Here’s my second installment of Bubble Battle, which is a debate between two likely NCAA Tournament bubble teams. Last time out I favored Illinois slightly over Florida, so let’s stick with the Big Ten/SEC theme today with Minnesota and Mississippi State. For what it’s worth, ESPN’s bracketology has neither team in the current field.
Minnesota Golden Gophers: 17-12, 8-9 in Big Ten. Minnesota suffered a crippling 28-point loss at Michigan on Tuesday night. The Gophers have lost two of three overall. Their RPI entering Thursday was No. 77, with a strength of schedule rating of 44th.
Mississippi State Bulldogs: 21-9, 9-6 in SEC. The Bulldogs, who have won the SEC West, had won three in a row and five of six before suffering their own crippling loss to a below .500 conference team by falling by nine at Auburn on Wednesday night. MSU’s RPI entering Thursday was No. 59, with a strength of schedule rating of 113.
Obviously looking just at records and the fact that MSU is a division winner in the SEC would seem to give them a huge edge over Minnesota. But that strength of schedule could be a killer. The Bulldogs close with a very losable home game to Tennessee on Saturday, while Minnesota is pretty much a lock to beat visiting Iowa on Sunday. And certainly the Gophers have no shot at an at-large bid if they don’t finish at .500 in the conference. Of course beating Iowa won’t help the SOS for the Gophers.
Minnesota is 2-5 against ranked teams this year, having beaten Butler and Wisconsin. The Gophers were swept by Purdue this year, and the 59-58 loss to the Boilers on Feb. 24 (the game in which Purdue’s Robbie Hummel suffered his season-ending injury) could well be the game that keeps the Minnesota out. It would have been the Gophers’ first home win over a Top 5 team since 1992. Nine of Minnesota's losses are by eight points or less, including a pair of three-point overtime defeats on the road. The one thing the Gophers have in their favor is a head-to-head win over Illinois, which is perceived as being ahead of Minnesota in the at-large bid pecking order among Big Ten teams. Don’t forget that the Gophers lost starting point guard Al Nolen in mid-January because of academics.
As for Mississippi State, it has faced only three ranked teams so far, with the lone win coming over Ole Miss (which isn’t ranked any more). Actually, MSU swept the Rebels, so that gives them a huge edge in the at-large pecking order between those two. However, that head-to-head loss to Florida might hurt. A victory over No. 13 Tennessee this weekend might salt away a bid for the Bulldogs, who also have a nice non-conference win over CAA champion Old Dominion.
In this matchup of between an SEC and Big Ten bubble team, the SEC wins. And with shot-blocking machine Jarvis Varnado, MSU could do some damage in the Big Dance.