Obviously, the NCAA Tournament qualifies. Conference tournament games too, for any team in the Patriot League, American East, Big "Daddy Sky" Conference, etc… also count as must-wins.
But after that, there are few scenarios where a college basketball team has-to-without-a-doubt have a game or their season will be dramatically altered. You don't hear many Draftologists* claiming a team has to run the table over their last five regular season games to make the Tourney. There is always another game to make your stand.
*BTW, I am completely in support of creating words to make what you do seem more legit. There is a reason janitors have become sanitation engineers. Just call me the Dairy State Ballin' Maestro. And as usual, credit to ©Joe Posnanski for the asterisk interlude.
In the debate of college hoops vs. college football, this seems to be a sticking point for pigskin purists. Only the month of March matters in hoops, yada yada yada. Now I don't know how much the regular season meant for Minnesota football or Alabama after they lost a second time, but sure, we can play along with the "every week is vital" ruse.
The Badger football team succeeded in two highly pressured make-or-break games by taking down Ohio State and then emerging victorious at Iowa this season. With a Rose Bowl berth and Big Ten Championship on the line, every week subsequently became a must-win scenario or the season would have been disappointing in the average Badger fans eye.
In college hoops, 99 percent of the time, that situation doesn't exist. Losing on the road to Penn State sucks, but it isn't a deal-breaker for UW and Bo Ryan. You often even get a chance to avenge a bummer loss, such as the Illinois series this year.
Despite all of this, however, despite acknowledging that one regular season loss cannot make or break a season, despite accepting the fact that there is always another chance to prove yourself — especially with undefeated No. 1 Ohio State up twice more on the schedule — Wisconsin's game with Michigan State Saturday ranks as a must-win affair for both teams.
For the Spartans, the reasoning behind this is obvious. MSU lost by 20 points at Iowa last week. The other biggest win Iowa has collected in its nine season was at home against Northern Iowa (which lost about 17 seniors from last year's Sweet 16 team). Ben Brust, the little-used freshman for UW simply tweeted "MSU Wow" during the game.
To go along with that, Michigan State has dropped four of its last five games, saw Korie Lucious dismissed for the season and is entering a stretch of games playing against the six top teams in the Big Ten in a row, five of which are ranked.
Yeah, they need this win.
For Wisconsin, it is a little more complex but no less necessary that they stomp Michigan State Saturday.
The Badgers loss at Michigan State three weeks ago might be the worst loss in Bo Ryan's career, all things considered (which basically means I have not researched for worse losses).
UW carried a nine-point lead with 2:30 left in the game and somehow squandered it. Between Jon Leuer, Jordan Taylor and Rob Wilson, Wisconsin turned the ball over four times and it is really five when you account for Wilson's unbelievably stupid decision to drive the ball to the rim with 30 seconds left on the shot clock.* Then in overtime, Leuer touched the ball once the entire five minute session — where he passed it from the top of the key — and the Badgers forgot how to defend, giving up 11 points in OT.
*Watching Wilson take the ball to the rim must hurt basketball coaches everywhere. Let's break this down. There was 30 seconds left on the shot clock. As a team, Wisconsin shoots free throws at an 80 percent rate. The smart play says pull the ball out and make the Spartans 'D' up or foul you. Instead, Wilson decides now is the time to attack the rim for the first time all game.
From here, he does have several not-awful options. He can go in has hard as possible, trying to dunk the ball and drawing an almost sure foul on MSU forward Draymond Green or he can wait for Green to commit and dish off to Leuer waiting patiently under the hoop. Neither are ideal, but both should come away positive. Of course, Wilson takes some weird middle ground and tries an acrobatic lay-up that was so cleanly rejected, not even the most homer Badger fans thought it might be a foul.
Wilson was a did-not-play-coaches-decision the next game.
All those factors would make the loss crazy difficult to swallow/overcome for any team. BUT for the Badgers, a team that is branded in Chinese symbols with "don't beat yourself" upon entering Madison, the defeat was an almost unthinkable collapse. Avenging that seems like a pretty big need.
Further, in less tangible terms, this game represents which way the Badgers season may go.
UW is having its typical good year under Bo. They will end up somewhere in the four-six seed range, top four in the Big Ten Conference, win a game or two in the Tourney and it will be all good.
But with Taylor and Leuer — two no-doubt First Team Big Ten players — Wisconsin has the potential to be more than good. The last time Wisconsin had two players this good at the same time — Devin Harris and Mike Wilkinson — they reached the Elite Eight before losing to eventual NCAA Champs North Carolina.
To reach that level, to capitalize on the insane duo that is Taylor and Leuer, UW cannot drop games to the likes of a reeling Michigan State at home. The Spartans are talented. They certainly need this game. There is no reason for Wisconsin to expect anything other than MSU's best Saturday.
Which is exactly why Wisconsin needs to take care of business Saturday. Win the tough games, a game after UW took down No. 13 Purdue and the Badgers can build momentum and confidence for a special season.
Otherwise it is same old, same old.
Good, but not quite good enough.