As we reach the crux of conference schedules, here are five teams across the country that face critical Thursday-Saturday tests this week:
Florida: The Gators travel to Oxford to play Mississippi on Thursday. Why is this a big game for Billy Donovan’s team? Despite being 3rd in the SEC they only have one win over an RPI top 200 team right now (South Carolina). The Gators better be careful though, as Ole Miss has already taken out Arkansas and Mississippi State at home.
As if that wasn’t enough, Florida then goes home to face #16 Mississippi State in the only game of the day pitting top 25 teams against each other. The Gators could assert themselves as a force in the SEC this week or completely muddle things behind Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
NC State:Mark Gottfried has got his Wolfpack in a 3-way tie for first place in the ACC. This week could be the first real test for NC State, whose best win is a 5-point victory at Miami. They could certainly use another resume-building win, and they will get their chance; traveling to Chapel Hill on Thursday to take on the Tar Heels, and hosting #21 Virginia on Saturday night.
Can the ‘Pack do like Florida State and crash the ACC party? The next two games should be a good litmus test.
Long Beach State: While the top team in the Big West at 7-0 isn’t expected to falter, they are facing the toughest back-to-back games until the host UC- Santa Barbara and UC-Riverside on Feb. 22 and Feb. 25th respectively.
On Thursday Casper Ware and company head to Riverside to battle the Highlanders, who have taken out UCSB in overtime. On Saturday Dan Monson’s squad plays host to a Cal-Fullerton team that is playing well riding a two-game win streak, including an 11-point win over Riverside.
What makes the Fullerton game interesting is the Duo of guard Kwame Vaughn and forward Omondi Amoke for the Titans. Vaughn has netted 53 points during the winning streak and Amoke is coming off a 23-point 17-rebound performance in a win over UC-Irvine. The 9ers will have to contain those two to maintain its cushion in the Big West.
UW MILWAUKEE: The Horizon League has been its typical mid major self, five teams separated by a game for the conference’s top spot including the Panthers and that team with back-to-back national championship game appearances, Butler. While this week doesn’t have at-large implications for anyone as Milwaukee hosts Butler (6-3) on Thursday and Valparaiso (7-2) on Saturday, it is an important two-game stretch in a conference where the regular-season champion hosts the Horizon tournament championship.
St. Mary’s: The 20th ranked Gaels may have the toughest Thursday-Saturday of anyone in the country this week as they travel to Loyola Marymount (12-8, 5-2 WCC RPI:109) to take on the Lions, who have a win over St. Louis (ranked 25th at the time) and a 14-point win over BYU (17-5, 6-2 WCC RPI:54) in Provo. The Lions have a healthy Drew Viney, 6-2 since his return from injury, making them an even tougher out. The Lions are hungry to make the West Coast Conference a 4-team race, making Thursday night even more dangerous for St. Mary’s.
On Saturday the road trip continues for Randy Bennett’s troops as they travel to Provo to face BYU. The Cougars sit at 6-2 in conference and have won 7 of their last 8. BYU will undoubtedly have revenge on their minds as St. Mary’s beat BYU by 16 earlier this year in Moraga.
St. Mary’s has a chance to assert itself as the class of the WCC this week, and LMU and BYU have the chance to say, “hey this conference is more than Gonzaga and St. Mary’s.”
In a season that has seen conference races from high to mid to low majors unpredictable and confusing, this Thursday-Saturday could stretch could sort some things out, or it leave us with even more questions.