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Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Studying both ends of bubble spectrum

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball -- and saliva (1) is the minutiae making a lot of news this week:

Wisconsin spit storm

Sullinger
Jared Sullinger alleges he was spit on by a Wisconsin fan after OSU's loss on Saturday. All The Minutes knows is that the March 6 rematch got considerably more interesting.

Tiger Woods was fined for spitting in Dubai -- this much we know. The unknown is whether a Wisconsin (2) student did the same thing Saturday -- into an All-American's face instead of on well-manicured grass.

The scene in the Kohl Center on Saturday was tremendous -- incredible energy helping the Badgers rally to knock off unbeaten Ohio State (3). But the ripple effect from the game was the alleged spit that allegedly landed in the face of star Buckeyes center Jared Sullinger (4), according to his Twitter account.

The Wisconsin students distinguished themselves with their support Saturday, but also with a couple of low-class chants not repeatable in polite Minutes company -- one aimed at Buckeyes guard Jon Diebler and the other at the state of Ohio as a whole. Then there was the spitting allegation.

Ohio State coach Thad Matta (5) backed his player's assertion on the Big Ten teleconference Monday: "He got spit on when they stormed the court. A student ran by and spit on him. Nothing too major."

Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan (6) went NFL referee on the subject, all but demanding conclusive video evidence of the incident: "You know what? Every area of our facility is all videotaped. There is absolutely nothing that has come to my attention. We have the greatest fans in America. All I know is, we won the game. Deal with it. Our end, their end, it was well-played. … Great for the Big Ten."

Considerably less great for the Big Ten is an ongoing spitting match between the top two schools in the league. The Minutes has no idea who is telling the truth, and has no interest in labeling Wisconsin fans repugnant loogie-hockers or labeling Sullinger a sore-loser liar.

But one of the two is true. And the rematch is March 6 in Columbus. The sincere hope is nothing ugly happens -- but maybe the Badgers should bring rain gear with them to the bench, just in case.

The magnificent seven

OK, magnificent is too strong an adjective for the teams at the top of the college basketball heap in this flawed-but-entertaining season. But it was a good movie once, and the title of a very good song by The Clash, so we're rolling with it.

The Minutes has identified seven schools with a shot at No. 1 seeds for the NCAA tournament -- actually, make it nine schools for seven spots, depending how two conference races play out. But it's quite likely that the national champion will come from that pool, given recent history. The past four champs have been No. 1 seeds, and five of the past six.

Before tipoff in the Little Apple on Monday, most drive-by bracketologists (and even The Resident Bracketologist, Joe Lunardi) agreed on the four top seeds: Ohio State, Texas, Kansas and Pittsburgh. They're all receiving first-place votes in both major polls, and not a single one of the AP's 65 voters has any of them ranked lower than fifth.

The Minutes isn't disputing that as the power quartet -- yet. But this is far from over. There are at least three other entities who could have an argument for inclusion on the top seed line moving forward.

Let's take a look at all seven:

Ohio State

Case for a No. 1 seed: Just one loss, in one of the toughest buildings in America, by four points. Continued No. 1 ranking with Jeff Sagarin and Ken Pomeroy. A commanding record and likely regular-season title in a quality conference. Road wins over SEC East leader Florida and ACC third-place team Florida State. Six wins over RPI top-50 opponents.

Case against: Do the Buckeyes have the depth to maintain their dominance? Or, more appropriately, does Thad Matta trust his depth enough to use it down the home stretch? Matta barely played seven men at Wisconsin (two guys played a total of 12 minutes, while the other five combined to play 188) and watched a 15-point second-half lead disappear. His similarly tight rotation crashed last year in the NCAA tournament against Tennessee.

Road to Selection Sunday: Ohio State's strength of schedule will remain strong the rest of the way, with four regular-season games left against RPI top-50 competition and a couple of other likely tests in the Big Ten tourney. There could be another loss out there for the Buckeyes, but more than that would be a surprise.

Projected record going into the Big Dance: 32-2.

Texas (7)
Case for a No. 1 seed: No team has played better over its past 10 games than the big and physical Longhorns, who have won them all by an average margin of 17.2 points. That includes an 11-point win at Kansas to stop the Jayhawks' home winning streak at 69, arguably the single most impressive victory this year. Texas also has played eight opponents currently in the RPI top 50 and four in the top 15.

Case against: The Horns' RPI is still only No. 8, while they rank fourth with Pomeroy and fifth with Sagarin. Their strength of schedule will not improve down the stretch, with all remaining regular-season opponents 50th or lower in the RPI. There is the issue of a 17-point loss to middling USC. And although the selection committee is instructed not to let past tournament performances come into play, Texas' history of falling short of the Final Four with lavish talent hovers over coach Rick Barnes.

Road to Selection Sunday: It's a milk run from now until probably the Big 12 tournament semifinals. Visits to Nebraska, Colorado and Baylor have the potential to be close, but Texas should be favored in all of them. Everyone is hoping for a Kansas-Texas rematch in the Big 12 tourney final.

Projected record going into the Big Dance: 31-3.

Bill Self
Kansas' stay at No. 1 will prove to be short-lived after Bill Self's team was downed by Kansas State.

Kansas (8)
Case for a No. 1 seed: Until the mauling in Manhattan -- Kansas State clobbered Kansas 84-68 on Monday night -- the Jayhawks were No. 1 in the RPI, and they have seven top-50 victories. The Texas loss came the day after forward Thomas Robinson received word that his mother had died, and most of the team was up all hours consoling him. Kansas played about 17 very intense minutes against the Longhorns, then seemed to wilt when the emotional reservoir tapped out. KU reeled off six straight wins after that, scoring 82 or more in each.

Case against: Getting rolled by a bubble team -- even a talented, underachieving bubble team that happens to be a major rival -- is not a great audition for a No. 1 seed. Beyond that is the issue of team health. The tragically unfortunate Robinson injured his knee last week and is expected to miss two weeks. Freshman swingman Josh Selby, an important off-the-dribble creator, missed a couple of games with an ankle injury.

Road to Selection Sunday: A tricky road game remains against archrival Missouri to close the regular season, but not many other clear and present dangers between now and the Big 12 semis.

Projected record going into the Big Dance: 31-3.

Pittsburgh (9)
Case for a No. 1 seed: Plenty to like, starting with a 9-0 road/neutral record -- with six of those victories against teams that are NCAA locks or on the bubble. Then there is a solid hold on first place in America's toughest conference. How about a two-game road winning streak without injured leading scorer Ashton Gibbs? And if it comes down to Texas or Pitt for a fourth No. 1, the Panthers have already defeated the Longhorns on a neutral floor.

Case against: The Panthers are only No. 6 with RPI. There are two losses in their home city -- one of them an emphatic defeat at the hands of erratic Tennessee at the home of the Pittsburgh Penguins. This is another team which must be judged on 2010-11 merits, but a bitter March history hovers over it.

Road to Selection Sunday: Two games left against South Florida makes the closing swing very tolerable by Big East standards. The other four (at St. John's and Louisville, West Virginia and Villanova at home) figure to be typical dogfights. And, of course, so does the Big East tourney, where the Panthers traditionally excel.

Projected record going into the Big Dance: 29-5.

Cameron Crazies
Some of the Cameron Crazies apparently aren't so crazy about what it takes to get a seat in the Duke section.

Now, the other contenders:

Duke (10)

Case for a No. 1 seed: The defending national champions are easily the best team in the ACC. They're 8-2 against teams in the RPI top 60. They have fewer cakewalks than some of the competition: Only nine opponents to date are in RPI triple figures, as opposed to, say, Texas (14) or Ohio State (12). They've got first-line respect from Pomeroy (No. 3 overall) and Sagarin (No. 4).

Case against: Being the best team in the ACC ain't what it used to be, which is why Duke is No. 7 in the RPI. A team routed by a bubble team on Jan. 30 jeopardizes its claim to a No. 1 seed. After getting a gift-wrapped No. 1 seed and regional bracket last year, aren't the Blue Devils due to work for their Final Four a little harder this time around?

Road to Selection Sunday: Road trips to Virginia Tech and hated rival North Carolina will be testy. A home game against Temple will be interesting as well. But only Carolina seems capable of mounting a serious ACC tourney threat -- which is at least a step up from last season in Greensboro, when nobody did.

Projected record going into the Big Dance: 31-3.

Mountain West champion (11), if it plays out to be either …

BYU (12)
Case for a No. 1 seed: The Cougars are No. 1 in the RPI. They've beaten five teams that already have 20 wins (Utah State, Saint Mary's, Vermont, Arizona, San Diego State) and two more that are likely to get there (UTEP, UNLV). Beating SDSU twice or even three times would be huge. And, of course, they have the Cult of Jimmer star power thing going on.

Case against: Sagarin (No. 6) and Pomeroy (No. 7) don't love BYU nearly as much as RPI does. With eight out of 16 conference games against teams ranked No. 113 or lower by Sagarin, the Cougars will have a higher percentage of nights off than most of the competition on this list. One of their two losses is to a likely NIT team (New Mexico). BYU had Jimmer last year, too -- when he was still just a noun, not a verb -- and was run out in the second round. That's the usual exit for the Cougars, who haven't advanced further than that since the Danny Ainge days.

Road to Selection Sunday: Only a massive rematch with San Diego State on Feb. 26 presents a challenge down the regular-season stretch. A potential rubber game with the Aztecs in the MWC tourney would be great, but the semis could be contentious as well -- particularly a potential matchup with UNLV on its home court.

Projected record going into the Big Dance: 29-4.

Fredette
The Minutes is looking forward to Round 2 of BYU-San Diego State and is crossing its fingers for a Round 3 in the MWC tourney.

Or San Diego State (13)

Case for a No. 1 seed: The Aztecs' lone loss was on the road against a top 10 team -- and with their best player fighting through an illness. Other than that, no stumbles and no off nights. They're 13-1 in road/neutral games. In an era when big-program coaches hate leaving home for early games, SDSU played its first five of the season away from home against decent competition -- and won them all. If the Aztecs can bump off BYU twice between now and Selection Sunday, it will be a major résumé boost.

Case against: The computers are not in love: No. 10 Pomeroy, No. 7 Sagarin, No. 5 RPI. Too many good wins, no great wins. SDSU's only game against an RPI top-25 opponent was the loss at BYU. Like the Cougars, eight out of 16 league games are relative walkovers.

Road to Selection Sunday: With wins already at UNLV, New Mexico and Colorado State, the last looming major battle is home against BYU on Feb. 26. Then the MWC tourney.

Projected record going into the Big Dance: 33-1.

Another Big East rep (14), with the most likely candidates being …

Notre Dame (15)
Case for a No. 1 seed: A red-hot team (winner of seven straight) in a conference in which red hot is almost impossible. Is 3-0 against its top-four Big East competition -- Georgetown, Louisville and at Pittsburgh. Also has neutral-floor wins over 10th-ranked Wisconsin and bubble team Georgia. Veteran team does not lose close games and has zero bad losses.

Case against: With computer ranks of ninth (RPI), 11th (Sagarin) and 17th (Pomeroy), there is a lot of climbing to do. When the Irish have lost, they've gotten waxed: by 22 to Marquette, 18 to St. John's, 14 to Kentucky, 12 to Syracuse. They also have fattened themselves with five games against teams with 18 losses or more.

Road to Selection Sunday: There are three on the road and only two at home, plus the Big East tourney. So there likely are losses ahead. If the Irish somehow win out, they'll be strongly in the discussion.

Projected record going into the Big Dance: 26-7.

… or Georgetown (16)
Case for a No. 1 seed: The Hoyas are the only team hotter in the Big East than Notre Dame. They've won eight straight, half of them against RPI top-25 competition. Their nonconference schedule was excellent, with only one opponent in the RPI 200s and seven of 12 games away from home. Like the Irish, they have no bad losses. RPI is a believer, ranking the Hoyas No. 4.

Case against: There might not be any bad ones, but there are five losses, including three in a row at one point. And two of those defeats are against in-conference competition for No. 1 seeding: Pitt and Notre Dame. Sagarin (No. 8) and Pomeroy (No. 14) are nonbelievers.

Road to Selection Sunday: Combined league record of remaining Big East opponents is 23-28, so the roll could continue. Big East tourney will, of course, be a freak show.

Projected record going into the Big Dance: 27-6.

Now the other end of the bracket

The Minutes examines the one game that could make a bubble team's season and the one game that could break it, for 11 squads from 11 different conferences:

Barnes
The Minutes advises Boston College not to repeat its 32-point pasting at the hands of North Carolina if the Eagles don't want to see their bubble hopes deflated.

Boston College (17)
Record: 16-9 overall, 6-5 in the ACC. Includes a 3-1 record against fellow ACC bubble dwellers Maryland, Clemson and Virginia Tech.

Computers: 43 RPI, 58 Sagarin, 68 Pomeroy.

Make the season with: A win at North Carolina on Saturday. Given the fact that the Eagles lost to the Tar Heels by 32 at home, don't get your hopes up. Beating Virginia Tech on March 1 in Blacksburg for a season sweep would be a solid consolation prize.

Break the season with: Losses to either bad Virginia on the road Feb. 26 or pitiful Wake Forest at home March 6 would be killers.

Baylor (18)

Record: 16-8 overall, 6-5 in the Big 12. The Bears did not have a quality win until Jan. 22, which is an issue.

Computers: 59 RPI, 56 Sagarin, 50 Pomeroy.

Make the season with: A season-ending win over Texas. The Bears played the Longhorns tough in Austin last weekend. There are other opportunities as well: at Missouri and Oklahoma State, home against Texas A&M.

Break the season with: A home loss this week to Texas Tech.

Memphis (19)
Record: 19-6 overall, 7-3 in Conference USA. Tigers still trying to make up for losses to SMU and Tulsa.

Computers: 36 RPI, 60 Sagarin, 83 Pomeroy. That is what's known as significant disagreement.

Make the season with: A home win Wednesday over UAB, which tops all the computer rankings for C-USA. That would give Memphis season sweeps of the Blazers and Southern Miss. Adding a win at UTEP Feb. 26 certainly wouldn't hurt.

Break the season with: A home loss to Tulane to close the regular season. Since that's just about unfathomable, let's add a road loss to Rice next week.

Wichita State (20)
Record: 21-5 overall, 12-3 in the Missouri Valley. Only black mark in the loss column came at home last week to Southern Illinois.

Computers: 54 RPI, 47 Sagarin, 39 Pomeroy.

Make the season with: As tempting as it is to say the BracketBusters game against Virginia Commonwealth, the bigger skin might be on the road against Missouri State to close the regular season.

Break the season with: A home loss to Creighton. The Shockers would have a hard time defending four league home losses.

Utah State (21)
Record: 23-3 overall, 12-1 in the Western Athletic Conference. All those victories, and none of them against teams that matter.

Stew Morrill
The Minutes doesn't know what to make of Utah State's NCAA tournament profile.

Computers: 29 RPI, 32 Sagarin, 26 Pomeroy.

Make the season with: A BracketBusters triumph at Saint Mary's this weekend. The Aggies don't have a single victory yet over a team with a double-digit RPI.

Break the season with: Another league loss of any kind. Getting whacked by Idaho last week in a rare national TV game was damaging enough.

Michigan State (22)
Record: 13-10 overall, 6-6 in the Big Ten. Never thought we'd see the Spartans in this desperate place -- but they still have a shot, and only a fool counts out Tom Izzo until it's completely over.

Computers: 45 RPI, 40 Sagarin, 48 Pomeroy.

Make the season with: A victory tonight at Ohio State, obviously. If that's out of the question, beating Purdue in East Lansing Feb. 27 would be huge.

Break the season with: Losses in either of Sparty's last two games against Iowa and Michigan. Absolutely, positively cannot get swept on the season by the Hawkeyes, and a season sweep from the Wolverines would be damaging as well.

Georgia (23)
Record: 17-7 overall, 6-4 in the SEC. Beating Kentucky put the Bulldogs in the bracket for now, but they could use a noteworthy road victory to feel sure about staying there.

Computers: 37 RPI, 49 Sagarin, 58 Pomeroy.

Make the season with: A win at Florida on Feb. 24. The Gators nipped the Bulldogs in Athens in double-overtime last month, and payback would be huge for Mark Fox's team.

Break the season with: A home loss to either LSU or South Carolina. Win both and Georgia is at least .500 in league play.

Butler (24)
Record: 18-9 overall, 10-5 in the Horizon League. Playing a tough schedule has helped with the computers, but the Bulldogs are digging out from a disastrous loss to Youngstown State on Feb. 3.

Stevens
The Horizon League tournament is likely the last chance for last season's NCAA tournament finalist Butler to return to the Big Dance.

Computers: 47 RPI, 57 Sagarin, 63 Pomeroy.

Make the season with: A third victory this year over Cleveland State -- and that can't come until the Horizon tournament, perhaps in the semifinals. There's nothing significant left to conquer in the regular season, since Butler isn't part of BracketBusters.

Break the season with: Any loss between now and the Horizon semis would seemingly sink the Bulldogs. And even a loss in the semifinals might be lethal.

Cincinnati (25)
Record: 19-6 overall, 6-6 in the Big East. Nine victories over teams 200 or below in the RPI makes the Bearcats' record a bit flabby.

Computers: 50 RPI, 24 Sagarin. 34 Pomeroy.

Make the season with: A single win in any of four major opportunities: Louisville on Wednesday, at Georgetown on Feb. 23, home against Connecticut on Feb. 27 or home against Georgetown on March 5. Get one of those, and it might be enough to finish .500 in the league.

Break the season with: A road loss to either Providence or Marquette. Those are must-wins, and have to be joined by a victory in one of the above four.

Richmond (26)
Record: 20-6 overall, 9-2 in the Atlantic-10. A victory over Purdue is the Spiders' only win against a top-50 opponent, in only three tries.

Computers: 71 RPI, 43 Sagarin, 54 Pomeroy.

Make the season with: A victory at Temple on Thursday. Huge and not unreasonable opportunity for the Spiders, who have played well all season away from home.

Break the season with: Losses to either Charlotte or St. Joseph's in consecutive road games Feb. 26 and March 2. They're a combined 4-16 in league play.

Washington State (27)
Record: 17-8 overall, 7-6 in the Pacific-10. Could conceivably win a bubble argument over Baylor (beat the Bears in Hawaii) but lose one to Butler (lost to the Bulldogs in the same tournament).

Computers: 74 RPI, 55 Sagarin, 51 Pomeroy.

Make the season with: A road victory over Pac-10 leader Arizona on Thursday. Failing that, a road win over Washington certainly wouldn't hurt.

Break the season with: A loss at Arizona State on Saturday or home against USC on March 3.

Triple threats

It takes a special kind of well-rounded stud to be a 20-5-5 guy -- that's 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game. The five players who are there, or getting close to it:

Norris Cole (28), Cleveland State. Much of the nation was introduced to Cole on Saturday, when the point guard -- repeat, point guard -- put a crazy 41 points, 20 rebounds and nine assists on the board against Youngstown State. Averages: 21.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists. Throw in 2.3 steals per game as well, just for grins.

Cole
The Minutes can't heap enough praise on Cleveland State's Norris Cole after his 41-point, 20-rebound and nine-assist effort on Saturday.

Tu Holloway (29), Xavier. Why are the Musketeers still at the top of the Atlantic 10 even after major personnel losses from last season? Largely because of point guard Holloway. Averages: 20.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists.

Nolan Smith (30), Duke. Probably deserves a little more run for national player of the year given the way he's taken over the Blue Devils in the absence of Kyrie Irving. Averages: 21.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists.

Klay Thompson (31), Washington State. The skilled secret weapon of the Pacific Northwest has carried the Cougars onto the bubble. Averages: 20.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists.

Kemba Walker (32), Connecticut. His scoring has slowed after an incredible start to the season, but his value to the Huskies remains paramount. Averages: 22.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists.

Freshman, meet wall … wall, meet freshman

They came to campus hugely hyped, but the reality of college ball -- especially college ball in the grind of February -- has been an education for some prep All-Americans. These five have potentially great careers ahead of them, but for now, they're struggling:

Fab Melo (33), Syracuse. Lyrical nature of his name and physical size contributed to overrating his ability. Melo went from starting earlier in the year to the bench to obscurity, not playing a minute in the past two games. He's averaging 2 points and 1.8 rebounds.

Joe Jackson (34), Memphis. Freakishly athletic point guard has been on the fast track to the bench of late. He's played just 30 total minutes in the Tigers' current three-game winning streak and scored a total of five points. His turnover average (3.4) nearly equals his assists (3.6).

Adreian Payne (35), Michigan State. The Spartans have been dying for an offensive post presence this season -- but Payne has not been able to provide it. He is averaging 2.2 points and 2.3 rebounds.

Vander Blue (36), Marquette. After some productive games early in the year, Blue looks through. He's made just 3 of 20 shots over the past six games and scored a total of six points. Hasn't made a 3 since Pearl Harbor Day.

Bruce Ellington (37), South Carolina. The Gamecocks were epically bad in the first half at home Saturday, scoring nine points (as in, single digits) against Georgia. The chief bricklayer was Ellington, who was 0-for-9 in the first half and finished 1-of-12. Ellington has had some big games this season, but he has shot gruesomely for much of SEC play and made just 27 of his past 99 shots and 10 of his past 49 3s. When your leading scorer is shooting 35 percent from the field, that's not good.

But even if these guys are laboring, at least they're on the court. That's more than can be said for a few other marquee members of the Class of 2010, namely JayVaughn Pinkston, Jelan Kendrick, Tony Mitchell and Enes Kanter.

Coach who earned his comp car

Tim Miles
The Minutes applauds the job done by Colorado State head coach Tim Miles this season.

Tim Miles (38), Colorado State. Miles has parlayed one of the hardest jobs in the country (small recruiting base, small budget, outdated facility) into an outside shot at an NCAA bid. The Rams are 17-7 overall, 7-3 in the Mountain West, and ahead of both UNLV and New Mexico in the battle for third place in the league behind BYU and San Diego State.

Coach who should find his own ride to work

Rick Stansbury (39), Mississippi State. The latest moment in his epically mismanaged season came Saturday, when the Bulldogs somehow blew a 19-point second-half lead to Auburn, which to that point was a smooth 1-8 in SEC play. This has been an Exxon Valdez piloting job.

Buzzer-beater

When thirsty in the mad, mad, mad, mad city of Madison, Wis., The Minutes recommends veering off State Street and hitting The Great Dane (40), near the state capitol. Try an Old Glory American Pale Ale and thank The Minutes later.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.