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Now, thing are getting interesting.
The elbows have become particularly sharp at the edge of the proverbial Big Dance “bubble” as Selection Sunday looms around the corner. Several developments this past weekend changed some of the dynamics at the cut line, with some teams dropping off the bubble and others making late moves. Expect more of the same figures to continue throughout the conference tournaments this week.
Following is a look at acknowledged bubble and potential bubble teams as of Sunday night, and where we think they’ll land on Selection Sunday...
Alabama...Things got a bit iffy over the weekend for the Crimson Tide, which lost rather meekly at Ole Miss. But ‘Bama has 20 wins, a decent RPI at 32, and a solid strength-of-schedule at 16. Beating Wichita State and Purdue to win the Puerto Rico Tip-off back in November, plus another win on Thanksgiving weekend vs. Virginia Commonwealth, might eventually be the factors that put ‘Bama into field of 68. Don’t let anyone tell you those November results don’t matter...they do.
Arizona...The last thing the Wildcats needed was a bad loss a week before Selection Sunday. Unfortunately, that’s just what happened to ‘Zona at Tempe in an inexplicable 87-80 setback vs. lowly Arizona State which likely forces the Cats to win the Pac-12 Tourney this week to make the Dance. Events elsewhere over the weekend out west suggest just how damaging the loss to the Sun Devils was for the Cats, who fell into fourth place in the final standings in the shaky conference. That’s not going to cut it for an at-large berth this season, especially when the only decent non-league wins are over Valparaiso and New Mexico State. ‘Zona is NIT-bound unless it wins at Staples Center this week.
BYU...With an RPI at 45 and strength of schedule at 93, the Cougars look borderline. And they were only 1-4 vs. other WCC heavyweights Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. But Oregon and Nevada were a couple of good non-conference wins, and the power rating of the WCC might be enough to just sneak the Cougars into the field of 68.
Cal...The Golden Bears would have helped their at-large case considerably had they been able to win at Stanford on Sunday night and at least claim a share of the Pac-12 regular-season title. But they couldn’t, and now Mike Montgomery’s team has a bit less wiggle room in this week’s Pac-12 Tourney at Los Angeles. The Bears’ RPI at 36 suggests they’re probably on the safe side of the cut line, but just in case, Cal (with no meaningful non-conference wins) is strongly advised to avoid an early exit at Staples Center. Cincinnati...The Bearcats are now in safe territory after avoiding the banana peel on Saturday at Villanova. A 12-6 record in the Big East, good for 4th place in that rugged league, a handful of useful road wins, and recent claims of scalps from Louisville and Marquette means that we’ll see Mick “The Ghost” Cronin and his Bearcats in the field of 68. Take Cincy off of the bubble.
Colorado State...The Rams appear to be straddling the cut line as the fourth team from the Mountain West, but their very good RPI (22) and strength-of-schedule (8) numbers, plus the MWC’s high conference ranking, indicate Tim Miles’ squad might be on more-solid footing than many realize. Last Saturday’s win at Air Force (the Rams’ first on the MWC road all season) was probably a must, but we doubt CSU hangs in the field if it loses its MWC Tourney first-round game vs. TCU at Las Vegas later this week.
Connecticut...The optics were not especially good for UConn, having lost 9 of 12 entering last Saturday’s game vs. Pitt. But HC Jim Calhoun made a dramatic return to the sidelines from recent back surgery and the Huskies at least temporarily stopped the bleeding by beating the sagging Panthers. We don’t think UConn should a dead-bang certainty into the Dance as does ESPN’s “St. Joe’s” Lunardi, but an RPI at 34 and strength-of-schedule at 3 suggests UConn almost assuredly gets a chance to defend its national title no matter what happens at this week’s Big East Tourney.
Drexel...No matter what happens in Monday’s CAA Tourney title game in Richmond vs. VCU, we believe Bruiser Flint’s Dragons are into the Dance. Drexel entered that game vs. the Rams with the longest non-Kentucky win streak in the country at 19 games, and the Committee needs no reminders how well the Colonial has performed in the Big Dance lately.
Iona...The worst-case scenario happened for the Gaels in the Metro-Atlantic semis when they were dumped by Fairfield on Sunday. Many envisioned Iona, with its dynamite guard combo of Scott Machado and Arizona transfer Momo Jones, causing as much trouble in the Dance as did another MAAC rep, Siena, did a few years ago. The RPI (38) says the Gaels will still get a good look from the Selection Committee, but what Iona could have really used was one more marquee non-conference win; that one-point loss in the Puerto Rico Tip-off vs. Purdue in the opener might eventually be what keep the Gaels out of the field of 68.
Long Beach State...It would be a crime for the Beach to somehow not make the Dance if it blows the Big West Tourney like it did a year ago. Trust us, there aren’t 67 teams better than the 49ers this season. But just in case it loses in the conference tourney this week at Anaheim, the Beach might have to sweet a bit, because it missed a chance to finish unbeaten in regular-season conference play when losing its finale at Cal State Fullerton, which suddenly looms as a real threat this week at the Honda Center. Another problem could be the apparent knee injury suffered by key 6-5 G Larry Anderson (second-leading scorer at 14 ppg) against the Titans. The Beach’s rugged non-conference slate has drawn rave reviews, but the only wins of note were over Pitt, which didn’t turn out to be a great win whatsoever, and a suspension-wracked Xavier. The 49ers played Kansas, Louisville, San Diego State, North Carolina, and Creighton all tough on the road, but lost them all, as well as a couple of more non-Big West games at Montana and vs. Kansas State in Hawaii’s Diamond Head Classic over the holidays. This could be the ultimate test case of how the Committee views “good losses” just in case the Beach is thrown in with the at-large crowd on Selection Sunday.
Miami-Florida...We suspect that Jim Larranaga’s Hurricanes have put themselves into position where they can play themselves into the Dance with two wins in the ACC Tourney, and perhaps only one (although if they lose the opener vs. Georgia Tech, it’s lights out). Big man Reggie Johnson has returned from a brief eligibility-related suspension, and wins in the last month at Duke and home vs. Florida State will weigh in Miami’s favor with the Selection Committee.
Middle Tennessee State...Unexpectedly thrown into the at-large mix after an upset loss vs. Arkansas State in the Sun Belt quarterfinals on Sunday night. The eye test and the RPI (42), plus non-Belt wins over Loyola Marymount, UCLA, Akron, Belmont, and Ole Miss (which is a better non-league victim’s list than some bubble contenders) suggest Kermit Davis’ Blue Raiders will at least get a good look from the Selection Committee. But what might be the best Belt team in years could be headed to the NIT instead.
Mississippi State...The Bulldogs have temporarily stopped their bleeding with last week’s successes over South Carolina and Arkansas to get to 21 wins. That’s probably going to be enough to get MSU into the field of 68 as long as it doesn’t suffer an early exit at the SEC Tournament this week in New Orleans.
Nevada...The only WAC team that would warrant a look from the Committee with its runaway regular-season league crown and 25 wins. But the Wolf Pack (RPI 48) probably needed one more non-league marquee win (the BracketBuster at Iona would have been perfect) to go along with its successes at home vs. Washington and at Montana, both of which are in position to make the field of 68. David Carter’s team probably needs to win the WAC Tourney to make the field of 68.
North Carolina State...The Wolfpack enters conference tourney play absolutely straddling the cut line. A recent 4-game losing streak will hurt, but bounce-back wins over Miami and Virginia Tech to close the regular season have at least raised hopes in Raleigh. What NC State really needed was to hold on to that 20-point lead at Duke a few weeks ago; if the Pack misses the Dance, it’s that loss at Cameron Indoor that will haunt Mark Gottfried and his staff the entire offseason.
Northwestern...We think this is the year the Cats do it and finally make the Dance! Last Saturday’s 70-66 win at Iowa was an absolute must for Bill “Conan O’Brien” Carmody’s team, and the RPI (47) and strength-of-schedule (12) numbers are indicators that the profile is good enough for an at-large. The fact the Big 10 is rated as the top league in the nation is another plus for the NU candidacy, which we don’t think needs more than one win at the Big Ten Tourney to make it, as John McLaughlin would say, a “metaphysical certitude” that NU will be dancing.
Oregon...The Ducks were the hottest Pac-12 team down the stretch, going 11-3 over their last 14 games and ending up tied for second in regular-season loop play and with 22 wins overall. Although the Pac has been downgraded this season and the Oregon RPI is a bit iffy at 50, those other numbers are usually good enough to get a team into the Dance. A possible Webfoot problem area could be a lack of good non-conference wins, although it should be noted that losses at Vanderbilt and at Salt Lake City vs. BYU were before Minnesota transfer G Devoe Joseph became eligible in mid-December. The Ducks’ win in last year’s CBI Tourney might not count for much, but it’s worth considering when handicapping Dana Altman’s team in the coming weeks. We think Oregon is likely into the field of 68, although an opening-round loss in the Pac-12 Tourney could still hurt.
Seton Hall...Talk about a bad week! All the Hall had to do to get to 20 wins was beat either Rutgers or DePaul, Big East bottom-feeders each, and an expected sweep over those two would put the Hall in an almost unassailable at-large position heading into Selection Sunday regardless of what transpired in the Big East Tourney. But shock losses to both the Scarlet Knights and Blue Demons have kept the Hall at 19 wins and sunk the Pirates to the 10th seed in this week’s schedule at Madison Square Garden. With nine losses in its last twelve games and an iffy RPI (60), we’re thinking the Hall might have to make a run to at least the Big East semis to give it a chance at serious at-large discussion from the Selection Committee.
South Florida...The Bulls might present another interesting test case for the Committee. The only thing close to a good non-conference win was over Cleveland State, and the Big East slate broke favorably. But the RPI (46) and strength-of-schedule (24) numbers are very decent, and a 12-6 mark in the Big East would have meant a free pass from the Selection Committee in recent years. We think USF has to win a game or maybe two at the Big East Tourney to squeeze onto the safe side of the cut line.
Southern Mississippi...Larry Eustachy’s Golden Eagles have played themselves into some bubble trouble the past few weeks, winning only four of their last eight, with bad losses at Houston and UTEP. What might save USM is a still-solid RPI (17), although that could drop this week if the Golden Eagles slip early in the Conference USA Tourney at FedEx Forum in Memphis. Very precarious on the cut line at the moment.
Tennessee...A recent 8-1 surge to close the regular season and ascent to 4th place in the SEC are reasons to believe the Vols will at least get a look from the Selection Committee, which might also want to take into account how UT didn’t start flying until after frosh PF Jarnell Stokes reported for active duty in mid-January. Still, with 13 defeats (three of them to Oakland, Austin Peay, and College of Charleston in pre-SEC play being very hard to overlook), plus an RPI at 75, UT remains a hard sell, although things could get interesting if Cuonzo Martin’s Vols make a deep run in the SEC Tourney.
Texas...At 19-12 and an RPI at 52, the Longhorns hardly look a sure thing. They do have a solid strength-of-schedule (23) number, but didn’t beat any of the Big XII’s “big three” (Kansas, Missouri, and Baylor; the Horns were a combined 0-6 SU against that trio). The best wins are over Temple, Kansas State, and Iowa State, which will help, but we think Texas’ biggest advantage this season is playing in the top-heavy Big XII, which many believe will be given a wide berth by the Selection Committee next week. And no, the Longhorn Network isn’t going to be televising and NCAA Tourney games.
Virginia Commonwealth...We’d say the Colonial deserves to be a multi-bid league after sending two different entries into the Final Four (including the Rams a year ago) over the previous five years. Now we know why NC State and Maryland were so desperate to sign Shaka Smart as their coach after the Rams fooled many experts while racing to Monday’s CAA Tourney finale vs. Drexel, as VCU did as it won 16 of 17 games. The Rams could still win their way into the field of 68 by winning over the Dragons on Monday night, but we suspect the Committee is going to take an extra Colonial rep, even if it’s VCU and the Rams’ at-large iffy RPI (59).
Washington...The Huskies backed into the Pac-12 regular-season championship when Cal lost at Stanford on Sunday night. U-Dub had left the door open for the Golden Bears by losing on Saturday at the L.A. Sports Arena vs. UCLA, 75-69. The RPI is rather so-so at 54 but most suspect that the Committee would at least take the Pac regular-season champ in addition to the conference tourney winner, so we suspect Lorenzo Romar’s Huskies are on rather solid footing heading into the conference tourney this week at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
West Virginia...The Mountaineers needed their two wins this past week vs. DePaul and at South Florida to stay on the at-large radar. And with an RPI at 44 and strength-of-schedule at 13, we think Bob Huggins’ side has now done enough to feel pretty safe about its invitation to the Dance. Avoiding an early exit at the Big East Tourney (where the Mounties at least qualified for a first-round bye with their 8th-place finish), likely in a second-round game vs. UConn, is still advisable, although we think WVU is in regardless what happens this week at Madison Square Garden.
Xavier...The Musketeers probably blew their last chance at an at-large berth when squandering a double-digit lead at Saint Louis last week. Sadly, the Musketeers were never the same after the brawl game vs. Cincinnati, sporting an 11-11 SU mark in their last 22 games. The “X” probably needs to win this week’s A-10 Tourney in Atlantic City to get into the field of 68.
After the weekend, here’s how our projected seeds (1 thru 16) for the Big Dance set up as of March 4...
No. 1 seeds...Kentucky, Syracuse, Kansas, North Carolina.
No. 2 seeds...Duke, Missouri, Ohio State, Michigan State.
No. 3 seeds...Marquette, Michigan, Indiana, Baylor.
No. 4 seeds...Wisconsin, Florida State, Georgetown, Gonzaga.
No. 5 seeds...Wichita State, Creighton, UNLV, Florida.
No. 6 seeds...San Diego State, Notre Dame, Virginia, Memphis.
No. 7 seeds...Temple, Kansas State, Saint Louis, Louisville.
No. 8 seeds...New Mexico, Vanderbilt, Purdue, Murray State.
No. 9 seeds...Iowa State, Saint Mary’s, Cincinnati, Washington.
No. 10 seeds...BYU, UConn, California, Drexel.
No. 11 seeds...Oregon, Long Beach State, Mississippi State, Northwestern.
No. 12 seeds...Alabama, West Virginia, Colorado State, Miami-Fla., Texas.
No. 13 seeds...Akron, Belmont, Harvard, Southern Miss, Virginia Commonwealth.
No. 14 seeds...Loyola-Md., Valparaiso, Oral Roberts, Nevada.
No. 15 seeds...Bucknell, Davidson, North Texas, Weber State.
No. 16 seeds...UT-Arlington, Long Island, Savannah State, Stony Brook, Mississippi Valley State, UNC-Asheville.
Last four in...Miami-Florida, Texas, Southern Miss, Virginia Commonwealth.
First four out...NC State, South Florida, Arizona, Tennessee.
Next four out...Seton Hall, Iona, Middle Tennessee, Ole Miss.