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#pounditSunday, August 9, 2020

5 teams that could steal an NCAA Tournament bid during Championship Week

Richard Pitino

When the calendar turns to March every year, college basketball fans and pundits rush to the altar of Bracketology to discern who are the teams in the tournament and who is on the wrong side of the bubble. Seemingly every single year, the fans of the teams sitting perilously on the edge seem to forget that Bracketology has a fatal flaw in early March. The bubble shifts during conference tournament play. The number of at-large bids shrinks when surefire tournament participants are upset by teams with little to no chance of a bid.

In any conference that has a team capable of earning an at-large selection, there remains the possibility of a bid thief sneaking in and bumping that team into the at-large pool. The Mountain West was a perfect example. San Diego State was in the Big Dance no matter what, but Utah State sat on the bubble. With a win, and the automatic bid, the Aggies made sure that San Diego State required an at-large bid, taking an open spot from a needy bubble team.

This week, these five teams wouldn’t get an at-large spot but have a chance to make a run and steal a spot.

5. TCU – Big XII

The Big XII has four teams solidly in the tournament, a fifth (Texas) sitting on the bubble, and a sixth with an outside prayer based on its play this week (Oklahoma State).

Lurking beneath all of them is a potential bid thief from Fort Worth. The Horned Frogs have had an up-and-down season, finishing Big XII play at 7-11. TCU actually boasts wins over tournament competition Baylor, West Virginia, and Texas Tech. TCU’s potential path to the Big XII title game would include Baylor and the winner of West Virginia-Oklahoma. That’s a tough draw, but not an impossible situation.

The Horned Frogs stand a chance because they are a high variance team. Only 12 teams in college basketball score a higher percentage of their points from long distance than TCU. The Frogs shot the highest rate of 3-pointers in the Big XII and made a strong percentage from outside the arc. Senior Desmond Bane is one of the best shooters in the conference, capable of getting hot enough to change a game. If Bane and his teammates collectively heat up, TCU can make noise this week.

4. Arkansas – SEC

The Hogs are also a high variance team, with the ceiling to defeat Indiana and LSU but the floor to lose to Vanderbilt and Western Kentucky. That variability stems from Arkansas’ style of attack. The Razorbacks were first in the SEC and eighth in the nation in free throw rate, thanks to their relentless dribble-drive tendency. With that aggressiveness, and the right set of referees, Arkansas can shock anyone.

Making them even more dangerous, Arkansas’ fate this season was greatly affected by an injury. Swingman Isaiah Joe missed five SEC games. The Hogs lost all five – two in overtime. Had they even won two of those five, they’d move up three seeds in the SEC Tournament.

Now they’ll need to win five games in five days, a brutal task. Even with that level of fatigue, I wouldn’t want to see the Razorbacks in my side of the bracket this week.

3. Minnesota – Big Ten

While we’re on the topic of teams in need of five wins in five days, Minnesota is far better than any 11 seed in conference tournament history. The Gophers are under .500 at 14-16 on the season, but have played the third-hardest schedule in the nation per KenPom.

This is a team with wins over Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin, and a sweep of Ohio State. The Gophers just happened to be dealt one of the deepest conferences in college basketball history.

If Daniel Oturu plays like one of the Big Ten’s best, as he has all season, Minnesota could surprise a few teams.

2. Clemson – ACC

Not to sound like a broken record, but the Tigers have a prayer this week because of their high variance style of play. Clemson ranks in the top 20 nationally in 3-point rate, yet shoots the deep ball at under the national average. On a long-term basis, that’s an issue. From game to game, it means the Tigers are liable to surprise some opponents when their shots are falling.

Clemson certainly did that this season, with wins over Duke, Louisville, and Florida State. Clemson’s seed requires them to win four games in four days for the title, starting with Miami on Wednesday. After that, the Tigers’ path to the title could run through the Florida State, Duke, and Louisville — teams they’ve already beaten this year. It’s unlikely, but plausible.

1. Rhode Island – Atlantic-10

Of the teams listed here, the Rams have by far the best chance to steal a bid. Unlike the others, Rhode Island would only need three wins to seal a spot in the Big Dance. The Rams also don’t face a gauntlet of opponents to make that reality come true. Rhode Island’s path to the Atlantic-10 crown only features one projected tournament team.

That team, however, is the almighty Dayton Flyers who have not lost a game since December 21. URI has already had two cracks at the Flyers, losing by 14 on the road and getting shellacked by 27 at home. Even if neither of those games went a direction that pleased the Rams, this time of year we always hear about how tough it can be to beat the same team for a third time in a season. If the Rams can put together some magic and find a way to knock off Dayton, they’ll be dancing.

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.

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