In or out? Analyzing 11 teams on the bubble
Rooting for a team on the NCAA Tournament bubble is a unique experience. Unlike any other sport, teams on the fringes of success pray for a chance to keep playing, with only so much control over the situation. Sure, they could win their conference tournaments, but many face long roads and brutal opponents between themselves and a conference tourney title.
Unlike the first college football team left out of the playoff, most of these teams are supremely flawed. They didn’t win their conference and weren’t ranked near the top of the polls all year. These are teams that just want a chance to prove they aren’t mediocre and make some noise in March. With conference tournaments very much underway, here’s our look at 11 bubble teams hanging on by a thread. Some have a chance to earn their way, but others are already at home, watching and hoping.
1. Notre Dame
The Irish are one of the most interesting bubble teams in years. Notre Dame is only 20-14 on the season, but lost nine of those games without star forward Bonzie Colson. The Irish were also without the services of point guard Matt Farrell in four of the games they lost without Colson. The selection committee has long claimed to take injuries into consideration. Notre Dame will put that theory to the test. Colson and Farrell are both back in the lineup, leading to a win over Virginia Tech early in the conference tournament. The Irish then lost to Duke Thursday, which would have been the kind of win to earn them a bid. Now, like the other teams listed here, they wait.
Despite all the drama of Rick Pitino’s firing and the Brian Bowen implications in the FBI scandal, first-year head coach David Padgett has the Cardinals on the cusp of an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. Sadly, they may fall just one game, and one second, short of that mark. Louisville led top-ranked Virginia by four points within the game’s final second last week, and through a series of costly mistakes, lost in mind-numbing fashion. The Cardinals were gifted another crack at Virginia in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals on Thursday, but lost again. If Louisville heads to the NIT, they may have just one second of game-time to blame for missing out.
The Crimson Tide find themselves in a similar situation as Texas, with a lot of losses thanks to a brutal schedule. KenPom ranks Alabama’s schedule as the 13th-toughest in Division I, which explains the Tide’s 18-14 record this season. Had they lost to Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals on Thursday, we may have seen the last of Alabama basketball this season. Instead, Collin Sexton sank a game-winning floater as the buzzer sounded, moving the Tide into the semifinals. Alabama is safer after that game, but by no means completely safe. Should they beat in-state rival Auburn Friday, the Tide can then likely breathe easily.
Like Oklahoma State trying to stretch the Big XII to a 9th bid, Marquette wants to be the 7th Big East team invited to the Dance. The Golden Eagles are 19-13 after being blown out by Villanova at Madison Square Garden in the Big East Tournament. Marquette finished conference play 9-9, including home losses to bottom dwellers Georgetown and DePaul, without ever knocking off Villanova or Xavier. Combine that with the fact that Marquette didn’t beat a single tournament-bound team out of conference and it would be a surprise to see the Golden Eagles in the bracket.
One of college basketball’s biggest blue bloods could be worried when the brackets are announced Sunday. Unlike some other teams on this list, the Bruins can still earn their way into the field with a win. Beating local rival USC in the regular season finale helped, but left more work to be done. The Bruins are only 9-9 versus the RPI top 100 currently. That speaks to UCLA’s tough schedule, but doesn’t inspire confidence in their ability to win games in the NCAA Tournament. This week, UCLA has advanced to the Pac-12 Tournament semifinals, avoiding an early round heartbreaker. Beating Arizona on Friday gets them in for sure.
6. Oklahoma State
If Oklahoma and Texas can get in, we may as well invite the entire Big XII, right? We’re getting really close to doing so. Oklahoma State probably has the ninth-best case of any school in the ten-team conference, yet their chances don’t seem super far-fetched. The Cowboys swept Kansas in the regular season, and they have wins over Texas Tech, West Virginia, and Florida State. Oklahoma State also split both meetings with Texas and Oklahoma. The Cowboys have 13 losses, but all 13 came at the hands of a KenPom top-50 team. The Cowboys may have come up just short when they were unable to upset Kansas a third time in the Big Xll Tournament. If they are excluded but Oklahoma or Texas make it in, there will be unhappy fans in Stillwater.
7. Arizona State
Speaking of teams that collapsed down the stretch, Arizona State is in freefall. The Sun Devils were the last undefeated team in college basketball at 12-0 and ranked in the top five. The Pac-12 slate was unkind to Arizona State. Bobby Hurley and company went just 8-10 in conference play and dropped their opening round game in the Pac-12 Tournament. Arizona State has won just once since February 10, a home win over dismal Cal. Like Oklahoma, the Sun Devils likely survive the bubble thanks to their early-season wins. They blew out Xavier and won at Kansas, which trumps any other bubble team’s top wins.
How in the world is it possible for Oklahoma to miss the NCAA Tournament after the way they started this season? Trae Young was the talk of the town, leading the Sooners to a 14-2 record with two wins over TCU and wins over Wichita State, USC, and Texas Tech by mid-January. Since then, the Sooners have gone 4-11, including a six game losing streak. The Big XII is the toughest conference in basketball, but that kind of collapse could leave the Sooners on the outside, looking in. Oklahoma’s early wins should keep them safe, though they may start the tournament in Dayton at the First Four.
The Longhorns are almost an inverse of Saint Mary’s situation. Texas has 14 losses on the year, but played the nation’s third-toughest schedule per KenPom. Nine of the Longhorns’ losses came against teams with a KenPom ranking of 22nd or better. Making matter worse, Texas lost four overtime games this year. The selection committee is clear that it’s not just enough to play good teams but you must prove you can beat them. Texas does hold wins over Butler, Alabama, TCU, Texas Tech, West Virginia, Oklahoma State, and tourney-bound Lipscomb, and the Longhorns swept Oklahoma. That resume probably puts them on the safe side of the bubble.
10. Saint Mary’s
Is it really possible for a team with only five losses to miss the NCAA Tournament? Saint Mary’s is going to answer that question for us. The Gaels were ranked in the AP Poll most of the season, yet played a laughably soft schedule. Saint Mary’s played only two games against an NCAA Tournament team, both against conference rival Gonzaga (though Harvard could still win its way into the tourney, giving the Gaels one more such game). Even crazier, Saint Mary’s played zero non-conference games outside the state of California. The furthest East they travelled all year was Provo, Utah to battle BYU. They won at Gonzaga, but no other game on the Gaels’ schedule proves they deserve a tournament bid. Their record and reputation will still likely earn them a bid, but with a lower seed than they’d like.
11. Middle Tennessee
The Blue Raiders were unique among college basketball’s 351 teams. This season, Middle Tennessee was the only mid-major school sitting on the bubble if they failed win their conference tournament. The Raiders were the top seed and favorite to win the Conference USA Tournament, yet many mid-majors from years past would attest that is no sure thing. Middle Tennessee was 16-2 in conference, but lost in the quarterfinals of the tournament Thursday night. Without the automatic bid, they have shaky hopes at an at-large spot. The Raiders’ RPI is ranked 28th, but their best wins are at Murray State, at Vanderbilt, and versus Ole Miss. Compared to other teams on this list, that’s likely not enough to make the field.
Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.