College basketball viewers’ guide: Purdue-Illinois, Tennessee-Alabama and more – The Athletic

By Justin WilliamsFeb 28, 2024

It’s only fitting that the first Saturday in March gives us an absolutely stacked weekend of games as the regular season winds down. And blessings to the SEC in particular for really bringing the goods in this one.

Let’s power-rank the top-10 matchups between now and next Tuesday, March 5, starting with a few honorable mentions and counting down.

Honorable Mention: Oklahoma at No. 8 Iowa State (Wednesday), No. 13 Illinois at Wisconsin (Saturday), Michigan State at No. 2 Purdue (Saturday), Seton Hall at No. 3 UConn (Sunday), Kansas State at No. 7 Kansas (March 5)

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(All tipoff times are Eastern, all rankings are via the AP Top 25, all stats and records are current at time of publishing.)

10. Virginia at No. 10 Duke, Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN

This might not be the most fun or exciting game to watch — any game involving Virginia rarely is — but it’s a very important one for the ACC and those on the March Madness bubble. The Cavaliers stormed back into the NCAA Tournament mix with eight straight wins in conference play, then promptly lost three of their last four to drop back to the bubble. On the heels of a not-so-easy road trip to Boston College on Wednesday, a win in Durham would do a great deal for Virginia’s tourney prospects. A loss keeps them in limbo and opens the door for other teams on the bubble. The Blue Devils need every win as well to keep pace with North Carolina for a shot at the regular season crown and top seed in the conference tournament.

9. No. 24 Florida at No. 18 South Carolina, Saturday, Noon, ESPN

The Gators have found their stride, winning eight of their last 10 with one of the best offenses in the country. The two losses were a one-pointer on the road at Texas A&M and an OT loss at Alabama. The Gamecocks have made a massive leap in Year 2 under Lamont Paris and were on a similar path to Florida, winning seven straight before consecutive losses to Auburn and LSU. Both of these teams are comfortably in the tournament field at the moment, but a win for either would provide another jewel in their resume when it comes to seeding. South Carolina in particular could use a home win considering how difficult the rest of its schedule is: at Texas A&M, Florida and Tennessee at home, then at Mississippi State.

8. No. 23 Gonzaga at No. 17 Saint Mary’s, Saturday, 10 p.m., ESPN

Huge game for the Zags who, as we covered this week in Bubble Watch, have the metrics of an NCAA Tournament team but a resume that is lacking in other areas — particularly Quad 1 wins. Taking one on the road against the league-leading Gaels would be a significant boost to Gonzaga’s team sheet and cement a 25th consecutive trip to March Madness, especially if it can pair it with a win over San Francisco on Thursday. It would also mark quite the change in fortune for a program that struggled for a bit compared to its established standard, but notched a big road win over Kentucky earlier this month and has won 11 of 12. It will be a tall order against a Saint Mary’s squad that has the sport’s longest active winning streak at 15, already wrapped up a share of the WCC regular season title and is aiming to complete the regular-season sweep of their conference rival.

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7. No. 14 Alabama at No. 24 Florida, Tuesday, March 5, 7 p.m., ESPN

A rough two-game stretch for the Gators in three days. This one might not reach the 212 combined points that Alabama and Kentucky posted last week, but I’d still take the over with these two offenses. One area to keep an eye on in this one is the 3-point line. Bama is one of the best and most prolific 3-point shooting teams in the country, scoring nearly 38 percent of its points from beyond the arc. Florida, however, has done pretty well to run teams off the 3-point line. If the Gators can manage to do an even decent job against the Tide, it could be the key to a victory.

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6. No. 1 Houston at Oklahoma, Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN2

The Cougars, atop the NET and KenPom rankings for weeks, claimed No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll for the first time this season on Monday. They followed that with a home win over Cincinnati on Tuesday night as Houston continues to march toward a No. 1 seed in the South Region and, potentially, a Big 12 regular-season title. The Sooners should be in the NCAA Tournament as things currently stand but not off the bubble just yet, a reality that will get tested this week with a Wednesday trip to Iowa State before returning home to face the Coogs. A win in either game polishes Oklahoma’s resume. A pair of losses would put some pressure on the Sooners to finish strong.

5. No. 11 Auburn at No. 4 Tennessee, Wednesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2

A showdown between SEC Player of the Year candidates: Auburn’s Johni Broome and Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht. The Volunteers have been downright clinical of late and for most of the season, but the pace they play at could also benefit a Tigers squad that loves to get up and down. Either way, it should be a slugfest between two of the most well-balanced teams in college hoops in the only regular-season meeting between the two sides.

4. No. 7 Kansas at No. 15 Baylor, Saturday, 1 p.m., ABC

Big momentum game late in the slate. Baylor ended a two-game skid with an impressive road win over TCU on Monday, while Kansas suffered a home loss to BYU the following night. The Jayhawks will likely be without all-conference wing Kevin McCullar Jr. again, who has missed five of the last six games with a bone bruise that could keep him out the rest of the regular season. That’s a big blow on both ends of the floor against a team like Baylor that boasts a top-5 offense according to KenPom and can throw a ton of guard and wing talent at opposing teams. In the post, the matchup between an experienced veteran like Hunter Dickinson and an up-and-coming potential lottery pick in Yves Missi should be fun to watch as well.

3. No. 5 Marquette at No. 12 Creighton, Saturday, 2:30 p.m., Fox

UConn beat Marquette by 28 points, then turned around and lost at Creighton by 19 points, which means the Bluejays should win by roughly 50 on Saturday, yes? Transitive property aside, this should be a much closer affair between two of the Big East’s big three. Both teams are in that second tier of programs nationally this season that have the talent and experience to get hot and make a title run in March Madness. Utah State transfer Steven Ashworth has come on strong for Creighton throughout conference play, though he’ll have a tough assignment going against reigning Big East Player of the Year Tyler Kolek.

2. No. 4 Tennessee at No. 14 Alabama, Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN

It’s an SEC-heavy viewers’ guide this week, and all of these games will be critical for the league standings. This one could be for first place, and features the top two scorers in the league: Knecht (20.1 ppg) and Alabama’s Mark Sears (20.4). It’s also a classic good-on-good, with Alabama’s top-rated offense against Tennessee’s second-rated defense (both according to KenPom). Guard Latrell Wrightsell Jr. (9 ppg, 44.5 percent 3FG) has missed the past couple games with a head injury and could still be out for this one, which certainly hurts Bama from a depth and shooting perspective. But it could also force the Tide to go big, and the size advantage over Tennessee could be a factor.

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1. No. 2 Purdue at No. 13 Illinois, Tuesday, March 5, 7 p.m., Peacock

More offense! (At least for those of you who forgot to cancel your Peacock subscription after the NFL playoff game.) These are two of the most efficient units in the country. It doesn’t always equal a rollicking product — both sides shoot a lot of free throws — but it’s clinical, high-quality basketball. Illinois cleans up on the glass, Purdue moves the ball and plays through former aspiring hockey and baseball player Zach Edey. The Boilermakers took the first meeting, 83-78 back on Jan. 5 in West Lafayette; Illinois was without leading scorer Terrence Shannon Jr. but got Edey in foul trouble and limited him to 10 points in 23 minutes. The rematch between the two best teams in the Big Ten should make for an electric atmosphere in Champaign.

(Photo of Coleman Hawkins: Michael Hickey /Getty Images)

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Justin Williams covers college football and basketball for The Athletic. He was previously a beat reporter covering the Cincinnati Bearcats, and prior to that he worked as a senior editor for Cincinnati Magazine. Follow Justin on Twitter/X @williams_justin Follow Justin on Twitter @williams_justin

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