mary back in December (although the loss to Villanova was technically a home game for the Terps, too). Before escaping with a two-point win over Georgia Tech on Saturday, Maryland had been dominating teams at home, winning six straight games at home by an average of 24.3 points. Furthermore, Duke has struggled on the road, going just 4-4 so far this season. If Zoubek doesn’t control the paint again, Maryland has the perimeter athletes to give Duke trouble.
Villanova at Syracuse (Saturday, February 27): Huge showdown in the Big East on Saturday. After Syracuse’s win over Providence on Tuesday, the Orange improved to 13-2 in the conference, while Villanova’s back-to-back losses has dropped them to 11-3 in the league. A win on the road would get them right back in the race, though. Interestingly enough, Syracuse’s only losses this season have come at home – to Pittsburgh and Louisville. This game is going to be outstanding to watch. Syracuse’s 2-3 zone is a nightmare to attack because of the Orange’s length and athleticism, but Villanova has the guards to penetrate into the teeth of the zone and hit long-range jumpers. The difference in this game will be Syracuse’s edge inside. That is the biggest change from last season to this season for ‘Nova. Last year, they had Dante Cunningham down low to provide balance. However, this season, Antonio Pena has been inconsistent. He will have his hands full with Rick Jackson and Arinze Onuaku of Syracuse.
Michigan State at Purdue (Saturday, February 27): The Big Ten is an absolute logjam at the top of the standings. Purdue leads the way at 11-3, but Ohio State and Michigan State are right behind the Boilermakers at 11-4. After them, Wisconsin is 10-5 and Illinois is sneaking in the mix at 10-5 after its road win at Michigan on Tuesday. This game will go a long way towards deciding the regular-season title, though. Purdue won the first battle between the two, going into East Lansing and knocking off the Spartans, 76-64. The Boilermakers have won nine in a row after losing three consecutive games in mid-January. On the other side, Michigan State is struggling right now. The Spartans have lost four of their last six after starting the Big Ten campaign 9-0. They will likely need to win in West Lafayette to have a shot at the league title. Unless Michigan State turns things around, though, it will have trouble. Kalin Lucas can only do so much at the point, and his secondary weapons have been inconsistent. Purdue has been hitting on all cylinders and will roll.
Kansas at Missouri (Saturday, March 6): With three games left in the Big 12 regular season, Kansas has the league title all but locked up. The Jayhawks are 13-0, 2.5 games ahead of 10-3 Kansas State. The two teams do match-up in Lawrence on March 3, but the Wildcats have already lost to Kansas and likely won’t be able to knock off the Jayhawks on the road. However, if Kansas is going to lose in the regular season, its road game against Missouri could be the spot. The Jayhawks handled the Tigers fairly easily in the first match-up, winning 84-65 back on January 25. Missouri is a completely different team on its home court, though. Prior to its loss at home against Texas A&M on February 3, the Tigers had won 32 consecutive home games. Missouri has the pressure defense to create problems for Kansas’ guards and force the Jayhawks into difficult situations. I don’t think any team in the country can blow open a game quicker than the Tigers, as they rank second in the country in turnover percentage and steal percentage. If this becomes a track meet, Missouri might get the edge.
Kentucky at Tennessee (Saturday, February 27): After last week, when Kentucky went on the road and defeated Mississippi State and Vanderbilt in back-to-back contests, it is highly unlikely that the Wildcats are going to lose their grasp on first place. They are 11-1 in the SEC, with Vanderbilt two games back at 9-3. However, the two teams don’t play again, while Kentucky still does have to play third-place Florida and fourth-place Tennessee. Where are the Wildcats more likely to lose? Without a question, it’s in Knoxville. Tennessee has one of the better homecourt advantages in the conference at Thompson Boling Arena, and the Vols have lost only one game there all season. In the first meeting between these two teams, Kentucky pulled away down the stretch for an 11-point win. However, if Tennessee’s pressure defense is creating havoc, the turnover-prone Kentucky guards could encourage momentum for the Volunteers. On the road, that is a recipe for defeat.