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The Bubble Watch resumes as major conference tourneys begin
The NCAA selection committee likes to remind us that a team’s entire body of work is being judged on Selection Sunday.
Why, then, does it seem that last impressions matter every season?
The conference tournaments give every team another chance to prove why they’re worthy of an NCAA Tournament slot or show why they were on the bubble in the first place.
Roughly 10 spots in the field may be up for grabs as the major conference tournaments begin Wednesday and Thursday. With 17 teams in play for those spots, these games could make all the difference.
The spotlight primarly will be on the Big East and SEC where the most teams could play their way in or out of the field, but those aren't the only leagues with bubble teams in critical spots.
On the Spot Thursday
Pittsburgh vs. Wake Forest
The Panthers have lost two of their last five games to Florida State and NC State and needed overtime to beat Notre Dame and Clemson. That’s not the issue as much as a paltry non-conference schedule. The Panthers’ schedule strength ranks 74th nationally, contributing to an RPI rank of 45 despite 23 wins. Both Notre Dame and Wake Forest are outside of the RPI top 100. Losing to either could be the end of Pitt.
SMU vs. Houston
SMU didn’t challenge itself in the non-conference schedule, so the Mustangs may sweat a bit even thought they defeated UConn twice and Cincinnati and Memphis in the conference schedule. After the No. 5 seed in the tournament the American has no other RPI top 100 teams, so a loss to Houston would qualify as a bad one. SMU has already lost to two such teams in the bottom half of the AAC in Temple and USF.
Dayton vs. George Mason
The Flyers have defeated Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational and A-10 regular season champion Saint Louis. Avoiding a bad loss in the first game of the league tournament may be all Dayton, 9-6 against the top 100, needs to seal a bid.
Kansas State vs. Iowa State
Here’s the good news: Kansas State has seven RPI top 50 wins. Here’s the bad news: They’re all at home. K-State is 0-6 against the top 60 outside of Manhattan. The wins may be enough to get the Wildcats into the field, but a win over Iowa State in the Big 12 quarterfinals would help Bruce Weber sleep easier.
St. John’s vs. Providence
This traditional Big East matchup sets up the first tournament in the league’s new alignment. It’s an important game, too, as a potential elimination game for both teams, but certainly for St. John’s. The RPIs just outside the top 50 and schedule strength are similar, but St. John’s has fewer top 50 wins (one) than Providence (two) and more bad losses (again, 2-1). St. John’s will be playing on its homecourt at Madison Square Garden.
Xavier vs. Marquette
A pair of double overtime heartbreakers against Providence and St. John’s ended Marquette’s hope to climb onto the bubble. Xavier may have the third-best NCAA profile in the Big East after Villanova and Creighton, but the Musketeers have too many losses (Seton Hall twice, USC) to think they can lose to Marquette and still feel safe in the field.
Minnesota vs. Penn State
All three of Minnesota’s big wins this season (Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa) have taken place in Minneapolis, so the Gophers’ goals will be two-pronged. First, beat Penn State again after crushing the Nittany Lions 81-63 in the regular season finale and then defeat the Badgers in the quarterfinals for a top 50 neutral site win. Defeating Penn State is a must. In the event of a loss to Wisconsin loss Friday, Minnesota will have to hope its seventh-ranked strength of schedule will hold up.
Arizona State vs. Stanford
The Sun Devils are yet another team that has a few good wins, but all of them at home. Arizona State is probably pretty safe given that one of those home wins is over Arizona, but beating Stanford on a neutral floor would be a nice final touch.
Arkansas vs. South Carolina
Arkansas flopped in a major way with an 83-58 loss to Alabama in the last day of the regular season. With an RPI of 60 and schedule strength of 80, the Razorbacks have all their hopes pinned on the sweep of Kentucky. Probably not a great idea to follow that Alabama loss with another defeat to Auburn or South Carolina, both ranked outside of the RPI 150.
Missouri vs. Texas A&M
If the 72-45 loss to Tennessee on Saturday wasn’t an eliminator for Missouri, a loss to Texas A&M certainly would be. Missouri may need to upset Florida in the semifinals to get back into the field. Good luck, Mizzou.
On the Spot on Friday
Tennessee vs. South Carolina/Arkansas
Beyond Florida, no team in the SEC has been hotter to close the season than Tennessee. The Volunteers may be safe after the rout of Missouri, but a potential quarterfinal matchup with Arkansas should have both teams under pressure.
St. Joseph’s vs. Dayton/Fordham
The best case for St. Joe’s, who received a bye to the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals, could be to face Dayton. A win for the Hawks would be the third this season over a fellow bubble team in the Flyers. A home loss to La Salle in the regular season finale — a fourth loss outside of the top 50 for St. Joe’s — put pressure on the Hawks to win an A-10 Tournament game.
Nebraska vs. Ohio State/Purdue
The Cornhuskers may have done enough with a win over Wisconsin in the regular season finale to seal an NCAA bid. Nebraska has three top 50 wins (Ohio State, at Michigan State) and three losses outside of the top 100 (at Penn State, at Purdue, UAB). A loss to Purdue — which faces Ohio State in the first round — would be the worst-case scenario for Nebraska.