The bubble is staying crowded after the first two days of the week. Florida, Illinois and UConn all stepped up and won. Louisville missed a chance to put a lock on things with last night's 70-60 home loss to Georgetown. While there's no shame in losing to the Hoyas, the loss does risk pulling the Cards back into the pack just when it looked like they might be ready to put the finishing touches on a bid. Texas Tech lost whatever hope of a miracle run was lurking within them (they are stronger in the power ratings then first glance at their resume would lead you to believe) when they fell to Kansas State. The big TV games don't stop the next two nights. Tonight in particular offers some good games with serious implications, both for the bubble and for the championship races and its highlighted by a doubleheader on ESPN2.
Pitt-Notre Dame (7, ESPN2): The
Panthers are coming off a big home win over Villanova. They have the NCAAs locked up, with no real shot at the Big East title. Notre Dame desperately needs the win, especially at home, to keep themselves alive. It's tempting to say Pitt will be flat, looking ahead to the conference's main event at Madison Square Garden. And maybe they will be. But I believe it's better to bet defense then desperation. Notre Dame's got a lot of the latter and none of the former. This is going to be a good game, because Luke Harangody and home court will keep you in a lot of games. But ND needs their guard combo of Tory Jackson and Ben Hansbrough to step up, especially on defense where Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker are capable of ringing up the points themselves. Close call, but I'm leaning Pitt in this one.
Oklahoma State-Texas (9, ESPN2): The Longhorns are regressing the more the season goes on. Damion James is falling from superstar to good player. And the
supporting cast--mainly Dexter Pittman inside to Avery Bradley at the point, is regressing from steady role contributor to up-and-down mediocrity. They nearly blew a big lead against a far less talented Texas Tech club over the weekend and now they have to play the Cowboys, who seem to regained their mojo after a brief slide in conference play that jeopardized their NCAA chances. Okie State can make a definitive statement to the Selection Committee if they win in Austin tonight. James Anderson is the most explosive player in the Big 12 and should put on a show for the national audience. Key to getting the road win will be scoring help from Obi Muonelo and rebounding from Matt Pilgrim. I'm saying they get it and the road win they badly need.
Purdue-Minnesota (8:30, BTN): The Boilermakes are trying to hold a one-game lead in the conference race before hosting Michigan State on Sunday. Minnesota's fighting for its life, with a good power rating,
but a weak overall record. The player to watch is Lawrence Westbrook for Minnesota. The guard is capable of a big offensive night and that's something that's been lacking for Tubby Smith's crew most of this season. With a consistent Westbrook, Minny's not on the bubble right now. They need him tonight. As good as Purdue's interior is, with JaJuan Johnson and Robbie Hummel and a believe a fired up Gopher team at home can hold their own with Colt Iverson and Damian Johnson. But they need the backcourt to win and Westbrook is the one to make it happen. Prediction? I don't like inconsistency and I love Purdue's toughness, so I'm sticking with the Boilers.
Clemson-Maryland: This one's not on national TV, but it's huge for Clemson's tournament chances and Maryland's hopes for an ACC championship. The Tigers bring a strong forward presence in Trevor Booker and he's the type of scorer and rebounder who can produce a big road win. But Maryland is
balanced inside and out, led by Greivis Vazquez whose senior year has seen him mature beyond the inconsistency of his first three seasons. I think Vazquez won't let his team let up. Clemson is tough enough to make this one a thriller, but the Terps win their fourth straight and stay on Duke's heels.
Thursday's schedule is a little quieter, with the main focus being on Kentucky's rematch with South Carolina. I'm going to say the same thing I said when they played in Columbia--South Carolina's got no shot. Last time it came up and bit me, when the Gamecocks handed the Wilddcats their only loss. But not only is Kentucky going to be motivated and ready with the Rupp crowd behind them, but star South Carolina guard Devan Downey has been fading. He still gets his points, but the problem of having to carry an entire team on his back is clearly wearing on him, as his shooting percentages haven't been very good lately. You can only go so far with one
player producing. I'm looking for Downey to go about 5-for-20 with 18-20 points, and the Wildcats to win big.
Check in tomorrow. There will be a special Sweet 16 Snapshot, as we briefly review the strengths of weaknesses of the nation's best teams. And for baseball fans, be sure to visit www.baseballnotebook.com , where spring training reviews of each team have begun.