College Basketball

The most important thing by league as conference play winds down

A month from now, Selection Sunday will determine the postseason pecking order in a frantic college basketball season that should produce a memorable NCAA tournament.

Sunday’s unveiling by the NCAA tournament selection committee of the projected top four seeds in each region only encouraged the hype for what will come in the next four weeks. But the last chapter of the season offers ample time to rip apart everything that unfolded on Sunday.

There is still time for bubble teams to get comfortable — hello, NC State — and for squads we called locks weeks ago to sweat a bit — um, Oklahoma? — before Selection Sunday.

The coming weeks matter.

Here are the most important elements of the final month of college basketball’s regular season, by conference:

Big 12: Trae Young’s struggles

Trae Young is still a great player. He’s still the Wooden Award favorite. He’s still a top-10 NBA draft pick. But this ugly chapter for the freshman showcases the challenges associated with elevating an 11-win team into contention for the conference title and a favorable seed.

Oklahoma is falling right now, and Young isn’t hitting the 3-pointers (7-for-32 in the past three games) he made earlier this season.

A rebooted Oklahoma is good for the league. And the team’s placement as a 4-seed by the committee’s projections suggests the panel values Oklahoma’s best wins (at Wichita State, TCU twice, Kansas and Texas Tech) over its current 2-6 record in the past eight games and a defense approaching triple digits on KenPom.com.

The teams that beat Oklahoma own a win over a team in a great position to snatch a top-four seed if it can solve this turmoil. But the Sooners can’t do that without a more efficient Young.

This is the most important storyline in the league.

SEC: Kentucky’s embarrassing slide

Kentucky should put together one of those before-and-after photos for John Calipari after the season. He won’t look the same.

He has never faced these hurdles at Kentucky. Yeah, the 2012-13 team lost Nerlens Noel to a knee injury and stumbled into the NIT, but the Wildcats had won a national title the previous season. No pressure.

The 2013-14 team played bad basketball throughout the regular season, but Calipari and every Kentucky fan knew Karl-Anthony Towns & Co. would soon arrive. This fumbling group, however, is three years removed from Calipari’s most recent Final Four run, an eternity for the spoiled Big Blue Nation.

Today, Kentucky possesses a squad full of underachievers; Duke and Mike Krzyzewski signed the incoming class Calipari wanted. This is a crucial period for Kentucky. The Wildcats entered the week surrendering a 53.7 percent clip to SEC opponents inside the arc. Only LSU is worse in league play. But this is good news for the SEC.

The vulnerable Wildcats, riding a three-game losing streak, entered the week as a top-20 team in the RPI, which positions Calipari’s squad as a potential quality Quadrant 1 win for a multitude of teams fighting for at-large berths and favorable seeds. Auburn, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri (possibly with Michael Porter Jr.) and Florida all can inject their résumés with a victory that’s still valuable to the selection committee if Kentucky can’t find itself within the next month.

Kentucky, the perennial bully, could become the SEC’s doormat leading into the NCAA tournament.

ACC: Boston College

The NCAA touted its newfound acknowledgment of analytics after releasing a team sheet last month that reveled an official first-time implementation of advanced metrics, such as the BPI and KPI. But Sunday’s unveiling of the projected seeds demonstrated how much the committee will still value the RPI and a new tiered scale that measures top-30 home wins, top-50 neutral-site wins and top-75 road wins the same.

That’s why Boston College matters. Jim Christian’s Eagles entered the week at No. 78, just outside the RPI’s Quadrant 1 distinction for teams hoping to secure a sexy road win over BC. But the Eagles’ remaining schedule features a slate of opponents aiming for more security in the bubble pool.

Notre Dame and Syracuse will travel to BC within the next month, and the Eagles will face NC State, Miami and Florida State on the road.

The Eagles already own wins over Duke, Florida State and Miami. And here they are, presenting a complex scenario for the remaining squads on their schedule.

We’re not quite sure what a win over BC will mean on Selection Sunday with the new RPI scale. But a loss to this squad could damage the postseason aspirations of multiple ACC teams that can’t forget about the Eagles.

Big Ten: The Big Ten tournament

This is an odd year for the Big Ten. The league hasn’t produced just four NCAA tournament bids — the Big Ten’s current projection in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology — since 2008. We’re usually talking about six, seven or eight invitations for Jim Delany’s conference.

But this is also a league with three teams positioned to chase top-three seeds on Selection Sunday. The conference moved its tournament to Madison Square Garden a week earlier than the rest of the Power 5 leagues; the Big Ten tournament runs Feb. 28 through March 4. With Ohio State, Purdue and Michigan State done with their matchups against one another this season, their only chance to increase their odds of snatching one of the top seeds in the NCAA tournament will come in New York City.

Purdue (1), Michigan State (3) and Ohio State (4) all earned top-four nods in Sunday’s projections by the selection committee. If the Spartans, who’ve won eight in a row, can run the table and pick up wins over the Boilermakers and Buckeyes in the conference tournament, they will enhance their profile and preserve their top-seed potential. Ohio State could end the year with two wins apiece over Purdue and Michigan State. Purdue could avenge its losses to OSU and Michigan State.

The Big Ten won’t send many teams into the NCAA tournament this season, but the best of the league will enter the chaos with a chance to reach San Antonio. And the matchups in New York City could prove pivotal in this off year for the league.

Big East: Omari Spellman’s effort

Villanova fought through an early deficit Saturday to avoid its second consecutive regular-season sweep against Butler. The Wildcats played that game without Phil Booth (11.6 PPG) and Eric Paschall (10.1 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2.3 APG), the No. 3 and No. 4 scorers on the roster, due to a broken hand and concussion protocol, respectively. Coach Jay Wright said he expects both to miss a chunk of time this month as they recover.

With four of its final six games on the road, it’s not crazy to imagine Villanova stumbling in the next month.

That’s why the Wildcats need the best Omari Spellman to help them fight through a difficult stretch while those two key players recover. He finished 7-for-19 in Nova’s two losses to Butler and St. John’s.

With Paschall and Booth on the floor together, Villanova — an inconsistent defensive unit — holds opponents to 0.95 points per possession. Opponents shoot better from the 3-point line and commit fewer turnovers, however, with Spellman in the game, compared to when he was on the bench, per hooplens.com.

Wright needs an efficient Spellman on offense and defense to weather the coming turbulence for a squad that might not reach full strength until the postseason.

American Athletic Conference: Cincinnati’s momentum

Cincinnati hasn’t lost since Dec. 9. Right now, Mick Cronin’s team is holding American opponents to a 24.8 percent mark from the 3-point line. The Bearcats are bulldozers.

Their upcoming matchup against Wichita State, one of two this season, was initially billed as the American’s heavyweight title fight. But the Bearcats own a three-game lead over Wichita State and Houston in the standings.

Even if the league fails to offer Cincy the tests that top teams in the Power 5 leagues will face in the next month, the Bearcats could start the NCAA tournament as the hottest team in America and the field’s greatest defensive threat outside Charlottesville.

Mountain West: Valentine’s Day

Nevada will face Boise State on Wednesday, its greatest opportunity to earn a quality win in the final weeks of league play. Eric Musselman’s squad is playing stellar offense, averaging 1.15 PPP and committing turnovers on just 13.1 percent of its possessions in league play.

So there is only room to fall in a conference that might end Selection Sunday as a one-bid league. But Nevada is flawed. Its defense is not even within the top 50. In their first matchup, Chandler Hutchinson and Boise State slowed Nevada’s offense and limited second-chance opportunities.

A win over Nevada on Wednesday could propel Boise State into the at-large pool or lead to a broken heart on Valentine’s Day with its second loss to the Mountain West king.

Atlantic 10: Rhode Island’s stumbling blocks

What else can you say? Danny Hurley has built a monster. His team, which hasn’t lost since Dec. 6, is balanced and deep. The Rams want a conference crown and a top-four seed.

All possible.

But this is also a dangerous situation.

A loss to Davidson in the season finale or a loss to another Atlantic 10 squad in the postseason tournament shouldn’t ruin its profile. Rhode Island, No. 5 in the RPI, deserves a high seed. But the rest of its schedule is filled with teams that fall outside the top 100 and could toss Rhode Island into a scary first-round matchup.

Pac-12: Deandre Ayton

Arizona wants no part of the 4-seed the committee projects it will earn a month from now. The Wildcats recovered from their troubling Bahamas trip in November. But a 1-2 record in their past three games proves they’re far from invincible in the Pac-12.

Deandre Ayton is trying to elevate his team into a more promising seed and chase his NBA dreams. But Arizona remains the target of the conference with a defense that’s less imposing than its scoring ability.

This could be the stretch in which coach Sean Miller decides to just feed Ayton more often and dare any opponent to stop the freakish 7-footer.

He might have to do that. Ayton is a unique threat, averaging 19.5 PPG, 10.7 RPG and 1.8 BPG. Wild numbers. And he’ll have to carry Arizona through a Pac-12 slate full of dangerous opponents seeking a win over the Wildcats and the fulfillment of Bill Walton’s dream of a nine-team pool of Pac-12ers in the NCAA tournament.

West Coast Conference: The real Gonzaga vs. the selection committee’s Gonzaga

That Gonzaga team that went to Saint Mary’s on Saturday, punched the Gaels in the mouth and left with that yeah-we’re-back vibe? Those Bulldogs would have rumbled with any opponent in the country.

But they weren’t mentioned in Sunday’s projected seeds. Again, that whole “the RPI doesn’t mean as much” concept? Not as real as we assumed.

And that’s a problem for a team like Gonzaga, which has one double-digit loss this season (Villanova), one home loss (Saint Mary’s) and two single-digit losses outside Spokane, Washington, to respectable foes (Florida, San Diego State). The RPI says Gonzaga is not even a top-40 team. Huh?

After Mark Few’s team just held Saint Mary’s, a top-five team in offensive efficiency, to 65 points? After Johnathan Williams and Killian Tillie helped neutralize All-American candidate Jock Landale?

The predictive metrics love Gonzaga. The Bulldogs entered the week ranked seventh on KenPom.com and eighth in the BPI.

Still, they’ll have to fight even harder to get the seed they deserve, one that could be decided by a possible third matchup against Saint Mary’s in the WCC tournament.

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