Breaking down the bubble teams
The most common question this time of year, every year, is, "What does (fill in the blank team) need to do to make the NCAA tournament?"
The answer is always easy: "Win as many games as possible." Yet that might be overly simplistic. So here's a look at all of the teams languishing in the place we all like to call the bubble, with a breakdown of some of their credentials and what might be necessary going forward. The list is divided into teams that were included in this week's field and those among the first four out.
Miami: The win over Duke meant so much. The ACC is down this season and the Hurricanes really didn't have a significant win in the conference with the fading of Virginia and Georgia Tech. Then came that blown 15-point lead against the Yellow Jackets just more than a week ago, and Miami looked done. Then Kansas started losing, St. John's and South Florida stumbled, Illinois failed with its opportunity and, more notably, Miami beat the Blue Devils. It was easily the most significant win by a bubble team this season. Now the Hurricanes can show off a résumé with two top-10 wins on it. That late-November upset of Penn State looks a lot less like a fluke now. Beating Duke is all the more validated by the fact the Blue Devils didn't suffer from the loss of point guard Chelsea Gray against Florida State, Maryland or North Carolina. Miami was the only team to beat Duke during its all-important stretch without its All-American. As long as Miami doesn't do anything foolish like lose to Virginia Tech -- a team it just beat by 20 in Blacksburg on Sunday -- in the opening round of the ACC tournament, the Hurricanes should be safely in the NCAA tournament.
Charlotte: The 49ers don't have a puffy résumé. Their best wins are against A-10 foes and bid rivals Saint Joseph's and Duquesne. The nonconference schedule was not particularly strong. What Charlotte does have that the rest of these hopefuls don't is a long winning streak. With double-double machine Jennifer Hailey leading the way, the 49ers haven't lost in six weeks. The Atlantic 10 isn't the Big 12, but it's not the SWAC, either, so the 13 in a row is worthwhile. Getting to the A-10 final should be good enough no matter what else happens. Anything less than that, especially an early loss to a team not in contention, and Selection Monday will be a long, anxious wait in Charlotte.
South Florida: The Bulls essentially came out of nowhere to get into the mix for an at-large. Two weeks ago they had a solid but nondescript record. Zero top-50 wins doesn't typically get you into the tournament. Then in a four-day period, South Florida won at Louisville and came back to steal one at home over Syracuse. Winning meaningful games down the stretch is the name of the game. So few do it, but for one week, South Florida did. Jose Fernandez's team played with fire when it lost to Rutgers because that instantly turned into a losing streak after Connecticut came to town on Saturday. That loss to the Scarlet Knights makes the Bulls a prime target for a bid stealer. They certainly can't afford to fall down at Georgetown on Monday night or in their first Big East tournament game. Take care of those two and South Florida's chances are as good as they are going to get, short of also reaching the Big East semifinals.
St. John's: A loss to a sub-200 RPI team in March should be the death of any bubble team. Yet with failure all around it, St. John's managed to survive that horrible hiccup against Seton Hall and is still in the field. However, it makes Monday's game with DePaul that much more important. The Red Storm need it, largely because what got them to this point after a rough start to the season (injuries, coaching change) is a six-game winning streak, while so many others were losing. A loss to the Blue Demons means two in a row and kills some of the significance of such a successful month. While the top-50 wins are lacking, St. John's is helped by things like RPI, Sagarin, strength of schedule (SOS) and road record (including wins at South Florida and Villanova).
Creighton: Every season there seems to be one team whose RPI is an anomaly. It's just too high to seem to match true accomplishment. This season's entry in that category is Creighton. Yes, the Blue Jays beat Nebraska in early December and fellow bubble mate South Florida later that month, but they've had just one top-100 win since early January. The majority of Creighton's opponents in the last month are sub-150. There is little to prove the Blue Jays' worthiness in more than two months of basketball. Yet they are in, and it's partially due to a weak field. That mid-20s RPI still carries some weight. The Blue Jays are very susceptible to slipping because, unlike their big conference competition, they don't have any ground-gaining games. They can only win and hope no one else does something significant. And any loss from here until the Missouri Valley tournament championship game would be lights out. Of course, the big advantage Creighton has over the rest of its chief rivals is a realistic chance at winning its conference tournament and taking the at-large status out of the conversation.
Duquesne: What hurts the Dukes is that they lost to all the rest of the top teams in the A-10. What helps is that they were the only team of the group to really give Dayton a game. Duquesne was one shot away from an upset at Dayton. It helps that the Dukes beat Delaware. It hurts that the Blue Hens were without Elena Delle Donne that night (and when the two met again with the All-American on the floor, the Blue Hens were 15-point winners). The victory at West Virginia was a good one, but might not be enough on its own. Beating Saint Joseph's in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals might ultimately be necessary, and that game will be on the Hawks' home floor.
Saint Joseph's: The Hawks have 20 wins, won at Duquesne and have been steady all season. Even more notable is that November stunner over Maryland. It's their big chip. Unfortunately, they have not done much else since that stands out. An eight-game winning streak helped Saint Joe's ease into the field, but the Hawks have subsequently been passed by other teams that are currently doing more. That loss at Dayton on Sunday was their ticket that wasn't punched. The Hawks will likely meet Duquesne in the Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinals, and that one will be a must for both teams. The Hawks are likely WNIT-bound without it.
Kansas: This is the perfect example of a blown opportunity. The Jayhawks were in. Two weeks ago they had four top-50 wins, which was more than anyone else in the bubble cluster, with the opportunity for more. Angel Goodrich had emerged as one of the nation's best point guards. The good memories of last season's improbable Sweet 16 run were still there from which to draw. Then Kansas stopped playing defense and stopped winning. Giving up 93 points to Texas was not just a bad night, it was the start of a four-game losing streak that took the Jayhawks out of the field. With only a résumé-worthless game with TCU remaining in the regular season, Kansas will need a good, long run in the Big 12 tournament to leapfrog itself back into the field.
Illinois: The Fighting Illini had wins over Georgia and at Nebraska working for them and a pretty good thing going in the Big Ten. They were a team without a stunning record, but one that was playing its best basketball in the season's stretch run. Then came the last two weeks. Illinois lost three of four, including a non-competitive blasting at Penn State, and all that momentum was gone. The other metrics aren't good enough to get away with a bad finish (the RPI has slipped into the low 60s and there is a sub-100 loss). This isn't to say Illinois is done, however. The bracket in the Big Ten tournament gives the Illini a chance to get all the way to the final with meetings with Wisconsin, Purdue and Nebraska the likely path. It will probably take at least beating the Boilermakers and some help around them before the Illini can think about getting back to the good side of the fence.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes didn't make the big splash like South Florida did with the win at Louisville, but Ohio State, for the most part, did sneak up on the process. Injuries have haunted Jim Foster's club all season and a 1-7 record in January seemed to extinguish any chances of the Buckeyes playing NCAA tournament games on their own floor. However, a 6-2 February with a three-game winning streak to finish the regular season against tournament locks Michigan and Michigan State and under-consideration Illinois got the Buckeyes back in the conversation. Now, the folks of Columbus shouldn't get too excited. The quality wins are few (Gonzaga is the next biggest after the two Michigan schools). The RPI remains in the 60s (although Sagarin rates Ohio State much higher). The Buckeyes will need another significant win in the Big Ten tournament (that would have to be against Penn State in the quarterfinals after beating Minnesota in the opening round) and everything else to go perfectly to get a bid.
• All the other bubble teams should be rooting for Creighton in the next two weeks. If the Blue Jays win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, that opens up another at-large spot. In the case of this week's bracket, enter Saint Joseph's. No one else in the league is worthy of one, but right now Wichita State holds down the MVC automatic bid.
• The league tournaments the bubble teams should be watching most closely are the CAA, Horizon, WCC and possibly the MAC. Since Delaware (CAA) and Green Bay (Horizon) are locks to make the field no matter what, everyone here needs them to finish off their unbeaten conference seasons with a run through the league tournament. A failure on either team's part means someone else from that league is also getting a bid (perhaps Drexel or Youngstown State) and some teams from the above list are not.
• Gonzaga and Toledo, the runaway regular-season winners in the WCC and MAC, respectively, aren't quite the no-brainer at-large choices of Delaware and Green Bay, but would certainly get thrown into the bubble bunch should they, too, come up short during conference tournament time. Two months ago, it didn't look like the Zags had done enough to warrant at-large consideration, but with an ever-shrinking bubble and with more losing than winning on it, Gonzaga would move close to the top of the consideration ladder. Toledo lacks anything of consequence, but the record (26-2) is worth noting.
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