College Basketball: 20 Must-See Matchups Moving Towards March Madness

Doug Brodess@DougbrodessCorrespondent IJanuary 31, 2012

College Basketball: 20 Must-See Matchups Moving Towards March Madness

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    Even though there has been a vast collection of great college basketball action this season, most of the classic confrontations are still ahead.

    Close conference races will be decided and heated rivals will go head-to-head in the coming weeks before we even get to the conference and NCAA tournaments.

    Here is a list of the Top 20 "Must See" matchups as we move closer to March Madness:

Kansas State at Iowa State: Jan. 31st (9pm ET)

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    Okay. Wait a minute. Neither of these teams are ranked. How can this be the first Must-See Matchup?

    Answer: Because both are clawing, scratching and biting to get into (Iowa State - 15-6; 5-3 Big 12) or back into (K-State - 15-5; 4-4 Big 12) the conference race.

    Royce White (pictured) is the Real Deal, leading the Cyclones in scoring (13.6 ppg), rebounding (9.6 rpg) and assists (4.5 apg). 

    What to watch: If ISU can keep Kansas State off the boards (39.5 rpg; No. 17 in the nation) just like they did with Kansas on Saturday, then they will take one more big step towards a top-tier Big 12 finish and their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2005.  

Connecticut at Georgetown: Feb. 1st (7pm ET)

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    Both of these teams need to get things back on track.

    I don't know if you can call what UConn is in a "free fall" just yet.

    But the Huskies, after starting the season 12-1, have now lost five of their last seven games.

    Georgetown is coming off of a disappointing 12-point road loss to Pitt.

    John Thompson III would like to see the Hoyas stay within striking distance of Syracuse and Marquette.


    What to watch: Senior guard Jason Clark, the Hoyas leading scorer (pictured; 15.6 ppg), is coming off of back-to-back subpar outings where he only scored a combined 20 points on 4-for-13 shooting.

Duke at Virginia Tech: Feb. 2nd (7pm ET)

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    Duke is off to a good, but not great start in 2011-12, winning 18 of their first 21 games.

    Balance is the key to this Blue Devil team that has five players averaging double figures.

    Virginia Tech started off the year going 11-3 during November and December. Since New Year's, Seth Greenburg's squad has lost six of seven games.

    But in five of those six defeats, the Hokies lost by five points or less. Can you say, "Frustration"?

    Junior guard Erick Green (pictured) leads VT in scoring (15.9 ppg) and assists (3.2 apg).


    What to watch: In the last two years, Duke is only 9-6 in true road games. Tech beat Duke in Blacksburg last February when the Blue Devils were No.1.

    Though this shouldn't be a challenging contest, can the Blue Devils overcome their road struggles?

Ohio State at Wisconsin: Feb. 2 (2pm ET)

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    When you line up against Wisconsin, you better be ready for their "in-your-jock" defense.

    They hold their opponents to a puny 49.6 ppg (No. 1 in the nation), 36.3 percent from the floor (also No. 1), and 26.8 percent from beyond the arc (No. 5).

    A year ago, the Badgers ended Ohio State’s hopes of a perfect season with a 71-67 victory over the Buckeyes in Madison.

    OSU is a quality offensive team with multiple weapons. They take good care of the ball (11.8 tpg), score well (77.3 ppg), and because of Jared Sullinger, can pound it inside.

    Both teams are heading towards this showdown with winning streaks: Wisconsin (five games) and Ohio State (four).


    What to watch: The PG matchup between Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor (pictured) and OSU's Aaron Craft will have a major impact on the outcome of this one.

    Last year, Taylor went for 27 points, four rebounds, and seven assists in the upset in Madison.

Vanderbilt at Florida: Feb. 4 (1pm ET)

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    Early in the 2011-12 season, Vanderbilt lost four of its first 10 games. Since mid-December, the Commodores have figured things out, winning 10 of their last 11 contests.

    Florida may have the best collection of perimeter scorers in the country. Kenny Boynton (17.2 ppg) , Bradley Beal (14.1) and Erving Walker (12.6) all average double figures in scoring, with Mike Rosario dropping in nine ppg off the bench.

    What to watch: Vandy has two big-time scoring wings of their own in John Jenkins (pictured), who leads the SEC with 20 ppg, and Jeffrey Taylor (17.3 ppg).

    Also, the Big Man showdown between Vandy's Festus Ezeli and Florida's Patric Young could be memorable.

Kansas at Missouri: Feb. 4 (9pm ET)

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    With the Tigers getting ready to move to the SEC next season, this may be the last time that the Jayhawks play at Mizzou for a long time.

    Get ready for a barn-burner between Nos. 1 and 2 in the Big 12!

    Both of these teams like to get up and down the floor.

    Missouri shoots 49.9 percent from the floor (No. 5 in the nation) and scores 81.9 ppg (No. 6).

    Right behind them is Kansas, who shoots 48 percent from the floor and scores 75.2 ppg.


    What to Watch: Ricardo Ratliffe (pictured) leads the nation in FG percentage with an eye-popping 75.1 percent. He is the Tigers' leading rebounder (6.9 rpg) and second-leading scorer (14.8 ppg). But his most important assignment on Saturday will be to shut down Kansas' Thomas Robinson.

Michigan at Michigan State: Feb. 5 (1pm ET)

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    When the Wolverines and Spartans square off it will be more than just a rivalry game; it very well could be an important game in determining the 2011-12 regular season Big Ten champ.

    Both Michigan and Michigan State are right in the thick of the conference race.

    MSU, with the help of Draymond Green (pictured, 15.2 ppg and 10.4 rpg) is back to their old selves. They are tough on defense, playing high-percentage offense and rebounding like crazy.

    Michigan relies on great perimeter play from Tim Hardaway, Jr (15.2 ppg) and freshmen phenom Trey Burke (14.1 ppg).


    What to watch: Michigan won the first game this year (60-59) in this series. It was the first meeting between the in-state rivals with both teams ranked since 1998.

    In that game, Burke led the Wolverines in all five major stat categories (20 points, 4 boards, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks). The Spartans need someone to step up and shut him down...No easy task.

Florida at Kentucky: Feb. 7 (7pm ET)

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    This one will have the feel of a Final Four matchup.

    When Florida faces Kentucky, even though they will be out-sized significantly, the Gators will not back down.

    The Gators push the ball at every opportunity. They put up nearly 81 points per game, with their top three scorers (Kenny Boynton, Bradley Beal and Erving Walker) all playing on the perimeter.

    Kentucky has one of the top front-courts in the nation, starting Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.


    What to watch: Will Marquis Teague be able to handle the full-court, non-stop pressure that Florida will apply? On the season, the freshmen PG averages three turnovers per game, and has had three games where he committed six.

Georgetown at Syracuse: Feb. 8 (7pm ET)

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    The Carrier Dome will be rockin' when the Hoyas meet the Orange.

    This one will be patient offense (Georgetown) vs. pressure defense (Syracuse).

    Georgetown plays with great balance offensively and they crash the boards with all five players on the court (five players are averaging at least four rebounds per game).

    Syracuse is as deep as anyone in the country, playing a 10-deep rotation with very little drop off.

    Kris Joseph (pictured) provides steady, veteran leadership to a team that really doesn't have an established "go-to guy."


    What to watch: The Orange will need to get out and challenge every shot. In their only loss of the season so far, Syracuse allowed Notre Dame to shoot 50 percent from the field, including 8-for-16 from beyond the arc.

Duke at North Carolina: Feb. 8 (9pm ET)

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    Is there a bigger or better rivalry game than this?

    This year's Duke squad has more offensive balance than any other Blue Devil team in recent memory.

    Coach K has five players scoring in double figures, with Austin Rivers leading the way at 14.1 ppg.

    As a team, they shoot the ball well (49 percent from the floor) and score lots of points (80.3 ppg; No. 11 in the nation).

    North Carolina is the top scoring (84.9 ppg) and top rebounding team (45.9 rpg) in the nation.

    Very few teams can effectively match-up with the Tar Heels front-court trio of Harrison Barnes (17.5 ppg; 4.6 rpg), John Henson (14.2 ppg; 9.9 rpg) and Tyler Zeller (14.8 ppg; 9.3 rpg). 


    What to watch: How will Duke handle UNC's size and talent on the frontline?

    Even with Mason and Miles Plumlee playing better defensively this season, they will be hard pressed to shut down Henson and Zeller in the post. And who is going to guard Harrison Barnes?

Kansas at Baylor: Feb. 8 (7pm ET)

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    Kansas has won seven straight Big 12 regular season titles, and they are definitely in the running for No. 8.

    Thomas Robinson is one of the, if not the, top Big Men in the college basketball, scoring 17.5 ppg and pulling down 11.8 rpg (No. 2 in the nation).

    Baylor has more talent and depth than they have ever had. Scott Drew can mix and match Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller, Quincy Acy and a cast of other bigs off of the bench.


    What to watch: In these two teams first battle this season, Baylor was up late in the first half, and then it was all Kansas.

    Robinson went for 27 points and 14 rebounds and it ended up not being as close as the 18-point final deficit indicated.

St. Mary's at Gonzaga: Feb. 9 (11pm ET)

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    One of the best mid-major matchups of the season.

    St. Mary's is currently ranked No. 16 in the country and is undefeated in WCC play.

    Matthew Dellavedova leads the Gaels in both scoring (15.4 ppg) and assists (6.4 apg).

    Gonzaga is right on St. Mary's heels with a 17-3 record, and their only conference loss coming at the hands of the Gaels (83-62) in mid-January.


    What to watch: Elias Harris (pictured) leads the Zags in scoring (13.7 ppg) and rebounding (8.0 rpg). Harris had a good game (17/11) in the first match-up. He may not need to have a great one in order for Mark Few's crew to come out on top.

Kentucky at Vanderbilt: Feb. 11 (9pm ET)

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    By this time, both Kentucky and Vanderbilt will have plenty of opportunities to further establish their place at the top of the SEC or slide out of one of the conference's top spots.

    Kentucky lost last year's contest (81-77) against the Commodores in Nashville. While Vandy has essentially the same team, the Wildcats will bring their usual incredible influx of elite-level freshmen talent into this game.

    John Calipari's front-court of Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (pictured) and Anthony Davis are a match-up nightmare for just about any opponent.

    Vandy brings size and experience in Lance Goulbourne (9.9 ppg; 7.2 rpg) and Festus Ezeli (8.5 ppg and 6.6 rpg).


    What to watch: The match-up between the two small forwards should be awesome. Vandy's Jeffrey Taylor (17.3 ppg) is shooting 48 percent from beyond the arc. Kidd-Gilchrist is one of the rising stars not only in the SEC but in all of college hoops.  

Connecticut at Syracuse: Feb. 11 (1pm ET)

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    One of the most long-standing rivalries in the northeast, UConn and the 'Cuse will be a BATTLE.

    These two teams are loaded. Both teams like to play an extremely physical brand of ball. They like to go hard to the glass and they aren't afraid of contact.

    Both teams block a lot of shots: Syracuse averages 7.39 per game (No. 3 in the nation) while UConn is not far behind at 6.8 per game (No. 6).

    Last year, Syracuse broke a four-game losing streak to beat the Huskies in Hartford.

    This year, Connecticut may be the team that is trying to get back on track. The Huskies have lost five of their last seven games.


    What to watch: Jeremy Lamb (17.9 ppg) may be the difference maker for Jim Calhoun's crew. The 6'5" sophomore wing is instant offense and may present a real challenge for the Orange's backcourt. In the single regular season game last year between these two teams, Lamb went for 22 points and had five steals. 

Michigan State at Ohio State: Feb 11 (6pm ET)

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    Talk about a heavy-weight bout!

    The Spartans and Buckeyes will clash in what could be a critical game for the Big Ten lead.

    Michigan State, after losing their two opening games of the season to North Carolina and Duke, has won 17 of their last 19 games.

    Last year, Ohio State ran all the way into the month of February before they lost in their 25th game of the 2010-11 season. This year, Thad Matta's group has quietly put up a 19-3 record.

    MSU's Draymond Green is one of the most versatile players in college basketball.

    OSU's Jared Sullinger (pictured) is still one of the most dominant inside players in the collegiate game.


    What to watch: Green may go head-to-head with Ohio State's "other star," William Buford. If he can shut down the Buckeye's senior wing player, it may be a frustrating evening for the home team. 

San Diego State at UNLV: Feb. 11 (4pm ET)

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    Two of the best teams in the West, SDSU and UNLV will collide in Vegas for their second contest of the season.

    San Diego State won the first match-up (69-67) at home, but will now have to go into the Rebels' den to attempt to pull off the sweep.

    Many people predicted that the Aztecs might be down this year. Don't tell Chase Tapley, who leads the team in scoring (16.1 ppg) and is ready for his team to get a little national respect.

    UNLV jumped onto the national radar earlier this year by beating then-No. 1 North Carolina. Since then, the Rebels have won 13 of their last 16 games.


    What to watch: Mike Moser is a BEAST. He is the No. 3 rebounder in the country (11.7 rpg) and leads UNLV in scoring (14.7 ppg). However, SDSU limited him to 3-for-11 shooting and nine points in their first meeting.

    This game could be another knock-down, drag-out confrontation that goes down to the final buzzer.   

Wichita State at Creighton: Feb. 11 (5pm ET)

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    The top two teams in the Missouri Valley square off for the second time this season.

    In the first contest, Creighton (20-2) beat WSU 68-61 even though the Nation's No. 2 scorer, Doug McDermott (pictured), was limited to 12 points, half of his normal output.

    Even though the winner of the MVC regular season title does not get you a ticket to the Dance, it sure doesn't hurt to be the Conference champs on Selection Sunday.


    What to watch:  WSU's 7'0" senior Garrett Lutz is a load in the middle. If the Blue Jays can't stop him like they did the first time (five points, four rebounds), the Shockers may walk out of Omaha with a Big Win.

St. Mary's at Murray State: Feb. 18 (6pm ET)

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    If you are a hoops fanatic who doesn't need to know the teams or the players too well, you're going to love this one!

    I'm not sure whether St.Mary's and Murray State has ever played each other before or will ever again, but with the seasons that these two are having, this could be an important game for whoever wins.

    St. Mary's is leading the West Coast Conference and is currently ranked No. 16.

    Murray State is the only undefeated team left in D-1 hoops and is an amazing No. 9 in the country.

    The MSU Racers are getting it done through their two guards, Isaiah Canaan (18.7 ppg; 3.1 rpg; 3.8 apg) and Donte Poole (14.7 ppg; 3.6 rpg).  


    What to watch: St. Mary's has more big game experience than Murray State, which could make a difference in a close contest.

Duke at Florida State: Feb. 23 (7pm ET)

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    Florida State's junior guard is doing more than just leading the team in scoring (13.8 ppg). He is the player who hit the buzzer beater to take down the Blue Devils at Cameron just a few short days ago.

    This loss ended Duke's 64-game home winning streak against unranked opponents, which began after a one-point loss to...wait for it...Florida State, five years ago.

    This upcoming game, in late February, is back in Tallahassee, where the Seminoles beat the Blue Devils last January.

    Coach K's 2011-12 squad is more balanced than most of his teams have been over the past several years.

    The Blue Devils have five players scoring in double figures, led by Austin Rivers at 14.1 ppg.


    What to watch: Duke's on-again, off-again point guard Seth Curry shot 4-for-16 from the field in the upset at home. If he can get it going at FSU, then Duke will have a much better chance of coming out with a "W."

Michigan State at Indiana: Feb. 28 (7pm ET)

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    Indiana Basketball is back and is a relevant part of the Big Ten again.

    They started off the 2011-12 season by winning 12 straight games before losing on the road to Michigan State.

    In the course of three weeks, the Hoosiers, with the help of Cody Zeller (pictured; 15.2 ppg; 6.1 rpg) beat Kentucky, Notre Dame and Ohio State.

    The Spartans, under the leadership of Tom Izzo, are playing tough ball and are sitting right near the top of the conference as we enter February.


    What to watch: Can IU forward Christian Watford light things up against the Spartans from the outside to open things up for Zeller on the inside?

    Watford is shooting a blistering 46.7 percent from beyond the arc this season.