Opportunity knocks for Bubble Watch teams this weekend

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Purdue, Michigan State prepare for Big Ten battle (0:45)

No. 3 Purdue takes on Big Ten rival No. 4 Michigan State on Saturday with the Boilermakers looking to stay on top of the conference race. (0:45)

Welcome to the land of the locked, Cincinnati. Life is better on the safe side of the bubble.

Sure, the Bearcats' seed can still fall, but once you've attained the august privilege of Bubble Watch lock status, it can never be revoked. There are no "unlocks," ever.

Cincinnati earned its shiny new label through a combination of performance and happenstance. Mick Cronin's team has continued to take care of business, of course, running its record to 22-2 and its winning streak to 15 games.

The Bearcats have held their opponents in American Athletic Conference play to just 0.81 points per possession, a ridiculously small number that makes even Virginia sit up and take notice. Scoring against Jacob Evans, Gary Clark & Co. is no mean feat. Your best strategy might be sheer bracket avoidance.

Outside the land of the locked, there will be plenty of opportunities this weekend for Bubble Watch teams to burnish their résumés. Now is the time for Creighton (vs. Xavier), Alabama (vs. Tennessee), Virginia Tech (at Virginia) and Texas A&M (vs. Kentucky) to seize their opportunities. Membership in a major conference gives you these invaluable opportunities, but you still have to go out and win the game.

Indeed, as incredible as it may seem, we're just 30 days away from Selection Sunday. The Bubble Watch landscape is already beginning to lock into place.

Here's the way it looks right now.

(A reminder: Included for each bubble team is its ranking for four metrics: RPI, ESPN's strength of schedule (SOS), Basketball Power Index (BPI), which is a predictor of a team's performance going forward, and strength of record (SOR), which is a measure of a team's accomplishment based on how difficult its win-loss record is to achieve.)

ACC

Locks

Virginia (23-1, 12-0 ACC)
(BPI: 2 | SOS: 14 | SOR: 1 | RPI: 1)

Duke (19-5, 7-4 ACC)
(BPI: 5 | SOS: 18 | SOR: 10 | RPI: 7)

Should be in

Clemson (20-4, 9-3 ACC)
(BPI: 18 | SOS: 42 | SOR: 6 | RPI: 4)

Clemson appears to be peaking at an opportune moment. During a current four-game win streak, the Tigers have displayed abilities on offense (though not on 2-point shooting) that were only seen in flashes before. The Tigers have reduced their turnovers and Gabe DeVoe is in the midst of a 22-of-34 streak on his 3-pointers.

This is all happening after the team lost Donte Grantham for the season. Duke would be well advised to be ready when it visits next weekend.


Miami (18-5, 7-4 ACC)
(BPI: 22 | SOS: 59 | SOR: 19 | RPI: 16)

The Hurricanes have a jewel of an opportunity coming up next week in the form of a home game against Virginia, but first Jim Larranaga's men will have to take care of business this weekend with a road game at Boston College.

Miami is coming off its best two-game display of offense of the ACC season. In wins at Virginia Tech and at home against Wake Forest, the Canes made a total of 19 3s and took outstanding care of the ball.

North Carolina (18-7, 7-5 ACC)
(BPI: 10 | SOS: 1 | SOR: 13 | RPI: 12)

Score one for the Tar Heels in their ancient feud with Duke. When you commit just two turnovers in a 65-possession game and then rebound 42 percent of your misses, you will get a ton of chances to score.

Yes, this team is one or two steps down from last year's national champions in terms of defense. Still, Luke Maye, Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson are carrying on the proud UNC tradition of maximizing the number of scoring opportunities you get on offense. No team nationally plays the shot-volume game better than North Carolina. The Heels will definitely want to use that prowess in their upcoming game at NC State.

Work to do

Louisville (17-8, 7-5 ACC)
(BPI: 34 | SOS: 56 | SOR: 45 | RPI: 41)

Sometimes the schedule-maker is kind. The Cardinals caught a home game against Georgia Tech at a time when they had lost four of five and fallen all the way to double-digit seed territory in the mock brackets.

Pounding the Yellow Jackets 77-54 does little or nothing for that seeding, of course, but it did give this team a chance to exhale. Next, Louisville will visit Pittsburgh before returning home to face North Carolina, a game that will carry a fair degree of seeding importance for both teams.


Florida State (17-7, 6-6 ACC)
(BPI: 21 | SOS: 37 | SOR: 29 | RPI: 42)

Florida State looked like it had Virginia dead to rights. Its game plan of not waiting around for possibly the greatest half-court defense of the past decade to get set made all kinds of sense. Alas, transition opportunities were harder to ignite once some shots started falling for the Cavaliers, and Tony Bennett's team held FSU to 23 second-half points.

Now the Noles get two shots at Clemson to close the season, and an above-.500 finish in ACC play looks doable. The Virginia game notwithstanding, they're getting notably efficient scoring from their nucleus of Terance Mann, Braian Angola and Phil Cofer.


Syracuse (16-8, 5-6 ACC)
(BPI: 52 | SOS: 57 | SOR: 50 | RPI: 39)

Poised right on the edge of the bubble, Syracuse needs to focus on upcoming home games against Wake Forest and NC State. Then the real test begins. The Orange will play at Miami before returning home for a game against North Carolina.

The season concludes with road games at Duke and Boston College, and at home against Clemson. That slate should give Syracuse all the fuel it needs to propel itself into the field of 68.


NC State (16-8, 6-5 ACC)
(BPI: 58 | SOS: 50 | SOR: 46 | RPI: 60)

After the high provided by winning at North Carolina in overtime, NC State had a rough landing in the form of a 10-point loss at Virginia Tech. Now this weekend's home game against the Tar Heels looms even larger.

The Wolfpack don't have a lot of margin for error. Nor does the schedule get much easier, with road games at Syracuse and Wake Forest following the rematch with UNC.


Virginia Tech (17-7, 6-5 ACC)
(BPI: 30 | SOS: 61 | SOR: 42 | RPI: 65)

The Hokies could really use a win at Virginia this weekend. No, it won't be easy. The Cavaliers have won 16 straight games in Charlottesville. Yes, it would be huge. Buzz Williams' team is a little too close to the cut line for comfort.

Justin Robinson has been notably effective as a scorer in ACC play (ask NC State). But as a team, has Virginia Tech taken the "insanely accurate shooting, zero offensive boards" approach about as far as it can go?

Big 12

Locks

Kansas (19-5, 8-3 Big 12)

(BPI: 7 | SOS: 22 | SOR: 12 | RPI: 8)

Should be in

Texas Tech (20-4, 8-3 Big 12)
(BPI: 13 | SOS: 54 | SOR: 8 | RPI: 13)

The Red Raiders are closing in fast on lock status. They play the best defense in the Big 12, Keenan Evans is eminently qualified to earn Big 12 Player of the Year honors should Trae Young falter in the slightest, and they've reeled off five straight wins in advance of a big road test at Kansas State.

One question with this team going forward could be perimeter shooting, but everything else appears to be in place for the program's first appearance in the Sweet 16 since Bob Knight took the Red Raiders there in 2005.


Oklahoma (16-7, 6-5 Big 12)
(BPI: 29 | SOS: 2 | SOR: 17 | RPI: 19)

In losses at Texas and at home against West Virginia, the Sooners shot just 24 percent on their 3s and scored a mere 147 points in 147 possessions. Perhaps even more worrisome, OU was turnover-prone in the two losses. Trae Young was 6-of-24 on his 3s in those two games, with 15 assists and 11 turnovers.

Still, the freshman continues to lift this offense measurably (if somewhat stealthily) by killing opponents at the line. Young and the Sooners are about to embark on a pivotal two-game road swing, with games at Iowa State and Texas Tech.


West Virginia (18-6, 7-4 Big 12)
(BPI: 8 | SOS: 26 | SOR: 16 | RPI: 25)

The Mountaineers have upcoming home games against Oklahoma State and TCU before what promises to be a monumental and epic showdown with Kansas in Lawrence on Feb. 17.

West Virginia's defense is, yet again, excellent, but has had real difficulties putting the ball in the basket in Big 12 play, shooting just 48 and 34 percent on 2s and 3s, respectively. Jevon Carter, in particular, has struggled inside the arc against conference opponents.

Work to do

TCU (16-8, 4-7 Big 12)
(BPI: 20 | SOS: 13 | SOR: 31 | RPI: 31)

The Horned Frogs are hanging around and holding their position in the projected bracket down around the No. 10 seed line. Still, at the risk of putting too fine a point on the matter, Jamie Dixon's team is going to have to, you know, win games. Despite having outscored their conference opponents, TCU is 4-7 in the Big 12.

Now the Horned Frogs face a short turnaround between Saturday's game at home against Texas and a visit to Morgantown to play West Virginia on Monday.


Texas (15-9, 5-6 Big 12)
(BPI: 38 | SOS: 3 | SOR: 37 | RPI: 40)

The loss at home to Kansas State on Wednesday was less than ideal, but the Longhorns are still solidly in the field.

One question with Texas may be whether this team should be shooting so many 3s. This offense has connected on just 33 percent of its tries from beyond the arc in Big 12 play, yet the Longhorns are second only to Kansas in their degree of in-conference perimeter orientation.


Kansas State (17-7, 6-5 Big 12)
(BPI: 51 | SOS: 35 | SOR: 28 | RPI: 66)

Kansas State really needed Wednesday's 67-64 win at Texas. The Wildcats are alive and kicking as they welcome Texas Tech to Manhattan this weekend. A win against the Red Raiders would jump to the top of K-State's résumé.

Plus, once they get past Tech, the Wildcats face a relatively forgiving schedule to close out the conference season. It's no sure thing, but Kansas State has a decent shot at giving the Big 12 what could be its seventh and final bid.

Big East

Locks

Villanova (22-2, 9-2 Big East)
(BPI: 1 | SOS: 40 | SOR: 2 | RPI: 2)

Xavier (22-3, 10-2 Big East)
(BPI: 14 | SOS: 29 | SOR: 3 | RPI: 3)

Should be in

Seton Hall (17-7, 6-5 Big East)
(BPI: 28 | SOS: 25 | SOR: 24 | RPI: 15)

Is it time to worry about the Pirates? They've dropped five of their past eight games and have connected on just 32 percent of their 3s during that stretch. When they finally had a great game from the outside against Marquette on Wednesday night, the Golden Eagles had an unbelievable one.

Seton Hall was 11-for-23 from 3 in an 88-85 loss to the Golden Eagles, who drilled 12 of their 19 shots from beyond the arc. Maybe that luck will turn for the Hall defense. Angel Delgado, Ismael Sanogo & Co. are still quite good, after all, at forcing misses in the paint.

Creighton (18-6, 8-4 Big East)
(BPI: 19 | SOS: 31 | SOR: 18 | RPI: 22)

The table is set for Creighton. Xavier comes to Omaha this weekend, and while the Musketeers are quite rightly in the running for a No. 1 seed, it's also true that they've been winning nail-biters of late, including back-to-back victories in overtime.

The Bluejays will have no fear of Xavier, and a win would give them a seed-elevating, marquee victory. Perhaps it could give senior guard Marcus Foster some richly deserved notice as well.

Work to do

Butler (17-8, 7-5 Big East)
(BPI: 24 | SOS: 15 | SOR: 27 | RPI: 35)

The Bulldogs travel to Villanova this weekend, and, as seen in the Wildcats' paradigm-warping home loss to St. John's, it's not at all clear that Jay Wright's team is its usual self without the services of both Phil Booth (bone fracture in his hand) and Eric Paschall (concussion).

If Butler were to steal a win, it would, rather incredibly, give the program its second consecutive season sweep of Villanova. The Bulldogs as a team -- and Kelan Martin in particular -- have taken their accuracy from both sides of the arc to the next level in Big East play.


Providence (16-8, 7-4 Big East)
(BPI: 64 | SOS: 39 | SOR: 43 | RPI: 26)

Who knew the Friars' 22-point win at St. John's on Dec. 28 would look as good as it does now? Blowing out the Johnnies plus, more importantly, victories over Xavier, Butler and Washington will serve them well.

That being said, a win at home against Villanova next week would benefit Providence substantially in terms of seeding. One potential dark cloud on the horizon, however, is the fact that the Friars have received something of a free ride to date in the form of unusually bad 3-point shooting by Big East opponents.


Marquette (14-10, 5-7 Big East)
(BPI: 47 | SOS: 8 | SOR: 53 | RPI: 61)

At the risk of stating the obvious, the win at Seton Hall was gigantic for a team that dreams bracket dreams but already has 10 losses and a losing record in conference play. (Not to mention a team that was on a four-game losing skid prior to its matchup with the Pirates.)

The Golden Eagles are right outside that door and trying to play their way into the field. This weekend's visit to St. John's gives Marquette an unexpected chance to record a quality win. After that, it heads to Creighton on Feb. 17.

Big Ten

Lock

Michigan State (23-3, 11-2 Big Ten)
(BPI: 6 | SOS: 67 | SOR: 5 | RPI: 20)

Purdue (23-3, 12-1 Big Ten)
(BPI: 3 | SOS: 41 | SOR: 4 | RPI: 9)

Should be in

Ohio State (21-5, 12-1 Big Ten)
(BPI: 15 | SOS: 44 | SOR: 11 | RPI: 21)

Behold the dichotomy: Ohio State could very well win the Big Ten regular-season title, having vanquished two "locks," Purdue and Michigan State, in the process. Yet the Buckeyes themselves are not a lock? How can this be?

Don't blame your dedicated and indefatigable Bubble Watch staff (please), blame the rules of the selection and seeding game. Ohio State is is 2-4 in its most challenging and highest visibility games to date. That includes wins at home against the Spartans and at Purdue, but also neutral-floor losses to Gonzaga, Butler and North Carolina and a home defeat at the hands of Clemson.

Be that as it may, a team that can beat the Boilermakers at Mackey Arena can win a national title.

Work to do

Michigan (19-7, 8-5 Big Ten)
(BPI: 25 | SOS: 51 | SOR: 22 | RPI: 38)

It's popular now to say the most confusing team in the country is St. John's, but there have been times this season when I've felt that distinction might actually belong to the Wolverines.

When they're winning at Michigan State or very nearly winning at Purdue, they look fit to reach a Final Four. But when they're run off the floor without much of a fuss at Nebraska or Northwestern, I wonder whether this team should make the tournament at all.

The answer to that, of course, is yes, Michigan very likely will go dancing, and even with the dispiriting loss to the Wildcats this team is still showing up around the No. 7 seed line in projected brackets. But the shocking secret about the latest in a seemingly endless series of John Beilein-coached low-turnover, perimeter-oriented offenses is that this one isn't especially good at making 3s.


Nebraska (18-8, 9-4 Big Ten)
(BPI: 65 | SOS: 36 | SOR: 35 | RPI: 53)

The Cornhuskers are fashioning their own lower-profile version of the Ohio State dichotomy. It's likely they'll finish Big Ten play with a very good record, yet all that still has them just outside Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology. Only one of those nine Big Ten wins came against teams ranked in the top 80 of RPI (Michigan).

Pac-12

Locks: None

Should be in

Arizona (19-6, 9-3 Pac-12)
(BPI: 23 | SOS: 74 | SOR: 38 | RPI: 17)

Sean Miller has to be surprised by this defense, which is playing at a level almost exactly equivalent to the league average in Pac-12 play. That's not what was supposed to happen with a group this tall, this talented and this balanced between a one-and-done freshman like Deandre Ayton and grizzled veterans like Dusan Ristic. Yet here we are. UCLA ripped through the Wildcats to the tune of 82 points in 70 possessions in the Bruins' eight-point win in Tucson. To be sure, UA has an excellent offense, but who would have thought we'd be asking the Duke questions ("When will this talented team buckle down and play defense?") about a Miller team?

Work to do

Washington (17-7, 7-4 Pac-12)
(BPI: 119 | SOS: 73 | SOR: 54 | RPI: 34)

The curious thing about the Huskies' meltdown in their 65-40 loss at Oregon is that, once again, Mike Hopkins' team played very good defense. Holding the other team to a point per possession is a moot point, however, when you score just 0.61, the lowest output for offense that Washington's recorded in a game in at least 16 years. That being said, the Huskies have no time to puzzle, wonder or grieve. The back end of the road trip's fast approaching, and a loss at Oregon State would drop Washington to 7-5 in-conference. Losing streaks, even two-game losing streaks, are perilous territory for a team penciled in on the No. 11 seed line in current mock brackets.


Arizona State (18-6, 6-6 Pac-12)
(BPI: 42 | SOS: 76 | SOR: 39 | RPI: 44)

Close games haven't necessarily been the Sun Devils' friend in conference play, but Bobby Hurley's team finally bent crunch time to its will in ASU's 80-78 win over USC in Tempe. Tra Holder and Shannon Evans II were more productive (43 combined points) than efficient (12 of 31 shooting from the floor) against the Trojans, but they got the job done. The victory lifts Arizona State to .500 in the Pac-12, and sets up a very important clash this weekend with UCLA at Wells Fargo Arena.


USC (17-8, 8-4 Pac-12)
(BPI: 48 | SOS: 79 | SOR: 64 | RPI: 45)

The last-minute loss at Arizona State was a setback for a Trojans team battling for a spot in the field of 68, but the Pac-12 does not lack for opportunity. Next up for Andy Enfield's group is a trip to Arizona, and if the Wildcats aren't doing a little soul-searching after losing at home to UCLA, they probably should be. Within the past two weeks, Enfield has put Nick Rakocevic back into the starting lineup, and the sophomore responded with a team-high 19-point outing at Tempe on 6 of 6 shooting from the floor. USC came up short against ASU, but this is still one of the best per-possession teams in Pac-12 play thus far.


UCLA (17-7, 8-4 Pac-12)
(BPI: 60 | SOS: 71 | SOR: 52 | RPI: 57)

The last time we discussed the Bruins in Bubble Watch, yours truly pointed out that Steve Alford's team had been laying down numbers on offense surprisingly close to what Lonzo Ball and company did a year ago. That being said, no one was noticing or caring about this 2018 run, possibly because UCLA had played a forgiving conference schedule. Well the forgiving conference schedule ended this week, and the Bruin offense looked outstanding in recording an eight-point win at Arizona. A wise person once said never praise a team in the middle of a Pac-12 road trip, and, to be sure, a tough game awaits Alford's guys at Arizona State this weekend. Nevertheless, you now have our attention, Bruins. This is the kind of offense that could extricate you from "first four out" territory and land you instead in the field of 68.

SEC

Locks: Auburn (21-3, 9-2 SEC)

(BPI: 17 | SOS: 68 | SOR: 9 | RPI: 5)

Should be in

Tennessee (18-5, 8-3 SEC)
(BPI: 12 | SOS: 4 | SOR: 7 | RPI: 10)

This was a very good week in the Volunteers' pursuit of an SEC regular-season title. On Tuesday, Tennessee won 61-59 at Kentucky. The following night, Auburn fell at home by one point to Texas A&M, leaving the Vols one game behind the Tigers in the league standings.

A tough road test at Alabama awaits this weekend, but if Tennessee can keep hitting 3s and keep winning, the path is clear for their projected No. 3 seed to rise even higher. Pretty heady stuff for a team picked to finish 13th in the SEC's preseason media poll.


Kentucky (17-7, 6-5 SEC)
(BPI: 32 | SOS: 19 | SOR: 23 | RPI: 18)

The Wildcats are showing up on the No. 5 seed line in projected brackets and while that's low by historical standards in Lexington, it's conceivable that seed could drop even lower. UK's lost two straight, with road games upcoming at Texas A&M and at Auburn.

The Wildcats have been fortunate, in at least one sense, to make it to 6-5 in the SEC. The league has been feasting on the interior against this defense, converting 54 percent of its 2s. The only thing that has kept Kentucky's defense respectable has been drop-dead horrible (25 percent) 3-point shooting by opponents. That worm will likely turn at some point, to the Wildcats' detriment.

Work to do

Texas A&M (16-8, 5-6 SEC)
(BPI: 31 | SOS: 7 | SOR: 25 | RPI: 28)

Texas A&M has a win at Auburn, a neutral-court win over West Virginia and a true road victory at USC, which is enough to propel it to a spot on the No. 9 seed line despite having a losing record in SEC play. Indeed, the Aggies have rebounded in league play, winning five of their past six games after starting 0-5.

During a current three-game winning streak, A&M has scored 1.12 points per possession or better in every outing. Robert Williams and Tyler Davis combined for 31 points on 15-of-21 shooting from the floor in this week's win against Auburn. Even as the Aggies struggled in SEC play, their interior defense was very good.

In short, this team's seed won't necessarily reflect its ability.


Missouri (16-8, 6-5 SEC)
(BPI: 45 | SOS: 47 | SOR: 48 | RPI: 27)

While the wait for Michael Porter Jr. continues, here's one thought on Missouri as it's currently constructed: If the Tigers could just play their SEC opponents on a turnover-neutral basis, they would be about as good as Tennessee. Alas, it doesn't work that way.

Missouri turns the ball over frequently (21 percent of the time in conference play), and their opponents never do (15 percent). The gaping turnover disparity is submerging what would otherwise be a really nice perimeter-oriented offense.

Kassius Robertson is connecting on 44 percent of his 3s against SEC opponents.


Arkansas (16-8, 5-6 SEC)
(BPI: 43 | SOS: 34 | SOR: 41 | RPI: 32)

The Razorbacks currently find themselves in a spirited competition with Vanderbilt for the distinction of having the most permissive per-possession defense in SEC play. Coincidentally, the Hogs will host the Commodores in Fayetteville this weekend, and the safe forecast is that points will be put on the board.

Senior guard Jaylen Barford is second only to Alabama's Collin Sexton in terms of prominence on offense in SEC action, but Barford's shots from the field go in the basket with a higher degree of regularity.

Arkansas projects to be one high-scoring No. 10 seed next month.


Alabama (15-9, 6-5 SEC)
(BPI: 53 | SOS: 45 | SOR: 57 | RPI: 43)

In any normal season, one without a player like Oklahoma's Trae Young, I suspect at least a few of us would be pointing and gawking at what Collin Sexton is doing. In SEC play, no player in the league carries a larger workload on offense, and no player takes more of his team's shots during his minutes on the floor.

Sexton is connecting on very a low percentage of his shots from both sides of the arc in conference play, but the freshman is a foul-drawing wonder who shoots 78 percent at the line.

The Crimson Tide host Tennessee this weekend in a game that could give the Tide a win to put proudly in the same trophy case as home victories over Auburn and Oklahoma.


Florida (16-8, 7-4 SEC)
(BPI: 35 | SOS: 17 | SOR: 36 | RPI: 46)

Good work by the Gators, defending their home floor and defeating LSU 73-64 on Wednesday. Coming off an 18-point loss at home to Alabama, that was just what the doctor ordered and quieted, for now, talk of this team "reeling."

Jalen Hudson had one of his better games of the season, scoring 18 points and grabbing nine boards. No SEC team takes care of the ball like the Gators and they play very good interior defense as well.

Florida will want to marshal all of the above skills at South Carolina this weekend. The Gamecocks have fallen off some radar screens, but they've won three of their last four games against the Gators.


Mississippi State (18-6, 6-5 SEC)
(BPI: 70 | SOS: 94 | SOR: 49 | RPI: 50)

The Bulldogs can make the 2018 NCAA tournament if you squint. Better yet, MSU can go dancing if it somehow wins its next three games -- at Missouri, at Vanderbilt and at home against Ole Miss -- setting up a confrontation with Texas A&M in College Station on Feb. 20.

Mississippi State is sound on defense and at 6-foot-4, Quinndary Weatherspoon is one of the more successful 2-point scorers at that height you will ever run across in a major conference.

American

Locks

Cincinnati (22-2, 11-0 AAC)

(BPI: 4 | SOS: 121 | SOR: 14 | RPI: 11)

Should be in

Wichita State (18-5, 8-3 AAC)
(BPI: 9 | SOS: 75 | SOR: 33 | RPI: 24)

Since last we gathered here at Bubble Watch, the Shockers made the trip to Memphis and came away with an 85-65 win over the Tigers. Now Gregg Marshall's team faces take-care-of-business games at home against Connecticut and Temple before arriving at the reason we are all here, so to speak in the American. Next weekend, WSU will play at Cincinnati, and games against the Bearcats (one more at home in the season finale, and, who knows, maybe one in the American tournament) represent the most viable method the Shockers have to improve their seed.

Work to do

Houston (18-5, 8-3 AAC)
(BPI: 33 | SOS: 77 | SOR: 32 | RPI: 37)

The Cougars are likely going to experience a good deal of bubble tension over the next few weeks. Kelvin Sampson's team is right on the bracket borderline after winning at home 67-58 against short-handed SMU. The victory takes UH to 18-5, with wins over Arkansas, Providence and Wichita State. In other words, the Cougars are likely to experience a good deal of bubble tension over the next few weeks, and a win at home against Cincinnati next week would be profile-defining.


SMU (15-9, 5-6 AAC)
(BPI: 46 | SOS: 85 | SOR: 91 | RPI: 70)

Tim Jankovich's team lost Jarrey Foster for the season two weeks ago, and then had to play at Houston without Shake Milton as well (hand injury). Still, the Mustangs led that game 57-50 with a little more than five minutes left before being outscored 17-1 to end the contest. What would have been a valuable road win eluded the Ponies' grasp, and now Southern Methodist is looking for ways to play itself into a field it very likely would not be in if the season ended today. Getting Milton back healthy and full-speed for Sunday's home game against Cincinnati is job one.


Temple (14-10, 6-6 AAC)
(BPI: 79 | SOS: 21 | SOR: 58 | RPI: 36)

It's a long shot, but it just might work: Temple's kind of like a less wacky version of St. John's. The Owls' won-loss record is not the last word in aesthetic bedazzlement (14-10), but when your list of vanquished foes includes Auburn, Clemson and Wichita State, you still get a blurb at Bubble Watch. Besides, Temple can prove it belongs with next week's road game in Wichita. A win there would give Fran Dunphy's guys the season sweep over the Shockers, and that would be a nice sound bite to put at the disposal of the men's basketball committee.

Others

Locks: None

Should be in

Rhode Island (19-3, 11-0 A-10)
(BPI: 26 | SOS: 88 | SOR: 15 | RPI: 6)

The Rams have had a week off to prepare for their home game against Davidson on Friday night, and the clash between the Atlantic 10's first- and second-place teams should be a good one. In terms of tournament seeding, however, what matters most might simply be the fact that URI will very likely finish the season as the outright A-10 champion with a really small number (though perhaps not a zero) in the loss column. That should be sufficient to put Dan Hurley's team into the thick of things, say, around the No. 6 seed line.


Saint Mary's (24-2, 13-0 WCC)
(BPI: 16 | SOS: 269 | SOR: 21 | RPI: 30)

Randy Bennett's team has now won 19 straight, and Jock Landale is one deep NCAA tournament run away from a much more accurate national appreciation of his impact. No West Coast Conference team, not even Gonzaga, puts the ball in the basket the way the Gaels have in conference play, and Calvin Hermanson is leading that charge with his 49 percent shooting from beyond the arc in WCC play. Yes, this defense will be a question mark against tournament competition, but that competition is going to have to score a lot of points to keep up with SMC.


Gonzaga (22-4, 12-1 WCC)
(BPI: 11 | SOS: 111 | SOR: 20 | RPI: 49)

The Bulldogs are shaping up to be the kind of No. 6 seed that's going to make some unlucky team on the No. 3 line very unhappy. Mark Few's group is just a few close losses away from a much gaudier record, and in WCC play the Zags are actually outscoring the league by a larger margin than Saint Mary's. Gonzaga's scoring nucleus of Josh Perkins, Johnathan Williams, Zach Norvell Jr. and Killian Tillie is one of the most effective ones Few has ever had, not to mention one of the most perimeter oriented. (This isn't Przemek Karnowski's Gonzaga anymore.) It seems odd to have to say about a team that's 21-4, but the Bulldogs are dangerous.


Work to do

Nevada (20-5, 9-2 MWC)
(BPI: 27 | SOS: 127 | SOR: 47 | RPI: 14)

The 86-78 loss at home to UNLV was not ideal from a Wolf Pack perspective, certainly, but by itself it need not be the end of the world, either. In the aftermath of that defeat (in which Jovan Mooring went berserk for the Runnin' Rebels, to the tune of 31 points), Nevada was still populating mock brackets around the No. 8 seed line. This is still a highly efficient zero-turnover offense loaded with major-conference transfers. Eric Musselman's team is still dangerous.


Boise State (20-4, 10-2 MWC)
(BPI: 55 | SOS: 120 | SOR: 30 | RPI: 33)

Leon Rice's team is living life right on the boundary between "in" and "out" where the field of 68's concerned, and certainly a win next week at home against Nevada would help bring a bid that much closer to Boise. No, let's rephrase that. A win over the Wolf Pack would be profile-changing. Right now the Broncos are 0-3 in their toughest games to date (at SMU, at Wyoming and at Nevada). Removing that goose egg on their team sheet would be a significant step toward getting back to the tournament for the first time since 2015.


Middle Tennessee (19-5, 11-1 C-USA)
BPI: 44 | SOS: 84 | SOR: 34 | RPI: 23)

The Blue Raiders are all the way "up" to a No. 11 seed in Lunardi's bracket, which might not sound all that lofty but keep in mind Conference USA hasn't earned an at-large bid since 2012. Nick King is putting together a season that could end with C-USA player of the year honors, and MTSU imposes its will on opponents on the defensive glass with methodical consistency. True, the Raiders have received a bit of a boost from uncommonly bad 3-point shooting by opponents. Still, King, Giddy Potts and Brandon Walters are perfectly capable of busting some brackets next month.


Western Kentucky (17-7, 9-2 C-USA)
(BPI: 68 | SOS: 113 | SOR: 69 | RPI: 52)

Suddenly there is worry in Bowling Green. The Hilltoppers lost 74-63 at UTSA, a defeat that sent Rick Stansbury's team all the way down to the dreaded "next four out" territory. WKU did at least recover to win at home against Florida Atlantic. Now, running the table from this point on (which by the way would require, among other things, a win at Middle Tennessee on the first day of March) would send the Hilltoppers into the Conference USA tournament with a 24-7 record overall. Would that do the job, even for a team with a win over Purdue on its resume? Stranger things have happened, but, using the phrase "stranger things have happened" is itself a trusty leitmotif for a low-probability scenario.


St. Bonaventure (17-6, 7-4 A-10)
(BPI: 56 | SOS: 91 | SOR: 51 | RPI: 48)

This is a team that will need some help to make the tournament, and here's how it could go down. For the time being, the Bonnies must tend to their knitting at home against Richmond and then on the road at La Salle. But, assuming all goes according to plan there, Mark Schmidt's team will then get what it needs most, a home game against Rhode Island. Jaylen Adams is coming off a Trae Young-like 44-point effort against Saint Louis, and has shot 18-for-26 on his 3s over the past two games. If any A-10 player can make a dent in URI's stout defense, it could be the senior from Baltimore.


Previous Bubble Watch editions: Feb. 6