Holiday games can play big come March

Hope you didn't blink. Because believe it or not, the college basketball season is already one-third complete.

While it might seem like things have not yet heated up (especially if you live in the Northeast), the fact remains that the nonconference portion of the season is nearly over -- and ultimately those are the games that often distinguish Team A from Team B come selection time.

Now that final exams have wrapped up, teams are getting back on the court at a time when you, the fan, are busier with the holiday rush and less likely to pay attention. But what you might miss are some key, potentially résumé-building games. Often these are the final opportunities for clubs to impress outside of their respective leagues.

So as a holiday gift to you, here's a list to help you weed through the scores more quickly and get to what matters most. You will know the games now that you might be talking about in March -- and still have plenty of time for last-minute shopping, gift wrapping, grandma's not-quite-strong-enough eggnog, and that TNT marathon of A Christmas Story.

Here are the games from now until Christmas of which you need to be aware and your teams might need to win:

Wednesday, Dec. 19

Illinois at Missouri:

The Fighting Illini will have bigger games when the Big Ten schedule begins, but this is their last nonconference affair and it's against a decent, if not spectacular, opponent from another BCS league. Illinois is on the outside looking in right now and a win would help a little. However, a loss would hurt plenty since this club has little else to point to.

Thursday, Dec. 20

Texas A&M at George Washington: Both teams should be in the hunt for a top-four seed and will need this game as a résumék-builder. GW's start isn't what it would have liked with losses to James Madison and UNLV, and the Colonials might really need this win -- because with Xavier and Temple down, compiling victories in the Atlantic 10 might not help quite as much as in season's past. A visit to Auburn is the last big one left on the schedule. A nonconference road win over a top-25 team is always enormous. This is the Aggies' chance to cash in.

Maryland at James Madison: How often does a CAA team get to play host to a top-five team? The answer ranges from rather infrequently to almost never (it becomes never without the occasional Old Dominon schedule), making this a gigantic opportunity. Nothing would help JMU toward a second consecutive at-large berth more than ending a two-game skid over the well-positioned Terps.

Chattanooga at Western Carolina:
This determines which team gets a leg up in what should be a far more competitive Southern Conference than in most seasons. It's not likely that the SoCon could get more than one bid, but Davidson also visits Virginia on this night, providing another opportunity for the league in the at-large chase.

Texas at Arizona State:
Theses are two teams still trying to find their identities. At 5-4, the Sun Devils have been one of the country's biggest disappointments. Texas is young and lacks a marquee win. Doing it on the road would also be an enormous confidence boost. ASU probably needs it more because of the poor start and weakened Pac-10.

Other games: Louisville at Kentucky, North Carolina at Western Kentucky

Friday, Dec. 21

Iowa State at Minnesota:

The Cyclones are far more tournament-comfortable at this juncture than Minnesota, but both could be in the bubble discussion come mid-March. And as solid as ISU has been, most notably on defense, this would be its best win. Bowling Green also rolls into Ames just after Christmas. The Gophers' schedule is nothing but Big Ten after this one, and to have victories over ISU and Louisville would be an enormous boost for a team that has been a slight surprise so far.

Kansas at California: Cal is a known quantity and it would be a shock not to see the Bears in the NCAA Tournament, but the Jayhawks, despite the 8-1 start, are still a bit of a mystery. How good is that 8-1? Is this an NCAA Tournament team or are these Jayhawks similar to those of two seasons ago who began 12-0 and won just four more times all year? This matchup might answer those questions.

New Mexico State at New Mexico:
The in-state rivals have met once already this season in Las Cruces, and the Aggies used a balanced attack and a big second-half defensive effort to win easily. Two losses to another potential at-large contender might kill the Lobos' chances if they don't win the Mountain West.

Other games:
Villanova at Temple, Connecticut at San Diego State

Saturday, Dec. 22

Tennessee at Stanford:
Two heavyweights who will definitely be in the NCAA Tournament meet with the game meaning much more to the Cardinal than the Lady Vols. When it's all said and done, Tennessee is going to be a No. 1 seed, but Stanford would be in the running as well with an upset here. Another big loss like the one to UConn at the Paradise Jam, however, and it will be all too clear that the Cardinal aren't ready to compete with the absolute elite. That could relegate Stanford to a region with one of the two aforementioned powers and a huge barrier to the Final Four.

Michigan State at Hartford: This is another huge chance for a leading mid-major. The Hawks have established themselves as one of the best from the smaller leagues, but found out the hard way last season that without a marquee nonleague victory and an America East tournament title, there is no NCAA Tournament. Virginia was a good win and Marist might have some value, but this would resonate more than either of those combined and put Hartford more prominently in the at-large discussion. Or it could help the almighty seeding if the Hawks make it through the America East clean. The nice part for the Spartans is that Hartford has established itself enough to make this a road win to point to. It's far from the no-win proposition these games can sometimes be for the BCS schools.

Nebraska at Ohio State:

The same could be written about the Cornhuskers as Big 12 brethren Kansas above. Do we really know how good Nebraska is? Kelsey Griffin will need to return to the lineup healthy for us to get the entire answer, but the Huskers need at least a good showing in Columbus to create more believers.

Middle Tennessee at South Alabama: This could wind up being the most important Sun Belt Conference game of the season. MTSU was a darling last season, but is off to a rugged start. The Jaguars are out quickly at 8-1. The Blue Raiders' chances at an at-large bid are already gone, but a good effort against a solid conference foe could re-establish some confidence in Murfreesboro. That could be vital with LSU coming to town six days later and a trip to Louisville right after that.

Other games:
West Virginia at Indiana, Baylor at St. John's

Merry Christmas to all, and to all happy scoreboard watching night after night.

Charlie Creme can be reached at cwcreme@yahoo.com.