We are getting awfully close to that time of the year when terms such as ‘bubble team,’ ‘quality wins’ and ‘bracketology’ take on a very important meaning when it comes to college basketball. There are only a couple of weeks left in the regular season as teams all across the country begin that final push for position when it comes to their upcoming conference tournament as well as this year’s NCAA Tournament starting in mid-March.
The following is a look at five teams currently outside of the latest AP Top 25 that have the best chance of making some noise down the stretch.
No. 5 – New Mexico Lobos
The San Diego State Aztecs are currently the class of the Mountain West with a 22-2 straight up record that has them ranked No. 6 in the current AP poll. The Lobos have remained right on their heels all season long with a 10-2 record in the conference (19-5 overall), and they still have a legitimate shot at wrestling the regular-season MVC title away from the Aztecs given that the two will meet twice over the course of New Mexico’s final six games.
The Lobos will face UNLV this Wednesday night on the road before hosting San Diego State this Saturday night. One of their two conference losses this season was to the Rebels in a 76-73 setback as 8.5-point home favorites, so the next two games should go a long way towards determining if the Lobos are the real deal.
No. 4 – Arizona State Sun Devils
The Sun Devils posted a statement win in this past Friday’s 69-66 victory over then-No. 2 Arizona as 5.5-point home underdogs. They are now 8-4 SU in conference play, which is just two games in back of the Wildcats in the standings. Other than a bad loss to Washington in the conference season opener, the Sun Devils have beaten most of the teams they were supposed to along the way.
The split with Arizona was huge, and while Arizona State will not get a chance to avenge a loss to No. 23 UCLA in the regular season, it will get a shot at evening the score against Stanford at home after suffering a 76-70 loss to the Cardinal as a 5.5-point road underdog on Feb. 1.
No. 3 – VCU Rams
The Rams started the season ranked No. 14 in the AP’s initial preseason poll but quickly fell out of favor with early losses to Florida State and Georgetown. They are coming off a tough 64-62 loss to No. 10 St. Louis on the road this past Saturday. The Billikens are the class of the Atlantic 10 with a perfect 10-0 SU record in conference play, and they are 23-2 overall. These two will meet again on VCU’s home court on March 1, and Rams’ head coach Shaka Smart has already proven he knows how to get his team ready at this time of the year.
All three of VCU losses in the conference this season have come on the road, and it is just 4-4 away from home this season, so it will first have to successfully navigate upcoming road games against Massachusetts and Fordham before it gets another shot at the Billikens.
No. 2 – North Carolina Tar Heels
This has not been one of Roy William’s best teams during his illustrious career as head coach of the Tar Heels, but he is another person that knows how to get his team ready at the right time of the year. North Carolina has already posted some quality wins over Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky in its nonconference schedule. After starting play in the ACC with four losses in their first five games, the Tar Heels have now won their last seven conference games to improve to 8-4 SU on the year.
Last Wednesday’s showdown at home against No. 5 Duke was postponed due to snow, but the two in-state rivals are set to square off this Thursday night in a make-up game. The rest of North Carolina’s games are all winnable before these two foes clash again in Durham in the final game of the regular season.
No. 1 – SMU Mustangs
The Mustangs’ return to the AP’s Top 25 last week after an extended absence that goes all the way back to 1985 was brief after suffering an unexpected 71-64 loss to Temple this past Sunday as eight-point road favorites. Despite this setback, Larry Brown’s SMU squad is more than capable of quickly bouncing back behind an offensive that is shooting 49.5 percent from the field and a defense that is holding teams to an average of 61.5 points a game.
SMU will be back in action against Houston this Wednesday night, and then it will have three chances to catch everyone’s attention again with matchups against No. 21 Connecticut, No. 11 Louisville and No. 22 Memphis in three of its final four regular season games.
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