Remember when people used to argue, with some degree of heat, over which conference was the strongest in the nation "from top to bottom"?
You don't hear that question much anymore, because the Big 12 has put a semipermanent choke hold on the honor.
The conference is currently wrapping up its fifth consecutive season as the No. 1 league in the nation in terms of top-to-bottom statistical strength. The secret to the Big 12's success is simple. If your worst team is Iowa State (which owns easy wins over Texas Tech and West Virginia, among others), you're going to rate out as pretty strong.
When a conference is both small (10 teams) and elite, bubble drama is sure to follow. The Big 12 currently has eight teams entertaining realistic hopes of an NCAA tournament bid, and this weekend's action will go a long way toward enhancing those profiles and/or dashing those hopes.
Here are the Big 12 games the NCAA men's basketball selection committee will be watching very closely on Saturday:
• Texas at No. 23 Oklahoma (noon ET on ESPN and ESPN App): It has been a long time since a Red River showdown held so much weight in terms of bubble and seeding implications. The Sooners showed up on the No. 4 line in the NCAA bracket preview last week, but that seed feels shaky in light of this team's struggles in February.
Meanwhile, the Longhorns, at 5-8 in the Big 12, are at risk of falling out of the field entirely. A road win against Trae Young and the Sooners would give Shaka Smart's team a cushion of protection.
• No. 7 Texas Tech at Baylor (7:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU and ESPN App): What an opportunity for the Bears, who have played themselves into the conversation with a home win against Kansas and a road victory at Texas in double overtime.
Baylor has a chance to prove its tournament mettle against easily the Big 12's hottest team, one that hasn't lost a game in nearly a month. (Kansas fans might be slightly interested in this outcome, as well.)
• No. 20 West Virginia at No. 13 Kansas (6 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN App): When the NCAA put the Jayhawks on the No. 2 line last weekend, the decision was met with some skepticism from armchair bracket creators (i.e., all of us outside the committee). A win over the Mountaineers could shore up that No. 2 seed, slay some surprising home-court demons that have bedeviled KU this season, and keep hope alive for an incredible 14th consecutive Big 12 title.
• Iowa State at Kansas State (1 p.m. ET on ESPNU and ESPN App): Situated precariously on the very edge of the cut line, the Wildcats can't afford a loss at home to the league's lowest-ranked RPI opponent (even if that opponent is ridiculously good by "league's lowest-ranked RPI opponent" standards nationwide).
• Oklahoma State at TCU (8 p.m. ET on ESPN2 and ESPN App): The Horned Frogs have rightly stayed on the right side of the cut line with room to spare despite a 5-8 Big 12 record, because it's universally assumed they will win the games they're supposed to win.
This is a game TCU is supposed to win.
Mid- to late February is all about bubble drama, of course, but the Big 12 helpfully packs all that customarily disparate momentousness into one very competitive and very compact league. You'll be hard-pressed to find a Big 12 game from here on out that doesn't have a direct and significant impact on the bracket.
The Big 12 appears unlikely to have a No. 1 seed. Still, make no mistake. The Big 12 is the place to be for bubble action from now until Selection Sunday.
(A reminder: Included for each bubble team is its ranking in 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.)
Virginia (24-2, 13-1 ACC)
(BPI: 2 | SOS: 11 | SOR: 1 | RPI: 1)
Duke (21-5, 9-4 ACC)
(BPI: 5 | SOS: 22 | SOR: 7 | RPI: 10)
Clemson (20-5, 9-4 ACC)
(BPI: 17 | SOS: 34 | SOR: 11 | RPI: 4)
North Carolina (20-7, 9-5 ACC)
(BPI: 10 | SOS: 2 | SOR: 9 | RPI: 6)
Should be in
Miami (18-7, 7-6 ACC)
(BPI: 28 | SOS: 53 | SOR: 25 | RPI: 28)
The Hurricanes came up short in their quest to notch a committee-dazzling win at home against Virginia. The Cavaliers did what they do, limiting Jim Larranaga's team to 50 points in a 57-possession game.
Miami's remaining games now fall into two categories: "take care of business" and "chance to impress." The former is made up of home games against Syracuse, Boston College and Virginia Tech. The latter consists of road tests at Notre Dame and North Carolina. Those two away games fall under the Quadrant 1 rubric you keep hearing about, and thus hold the potential to improve the Hurricanes' seed.
Louisville (18-8, 8-5 ACC)
(BPI: 25 | SOS: 58 | SOR: 43 | RPI: 39)
Now it gets real for Louisville. North Carolina pays a visit this weekend, followed by a trip to Duke on Feb. 21. Each of the Cardinals' remaining games are against teams in the field or on the bubble, and the range of potential seed lines is notably broad.
To land near the high end of that range, Louisville would benefit by creating more chances to score. This is a good shooting team that takes care of the ball well enough, but in ACC play, the Cardinals have pulled down just 25 percent of their missed shots. That's a bit on the low side for a rotation that customarily has two guys on the floor who are 6-foot-10 or taller.
Florida State (18-8, 7-7 ACC)
(BPI: 26 | SOS: 26 | SOR: 21 | RPI: 46)
An overtime win at home over Clemson (after trailing by 18, no less) is very big and could put the Seminoles in position to avoid a round-of-32 game against a No. 1 seed. They entered the game in the neighborhood of the Nos. 8 and 9 seeds and raising that seed, even slightly, might result in a less formidable matchup in the second tournament game.
Phil Cofer was the hero FSU needed against Clemson, scoring 17 points on perfect 7-of-7 shooting inside the arc. The senior has had an up-and-down career in Tallahassee, one in which he started 24 games as a freshman only to make just five starts over the ensuing two years. He's finishing very strong.
Work to do
Syracuse (17-9, 6-7 ACC)
(BPI: 52 | SOS: 60 | SOR: 55 | RPI: 36)
The bad news: Syracuse lost at home to NC State. The good news: Jim Boeheim's team is still right at the boundary of the bubble (though probably outside it) with many more profile-elevating chances looming on the horizon.
The Orange finish the regular season at Miami, vs. North Carolina, at Duke, at Boston College and vs. Clemson. In other words, their chances to earn a bid are in front of them. Certainly, Oshae Brissett looks ready to seize that opportunity. Albeit in a losing cause, the freshman rung up 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting to go along with three steals against the Wolfpack.
NC State (17-9, 7-6 ACC)
(BPI: 54 | SOS: 28 | SOR: 42 | RPI: 69)
Every win for a bubble team is huge in February, right? Especially road wins? Well, yes, but NC State's win at Syracuse was potentially very big.
Joe Lunardi had the Wolfpack-Orange clash classified as a play-in game of sorts. Obviously, there's basketball still to be played, but, in a proverbial "if the season ended today" bracket, the winner of that game was "in" and the loser was "out." The margins are that small, and at the end of the day, NC State's victory at the Carrier Dome will take its place alongside the ones at North Carolina and at home against Duke and Clemson, among others, as a Quadrant 1 win.
Virginia Tech (18-8, 7-6 ACC)
(BPI: 34 | SOS: 47 | SOR: 33 | RPI: 58)
Maybe momentum is a myth. Fresh off the epic paradigm-altering win at Virginia on Feb. 10, the Hokies came surprisingly close to recording their worst effort thus far in ACC play on both offense and defense in their 74-52 loss at Duke on Wednesday.
A loss at Cameron Indoor is hardly going to hurt Virginia Tech's profile, of course, but it underscores the fact this is an unusual 7-6 ACC team, one with a per-possession scoring margin in conference play that's equivalent to what Boston College has posted.
The Hokies' apparent indifference toward ACC opponents attempting 3s is particularly striking, and Duke, for one, said thank you very much by making 15 of its 33 attempts.
Kansas (20-6, 9-4 Big 12)
(BPI: 9 | SOS: 17 | SOR: 13 | RPI: 9)
Texas Tech (22-4, 10-3 Big 12)
(BPI: 8 | SOS: 54 | SOR: 6 | RPI: 11)
Should be in
Oklahoma (16-9, 6-7 Big 12)
(BPI: 32 | SOS: 1 | SOR: 21 | RPI: 22)
There's no shame in losing at Texas Tech, goodness knows, but what must be worrisome for Lon Kruger are the broader trends being displayed by his team. Trae Young is shooting 17 percent on his 3s in the month of February (7-of-41), and Oklahoma has run its record to 0-7 in games outside of Norman in 2018. (That last stat would seem to be a problematic omen for the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments.)
OU has lost four straight games and seven of its past nine. The Sooners' defense (so-so) and 2-point shooting (excellent) have stayed pretty much exactly the same during this time of troubles, but what has changed has been an increase in turnovers and a severe downturn in made 3s. These two developments are jeopardizing that No. 4 seed the NCAA was ready to hand Oklahoma just five days ago.
West Virginia (19-7, 8-5 Big 12)
(BPI: 11 | SOS: 39 | SOR: 18 | RPI: 32)
The Mountaineers are just 4-6 over their past 10 games, so there doesn't seem to be much in the way of expectation that they'll win at Kansas on Saturday. If they do win, however, they would jeopardize the Jayhawks' Big 12 title streak and give themselves a marquee win to place alongside their victory at home against Virginia.
You don't hear many national coach of the year nominations for Bob Huggins, but conjuring up the Big 12's No. 2-ranked per-possession offense with a team that doesn't shoot particularly well and is just average in terms of holding on to the rock is at least worthy of mention.
Work to do
TCU (17-9, 5-8 Big 12)
(BPI: 22 | SOS: 10 | SOR: 28 | RPI: 26)
The Horned Frogs are enjoying that curious evaluative honeymoon characteristically bestowed upon midlevel teams in outstanding conferences. They have, after all, lost nine of their past 14 games, yet the reaction has been to lavish praise on a team that keeps losing to such strong opponents.
It's not an incorrect response. Despite being just 2-7 in conference games decided by single digits, TCU is, by a healthy margin, the best offense in the nation's best conference. Maybe the hoops gods are finally ready to give the Horned Frogs a break.
With three of their next four games coming at home, and the fourth being a trip to Iowa State, there's a fair chance TCU's 5-8 record is about to undergo a significant face-lift.
Texas (15-11, 5-8 Big 12)
(BPI: 44 | SOS: 3 | SOR: 47 | RPI: 56)
Picture Texas as clinging to the edge of a cliff, and that's a fair representation of the Longhorns' tournament prospects. They've lost three in a row and face an uphill climb to finish .500 in league play. This thing could go either way.
Three of UT's final five regular-season games are on the road, beginning with Saturday's visit to a similarly reeling Oklahoma team.
Kansas State (18-8, 7-6 Big 12)
(BPI: 48 | SOS: 38 | SOR: 25 | RPI: 63)
It's been a good few days for the Wildcats. A win at Oklahoma State might not sound like front-page news, but that, paired with the ebb and flow of the rest of the bubble map, has furnished Bruce Weber's team a much-needed bit of breathing space. You're used to Bubble Watch referring to K-State as "barely" making the field. Well, for now, the Wildcats are on slightly more solid footing.
One note for future reference. In the event that Kansas State somehow sees the Cowboys again in the Big 12 tournament, keep your eye firmly trained on Barry Brown. In two games this season against OSU, Brown has scored 63 points on 18-of-29 shooting from the floor. In a world in which every opponent is Oklahoma State, Brown would win the Wooden Award in a walk.
Baylor (16-10, 6-7 Big 12)
(BPI: 35 | SOS: 14 | SOR: 43 | RPI: 54)
Whatever Scott Drew said to his team at the beginning of February was notably effective. At that time, Baylor was 12-10 and so far out of the running for an NCAA tournament bid that Bubble Watch wasn't even glancing in Waco's direction. (It's true! O, the shame!)
Now look. Baylor has clamped down dramatically on defense, winning its past four games while holding its opponents to 43 percent shooting inside the arc. That still hasn't been enough to put the Bears solidly in the field yet, but one way to move decidedly in that direction would be to beat Texas Tech at home this weekend.
Villanova (23-3, 10-3 Big East)
(BPI: 1 | SOS: 47 | SOR: 4 | RPI: 3)
Xavier (24-3, 12-2 Big East)
(BPI: 13 | SOS: 24 | SOR: 2 | RPI: 2)
Should be in
Creighton (19-7, 8-5 Big East)
(BPI: 18 | SOS: 51 | SOR: 20 | RPI: 23)
It was effectively a week off for Creighton -- there was a 48-point win at home against Division II opponent Bemidji State -- which hosts Marquette this weekend and then hits the road at Butler on Feb. 20.
Creighton is playing purely to raise its seed, and Marcus Foster figures to be the heart and soul of that pursuit. Bubble Watch would never be as reckless as to say that Foster should be Big East Player of the Year in a season with Trevon Bluiett, Shamorie Ponds, Kelan Martin and the usual Villanova suspects, but let it at least be said that the senior is posting shooting percentages of 53 and 46 from inside and outside the arc in conference play, respectively.
Butler (17-10, 7-7 Big East)
(BPI: 29 | SOS: 13 | SOR: 38 | RPI: 45)
Now would be an acceptable time for LaVall Jordan to worry about his defense. Butler has lost three straight games, and while two of those went into the final seconds, it's also true that the Bulldogs gave up 1.23 points per possession during that stretch.
Yes, you're going to have some points scored on you when the schedule-maker gives you Xavier and Villanova. But Georgetown? At home? BU lost a shootout to the Hoyas at Hinkle Fieldhouse, as Marcus Derrickson and Jessie Govan, in particular, devoured the Bulldogs' previously normal but now questionable interior defense.
Butler appears headed for a .500-ish finish in conference play and, possibly, a game in the round of 32 against a No. 1 seed.
Work to do
Seton Hall (17-9, 6-7 Big East)
(BPI: 33 | SOS: 19 | SOR: 34 | RPI: 24)
On paper, a home game against DePaul is just what the doctor ordered for a Pirates team that has lost four straight games. That will probably turn out to be the case, sure, but keep in mind this is a new and feisty reboot of the Blue Demons we're talking about -- one that beat Providence by 17 points on Feb. 10.
For its part, Seton Hall enters the weekend in full shootout mode. The Pirates are actually scoring better than ever. The problem, however, is their opponents are, too. Maybe that's to be expected when your recent opponents have included Xavier and Villanova, but the Marquette and Georgetown offenses also returned surveys marked "Would definitely recommend to a friend!" after facing this defense. Bubble Watch is keeping an eye on this.
Providence (17-9, 8-5 Big East)
(BPI: 73 | SOS: 40 | SOR: 45 | RPI: 41)
Providence beat Villanova yet still shows up "Work to do." Still, make no mistake about the implications of beating the Wildcats (who, by the way, had Eric Paschall back for that game). Providence now presents a significantly stronger profile than the last time we discussed this matter here at Bubble Watch.
That "significantly stronger" part could come in really handy, because the Friars' remaining schedule is robust, to say the least. They finish the season with road tests at Butler, Georgetown and Xavier and home games against Seton Hall and St. John's. Where once the games against the Hoyas and the Johnnies would have looked like breathers, now they loom as potential losses. The Friars will want to hold on to that "we beat Villanova" momentum as long as they can.
Michigan State (25-3, 13-2 Big Ten)
(BPI: 6 | SOS: 57 | SOR: 3 | RPI: 14)
Purdue (23-5, 12-3 Big Ten)
(BPI: 3 | SOS: 28 | SOR: 5 | RPI: 12)
Ohio State (22-6, 13-2 Big Ten)
(BPI: 17 | SOS: 43 | SOR: 14 | RPI: 16)
Should be in
Michigan (21-7, 10-5 Big Ten)
(BPI: 24 | SOS: 56 | SOR: 17 | RPI: 37)
This is perhaps an appropriate moment to point out that the Big Ten season is, believe it or not, almost over. The league will play its tournament at Madison Square Garden just two weeks from now, and in order to get a full schedule in the books by then, the Big Ten snuck in a couple of conference games way back in early December.
Speaking of early December, that's when Michigan led Ohio State by 20 points in Columbus before falling apart and losing by nine. It didn't seem like a big deal at the time. It seems like a big deal now. The Wolverines will get another shot at the Buckeyes this weekend in Ann Arbor.
Work to do
Nebraska (20-8, 11-4 Big Ten)
(BPI: 58 | SOS: 55 | SOR: 29 | RPI: 53)
Death, taxes and Bubble Watch referring to an ever-lengthening Cornhusker winning streak that is not yet appreciably improving their tournament outlook. These are the things you can count on happening reliably and without fail in February 2018.
The streak now stands at six games and an 11-4 record in a major conference is most certainly keeping Nebraska in this conversation. The other side of that coin, however, is a single win all season (at home, against Michigan) against an NCAA tournament-level opponent.
This is shaping up as one illustrative what-if scenario for the selection committee. The safe bet is that Nebraska enters the Big Ten tournament with a glittering conference record and with the proverbial "work to do."
Penn State (19-9, 9-6 Big Ten)
(BPI: 25 | SOS: 70 | SOR: 59 | RPI: 86)
Welcome to Bubble Watch, Nittany Lions. You earned your spot by sweeping the season series with an Ohio State team that's gone 13-0 against the rest of the Big Ten. PSU, Bubble Watch salutes you.
Now the bad news. This section's title should be taken literally, for you still do have work to do. Your "body of work," as the committee likes to say, is still not quite in sync with what a typical at-large profile looks like.
Fortunately, you have the perfect opportunity to do something about that. Those remaining games at Purdue, at home against Michigan and at Nebraska afford you the means to prove you belong.
Arizona (21-6, 11-3 Pac-12)
(BPI: 20 | SOS: 68 | SOR: 22 | RPI: 18)
Should be in
Arizona State (19-7, 7-7 Pac-12)
(BPI: 43 | SOS: 73 | SOR: 46 | RPI: 25)
It's been a program-changing year for the Sun Devils, but one thing that hasn't changed is Arizona's supremacy in-state. The Wildcats swept the season series with a 78-70 win in Tempe. It turns out Deandre Ayton can play this sport rather well, as evidenced by his 25-16 double-double against ASU.
The game against the Wildcats brings down the curtain (see what I did there?) on Arizona State's scheduled games against NCAA tournament-level opponents. The Sun Devils will now play road games at Oregon and Oregon State before finishing the season at home against Cal and Stanford. That should translate into a .500 finish or better in Pac-12 play and a middle seed in the NCAA tournament. Few would have thought any of the above was possible for this team before the start of the regular season.
Work to do
Washington (17-9, 7-6 Pac-12)
(BPI: 127 | SOS: 75 | SOR: 69 | RPI: 42)
The Huskies have now dropped three straight games, and is it possible that some of the mystery has gone out of the zone? Washington's last three opponents (Oregon, Oregon State and Utah) have made 55 percent of their 2s against this D.
There's still a good deal of basketball to be played, of course, but the loss at home to Utah did no favors for the Huskies' tournament chances. Washington was already showing up as a "last four byes" member before that game, and now it's likely that Mike Hopkins' men will enter the Pac-12 tournament believing that there is still work to be done.
USC (18-9, 9-5 Pac-12)
(BPI: 51 | SOS: 76 | SOR: 66 | RPI: 48)
Credit Jordan McLaughlin with an incredible 30-foot lob pass that set up Chimezie Metu's game-winner in the Trojans' 72-70 victory at home over Oregon. The win kept Andy Enfield's team right where it is for now, which is one of the last four teams in Lunardi's projected bracket.
USC now sits at 9-5 in the Pac-12, but challenges await between now and the conference tournament. After a home game against Oregon State, the Trojans will embark on the league's dreaded altitude tour and pay visits to Colorado and Utah. Lastly, USC will play its season finale at home against UCLA. That's a fairly difficult closing run, and it's probable Enfield's guys will be in some degree of suspense all the way to Selection Sunday.
UCLA (18-8, 9-5 Pac-12)
(BPI: 59 | SOS: 69 | SOR: 54 | RPI: 52)
It was no oil painting (Aaron Holiday recorded a highly uncharacteristic 4-for-13 outing), but Steve Alford's team prevailed at home 75-68 against Oregon State. The Bruins will stay where they are -- clinging to a projected at-large bid by the smallest of margins -- for now.
To this point in the Pac-12 season, UCLA and Arizona have recorded virtually identical levels of league-leading offensive efficiency. Then again, the two teams have gone about it in very different ways. The Wildcats simply hit their shots, particularly in the paint, whereas the Bruins combine average offensive rebounding with an excellent turnover rate to get more bites at the scoring apple.
Utah (16-9, 8-6 Pac-12)
(BPI: 72 | SOS: 64 | SOR: 64 | RPI: 59)
Larry Krystkowiak's team just keeps lingering. Bubble Watch knows better than to look too far ahead with a team halfway through a Pac-12 road trip, but a potential (repeat, potential) win in Pullman this weekend would give Utah a 9-6 record in conference play on the eve of a season-ending three-game homestand.
In the win at Washington, David Collette continued his reign of 2-point mastery over the rest of the Pac-12. The senior scored 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting inside the arc against the Huskies, and as a team the Utes have connected on 58 percent of their 2s during this current three-game win streak.
Auburn (23-3, 11-2 SEC)
(BPI: 14 | SOS: 66 | SOR: 8 | RPI: 7)
Tennessee (19-6, 9-4 SEC)
(BPI: 15 | SOS: 5 | SOR: 12 | RPI: 13)
Should be in
Kentucky (17-9, 6-7 SEC)
(BPI: 39 | SOS: 11 | SOR: 30 | RPI: 19)
Bubble Watch would say, "Let the panic begin," but let's be honest, the panic in Lexington started a while back. So let the panic roll forward: UK has lost four straight games for the first time since 2009.
But, hey, turn that frown upside down, BBN! The schedule-maker handed the Wildcats back-to-back games at Texas A&M and Auburn, probable losses for way more teams than Kentucky in February 2018.
The Wildcats are still adept at creating scoring chances for themselves at the line, and this is an above-average SEC defense. Turn the page, take care of business at home against Alabama on Saturday and move on.
Texas A&M (17-9, 6-7 SEC)
(BPI: 31 | SOS: 4 | SOR: 23 | RPI: 17)
Texas A&M picked an inopportune moment to record its worst offensive outing of the season. Against a Missouri defense that had previously performed at a level right at the SEC average, the Aggies were held to 0.85 points per possession in their 62-58 loss.
There's still a lot to like, of course, with a team that has Robert Williams, Tyler Davis and the rebounding superiority they sustain at both ends of the floor. That being said, in SEC play A&M hasn't been able to stretch opposing defenses and has hit just 30 percent of its 3s in conference play.
Alabama (17-9, 8-5 SEC)
(BPI: 42 | SOS: 46 | SOR: 49 | RPI: 31)
Not to be overly dramatic, but consecutive road games at Kentucky and Auburn should go a long way toward putting the finishing touches on the Crimson Tide's profile -- for good or ill -- in the eyes of the committee.
Alabama faces that gauntlet with at least one clear point of strength. Collin Sexton might get the lion's share of the publicity, but the truth is it's on defense where Alabama has lapped the SEC field. The Tide have held conference opponents to just 0.95 points per possession. No other team in the league has allowed less than 1.01.
Missouri (18-8, 8-5 SEC)
(BPI: 45 | SOS: 50 | SOR: 36 | RPI: 21)
The Tigers are on a roll, having won five straight games. Part of that can be attributed to close-game mastery (all five wins came by single-digit margins) and even a little good fortune (those past five opponents have shot just 25 percent on their 3s). But more of it has been the product of improved performance defensively on the interior.
Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett are more or less always on the floor in SEC play, and the pair has combined to shoot 42 percent on their 3s. Those makes have been critically important for a turnover-prone team that doesn't crash the offensive glass.
Florida (17-9, 8-5 SEC)
(BPI: 36 | SOS: 25 | SOR: 40 | RPI: 43)
If you're thinking Bubble Watch blows hot and cold on the Gators, well, you might have a point. Then again, they do seem constitutionally incapable of being good or bad at basketball for extended periods of time. Case in point: Wednesday's overtime loss at home to Georgia.
Yes, the Bulldogs play tough interior defense and now own the season sweep over Florida. Still, that was Georgia's second SEC road win. On paper, the Gators attempt a healthy number of 3s, but with an offense already so light on offensive rebounds and so unsuccessful at making 2s, a shift toward a full Vanderbilt perimeter orientation might be called for in Gainesville.
Work to do
Arkansas (18-8, 7-6 SEC)
(BPI: 41 | SOS: 49 | SOR: 35 | RPI: 30)
For the past 10 days, the Razorbacks have been winning games against opponents that, short of an SEC tournament miracle, will not be appearing in the NCAA tournament. That kind of off-radar schedule, however, is a thing of the past for Arkansas.
After three straight wins against South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss, Arkansas is closing the season with games against Texas A&M, Kentucky, Alabama, Auburn and Missouri. There's not an easy win in that sequence, but it's also true those opponents will want to prepare very diligently for Daniel Gafford. In his latest outing, the 6-foot-11 freshman scored 19 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the floor in just 20 minutes in the Hogs' 75-64 win over Ole Miss.
Cincinnati (23-3, 12-1 AAC)
(BPI: 4 | SOS: 93 | SOR: 10 | RPI: 8)
Should be in
Wichita State (20-5, 10-3 AAC)
(BPI: 12 | SOS: 82 | SOR: 31 | RPI: 20)
Not only did Wichita State survive 93-86 at home against Temple (after allowing the Owls to make 11 3s before halftime), the Shockers got a bonus in the form of Houston knocking off Cincinnati. Gregg Marshall's team is now in position to create a race for the American regular-season title by winning on the road against the Bearcats this weekend.
This defense, which has allowed exactly one point per possession in American play, is oddly permissive by Wichita standards, but the way WSU's offense is playing, that may not matter. The Shockers have torn through their last three opponents (Memphis, UConn and Temple) to the tune of 1.33 points per trip.
Work to do
Houston (20-5, 10-3 AAC)
(BPI: 29 | SOS: 84 | SOR: 30 | RPI: 27)
With the Cougars having defeated Cincinnati at home 67-62, this might be a good time to point out that UH's interior defense has been very nearly as good in American play as that of the much more celebrated Bearcats. Houston's conference opponents have made just 41.5 percent of their 2s, while for the UC defense that percentage is 41.0. This could be a photo finish.
The excellent defense played by Kelvin Sampson's team means off shooting nights need not be disastrous. Rob Gray posted a 3-for-13 effort against Cincinnati and the Cougars recorded their biggest win of the season anyway. Houston's prospects for an at-large bid have never looked better.
Temple (15-11, 7-7 AAC)
(BPI: 78 | SOS: 39 | SOR: 60 | RPI: 38)
Fran Dunphy's team played a near-perfect first half at Wichita State only to come up on the short end of a 93-86 score. That represents an opportunity missed, surely, but the Owls will now be given the chance to play newly visible Houston in Philadelphia. That would be a nice win to add to the profile.
Temple's offense was rather late in arriving this season, but Dunphy now has a remarkably balanced attack. Obi Enechionyia, Quinton Rose, Shizz Alston Jr., Josh Brown and De'Vondre Perry all scored between 13 and 17 points in Wichita. This offense may not play in the NCAA tournament, and there are likely a few defenses hoping it doesn't.
Locks: Gonzaga, Rhode Island
Gonzaga (24-4, 14-1 WCC)
(BPI: 7 | SOS: 112 | SOR: 16 | RPI: 40)
Rhode Island (21-3, 13-0 A-10)
(BPI: 23 | SOS: 94 | SOR: 15 | RPI: 5)
Should be in
Saint Mary's (24-4, 13-2 WCC)
(BPI: 19 | SOS: 216 | SOR: 41 | RPI: 33)
SMC's 70-63 loss at San Francisco brought an end to a rather remarkable streak. Before that game, Randy Bennett's team had recorded 33 consecutive wins over parts of three different seasons against WCC teams not named Gonzaga. The Gaels were also the last undefeated team in Division I in true road games this season (by a hair -- Ohio State had its streak ended a few hours earlier at Penn State).
One loss isn't going to appreciably harm the seed Saint Mary's earns, but the way the Gaels lost is perhaps more worrisome. Jock Landale finished with nice-enough stats on paper (19 points on 6-of-12 shooting), but for long stretches of the second half he alternated between ineffectiveness and sitting on the bench in foul trouble.
Nevada (22-5, 11-2 MWC)
(BPI: 20 | SOS: 109 | SOR: 34 | RPI: 15)
The Wolf Pack earned the biggest boost there is in the Mountain West by going to Boise State and coming away with a 77-72 win. Kendall Stephens hit six 3s on his way to scoring 21 points on a night when the host Broncos made just five shots from beyond the arc as a team.
Eric Musselman's team has plenty of challenges remaining, up to and including road trips to Utah State, UNLV and San Diego State. There could be at least one loss upcoming in that sequence, but the Wolf Pack's win over Rhode Island in November plus the regular-season sweep over BSU puts them in "should be in" territory.
Work to do
Boise State (20-6, 10-4 MWC)
(BPI: 57 | SOS: 107 | SOR: 50 | RPI: 35)
If Nevada's win at Boise State was huge for the Wolf Pack, it's fair to say that the Broncos' loss was correspondingly significant. Leon Rice's team has now fallen all the way to "next four out" status, and it's not clear that the remaining schedule gives BSU a ladder with enough rungs to climb out of that hole before Selection Sunday.
Then again, Chandler Hutchison might be the best player in the MWC, Boise State is something close to dominant on the defensive glass and the bubble is nothing if not a fluid and dynamic terrain. The Broncos have work to do, but they're still alive.
Middle Tennessee (21-5, 13-1 C-USA)
(BPI: 47 | SOS: 89 | SOR: 32 | RPI: 29)
The Blue Raiders have now won eight in a row after their 72-62 victory at Southern Miss. Next up for Kermit Davis Jr.'s team is a road trip to Louisiana Tech.
When speaking of conference domination, names like Kansas, Villanova and Wichita State have naturally come to mind the past few seasons. That being said, room in this discussion will have to be made for the Blue Raiders if they keep treating Conference USA as their plaything. Over the past two seasons, MTSU is 29-2 in C-USA play.
Western Kentucky (19-7, 11-2 C-USA)
(BPI: 68 | SOS: 124 | SOR: 72 | RPI: 60)
Get used to seeing the Hilltoppers somewhere in the vicinity of this spot at Bubble Watch. This is a given: WKU beat Purdue on a neutral floor in November. That will keep you in some conversations in February.
Alas, Western Kentucky is a game behind Middle Tennessee in the loss column in Conference USA, and Rick Stansbury's team doesn't get another shot at the Blue Raiders until the first day of March. (That game will be in Murfreesboro.) Until then, the Hilltoppers will keep playing conference games in which they're favored, and likely as not, Stansbury's guys will keep showing up here.
St. Bonaventure (19-6, 9-4 A-10)
(BPI: 53 | SOS: 90 | SOR: 48 | RPI: 44)
Bubble Watch is not going to overthink or overwrite this. The Bonnies need to win at home against Rhode Island. If they do, Mark Schmidt's men have a shot at an at-large bid. If they don't, it will be exceedingly difficult to secure a spot in the field of 68 without winning the Atlantic 10 tournament.
Can St. Bonaventure beat the Rams? You bet. Jaylen Adams is hitting 51 percent of his 3s on the season, Matt Mobley is hardly chopped liver from out there in his own right, and the Bonnies haven't lost a home game since the first day of the season. Dan Hurley's team would be well advised to come prepared.
New Mexico State (22-4, 9-1 WAC)
(BPI: 61 | SOS: 163 | SOR: 37 | RPI: 49)