By Jim O’Connell
AP national basketball writer
It’s easy to skim through a list of conference tournaments and skip over the opening days of the major conferences as games between teams that would be considered long shots to make the NCAA’s field of 68 unless they won the whole thing.
Not so this season with two of the big conferences. The Big 12 and Pac 12 — along with the Big Ten — are expected to have the most at-large berths on Selection Sunday.
The Big 12 could have seven bids, a pretty impressive haul for a 10-team conference. The Pac-12, which lives up to its name, could match that.
Both leagues have two games in their early round that might not lock up a bid with a win but would almost certainly end a chance at being one of the 36 at-large teams.
There are also some teams that face a tougher task than other at-large candidates because of where games are played.
Here’s a Pick Six of some games that could affect bubble teams as the conferences tournaments get started.
SOUTHERN MISSISSIPPI vs. UTEP — The Golden Eagles were part of a four-way tie at the top of the Conference USA standings with Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee and Tulsa, all with 13-3 records. Southern Miss, with an RPI in the mid-30s, is the only one of the group with a legitimate shot at an at-large berth if they should lose in the conference tournament. The quarterfinal matchup could be really hard on the Golden Eagles as they face UTEP, if the Miners win their second-round game. The tournament is being played at UTEP’s Don Haskins Center, a fact that makes the Miners, who finished one game out of first, a lot tougher than the other quarterfinal opponents.
OKLAHOMA STATE vs. TEXAS TECH — The Cowboys put together a big close to the regular season winning four of five since Marcus Smart returned from his three-game suspension for pushing a fan with the only loss 85-81 in overtime at Iowa State on Saturday. An RPI around 40 doesn’t mean a lock so the Cowboys have to watch out for the Red Raiders who won six conference games and were in a couple of others down the stretch. A loss would make Selection Sunday seem months away.
BAYLOR vs. TCU — The Bears made their way back into the at-large conversation by winning seven of eight including Saturday’s 76-74 victory at Kansas State. With an RPI in the mid-30s, the case would take an incredible hit if they were to lose to TCU, which didn’t manage a conference win. If the bright yellow uniforms are to make an NCAA appearance, beating the Horned Frogs is a must.
OREGON vs. OREGON STATE — The Ducks, who opened the regular season with a 13-game winning streak and closed it with seven straight wins including the 64-57 win over No. 4 Arizona on Saturday, have vaulted into lock status. An RPI in the mid-20s and being part of the five-way tie for third in the Pac-12 can make you feel that way. But a can’t-lose game against your biggest rival seems almost unfair especially when they have the league’s leading scorer in Roberto Nelson.
STANFORD vs. WASHINGTON STATE — The Cardinal are another of the logjam for third place and with an RPI in the low 40s they can’t afford to slip up against the Cougars who managed just three conferences wins and only 10 overall. Coach Johnny Dawkins will have to work his pregame speech around overconfidence as Stanford won the two meetings with Washington State by 32 and 13 points.
PROVIDENCE vs. ST. JOHN’S — This is one of those games where the winner isn’t guaranteed the bid but a loss sure but ends any hope. The Friars and Red Storm have resumes that are similar including RPIs in the 50s, a number that would take quite a hit with a loss in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. That’s what makes this even tougher for the Friars, who split with the Red Storm this season, winning on each other’s home court. This will give St. John’s a second home game in the three meetings.