Fade & Shade Picks, Predictions, Odds

Conference tourneys are kicking into gear and as the major conferences get ready to tip things off, we usually like to look for a few teams looking to make one last bid for a Big Dance berth via the only routes left for them...by winning these league get-togethers. 

The domino effect in Championship Week is that said upset wins will effectively knock some entry from elsewhere out of the Big Dance entirely and into the NIT.  This March we have a live collection of these “Bubble Thieves” to watch as the conference tourneys ramp up within the next week...

NCAA Tourney Bubble Trouble

Bubble Thieves

We're looking at four schools in the next week to make a move and possibly grab a spot in the NCAA Tournament or at the very least, knock someone out of contention and pop their proverbial "Bubble."

Villanova could be a surprise team to watch at Madison Square Garden. (Getty)


On Deck: Big East Tournament

“Bubble Thief” and “Villanova” appear to be intrinsically linked in many discussions this week as we don’t think we’ve quite ever seen a team so aptly fir the description.  The Big East this season has been filled with haves and have-nots, with Marquette, Xavier, Providence,  UConn, and Creighton all entering MSG next week with their Big Dance bids secure, while Georgetown, Butler, and DePaaul appear longshots without any real hope. 

St John’s and Seton hall have been too erratic to expect a deep run in New York City, but the X-factor has been Nova, which was idling for much of the season while first-year HC Kyle Neptune waited for key G Justin Moore to return to active duty as he mended from an Achilles tendon tear suffered last march in the Elite 8 vs. Houston.  Moore didn’t return until late January but eventually worked off the rust in February, and now the Cats are maybe the Big East’s scariest entry, having won three straight and four of five, with more suddenly bossing proceedings with efforts like 25 points last week in the upset win at Xavier and 23 points in the midweek win at Seton Hall, and 8 assists in the game in-between vs. Creighton. 

Along the way other components like F Eric Dixon (16 ppg; scored 31 in the Creighton win) and touted 6-foot-7 frosh Cam Whitmore (18 ppg the last two games) learned how to play without their leader and have been able to benefit greatly upon Moore’s return, as has backcourt mate Caleb Daniels (15 ppg), asked to fill a variety of roles in Moore’s absence.  Nova’s at-large profile was damaged too much by various losses in the first two-plus months of the season while Moore remained sidelined, but the Cats enter MSG next week as the very definition of a “bubble thief.”  One more regular-season matchup vs. UConn awaits on Saturday before action moves to the Big Apple next week. 

Santa Clara

Next Game: WCC Tournament

Herb Sendek got the Broncos rolling last season, earning a berth in the NIT with a team featuring NBA first-round pick wing Jalen Williams. But WCC observers began alerting back in November that this might be a better SCU edition this season after Sendek hit the jackpot in the portal with Illinois transfer Brandin Podziemski, who has been hovering around 20 ppg all season and more than picking up the slack for the departed Williams, while soph G Carlos Stewart was a decorated prep in Baton Rouge who has emerged as one of the WCC’s best backcourt threats. 

Along with 6-7 fifth-year sr. Keshawn Justice, SCU is big on the perimeter, and has size in the paint with a pair of 6-10 frontliners, ex-Mizzou transfer Parker Braun and much-improved sr. Jaden Bediako. The key across the next few days at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas is if all of this can result in upsets vs. Saint Mary’s (which would await in the Monday semifinal round) or Gonzaga (which, if it comes to pass, would be in the Tuesday night finale). 

True, Sendek lost all four during the regular season to the Gaels and Zags, but came tantalizingly close to knocking off both at the Leavey Center, losing by 3 to SMC and holding a lead on Mark Few’s team in the final minute before suffering a tight loss.  More than likely, the broncos are NIT-bound again, but will have a puncher’s chance against either the Gaels or Zags (or both) if getting the chance in the next few days. 

Washington State

On Deck: Pac-12 Tournament

Heading into the T-Mobile Arena next week, consensus opinion seems to be that the Pac is probably a three-bid league (UCLA, Arizona, and likely USC), with Arizona State likely to fall from the bubble if it gets swept this weekend against the LA schools, which is halfway to happening after Thursday’s loss in Westwood vs. the Bruins. 

In the shadows, however lurks a dangerous threat in the form of the Cougars, who embraced the postseason thing a year ago by making a run in the NIT all of the way to the Final Four at MSG (this march, by the way, the NIT semis and final will be played in Las Vegas at the Orleans Arena).  While no one seems to be paying attention, Kyle Smith has Wazzu dangerously positioned for another stealth March run in Vegas as the Cougs bring a four-game win streak into T-Mobile Arena next week after Thursday’s “Hoops Apple Cup” win at U-Dub. 

Keep in mind that WSU was one point from an upset of UCLA in Pullman, did beat USC at home, and for good measure also ended Arizona’s 28-game win streak in Tucson with a win at the McKale Center on January 7.  Smith now has all of his components on deck, with explosive 6-5 wing TJ Bamba off of a career-high 36 points in the win over the Huskies.  The likes of Bamba, mobile 6-11 soph Mohammed Gueye (15 ppg), 6-6 Tennessee transfer wing Justin Powell, and 6-6 DJ Rodman can put a lot of length and athleticism on the floor which have caused matchups issues for all of the top contenders against WSU.  With the Cougs apparently putting some of their early-season inconsistencies behind them, the pieces are in place to make a run in Vegas and warrant a bubble thief watch heading into next week. 

New Mexico

New Mexico could be a spoiler in next week's MWC Tournament. (Getty)

On Deck: Mountain West Tournament

Annually at the Mountain West Conference festivities at the Thomas & Mack Center, the best-supported team will be the Lobos, as New Mexico fans travel and have flocked to Las Vegas in past years.  Not quite the Pit in Albuquerque, but the Lobos can at least count on a lot more crowd support than most of the other entries in the tourney. 

Keep in mind this was the last unbeaten team left standing in the country into January, and while apparently playing themselves off of the Big Dance bubble in recent weeks, a close inspection shows how tantalizingly close New Mexico has been to having a bid instead in its back pocket entering Championship Week.  The last cruel blow was a week ago against San Diego State, when Richard Pitino’s bunch was one-tick of the clock from a season sweep of the Aztecs before long Lamont Butler triple at the buzzer stuck a dagger into UNM. 

Earlier were a pair of grating, last-second losses to Nevada (including double-overtime  at Reno) and a regular-season split with conference heavyweight Boise State.  A pre-league win in Moraga at Saint Mary’s has also aged well.  Moreover, Pitino’s squad is relatively healthy again after the recent absence of key G Jaelen House, maybe the best on-ball defender in the MW and ranking third nationally in steals.  Along with backcourt mate Jamal Mashburn Jr. the Lobos are often dynamic on the perimeter, and Wichita transfer PF Morris Udeze provides real presence on the blocks, It’s well within New Mexico to steal the event at the Thomas & Mack, and worth noting the four straight spread covers for the Lobos entering Friday night’s reg-season finale at Colorado State, all since House returned to active duty.

Bubble Beware

Meanwhile, there are a couple of teams with Dance bids securely in hand that we aren’t necessarily expecting to see making deep runs in their conference tourneys...


Rick Barnes and the Vols have lost four of their last seven games. (Getty)

On Deck: SEC Tournament

The Vols have been wobbling in the last month and Rick Barnes is probably just looking to the get to the Dance with his team in one piece after the ruptured Achilles tendon suffered by PG Zakai Zeigler in the midweek win over Arkansas, whose absence will also be felt on the stop-end where he was one of the most disruptive forces in the SEC. 

As the main facilitator of the offense, he will not be easily replaces, and Barnes must be wondering why the injury bug continues to hit his Vols, who will now hand  much of the ballhandling responsibilities will to Santiago Vescovi and sophomore Jahmai Mashack, who had played sparingly throughout much of the SEC season before recently being thrust into the starting lineup due to another injury (G Josiah Jordan-James, who finally returned to active duty last week). 

At this stage, Barnes would probably just be happy for his banged-up team to get out of Bridgestone Arena in one piece next week and not have to worry about a deep run like last year in the SEC Tourney that this season would likely pose more of an injury threat. 


On Deck: ACC Tournament

The Cavaliers will enter the ACC Tourney as one of the few league reps securely into the field of 68, and while they will be joined by several other conference brethren, the likes of Pitt, NC State and others could see their seeds fall into the double-digit range, while Clemson and North Carolina might have to do some business in Greensboro just to make the field of 68. 

Like Jim Larranaga’s Miami, no real urgency attached tot he ACC Tourney for the Hoos, as Tony Bennett is likely just looking for one sharper effort from his featured performers in a tune-up for the Dance.  That sharpness hasn’t been evident lately with the Cavs losing twice in the last week of February at BC and Chapel Hill, and having covered just one of five vs. the spread into Saturday's regular-season finale vs. the ‘Ville. 

Bennett’s team has hardly been hitting on all cylinders lately and looks vulnerable in the ACC Tourney...especially as there might be so many desperate entries standing in the Cavs’ way at Greensboro.