by Rob Joyce
March Madness is here once again, with many of the low-to-mid-major conferences completing their league tournaments and securing their spots in the NCAA Tournament. With the exception of the Big Ten, which Michigan won on Sunday, the major conferences all get underway in the next 48 hours. While the favorites in each of these leagues are already comfortably in the field of 68, win or lose, the same can’t be said for some lower seeds. A one-and-done or a few victories could be the difference between a joyous Selection Sunday and a disappointing NIT bid.
As you gear up for college basketball to take over your life for the next month, here are the bubble teams from each conference to pay close attention to this week:
ACC – Syracuse, Louisville, Notre Dame:
Syracuse just won’t go away. A loss to North Carolina two weeks ago was supposed to put them on the wrong side of the bubble, with a midweek loss last week to Boston College the finishing touch on their tournament hopes. Then Syracuse went out and beat No. 18 Clemson over the weekend, putting their overall record at 19-12 with a top-40 RPI. A loss in the ACC Tournament to Wake Forest would likely be a death blow, but two wins likely gets them over the hump.
The path is harder for Louisville and Notre Dame. The Cardinals head to New York City this week losing four of five and seven of 10. In the NCAA’s new “Quadrant” win system, against Quadrant 1 and 2 (largely NCAA Tournament teams) the Cardinals are just 4-12. Wins over Florida State and Virginia on Wednesday and Thursday are almost must-wins at this point.
The same goes for the Irish, who were devastated after stars Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell got hurt. Colson returned in the regular season finale and logged a double-double in a loss to Virginia. With him back, Notre Dame can certainly make the necessary run, where they’d likely have to beat Pitt, Virginia Tech and Duke to even sniff the field.
Big 12 – Baylor, Oklahoma State, Texas:
The Bears sat just 2-7 in Big 12 play and barely above .500 before a five-game win streak saved their season. Now they sit 18-13 in the deepest league in America. However, an RPI of 61 isn’t helping their case, with just a 4-10 record against Quadrant 1 teams. West Virginia looms on Thursday.
The Cowboys are in a similar spot as the Bears in that they weren’t supposed to be in this spot a month ago. However Mike Boynton has rallied the troops in his first year, sweeping Kansas to go along with wins over Texas Tech, WVU and Florida State. Their non-conference strength of schedule and RPI aren’t good, but if they advance to the Big 12 semis with wins over Oklahoma and (for the third time!) Kansas, it could be hard to leave out the Pokes.
An overtime win for the Longhorns on Saturday against West Virginia may have saved UT’s season after they entered on a losing skid. At 18-13 they can’t lose to Iowa State tomorrow, but that could be thrown in doubt. Star freshman Mo Bamba missed the last two games with a toe injury, and he’ll be a game-time decision in Kansas City.
Pac-12 – Arizona State, USC, UCLA, Utah, Washington:
The Pac-12 will get multiple bids in the tournament, but there’s a chance “multiple” only means “two”. Arizona is in, but beyond that it’s a giant question mark out west. Arizona State entered January ranked 3rd in the country, yet finished 8-10 in league play. Both UCLA and USC passed the 20-win mark, but will breath heavily with a one-and-done performance in Vegas. In fact, the Trojans could see Washington in the quarterfinals in what could be a Tournament play-in game after the Huskies stumbled to a 3-5 finish following what was thought to be a tourney-clinching win against Arizona.
As for Utah, the Utes won six of seven to close the regular season, but a 3-5 mark against Quadrant 1 teams and a lack of a non-conference win – Missouri is their best victory – could make a run to the semis a must.
SEC – Alabama, Mississippi State:
It’s been the best year for the SEC on the hardwood in some time, with seven teams comfortably in: Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas A&M. The Tide could join that list, but must beat the Aggies in St. Louis on Thursday and probably another game or two, as their 17-14 record heading in isn’t pretty.
The Bulldogs have a more difficult path to the Big Dance. With an RPI of 72 and a 2-8 record in true road games overshadowing a 21-10 overall record, Mississippi State needs a run to at least the semifinals. They open on Thursday against LSU, who just roughed them up on Saturday, 78-57. They don’t have a win over a power conference opponent in non-con play, making their chances bleak without two (or more) victories this week.