Ohio State Buckeyes at Northwestern Wildcats (+10, 124.5)
Ohio State has slipped to the fringe of the Big Ten race as it visits struggling Northwestern on Thursday. The No. 15 Buckeyes are in fifth place in the bunched-up conference, two games behind first-place Indiana with three games remaining. Ohio State is just 3-3 over its last six games and a visit to Indiana looms after playing the Wildcats. Northwestern has lost five straight games and seven of eight. The Wildcats averaged 41.7 points over their last three defeats.
Northwestern’s closest loss in the five-game skid came during a visit to Ohio State when it lost 69-59 on Feb. 14. Since then, the Wildcats have lost by 21 to Illinois, 28 to Wisconsin and 31 to Purdue last Saturday. The Buckeyes have won seven of the last eight meetings in Northwestern’s home building. Ohio State is 3-5 on the road this season with its most recent away win coming against lowly Nebraska on Feb. 2. The Buckeyes delivered an impressive 68-60 victory over Michigan State on Sunday.
Duke Blue Devils at Virginia Cavaliers (PICK, 129)
Duke has a showdown with first-place Miami looming on Saturday, but first the No. 3 Blue Devils face a tough contest when they visit Virginia on Thursday. The Cavaliers have won 15 consecutive home games and sold-out John Paul Jones Arena figures to be rocking at the sight of Duke. The Blue Devils have won eight of their past nine games but are just 4-3 on the road. Virginia is tied for third in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Cavaliers know their next victory will be No. 20 and would like it to come against Duke, the only ACC program Virginia hasn’t beaten in Tony Bennett’s four seasons as coach. “I’m really looking forward to the challenge,” senior point guard Jontel Evans said. “I know it’s going to be a battle.” Duke is bracing for the upcoming return of senior forward Ryan Kelly, who has missed the last 12 games with a foot injury. “I’ve been doing most of my running in the pool, but I feel really good about it and my foot’s feeling good,” Kelly said. “As this week progresses, I think I can become more and more a part of practice.”
Gonzaga Bulldogs at BYU Cougars (+5.5, 145.5)
Despite a slew of accomplishments over the past 15 years, Gonzaga has never been the top-ranked team in the nation. The second-ranked Bulldogs may have a chance to climb atop the rankings if they win at Brigham Young on Thursday and finish the regular season by beating Portland on Saturday. Top-ranked Indiana lost to Minnesota on Tuesday, setting the state for the Zags to claim the top spot with back-to-back solid victories.
Brigham Young badly needs an upset of Gonzaga to bolsters its resume in terms of a possible NCAA tournament berth. The Cougars notched an 83-73 home win over the Zags last season but were routed 83-63 when they visited Gonzaga earlier this season. BYU has lost three of five games, including a 64-57 loss to Saint Mary’s in its last West Coast Conference game on Feb. 21. Gonzaga coach Mark Few said it is an honor for the Bulldogs to be ranked second this late in the campaign. “The polls mean a lot more this time of year than they do in November and December, even January, so all of us are being judged on the true body of work,” Few said. “It’s definitely rewarding.”