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One month from Selection Sunday

One month.

OK, one month minus one day if you want to be technical, but basically one month.

That's all that separates us from Selection Sunday, college basketball's official holiday, and the start of the greatest postseason tournament in sports.

Sorry, college football. Talk to us when you can at least get to eight teams.

Which means that the sport is officially entering crunch time, complete with bubble jockeying and seed swordfights.

So it seems a good time to ask some questions that might need answering in the next month:

1. What is Kentucky's biggest challenge between now and Selection Sunday?

The Wildcats' biggest obstacle hasn't changed from November -- it remains the Wildcats themselves. They are light years better than anyone in the SEC, on pace for a record-breaking season (they allow 81.1 points per 100 possessions, which could be the best by any major conference team in the past 15 seasons). Regardless of whether they lose between now and Selection Sunday, Kentucky will enter the NCAA tournament as the prohibitive favorite to win the whole thing.

But Kentucky's tendency -- and it has happened enough now that is a legit trend -- to let teams back in a game could be its undoing.

Take out the outliers (a 49-point beatdown of Missouri and Saturday's 34-point thumping of South Carolina) and the Cats are beating conference foes by 10 points per game. Now that's still very good, but it isn't the 27.4 throttling the nonconference foes were suffering.

Part of that has to do with better competition -- Montana State was part of that early group, along with Kansas and North Carolina -- but it also has to do with the Cats themselves. In six of its past 12 games, Kentucky led by double digits, only to squander away those leads to single-digit advantages.

That the Wildcats have won them all is a testimony to their talent -- but talent, oddly enough, doesn't always win games in March.

"When you get teams down 13 or 14, then you have to get it to 20,'' coach John Calipari said this week. "We have a way of getting it to six. I told them in the NCAA tournament, when that becomes a six and they hit a 3-ball, then the weight of the world is on you and not them. They're going to play out of their minds and you can end the season based on a three-minute stretch where you didn't get it from 16 or 14 to 20. That's the issue.''

2. Which team can slide in behind Wisconsin in the Big Ten? Who wants to distinguish themselves in the Big 12 after Kansas?

Michigan State

Tom Izzo's decision to not call a timeout in the final seconds against Ohio State on Saturday spoke volumes about what he thinks of his squad. This has not been an easy or pretty season for the Spartans, but the talent is there. So is the experience. Michigan State has two seniors, in Branden Dawson and Travis Trice, plus three juniors, in Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello and Bryn Forbes. That's a huge advantage, regardless of what a record looks like.

"I still think this can be a team to be reckoned with,'' Izzo said earlier in the week.

Truth be told, most of Michigan State's stats aren't bad. The Spartans are 63rd in scoring offense, 65th in scoring defense, 38th in field-goal percentage and 25th in field goal percent defense.

And then there's this: 329th (out of 345) from the free-throw line, a horrific bit of work that has quite literally cost Michigan State games -- 7-of-18 from the line in a five-point loss to Illinois, 15-of-25 in a two-point loss to Nebraska.

But against the Buckeyes, the Spartans went 4-of-7.

"You look at us statistically and we're top two or three in our league in everything except maybe one,'' Izzo said. "There's a negative to that and a positive. The positive is, if we get it turned around, everything else is there.''

Oklahoma State

Truth be told, a dartboard might come in handy to figure out the Big 12. The confounding conference simply refuses to straighten itself out beyond the Jayhawks. Iowa State, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Baylor are in a logjam of sameness, none able to really break far away from the pack.

So maybe the best differential is to see who can avoid the rest of the pack members best. Using that wildly unreliable theory, the best bet is Oklahoma State. The Cowboys looked ready to be that team anyway, after a three-game march in which they won at Texas, against Kansas and at Baylor, but a 15-point loss to TCU this weekend brought a huge thud of reality.

Still Oklahoma State has the easiest path among the logjam five, playing just three games against the teams the Cowboys are duking it out with -- hosting Iowa State and West Virginia, before finishing the season off in Morgantown. Now there are still dates at Texas Tech and against TCU in there. If Saturday's result proved anything, it's that nothing is guaranteed.

"We can't ever feel comfortable,'' OK State coach Travis Ford said. "I don't know if people can grasp how mentally draining this league is. You prepare for games against three top-20 teams and then here comes the fourth. It never ends.''

No, it doesn't, but at least Oklahoma State's path ends more kindly than, say, West Virginia's (home against Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma State, at Oklahoma State, Baylor and Kansas) and in a conference in which we are simply splitting hairs, that might make all the difference.

3. Which players need to elevate their games in order to push their bubble teams into the tourney (in alphabetical order)?

Bryce Alford, UCLA
That the Bruins have somehow worked themselves into an NCAA tournament conversation is astounding considering their dismal start. To get over the hump and in the tourney, Steve Alford's son is the solution. The guard who shot too often and not terribly well to start the season has been considerably more efficient of late. No surprise, UCLA is playing much better. Alford is 26-of-67 in the Bruins' past six games, five of them wins.

Branden Dawson, Michigan State
It's hard to find fault with the senior. He's averaging nearly a double-double, but still there could be more. Not so much points and rebounds, but consistency. He has exchanged too many dominant performances with absent ones (15 against Ohio State, seven versus Northwestern last week for example) and the Spartans need him to be a presence in every game, especially as they try to get off the bubble and into the NCAA tournament.

Anthony Barber, NC State
The Wolfpack, still trying to get on the bubble, helped its cause considerably with a win at Louisville on Saturday. But if NC State is going to get to the NCAA tournament, Trevor Lacey can't get the team there himself. The Wolfpack needs another option, someone like Barber. He scored 21 in that win against the Cardinals, his fourth consecutive night in double figures.

Chris Obekpa, St. John's
The Red Storm big man has been nursing a high ankle sprain and is understandably not himself. Still, his team needs him. After a woeful league start, St. John's has played itself back into the conversation, winning four of its past five. But it will be a lot easier if Obekpa can play. He's ranked fourth in the nation in blocked shots and completely alters St. John's as a defensive team when he's on his game.

Marcus Allen, Stanford
Johnny Dawkins calls the sophomore a spark plug. He needs to be if the Cardinal want to assure themselves of a nice March. Chasson Randle is, of course, the Stanford engine and whatever happens he will be a determining factor. But Allen has the opportunity to add some juice for the Cardinal. He's getting more minutes and making the most of them, but the more of a threat he is, the easier it becomes for Randle. The easier it is for Randle, the easier it is for Stanford.

Marcus Thornton, Georgia
The Bulldogs' leading scorer missed two games with concussions symptoms, and hasn't been quite himself since returning. He has scored just 22 points in his past three games but will have to do more if Georgia is going to keep its spot safe in the NCAA tournament field.

4. Aside from Arizona, Gonzaga and Utah, who should we be paying attention to on the West(ish) Coast?

San Diego State

The Aztecs aren't that difficult to understand. They remain talented enough -- sophomore Winston Shepard is the highest ranked recruit to attend San Diego State (and yes, that includes Kawhi Leonard) -- and certainly well-coached enough to make a good run in March, but it would help if they could play those March games in San Diego.

San Diego State is quite literally unbeatable at the Viejas Center and wildly vulnerable away from it. The Aztecs have won five of their past six and nine of their past 11. Six of those wins were at home.

It looked liked they had cured what ailed them, with an impressive W at Laramie against Wyoming but since have managed to lose at Colorado State, at Boise State and nearly at Nevada.

Still, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Aztecs currently as a 9-seed and with their talent, defense and coach you can bet they'd be a 9-seed no top seed would like to see.

BYU

The Cougars have Tyler Haws. Isn't that enough? OK, so technically it hasn't been, hence why BYU is 20-8 instead of 28-0. But in a season in which teams and players can neither shoot nor score, the Cougars (and Haws) can do both.

Without much of a resume, BYU understandably remains on the outside of the bracket looking in. But don't discount the Cougars' chances, or maybe more accurately Haws' chance, of getting red hot enough to pull off an upset in the WCC tournament.

5. Which non-Power 5, but not quite true mid-major, programs could unexpectedly win their leagues and reap the rewards in March?

Rhode Island

Even Dan Hurley figured his team was a year away from making an impact. The Rams, after all, rely heavily on two freshmen and two sophomores, ranking them 270th in experience, according to Ken Pomeroy.

Instead Rhode Island, with its win against Saint Louis on Saturday, shares the top spot in the Atlantic 10 with VCU and Dayton, the first time URI has been atop the league standings this late in the season in the history of its program.

"Honestly, we expected to struggle in a league that tends to devour freshmen and sophomores,'' Hurley said. "We've got the right guys, obviously. They're about winning, not rookie of the week awards or anything individual.''

Though one individual does stand out. That's sophomore E.C. Matthews. He has been dealing with a painful case of plantar fasciitis, an injury that could easily have sent him to the bench. But instead he is averaging 32.5 minutes per game, not to mention 16.3 points.

Add his offense to a team that ranks 16th in scoring defense, and you've got the makings of a team, picked sixth in the preseason, that could easily sneak in to win the league.

Temple

The Owls have won seven in a row to slide within 1 of the top spot in the American.

Two things have changed for the Owls, who went through a three-game losing skid before this winning run. For starters, Will Cummings is healthy. The senior had a strained leg muscle during that swoon -- he missed one game and wasn't really himself in the other two. Since then, he's averaging 15.5 points per game.

More important, though, Temple is playing considerably better defense. The Owls are allowing just 52.5 points per game during this stretch.

Now the catch: Temple plays at league-leading SMU on Wednesday and second-place Tulsa on Sunday.

UTEP

The Miners have won seven in a row to slide in behind Louisiana Tech in the Conference USA standings, relying on the offense of Vince Hunter (15.8 points and 9.6 boards) and the defense of Julian Washburn. The latter has become a master shutdown artist. On Saturday, it held Old Dominion's Trey Freeman to just six points, 10 below his average.

"I can honestly say in my 38 years of coaching, he's the best defender I've ever coached,'' Floyd said after the game, adding that Washburn reminds him of Bruce Bowen.

Now the catch: The Miners did a similar thing a year ago. They won eight in a row in January and February, only to skid to three losses in their final seven games and an ouster in the C-USA Tournament that sent them packing for the CBI.

This team is older -- other than Hunter, the top five scorers are all seniors and freshmen. Soon we'll see if they're wiser. UTEP plays at Louisiana Tech on Feb. 26.

Layups

1. OK, all of those questions above ignored one conference and more, one team: Villanova in the Big East. Here's what the Wildcats have: balance. Their top scorers are within four points of one another; they rank 31st in scoring offense, 38th in scoring defense, 23rd in assist-to-turnover ratio, 32nd in steals.

Here's what the Wildcats don't have: an obvious NBA player, certainly no lottery pick, and that's why they seem a little less sexy, a little less glamorous than other teams out there.

Consequently Villanova might be the least talked about top 10 team in the country.

2. Kentucky is the last undefeated team in men's college basketball, but the Cats aren't the only team with a goose egg in a win column. Five teams are perfect in conference play. Here's how they stack up in terms of finishing that way:

-- North Carolina Central (11-0, MEAC): Games remaining: five. Combined record of remaining opponents: 28-97. Toughest opponent per Ken Pomeroy: Savannah State, 11 percent chance to lose.

-- Kentucky (12-0, SEC). Games remaining: 6. Combined record of remaining opponents: 86-62. Toughest opponent per KenPom: at Georgia, 16 percent chance to lose.

-- Gonzaga (14-0, WCC). Games remaining: 4. Combined record of remaining opponents: 63-43. Toughest opponent per KenPom: at Saint Mary's, 26 percent chance to lose.

-- Murray State (13-0 OVC). Games remaining: 3. Combined record of remaining opponents: 38-39. Toughest opponent per KenPom: at Tennessee-Martin, 39 percent chance to lose.

-- Albany (12-0 America East) Games remaining: 4. Combined record of remaining opponents: 48-55. Toughest opponent per KenPom: Vermont, 40 percent chance to lose.

FREE THROWS

• Seeing the glass half full award goes to Southern Miss coach Doc Sadler. After watching his team lose in OT with just four players on the court (three of the seven available fouled out), without two players who have been declared ineligible, and facing potential NCAA violations, Sadler said, "No, no. I've never been in anything like this before. But it's also a lot of fun because we get a chance to basically start over and do things the way we want to.''

• Player of the week honors to High Point's John Brown. The Panthers' junior proved he was more than a dunk machine, scoring 55 points in two games this week. Brown went 20-of-29 against Winthrop and Campbell combined, helping High Point stay locked with Charleston Southern in the Big South standings.

AND ONE

College basketball lost two giants last week, Dean Smith and Jerry Tarkanian. Those in the game, those who knew them, took time to honor them in their own way.

And in the city where Tark brought the stars to Gucci Row, Las Vegas decided to quiet the lights.