Non-conference schedules are all but wrapped up, meaning we’re starting to have a good idea of the college basketball teams playing for prime slots in the NCAA Tournament, those looking to avoid the NIT and those grasping for, well, anything.
Athlon Sports’ first bracket projections for the 2013 field will be released in the coming weeks, but we’re already deep into key contests for conference titles, NCAA seeding and bubble teams.
Chief among the key games with Tournament implications this week is Duke's road trip to NC State. Mike Krzyzewski's team will be on its way to another high seed in the tournament unless someone in the ACC can step up to challenge the Blue Devils. Riding a hot streak, NC State may end up being that team. The Wolfpack will have a chance to showcase its improvement since November when it plays host to Duke on Saturday.
Here’s our look at the rest of the week and how it could impact the 68 bracket slots in March.
All times Eastern.
Related: 7 key college hoops stats from last week
JAN. 9 BRACKET UPDATE
Athlon College Basketball Power Rankings: Jan. 9
1. Duke (15-0)
MOST IMPORTANT GAME:
Duke at NC State (Saturday, noon, ESPN)
The question posed since November still doesn’t have a clear answer: Who in the ACC is going to challenge Duke? NC State has won nine in a row since a 79-82 loss to Michigan in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, but the Wolfpack are coming off an uneven performance in a 78-73 win over Boston College. Duke is playing for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament but hasn’t played in a true road game this season.
ALL EYES ON: Minnesota
at Illinois (Wednesday, 9 p.m., Big Ten Network)
at Indiana (Saturday, noon, Big Ten Network)
The Gophers’ 76-63 win over Michigan State on New Year’s Eve was eye-opening, but Minnesota can make even more noise against two of the Big Ten’s best on the road. Even a split on this road swing would be a good sign for a Gophers program that has gone 20-3 since last March. Andre Hollins, Rodney Williams and Austin Hollins have carried Minnesota at various times during that stretch But keep in mind: Potential All-American Trevor Mbakwe has started only three games this season.
UNDER PRESSURE: Colorado
USC (Thursday, 10 p.m., ESPNU)
UCLA (Saturday, 2 p.m., Pac-12 Networks)
The real shame in the Buffaloes’ 92-83 overtime loss to Arizona is that it didn’t need to come down to a buzzer-beater being waved off at the end of regulation. Colorado led by as much as 16 in the second half before coughing up the lead. The Buffaloes (10-4, 0-2 Pac-12) then turned around to lose at Arizona State in its next game. Colorado should defeat USC on Thursday, and UCLA will give the Buffs a chance at a big conference victory. Losing three of the first four Pac-12 games -- or worse, an 0-4 start to conference play -- would be a major setback for Tad Boyle’s team.
East Carolina (Wednesday, 8 p.m.)
at UAB (Saturday, 8 p.m.)
The Tigers shouldn’t have much trouble this week in its Conference USA opener, so we’re looking closer at Friday’s 85-80 win over Tennessee. C-USA won’t give the Tigers any opportunities for resume-building wins, but Memphis salvaged a top-100 victory against Tennessee. Now, Memphis needs the Volunteers to become an NCAA contender. Before defeating the Vols in Knoxville, Memphis’ best win was over Northern Iowa.
SINKING: North Carolina
Miami (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN)
at Florida State (Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN)
Who knows which North Carolina team is going to show up this week? The Tar Heels defeated UNLV 79-73 on Dec. 29 in a game that looked like a turning point for a team still looking to gel. Then North Carolina lost 61-52 Sunday to Virginia, a team that’s 0-3 against the Colonial Athletic Association this season. This week’s opponents will give North Carolina a chance to turn itself around or create more problems for its postseason hopes: Miami proved it can win without Reggie Johnson last week, and Florida State is, like North Carolina, an enigma.
MID-MAJOR TO WATCH: Saint Louis
UMass (Thursday, 9 p.m., CBS Sports Network)
at Temple (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPNU)
The Atlantic 10 is crowded at the top in part because of an eight-game winning streak by Saint Louis. The Billikens keep getting stronger as Kwamain Mitchell returned following foot surgery. Even as Mitchell worked himself into game shape, Saint Louis defeated New Mexico 60-46 on Dec. 31. Saint Louis will face NCAA contenders UMass and Temple, which already defeated Syracuse and put a scare into Kansas.
Ole Miss at Tennessee (Wednesday, 8 p.m., SEC syndication).
The SEC pecking order is Florida, Missouri, Kentucky and then the winner of this game.
Florida State at Maryland (Wednesday, 8 p.m., ACC syndication).
Maryland begins a critical stretch to prove its mettle: Florida State, at Miami, NC State, at North Carolina.
UNLV at New Mexico (Wednesday, 10 p.m., CBS Sports Network).
UNLV has three road wins this season -- none in as difficult a venue as The Pit.
Michigan State at Iowa (Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN2).
Iowa may be an NCAA Tournament team, but the Hawkeyes have to start picking up key wins.
Arizona at Oregon (Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN2).
Arizona has been lucky lately. Will the luck run out against a quality Ducks team in Eugene?
Saint Mary’s at Gonzaga (Thursday, 11 p.m., ESPN2).
Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk is an emerging star. A win in Spokane would be a nice addition to the Gaels’ Tourney resume.
Marquette at Pittsburgh (Saturday, noon, ESPNU).
Pitt lost its first two Big East games. The Panthers need to showed they may be on the right track with a 73-45 drubbing of Georgetown.
Illinois at Wisconsin (Saturday, 2:15 p.m., Big Ten Network).
Illinois scored a big win at home over Ohio State. Now goes to one of the Big Ten’s toughest venues.
Oklahoma State at Oklahoma (Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN2).
The Cowboys need to get back to early season form. Oklahoma State has lost back-to-back games to Gonzaga and Kansas State.
Colorado State at San Diego State (Saturday, 8 p.m., NBC Sports Network).
Colorado State is a quiet 13-2. The Rams have chance to make a statement in the Mountain West during their trip to San Diego.
Michigan at Ohio State (Sunday, 1:30 p.m., CBS).
The Buckeyes are going in the wrong direction with losses to the best teams they’ve faced (Duke, Kansas, Illinois). Michigan is just as good as those previous three teams.
Maryland at Miami (Sunday, 8 p.m., ESPNU).
With Reggie Johnson out, the Terrapins’ Alex Len might be poised for a big day.