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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, February 22, 2013 at 8:41 AM

Okay, so the NCAA Tournament Selection Show is slated for March 17th with the 68-team tourney field getting into action two nights later in Dayton - but let's not jump too far ahead 'cause March 5th is a key hoops date too.

That's when the slew of conference tournaments - a/k/a the mini-tournies - burst upon the hard-court scene and don't you just know that this year's bevy of mini-tournies will be more important than ever before thanks to the fact there are so many power conference "bubble teams" right now and because there continues to be a growing buzz to allow more so-called mid-majors into the field.

Here's three of the key conference tournaments that are straight ahead and will help dictate the NCAA Tourney field. We will delve into more mini-tournies in next week's Jim Sez columns:

MISSOURI VALLEY CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT (March 7-10 in St. Louis) - This league is ultra-important in the scheme of things should someone other than Wichita State or Creighton "steal" the automatic bid because otherwise this is a two-team bid league with the likes of Northern Iowa and Indiana State getting locked out of the NCAAs. If one of them wins this Valley post-season title, than the likes of Cincinnati, California and/or Illinois could be in a world of bubble trouble.

BIG EAST TOURNAMENT (March 12-16 in New York City) - Obviously, this is really the "last great" Big East Tourney we're gonna get as hoop fans as a bunch of clubs exit the fractured league following this season but if the Big East believes it will receive 8 or 9 NCAA Tournament bids than it should think again: The fact of the matter is six teams are "locks" including Syracuse, Georgetown, Marquette, Louisville, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh and everyone else is on the outside looking in but this mini-tourney could revive the hopes of Villanova, St. John's and/or aforementioned Cincy which lost a brutally tough 73-66 overtime affair at Connecticut last night but right now we'd have to say that any of these teams need to win at least two tourney games and/or get to Friday night's semifinal round.

SEC TOURNAMENT (March 13-17 in Nashville) - This 14-team league might wind up getting just four clubs into the "Big Dance" unless this mini-tourney from Music City can bring forth some magic from the likes of Ole Miss and/or Arkansas. Okay, so there are folks out there wondering aloud whether or not Kentucky (18-8, 9-4 in league play) makes the cut without superstar front court man Noel Nerlens but we've penciled in John Calipari's team unless it absolutely staggers to the finish line. There will be major head-to-head showdowns in this SEC Tournament and maybe even a de facto elimination game too somewhere along the way in the first two rounds of play. Is there anyone that could come back from the pack and steal a bid? Keep an eye on the defensively stout Tennessee Volunteers (15-10, 7-6) who could win at least two mini-tourney games here and get some support for an at-large bid.

Jim Hurley and his Network of Handicappers and Bloggers get you wall-to-wall College Basketball and NBA Winners each and every day when you check in with us either right here online or else at our toll-free telephone # of 1-800-323-4453. Note that the check-in times are after 1 p.m. ET for all the Monday-through-Friday weeknight action and after 10 a.m. ET on Saturdays/Sundays/Holidays. Pile up all the profits this busy hoops month and gear up for all the March Madness straight ahead
 
Now, here's the key Saturday College Hoops showdowns starting with ...

#2 MIAMI (22-3, 13-0 ACC) at WAKE FOREST (11-14, 4-9 ACC) - 1 p.m. ET
It's quite possible that the pressure of being unbeaten in league play - and with a real shot at being the numero uno seed overall in the upcoming NCAA Tournament - could be getting to these Miami Hurricanes who have shrugged off all the off-the-court investigative nonsense but started to feel some real heat.

After all, Miami needed an almost miracle-like finish the other night to fend off pesky Virginia 54-50 and that marked the third straight Hurricanes' win by 6 points or less. Jim Larranaga's crew now shoots for a 15th consecutive win here in Winston Salem where Miami PG Shane Larkin (11 points and 6 key assists in the win against the Wahoos) must stir the pot again with good inside looks at rotund C Reggie Johnson who scored the game-winning hoop against Virginia off a classy Larkin dish-off ... now how did Virginia leave Johnson all alone on that play?

Note that Miami now has held ACC opponents to 50 points or less for the past six consecutive games - can Wake crack the half-century mark and make the 'Canes sweat it here? Stay tuned.

#11 GEORGETOWN (20-4, 10-3 Big East) at #8 SYRACUSE (22-4, 10-3 Big East) - 4 p.m. ET, CBS
Maybe the magic of Madison Square Garden will be working full tilt next month and we actually will get a Georgetown vs. Syracuse showdown for the Big East Tournament Championship ... now wouldn't that be appropriate when you stop to consider the rich hoops history of these two programs since the Big East started up way back in 1980?

For now, we settle for the last regular-season Big East game between these two heavyweights inside the noisy Carrier Dome - the 'Cuse is off to the ACC next year while Georgetown soon could be part of a Catholic 7-plus league that's already getting lots of buzz - and plenty is on the line including a share of the top spot with Marquette who enters the weekend with an identical 10-3 conference mark. Keep in mind that the Orange and Hoyas will square off in the regular-season finale on March 9th in Landover but right here the hometown club wants to speed up the action and get everyone into the mix.

Or haven't you noticed how much more explosive Syracuse has been since F James Southerland was re-instated two weeks back - Southerland came off the bench to pour in 20 points to help the 'Cuse blast Providence 84-59 this past Wednesday night when Jim Boeheim's crew shot a sizzling 30-of-53 from the field (that's 56.6 percent).

If the Hoyas are gonna grab the upset here, than dialing down Southerland and reborn swingman C.J. Fair (also 20 points against PC to go along with a team-best 10 rebs) is a must plus G-town's Otto Porter (15.1 ppg) must have at least one "hot streak" during this tilt.
 
#16 NEW MEXICO (22-4, 9-2 MWC) at #22 COLORADO STATE (21-5, 8-3 MWC) - 4 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network
The fact of the matter is you might ask five different in-the-know college basketball fans and get five different opinions as to what they think of the here-and-now Mountain West Conference but maybe the proof's in the pudding:

After all, both the UNM Lobos and CSU Rams are ranked in this week's Associated Press Top 25 poll - and there's some growing thought that a New Mexico team with 28 or 29 wins and a top 10 ranking by Selection Sunday could slip into one of the top four seeds in one of the tourney regions.

Here, check out New Mexico's one-two punch of G Kendall Williams (131. ppg and 4.6 apg) and F/C Alex Kirk (11.2 ppg and 7.9 rpg) who need to score at crunch time against a Colorado State crew that surrenders less than 61 points a game.

ARKANSAS (17-9, 8-5 SEC) at #5 FLORIDA (21-4, 11-2 SEC) - 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU
How much gas is in the tank of these Florida Gators?

Billy Donovan's team - 63-60 losers at Missouri this past Tuesday night when the not-so-mighty Gators wilted at crunch time - could be losing their grip on a #1 tourney seed and now have to square off with a Hogs bunch fresh off Thursday's wild 62-60 non-cover win against Georgia. A spinning layup by B.J. Young with six seconds left in the game won it for Arkansas which managed to survive a 22-of-57 FG shooting night (that's 38.6 percent).

In this clash in Gainesville, the host Gators will welcome an up-tempo style - first one to 75 points wins, says us! - but what can Donovan expect from veteran G Kenny Boynton who has shot a rotten 22-of-64 from the floor since the start of this month. Yikes!

In the top BracketBuster game of the day, it's ...
CREIGHTON (22-6) at SAINT MARY'S (23-5) - 6 p.m. ET, ESPN
Short turnaround for the Saint Mary's Gaels who slipped past BYU 64-57 late Thursday night as this was a steel cage match from the start - talk about a game that was much closer than the final score indicated! - and one key was reserves F Beau Levesque (a key late-game triple from the corner), C Matt Hodgson (two key blocks) and G Jordan Giusti (a solid floor game) bailed out a Saint Mary's team that had major trouble handling the BYU zone.

Look for Creighton to employ such a defense here but the $64,000 question is will Bluejays superstar Doug McDermott (22.5 ppg to rank fifth nationally) get in his own "zone" and bedevil a Gaels crew that plays great help defense.

Note that other key "BracketBuster" games on this final Saturday in February include Iona at Indiana State, Pacific at Western Michigan, Montana at Davidson, Detroit at Wichita State and Denver at Northern Iowa.

SUNDAY'S TOP COLLEGE B-BALL MATCHUPS

#4 MICHIGAN STATE (22-5, 11-3 Big 10) at #18 OHIO STATE (19-7, 9-5 Big 10) - 1 p.m. ET
No question the Ohio State Buckeyes applied some salve to their wounds following last Sunday's brutal 71-49 loss at Wisconsin: The 71-45 win against 6-point road dog Minnesota this past Wednesday night was a feel-good evening that featured a 19-point game from Deshaun Thomas and a snazzy 16-0 second-half run - now Michigan State is hoping to erase the recent memory bank following that spotty 72-68 home loss versus 1-point pup Indiana.

Hey, not only was that game a nightmare for the Breslin Center's clock operators - talk about sucking the energy right out o a great finish - but Spartans head coach Tom Izzo clearly was miffed that his club played so poorly with so much on the line: Michigan State didn't box out Indiana mega-star Victor Oladipo late and received virtually nothing from its bench that shot a combined 3-of-11 from the floor.

If M-State is gonna right the ship here than veteran PG Keith Appling (6 points on 1-of-8 FG shooting against Indiana) must show up and be more like the guy who scored a team-high 15 points as was the case in the 59-56 win against Ohio State last month (a game in which OSU's Thomas registered a game-high 28 points).

ILLINOIS (20-8, 7-7 Big 10) at #7 MICHIGAN (22-4, 9-4 Big 10) - 6 p.m. ET
Here's the good news for the Michigan Wolverines: They still have a couple of weeks to get their act together after losing three of their first four games this month before that hard-fought 79-71 non-cover win against Penn State last Sunday afternoon. It seems that John Beilein's crew has grown weary of too many minutes in too many "big games" and now that the maize-and-blue have had a full week to get re-charged you could/should expect a monster effort by the home folks.

Note that Michigan - powered up by a 29-point game by G Trey Burke and a 21-point effort by F Glenn Robinson III (he drained all six of his field-goal attempts) against the Nittany Lions - already own a 74-60 win against Illinois back on January 27th when Burke's 19-point night led four starters in double figures and keep in mind there the Illini shot a woeful 23-of-61 from the field  (that's 37.7 percent).

The Illini head into this Sunday showdown off a tough 64-59 non-cover win against 14 ½-point pup Penn State on Thursday night as D.J. Richardson's 18 points paved the way to victory but did you note that Illinois was beaten badly on the boards (as in 34-to-25)? Hmmm.

NOTE: Lots more College News & Notes in the next Jim Sez plus remember to be with us for all the upcoming "March Madness".

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