- The SEC's loss is the Mountain West's gain.

During this college basketball season, up is down, Boise State is in and the defending national champion Kentucky Wildcats are out.

That's just a taste at the state of the race with conference tournaments right around the corner. And this race, normally weighed heavily towards the powerful few, has suddenly turned wide open, with the mid-majors in the mix to steal a larger-than-normal number of at-large bids.

And we aren't talking VCU, Butler and Gonzaga mid-majors, but the tried and true little guys like Middle Tennessee, Akron, the aforementioned Broncos and others.

Nothing is set in stone, but the SEC took a big step back since the last time we spoke, while the Mountain West has thrown another of its teams into big- time bubble discussion.

Let's assess those two leagues and the rest of the nation in Bubble Breakdown's second act below. As the days go by, we can taste the madness.

The two key numbers next to each bubble member's record are the RPI (ratings percentage index) and SOS (strength of schedule). The NCAA selection committee uses both, particularly non-league SOS on the second number, as a barometer of discussion. If a team makes the initial cut, its profile is dissected further. We do both as we analyze each power league and the mid-major bubble boys below:


IN: Duke, Miami

Welcome back Ryan Kelly. That was a virtuoso 36-point performance by Duke's lead man on Saturday night in Cameron, which did nothing to dispel the notion that the Blue Devils are a far better team with its senior forward in the fold. The good news for the Hurricanes is that the league crown is still theirs for the taking, but Miami and Duke are in a far more interesting tug- of-war for NCAA seeding.

To the ACC tourney victor surely goes the spoils, but the loser may also stake a strong case for a top seed depending on how the other conference tourneys evolve. The rest of the league includes two teams all but guaranteed to make the field, one with the most interesting at-large profile in the country and another clinging to life support.


North Carolina (21-8, 11-5; RPI 19, SOS 16): Roy Williams' shift to a four- guard lineup has resurrected UNC's season from the doldrums, and now the Heels are winners of five straight with big-time confidence. A tough week ahead (at Maryland, home versus Duke) gives them more room for seeding growth, and it's hard to imagine a scenario that leaves the Heels home even if they lay an unexpected goose egg.

North Carolina State (21-8, 10-6; RPI 23, SOS 24): Take care of business. The Wolfpack can only do damage to their at-large profile from here on out (Wake Forest, at Florida State). But even if they do, strong computer numbers and a soft bubble should catch their fall.


Virginia (20-9, 10-6; RPI 65, SOS 127): With equal parts elation and heartache, the Cavs have taken us on of the state's biggest and best roller coasters this season. Defeat Duke, storm the court, put yourself in the field one day, then lose by one in gut-wrenching fashion at Boston College two days later. I don't think the Cavs can lose again until the ACC tournament, as each deflating loss reminds the committee of the off-putting setbacks to CAA bottom dwellers back in non-conference play.


Maryland (20-9, 8-8; RPI 69, SOS 118): Maryland needs to beat North Carolina this week. The Terrapins also need to win at Virginia in what could be a crucial game for both teams. Then, Maryland must hang around until at least the ACC semifinals. It's a tall order, but the task is its for the taking.


IN: Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Syracuse, Pittsburgh

Georgetown has played itself into No. 1 seed contention, while Syracuse has played itself into a fight for its protected-seed life. Think we're kidding? The Orange are 4-6 in their last 10 games, and what happens if they beat DePaul, lose at Georgetown and bow out early in New York? A precipitous free- fall could be in order.

Pittsburgh moved off the bubble and punched its ticket with a 2-0 week, which included the OT rally past bubble-sitter Villanova.


Notre Dame (23-7, 11-6; RPI 46, SOS 76): No more messing around. A tough finale at Louisville is on the horizon. The profile should hold on a weak bubble even with a loss, but why leave it up to luck (of the Irish)?


Cincinnati (20-10, 8-9; RPI 48, SOS 18): Let's walk through the Bearcats profile. Assuming a regular-season-closing win against South Florida (which is a must to even play the game), Cincinnati will have an RPI around 50 with three solid neutral court wins (Oregon, Iowa State, Xavier) and a true road W at Pittsburgh. The bad losses aren't too bad, and actually the overall profile isn't either upon further inspection. If the Bearcats finish. 500 in conference and win a game or two in New York, they will be set.

Villanova (18-12, 9-8; RPI 55, SOS 32): Ah, the fluidity of the bubble. Villanova missed a golden opportunity at Pittsburgh last week, yet still moved from the wrong side of the bubble to firmly on it. What gives? From the End of the Bench took another look at the overall body of work (committee speak) and deemed its four BIG wins are more than many can offer this time of year. However, those wins are weighed heavily towards the home court, so the committee may think 'Nova can't play away from Philadelphia. True or not, doing nothing to dispel that thought (downing Georgetown at home on Wednesday) would actually help the Wildcats.


IN: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State

The Big Ten is pretty much drama-free from here on out, although the race for a No. 1 seed still includes the Hoosiers, Wolverines and even Spartans if they navigate their way to the conference tournament title. Indiana did a little damage to its geographic placement with a Senior Night loss to suddenly streaking Ohio State on Tuesday.


Minnesota (20-9, 8-8; RPI 15, SOS 2): So, I see "good" or "November" Minnesota has re-entered the building. A victory over Indiana and a pounding of Penn State pretty much sealed the Gophers' bid. Unless they end with two losses and a first-round exit in the conference tournament, the quality wins and computer numbers are too strong to overlook.

Illinois (21-10, 8-9; RPI 30, SOS 8): See Minnesota. The computer numbers are sound, the quality wins are better than most, and without a complete fall on their quality face, the Illini will dance. Let's just hope that free-fall we speak of didn't start Tuesday night in Iowa City.

Note: We are keeping our eye on Iowa after beating Illinois on Tuesday night and will reassess a late Hawkeyes' surge next week.

BIG 12

IN: Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State

Oklahoma State joins the Jayhawks and Wildcats in the lock category. Twelve conference wins, including a victory at Kansas, is more than enough to solidify its inclusion. The Jayhawks are still eying a No. 1 seed come March, which says a lot considering their three-game skid back in February.


Oklahoma (19-9, 10-6; RPI 22, SOS 9): The Sooners handled their business in decisive fashion against Iowa State, now all that's left between them and 12 conference victories are West Virginia and TCU. Even though Baylor is Oklahoma's best win outside Kansas, 12 conference W's and great computer numbers (see discussion on schedule manipulation last week) should be enough.


Iowa State (19-10, 9-7; RPI 53, SOS 63): The Cyclones are living on the edge. No true great wins (two near misses, including one caused by bad officiating against Kansas) except for a barrel of other bubble victims and two not-so- great losses at Texas and Texas Tech. Now comes a Wednesday home date with Oklahoma State and with it one last chance to add a signature win they may need when all shakes out.


Baylor (17-13, 8-9; RPI 64, SOS 27): Is Baylor that team with an eye-popping number of losses that storms its way into the NCAA's? Likely not, but From the End of the Bench will wait until after the Kansas game to kick the Bears off the bubble. The Rodney McGruder dagger at the buzzer last weekend epitomized Baylor's late-season skid.


IN: Arizona, UCLA, Oregon

UCLA jumped into lock territory after completing a season sweep of Arizona last weekend. Oregon also earned an invite in our eyes with the return of Dominic Artis and a victory over in-state rival Oregon State. Yes, the Ducks' computer numbers are very average, but the true road wins at UNLV and Arizona and 12 conference wins at a minimum should be enough.


California (20-9, 12-5; 41, SOS 35): California is the team no one is really talking about, winners of seven straight as those hoop-heads on the East are sleeping. Alan Crabbe may be known as the shovee at the hands of his head coach, but the guard is positioned to win the league's Player of the Year, yet few even mention his name in All-America discussion. The Bears are that team that makes the Sweet 16 to many people's surprise, but not our readers.


Colorado (19-9, 9-7; RPI 27, SOS 22): Colorado is one of those teams that smiles when they hear "soft bubble" come out of an analyst's mouth. The Buffaloes are riding at-large worthy computer numbers and a few good non- league wins (they are important!) against Baylor, Colorado State and Murray State.


IN: Florida, Missouri

With each loss, the injury-plagued Gators scramble for a few more frequent flyer miles. Florida will still be in the 2-3 discussion come seeding time, but there aren't many locations in Gainesville's vicinity, so it could be a long trip hopping multiple time zones.

Unlike other bubble columns, we are also locking Missouri into the field. The Tigers' profile isn't noticeably different from other teams still sitting on the outside looking in, but Missouri is the SEC's second-best team and a power conference isn't getting just one bid. It just isn't.


Kentucky (20-9, 11-5; RPI 51, SOS 67): The committee wanted Kentucky to show it something last Saturday, and boy did it ever. The Wildcats didn't look the at-large part at Arkansas, a loss made even more damaging when you consider the committee really must judge the Wildcats' merit post-Nerlens Noel. So what happens if the Wildcats' split their final two games at Georgia and against Florida? Do they need the game against the Gators? Could the committee really leave a 21-win Kentucky team out of the tournament? We will try to answer those questions a week from now.

Tennessee (17-11, 9-7; RPI 56, SOS 38): Two wins later, Tennessee will be trending toward a bid as the conference tournament begins. Anything less and a once-rolling locomotive will need to rev up the engine in Nashville.

Mississippi (22-8, 11-6; RPI 58, SOS 136): Like the other SEC bubble clubs, Ole Miss needs to rely on inventory at this point. Even one last conference W, giving the Rebels 12 in league play, might not be enough save for a deep conference tourney run. The loss last week to rival Mississippi State was that damaging.

Alabama (19-11, 11-6; RPI 60, SOS 88): The Crimson Tide will need to differentiate themselves from the Rebels in the SEC tournament after losing a tight bout to Ole Miss on Tuesday night. The profiles are very similar, but the Rebels have a leg up after the victory.


IN: New Mexico, UNLV

For loyal readers of this space, my love of the Mountain West is no surprise. The players, the coaches, the storylines, and the quality late night hoops -- what's not to love? The Lobos are a sleeper pick for a No. 2 seed, and the push-and-shove behind them is full of quality.

UNLV joined lock territory after rallying past Boise State on Tuesday night. The Rebels have the talent for a deep tournament run.


Colorado State (22-7, 9-5; RPI 17, SOS 27): Let���s not talk about the Rams' profile, as they are likely fine. Instead, let's point out that Boise State's Derrick Marks was the latest evidence of a disturbing trend. Colorado State can't stay in front of athletic perimeter players. Marks scored 33 points in the SECOND half in Boise State's victory over Colorado State last weekend. Keep this fact in mind for March Madness: the Rams can't stay with athletic, perimeter-oriented teams.


San Diego State (20-8, 8-6; RPI 32, SOS 29): There's nothing wrong with falling at the Pit, but that just ramps up the pressure this week against Air Force and at Boise State. The computer numbers suggest the Aztecs may not need both, but a loss in Boise followed by a MWC quarterfinal loss (perhaps to the Broncos again) could put them on the tightrope.

Boise State (20-9, 8-7; RPI 40, SOS 65): Boise State was one of the few teams that actually handled its business last week. A 2-0 week, including the win over Colorado State, moves the Broncos squarely onto the bubble. Where they go from here depends on them (once again). They let a bid-clinching opportunity vanish in the second half in Las Vegas, but they get one more chance against San Diego State. A win and the Broncos are likely in; a loss and a trip to the MWC semis may be warranted.


IN: Saint Louis, VCU, Butler

So, that's how you make a statement. VCU's "Havoc" defense caused plenty of it in a throttling of Butler, moving the Rams from the bubble's edge to a tournament lock. Despite the embarrassment, Butler's profile (wins over Indiana, Marquette, North Carolina and Gonzaga) is too good to leave the Bulldogs in doubt.

In other news, the Billikens just keep winning, and they can claim the league outright with wins at Xavier and home against La Salle.


La Salle (20-7, 10-4; RPI 45, SOS 94): The Explorers picked up their ceremonial 20th victory of the season last week and now look for more filler against George Washington before taking a shot at league top dog Saint Louis. Is that win needed? The wins over Butler and VCU are big, and the computer numbers are manageable. If the Explorers finish 11-5 in the league, it may only take one conference tournament win. It's a thin-line profile.

Temple (21-8, 9-5; RPI 42, SOS 51): The squeaker against Detroit shook North Philly to its core, but the Owls are still breathing after that win and another close one against Rhode Island. Like the rest of those firmly on the bubble, the recipe is wins, which starts against Fordham and includes a pivotal regular-season finale against VCU.

Note: Other bubble services are including Massachusetts in the discussion. We aren't there yet. Beat Butler this week, Minutemen, and we can talk.


IN: Wichita State, Creighton

The league's hierarchy changed in just one week, as Wichita State lost TWICE at home to finish the regular-season slate, including a setback to Creighton which gave the Bluejays the league crown. Now, all that's left is the usually wild Missouri Valley tournament, where a sleeper like Indiana State or Northern Iowa could make some noise, give the league three bids and destroy a bubble team's dream.


IN: Gonzaga

Congratulations to Gonzaga head coach Mark Few and the city of Spokane, as both are basking in the glow of a first-ever No. 1 ranking this week. There is little time for back patting, though, as the 'Zags are two wins away from locking down a No.1 seed.

Saint Mary's, on the other hand, may still have to sweat a little. But as the bubble gets softer, the Gaels' Bracket Busters victory over Creighton looks more and more bid-clinching.

Right side of bubble

Saint Mary���s (25-5, 14-2; RPI 39, SOS 122): The Gaels are without a loss in conference outside Gonzaga, and the win over Creighton now comes over the Missouri Valley champions. If Saint Mary's wins its semifinal game, it will likely get a third shot at the 'Zags with the auto bid on the line. A win would be good news for other bubble teams, but what about a loss? For now, the Gaels look good, but a lot can change in the next week-plus.


Memphis has to be in, but the Tigers unfortunately can do very little to move themselves from the 8-9 line unless those above falter. What about the best of the rest?


Memphis (25-4, 14-0 C-USA; RPI 18; SOS 71): The Tigers are in, but this week, From the End of the Bench is using this space to destroy the notion that Conference USA could sneak another at-large into the party (see Southern Mississippi). The Tigers are perfect in the league, but continue to do it no justice with their non-league performance (see recent loss to Xavier).


Belmont (24-6, 14-2 OVC; RPI 26, SOS 95): The Bruins separated themselves by winning the Ohio Valley by two games, but despite good computer numbers, a loss in the conference tourney is not recommended. They are on an 11-12 line WITH a tournament title, so it's hard to see them staying in the field unless they lose one of those ESPN Instant Classics in the conference tourney final.

Middle Tennessee State (27-4, 19-1 Sun Belt; RPI 28, SOS 135): There is a domino effect at play here. Belmont, Middle Tennessee State, Louisiana Tech and Akron are all pulling for the others to win auto bids just in case it needs an at-large. It's hard to see more than one of these teams claiming an at-large, but we do think one will. Who? Again, depends on the conference tournaments. The Blue Raiders won the Sun Belt by five games, have a good RPI and bad SOS numbers. Remember the non-league win over Ole Miss. It could be the dividing line between play-in game and NIT.


Akron and Louisiana Tech (Akron -- 22-5, 13-1 MAC; RPI 47, SOS 142; La Tech -- 26-3, 16-0 WAC; RPI 50, SOS 239): Akron blinked first, dropping a league game to sub-200 RPI Buffalo. That's a killer. Louisiana Tech still hasn't blinked and now sees an unblemished light at the end of the tunnel. Akron has the better computer numbers and the best win of the two (over Middle Tennessee State), while Louisiana Tech has the perfect conference record. From the End of the Bench isn't sure who is above whom, but at this point both are below the two teams above and will need a bunch of help if they don't get the auto bid.