Starting Five: Big Ten showdown between No. 3 Michigan and No. 4 Ohio State highlights weekend

The word bubble shows up often around this time of year. In 2020, it kept getting used well beyond March as various pro sports leagues managed to complete their seasons.

In this college basketball space, however, it still means what it always has, that nebulous region occupied by teams whose place in the NCAA Tournament bracket is not secured.

This week’s Starting Five features several teams in bubble land – or just trying to get to it – with opportunities to bolster their tournament profiles. But we begin with a couple of top-25 showdowns, including a clash in the Big Ten between a pair of strong No. 1-seed candidates.

Here are the games of the weekend, ranked to help you prioritize your viewing schedule:

No. 3 Michigan at No. 4 Ohio State

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS

Though perhaps this fierce rivalry is more intense on the gridiron, this marquee hardwood clash is more relevant this season. It is their only scheduled meeting, though they could square off again in the Big Ten tournament. Both have plenty of scoring balance and depth, though the Wolverines have better overall length and a true rim protector in seven-footer Hunter Dickinson. The Buckeyes must make crisp interior passes to get good looks in the paint, and some timely triples from Duane Washington would also help.

Wolverines center Hunter Dickinson (Photo: Tim Fuller, USA TODAY Sports)

No. 15 West Virginia at No. 13 Texas

Saturday, 3 p.m. ET, ABC

As of this writing, this game in storm-ravaged Austin remains on the schedule as the region unaccustomed to the full wrath of winter hopes for a welcome diversion. Their Jan. 9 encounter in Morgantown was a nail-biter as the Longhorns closed on a 7-0 run to pull out a two-point victory. WVU dropped another heartbreaker at home to Oklahoma in its last outing a week ago but has had success on the road in Big 12 play this year. The Texas guard trio of Andrew Jones, Courtney Ramey and Matt Coleman is difficult to defend all at once, even for a pressing team like the Mountaineers, but WVU’s double double machine Derek Culver could have success inside.

No. 5 Illinois at Minnesota

Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, Fox

We turn our attention now to the land of the bubble, where Minnesota’s inability to win on the road has it dangerously close to the edge. A high-end home victory would help, and while the Fighting Illini have been streaking their last couple of wins against the Big Ten’s lower echelon have not come easily. Ayo Dosunmu came to the rescue late in Illinois’ escapes against Nebraska and Northwestern, and while it’s nice to have a takeover guy like him, he’d like to get more help at both ends of the floor. The Golden Gophers have had similar issues of late, unable to find other options when go-to scorer Marcus Carr is shut down.

Connecticut at No. 7 Villanova

Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, Fox

Connecticut's return to the Big East has been something of a struggle. But with leading scorer James Bouknight now back from elbow surgery, the Huskies have a chance to pick up a needed top-tier win against the league-leading Wildcats. But Villanova, still smarting from last week’s setback at Creighton, will be eager to defend its home court. Bouknight’s 18-point outing in his return Tuesday night against Providence was a good sign, but he’ll need to be effective on defense as well to bother Wildcats’ floor leader Collin Gillespie.

No. 8 Virginia at Duke

Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

As matters stand, Duke cannot truly be said to be on or near the bubble. But if the Blue Devils can string together some wins heading into the ACC tournament — and any team coached by Mike Krzyzewski is capable of it, they can still be dangerous. Duke turned in arguably its most cohesive performance of the season Wednesday against Wake Forest, but solving U.Va. figures to be more challenging. The Cavaliers for their part are coming off a humbling loss to Florida State and must regroup to maintain their place in the upper quadrant of the bracket. When U.Va. does struggle, it is usually because of turnovers, so expect Duke to show a number of pressure looks.

Follow colleges reporter Eddie Timanus on Twitter @EddieTimanus

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