What your team needs to do to dance
College Basketball Contributing Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The time for superlatives is running short. We have heard about the bubble's "soft under belly" to the point where teams just an inch above the Mendoza line are considered at-large possibilities.
Sorting out the "haves" from the "have nots" is a simplistic exercise, especially in a season where five teams, in my eyes, have separated themselves from the pack (I'm looking at you Texas, Pittsburgh, Ohio State, Kansas and Duke) and another 10-to-15 clubs have entered the sacred lock status for tournament inclusion.
This party only offers 68 invitations, 31 based on conference hardware and 37 decided by a mathematical, yet somewhat subjective, process undertaken by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.
We make our best attempt below to let those fence-sitters know what it will take down the stretch to warrant an at-large selection.
Much has been made of 11 possible Big East teams in this year's tournament, in large part due to the weaknesses of other conferences as much as the lower rung's strength. Below we examine the teams jockeying for position in the Big East bloodbath.
Louisville: KenPom sees a 2-2 mark down the stretch, which would get the Cardinals to 11 conference victories. Even holding serve against Rutgers and Providence should be enough, easier said then done in a league with no nights off. The victory Friday night over Connecticut makes the late February push much easier.
West Virginia: The Mountaineers love the computers and vice versa. West Virginia's RPI and SOS (strength of schedule) should carry it into the tournament even with an arduous schedule down the stretch. Beating one of Pittsburgh, Louisville or Connecticut (the last two at home) is advisable, though.
St. John's: Just beat two of DePaul, Seton Hall and South Florida, and the 11 conference wins coupled with the beat-down of Duke and Saturday's Garden thriller over Pittsburgh will be more than enough. Computer numbers are comfortably in the range of historical at-large trends.
Cincinnati: Splitting with Georgetown and beating Marquette should be enough. The Bearcats don't have the out-of-league victories or the computer numbers to withstand an 8-10 conference mark, so assuming a loss to Connecticut, taking one-of-two from the Hoyas and knocking off fellow bubble member Marquette is mandatory.
Marquette: Welcome to the land of "close but no cigar." The Golden Eagles lost single-digit decisions to Duke, Gonzaga, Wisconsin and Vanderbilt earlier in the season. Assuming they hold serve against Providence and Seton Hall, the elimination game may come against Cincinnati, barRing a deep Big East Tournament run.
After Duke and North Carolina, the 2011 rendition of the ACC exemplifies the plight of the selection committee, wading through a muddled mess of mediocrity. Below is a breakdown of how these clubs can climb on the right side of the bubble.
Florida State: Just prove it can win without Chris Singleton, who broke a bone in his right foot, leaving his tournament status in doubt. The committee, justifiably or not, will judge the Seminoles on their play without their injured star forward.
Boston College: Splitting the Virginia road trip to Charlottesville and Blacksburg should put the Eagles no worse than 9-7 in conference play, which coupled with strong computer numbers, should warrant selection.
Virginia Tech: Get to 10 conference victories any way it can. That magic number most likely means beating Boston College and winning at Littlejohn against a desperate Clemson team. The loss on Saturday at Virginia makes going 3-1 down the stretch all but a must to avoid another Seth Greenberg ESPN diatribe on Selection night.
Reverberations are still being felt from Kansas State's season-altering thumping of top-ranked Kansas last Monday. The victory didn't propel the Wildcats into the tournament, but put them at the top of the conversation held below.
Kansas State: The margin for error is thin, but winning at Nebraska (which Texas couldn't do this past weekend) and holding serve in the season finale versus Iowa State are musts. With the solid computer numbers, and the lynchpin win over Kansas, a .500 conference record MAY be enough, but to feel safe, the Wildcats have another a golden home opportunity versus Missouri.
Baylor: The Bears need to go 3-1 down the stretch, which means beating two of Missouri, Texas or Texas A&M if it can win at Stillwater against Oklahoma State. However, if the victory comes against the Aggies, one or two conference tournament wins are advisable.
A bubble full of underachievers (Michigan State, Illinois) and overachievers (Penn State, Minnesota) leads to an interesting case study for a conference with three legitimate Final Four contenders.
Illinois: Wins against Iowa and Indiana are a given (at least if you want to be in this conversation). Nabbing one road win at either Ohio State or Purdue gets the Illini to 20 total victories and 10 in conference. That should be enough.
Michigan State: Running the table would wipe away all doubt, but the Spartans need to at least win three-of-four games down the stretch and at least one conference tournament game. A .500 conference record (which would mean splitting its last four games) would not get it done with 13 total losses.
Minnesota: The Golden Gophers MUST beat Penn State in the season finale to avoid a direct comparison in the selection war room to the Nittany Lions, who beat them just last week. Getting to 20 victories includes holding serve at home this week against fellow bubble mate Michigan State, but winning three- of-four down the stretch is beneficial. A .500 conference record does not differentiate a team from the rest withstanding a deep conference tournament run.
Penn State: Talk about a murderer's row to earn your way into the dance. The Nittany Lions must win their last three games, two road tests (at Northwestern and Minnesota) and a home date with top-ranked Ohio State. That would put them at 17-12 and 10-8 in conference with more than enough signature victories to sneak into the field. Anything less would require at least two wins, including the pelt of Wisconsin, Purdue or the aforementioned Buckeyes, in the conference tournament.
This year was supposed to be different out west. The Pac-10 was a league of youth in 2010, and much talk of development led to renewed faith in a strong resurgence this season. The actual play on the court has not matched the hype, as only Arizona is a tournament lock at this point in the season.
UCLA: The Bruins are closing in on a return to the NCAA Tournament save a late-season collapse. Splitting four games against the Arizona and Washington schools, even if the two wins come against the weaker opponents, will put the Bruins at 13 conference victories, a very safe number even in another down year for the league.
Washington: The Huskies need to forget all of the talk about their individual stars' stats and focus on finishing strong. Running the regular-season table is a must, especially with only one quality win (against conference-leader Arizona) on the resume and a third-place standing in a league not assured three bids. Washington is very dangerous, but it needs to find a way into the tournament first. A one-point heartbreak over the weekend to the Wildcats leaves no margin for error.
It seems everybody (minus Florida and Kentucky) is on the bubble in the SEC, spanning the spectrum from teams fighting to finish .500 in the league to one that may rack up as many as 13 conference wins.
Tennessee: If the Vols hold serve at home they will dance come March. That means beating Kentucky in the season-finale, but if they can't accomplish that, a road game life raft at South Carolina still beckons. Tennessee still has some big-time out-of-conference wins (Pittsburgh, Villanova and even VCU and Missouri State) to fall back on, but the loss to Georgia this past weekend makes finishing strong paramount.
Vanderbilt: Splitting the last four will get the Commodores to double-digit conference wins and book their place in March Madness. It won't be a cakewalk, however, as one of the wins will have to come from the trio of Tennessee (home), Kentucky (road), or Florida (home to finish regular season).
Alabama: The Crimson Tide pass the eye test (and the committee in a conference call last week said it is watching more games in person and on television this season). The problem lies with dreadful computer numbers and a bordering-on- laughable out-of-league slate. Sitting at 10-2 in the conference as of print, Alabama won't be comfortable heading into the conference tournament without 13 league wins. Getting to that number is possible and does not even involve winning in Gainesville on March 1.
Georgia: Save a deep venture in the SEC Tournament, the Bulldogs need to win at Florida this Thursday. It's as simple as that (while still winning the games it should versus LSU and South Carolina).
Other Teams Straddling the Fence
Richmond: Part of me is pulling for the Spiders, who saw a good amount of virtual space right here earlier this season. The loss to Temple puts them in an Alabama-like predicament. Winning their last three games (they will be favored in each) puts them at 24 total wins and 13 in conference. But the computer numbers still look soft. The conference tournament may decide their fate. The wins against Purdue and VCU (while impressive) happened months ago.
Colorado State: After failing to sweep UNLV from the at-large line, the Rams now MUST beat either BYU or San Diego State to hold the requisite tournament- worthy victory to attract the committee. Otherwise, a 20-win, 10-conference victory resume looks very, very hollow.
UNLV: UNLV has more room for error than the Rams thanks to an essential victory this weekend, splitting the season series. The Rebels have the out-of- league wins (Wisconsin, Virginia Tech) that the Rams yearn for at this time of year. Winning two-of-three down the stretch plus one win in the conference tourney or just a regular-season sweep the rest of the way should punch their ticket.
George Mason: The Patriots are dancing. I just included them here because all No. 5 or 6 seeds should start scouting one of the nation's hottest teams. George Mason has not lost since January 8, so barring two losses to end the regular season against two teams it has already handled easily, book those tournament plans!
Utah State: Apparently the Aggies heeded my warning from last Monday's column. Starving for a signature victory after the stunning conference loss at Idaho, Utah State won at St. Mary's, giving it more leeway should a surprising conference tournament loss occur. I still advise the Aggies do things the easy way, but finishing up the regular-season slate and making the conference tournament final should NOW be enough.
St. Mary's: The Gaels picked a bad time to hit the skids. Now, after two straight losses, home victories over Gonzaga and Portland aren't optional if they have real at-large aspirations.
Memphis: The loss over the weekend to Rice was the definition of "bad loss" at this point in the season. With the best out-of-league win coming against Miami-Florida, the Tigers need to run the table in the final four games and make a splash in the conference tourney to show they belong.
Butler: We end with last season's national runner-up, which is stuck in the middle of the bubble with just one game left in the regular season. That victory puts the Bulldogs at 21 victories, but the issue is more with their nine losses, six coming against teams with a sup-150 RPI. The bubble is gracious enough to include Butler, but unless plenty of carnage happens above, it may have to go the automatic bid route.
THOUGHTS BEFORE FILLING OUT YOUR HOOPS BRACKET
Below is an excerpt from my just-released book, "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out Your Hoops Bracket." You can purchase it at Amazon.com or in a variety of formats at www.99-series.com. I will publish a tip during each column to prepare you for bracket madness.
#38: Move Past 8-9 Games
Yes, on the first bracket I am advising you against picking winners in the 8 vs. 9 games. These teams will likely be leaving by weekend's end, but the points are still valuable and require further research. Circle an #8 or #9 seed that you may like in a possible second-round upset as a reminder to dig up some statistics to support any hunch you may have.
1. Texas (23-4): Yes, I was reluctant to make the Longhorns my top team. And in a week in which they lost, I vault them to the top? It's really a process of elimination and my lack of faith in Duke, which I don't think would beat Texas on a neutral floor if the two teams played tomorrow.
2. Duke (25-2): That lack of faith is piled on the shoulders of Kyle Singler, who had the worst statistical game of his distinguished career last Wednesday, scoring just two points against Virginia. What surprised me most was he only took four shots and deferred to teammates down the stretch. The forward needs his mojo back for the Blue Devils to be Final Four contenders come March.
3. Kansas (25-2): The Jayhawks had a lot of time to stew over the Kansas State game then came out with a voracity I haven't seen from his group. The Buffaloes were the unfortunate recipients of a 26-point pummeling.
4. Ohio State (25-2): Ohio State's guards are suffering from the "awe complex," which means they are standing around far too often and watching Jared Sullinger operate. The sharpshooters need to find gaps off post double teams and start attacking the rim to create more room for the star big man.
5. Pittsburgh (24-3): Ashton Gibbs returned with a scorer's mindset, totaling 26 of Pittsburgh's 59 points on Saturday, but then smartly deferred to Travon Woodall when the defense focused its attention on him in the closing seconds. It would have been a winning play if not for St. John's star Dwight Hardy, who navigated his way to the rim for the game-winner.
6. San Diego State (27-1): Since the loss to the Cougars on January 26, the Aztecs have allowed just one team (New Mexico) to score over 60 points. For all of the talk about NBA prospect Kawhli Leonard and veteran coach Steve Fisher, the Aztecs' great team defense gets lost in the shuffle.
7. BYU (25-2): It's best for the game's greater good that Jimmer Fredette does not face TCU each game. His latest line -- 6-of-16 shooting, 23 points -- is ordinary by his otherworldly standards.
8. Purdue (22-5): Purdue loyalists can't expect 38-point outings from E'Twaun Moore each time out, but if he just continues the floor vision and shot selection he showed in Sunday's victory over Ohio State, the Boilermakers can be a dangerous team come March.
9. Georgetown (21-6): Losing to an early-season Kemba Walker performance is nothing to hang its head about. These Hoyas, with veteran leadership, experienced guards and a value on ball possession, are built for March.
10. Arizona (23-4): Derrick Williams' comfort level -- at the rim and away from it -- is a nightmare for opposing coaches. Case in point, Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar tried three different defenders (some bigger, some faster), but Williams adapted each time and played to his strengths. His defense has also significantly improved since the season's inception, a massive sign of growth for one of the game's most dynamic freshmen.
11. Notre Dame (21-5): The Fighting Irish, one of the nation's most efficient three-point shooting teams, were undone by an 8-for-27 effort from long range against West Virginia.
12. North Carolina (20-6): The ACC's second-most efficient offense was anything but on Saturday, scoring just 48 points yet somehow surviving to beat Boston College. The up-and-down play of North Carolina's youth was apparent considering the Heels hung 106 on those same Eagles not even three weeks earlier.
13. Florida (21-5): The Gators will never be ones for style points, a team of guards who are suspect, streaky at best, outside shooters. Yet, somehow wins are piling up, five in a row including three against possible NCAA Tournament teams. The news may be whether forward Chandler Parsons, not even two weeks removed from SEC Player of the Week honors, can return from a deep thigh bruise.
14. Wisconsin (20-6): The Badgers can't play the NCAA Tournament in the Kohl Center. Another poor road showing at Purdue continues to point at Wisconsin's up-and-down play outside Madison.
15. Villanova (21-6): After surviving at DePaul thanks to Corey Fisher, the Wildcats embark on a big week with home dates against Syracuse and St. John's.
Trexler is the author of "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out
Your Hoops Bracket." Click
HERE to purchase the Kindle version...and stay tuned on
an updated hardcopy edition this winter! Trexler also wrote "Penn State
Football: An Interactive Guide To The World of Sports", a detailed look at the
Nittany Lions' storied football history. It can be purchased HERE.