Thanks to dozens of teams on pause at any given time, largely empty arenas and a slightly later start date than usual, this college basketball season has always felt like something was missing.

The past couple weeks have delivered a bit of a surprise that doubles as a throwback: February nonconference games.

These weren’t planned, of course. North Carolina had to advertise on Twitter to throw together a game against Northeastern on short notice last week. The Tar Heels’ team account cheekily noted it didn’t need to take that step to get an agreement to play Marquette this Wednesday.

While it might not get as much attention, another nonleague game scheduled on the fly for this week could have significant bracket implications. Western Kentucky (15-4) heads to Houston on Thursday, and the Hilltoppers already own a triumph at Alabama. Tack on a high-profile victory against a projected No. 3 seed, and their at-large profile would improve considerably as a backstop in case they don’t win the Conference USA tournament.

The concept of nonconference pairings set late in the season isn’t a new one. It’s been less than a decade since the demise of the Bracket Busters, a made-for-TV event that helped several teams improve their at-large resumes. Among them: George Mason, which won at Wichita State in 2006 and later snagged one of the last at-large berths in the field. VCU did the same thing in 2011 after winning at Wichita State. Both the Patriots and Rams would advance to the Final Four.

Before bloated leagues and TV demands, it wasn’t too uncommon to see intersectional games less than a month before Selection Sunday. In 2001, Maryland faced Oklahoma on the final Saturday of February. A year later, Cincinnati and Wake Forest played in early February. Now, with 20-game league schedules and conference television networks, those sorts of pairings so deep in the season are rare.

Placing scheduling want ads on social media should be an only-in-a-pandemic development. Yet there’s some value to at least a handful of late-season nonconference games.

Marquette-North Carolina and especially Western Kentucky-Houston have the potential to influence how the bracket is constructed in mid-March. Unlike most November and December games, they will be played when casual fans are at least starting to pay attention to the sport. No one should want a repeat of how much of this season has unfolded, but the return of the random February nonconference game is actually worth carrying into next year.

Field notes

Last four included: Indiana, Seton Hall, Stanford, Colorado State

First four on the outside: Drake, Minnesota, Richmond, Connecticut

Next four on the outside: Duke, Utah State, Western Kentucky, Syracuse

Conference call: Big Ten (9), Big 12 (7), Atlantic Coast (6), Southeastern (6), Pac-12 (5), Big East (4), Atlantic 10 (3), Mountain West (3), American Athletic (2), West Coast (2)

Moving in: Furman, Maryland, St. Bonaventure, Wichita State

Moving out: Connecticut, Minnesota, UNC Greensboro, Utah State

Bracket projection

West vs. East, South vs. Midwest

West Region


(8) LSU vs. (9) MISSOURI VALLEY/Loyola Chicago

(5) Virginia Tech vs. (12) Colorado State/Stanford

(4) Creighton vs. (13) MID-AMERICAN/Toledo

(3) West Virginia vs. (14) ATLANTIC SUN/Liberty

(6) Wisconsin vs. (11) AMERICAN ATHLETIC/Wichita State

(7) Colorado vs. (10) Louisville

(2) Iowa vs. (15) AMERICA EAST/Vermont

It’s easy to figure out why Loyola Chicago’s metrics are so favorable even though it owns just one Quadrant 1 victory. Of the Ramblers’ 19 triumphs, 16 have come by double-digit margins. … Colorado State hasn’t played since Feb. 6, and treading water isn’t ideal. But the Rams haven’t lost much — two home games against struggling New Mexico, one against Northern Colorado and a two-game swing to face a Nevada team that’s caused headaches for others in the Mountain West. …

Wichita State has won five in a row, including an upset of Houston, and now leads the American by a game in the loss column. … Louisville is in a tricky spot, holding no Quadrant 1 victories in late February. The Cardinals were obliterated by North Carolina, 99-54, coming off a lengthy pause, and do not have an easy finish. … Iowa’s moment of truth for its hopes of landing a spot on the top line is actually a two-parter within the next week: Trips to Michigan (Thursday) and Ohio State (Sunday) provide exactly the opportunities the Hawkeyes should crave at this stage.

East Region

(1) Ohio State vs. (16) WESTERN ATHLETIC/Grand Canyon

(8) Oregon vs. (9) MOUNTAIN WEST/San Diego State

(5) Arkansas vs. (12) HORIZON/Wright State

(4) Kansas vs. (13) SOUTHERN/Furman

(3) Houston vs. (14) CONFERENCE USA/North Texas

(6) Texas Tech vs. (11) Saint Louis

(7) Clemson vs. (10) Rutgers

(2) SOUTHEASTERN/Alabama vs. (15) SUMMIT/South Dakota State

Whatever doubt there is about San Diego State’s postseason prospects can be answered with this week’s two-game set with Boise State. A split will make them hard to dislodge from the at-large field. … Arkansas just keeps piling up victories. The Razorbacks (17-5) are 4-4 in Quadrant 1 games and 4-4 on the road. … Kansas has defeated everyone in the Big 12 at least once, except for Baylor and Texas. That’s who the Jayhawks close their conference schedule with this week. …

Whatever faint hope Houston had of landing a No. 1 seed probably dissolved when it lost to Wichita State. Still, it will wind up a No. 2 or No. 3 seed if it wins out. … It’s a huge seven-day stretch for Saint Louis, which remains one of the most difficult teams to assess. The Billikens (11-4) visit VCU on Tuesday, host Richmond on Friday and close out the regular season against Massachusetts on Monday.

South Region

(1) BIG 12/Baylor vs. (16) MID-EASTERN/North Carolina A&T-METRO ATLANTIC/Siena

(8) Brigham Young vs. (9) Xavier

(5) PAC-12/Southern California vs. (12) Indiana/Seton Hall

(4) Tennessee vs. (13) BIG SOUTH/Winthrop

(3) ATLANTIC COAST/Florida State vs. (14) SOUTHLAND/Abilene Christian

(6) Missouri vs. (11) Maryland

(7) Oklahoma State vs. (10) St. Bonaventure

(2) Illinois vs. (15) BIG SKY/Eastern Washington

Baylor gets back to work at long last; its Tuesday date with Iowa State is its first game in three weeks. … Winthrop is the top seed in the Big South tournament after wrapping up the regular season at 20-1. The Eagles won’t have to leave campus at all during the league tournament. …

Maryland’s four-game winning streak over eight days — capped by a victory at Rutgers — vaults the Terrapins into the field. Their profile is almost identical to the Scarlet Knights’. … The closer you look at St. Bonaventure’s profile, the better it looks. The Bonnies have no inexplicable losses, are above .500 away from Olean and are above .500 (4-3) in games against the top two quadrants.

Midwest Region

(1) BIG TEN/Michigan vs. (16) SUN BELT/Texas State

(8) UCLA vs. (9) Florida

(5) Texas vs. (12) OHIO VALLEY/Belmont

(4) Virginia vs. (13) BIG WEST/UC Santa Barbara

(3) Oklahoma vs. (14) PATRIOT/Colgate

(6) Purdue vs. (11) ATLANTIC 10/Virginia Commonwealth

(7) Boise State vs. (10) North Carolina

(2) BIG EAST/Villanova vs. (15) COLONIAL/James Madison

Michigan hasn’t clinched a No. 1 seed, but its work since returning from a covid pause — wins at Wisconsin and Ohio State sandwiched around a defeat of Rutgers — certainly provides some insulation. The Wolverines get Iowa at home on Thursday. … How the committee treats Belmont, owner of a 21-game winning streak and a 24-1 record, will be fascinating. That goes for whether the Bruins win the Ohio Valley or not. …

Another fascinating seeding discussion could take place around Colgate, which is 11-1 and is 13th in the NET, but has only played three other Patriot League teams (Army, Boston University and Holy Cross). Also worth pointing out is Navy (13-2), which is 82nd in the NET but did play a truncated nonconference schedule. The Midshipmen could be a formidable conference tournament obstacle for the Raiders. … Boise State did itself a world of good in sweeping Utah State at home last week. The Broncos’ series at San Diego State this week probably decides the Mountain West.