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Weekend preview: Preparing for the Big Game

The most super of games will happen on Saturday

NCAA Basketball: Loyola-Chicago at Wichita State Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

It’s here: the biggest weekend in all of sports. Get your friends together, don your team’s gear, stock up on party food, make fun of the commercials, and please, celebrate responsibly.

It’s Illinois State-Wichita State, Saturday night, in primetime, and nothing else you see this weekend — nothing — will possibly top that.

The Redbirds and Shockers tip off at 8 p.m. ET on Saturday, but there are plenty of appetizers beforehand, starting as early as 11 a.m. You’ll want to catch it all.

Here’s your handy viewing guide for the Big Game(s). All times Eastern.

5 games to watch:

Valparaiso at Green Bay, Sat., 1 p.m., ESPN3

The two best teams in the Horizon League to get us going on Saturday afternoon? Yes please. Valpo has won eight straight and, in that stretch, dismantled the Phoenix at home, 80-56. But now Green Bay gets to host, and it is 8-2 at home this year. Last time out against Illinois-Chicago, Warren Jones went off for 18 points on 4-7 shooting from three with seven assists.

South Dakota at North Dakota State, Sat., 3 p.m., ESPN College Extra

Speaking of matchups between the top two teams in a conference, the Summit League’s best game this weekend will be when the Coyotes, tied for second, visit first-place North Dakota State. The Bison escaped Vermillion by one point earlier in the year on a pair of Dexter Werner free throws with five seconds left. He finished with 17 points off the bench to help Paul Miller, who scored 26.

VCU at St. Bonaventure, Sat., 4 p.m., CBS Sports Network

We spoke on the podcast Thursday night about the Atlantic 10’s at-large hopes. VCU seems to be in a good position for a bid, but a lot can happen between now and Selection Sunday. A win at St. Bonaventure would be a nice boost, and it would, at worst, keep the Rams in a tie for first place. A Bona win, on the other hand, would suddenly make them contenders for a top-three finish in the Atlantic 10.

Princeton at Harvard, Sat., 7 p.m., ESPN3

Princeton has been idle for three weeks because of exams, but the Tigers get thrown back into the fire this weekend with a game at Dartmouth Friday and Harvard on Saturday. In what could be a preview of a tournament game at the Palestra next month, the Tigers will probably be going for their eighth-straight victory, which would keep them unbeaten in conference. But to do that, they would have to take down a Crimson team that hit a road bump at Columbia and is desperate to protect its home court.

Illinois State at Wichita State, Sat., 8 p.m., ESPN2

The big game! Sure, the Redbirds and Shockers still both have outside shots at an at-large bid, but if we’re being realistic, both better hope to win the MVC Tournament. Still, whoever wins on Saturday gets a nice line added to their resume. Wichita State is at home and Illinois State is without MiKyle McIntosh, but the Redbirds won the first meeting between these two teams by 14 points.

6 other games to watch, because Saturday is just that good:

Wagner at Fairleigh Dickinson, Sat., 11 a.m., ESPNU
George Washington at Richmond, Sat., 2:30 p.m., NBC Sports
St. Francis (PA) at LIU-Brooklyn, Sat., 4:30 p.m., NEC Front Row
Stony Brook at Albany, Sat., 7 p.m., ESPN3
San Diego State at Fresno State, Sat., 7 p.m., ESPN3
La Salle at George Mason, Sat., 7 p.m., MASN

4 players to watch:

Darian Anderson, Fairleigh Dickinson

There are few players in the NEC as important to their team as Anderson is to FDU. He’s second in the conference in percentage of minutes played, sixth in percent of possessions, and fourth in percent of shots taken. In other words, not much happens for the Knights unless it goes through him. FDU hosts Wagner Saturday on national TV, in what is quickly becoming a rivalry game.

Paul Miller, North Dakota State

Resident Summit League expert Chris Schutte has called Miller his favorite to win the conference Player of the Year award (and yes, this is a league where Mike Daum also exists). We talked about Miller a little bit above, but here are some more #facts: In conference play, he’s shooting 47 percent from three and 81 percent from the line. He’s also had nine 20-plus point game this year, and against Fort Wayne a few weeks ago, dropped 33, thanks to 7-10 three-point shooting.

Deontae Hawkins, Illinois State

With McIntosh out for the foreseeable future, the Redbirds need Hawkins now more than ever. His scoring and rebounding chops have never been questioned — he leads the team in both categories — but McIntosh was second in each. It’s time for Hawkins to increase the volume, while other guys, like Phil Fayne, step up around him.

Lucas Woodhouse, Stony Brook

There are a bunch of reasons to explain Stony Brook’s recent resurgence, and Woodhouse is certainly one of them. The transfer from Longwood is one of the most efficient players in the America East and is coming off a near triple-double performance in a win earlier in the week against New Hampshire (21 points, nine rebounds, nine assists).

3 storylines to follow:

Summit League logjam

Four of the Summit League’s nine teams are within two games of first place, and coincidentally, those four teams play each other this weekend. We talked about South Dakota-North Dakota State above, but keep an eye on Denver-Fort Wayne as well. Fort Wayne won the first contest between those teams in Indiana earlier, but KenPom likes the Pioneers in this one by three at home, where they have lost just once since November.

Gut-check time

If mid-majors want more than two or three at-large bids this year, it’s time to start winning games. We’ve touched on Wichita State and VCU. They know what they need to do. Middle Tennessee, despite only having three losses, still has an outside shot, but a loss to UTEP this weekend essentially ends that. Rhode Island can still make a late charge as well, but needs a win at Davidson to even begin to think about that possibility. Otherwise, get ready for some mediocre ACC teams to scoop up late bids.

Scaling the Ivy

Like in the Summit League, the top four teams in the Ivy all play each other this weekend. Princeton still hasn’t lost in conference, but has also played fewer games than anyone. A weekend sweep of Dartmouth and Harvard would officially put them in the driver’s seat of the suddenly less important regular season championship. Columbia, meanwhile, can build off its big win over Harvard with a game against Yale Friday night. A couple wins this weekend and you can count on seeing the FIghtin’ Engles’s at the Palestra in March.

2 questions we have:

How does Illinois State adjust to life without MiKyle McIntosh?

Talk about the worst injury at the worst time. McIntosh has already missed two games, but will be out for several more weeks, as the Redbirds hit the home stretch of the regular season. Between Hawkins and Faye, Illinois State has the personnel to absorb the blow against lesser teams, but can they step up against Wichita State? The Redbirds aren’t deep to begin with, but as one of the best defensive teams in the country, they may be well-served by keeping the game slow, ugly, and low-scoring. At least for now.

Is it time to start giving Fresno State some credit?

Fresno State fans in our mentions were all over us in the preseason for not showing the defending Mountain West champs some love. Then the Bulldogs lost to Prairie View A&M and suddenly they shut up. Fast-forward to today and they have won four out of five games, including a statement win at conference-favorite Nevada. That stretch also includes a win at Colorado State and at home against Boise State. A win over San Diego State on Saturday would give the Bulldogs realistic Mountain West regular season championship hopes.

1 more unbeaten:

Gonzaga cleared yet another hurdle on its way to an undefeated regular season Thursday night with a 10-point win at BYU. Barring a major upset somewhere, the only real chances for someone to upend the Bulldogs are at Saint Mary’s on Feb. 11 and maybe at home against the Cougars on Feb. 25. It’s starting to get real in Spokane.

This weekend: vs. Santa Clara (Sat.)
KenPom’s unbeaten probability: 52.0% (over 50 percent for the first time!)