The Washington Times - March 5, 2009, 01:05AM

Wednesday’s games are in the books; time to look ahead to five games that could matter on Thursday.

Given how the week has unfolded so far —- Notre Dame, Baylor, Georgetown, Kansas State, Cincinnati, Maryland, Kentucky, Florida, Miami and Virginia Tech have all lost —- it’s starting to feel like a green-flag cycle of pit stops at a stock car race.


Everyone is forced to dip in for four tires an fuel, costing themselves some time. But because it seems like it is affecting everyone, it sort of shakes out that things look almost exactly the same as before.

Get three or four more teams to lose tonight, and there will be a great deal of truth to the analogy.

Keep an eye on these five games on Thursday:

* Providence at Villanova, 7. The Friars have a gaudy conference record but have done next to nothing of note away from the Dunkin’ Donuts Center. Their 10-7 league record in The Toughest Conference Ever Conceived By Man® isn’t that great, although those home wins against Pittsburgh and Syracuse are nice. Get this one in the Philly ‘burbs, and Keno Davis‘ first season in Rhode Island likely ends in the NCAA tournament.

* Tennessee at South Carolina, 7. Pencil the winner into the tournament; if it’s Tennessee, the Vols win the SEC East. South Carolina is a lot harder to dislike than most of the SEC riff-raff; the Gamecocks have won eight of their last 11 and their worst loss is to 23-7 College of Charleston. Still, they’re more vulnerable should they collapse.

* Illinois at Penn State, 9. The Nittany Lions, a tried-and-true staple of the Big Ten Network, get some ESPN adulation now that they’re relevant for the first time since the Crispin Bros. were busy shooting down North Carolina in the 2001 NCAA tournament. This is known in some circles as The Beginning of the End of Matt Doherty‘s Career.

If Penn State can complete a sweep of the Illini (remember that heinous 38-33 game last month?), then there will be even more reason to overlook a wretched nonconference strength of schedule. But a loss placed the Nits right back in a tenuous spot.

* California at Arizona, 10:30. I like Arizona more than most, but the Wildcats are surely what Jerry Palm likes to call a Home Court Hero. They’d better defend their turf against the Bay Area schools this weekend, then go win a game in the Pac-10 tournament next weekend just to be safe. A loss makes the ‘Cats a dicey option.

* Oregon at Southern California, 10:30. The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club, er, NCAA tournament inclusion is you don’t go losing to a frickin’ Oregon school from the Pac-10. Southern Cal’s lost six of seven (and fell earlier this year at Oregon State), and a setback against either of the crummy Beaver State teams will almost surely force them to win the Pac-10 tournament if they want in the 65-team field.

—- Patrick Stevens