College basketball viewers’ guide: Baylor-Houston, Alabama-Kentucky and more

March is on the horizon, Selection Sunday is less than a month away, and the schedule runneth over with notable conference matchups. Most of them are of the high-profile, top-25 variety, but there are also some solid low- and mid-major games that will impact regular season championships and conference tournament seedings. We’ve highlighted five of those in the Honorable Mention category before diving into the headliners in this week’s viewers’ guide.

Honorable Mention: Grand Canyon at Tarleton State (WAC, Thursday), Yale at Cornell (Ivy, Friday), Bryant at Vermont (American East, Saturday), UC Irvine at UC San Diego (Big West, Saturday), Grambling at Southern (SWAC, Saturday)

(All tipoff times are Eastern, all rankings are via the AP Top 25, all stats and records are current at time of publishing.)

10. SMU at Florida Atlantic, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN2

The American has receded from view with Houston, Cincinnati and UCF off to the Big 12, but this is one worth tuning in for. FAU, coming off last year’s Final Four run, has one of the best offenses in the country led by guards Johnell Davis and Alijah Martin and is headed back to the NCAA Tournament, though it won’t be catching anyone by surprise this time. (And head coach Dusty May is already being mentioned as a candidate for Ohio State and any other big job that might open this offseason.) SMU is a bubble team and statistical anomaly, rating well in terms of metrics but with a so-so resume, despite winning six in a row. A road victory in Boca Raton would go a long way for their tournament chances.


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9. Texas at No. 23 Texas Tech, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 9 p.m., ESPN

The attention isn’t quite the same as football, but barring another clash in the conference tournament, this is the last time these two in-state rivals will meet as members of the Big 12. And with Texas heading to Lubbock, the “Horns Down” energy will be out in full force as both teams continue to burnish their at-large credentials. It’s a tough stretch for Texas, which hasn’t won consecutive games since Jan. 23 and first has to go to Kansas on Saturday, but the Longhorns have the type of guard talent in Max Abmas and Tyrese Hunter to make a run in either the Big 12 or NCAA brackets. The Red Raiders, led by guard Pop Isaacs, have a top-15 offense in college hoops and earned a big comeback victory over TCU on Tuesday.

8. No. 22 Colorado State at New Mexico, Wednesday, 10 p.m., ESPN

The Mountain West remains on track to get either five or six teams in the NCAA Tournament, and these should be two of them. The Rams have won five of six but enter The Pit against a New Mexico squad looking to avenge a head-to-head road loss back in early January. These are two evenly matched, well-balanced teams with very different styles. CSU prefers to rev it down and grind away at teams defensively, while the Lobos utilize one of the fastest tempos in the country that attacks the basket. It feels as if there is a deep March Madness run lurking in one of these Mountain West teams, and both of these are prime candidates.

7. No. 25 BYU at No. 9 Kansas, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 8 p.m., ESPN+

It’s tough to find a rhythm in the Big 12. Kansas has gone 2-2 since its massive home win over Houston on Feb. 3, hampered by an injury to starting wing Kevin McCullar Jr.. The all-league and All-America candidate played in the win over Oklahoma but has been hampered by a bone bruise, and it will be interesting to see if he can withstand a Saturday-to-Tuesday turnaround against Texas and BYU. The Cougars continue to boast sterling metrics and an eclectic roster but are stuck in the middle of the Big 12 standings and a brutal stretch of schedule, including an impressive and important home win over Baylor on Tuesday night, followed by road trips to Kansas State and Kansas in eight days. This one will be another instance of good on good, with BYU’s top-10 offense against the Jayhawks’ top-10 defense.

6. Villanova at No. 1 UConn, Saturday, 8 p.m., Fox

Coming off a crucial home win over Butler on Tuesday, Villanova still needs a marquee win to stay on the NCAA Tournament bubble. A road win in Storrs would be a nice one to stick on the mantle, but good luck against a Huskies team will be angry after Tuesday’s 85-66 loss at Creighton, its first setback in two months. Despite the rout, UConn looks fully capable of defending its national title. It’s elite on both ends of the floor and led by a complementary mix of players, including sharp-shooters Cam Spencer and Alex Karaban, do-everything-guard Tristen Newton, 7-foot-2 Donovan Clingan and potential top-five NBA prospect Stephon Castle.

5. No. 24 Florida at No. 13 Alabama, Wednesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2

The Gators are surging, winners of seven of their last eight, including games at Kentucky and over Auburn. Florida built through the portal and is rounding into form, with a potent offense led by transfers Walter Clayton Jr., Zyon Pullin and Tyrese Samuel that plays fast and leaves no crumbs on the offensive glass. But the offense is not as fast or potent as Alabama, which has the top-ranked unit according to KenPom. Point guard Mark Sears is playing like an All-American, and the Crimson Tide have won 12 of 14 dating back to nonconference play. They were ranked ninth in the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s top 16 preview last weekend, but could use some more Quad 1 wins to improve their seed. This game is the first opportunity of five in a row.

4. No. 21 Washington State at No. 4 Arizona, Thursday, 11 p.m., FS1

Add Washington State to the list of emergent teams that could be peaking at the right time. The Cougars have won seven in a row, and can punctuate a run from out of the tournament discussion to safely in if they make it eight in a row in Tucson on Thursday. Led by Idaho transfer and all-conference candidate Isaac Jones and freshman Myles Rice, WSU defends well and protects the rim, measuring as the second-tallest team in Division I by average height, according to KenPom. The program is trying to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Tony Bennett’s Sweet 16 in 2008. For now, Zona is the only Pac-12 school locked into the NCAA Tournament field, led by North Carolina transfer Caleb Love, who looks like the conference MVP. A win for the Wildcats further bolsters their push for a No. 1 seed.

3. No. 10 North Carolina at Virginia, Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN

Virginia looked like it had established itself as the fourth ACC team in the NCAA Tournament during an eight-game winning streak. But then the Cavaliers lost two of three, including a double-digit setback at home to Pitt and Monday’s ghastly 75-41 loss at Virginia Tech (with a classic Tony Bennett-style 49-47 home win over Wake Forest sandwiched between). The Hoos, now just 66th in KenPom and 48th in the NET, probably need another Quad 1 win to feel comfortable heading into the ACC tournament. The Tar Heels looked like a title contender during a 10-game win streak, but are just 3-3 since. This is the Virginia you remember — slow pace, suffocating defense — but less consistent, which could be an issue against an experienced and balanced Carolina squad that prefers to push the tempo.

2. No. 13 Alabama at No. 17 Kentucky, Saturday, 4 p.m., CBS

We already touched on the tough stretch ahead for the Tide, including this game, which is likely to set off some pacemakers. The Wildcats are feeling good after a big road win over Auburn but have still run too hot and cold over the past month of play, which at one point featured three straight home losses. The roster of young (Rob Dillingham, Reed Sheppard, D.J. Wagner) and old (Antonio Reeves, Tre Mitchell) is still finding its way together. When it clicks, it looks great, as it did against the Tigers. But when it doesn’t, the defense suffers, which is not exactly a winning formula against this Alabama crew. Either way, take the over.

1. No. 2 Houston at No. 11 Baylor, Saturday, Noon, CBS

The lone regular-season meeting between two of the best teams in the country. Houston’s top-rated defense against Baylor’s top-five offense. Houston guard L.J. Cryer returns to Waco to face his former team, with whom he won a national title as a freshman in 2021. He joins Big 12 player of the year candidate Jamal Shead in the backcourt for the potential No. 1-seed Cougars. Baylor, which came up short in Provo on Tuesday, features six players scoring in double figures, including first-round NBA prospects Ja’Kobe Walter and Yves Missi. Both of these teams are headed to the NCAA Tournament and in the mix for a Big 12 ring, but this game should mean a little extra to each side and could be a harbinger for a championship run.

(Photo of Alabama’s Mark Sears: Gary Cosby Jr. / USA Today) 

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