- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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It's Feb. 12. In a month and a day, the selection committee will hurriedly select and seed the 2011 NCAA tournament bracket. That means we're right in the thick of bubble season, that special time of year when NCAA tourney hopefuls assess their situations, peek at their remaining schedule, and become very aware of the heightened stakes that accompany them every time they take the floor.
Today's schedule was no different. As we get set for the massive Pitt-Nova slugfest, here's a look at all the bubble-relevant action from the 141 games (!) played as of this writing Saturday.
(Note: To keep an eye on the entire picture, including the handful of bubble games on the docket later this evening, be sure to check out our bubble-specific results page here. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention ESPN's new college hoops GameCast pages, which are brand spanking new and thoroughly awesome to boot. Tracking games on the Internet never felt so ... sexy.)
No. 21 North Carolina 64, Clemson 62: Speaking of so-close-yet-so-far, the Clemson Tigers very nearly breached the "OK, they probably have to be in now" barrier with this one. Other than its solid record in ACC play, Clemson's bubble résumé doesn't have much to recommend it right now. That's why the Tigers desperately need a marquee win. Those are hard to come by in this year's ACC. Basically, if you lose to North Carolina and Duke, your chances of impressing the committee are left to your performances against Boston College, Florida State, Virginia Tech and ... well, that's pretty much it. In other words, this was Clemson's best chance to get a signature victory. The only other chance will come at Duke March 2; unless something drastic changes, the Tigers will have to shock the Cameron Crazies to play their way into the tournament. This was an all-or-nothing game, and even in a one-possession game, the Tigers came out with nothing. Tough loss.
Boston College 76, Maryland 72: It might be time for bubble-watchers to bid farewell to the Maryland Terrapins. The Terps didn't have much on their résumé before this game, and they certainly don't have much on it afterward. That's a shame, because Maryland has proven itself plenty capable (especially on the defensive end, where they are one of the most stingy per-possession units in the country). But that defensive efficiency hasn't led them to any impressive wins, and in an ACC that might only get four or five bids, the Terps are likely going to be left behind. (Meanwhile, Boston College's at-large chances look about the same as they did before this game, which is to say: solid but unspectacular, and very much on the bubble.)
Florida State 63, Virginia 56: The Seminoles handled business and improved their ACC record to 8-3 with this win, and there's no reason to move them up or down in the bubble picture. The only cause for concern? Forward Chris Singleton left the game with a fractured right foot. FSU hopes Singleton can be back in time for the end of the season, but if he isn't, the selection committee could argue that this FSU team isn't the same without him. In the meantime, Leonard Hamilton's team can't afford too many losses while Singleton's foot heals. That dynamic -- how his loss affects the team, and how the team's play affects the committee's perceptions -- will be very intriguing to watch.
UCLA 69, Oregon State 61: With every Pac-10 win, UCLA's once laughable but suddenly serious at-large tourney chances improve. The Bruins couldn't afford a profile-killing home loss to Oregon State, and though things looked a little hairy at halftime, Ben Howland's team handled its business down the stretch in the second half.
No. 3 Texas 69, Baylor 60: So close, and yet so far. Baylor very nearly played itself right back into fantastic bubble shape in Austin on Saturday afternoon. Thanks to a furious LaceDarius Dunn-led rally, the Bears cut an 18-point lead to three with less than two minutes remaining. Texas held those pesky Bears off, and Baylor left the Frank Erwin Special Events Center without the marquee win it needs to bolster an otherwise questionable bubble case. But the good news is that Baylor seems to be playing its best basketball of the season right now. The Bears are coming off a huge win at Texas A&M last Saturday (as well as a must-win victory over Nebraska this week), and this is the first time we've seen Texas face a legitimate challenge in Big 12 play. (It's also the first time any Big 12 opponent has kept the Longhorns' margin of victory under single digits, which is incredible, really.) If Baylor has figured itself out, and plays like this the rest of the way, it should get plenty of profile-solidifying wins before Selection Sunday.
No. 19 Florida 61, Tennessee 60: It's a good thing the Gators are so tough in close games. Florida has now played six games decided by one possession or in overtime in SEC play. They've won five. Those close results can be the difference between a lock and a bubble team, and that's why Florida has earned its lock status in Bubble Watches past and future. The 15-10 Volunteers don't share that distinction. Tennessee is still in OK shape -- there's very little chance the committee will overlook all those top-50 RPI wins -- but if things go south, the Vols could regret missing this chance at a big-time road win.
Alabama 74, Ole Miss 64: Will a home win over Mississippi move the needle for Anthony Grant's impressive Crimson Tide? Doubtful. (The Rebels are decent, but they're hardly a tourney contender.) But it was another win to tack on to that gaudy 8-2 conference record, and, frankly, it was more important that Alabama not lose than win, if that makes any sense at all. A loss would have likely doomed Bama to the bubble dustbin. At the very least, a win keeps in the hunt.
Georgia 60, South Carolina 56: That "can't-afford-to-lose" principle also applies to the Bulldogs, whose bubble rep took a bit of a hit thanks to a home loss to Xavier this week. A win at South Carolina is a so-so result, bubble-wise; it certainly won't seal the Bulldogs' fledgling chances at an at-large bid. But like Alabama above, Georgia's non-loss means UGA fans don't have to start freaking out quite yet.
Temple 75, Dayton 63: The Temple Owls appear to be hitting their stride. Temple was the consensus A-10 favorite to enter the season, and it performed well enough in the nonconference -- a home win over Georgetown looks better every time the Hoyas knock off another top Big East foe -- Fran Dunphy's team dropped a pair of early conference games at Duquesne and Xavier. Since then, Temple has passed every test the Atlantic 10 has thrown at it, including Saturday's game at Dayton. The Flyers are a bit of a bubble hopeful themselves; this win would have done much more for Dayton than it did for Temple. But Dayton missed its shot, and the Owls remain as likely to receive an at-large tourney team as at any other point in the season.
Richmond 64, Saint Louis 52: Richmond has one of the more inconsistent and confusing tourney résumés of any team in the bubble. That résumé has quality wins (a neutral-court victory over Purdue is especially crucial) and bad losses (to Iona, yuk). In other words, the Spiders have to be very careful against the lower portions of the A-10 over the course of the next month; they can't afford to drop games to struggling but dangerous teams like St. Louis. They didn't Saturday, and that's another step toward earning an at-large bid.
Old Dominion 70, VCU 59: What will the committee think of VCU? The Rams don't have much of an at-large profile to speak of; they'll likely have to win the Colonial tournament if they want to dance in March. But ODU is more dynamic. The Monarchs have the best nonconference results -- and seemingly the best at-large chances -- of any CAA contender. Will this win seal that status? Does the committee respect a road win at Virginia Commonwealth? If recent history has taught us anything, it should.
George Mason 82, James Madison 68: Don't look now, but Jim Larranaga's team -- which entered the season looking like a fringe CAA contender -- has won 11 in a row, making them 21-5 overall and 13-2 in one of the more competitive true mid-major conferences in the country. The Patriots didn't prove much in their nonconference slate, but if they keep this league dominance up, they should -- repeat, should -- be able to mount a pretty convincing at-large argument. We're certainly impressed. It's up to GMU, whose next two games are at VCU and at Northern Iowa in the BracketBusters, to make sure the committee agrees.