It is certainly the heart of college basketball season. You know how I know? Every team in the Chicago area is in action (3 of them at home, 1 close by) on Saturday. Fans have their choice of UIC vs. Butler, Loyola vs. Valparaiso, Chicago State at N.J.I.T., DePaul at Notre Dame and Northwestern vs. Illinois.
Those are five games that offer quite a bit of intrigue. Since everyone is playing though I'm going to rank them from most interesting to least interesting and the potential story lines that could come up in each game.
1. Northwestern vs. Illinois -
The game is at Welsh-Ryan Arena and the stakes for this one couldn't be higher. When the Wildcats and Illini take the court on Saturday night at 7 p.m. they will be playing what could amount to an NCAA Tournament play-in game in January. Illinois and Northwestern are both squarely on the NCAA bubble. A loss here would almost certainly seriously damage the Wildcats' chances. While Illinois might be able to withstand the damage - especially considering they won in overtime in Champaign against the Wildcats - it's probably a chance Bruce Weber doesn't want to take. Welsh-Ryan Arena has been sold out for more than a week. Mike Tisdale (right) dominated Northwestern in the paint the last time out, so expect the Wildcats to shut it down and force the Illini to beat them a different way. Last season this game went down to the wire. It should again.
2. Loyola vs. Valparaiso -
This is a must-win game for Loyola. The Crusaders now have a full one-game lead over the Ramblers after Loyola's near miss against Butler and Valparaiso's road victory over UIC on Thursday. Currently Valparaiso is 5th in the Horizon League, a pretty place to be. You have to defend your home court in the Horizon. This game is at the Gentile Center at 3 p.m. Also, there will be an unveiling of plans to revitalize Loyola's Lake Shore campus, including the athletic facilities, presented at the pep rally before the game. This is sure to be an important moment for Ramblers athletics.
3. Chicago State at N.J.I.T. -
Unfortunately there isn't a chance that you'll be able to find this game anywhere on television in the Chicagoland area and you certainly can't go in person. The Cougars are struggling right now but the Highlanders could offer exactly what Chicago State needs to get back on track. N.J.I.T. is the second-worst team in all of college basketball according to Ken Pomeroy. The problem is that Chicago State isn't ranked much higher. In fact, Pomeroy has a 58% confidence in a N.J.I.T. win, which would keep the Cougars winless in the Great West. The game starts at 3 p.m. if you want to scour the web for updates. (Note: It appears you can get live stats here.)
4. DePaul at Notre Dame -
The Blue Demons just ended a winless streak of their own on Wednesday against Marquette. This game in South Bend at 1 p.m. is a contrast in styles. Notre Dame brings a high-flying offensive game and little defense. DePaul has a tough defense and grinds it out on offense. Which style will prevail? The game will be on Big East Network (ThisTV in Chicago) and will be broadcast on ESPN360. Krys Faber (right) and Mike Stovall are two players that have really stepped up since Tracy Webster became head coach. They are two keys to this game as well.
5. UIC vs. Butler -
You know it is a great day of basketball in the city when the Horizon League Network's Game of the Week is last on this list. The Bulldogs just finished a tough shooting night against Loyola at the Gentile Center and won't want to repeat it. If UIC was to pull the upset it would be the biggest shock of the Horizon League season by far. (And one of the bigger ones of the collegiate season in general.) The Flames need a great game from UIC and for the struggles of Matt Howard to continue. The Pavilion should be crowded though as Butler will probably bring a crowd. The fun starts at 1 p.m. at the Pavilion.
Enjoy the games on Saturday. Maybe I'll see you at one or two.