NCAA basketball takeaways: Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament lives on the line

LEXINGTON, KY - JANUARY 23: Keion Brooks Jr. #12 of the Kentucky Wildcats dunks the ball during the first half against the LSU Tigers at Rupp Arena on January 23, 2021 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
LEXINGTON, KY - JANUARY 23: Keion Brooks Jr. #12 of the Kentucky Wildcats dunks the ball during the first half against the LSU Tigers at Rupp Arena on January 23, 2021 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images) /

Kentucky’s last stand and a look at the Pac-12 highlight college hoops this week.

We are less than two months away from Selection Sunday and the college basketball picture leading into March Madness is about to get wild. Let’s take a look at the stories that college hoops fans should be keeping an eye on this week, beginning with the last stand for Kentucky.

Team to watch: Kentucky Wildcats

This season has been a disaster for Kentucky but the Wildcats did pick up an absolutely massive win on Saturday against LSU. The 13-point victory was Kentucky’s biggest quality win to date and could prove to be quite important given the incredible gauntlet the Wildcats will face over the next two weeks.

The next four opponents on Kentucky’s schedule are ranked opponents, beginning on Tuesday when the Wildcats go to SEC-leading Alabama for a rematch after the Crimson Tide beat them by 20 at Rupp Arena earlier this month. Next up is a massive home date against Texas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge to wrap this week followed by a trip to Missouri and a home game against Tennessee next Saturday.

With only one true marquee win opportunity after those games, it is absolutely imperative for the Wildcats to go at least 3-1 here if they hope to make the NCAA Tournament. 2-2 is the bare minimum to maintain postseason hopes while anything less than that can essentially bury Kentucky with a month to go in the regular season.

Story of the Week: Are conference tournaments in jeopardy?

While the NCAA has made no secret of its plans to safely conduct the NCAA Tournament, the conference tournaments themselves could be another story entirely. CBS Sports conducted a survey of 41 college coaches recently and 27 percent believed the conference tournaments shouldn’t be played, instead favoring a one-year move to give a league’s automatic bid to the regular-season champion.

The NCAA is requiring that teams test negative for seven straight days before beginning play in the tournament, and given the coronavirus pandemic’s rage across the country the idea of gathering an entire conference in one place could be more trouble than it is worth if an outbreak occurs.

No league has canceled its conference tournament to date but the shutdown of Michigan’s athletics program by the state health department for two weeks over a COVID outbreak could renew chatter of simply canceling those events. Using the extra calendar time to make up games postponed by COVID pauses would make sense and be a less risky option for the power conferences.

Conference of the Week: Pac-12

The Pac-12 often isn’t discussed a lot among the Power 5 basketball conferences but the league has certainly been interesting this season. There isn’t a true national title threat in the league at this point but the Pac-12 has four sure-fire NCAA Tournament teams and a fifth on the bubble in Stanford.

UCLA and Oregon have been the clear class of the conference this season, with the Bruins racing off to an 8-0 start in league play before losing at the buzzer to USC. The Trojans are also 12-3 with the conference’s most exciting freshman in forward Evan Mobley, a future high-lottery pick that can be an intimidating presence down low.

Colorado also looks to be safe in the field while Stanford is squarely on the bubble. Arizona’s decision to self-impose a postseason ban in December has eliminated them from postseason play while a team to watch could be Oregon State, which is climbing the Pac-12 standings while scoring consecutive wins over USC and Oregon.

Cinderella Watch: Bryant Bulldogs

This week’s mid-major spotlight takes us to the NEC and Bryant, which is in the middle of a remarkable turnaround. The Bulldogs went 3-28 just three years ago but are 10-3 so far this season, setting the stage for one of the more compelling rags-to-riches stories in recent memory.

Head coach Jared Grasso has done a great job since coming over from Iona after the 3-28 campaign, installing the up-tempo offense that helped his former boss Tim Cluess guide the Gaels to four consecutive MAAC Tournament titles. Bryant averages 89.2 points per game, the fifth-highest powered offense in the country, and their style of basketball is very aesthetically pleasing to watch.

Four different Bulldogs average at least 13 points per game, headlined by sophomore Michael Green III, who leads the team with 18.3 points per game while shooting 37.5 percent from beyond-the-arc. Bryant has a pair of games against Fairleigh Dickinson this weekend as they look to maintain their NEC lead over LIU and St. Francis-Brooklyn.

Games of the Week: SEC/Big 12Challenge

Most non-conference play has come to an end at this point but the last major event on the calendar is this week with the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. This underrated event has delivered some thrillers over the years and a few dynamic matchups are on tap for Saturday.

Games to spotlight in the early window include bubble team Florida getting a marquee win opportunity at West Virginia while SEC-leading Alabama hits the road to take on an Oklahoma team that just upset Kansas over the weekend. The marquee matchups come at night when Kansas travels to Tennessee while Texas heads to Rupp Arena to match up with Kentucky in a must-win spot for the Wildcats.

Next. 15 best home-court advantages. dark

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