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Joe Boozell | | February 19, 2019

The 7 most important college basketball matchups between now and conference tournaments

Duke tops Andy Katz's Power 36

Every college basketball fan is excited for March Madness. But in the meantime, there are conference races to decide. That means there are multiple marquee games per week in the stretch run.

Here are seven that stand out.

1. North Carolina at Duke, Feb. 20

North Carolina and Duke also square off on March 9, but it remains to be seen how pivotal that matchup will be. Duke is 11-1 in the ACC right now; North Carolina is 10-2. If the Tar Heels can win at Cameron Indoor, that game becomes incredibly interesting. But UNC needs to get to that point first.

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There's also the rivalry aspect, of course. Duke vs. North Carolina is one of the best rivalries in sports, and both teams are in the top 10. But this game has conference championship and NCAA tournament seeding implications, too. Duke has already beaten Virginia twice, so if it tops UNC, its chances to win the ACC soar. And the Tar Heels will be back in the conference title mix with a win in Durham; they also have an outside shot at a 1-seed if they get super hot down the stretch.

MATCHUPS: Here's what will decide Duke vs. UNC

You'll want to watch this one.

2. Kansas at Texas Tech, Feb. 23

Kansas' 14-year Big 12 championship streak is on the line, and Saturday's game between the Jayhawks and Red Raiders is crucial. Kansas State is 10-3 in the league (more on them soon) while Kansas and Texas Tech are tied at 9-4. The Jayhawks only need to tie for the lead in order to extend one of the craziest streaks in college basketball to 15.

Kansas handled Texas Tech with ease in Lawrence earlier this year, but the Jayhawks are shorthanded now and are playing in a tough Lubbock environment. It won't have Lagerald Vick. And the Red Raiders are on a bit of a roll lately, winning four straight and six of seven.

This feels is a crucial game for Kansas if it's going to extend the streak to a decade and a half.

3. Tennessee at LSU, Feb. 23

Kentucky is third in the SEC right now behind Tennessee and LSU but is a legit national championship contender. The Volunteers and Tigers are both 11-1, so this game has obvious conference championship implications.

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The Tigers are one of the hottest teams in college basketball. They've lost once since Dec. 12, and that was by one point to Arkansas. LSU just beat Kentucky in Rupp Arena. It's legit.

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Tennessee needs this one for its conference championship hopes, but it would also be nice for team morale after getting pummeled by Kentucky. The Vols are one of the best teams in the land, but it's fair to wonder whether or not they peaked too early. Their signature wins happened months ago, and while they've been downing SEC opponents left and right since then, they've struggled with foes you wouldn't expect.

4. Kansas State at Kansas, Feb. 25

What a three days this will be for Kansas. Kansas State plays Oklahoma State at home on Saturday, a game you'd expect it to win. Obviously, the result in the Jayhawks-Red Raiders game will determine how crucial this one is. But lose against Texas Tech and rebound against K-State, and Kansas will still have a good chance to tie for the conference lead.

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The Wildcats already beat the Jayhawks at home, and always play Kansas tough. At the very least, the Jayhawks need one of these two games. Going undefeated or winless would be a huge story, in either direction.

5. Marquette at Villanova, Feb. 27

It's Villanova, Marquette, and then everyone else in the Big East. The Golden Eagles beat the Wildcats in their first meeting, but Villanova is 11-2 in the conference. Marquette is 10-2.

The league is the Wildcats' to lose, considering they have a half game lead and are at home in this one. But the first Villanova-Marquette matchup was a doozy. It came down the final seconds, and Markus Howard scored 38 points.

The Wildcats have absolutely dominated the Big East since the conference's realignment. Marquette presents Villanova its toughest challenge in a long time. Win in Philadelphia, and the Golden Eagles are cooking.

6. Kentucky at Tennessee, March 2

A rematch of the game we just saw on Saturday, but it will take place in Knoxville. We don't know what the SEC standings will look like on March 2; the LSU-Tennessee result will affect things.

TV SCHEDULE: Times and TV listings for this week's college basketball games

But this game will serve as a good measuring stick for the Volunteers' title hopes. It's excusable that they lost in Lexington. It would have been nice to see them play Kentucky tighter, but that's not a game they should be expected to win.

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If Kentucky works Tennessee in Knoxville, though, it would be hard to feel good about the Vols as a Final Four team. The eye test will matter in this one.

7. Michigan at Michigan State, March 9

The Big Ten title race is a lot of fun, with Michigan and Michigan State tied at 12-3 and Purdue right behind at 11-3.

But the Boilermakers don't have the Wolverines or Spartans on their remaining schedule. Michigan and Michigan State will square off twice, the other time on Sunday, Feb. 24.

No. 11 Michigan State beats Ohio State

We chose the latter matchup since the two are tied as of this writing, but we'll see what the Big Ten title picture looks like then. Credit Michigan State for hanging so tough lately, but without Joshua Langford and Nick Ward, you'd think the league is Michigan's to lose.

The Spartans' schedule is favorable the rest of the way outside of the two Michigan games. And, even shorthanded, it's going to be a chore for the Wolverines to win in East Lansing on the last day of the regular season.

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