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February 28, 2011

Weekly Watch: NCAA picture far from clear

In less than a week, teams will clinch spots in the NCAA tournament.

Four teams will earn bids this week, with the Big South, Atlantic Sun and Ohio Valley tourney championship games on Saturday and the Missouri Valley's on Sunday.

That's just about all the certainty we will see this week. The potential top seeds in the NCAA tournament are as unsettled as ever as Texas lost to Colorado, Duke lost to Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh lost to Louisville during the weekend. Meanwhile, BYU staked its claim on a No. 1 seed by defeating San Diego State for the second time this season.

As always, a handful of bubble teams still are seeking late-season signature wins that could push them into the field.

Here's a look at the key games and matchups this week. All time Eastern.

Individual matchup to watch

Wisconsin G Jordan Taylor
vs. Ohio State G Aaron Craft,
Sunday, 4 p.m., CBS.

Craft is Ohio State's freshman defensive whiz. For a time in the first Ohio State-Wisconsin meeting, he frustrated Taylor. Of course, that didn't last as Taylor scored 21 second-half points in the Badgers' 71-67 win. Craft will have home-court advantage on his side in this meeting. The Big Ten regular-season title also could be on the line; Ohio State has a one-game lead over Purdue.

Game of the week: Duke at North Carolina, Saturday, 8 p.m., CBS. Yes, it's a network prime-time regular-season basketball game. In the first meeting, the Tar Heels led by 14 at halftime at Cameron Indoor Stadium before Duke chipped away to win 79-73. This time around, North Carolina will try to have an answer for Gs Nolan Smith and Seth Curry, who combined for 56 points in the first meeting. The ACC's regular-season title could be on the line. The teams are tied for the league lead, but Wednesday, Duke plays host to Clemson and North Carolina visits Florida State.

Don't overlook this one: UCLA at Washington, Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN. UCLA moved into a tie for the Pac-10 lead Saturday by crushing Arizona 71-49. This is the key game if the Bruins are going to claim a share of the Pac-10 title (Arizona, meanwhile, has Oregon and Oregon State left). Washington won the first meeting 74-63, but that was on Dec. 31. G Isaiah Thomas has carried the Huskies since the first meeting. UCLA's strength, meanwhile, has been in the frontcourt: Fs Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt and C Joshua Smith combined for 59 points against Arizona on Saturday, and Nelson added 16 rebounds.

Mid-major to watch: UAB. The Blazers play at Southern Miss on Wednesday (7 p.m., Comcast-Charter Sports Southeast) in a Conference USA showdown. UAB beat Houston 68-55 on Saturday to move into first place, thanks to losses by Memphis (to UTEP) and Southern Miss (to UCF). The Blazers have won at least 20 games for four consecutive seasons, but haven't made the NCAA tournament under Mike Davis. Winning in Hattiesburg would clinch the top seed in the C-USA tournament and boost UAB's NCAA tournament chances. Southern Miss, UTEP, Memphis and Tulsa are tied for second in C-USA.

Coaching matchup of the week: Alabama's Anthony Grant vs. Florida's Billy Donovan, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPNU. Grant was a Donovan assistant at Marshall (1994-96) and at Florida (1996-2006). Now, they're competing for the SEC's regular-season title and -- probably -- conference coach of the year honors at UF's O'Connell Center. Alabama already has clinched the SEC West title, while the Gators have clinched a share of the East title; one more win gives them the crown outright. But while Florida is safely in the NCAA field, Alabama has some work to do. Saturday's loss at Ole Miss makes the trip to Gainesville more important for the Crimson Tide's at-large hopes. Despite an 11-3 SEC record, Alabama's RPI has been weakened by non-conference losses to Seton Hall, Iowa, St. Peter's, Providence and Oklahoma State and is in the high 80s. In addition, the Tide has just three wins over teams in the RPI top 100. As a comparison, Florida has nine top-50 wins.

Injury update: Georgetown G Chris Wright (broken hand) missed his first start in 93 games in Saturday's loss to Syracuse. The Hoyas are hopeful he will return for the NCAA tournament. ... Arizona State F Rihards Kuksiks (ankle) has missed the past four games.

Key stat: The Big East is one of the top conferences year-in and year-out, and with 16 teams, the conference annually has its share of star power. This season, though, no one could have seen the Big East player of the year race evolving as it has. Connecticut G Kemba Walker remains a contender, but his competition for the award were complementary players a year ago. Providence G/F Marshon Brooks, Notre Dame G Ben Hansbrough and St. John's G Dwight Hardy were not among the top 20 scorers in the conference last season. Now, those guys are the top four scorers in the league and the top candidates for conference player of the year honors. Brooks leads the Big East at 25.4 points per game, up from 14.2 last season. Walker is second at 22.8 points per game, with Hansbrough third (18.0 ppg, up from 12.0) and Hardy fourth (17.9 ppg, up from 10.5). Georgetown G Austin Freeman, the preseason pick for Big East player of the year, is fifth in the league at 17.7 points per game.

Tournament implications: How much time do you have? The most clear-cut tournament implications are in the 16 conference tournaments that begin this week and four ending either Saturday or Sunday. Elsewhere, in addition to a road trip to Florida, Alabama plays host to Georgia this week (Saturday, 1:30 p.m.); the Bulldogs also are seeking a bid out of the SEC. In the ACC, Boston College is at Virginia Tech (Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPNU), Clemson is at Duke (Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN) and Virginia Tech is at Clemson (Saturday, noon, ESPN2). In the Big 12, Baylor has reason to be optimistic after defeating Texas A&M at home Saturday. Meanwhile, a game against Texas in Waco (Saturday, 9 p.m., ESPN) looks a little more winnable than it did a couple of weeks ago. And in the Mountain West, after losing three in a row, Colorado State is in desperate need of a major win. Its road trip to San Diego State (Saturday, 10 p.m., the Mtn.) will be that opportunity.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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