Here’s what’s bubbling now. First the ACC, where Pitt is now a lock.
At this point, any team with a cat-related mascot and a couple of close games in their rearview gets slapped with the "Cardiac Cats" nickname. Pittsburgh actually earned it. All season, the Panthers have played close games. Its losses to good teams have been close, its wins over bad teams closer. And then there's the slow-burn bubble drama: On a per-possession basis, Pittsburgh should have wrapped up its NCAA tournament bid months ago. Instead, its lack of quality wins and a couple of home slugs down the stretch (to Florida State and NC State, respectively) put Pitt and its questionable nonconference schedule into legitimate bubble jeopardy.
Friday was another exercise in self-induced anxiety. Leading 50-31 with 11:43 to play, Pitt should have put North Carolina away with room to spare in the second half. Then, of course, the Panthers gradually let UNC close the lead, and when Talib Zanna -- who put together a brilliant 19-point, 21-rebound game -- fouled out with 1:03 left, and Marcus Paige's free throws cut the lead to four, things looked grim. But Pitt regrouped and survived, thanks to free throws and careful ballhandling down the stretch (and maybe one or two missed calls, which were legion in this game), and as such we can officially lock the Panthers into a tourney slot. Adding another noteworthy top-50 win was really all this team needed to do to make sure the committee didn't look askance at its unspectacular profile. Mission accomplished.
Meanwhile, over in the Atlantic 10 …
Alongside Providence-St. John's and La. Tech-Southern Miss, Friday's Saint Joseph's-Dayton clash in the A-10 quarterfinals was the best example the weekend had to offer of two bubble teams, both in need of wins, clashing in the conference tournament. The result was a thriller. Thanks to a Langston Galloway 3, Saint Joe's escaped victorious, and now the question is what it all means.
St. Joseph’s: Notching a win over a fellow bubble team on a neutral floor is the kind of thing that just might make the difference -- a tiny difference, but a difference -- between getting in the tournament and getting snubbed on Selection Sunday. The Hawks got what they needed Friday, thanks to Galloway's 31 points and a clutch 3 with 20 seconds to play in Friday's 70-67 win over the Flyers. It was the Hawks' third win over Dayton, which helps, because it looks like both teams are in a dead-heat on the cut line. The question is what might happen Saturday when the Hawks play St. Bonaventure. What should have been a crack at Saint Louis has suddenly turned into a bad-loss opportunity. Would St. Joe's take a hit if it lost? We're honestly not sure. But Friday's win was major regardless.
Dayton: On Friday morning, before broadcasting St. Joe's-Dayton -- he is a man of many talents, after all -- ESPN's own Joe Lunardi offered up his latest last four in update: St. Joe's, Dayton, BYU, Providence. That squared with our own reckoning starting the day, and it's not clear Dayton should be downgraded much along the cut line after the loss. The next four teams on Joe's S-Curve are Minnesota, FSU, Southern Miss, and Arkansas, followed by Cal, Missouri, St. John's, and Green Bay. Both in the short-term movement and overall resume sense -- FSU, Arkansas, Cal, and St. John's have all lost in the past 24 hours -- Dayton rates well against most of those teams. And again: what happens if St. Joe's loses to the Bonnies? Don't tear up your season programs just yet, Flyers fans. If anything, a #daytonindayton play-in game looks likelier than ever.
And let’s not leave out the Big Ten …
Illinois needed, at the very least, a win over Michigan on Friday (and then probably another against Ohio State on Saturday) to get anywhere near the bubble conversation, and the Illini gave it a real run. (And inspired the Watch's Illinois-based friends to send a flurry of second-half texts. Hey guys!) But Michigan held on to a 64-63 lead down the stretch, and the Illini's sudden long-shot hopes vanished just as quickly.
By our admittedly dim lights, Nebraska entered the day with a little space between itself and the cut line -- one of the last four byes, maybe higher. After the loss to Ohio State? It's hard to say. Résumé-wise, Nebraska has a solid-enough RPI (41) and an even better overall schedule (26), plus an 11-7 record in the Big Ten, which might count for something. The committee should see a good, hot team that knocked off Wisconsin five days ago, that outplayed Ohio State for much of Friday's game, that won at Michigan State in mid-February, and that finished the Big Ten season 8-2 over the final 10 games. But if the committee pays as much attention to the sweep vs. Penn State, or the neutral-court loss to UAB -- and if it doesn't like the sight of a good team crumbling under the postseason glare -- maybe Nebraska's case won't be cut and dry. We think they'll get in, but we're not positive about it.
Off in the SEC ...
Missouri: The Tigers played Florida to a draw in the first half and completely crumbled in the second; that's what happens when you let Texas A&M take your nonexistent defense to double-overtime a day before playing the best team in the country. Barring a major surprise, the Tigers' punishment will take the form of a Selection Sunday snub. Arkansas isn't in much better shape after Thursday's loss to South Carolina. In the end, it looks like the SEC is going to be a three-bid league. Finally, Tennessee finally has emerged as a willing third wheel.
Tennessee: No team in the country enjoyed a wider gap all season between what advanced metrics said about them -- that they were one of the best 15 or 20 teams in the country -- and what their wins and losses, and their resulting RPI, indicated. A lot of that had to do with an uncharacteristic-for-all-parties 30-point blowout of Virginia in late December, but still: Tennessee has been one of the nation's best offensive rebounding teams in the country with the returning SEC player of the year (Jordan McRae) roaming the perimeter. But losses to Vanderbilt, Missouri and Texas A&M in February put Cuonzo Martin's team on the bubble and kept it there since. But after avoiding a bad loss on Friday to South Carolina, the Vols are 20-11 overall with a top-15 strength of schedule number by their name and an all-upside matchup against Florida on deck for Saturday.
Check out full details on teams on the bubble here.