Posted 02/28/2012 at 06:05 PM
This is the time of year when everyone starts making bracket predictions and starts making assumptions about who is and who is out. There are still many games to be played and several teams that are not on anyoneís bracket list could still play their way into the NCAA tournament. Here are the best candidates that could emerge out of mediocrity to play into at-large consideration to steal a bid from a team that most assume is comfortably in the field at this point. These four teams are all long shots and need to play very well down the stretch to make it happen but a closer look reveals that the opportunity is there.
Big Ten - Iowa Hawkeyes: A few weeks ago the Big Ten looked virtually assured of being nine-bid conference. It has been rated as the strongest conference all season long and things looked promising for the teams on the edge, Illinois, Northwestern, Purdue, and Minnesota. A lot has changed in a short time and Minnesota and Illinois are certainly on the outside looking in and Northwestern appears headed that direction as well. Purdue is the team that may benefit but upon further review there simply are not any quality wins on the resume and road games at Michigan and at Indiana leave the Boilermakers most likely sitting at 9-9 and a questionable fringe bubble case.
The Boilermakers did beat Iowa twice which could be the Achilles heel for the Hawkeyes in what otherwise could turn into an interesting case. Iowa is just 6-8 in Big Ten play but they certainly could win out. The big game is Thursday at home against Wisconsin, a team they have already beaten this season. They then have winnable road games at Illinois and at Nebraska before hosting Northwestern in the final. There are no sure-wins for this squad that has been inconsistent but getting to 10-8 is not out of the realm of possibility. A November loss to Campbell could also haunt the Hawkeyes but there are not any other bad losses and good wins over Wisconsin and Michigan could carry some significant weight, especially if Michigan wins the Big Ten. In any scenario Iowa will need to win a game and probably two games in the Big Ten tournament to get serious consideration but when it is all said and done, Iowaís profile could rise up into the mix.
ACC - Maryland Terrapins: The Terrapins really havenít been in the NCAA tournament conversation at all this season and at 16-11 and 6-7 in the ACC there is no real reason to include them. The top four teams in the ACC figure to be tournament locks at this point with Miami and NC State likely right on the bubble depending on how things play out in the next two weeks. Both of those teams figure to be ahead of Maryland in the pecking order but Maryland has an opportunity to move ahead of them in the standings and in the eyes of the tournament committee. Maryland does not have a bad loss all season as non-conference misses to Alabama, Iona, Temple, and Illinois are all forgivable. They also have a big win over Notre Dame at a neutral site that will continue to pay dividends.
Maryland beat Miami earlier this week to even that series and while they wonít get that chance with NC State they have an opportunity for a signature win next week at North Carolina. The Terrapins will be steep underdogs in that game but Maryland played the Tar Heels close the first time around and it could be a flat spot for North Carolina, sandwiched in between big road games at Virginia and at Duke. Maryland obviously needs to take care of business at Georgia Tech this weekend and will need to beat Virginia at home to close the season next Sunday. Getting to 8-8 in league play would at least give Maryland a chance still likely needing at least two wins in the ACC tournament. If Maryland can get at least one big win (at UNC or over a top three team in the tournament) this will be a profile that warrants further examination. The ACC is still a respected league and should warrant at least five bids, Marylandís case could also be helped if Miami and NC State crumble down the stretch.
Pac-12 - Colorado Buffaloes: The Pac-12 is a mess with five teams at 10-5 or better but mediocrity reigning overall. California, Washington, and Arizona are penciled in as the top three teams and teams that would likely make the NCAA tournament but donít rule Colorado being the team to rise up to take a spot. Oregon has gained some traction in recent weeks in that regard but Colorado beat the Ducks earlier this season and should the Buffaloes complete the sweep they will warrant a further look. Colorado lost four non-conference games but none of them are particularly damaging, losing to Wyoming, Colorado State, Maryland, and Wichita State. They donít have any high quality non-conference wins so they may need to win out and reach 14-4 in conference play but that may be possible.
Colorado hosts Stanford Thursday, a game they have to have after losing badly at Stanford in January. They then get an opportunity at home against California which will be a critical game. They then finish up in Oregon playing at Oregon and at Oregon State. Going 4-0 down the stretch would make the Buffaloes a serious tournament candidate but even going 3-1 would get some notice and they could be viable with a decent showing in the conference tournament. Even with very poor ratings for the Pac-12, three teams will probably get into the Big Dance. Colorado has a great chance to sweep Oregon and with both California and Washington finishing up with strictly road games it is possible that they could fall back to the pack and open the door for another team.
SEC Ė LSU Tigers: While Mississippi State and Alabama are considered the SEC bubble teams with both squads moving in the wrong direction LSU may be the team that sneaks into the picture. The Tigers have a lot to overcome, they have bad losses to Coastal Carolina and South Alabama but they also have a big win over Marquette that keeps on giving. LSU started 3-7 in conference play but the Tigers have gone on to win four in a row, including wins over both Alabama and Mississippi State. The only SEC home loss came against #1 Kentucky and LSU will benefit from only playing the top three SEC teams once each, catching one of the easier slates in the league.
LSU will have a great chance to finish up the regular season on a 7-0 run and while there are not any overly impressive wins that would leave them at 10-6 in SEC play and hard to ignore as at least the fourth best team in the conference. Donít rule out Vanderbilt sliding with three very tough games left on the schedule so LSU could even move into third place in the standings. LSU will have some serious blemishes on its resume but they should at least surpass Alabama and Mississippi State in that scenario and if they can put together two wins in the SEC tournament, particularly if they win a Ďplay-iní game with the Tide or Bulldogs it will be hard to leave the Tigers out.