Bubble Watch: Eight teams fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives
The madness of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament doesn’t officially start until Tuesday, March 14 but there’s plenty of chaos waiting the last weekend of the regular season, including four matchups between ranked teams. Conference tournaments should also provide some fun (or heartbreak, depending on who you’re rooting for).
But as usual this time of year, most of the talk is about who’s barely in and who’s narrowly missing out on the NCAA Tournament. Bubble teams are always worth a conversation and this weekend, many of them have an opportunity to let their play do some serious talking.
As you watch games the next few days also keep an eye on teams’ NET ranking and how they move up or down. At this point in the season the committee will examine every small piece of a team’s resume, and going up or down in the NET, even just a couple spots, could be a difference maker.
Selection Sunday is March 12. How much madness happens before then?
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A second half collapse late Thursday at UCLA doesn’t look great on the surface — the Sun Devils (20-10, 11-8 Pac-12) were trailing by four at the break but got outscored 43-29 in the second period. But on the flip side, it reinforces that the Bruins are the class of the Pac-12, so it’s not that bad of a loss. Arizona State’s buzzer-beating upset of Arizona is still the game that will make the biggest impression (and likely help the committee overlook a NET ranking in the low 60s). That being said, a win at Southern California on Saturday will help, too — as well as a win in the Pac-12 tournament next week in Las Vegas. Status: Last four in.
A close, 90-85 loss to No. 2 Alabama, the likely overall No. 1 seed, could be framed a positive for the Tigers, but a win Saturday against visiting Tennessee would be even better. Auburn has a NET ranking in the upper 30s but again, a win over No. 14 Volunteers — which is No. 3 in NET — will help greatly for a team that is 3-8 in its last 11 games. Beating the Vols, plus making a little run in the SEC tournament, would help Auburn make a solid case. But if it can’t take care of Tennessee, a decent run in the SEC tournament is a must. Status: Last four in.
The Tigers handled SMU 81-62 Thursday night (not that that’s saying much, given SMU has won 10 games) but the real test comes Sunday, when Memphis (23-7, 13-4 AAC) hosts No. 1 Houston. A close loss with multiple lead changes, an overtime thriller or a win would go a long way for Memphis. (The last time they played, Houston won 72-64 in a game it led wire-to-wire.) A run in the American Athletic conference tournament would be nice but given the Tigers high-30s NET ranking, they’re pretty safe. Status: Last four byes.
The Big Ten is good this year — three teams ranked in the USA TODAY Coaches Poll this week but a predicted nine teams will make the tournament — but that fact is hurting the Wolverines (17-13, 11-8 Big Ten). A close, double-overtime loss to Illinois Thursday night wasn’t great, but at least Illini will make the tournament. Michigan is just 3-11 in Quad 1 games, which is glaring — but their mid-50s NET ranking might be even worse. A win at No. 13 Indiana is a must on Sunday, but the Wolverines are also going to need a strong Big Ten tournament showing. Status: First four out.
How have the Tar Heels (19-11, 11-8 ACC) fallen so far? Just a year ago, they were about to go on a Final Four run. Part of the issue is the weakness this season of the traditionally solid ACC. A NET ranking in the mid 40s isn’t helping their case — but a win over their biggest rival certainly would. Last week’s win at No. 12 Virginia also strengthened the Tar Heels’ case. But the best way to get off the bubble would be to beat Duke, who’s a lock for the postseason, and head into next week’s ACC tournament with momentum. North Carolina has plenty of talent, it’s just a matter of putting it together at the right time. Status: First four out.
The Cowboys (16-14, 7-10 Big 12) probably can’t wait to get done with the Big 12 — and who can blame them? That conference is brutally tough and teams that will do damage in the NCAA Tournament spend most of their conference season scratching and clawing, just trying to survive. OSU’s 47 NET ranking is far from great, but the committee is likely to give them a pass for being in the best conference. Playing No. 8 Baylor so close on Monday — the Cowboys lost 74-68 — will also help them pass the eye test. A win Saturday at Texas Tech and a couple victories in the conference tournament will help bolster their case. Status: First four out.
Hanging with the No. 5 team in the country is great, but a loss is a loss and Wisconsin’s 63-61 Thursday loss to Purdue moved the Badgers (16-13, 8-11 Big Ten) to 11th place in the Big Ten. That’s far from great, as is their NET ranking in the mid 70s. What’s worse is a regular season finale at Minnesota, which is currently in last place in conference standings. At this point, Wisconsin will need to string together some wins in the Big Ten tournament to feel comfortable about their tournament status. That’s a tall task, but this is March, and stranger things have happened. Status: Last four in.
What’s the best way to get solidly off the bubble? Beat another bubble team. The Trojans will have an opportunity to do exactly that Saturday when they host Arizona State in the regular season finale. USC lost to Arizona 87-81 on Thursday, but the score is a bit deceiving because the Wildcats led THE ENTIRE GAME. USC has a NET ranking of mid-40s but is a respectable third in the Pac-12 standings. Beating a couple teams in the conference tournament — they’re likely to get another shot at second-place Arizona — will also make a statement. Status: Last four in.