Hokies stand out among bubble winners
February, 27, 2011
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com
Lance King/Icon SMIVirginia Tech's win over Duke finally gets the Hokies off the bubble, but will it last?No wonder Virginia Tech fans stormed the court. No wonder that court-storm looked like an impromptu Girl Talk concert. This win -- and everything it means -- was a long time coming.
The Hokies have spent three years in bubble purgatory. Now, finally, they might be out.
Virginia Tech's hard-fought 64-60 win over No. 1 Duke wasn't just the culmination of another excellent day of college basketball, and it wasn't just a feel-good, hey-we-knocked-off-Duke! chestnut for Tech players and fans to cherish. (Though we have a feeling, judging by Hokies fans' energy, that the denizens of Blacksburg will be making some memories tonight.) It was the win that should -- should -- finally get Seth Greenberg's team off the bubble.
No more late-season political appeals. No more complaints on Selection Sunday. No more scheduling ridicule, no more bubble-bound angst. Three years later, the Hokies have finally done it.
Well ... almost, anyway. Yes, Saturday night's signature win will bolster Tech's previously marginal NCAA tournament résumé, but the Hokies can't exactly punch their ticket yet. Greenberg's team still has games versus Boston College and at Clemson to close out the season. If the Hokies were to take an unexpected nosedive, followed by an untimely conference tournament exit, they would find themselves right back where they were when they woke up Saturday morning.
That's life on the bubble, especially as we inch closer and closer to March 13's Selection Sunday festivities. Here today, gone tomorrow, back on Monday. Everything's in flux, even after a win over Duke.
Still, Malcolm Delaney & Co. delivered when they most needed it Saturday night. If only every bubble team could say the same.
Hey, now that you mention it, how did the rest of the bubble fare? Let's recap another busy Saturday on and around the NCAA tournament cut line:
Colorado 91, No. 5 Texas 89: If Virginia Tech's was the biggest win of the day, the Buffaloes' wasn't too far behind. Tad Boyle's team entered Saturday with a minuscule, outside chance at sneaking in the tournament. Those chances are now vastly improved. Colorado erased a 22-point first-half deficit with an insane offensive explosion -- the Buffs scored 58 points in 20 minutes against the best defense in the country Saturday -- led by guard Alec Burks, who finished with 33 points and 10 rebounds. So ... is Colorado in? With that low RPI (No. 85 as of this writing) and at 17-11 and 7-7 in the conference, the overall body of work still isn't all that great. But Colorado can boast more impressive top-50 wins than many of its bubble competitors, including two wins over Kansas State and a home win over Missouri. Let's let the Buffaloes win out -- games at Iowa State and at home versus Nebraska remain -- before we get too excited about their at-large chances. Those strength of schedule numbers are still awfully ugly. So are the losses to Harvard, San Francisco and Oklahoma. But a tourney berth in Boulder is now more real than ever.
Baylor 58, No. 17 Texas A&M 51: How much will the committee value an ability to beat Texas A&M? If Baylor does somehow end up sneaking into this year's tournament field, it will have wins over the Aggies to thank. It was Feb. 5's win in College Station that put the Bears back on the bubble after a thoroughly underwhelming start, and it may be this win that keeps them on the precipice of the cut line until the tournament is finally seeded. In fact, the two A&M wins are the only two notable victories on Baylor's résumé; the rest is an amalgam of so-so wins, weak performances against top teams and a smattering of bad losses. So ... how much will the committee value the ability to beat Mark Turgeon's team? Baylor might want to do itself a favor and beat Texas on March 5, not to mention beat Oklahoma State on Tuesday, lest the answer to that question proves less favorable than it had hoped.
Kansas State 80, No. 21 Missouri 70: This was a fantastic opportunity for Kansas State, and the Wildcats didn't squander it. Because Missouri has been so solid for most of the season, and because the Tigers are a Top 25 team with a solid RPI and a locked-in tournament bid right now, Kansas State was likely to get an outsized amount of credit from the committee for winning this game. In reality, the Wildcats were the favorites. Mike Anderson's team has struggled on the road all year -- its only Big 12 road win came in a nail-biter at Iowa State -- and its lack of interior size was a major drawback against a physically battering K-State front line. That's what we saw Saturday, and as a result the Wildcats got their second top-50 RPI win of the season. See what I mean? Anyway, credit to the Wildcats: They're playing some of the best basketball in the Big 12; their star player -- preseason All-American Jacob Pullen -- has fully resurrected his senior year; and they're now a near-certain NCAA tournament inclusion. Considering where this team was a month ago, it's been a tremendous turnaround in Manhattan.
Iowa State 83, Nebraska 82: Sorry, Nebraska fans. Not only did your long-shot Cornhuskers lose a disqualification-type game at Iowa State on Saturday, but that loss came on the same day that Nebraska's main conference bubble competitors (see above) all got big-time wins. In other words, it's now almost certain, barring a late, finals-or-bust run in the Big 12 tournament, that Nebraska will miss the NCAA tournament for the 13th straight year. Sigh.
Michigan 70, Minnesota 63: Huge road win for Michigan, and an even bigger loss for Minnesota. The Wolverines have been quietly (OK, not quietly, because Michigan fans e-mail me more than any non-BYU fan base in the nation) making a late-season push for at-large consideration, and this win will only boost that case. In fact, the Wolverines are probably, if only barely, in the tournament right now. A home win over Michigan State in the regular-season finale might very well seal it.
Minnesota, meanwhile, is almost certainly on its way out. That's what happens when your starting combo guard (Devoe Joseph) transfers midseason, just in time for starting point guard and team leader (Al Nolen) to lose the second half of his season to a broken right foot. Tubby Smith has had to make some uncomfortable adjustments in the backcourt -- putting sharpshooting, slow-footed guard Blake Hoffarber at the point -- and Minnesota has suffered accordingly. The Gophers are now 6-10 in the Big Ten. They've lost eight of their past nine. The only thing to recommend this team was its early-season wins over North Carolina and West Virginia and a January win over Purdue, but it's clear this isn't close to the same team that won those games, and the selection committee is likely to judge the Gophers accordingly.
UCLA 71, Arizona 49: Fortunately for Arizona, the Wildcats aren't on the bubble. If they were, they'd be looking 100 percent shaky right now; this is the second-straight game Zona lost on the road in L.A. The only bubble intrigue here has to do with UCLA's at-large chances. After Saturday's dominant win over the Pac-10's only true at-large lock, the phrase "bubble intrigue" no longer applies to the Bruins. This team has its bad losses, sure, but it also has wins over Arizona, BYU and St. John's, and it appears to be playing its best basketball down the stretch. UCLA is a lock.
Ole Miss 68, Alabama 63: Thanks to its ugly nonconference schedule and even uglier nonconference performance -- including losses to Iowa, St. Peter's, Providence, Seton Hall and Oklahoma State -- the Crimson Tide's at-large hopes relied almost entirely on their ability to impress in SEC play. They'd done that enough to get on the bubble lately, but this loss really hurts. It's not a crime to lose on the road at Ole Miss -- Kentucky did the same thing, after all -- but Alabama's margin for error is much smaller than that of most high-major hopefuls. The Tide might need to win out in the regular season to get back on the right side of the bubble, and that means beating Florida in Gainesville and fending off a tough test from Georgia in Tuscaloosa on Saturday. In other words, the Tide's bid is now very much in jeopardy.
UTEP 74, Memphis 47: Can we all agree the Tigers don't belong in the NCAA tournament? This is the second straight week Memphis has done seemingly irreparable damage to its résumé -- the Feb. 19 loss came to Rice -- but Josh Pastner's team managed to hang around the cut line all the same. No more. You can't get blown out this badly in late February and expect to get bubble love, especially if your résumé is so questionable in the first place. Barring a strong finish by UAB (the Blazers won at Houston on Saturday), and following Southern Miss' last-second loss at UCF on Saturday, C-USA now looks like a one-bid league. Deservedly so.
Air Force 74, Colorado State 57: Speaking of questionable bubble teams ruining their at-large chances with an inexplicable blowout ... ladies and gentlemen, your Colorado State Rams! The Rams were a nice story for much of the season, and they deserved to be at or near the bubble for most of it. But after the Feb. 19 home loss to UNLV, a missed opportunity at BYU this week, and this ugly loss at Air Force -- which is 13-12 and 5-9 in the Mountain West -- Colorado State's at-large hopes are just about done. The only thing that can save the Rams now? A season-ending win at San Diego State on Saturday. Yeah. Yikes.
Missouri State 69, Wichita State 64: Missouri State had a nice moment Saturday. The Bears finished 10th in the Missouri Valley two years ago. Thanks to this win over the Shockers, they locked up their first-ever Missouri Valley regular-season crown. Students rushed the floor as sudden coaching star Cuonzo Martin -- a cancer survivor, no less -- cried tears of joy and redemption. It was hard not to get caught up in the positive vibes. That said ... Missouri State is still a very questionable at-large tournament selection. The Bears have an outside shot as the MVC regular-season champ, but their conference didn't exactly acquit itself well in the BracketBusters last week -- the MVC went 3-7 in BracketBusters games, and Missouri State got blown out at Valparaiso -- and the Bears absolutely have to advance to the MVC conference tourney final if they want any chance of an at-large bid. As it is, this is probably a one-bid league. But if any team can get an at-large, it might be Martin's.
Mini-bubbles: Florida State survived at home versus Miami; the Seminoles are probably safe now. ... Boston College rallied at Virginia to avoid a complete bubble free fall, but the Eagles still have lots of work to do. ... Clemson avoided disaster versus Wake Forest, so the Tigers are still very much in the bubble picture, if not in the tournament. ... Utah State cruised to a win over Idaho and won its fourth straight WAC regular-season title. ... Butler did what it needed to do -- just keep winning -- versus Loyola-Chicago on Saturday, and as long as the Bulldogs avoid a bad loss in the Horizon League tournament this week, they should just barely sneak into the tournament. ... George Mason cruised to a win, as did Old Dominion, and both teams are strong at-large inclusions at this point. ... and Richmond got out of Charlotte without losing a profile-killer, staying alive as the Atlantic 10's only likely third bid, if you can call the Spiders' shaky chances "likely."
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