Houston tops UTEP, muddles bubble

Sorry, Arizona State. Our bad, Seton Hall. Maybe you can catch a break, Rhode Island. Say bye-bye, Dayton.

Those are the potential consequences of what Houston, a 19-15 regular season team with a losing record in Conference USA, just did to dominant conference champ UTEP. Needing a conference tournament title to steal the C-USA's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, the No. 7-seeded Cougars topped the Miners 81-73 in Tulsa in what is thus far the country's least likely conference tournament winner. March Madness? Houston's got your March Madness right here.

The way Houston won was just as unlikely as the result. The Cougars have the country's leading scorer on their roster -- guard Aubrey Coleman, who averages 26 points per game. But Coleman didn't carry the Cougars against UTEP. Rather, it was fellow guard Kelvin Lewis, who played 39 minutes, scored 28 points, and hit six of his 10 three point attempts in the win. (Coleman added 13 points of his own, but shot a putrid 4-of-20 from the field.)

UTEP acquitted itself well enough in the loss. Forward Derrick Caracter scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds, and guard Randy Culpepper scored 20 and added six rebounds. The Miners are a balanced, talented team -- it's not every year a talent like Caracter falls into your lap -- and should still be feared in the tournament.

The real story here, though, is how Houston's unlikely run will affect the handful of bubble teams desperately hoping for as many available at-large bids as possible. One of those bids just went bye-bye; UTEP should not be excluded from the tournament. (To be clear: UTEP belongs in the tournament, and the committee should recognize as much. If they don't, it will be a shame. That's a good team.) So who loses out?

One aside: Does Houston's win improve Memphis' chances? The Cougars beat Josh Pastner's bubble-fied Tigers team on a last-second Coleman shot Thursday. Does Houston's impressive run through the tournament give the Tigers a little more credibility? And is it enough to get them out of the dreaded "first four out" category where they currently reside?

All of that will play out in the next, oh, 24 hours. There are plenty of hoops left. In the meantime, Houston can enjoy the celebration that comes from that most unique of college basketball traditions: the automatic qualifier. Who cares about the regular season, right? It's tournament time, and the just-barely-.500 Cougars will be joining us. What's cooler than that?