Saddle Up is our semi-daily look at the night's best basketball action.
On paper, Temple's late-season trip to Duke is our best game of the night. It will feature two top 25 teams, a Temple squad playing well despite tons of injury issues, and a worthy player of the year candidate in Duke guard Nolan Smith. But let's be real: The Owls' chances of knocking off Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium are slim, and either way, neither team will be helped or hurt (barring seeding ramifications, of course) by the outcome. Instead, let's hop through the most intriguing games of the night, all of which come on or around the bubble:
Baylor at No. 21 Missouri, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: What team can help itself more than the Baylor Bears tonight? (OK, so maybe Colorado State, but we'll get to the Rams in a minute.) We left the Bears for dead in the bubble conversation weeks ago, but that was before a road win at Texas A&M -- now a tourney lock in their own right -- got Baylor back in the at-large picture. Saturday, in a game emblematic of this team's maddening inconsistencies, the Bears committed 16 turnovers en route to a home loss to Texas Tech. That's why this team desperately needs at least one -- and probably more than one -- big win coming down the stretch. Baylor will have home opportunities vs. Texas and Texas A&M before the season is out, but neither of those games is a likely win, and this team could just as easily lose its only other remaining road game at Oklahoma State. In other words, tonight's trip to Mizzou -- a major challenge in its own right, given how good the Tigers have been in Columbia this season -- is also a major opportunity.
Colorado State at No. 7 BYU, 8 p.m. ET: The Rams are, like the Bears, still one of those shaky bubble teams that make you wonder how they're on the bubble in the first place. (Don't make me say "soft bubble!" I'll do it! Wait. Argh! You win again, soft bubble! You always do. Goulet.) That status, like Baylor's, is thanks to a home loss Saturday. Sure, the Rams' loss to UNLV -- a likely tournament team -- wasn't as ugly as a home loss to the Red Raiders, but it did create an obvious hierarchy in the battle for the Mountain West Conference's third at-large bid, a hierarchy that will see CSU spend the rest of its season fighting for its tournament life. Colorado State's remaining schedule looks like this: at BYU, at Air Force, vs. Utah at home, at San Diego State. Wins against Air Force and Utah won't get you into the tourney. A road win against BYU or SDSU would. Perhaps no bubble team, with the possible exception of Cincinnati, has such a difficult finishing stretch to the season, one that could either stamp a tourney ticket or shred it into irretrievable pieces. In other words, it's go time for the Rams.
Cincinnati at No. 11 Georgetown, ESPN3, 9 pm. ET: Speaking of Cincinnati, the Bearcats are looking good. They're 21-6 overall, 8-6 in the Big East, and seven days ago they got one of the few noteworthy top 50 RPI wins of their season in a 63-54 victory against Louisville. But the work is far from over, and here's why: Cincy's last four games are at Georgetown, vs. UConn, at Marquette, and vs. Georgetown in a return date at Fifth Third Arena. All four of those are eminently losable games. None of them would be particularly bad losses. But taken as a whole, they might be enough of an addition to Cincinnati's loss column to make the committee a little queasy about selecting a team with such a weak nonconference schedule attached to a so-so Big East mark. After a host of midseason issues involving Yancy Gates and a rather sterling coaching effort by Mick Cronin, Cincinnati spent last week playing itself back into the NCAA. Now the Bearcats have to avoid playing themselves out. Keyboard Cat is always just around the corner.
Kansas State at Nebraska, ESPNU, 9 p.m. ET: Nebraska put itself back in bubble land Saturday. That's when the defensively stringent Huskers upset then-No. 2 Texas -- a team previously unbeaten in Big 12 play -- in Lincoln, Neb. Great win. But as Joe Lunardi said on the Experts Tuesday, one win might be enough to get you back on the bubble, but it is not enough to get you into the NCAA tournament. In other words, Nebraska needs more of those elusive "win" things if wants to sneak in the 2011 tourney's back door. Tonight's home date vs. Kansas State -- a beatable team, but one that has been playing some of its best basketball lately, one that has seen itself get back on the right side of the bubble after its own big win (against Kansas) last week, and one that features Jacob Pullen, who is finally playing like the All-American candidate we once thought him to be -- is as good an opportunity as the Huskers might get.
Florida State at Maryland, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN3: On its face, this is a rather boring, uninspiring game between two of the ACC's seemingly limitless collection of underwhelming squads. And that might be true. But it is rather important for both teams, as Maryland could -- repeat: could -- potentially sneak back into the fringes of the bubble picture with a win. It might be more important for Florida State, which looks like a strong tourney inclusion right now, but has to face the rest of its regular-season schedule without star forward Chris Singelton, who might miss the rest of the season with a fractured foot. The Seminoles can't afford a late-season slide, not only for seeding purposes but because the committee is inclined (see: Purdue 2010) to consider a team without its best player differently than if that player were in the lineup. A win here, as well as against Miami at home Saturday, would be nice, if only to firm things up and make sure any "late-season slide" is confined to games vs. North Carolina and at NC State in early March. You can't be too safe, after all.
And, in the memorial "Michigan fans will keep flooding my inbox anyway, so I might as well include this game" game ...
No. 12 Wisconsin at Michigan, 6:30 p.m. ET: Pretty simple stuff, really. Michigan's bubble case -- despite the protests of those aforementioned e-mail-happy fans -- still reeks of fringe desperation. A home win tonight would change all that. Wisconsin is always tough, but is far more vulnerable on the road than at home, so this counts as a legitimate opportunity for the maize and blue to put themselves in position for an unlikely at-large berth. There will be other chances after this (at Minnesota, vs. Michigan State at home), but either of those games could prove to be just as tough as this game, if not tougher, and with much less return on investment. Want to be in the tournament? Beat a good team at home. Like I said: simple stuff, really.