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Prominent Bubble Teams
January 16, 2013
By Joe Nelson
While the NCAA conference season is just underway, there are several prominent teams that don't yet have the credentials to feel secure about a NCAA Tournament invite. Several of these teams are well-known national powers that did not get enough done in the non-conference season. Pressure should be on these squads in the next several weeks to get a few more quality wins.
BYU: The Cougars have been in the NCAA Tournament each of the last six years, but moving from the very strong Mountain West to the West Coast Conference won't help the cause when it comes time to hand out NCAA Tournament bids. BYU has an excellent 14-4 record, but there is very little substance and the strength of schedule will go down unlike in past years when a deep Mountain West slate helped the cause. Gonzaga and St. Mary's are formidable in WCC and BYU will have a chance to score helpful wins in those match-ups, but it certainly won't be easy to make the conference a three-bid league as it often is tough for two WCC teams to get in. BYU is off to a perfect conference start, including a convincing win at Santa Clara last weekend, but they may need to take down Gonzaga at least once to really make a strong case. BYU failed in non-conference opportunities against Florida State, Notre Dame, Iowa State, and Baylor, and with each of those four losses coming by double-digits, the Cougars will have a hard time making favorable comparisons with other teams on the bubble.
Kentucky: The formula for John Calipari has worked for the Wildcats as his youthful teams often run into some trouble early in the season, but develops into a late season threat, going the distance last season for his first national title. This year's squad does not project to have that type of a ceiling and frankly the Wildcats are a few more losses from being on the outside looking in for the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky beat Maryland in the opening game of the season, but they failed in every other notable game, losing to Duke, Notre Dame, Baylor, and Louisville in non-conference play. The strength of schedule is boosted with those losses, but there are very few quality wins on the resume. Kentucky has started 2-1 in SEC play, but the home loss to Texas A&M could be a detriment that pushes the Wildcats a few notches down in the SEC pecking order. Kentucky picked up needed wins over Vanderbilt and Tennessee, but both games were very close and it is easy to see this Wildcats team losing a few similar games in the course of the SEC season. Florida, Mississippi, and Missouri all look like more qualified SEC teams and this will not be a league that will justify a great deal of bids. Kentucky is entering a critical stretch of the schedule with six of the next nine on the road and a few slip-ups could lead to the Wildcats falling on the wrong side of the bubble. Kentucky also won't have many chances to score big wins as they play Missouri and Mississippi just once each this season and the home meeting with Florida will be the last game of the year, when it may be too late.
Memphis: Under John Calipari, Memphis was a powerhouse that had several deep tournament runs before NCAA sanctions vacated many of those wins. This has continued to be the top team in Conference USA even with Josh Pastner taking over and the Tigers have been in the NCAA Tournament in eight of the last 10 seasons. Memphis earned the automatic bid from winning the conference tournament each of the past two seasons and that may be the route the Tigers need to go this year as the league schedule won't help the cause and this Tigers team does not look strong enough to avoid a few losses. Memphis lost three non-conference games and none of them were damaging, falling to VCU, Minnesota, and Louisville and in competitive games. Memphis did not have any other noteworthy opponents in the non-conference slate, so the Conference USA schedule is all the Tigers have to work with, though a non-conference game with Xavier could provide a boost in late February. Southern Miss and UTEP look formidable in Conference USA and every team will be bringing their best in games with Memphis as the Tigers are likely to slip at some point and a near-perfect conference season might be what they would need to earn at-large consideration.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels often go through up-and-down cycles with high player turnover in many years. After winning the 2009 national championship, North Carolina did not even make the NCAA Tournament the next season. Last season, North Carolina finished 32-6 and earned a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but this year's team is right on the edge of being excluded from the Big Dance. North Carolina is sitting at 10-5 and while non-conference losses to Butler, Indiana, and Texas won't be too damaging on the resume, the Tar Heels only picked up one notable win, narrowly beating UNLV at home. North Carolina opened ACC play 0-2 before rallying to beat Florida State last weekend, but overall, the ACC does not look like an overly strong conference and finishing fifth or sixth in the league might not be good enough to get a bid. The Tar Heels will have opportunities for big wins with Duke and NC State twice each on the schedule and they probably need to win at least one of those games to stamp themselves into the tournament.
Pittsburgh: The Panthers had been in the NCAA Tournament 10 straight years before missing out last season. Most expected a quick rebound and a 12-1 non-conference run had the Panthers back in the rankings. As usual, Pittsburgh played a very soft non-conference schedule and while they did only lose by five against Michigan in the only loss, there weren't any wins of note either. Conference play has been a disaster so far for the Panthers with a 1-3 start including two home losses in critical games with Cincinnati and Marquette, two teams likely in the mix with Pittsburgh for spots in the upper half of the Big East. Pittsburgh did score a notable blowout win at Georgetown that will help the cause, but with the Big East losing some stature nationally this season, it is hard to see the conference carrying more than six or seven bids this season in contrast to past years. The schedule turns brutal in late January and early February so the Panthers would best served to get back above .500 with some of the lesser foes on the schedule the next two weeks or it could be two years in a row sitting on the outside. The schedule does feature just one game each with Louisville and Syracuse which could help the Panthers finish higher but this is a team that may need that type of a win to boost the resume.
Texas: The Longhorns have not missed the NCAA Tournament since 1998, but things are not looking good for this year's squad. Texas had a disastrous trip to Hawaii early in the season, losing to both Chaminade and USC in the Maui Invitational, two unforgivable losses that will continue to haunt the program as we inch closer to the release of the brackets. The big win over North Carolina no longer looks that impressive and while losses to Georgetown, UCLA, and Michigan State won't penalize Texas, the overall loss count is really adding up. Texas has opened up the Big XII season at 0-3 and while two of those losses came in overtime, a sub-.500 Big XII record won't cut it for the Longhorns with the ugly non-conference losses and the lack of quality wins. The scenario is pretty clear for Texas; they almost certainly need to beat Kansas at home this weekend and then they could get on a run in Big XII play with some of the more favorable games in the next two weeks. With seven losses and no wins against the top 50, Texas is a team with serious work to do as right now they are not even in range of the bubble.
West Virginia: While the move to the Big XII didn't exactly help the football team in year one, the Mountaineers could face a worse fate in the basketball season. West Virginia has been a NCAA Tournament team each of the last five years, even in years with marginal overall records as the strength of the Big East boosted the ratings for the Mountaineers and afforded many opportunities for quality wins. That won't be the case this season as there appear to be far fewer quality teams in the Big XII this season. West Virginia played a quality non-conference schedule but they did not pick up any prominent wins, with a one-point win at home over Virginia Tech being the best that the team can offer. Worse, West Virginia picked up tournament loses to Davidson and Oklahoma, as well as losing to Duquesne. Having Michigan and Gonzaga on the resume helps but West Virginia lost badly in both of those games. West Virginia beat Texas in what could be a critical head-to-head game but they lost again to Oklahoma, this time at home and could not pull off a needed win over Kansas State, falling by one at home. West Virginia does have a non-conference game at Purdue this weekend that falls into the must-win category and the Mountaineers will need a strong finish in the Big XII and possibly upsets over Kansas, Missouri, or Baylor to truly make a case to the selection committee.
Wisconsin: The Badgers have been one of the most consistently successful programs in the last decade with 14 straight NCAA Tournament appearances and consistently high finishes in the Big Ten standings. Wisconsin failed to pick up a prominent win in the non-conference schedule, losing in big games with Florida, Creighton, and Marquette, and slipping at home in the ACC/Big Ten challenge with a loss to Virginia. Wisconsin has opened the Big Ten season 4-0 and the Badgers may have picked up their golden ticket by stunning Indiana in Bloomington. The Big Ten is very tough this season and the schedule is brutal for the Badgers in the next several weeks, facing Ohio State and Minnesota twice as well as playing Michigan, Michigan State, and Illinois all in the next nine games. Wisconsin's 4-0 start could quickly be erased and this weekend's road game at Iowa certainly looks like a dangerous spot. Wisconsin is rarely a strong road team and the Badgers have been known to slip up against lesser foes on occasion so a bad loss or two in conference play might wipe out the gains with the Indiana win. Right now, the Badgers have done enough to get in, but a .500 Big Ten campaign and no quality out-of-conference wins could leave Wisconsin on the bubble for the first time in many years.