In late January, Purdue coach Gene Keady was asked about the possibility that only four Big Ten teams would qualify for the NCAA tournament, the lowest number of bids for the league since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. "That's ridiculous," Keady replied. "What idiot is saying that?" Now, Keady has to be praying that the uncharacteristically weak conference gets that many. Otherwise his 17-10 Boilermakers, who at week's end were in a three-way tie for fifth place and, more ominously, were ranked 90th in the RPI, probably will be disappointed come March 14—Selection Sunday.
Purdue, which had two games left (including one against No. 18 Illinois) before the conference tournament, was one of several teams on the NCAA bubble. Here are the most intriguing, from most likely to earn an at-large bid to least likely.
No team has improved its lot more during the past month than coach Quin Snyder's Tigers, who through Sunday had won six consecutive games, including a 93-92 double-overtime victory over No. 8 Oklahoma State on Feb. 24. With a solid RPI ranking of 32 and the nation's seventh-toughest schedule, the Tigers can lock up a bid with one more win.
Three years after a weak nonconference schedule cost Alabama a chance at an at-large bid despite a 21-10 record, the Crimson Tide has the nation's toughest schedule and through Sunday was a respectable 15-10. Its most impressive victory was a 77-73 upset at then No. 4 Mississippi State on Feb. 21. Alabama did lose five straight SEC games, but its second-leading scorer, junior guard Earnest Shelton, was in and out of the lineup with an injury during that run, a fact the selection committee will take into account.
Colorado and DePaul
Both scored important victories in the last two weeks. The Buffaloes beat Big 12 rivals Texas Tech and Oklahoma (thus imperiling the hopes of the Red Raiders and the Sooners). The Blue Demons knocked off Conference USA foe (and No. 25-ranked) Louisville. Another victory or two by Colorado and DePaul, particularly in their respective conference tournaments, should clinch a berth for each.
The Seminoles' 70-65 loss to No. 3 Duke at Tallahassee last Sunday was a crippling blow, giving them a 6-9 league record (18-11 overall). On Saturday at Georgia Tech the Seminoles will attempt to snap a 23-game conference road losing streak; a victory there or a good showing in the ACC tournament is mandatory.
In a rebuilding season the Bulldogs have come on strong in the second half, winning five of their last eight SEC games through Sunday. They'll also get credit for two wins over No. 9 Kentucky.
At week's end the Falcons, one of the nation's most surprising teams, were 20-5 and in first place in the Mountain West with a 10-2 mark, but a puzzling 37-35 road loss to Texas-Pan American on Feb. 16 probably knocked them out of the at-large chase.