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The Watch: If Selection Sunday were today...

Half the SEC is in the mix for the NCAA tournament as non-conference play winds down. This week, Bama hunts for a quality win, while Kentucky gets another test against UCLA.

NCAA Basketball: Savannah State at Texas A&M
With Southeastern Conference play starting in a couple of weeks, Texas A&M should be all smiles about the NCAA tournament resume it has put together.
C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

Normally, I babble.

Not this week, though. We’ve reached the time of year where it’s worthwhile to look at the NCAA tournament resumes that SEC teams are assembling. After this week, the marquee non-conference tests are done.

The format is simple. I’ve used RPI Forecast for projected finishes and strength of schedule. On Saturday, ESPN bracket guru Joe Lunardi tweeted his latest S-Curve.

I’ve also included ratings from KenPom and Jeff Sagarin as a guide for where teams currently stand. I didn’t include Georgia or Auburn, neither of which has shown up in either Lunardi’s projections or those done by CBS’ Jerry Palm.

Take a look.

Texas A&M

  • Record: 9-1
  • RPI Forecast: 8.3
  • Projected SOS: No. 8
  • Lunardi S-Curve: No. 6
  • KenPom: No. 4
  • Sagarin: No. 10
  • vs. KenPom Top-50: 4-1
  • Quality Wins: West Virginia (Neutral), Oklahoma State (Neutral), Penn State (Neutral), USC (Road)
  • Bad Losses: None
  • Quick Take: The Aggies are the presumptive SEC favorite at this point, and their resume is proof. Their blowout of West Virginia has aged well, and they barely missed knocking off Arizona in Phoenix. If USC can also stabilize, that’s a nice road win. Meanwhile, A&M hasn’t stubbed its toe. We knew the Aggies had depth and talent up front, but the wing play of veterans Admon Gilder, D.J. Hogg and graduate transfer Duane Wilson has been a catalyst.

Kentucky

  • Record: 9-1
  • RPI Forecast: 24.3
  • Projected SOS: No. 10
  • Lunardi S-Curve: No. 12
  • KenPom: No. 16
  • Sagarin: No. 26
  • vs. KenPom Top-50: 1-1
  • Quality Wins: Virginia Tech (H)
  • Bad Losses: None
  • Quick Take: Yes, this will sound odd: the Wildcats have flown under the radar, a feat that’s practically impossible for BBN with John Calipari at the helm. UK’s schedule, though, is backloaded. It started with a telling win on Saturday over Virginia Tech and continues this weekend with UCLA. The question each season in Lexington is what kind of chemistry experiment Cal can pull off. We’ll know more in a couple weeks, but he’s certainly earned the benefit of the doubt.

Florida

  • Record: 6-4
  • RPI Forecast: 48.1
  • Projected SOS: No. 36
  • Lunardi S-Curve: No. 19
  • KenPom: No. 23
  • Sagarin: No. 31
  • vs. KenPom Top-50: 2-3
  • Quality Wins: Gonzaga (N), Cincinnati (N)
  • Bad Losses: Loyola Chicago (H)
  • Quick Take: On Saturday, Florida tripped another alarm in skid where the Gators have lost four of five, including a home loss to a Missouri Valley squad. Afterward, Mike White questioned his team’s mental toughness. “We are not a mentally tough team right now,” White said. “We need to grow in that area.” KeVaughn Allen has been adrift offensively. John Egbunu’s injury has exacerbated issues in the post. During this stretch, Florida has been hammered in the paint and in a god when 3-pointers aren’t falling. Yes, Florida outdueled Gonzaga in the PK80 Invitational, but that win is disappearing in the rearview.

Tennessee

  • Record: 7-2
  • RPI Forecast: 24.8
  • Projected SOS: No. 28
  • Lunardi S-Curve: No. 21
  • KenPom: No. 24
  • Sagarin: No. 32
  • vs. KenPom Top-50: 1-2
  • Quality Wins: Purdue
  • Bad Losses: None

Quick Take: Rick Barnes’ crew also wilted down the stretch and let a marquee win slip from its grasp. Knocking off North Carolina would have arguably have given the Volunteers wins on par with those held by Texas A&M. Instead, they fumbled away insurance in the event they come back to earth in SEC play. Although, it’s hard to quibble given how Rick Barnes’ team has exceeded expectations so far. Its upset of Purdue has stood up, while wins over mid-majors in Western Kentucky, Mercer, and Lipscomb could all look better down the road.

Arkansas

  • Record: 8-2
  • RPI Forecast: 20.3
  • Projected SOS: No. 30
  • Lunardi S-Curve: No. 23
  • KenPom: No. 26
  • Sagarin: No. 17
  • vs. KenPom Top-50: 2-2
  • Quality Wins: Oklahoma (N), Minnesota (H)
  • Bad Losses: Houston
  • Quick Take: What a difference a week makes. After Arkansas toppled Minnesota at home, it looked like the Razorbacks had their showcase win. Then the Gophers tumbled out of the polls. No worries, though, Oklahoma knocked off Wichita State. There’s still a head-scratching blowout at the hands of Houston. Meanwhile, it would help if Samford and Bucknell rallied from brutal non-conference starts to win their respective conferences. Overall, though, Arkansas’ put together a solid body of work.

Alabama

  • Record: 7-3
  • RPI Forecast: 47.7
  • Projected SOS: No. 3
  • Lunardi S-Curve: No. 29
  • KenPom: No. 40
  • Sagarin: No. 51
  • vs. KenPom Top-50: 0-2
  • Quality Wins: Rhode Island (H)
  • Bad Losses: None
  • Quick Take: On paper, this should be a breakthrough season for Avery Johnson and Crimson Tide. The non-conference schedule is a testament to it. Unfortunately, Collin Sexton, John Petty and Dazon Ingram haven’t been able to cash in chips. And that’s before you consider a close call with UT-Arlington and a home loss to UCF. This week, Bama gets Texas, and with it, one last shot a high-profile win outside the SEC. It’s a stretch to say Bama has been a disappointment. Yet the slate they took on was intended to yield a seeding better than a spot on the No. 7 line.

Missouri

  • Record: 9-2
  • RPI Forecast: 25.1
  • Projected SOS: No. 27
  • Lunardi S-Curve: No. 33
  • KenPom: No. 45
  • Sagarin: No. 27
  • vs. KenPom Top-50: 0-1
  • Quality Wins: St. John’s
  • Bad Losses: None.
  • Quick Take: Imagine if Missouri held fast for eight minutes against West Virginia. A neutral floor win over a likely top-15 team would change the flavor of Missouri’s resume. No, it’s not bad. If Utah doesn’t collapse, I doubt the Tigers’ 18-point road loss will be held against them. Iowa State looks better. UCF is healthy and has a win over Alabama. And we’ll have to see if St. John’s stays in the at-large mix. Mizzou has done what’s required: win the games it should. Based on Lunardi’s ordering, the Tigers would be safely in the field. The question now is whether they can use the SEC schedule to boost their seeding.

Last week, Sam Snelling and I opined that the SEC still has up to 10 teams who can still talk about vying for an at-large bid. Auburn helped itself with a victory over Middle Tennessee. Georgia? The Bulldogs were smacked by 22 points at UMass. Meanwhile, Ole Miss dropped its fifth game, and it’s best win is over Louisiana-Lafayette.

Now, Georgia has a pair of games this week—Georgia Tech and Temple—that can help it recover. Ole Miss, though, will have to do a lot of cleanup work in conference play. As for Mississippi State, Ben Howland’s crew remains a mystery. They took a 15-point loss at Cincinnati and have non-conference SOS of No. 341, per KenPom. Like Ole Miss, they’ll have to do some remediation in league play.

Keeping these profiles in mind, let’s turn to what you should tune in to see this week.


THE CAN'T-MISS

We get it: You may not have the time (or inclination) to load up your schedule with games to watch. That’s why we single out the game you should carve out to time to see each week.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at VCU
Texas post Mo Bamba is just one of the headlining freshmen in a matchup against Alabama.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Texas vs. Alabama | 8 p.m. CT Friday, ESPN2

First, tune in to see two (likely) top-10 NBA draft picks sharing the same space.

But the bigger deal for both parties is getting a quality win over a high-major opponent. Texas whiffed against Duke, Gonzaga and Michigan. And we already mentioned Alabama’s missed opportunities. Currently, Texas, which is floating perilously close to the First Four Out, might be in slightly more need of a win.

Recently, Texas has been experimenting with a lineup that brings more size and length to the floor. Just how much he deploys Jericho Sims (6-foot-9), Dylan Osetkowski (6-9) and phenom Mo Bamba (6-11) together is uncertain. The concern, though, isn’t about offense. Instead, it’s whether teams would exploit switches on ball-screens, pick-and-rolls and other areas on the floor and how much pressure would be put on the backend and help-side rotations.

But if the Longhorns can find some balance, there’s little doubt coach Shaka Smart would have a unique lineup. Osetkowski, who transferred from Tulane, has acclimated smoothly in Austin, averaging 15.7 points and 7.5 rebounds, to take part of the burden off Bamba, who’s still been stellar by averaging a double-double early in his college career. Sims, a top-75 recruit, is an elite athlete who’s active on the glass and as a rim protector, but his offensive game is still relatively raw. That puts pressure on Osetkowski, more than any of the trio, to be on-point away from the paint.

The stakes are a little higher given guard Andrew Jones suffered a hairline fracture in his wrist on Dec. 5 in a win over VCU. Without his length on the wing, UT’s perimeter defense has been tested, and it’s there that Alabama might find some room to operate.

Crimson Tide point guard Collin Sexton will not only test the Longhorns off the bounce, but his jump shooting (47.1 percent from the 3-point line) has also quickly translated to the college level. Behind Sexton, fellow freshman John Petty has also been a reliable scoring threat, while Dazon Ingram—a far from ballyhooed prospect--has continued to bloom under Avery Johnson’s watch.

Texas’ Havoc shouldn’t rattle Alabama’s backcourt. Instead, this one may hinge on how well the Crimson Tide’s front line can handle Bamba—the Big 12 Conference’s leader in blocked shots and rebounds—and a Texas frontcourt with a touch more athleticism. Bama has options in Donta Hall, Ohio State transfer Daniel Giddens and Herbert Jones. If they hold up, UT will have to depend on shaky 3-point shooting, while its bigs are (potentially) put into precarious positions on the other end of the floor.

As awesome a prospect as Bamba is at the next level, college basketball still remains propelled by guard play. Alabama, at least right now, has the edge, and a slight home court advantage with this one taking place in Birmingham.


THE CONFERENCE CALL

The SEC is trying to be better at basketball. Schools are assembling tougher schedules, hiring better coaches and recruiting at a higher level. We want to spotlight one matchup, and not always the one that first comes to mind, that’s interesting, could influence national perception or have major implications for the league race.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Kentucky
A knock on Hamidou Diallo has been his jump shooting. Through 10 games, the sophomore wing has shown improvement, while the rest the Wildcats forever young roster is starting to find its stride.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

UCLA vs. No. 7 Kentucky | 3 p.m. Saturday CT, CBS

UCLA coach Steve Alford can empathize a bit with John Calipari.

Exodus was the word this offseason in Westwood. Lonzo Ball, T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu left for NBA paydays, while veteran stalwarts Bryce Alford and Issac Hamilton moved on. Only Thomas Welsh, whose rebounding and mid-range stroke, is a familiar face on a roster among the nation’s youngest.

Now, junior guard Aaron Holiday has tried to fill the void, but still struggles at times with valuing the ball and his outside shot. That being said, he’s still the Bruins best perimeter defender. What the Bruins need, though, are steady complements. Top-25 recruit Kris Wilkes came out of the gates fast, but he’s averaging just 9.5 points and shooting 41.7 percent over the past four games. Fellow freshman Jaylen Hands is also trying to find the consistency to match up with his potential.

What should hearten Alford is that his group hasn’t been manhandled defensively in losses to Creighton, Michigan and Cincinnati. Instead, it’s a matter of a couple freshmen stepping forward to help out Welsh and Holiday.

That hasn’t been the case in Lexington.

Quade Green has been able to balance distribution (3.6 assists per game and a 27.7 assist percentage) with timely scoring. Swingman Kevin Knox’s jumper has been flaky, but he hasn’t fallen in love with hoisting them up, sticking with the mold of a combo forward or stretch-4. And slasher Hamidou Diallo is shooting the ball well enough from deep (38.5 percent from the 3-point line) that teams haven’t sat on his dribble.

More importantly, UK is shooting the ball efficiently from long range. In fact, only 23.6 percent of their shots are 3-pointers—fourth-fewest nationally. Yet Green and Alexander have both supplied enough to keep defenses honest. Right now, Knox and Diallo each average roughly 15 points a game, but Green, P.J. Washington and Shai Gilgous-ALexander contribute equally behind them.

At times, Calipari has experimented with zone looks--taking advantage of Kentucky’s length and size--but also with the press. It reaped dividends on Saturday against Virginia Tech, generating 36 points and becoming another source of offense on top of second-chance points.

While Kentucky is still coalescing, its surplus talent seems farther along the Bruins, who will need Hands and Wilkes to have big outings to give themselves a chance on a neutral floor in New Orleans.


THE DEEP CUT

We at Rock M Nation believe in equality. There are quality hoops played in mid-major and low-major conferences, and those are the wells of rising coaching talent and potential Cinderella teams. As a true hoops connoisseur, you should see the players, coaches, and teams long before the spotlight finds them in March. So, we will bring you one game that might otherwise be considered off the grid.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Oakland
Martez Walker, a transfer from Texas, has brought scoring punch to an Oakland program that could be a contender in the Horizon League.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Towson at Oakland | 6 p.m. CT Wednesday, ESPN3

Full disclosure: I have not seen these teams at all this season.

But that’s how The Watch was born, a compulsion to see the likely favorite from every one-bid league before Selection Sunday.

Towson is an awesome tale of renewal. The Tigers won just 49 games in their first decade as a member of the Colonial Athletic Association. Since the arrival of Pat Skerry, a former assistant under Jamie Dixon at Pitt, the Tigers have tilted their trajectory:

  • 2011-2012: 1-31 overall, 1-17 CAA (No. 339 in KenPom)
  • 2012-2013: 18-13, 13-5 CAA (No. 175)
  • 2013-2014: 25-11, 13-5 CAA (No. 130)
  • 2014-2015: 12-20, 5-13 CAA (No. 260)
  • 2015-2016: 20-13, 11-7 CAA (No. 152)
  • 2016-2017: 20-13, 11-7 CAA (No. 116)
  • 2017-2018: 10-1 overall (No. 99)

Given the constraints, Skerry has done a hell of a job in one of the nation’s tougher mid-major conferences. Kudos to the Towson administration for sticking with him and living through a couple rejuvenation cycles. This year, they bring back eight players who logged at least 10 minutes a night, paced by sophomore guard Zane Martin’s 17.9 points per game. Senior Mike Morsell chips in nearly 13 points, but the rest of the Tigers’ rotation spread out the scoring.

As for Oakland, Greg Kampe has been around for nearly two decades and tweaked his approach to roster construction to capitalize on the sport’s booming transfer market. Leading scorer Martez Walker started out Texas, while backcourt buddy Kendrick Nunn sat out last season after leaving Illinois. They pack scoring punch on the wing, combining to average 44 points per game, while in-house big man Jalen Hayes adds nearly 19 points and nine rebounds in the post.

I’m intrigued to see how Towson handles Oakland’s penchant to push the ball and play with pace. Outside of that, I’m tuning in with an open mind and to get a sense for whether Towson is a legitimate challenger to College of Charleston, and whether Oakland’s struggles against name-brand opponents—and losses to Eastern Michigan and Toledo—are a harbinger of struggles in the Horizon League.


THE DOCKET

Other games that should have your attention or eyeballs this week. They’re top-25 matchups, solid high-major meetings, interesting SEC games and others that have implications for low- and mid-major conferences. All tip-times are based on CST.

Monday

  • Boise State at SMU, 8 p.m., ESPNU
  • UT-Arlington at No. 25 Creighton, 8 p.m., FS1

Tuesday

  • South Carolina at Clemson, 6 p.m., ESPNU
  • UNC-Asheville at UNC-Greensboro, 6 p.m., ESPN3
  • Belmont at Western Kentucky, 7 p.m., Fox College Sports
  • Mercer vs. Alabama, 8 p.m., SEC Network
  • Georgia Tech at Georgia, 8 p.m., ESPN2

Wednesday

  • Saint Joseph vs. St. John’s, 3:30 p.m. ESPNU
  • Houston vs. Providence, 6 p.m., ESPNU
  • Furman at No. 21 Tennessee, 8 p.m., SEC Network

Thursday

  • Buffalo at No. 8 Texas A&M, 8 p.m., SEC Network
  • UConn at No. 18 Arizona, 8 p.m., ESPN2
  • No. 12 Gonzaga at San Diego State, 9 p.m., CBS Sports Network

Friday

  • Temple at Georgia, Noon, SEC Network
  • Middle Tennessee vs. Princeton, 4:30 p.m., ESPNU
  • Northwestern at No. 17 Oklahoma, 6 p.m., ESPN2
  • Loyola Chicago at Missouri State, 8 p.m. ESPN3
  • No. 9 Xavier at Northern Iowa, 8 p.m., CBS Sports Network
  • Davidson vs. New Mexico State, 10 p.m., ESPNU

Saturday

  • No. 21 Tennessee at Wake Forest, 11:30 a.m., ESPN2
  • Ohio State vs. No. 5 North Carolina, 12:30 p.m., CBS
  • UConn at Auburn, 1:30 p.m., ESPN2
  • Illinois vs. Missouri, 7 p.m., ESPN2

THE REVIEW

Catch up on prior editions of The Watch and look back three months from now to see how foolish all of these ideas actually are!