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Bubble Watch: Let's hand out some locks


If the NCAA tournament began Sunday, here’s what the field’s top 16 teams would look like:

That’s the result of the selection committee’s bracket preview, which was released Sunday. With the possible exception of Oklahoma making the cut as a No. 4 seed, there were no surprises among the teams included.

What was surprising, however, was a couple of the seeding decisions. Kansas (19-6), which has dropped three of its past six games and could (brace yourself) finish second in the Big 12 this season, was slotted as a No. 2 seed.

Meanwhile, Michigan State (24-3), fresh off its win over Purdue in East Lansing, was relegated to the No. 3 line. Why are the Spartans languishing one line lower than the Jayhawks?

The answer can be found in the quadrant system that the NCAA is employing this year. The idea is to give more credit to teams that win games away from home, whether on neutral floors or in true road contests.

The NCAA now treats a home game against an RPI top-30 opponent as equivalent to a neutral-floor game against an RPI top-50 team or a true road game against an RPI top-75 opponent. These criteria fall under what is referred to as Quadrant 1.

Kansas and Villanova lead the nation with nine Quadrant 1 wins. Conversely, Michigan State is 3-2 in Quadrant 1 games and has recorded just two of its 24 wins against teams that will surely play in the NCAA tournament (Purdue and North Carolina).

Thanks to the NCAA preview, we have several new locks to welcome to Bubble Watch. Any team seeded in the top 15 by the NCAA is officially a lock. Congratulations, Clemson, Texas Tech, North Carolina, Tennessee, Ohio State and Arizona. As we like to say here at Bubble Watch, life is better when you’re locked.

As for the NCAA’s No. 16 team, Oklahoma, well, Bubble Watch isn’t quite ready to pull that trigger yet.

(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.)

ACC

Locks

Virginia (23-2, 12-1 ACC)
(BPI: 3 | SOS: 14 | SOR: 1 | RPI: 1)

Duke (20-5, 8-4 ACC)
(BPI: 3 | SOS: 21 | SOR: 11 | RPI: 8)

Clemson (20-4, 9-3 ACC)
(BPI: 17 | SOS: 45 | SOR: 8 | RPI: 4)

North Carolina (20-7, 9-5 ACC)
(BPI: 11 | SOS: 1 | SOR: 7 | RPI: 7)

Should be in

Miami (18-6, 7-5 ACC)
(BPI: 26 | SOS: 56 | SOR: 22 | RPI: 24)

Losing a one-possession game at Boston College is less than ideal, but the Eagles are 13-2 at home this season. Besides, the Hurricanes can recast the loss at BC as old and trivial news with a win at home Tuesday against Virginia.

To get that job done, Miami will want to channel and extend its February momentum on offense. Since losing Bruce Brown Jr. for six weeks to a foot injury four games ago, the Canes have scored surprisingly well on a per-possession basis. That number is likely to take a hit against the Cavaliers, of course, but a few well-timed 3s from Lonnie Walker IV could go a long way in a slugfest.

Work to do

Louisville (18-8, 8-5 ACC)
(BPI: 27 | SOS: 57 | SOR: 43 | RPI: 40)

The Cardinals have been off the radar for the past week, but that’s about to change in dramatic fashion. The Cardinals face North Carolina at home before playing road games at Duke and Virginia Tech. They close the season with a home game against Virginia and a trip to NC State.

Louisville is No. 3 in the ACC on a per-possession basis behind the Cavaliers and the Blue Devils. Alas, it turns out a little more than 60 percent of that beautiful scoring margin can be traced to two stat-inflating, blowout wins against Pittsburgh.

Even so, Ray Spalding is scoring with underrated efficiency in the paint and in conference play, and this is easily the best shooting team Louisville has had since it went 15-3 in the American in 2013-14.


Florida State (17-8, 6-7 ACC)
(BPI: 28 | SOS: 29 | SOR: 32 | RPI: 44)

The Seminoles were last seen losing by 15 points at Notre Dame, as Matt Farrell drained six 3s and the Fighting Irish went 20-of-24 at the line.

FSU’s defense has indeed been questionable in ACC play, and Leonard Hamilton will want to throw any quick fixes he has at that problem, with Clemson coming to Tallahassee this week. A victory against the Tigers would rank alongside the one against North Carolina and the road wins at Florida and Louisville as this team’s most impressive.

Keep an eye on CJ Walker, who had arguably the best game of any Seminole in the loss in South Bend and who has been trending upward in ACC play.


Syracuse (17-8, 6-6 ACC)
(BPI: 50 | SOS: 58 | SOR: 48 | RPI: 38)

Syracuse is still fighting to force its way into the field and has shots against NC State, Miami, North Carolina, Duke and Clemson to close the season.

Tyus Battle certainly looks prepared for the season-defining closing stretch. While a hoops nation for some reason frets and winces over every minute Devonte’ Graham plays at Kansas, Battle keeps logging highly effective 40-minute outings for Jim Boeheim. In playing every minute against Wake Forest, the sophomore scored 34 points on 10-of-18 shooting from the floor to go with four assists. Most importantly, Battle was 11-of-13 at the line.

Syracuse is a very good defensive team that doesn’t shoot terribly well but gets to the line with regularity. Those trips are very important to this offense.


NC State (16-9, 6-6 ACC)
(BPI: 58 | SOS: 36 | SOR: 47 | RPI: 69)

NC State finds itself in a unique spot. On the one hand, wins over Arizona, Duke and North Carolina (in Chapel Hill) speak for themselves. On the other hand, this team is 16-9 overall, pulling double-digit seeds in projected brackets and at some risk of finishing ACC play under .500.

The Wolfpack hit the road for games at Syracuse and Wake Forest before returning home to play Boston College and, most importantly, Florida State. Job one down the stretch is interior defense. The ACC has devoured NC State’s defense in the paint, converting 57 percent of its 2-point tries.


Virginia Tech (18-7, 7-5 ACC)
(BPI: 29 | SOS: 55 | SOR: 33 | RPI: 56)

Don’t put anything past the Hokies if they can survive that rollercoaster of a finish at Virginia. Maybe it was partly the Cavaliers’ doing, but Buzz Williams’ defense clearly turned the Hoos into a jump-shooting team. (A pretty bad jump-shooting team, actually.)

Of course, one win doesn’t make a season — not even a victory on the home floor of the No. 2 team in the nation. Still, that was a big one for a team that went into the game popping up in mock brackets as a No. 11 seed.

The Hokies are now 7-5 in the ACC and close the season with five out of six games against likely NCAA tournament teams: Duke (twice), Clemson, Louisville and Miami, with a visit to Georgia Tech added for good measure.

Big 12

Locks

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

(BPI: 7 | SOS: 16 | SOR: 14 | RPI: 10)

Texas Tech (20-4, 8-3 Big 12)
(BPI: 9 | SOS: 53 | SOR: 9 | RPI: 11)

Should be in

Oklahoma (16-8, 6-6 Big 12)
(BPI: 33 | SOS: 3 | SOR: 19 | RPI: 21)

At the risk of stating the obvious, February is not going particularly well for the Sooners (even including their inclusion in the NCAA’s bracket preview). Lon Kruger’s team has lost three straight contests, and more to the point, OU has yet to win a game outside of Norman in 2018. That’s not a good omen for a team whose next game is at Texas Tech.

The problem, somewhat surprisingly, is on offense. During this current three-game skid, Oklahoma is giving the ball away on 22 percent of its possessions and shooting a miserable 23 percent on its 3s. Yes, both numbers are partly (though not entirely) Trae Young‘s doing. The freshman has coughed up 17 turnovers in his past 208 offensive possessions, and in that time, he hit just 22 percent from beyond the arc.


West Virginia (19-7, 8-5 Big 12)
(BPI: 10 | SOS: 34 | SOR: 18 | RPI: 35)

Bob Huggins’ men bounced back nicely from the loss at home to Oklahoma State by swatting away TCU 82-66 in Morgantown.

Jevon Carter flashed his point guard skills, dishing nine assists (and, yes, recording five turnovers) against a Horned Frog defense that has been somewhat permissive in Big 12 play and that had to make the 1,239-mile trip to WVU Coliseum on a Monday-Saturday turnaround. The Mountaineers will now play three of their last five games on the road, with trips upcoming to Kansas, Baylor and Texas.

Throw in what should be a momentous game against Texas Tech in Morgantown, and West Virginia will have plenty of chances to boost its seed.

Work to do

TCU (17-9, 5-8 Big 12)
(BPI: 20 | SOS: 9 | SOR: 28 | RPI: 23)

You can make a case that this is the best offense Jamie Dixon has had since his No. 1-seeded Pittsburgh team of 2011 or possibly even his DeJuan Blair-led Panthers squad of 2009 (also a top seed).

Given that the Horned Frogs are just 5-8 in Big 12 play, however, the natural assumption is that this defense must be really bad. It’s no Cincinnati, certainly, but Iowa State and Oklahoma State have given up the same number of points on each possession (1.12) in Big 12 play as TCU thus far.

No, the 5-8 additionally reflects that this team hasn’t fared particularly well in nail-biters. The Frogs are just 2-6 in conference games decided by single digits. Maybe that means TCU is due, or maybe Dixon’s guys lack the “clutch” gene. We’ll see.


Texas (15-11, 5-8 Big 12)
(BPI: 41 | SOS: 2 | SOR: 46 | RPI: 47)

The Longhorns have lost three straight games and four of their past five. That said, all will be forgiven by the NCAA men’s basketball committee if Shaka Smart’s team wins its next game, which is at Oklahoma.

The real question is whether UT can get that job done. This has been the lowest-scoring per-possession offense to this point in Big 12 play, and rather portentously, Smart’s men are inaccurate on their shots from both sides of the arc.

Mo Bamba is a reliable source of 2-point scoring at moderate volume, often off lobs, and Matt Coleman has shown flashes of reliability inside the arc in conference play. Certainly, if Smart can find the offense, the rewards await: Texas took Baylor to the 50th minute despite shooting 43 percent on its 2s and 16 percent on its 3s.


Kansas State (17-8, 6-6 Big 12)
(BPI: 53 | SOS: 40 | SOR: 37 | RPI: 63)

Things are getting tense for the Wildcats in the wake of their 66-47 loss to Texas Tech in Manhattan. Bruce Weber’s team is likely still in the proverbial “if the season ended today” bracket, but just barely.

K-State is 6-6 in the Big 12 and closes the season playing half its games against opponents that might not make the NCAA tournament: Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Baylor. However, games against Texas (at home), Oklahoma and TCU (both on the road) will give the Cats a shot at some good wins.

Still, it’s looking like a finish at .500 or so in conference play and a nervous Selection Sunday.


Baylor (16-10, 6-7 Big 12)
(BPI: 35 | SOS: 11| SOR: 44 | RPI: 53)

After four consecutive wins culminating in victories at home against Kansas and on the road (in double overtime) at Texas, the Bears have joined the fun here at Bubble Watch. Terry Maston came up big in Austin (notwithstanding the potentially disastrous technical foul he committed on Mo Bamba), scoring 26 points on 12-of-18 shooting from the floor.

The win streak has, for now, put Scott Drew’s team in “next four out” territory, meaning, yes, there is still work to be done. Just the same, BU closes the season with three of its last five games at home. Oh, and the first opponent that’s coming to Waco? That would be Texas Tech.

The Big 12 is nothing if not suspenseful, from top to bottom.

Big East

Locks

Villanova (23-2, 10-2 Big East)
(BPI: 1 | SOS: 46 | SOR: 3 | RPI: 3)

Xavier (23-3, 11-2 Big East)
(BPI: 13 | SOS: 25 | SOR: 2 | RPI: 2)

Should be in

Creighton (18-7, 8-5 Big East)
(BPI: 19 | SOS: 36 | SOR: 20 | RPI: 25)

Creighton fell prey to some combination of Xavier late-game mastery (the Musketeers are 11-1 in games decided by single digits) and officials’ late-game mysteries (the Bluejays were called for a questionable blocking foul with 0.3 seconds left).

In other words, the Bluejays’ shot at their best win of the season slipped away, as Xavier escaped Omaha with a 72-71 victory. Nevertheless, they will get more chances to improve their seed, most notably with a road game at Butler on Feb. 20 and a home date against Villanova on Feb. 24.

All the while, Marcus Foster continues to terrorize the Big East with his ability to hit shots from both sides of the arc.

Work to do

Seton Hall (17-8, 6-6 Big East)
(BPI: 34 | SOS: 28 | SOR: 35 | RPI: 26)

In our previous installment of Bubble Watch, we asked whether it was time to worry about the Pirates. The question is still a good one, as they’ve lost three straight games, with the topper being an 83-80 defeat at Georgetown.

Seton Hall’s defense is being torn open. During the current losing streak, its defense has allowed a whopping 1.23 points per possession. Some of that is unusually good 3-point shooting by those opponents, yet even as the Hoyas hit just 32 percent of their tries from beyond the arc, they came away with 83 points in 73 possessions.

The Pirates need to right the defensive ship instantly (see what I did there?) because next up is a visit to Xavier.

Butler (17-9, 7-6 Big East)
(BPI: 23 | SOS: 8 | SOR: 25 | RPI: 31)

Butler narrowly missed out on an incredible consecutive season sweep of Villanova, losing 86-75 in Philadelphia.

Even so, Kelan Martin is making it plain that he intends to end his college career with a blaze. The senior scored 30 points against Nova on 8-of-12 shooting from beyond the arc. In fact, over his past three games, Martin has averaged 30 points per outing.

Butler now gets three straight home games — against Georgetown, Providence and, most crucially, Creighton — before ending the season with road tests at St. John’s and Seton Hall.


Providence (16-9, 7-5 Big East)
(BPI: 75 | SOS: 51 | SOR: 56 | RPI: 42)

A 17-point loss at home to DePaul sent the Friars down Joe Lunardi’s projected bracket all the way to “last four in” territory, leaving them little margin for error.

Providence next hosts Villanova, which qualifies as an all-upside opportunity. In the event that Providence loses, the real work will begin with games at Butler and at home against Seton Hall.

Providence’s offense has looked rather moribund over the past five games, and with the notable exception of Nate Watson, no single Friar had what you could call a good game on that side of the ball against the Blue Demons.

Big Ten

Locks

Michigan State (24-3, 12-2 Big Ten)
(BPI: 6 | SOS: 59 | SOR: 4 | RPI: 14)

Purdue (23-4, 12-2 Big Ten)
(BPI: 2 | SOS: 26 | SOR: 5 | RPI: 12)

Ohio State (22-5, 13-1 Big Ten)
(BPI: 14 | SOS: 48 | SOR: 12 | RPI: 17)

Should be in

Michigan (20-7, 9-5 Big Ten)
(BPI: 25 | SOS: 50 | SOR: 17 | RPI: 37)

Moe Wagner’s 20-11 double-double at Wisconsin powered the Wolverines to an 11-point win. Next, after an upcoming home game against Iowa, John Beilein’s team will receive the rarest of Big Ten gifts this weekend. UM will get an opportunity to record a Quadrant 1 win on its home floor. Ohio State is coming to Ann Arbor, and a win in that game could elevate Michigan’s seed in a way that no other remaining regular-season game can. Thanks to a microscopic turnover rate, the Wolverines have recorded the highest shot volume of any team in the relatively low-shot-volume Big Ten. That plus outstanding defensive rebounding has carried Beilein’s men to a 20-7 record, despite so-so perimeter shooting from a highly perimeter-oriented offense.

Work to do

Nebraska (19-8, 10-4 Big Ten)
(BPI: 61 | SOS: 54 | SOR: 36 | RPI: 55)

Nebraska is 10-4 in the Big Ten and has won five in a row. (Fine, two of those were against Rutgers.) That hasn’t been enough to put this team solidly in the field — Lunardi has them in “first four out” territory — but the trajectory is certainly positive.

The Cornhuskers take excellent care of the ball, and James Palmer Jr. is doing some effective lobbying for 2019 Big Ten Player of the Year honors.

The only problem is the schedule. The good news is Nebraska will likely end the season with an excellent conference record because the Huskers finish with games against Maryland, Illinois, Indiana and Penn State. The bad news, for a team trying to earn a bid, is that Nebraska finishes with games against Maryland, Illinois, Indiana and Penn State.

Pac-12

Locks

Arizona (20-6, 10-3 Pac-12)
(BPI: 21 | SOS: 72 | SOR: 34 | RPI: 19)

Should be in

Arizona State (19-6, 7-6 Pac-12)
(BPI: 40 | SOS: 78 | SOR: 38 | RPI: 27)

The Sun Devils are riding a three-game win streak heading into an epic showdown in Tempe against Arizona. The dog that still hasn’t barked with ASU, however, is 3-point shooting. The Sun Devils are hitting just 34 percent of their 3s in Pac-12 play, a number that has been heading down during this win streak.

ASU hit 14 3s in a win at Kansas on Dec. 10, and it seemed at the time like that type of shooting performance was a harbinger of things to come. Maybe that deluge is still to come. If it happens, look out, because Arizona State already is scoring at a pretty good clip, thanks mostly to 2s and free throws.

Work to do

Washington (17-8, 7-5 Pac-12)
(BPI: 121 | SOS: 71 | SOR: 60 | RPI: 45)

Washington is coming off an 0-2 road swing against Oregon and Oregon State, but the good news is that the Huskies are coming home to Seattle to play Utah and Colorado.

For now, Washington is clinging to the cut line. Virginia tends to get the credit for winning with defense, but give a nod in this same direction to the Huskies, despite their offensive struggles.

The Huskies have excelled in chasing conference opponents off the 3-point line. No Pac-12 opponent has made 10 or more 3s against this defense.


USC (17-9, 8-5 Pac-12)
(BPI: 51 | SOS: 69 | SOR: 68 | RPI: 48)

Life is difficult on the knife edge of the bubble (if one may mix a metaphor). USC went 0-2 on its road trip to Arizona State and Arizona, and now the Trojans are barely making the cut in Lunardi’s bracket. They cannot afford to continue the slide during a two-game homestand against Oregon and Oregon State.

USC takes excellent care of the ball. Can it leverage that turnover mastery into a bid? It just might happen.


UCLA (17-8, 8-5 Pac-12)
(BPI: 60 | SOS: 66 | SOR: 57 | RPI: 53)

The Bruins’ win at Arizona, even factoring in the subsequent loss at Arizona State, got this team into the field in projected brackets by a hair. Now the issue is whether UCLA can stay there.

It isn’t going to be easy. The Bruins play three of their final five games on the road. Heck, Senior Night is practically here already. It’s happening this Saturday at home against Oregon. After that, Steve Alford’s team finishes things with road games at Utah, Colorado and USC, which would all be smart to have their perimeter defenses well prepared. Aaron Holiday is blitzing the Pac-12 with 52 percent 3-point shooting.


Utah (15-9, 7-6 Pac-12)
(BPI: 73 | SOS: 62 | SOR: 69 | RPI: 57)

Welcome to Bubble Watch, Utes. We’ve been expecting you. Now that you’ve won five of your past seven games and your overtime win at Arizona State is looking better than ever, it’s time to assess your tournament chances.

Well, they exist. Teams such as Syracuse, Nebraska, St. Bonaventure and Boise State might be ahead of you in this line, but you’ve made a rapid ascent to get this far. Bubble Watch’s advice now is keep going!

That upcoming road trip against Washington and Washington State? A 2-0 swing would certainly get people’s attention. Turn David Collette loose in the paint and put that slow pace and excellent interior defense to good use.

SEC

Locks

Auburn (22-3, 10-2 SEC)

(BPI: 15 | SOS: 67 | SOR: 10 | RPI: 6)

Tennessee (18-6, 8-4 SEC)
(BPI: 16 | SOS: 4 | SOR: 13 | RPI: 13)

Should be in

Kentucky (17-8, 6-6 SEC)
(BPI: 37 | SOS: 13 | SOR: 24 | RPI: 18)

Finish this sentence: When you play Kentucky in 2018, you know you’re going to get … what, exactly? I suppose the one trait that could be used to fill in the blank would be a very low number of 3-point attempts. Throw in the fact that UK (including PJ Washington in particular) is really good at getting to the line, and you perhaps have the long and short of this team’s enduring traits.

The fact that there’s no clear answer to how Kentucky will win is likely related to the fact that John Calipari’s team has dropped three straight games. The Wildcats’ scoring over this skid has been especially abysmal, clocking in at 0.93 points per possession.

Texas A&M (17-8, 6-6 SEC)
(BPI: 32 | SOS: 10 | SOR: 21 | RPI: 15)

Over the weekend, Texas A&M announced that J.J. Caldwell had been dismissed from the team and that Jay Jay Chandler was being suspended indefinitely. That hurts the Aggies’ depth, certainly, but it’s also true that both freshmen were averaging less than 12 minutes per game in SEC play.

It is therefore likely that A&M will still look like a lot like A&M in the near term, which is to say possibly the best team in the SEC right now. The Aggies are dominating the paint at both ends of the floor, and Robert Williams is blocking shots and converting 86 percent of his 2s during a four-game win streak.

All of which sounds very impressive, and now the schedule is giving the Aggies a chance to prove that they really are all that. They hit the road to play games at Missouri and Arkansas.


Alabama (16-9, 7-5 SEC)
(BPI: 44 | SOS: 39 | SOR: 50 | RPI: 32)

Say you want to make an emphatic, seed-raising point to the NCAA men’s basketball selection committee. One way of doing so would be to take one of the committee’s top 16 teams and pound that team mercilessly and unmistakably into the hardwood.

That’s more or less what Alabama did to Tennessee in Tuscaloosa, hammering the Volunteers 78-50. Grant Williams was a respectable 5-of-12 from the floor for the Vols, but his teammates were a combined 11-of-46.

Next up for the Tide: a home game against LSU before hitting the road to take on Kentucky and Auburn.


Florida (17-8, 8-4 SEC)
(BPI: 31 | SOS: 19 | SOR: 27 | RPI: 43)

If you dislike close finishes, Florida is your team. Over the past four games, the Gators have lost by 12, lost by 18, won by nine and won by 24.

In beating that last opponent, South Carolina, Florida had the distinction of seeing no player score more than 12 points. The Gators are nothing if not balanced, with Chris Chiozza, Jalen Hudson, Egor Koulechov and KeVaughn Allen all carrying their fair share of the load on offense.

Their real strength, however, resides on defense, particularly on the interior. The Gators will bring their specialty to closing-stretch tests against, among others, Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama and Kentucky to close the regular season.

Work to do

Missouri (17-8, 7-5 SEC)
(BPI: 45 | SOS: 47 | SOR: 42 | RPI: 22)

The Tigers looked like they were in trouble in late January, but they have won four straight games, including an overtime escape at home against Mississippi State. Kassius Robertson was the hero in that contest, with 22 points, thanks in large part to 5-of-11 shooting on his 3s.

Most importantly, Missouri kept its turnovers to a bare minimum in that game. This hasn’t always been the case with this offense in SEC play, and a new, low-giveaway style would portend big things for a team that reliably shoots better than its opponents but has been held back by a very large turnover deficit.


Arkansas (17-8, 6-6 SEC)
(BPI: 41 | SOS: 44 | SOR: 39 | RPI: 30)

The Razorbacks face a remaining schedule that is either filled with opportunity or built to send the Hogs to an under-.500 finish in SEC play. Take your pick.

If Arkansas emerges unscathed from a gauntlet that will include Texas A&M, Kentucky, Alabama, Auburn and Missouri, it might be because Daniel Gafford has continued his rapid ascent. In the Hogs’ win over Vanderbilt, the 6-foot-11 freshman scored 16 points to go with nine rebounds, seven blocks and two steals — all in 24 minutes.


Mississippi State (18-7, 6-6 SEC)
(BPI: 64 | SOS: 80 | SOR: 53 | RPI: 54)

Last chance, Bulldogs. You’ve been holding on for dear life here at Bubble Watch. Now it’s time to make your move or (while we don’t wish to be harsh) drop off the board.

The overtime loss at Missouri was a missed opportunity, but it also fit seamlessly with an encouraging late-season trend toward (much) improved offense. Keep that trend going and see what happens, starting with that next game at Vanderbilt.

American

Locks

Cincinnati (23-2, 12-0 AAC)

(BPI: 4 | SOS: 93 | SOR: 6 | RPI: 9)

Should be in

Wichita State (19-5, 9-3 AAC)
(BPI: 12 | SOS: 81 | SOR: 30 | RPI: 20)

The Shockers have looked like the Missouri Valley-version Shockers for the past week, winning games by 20-something points at Memphis and at home against Connecticut.

Gregg Marshall won’t have any trouble getting his guys motivated to play Temple and avenge the overtime loss they suffered in Philadelphia on Feb. 1. Then, of course, comes the mother of all American games: Cincinnati on the road. On paper that looks like a Bearcats win, but Wichita State is finally making 3s the way it did at the beginning of conference play.

Work to do

Houston (19-5, 9-3 AAC)
(BPI: 30 | SOS: 83 | SOR: 29 | RPI: 28)

Just two teams have made Cincinnati look anything close to normal on defense: Xavier and Houston. Of course, unlike the Musketeers, the Cougars lost their game to the Bearcats two weeks ago. Still, they hit 10 3s in that loss, the only American team to record double-digit makes from beyond the arc against Cincinnati.

All of which is relevant now because the rematch is here. The Bearcats are coming to Houston, and the game gives UH an unparalleled opportunity to bump its projected double-digit seed up a notch or two. If Corey Davis and Armoni Brooks are hitting from deep, Cincinnati’s perfect run through the American could be in peril.


Temple (15-10, 7-6 AAC)
(BPI: 77 | SOS: 38 | SOR: 61 | RPI: 39)

“Don’t look at our record. Just remember we beat Auburn and Clemson in November” seems to be the Owls’ mantra in their push for a bid, and it’s not looking so crazy.

Temple has won five straight games and has a chance to put an emphatic February stamp on its profile with its next game at Wichita State. Late-season Temple is a far more formidable quantity on offense and should pose a fair test for the tough Shockers’ defense in Wichita.

Dunphy’s three-headed backcourt of Shizz Alston Jr., Quinton Rose and Josh Brown is hitting its shots and limiting turnovers.

Others

Locks: None

Should be in

Rhode Island (20-3, 12-0 A-10)
(BPI: 24 | SOS: 87 | SOR: 15 | RPI: 5)

The Rams took care of Davidson with a 72-59 win at home, giving themselves a four-game lead in the A-10 standings. The feeling over the weekend was that URI is likely one of the first teams, if not the first team, in the bracket after the 16 teams named by the NCAA in the preview.


Saint Mary’s (24-3, 13-1 WCC)
(BPI: 18 | SOS: 233 | SOR: 26 | RPI: 34)

Bubble Watch raised the subject of the Gaels’ defense pre-Gonzaga before speculating that an opponent will still have to score a lot of points to outpace the Gaels. Turns out raising the subject was the right play.

Saint Mary’s will be fine for the remainder of the regular season, of course, but the question at issue is what Randy Bennett’s team does against an offense the caliber of the Zags (who scored 78 points in 62 possessions) or, for that matter, an offense as good as a garden-variety NCAA tournament team. The fact that Saint Mary’s sports the lowest rate for opponent turnovers in WCC play, for example, is not an especially encouraging sign.


Gonzaga (23-4, 13-1 WCC)
(BPI: 8 | SOS: 103 | SOR: 16 | RPI: 41)

Saturday was so confusing. We all watched Michigan State beat Purdue thanks in part to a brilliant strategy of not double-teaming Isaac Haas. Then, a few hours later, we all watched Gonzaga win 78-65 at Saint Mary’s, thanks in part to a brilliant strategy of double-teaming Jock Landale immediately and aggressively.

It worked. Landale got his usual 10 rebounds and four blocks, but he scored just four points. The Bulldogs are developing quickly as the year progresses, and specifically, Rui Hachimura is mere starter’s minutes away from being even more impressive than he already is, which is highly. (Hey, kind of like Zach Collins last year.)

Work to do

Nevada (21-5, 10-2 MWC)
(BPI: 22 | SOS: 118 | SOR: 41 | RPI: 16)

The Wolf Pack own a home win over Rhode Island, and their five losses this season have come by a combined margin of 21 points.

They visit Boise State next. Nevada is up a game in the loss column on the Broncos in the Mountain West race, and Jordan Caroline is coming off a game in which he scored 26 points on 8-of-14 shooting to go with 11 boards against San Diego State.


Boise State (20-5, 10-3 MWC)
(BPI: 54 | SOS: 113 | SOR: 40 | RPI: 36)

Leon Rice’s team has apparently decided to go full-Xavier and play nothing but close games. That’s fine when you’re the Musketeers and you win them all at the last second, but alas, fate has not been as kind to Boise State.

The Broncos have played four consecutive nail-biters, and Utah State finally made them pay with a 71-65 win in Logan. That was enough to put Boise State just outside Lunardi’s bracket as it prepares for a crucially important showdown with Nevada in Boise.


Middle Tennessee (20-5, 12-1 C-USA)
(BPI: 47 | SOS: 88 | SOR: 31 | RPI: 29)

Steady as she goes for the Blue Raiders, winners of seven straight games. Nick King is continuing his single-minded pursuit of the Conference USA Player of the Year award, to the tune of a 32-point, 11-rebound performance in a 79-73 win over North Texas.

When King takes a breather, Kermit Davis can still turn to Giddy Potts or Brandon Walters.


Western Kentucky (18-7, 10-2 C-USA)
(BPI: 71 | SOS: 122 | SOR: 73 | RPI: 58)

The Hilltoppers might need a road win at Middle Tennessee on the first day of March as part of a running of the table that would land them in contention for an at-large bid. That could be a tall order, even for a team with a win over Purdue on its résumé.

WKU is skilled at scoring in the paint, and Justin Johnson in particular gets the job done down low, but the Hilltoppers have operated at a slight but telling turnover deficit relative to their opponents in C-USA play.


St. Bonaventure (18-6, 8-4 A-10)
(BPI: 55 | SOS: 92 | SOR: 51 | RPI: 46)

The Bonnies have one preliminary test remaining, a road game at La Salle, before getting on Friday night the opportunity against Rhode Island that they so badly need to enhance their tournament profile.

St. Bonaventure sits just outside the field of 68, but a win over the Rams could very well change that when added to the Bonnies’ true road victory at Syracuse.


New Mexico State (22-3, 9-0 WAC)
(BPI: 59 | SOS: 189 | SOR: 23 | RPI: 50)

Up until this time, the Aggies have occupied the uncertain Bubble Watch space inhabited by teams we think we know will win their league’s auto-bid. NMSU is 9-0 in WAC play on the eve of a road game at possibly its toughest opponent, Utah Valley.

Still, let there be no misunderstanding regarding this team. In the event of the Aggies being bounced from the WAC tournament, they still have a profile worthy of at-large consideration (starting with a nine-point win over Miami on a neutral floor).

Previous Bubble Watch editions: Feb. 6 | Feb. 9



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