With so many bids to the NCAAs locked up, the fight for the remaining few will be frenzied
When it's mid-February and your team is on the NCAA tournament bubble, it's not enough to consider won-loss records and poll rankings when sizing up your situation. So before Connecticut's Feb. 13 matchup against Boston College, coach Jim Calhoun made sure his Huskies knew that, besides having the best record in the Big East, the Eagles were ranked No. 9 in the RPI. By contrast, UConn was a bubbly 68th. "I told them, Aren't we lucky we have BC tonight? They can really help us,' " Calhoun says.
The Huskies helped themselves considerably with an 82-71 victory, moving up 16 positions in the RPI. UConn needed that win because this year features an unusually large number of teams jockeying for an unusually small number of spots. (Sixty-five teams will get bids this year, with the two lowest-ranked teams according to the NCAA selection committee competing in a preliminary-round game.)
The numbers certainly don't bode well for bubble teams. Three weeks before Selection Sunday, it appeared that 33 schools from the eight power conferences had, barring total collapses, locked up bids. Throw in the automatic bids that go to the other 26 conference champions and that left all of six spots for teams on the bubble. "You could go through each conference and make a case for a lot of people," Calhoun says.
We did, and here's how we picture them:
The following leagues look pretty much set—pending possible surprises in conference tournaments. The ACC should receive six bids ( North Carolina, Duke, Virginia, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Maryland); the Big Ten is a lock for five ( Illinois, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa) and could gobble up two bubble entries ( Ohio State and Penn State). The Pac-10 should get five ( Stanford, Arizona, UCLA, USC and Cal). The Big 12 can count on four ( Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas). The Atlantic 10 will have to settle for two ( St. Joe's and Xavier).
The last three weeks will be volatile in the Big East and the SEC. In the tournament field are Boston College, Providence, Notre Dame, Syracuse and Georgetown from the Big East, and Kentucky, Alabama, Florida and Ole Miss from the SEC. Twelve teams from these two leagues are still in the hunt for the aforementioned six NCAA berths. Georgia and Tennessee are limping to the finish line in the SEC, but both are ranked in the top 20 of the RPI and thus have inside tracks. The most surprising bubble team is probably Seton Hall, which was 13-10 through Sunday.
Up for grabs
With only one or two more at-large bids left to dole out after the Big East and SEC are accommodated, who gets what will depend on what happens in the tournaments of the lower-rated conferences. If Cincinnati ( Conference USA) and Fresno State ( WAC) win their respective championships, they might be the lone representatives from their leagues. Likewise, if Butler (Midwest Collegiate), Creighton (Missouri Valley), Georgia State (Trans American), Gonzaga (West Coast) or UC Irvine ( Big West) doesn't win its league title, its regular-season record could compel the selection committee to burst the bubble on the likes of St. John's or Arkansas. "I think we have a strong case," Butler coach Thad Motta says, whose Bulldogs were 18-7 through Sunday, "but at our level you can never be sure."
Indeed, for Butler and all the other teams on the bubble, there's no such thing as a sure thing.