March 7, 2014

Countdown to Arlington: Bubble teams try to make their case

Many hope to punch their NCAA Tournament ticket this weekend.

In eight days, the NCAA selection committee will release its 2014 college basketball brackets, setting off a frenzy of predictions and office brackets.

There will be plenty of time to discuss the tournament favorites and upset picks.

For the final two days of the regular season through the conference tournaments, however, it’s all about the bubble.

Which teams will float into March Madness? And which will be popped and discarded like used bubble wrap?

Here is a look at some of the most interesting bubble teams:

Baylor: The Bears, along with Oklahoma State, have been talked about for much of the conference season. The Cowboys seem to have recovered from a seven-game losing streak to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament. But have the Bears played well enough to give the Big 12 seven tournament teams? With a win at Kansas State today the Bears will finish with a .500 conference record. The Bears have won six of seven, including a huge victory against No. 16 Iowa State on Tuesday. Baylor’s tough schedule (rated in the nation’s top 15) might save the Bears.

Dayton: The Flyers (21-9, 9-6 A 10) may have earned an at-large seed Wednesday with a five-point win at No. 17 Saint Louis. Dayton also has a win against Gonzaga on its résumé. The Flyers did have a four-game losing streak in January but are playing well (8-1 since) when it counts. Dayton finishes the regular season against Richmond.

Nebraska: The Cornhuskers (18-11, 10-7 Big Ten) have a huge opportunity to play their way into the NCAA Tournament. Nebraska, which has bounced back from a five-game midseason skid, has won seven of its past eight, including a huge upset at No. 22 Michigan State. If the Cornhuskers can knock off No. 9 Wisconsin today at home, they will play on in March Madness. A loss, and things get tricky. The Big Ten could end up with as many as seven teams in the tournament, with Minnesota also hoping to earn an at-large bid.

Pac 12: After Arizona and UCLA, the Pac-12 is a jumbled mess. Arizona State, which boasts a 21-9 record and wins against Marquette and Arizona, lost to Oregon on Tuesday night. The Ducks (21-8, 9-8 Pac 12) were 2-6 in January but have won six straight. Colorado (21-9, 10-7 Pac 12) has a strong strength of schedule, no losses to teams with losing records and an upset of Kansas in December. Stanford (18-11, 9-8 Pac 12) was on its way to the postseason before losing three straight (Arizona State, Arizona and Colorado). The Cardinal needs to avoid a loss to Utah (20-9, 9-8 Pac 12) today. Cal (18-12, 9-8 Pac 12) has also lost three straight (Arizona, Arizona State and Utah) to hurt its chances. This conference will be a toss-up, and a big upset or bad loss today or in the Pac-12 tournament will shift everything.

Pittsburgh: The Panthers (22-8, 10-7 ACC) started 16-1 and appeared on the path for a high seed. But Pitt has stumbled in conference play, including losing four of its past six games. A loss to Florida State, another ACC team on the bubble, at the end of February was particularly damaging. The Panthers dropped a game at N.C. State on Monday and need to avoid a loss in their season finale against Clemson today.

Providence: The Friars (20-10, 10-7 Big East) made a huge leap for postseason play with their double-overtime win against Marquette (another bubble team) Tuesday. Now Providence is poised to give the Big East another tournament team (joining Villanova, Creighton and Xavier). The Friars finish at Creighton, a game they most likely will not win. But they have already done enough work.

Tennessee: The Volunteers (19-11, 10-7 SEC) may have a worse overall record than Missouri (21-9, 9-8 SEC) and Arkansas (21-9, 10-7 SEC), but they are the most likely of the three SEC bubble teams to make the NCAA field, thanks to a top 15 strength-of-schedule rating. Tennessee has a chance to lock up a seed today with a home game against Missouri.

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