Tobacco Road has been a fixture in the NCAA tournament over the years. "The Triangle" -- Duke, North Carolina and NC State -- is usually well represented -- or at least represented -- in the bracket, but will it end in 2016?
Since 1988, at least one of the Blue Devils, Tar Heels or Wolfpack has made the tournament. That year also happened to be the last season in which the tournament included only 40 teams before moving to 48 in 1989 (the NCAA went to the current 64-team model in 1994). Never under the expanded fields have all three schools been shut out.
But North Carolina is suffering through its worst season in years and is out of at-large contention. Duke is fading and seems far more likely to miss March Madness for the first time since 1988. NC State, which just this week moved more safely into the field, appears to be the only hope to continue the run.
NC State and Duke remain a part of the bubble -- for now. Here is a look at all the teams vying for the last few spots in the field of 64 and their status in this week's projection:
NC State: The Wolfpack have an RPI that usually suggests a bid. They also have a strong schedule strength, a winning ACC record and played close games against some good teams. But they lack a signature victory. NC State's best wins are over Duke and Villanova (back in November), hardly the building blocks of a great résumé. However, those wins also give NC State an advantage over some competition for the last few spots in the field. Thursday's home game against Florida State and the ACC tournament offer some opportunity for the Wolfpack to separate themselves more prominently.
Indiana: The Hoosiers haven't been to the NCAA tournament since 2002 and seem to be in good shape to end that streak. The loss on Sunday to Iowa didn't help, but Indiana has been consistent enough behind the play of Tyra Buss to be worthy of a bid. If the Hoosiers avoid a bad loss the rest of the way, they should be in.
Kansas State: The Wildcats have improved as the season has worn on and are in despite spotty play away from Manhattan, only one nonconference win of merit (South Dakota), and losing streaks of four and three games in the Big 12. Their biggest, and really only good, wins are over Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Still, that pair of victories is better than most of what the competition for the last few spots has to offer.
Auburn: Beating Florida eight days ago was Auburn's biggest win of the year and the Tigers and Gators meet again in the regular-season finale. Sunday's home loss to Missouri halted the five-game winning streak that vaulted Auburn into the field. The Tigers have been the rare team that played itself into the field. Winning one of their final two regular-season games will keep them there.
Purdue: The Boilermakers are back into the field this week, but barely. Typically, merely beating Nebraska, especially after losing to Iowa, would be enough, but the Boilermakers had help with losses by Temple, Duke and Rutgers. The win earlier this season over Louisville could ultimately loom large in a pool of teams with few big wins among them.
Villanova: Injuries always elicit questions this time of year, with Duke's Azurá Stevens and George Washington's Jonquel Jones the two biggest cases. But an injury to Villanova's Caroline Coyer is the one that likely looms largest now. The Wildcats' top scorer suffered a knee injury last week and is presumed gone for the season.
With five top-50 RPI wins, Villanova built a résumé, that, while not eye-popping, is probably worthy of inclusion this season. However, all five of those wins and 16 of the 17 overall victories came with Coyer. How the Wildcats play the rest of the way might ultimately determine their fate. Coyer's replacement, freshman Adrianna Hahn, scored 29 in Sunday's win over Georgetown. For now, Villanova is the most difficult evaluation in this process. The Wildcats stay in for now for lack of an obviously better choice, but it's also impossible to think they will be the same team that beat DePaul and Seton Hall, and St. John's twice. Ultimately, Coyer's injury might keep Villanova out.
Minnesota: Rachel Banham has been the most dynamic offensive player in the country in the second half of the season. She has carried Minnesota. Yet it's now almost certain she will be finishing her career in the WNIT. Minnesota has been one of the country's most discussed teams in recent days, in part because of Banham's scoring that even grabbed Kobe Bryant's attention, but also partly because of a misleading Big Ten record.
The league mark sat at 10-4 heading into the week and had the Gophers in third place, but they had yet to play any of the other top-four teams in the league. Combined with a résumé-crippling weak nonconference schedule, that really made Minnesota's status as a bubble team generous. Then the Gophers began the toughest stretch of their schedule with losses to Indiana and Michigan State this week, despite Banham's 81 combined points. The scheduling trouble and no true signature win leaves Minnesota with an RPI of 80, well out of range for teams historically included as at-large selections. Nothing short of a sweep of Ohio State and Maryland will get Minnesota seriously into the mix.
Oregon: The scheduling issue is the Ducks' biggest hurdle too. Teams that schedule well and have competed well against that schedule have gotten greater at-large consideration. Oregon played just one RPI top-50 nonleague opponent (UC Riverside) and six outside the top 200. The weakness of that schedule was only emphasized when the Ducks began Pac-12 play 0-5, which included four losses by double digits. Sunday's win over USC and, even more important, a win at Washington keeps Oregon in the discussion, but that schedule is going to be an albatross in the committee room.
Temple: The Owls' competitive first half against Connecticut opened some eyes and their early-season win over Florida looks even better now. However, after battling the Huskies, Temple lost to sub-100 Memphis. Sure, it was in five overtimes, but it constitutes a bad loss nonetheless. That was enough to knock the Owls out of the field. A win over South Florida this week or perhaps in the AAC tournament could get Temple back on the right side.
Duke: This was never a vintage Duke team. Once Stevens went down with a foot injury it looked more like a WNIT team. That seems even more likely following Sunday's home loss to Georgia Tech. Even with Stevens, the quality wins weren't there (1-9 vs. RPI top 50). Without her, the Blue Devils are just 2-4, including losses to the Yellow Jackets (ending a 16-game home winning streak against them) and Wake Forest (a team Duke had won 44 straight against). If Stevens, one of the ACC's best players, can come back and Duke makes a run to the ACC tournament final, a bid could still be possible. Anything short of that and the Blue Devils will miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994.
Iowa: A good week with wins over two other teams in the at-large pool -- Purdue and Indiana -- kept the Hawkeyes in the conversation following a four-game losing streak. However, the résumé lacks meat in the areas the committee seems to use most often to make the close calls, such as signature wins and road performance. Iowa is hanging around because many of the other teams also lack anything that jumps out.
St. Bonaventure: The RPI that has consistently been in the 30s for weeks looks like a no-brainer for inclusion, but it goes deeper than that. The Bonnies' best win is against George Washington -- but it didn't have Jonquel Jones in that game -- and came right after a sub-200 loss to UMass. A good run in the Atlantic 10 tournament and some help will likely be necessary for St. Bonaventure to make a second tournament in five years.
Rutgers: The schedule strength is there for the Scarlet Knights, but the performance against that schedule isn't. There is value in playing competitively, even if not winning much, against a good schedule. Rutgers hasn't done much of that. Thursday's game against Purdue is a must-win.