Big 12, SEC showdowns highlight the college basketball games to watch this weekend

Baylor guard Ray J Dennis (10) is tangled up with Kansas defenders during in the first half of their game in February at Allen Fieldhouse.
Baylor guard Ray J Dennis (10) is tangled up with Kansas defenders during in the first half of their game in February at Allen Fieldhouse.

As the calendar officially turns to March, one should expect every game on the men’s college basketball docket to have added significance. That is true to a point. We are not yet to the time of the month when a loss means the season is over, but undeniably every team wants to be putting its best product on the floor at this time of year.

This is exactly the situation in which the teams in our Starting Five find themselves. Saturday’s slate features a handful of Top 25 showdowns, and we’ll go to the bench to mention a couple of recent tournament fixtures in need of resume boosters on the road.

No. 9 Kansas at No. 14 Baylor, 1 p.m., ABC

It’s not exactly panic time for the Jayhawks, but there’s clearly a sense of anxiety around the program at this late stage of the campaign having split their last six games. Kansas Won’t get much sympathy in Waco, however, as the Bears also want this win to enhance their chances for the all-important double bye in the league tournament. The Jayhawks’ most pressing concern remains the health of leading scorer Kevin McCullar, whose ongoing issues with a deep knee bruise kept him out of Wednesday’s home loss to Brigham Young. Having a veteran like Dajuan Harris running the point helps, but Baylor’s RayJ Dennis is an excellent floor leader in his own right.

No. 4 Tennessee at No. 14 Alabama, 8 p.m., ESPN

The day’s other headliner is this prime-time tilt for first place in the SEC. While the regular-season championship doesn’t ultimately mean much in the grand scheme for these programs with higher aspirations, it would still represent a moment for fans to celebrate. Whichever team wins this one will still have work to do in the final week to sew up the top seed. Alabama doesn’t mind a breakneck pace, having scored at least 95 points in each of its last five outings. But the Tide committed 22 turnovers in a 20-point loss in Knoxville, and Tennessee’s defensive approach could serve it well again, especially if guard Dalton Knecht can stay hot.

No. 5 Marquette at No. 12 Creighton, 2:30 p.m., Fox

Many scenarios remain in play, but it’s quite possible these two are destined for a rematch in a couple of weeks in the Big East semifinals. That should not, however, detract from your enjoyment of this one, as the Golden Eagles and Bluejays are among the nation’s most fun to watch teams when firing on all cylinders. Both average right around 80 points a game, though their earlier meeting in Milwaukee was a slightly more subdued 72-67 decision for the Golden Eagles. Creighton’s Baylor Scheierman has found it easier to find his range in the friendly environs of Omaha of late, but Marquette’s Tyler Kolek can take over a game in any venue.

No. 22 Gonzaga at No. 17 Saint Mary’s, 10 p.m., ESPN

The last weekend before the West Coast Conference tournament always holds a place for these fierce rivals. In something of a role reversal, however, it is the Gaels who have already locked up the WCC regular-season crown and top seed while the Bulldogs are in need of a high-end victory in case they don't win the conference tournament. Their prior encounter in Spokane last month, a 64-62 win for Saint Mary’s, was a physical slog in which neither team made much use of its bench. That will almost certainly be the case again, so avoiding early fouls will be critical for everyone. The Gaels’ Aidan Mahaney and the Zags’ Ryan Nembhard are capable of finding their own shots if needed but prefer to facilitate first.

No. 24 Florida at No. 18 South Carolina, noon, ESPN

The surging Gators look to continue their momentum and move closer to a top-four finish in the SEC. But the up-and-down Gamecocks appear to be on the upswing again with back-to-back road wins against bubble dwellers Mississippi and Texas A&M. South Carolina has stayed near the top of the SEC standings primarily thanks to strong defense, its recent debacle at Auburn notwithstanding. Florida’s turnaround this season has been fueled in part by the arrival of grad transfers Zyon Pullin and Tyrese Samuel

Michigan State at No. 3 Purdue, 8 p.m., Fox

It’s getting late for the Spartans, who are now in need of a splashy road upset to offset a pair of damaging home losses to avoid slipping closer to the tournament bubble. The Boilermakers, however, have been a juggernaut at Mackey Arena and want to keep their home record unblemished. On the rare occasions when Purdue struggles, it’s mainly due to turnover issues, and the Spartans have enough back-court depth to show a variety of press looks. But Michigan State probably doesn’t have an answer for player of the year candidate Zach Edey at the rim.

Virginia at No. 10 Duke, 6 p.m., ESPN

The Cavaliers avoided a three-game skid by winning Wednesday at Boston College, however they’re likely in the field they need a strong performance against tournament-caliber competition to muster any hope of a deep run. The Blue Devils certainly fit the bill, and they seem to have escaped any long-term repercussions from last week’s events at Wake Forest as far as Kyle Philipowski is concerned. He and Mark Mitchell will be needed to solve UVa’s sound interior defense, but the Cavaliers need Isaac McKneely to keep making three-point shots.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College basketball games to watch include Big 12, SEC showdowns