First off, I want to start by saying anyone who advocates expanding the NCAA Tournament field from 65 teams to 96 teams is a moron. This isn’t little league. We don’t all get participation ribbons.
And I know there were opponents to the expansion to 64 back when it was introduced, but come on. It’s hard enough this year picking 65 teams worthy of selection, nevertheless 96. If the tournament expands to four shy of 100, what’s the point of playing the regular season? Just have writers and coaches vote on who they think the best 96 teams are and go from there. Because Lord knows the champion isn’t coming from a group outside the top-100. So let’s just have a two-week season. Complete money hungry dumb asses if you ask me. (You didn’t? Oh well, take it anyways.)
OK, now that that’s out of the way, let’s take a look at this year’s potential field. And as I mentioned above, it’s pretty watered down this year. While there doesn’t seem to be a dominant team out there (Kansas, Syracuse and Kentucky are good, but how good?) there is even more uncertainty at the bottom of the tournament, otherwise known as the bubble. Analysts have called this year, the weakest bubble in history. And I can’t argue.
I’ll admit, I’m a tough critic. And if it were up to me, we’d cap this year’s NCAA Tournament at 48 teams. It’s that bad this year. But luckily for mediocre programs, I’m not in charge, and plenty of undeserving teams will get a chance to dance.
Here’s a list of the team’s that I feel are already in. You’ll probably notice some high-profile absentees, but we’ll get to that later. And teams that have already secured automatic bids are mixed in here too.
ACC (2): Duke, Maryland
Atlantic Sun (1): East Tennessee State
Atlantic 10 (3): Temple, Xavier, Richmond
Big East (4): Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Villanova
Big South (1): Winthrop
Big 12 (4): Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, Texas A&M
Big Ten (4): Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan State, Wisconsin
Colonial (1): Old Dominion
Conference USA (1): UTEP
Horizon (1): Butler
Ivy (1): Cornell
MAAC (1): Siena
Missouri Valley (1): Northern Iowa
Mountain West (2): New Mexico, BYU
Ohio Valley (1): Murray State
Pac-10 (1): Cal
SEC (3): Kentucky, Vanderbilt,Tennessee
Southern (1): Wofford
Summit (1): Oakland
Sun Belt (1): North Texas
West Coast (2): St. Mary’s, Gonzaga
Later in the week, 10 more automatic bids from one-bid leagues will be up for grabs not represented in the list above. Those conferences are the America East, Big Sky, Big West, MAC, MEAC, NEC, Patriot, Southland, SWAC and WAC.
In total that brings my number of teams to 47. That means I’ve got 18 teams left to pick and to be honest it’s not easy. I’ve broken down the bubble in alphabetical order for you, and remember this is not a prediction of what I think will happen come Selection Sunday. This is merely one man’s opinion on how uninspiring most of these bubble teams’ resumes are.
And I’m told I have to hit 65 even though I really don’t want to.
Akron: (22-9, 12-4) The Zips need to win the MAC Tournament if they want to earn a trip to the Big Dance. Akron is 7-2 in its last nine games, but lost twice to league leaders Kent State and then bombed vs. VCU in its Bracket Buster matchup Feb. 20. The Zips don’t have any notable non-conference wins, losing both opportunities (Rhode Island on Jan. 5 and at Texas A&M on Dec. 4). Losing to Eastern Michigan, Austin Peay and ACC cellar dweller N.C. State didn’t help the Zips’ at-large cause.
Arizona State: (22-9, 12-6) This year is probably the worst the Pac-10 has been in its history. Just about every team either sucks or is the definition of mediocre. Arizona State falls into the latter category. The Sun Devils have only two wins versus Pac-10 teams with winning records in conference play, which I guess isn’t saying much, since most – if not all – of the conference sucks. But ASU is 8-2 in its last 10 games and thinks it can stake claim to a bid because, you know, there’s no way the Pac-10 just gets one bid, right? The Sun Devils had chances to enhance their resume in non-conference play but lost to BYU, Baylor and Duke. Arizona State’s marquee out of league win is against San Diego State, a bubble team itself.
Verdict: IN, BARELY
Clemson: (21-9, 9-7) Winners of six of its last nine, Clemson is praying a blown 23-point second half lead at home to Illinois in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge doesn’t come back to bite them in the ass. The Tigers boast just three wins versus the ACC’s top-six clubs, with two of those wins coming against Florida State. Not exactly gangbusters. Wins against Butler and Winthrop, two tournament teams will help, but per usual there’s really nothing too exciting about Clemson. Lucky for them, it’s a ridiculously weak year for bubble teams.
Florida: (20-11, 9-7) The Gators haven’t been back to the Big Dance since they won back-to-back national titles. And it might be another year wait after they’ve stumbled to the finish line. Florida is 3-5 in its last eight games and has just three wins against SEC teams with winning records in conference play (Tennessee, at Ole Miss and Mississippi State). The Gators are 1-5 versus the conference’s top three teams and despite starting the season 8-0, Florida struggled against quality non-conference competition losing to Xavier, Richmond and Syracuse. Beating in-state rival Florida State will help as will a three-point victory over Michigan State, but that was around Thanksgiving. What have you done for me lately Florida? Not much. If you’re trying to make the NCAA Tournament, you can’t lose to Georgia. And Florida did.
Florida State: (22-8, 10-6) The numbers look good on paper, but only two of the Seminoles’ conference wins have come against the ACC’s top five teams (a four-point win March 3 vs. Wake and a five-point win vs. Virginia Tech Jan. 16). FSU lost twice to Maryland and Clemson each and really couldn’t afford to lose to N.C. State like it did Jan. 12. Had the Noles dropped the regular season finale against last place Miami, a game they squeaked out by a solitary point, things could have gotten might sticky. It’s not often you think of a third place team in the ACC as a bubble team, but the conference is down and besides beating Marquette, FSU did nothing in non-conference play to distinguish itself.
Georgia Tech: (19-11, 7-9) OK, so the Yellow Jackets are talented. Big deal. They;ve lost six of their last nine games and Georgia Tech’s last three wins weren’te xactly against the upper echelon of a struggling conference (N.C. State, 5-11; Boston College, 6-10; and UNC, 5-11). The Jackets’ best non-conference win came against USC, who finished under .500 in the woeful Pac-10. Dayton beat Tech, and if I don’t have the Flyers in, I can’t in good conscious put the Wrambling Wreck in.
Verdict: WAY OUT
Georgetown: (20-9, 10-8) The Hoyas are 4-5 in their last nine and have just three wins versus Big East teams with a winning conference records (Villanova, at Pitt and at Louisville). An earlier season loss to Old Dominion doesn’t look so bad now that the Monarchs have won the Colonial, and if Georgetown makes the tournament it will be on the strength of its non-conference wins, beating the likes of Duke, Butler, Temple and Washington.
Illinois: (18-13, 10-8) Illinois isn’t doing itself any favors by losing five of its last six. The Fighting Illini have just two wins against teams with winning records in Big 10 play, but they’re big ones, and they both came within a four-day span. First, the Illini knocked off Michigan State Feb. 6, before doing the near impossible, winning at Wisconsin Feb. 9. Nobody wins in Madison besides the Badgers. So that was a hefty feather in Illinois’ cap, as is wins against Vanderbilt (Dec. 8) and an improbable come-from-behind victory at Clemson (Dec. 2). But the Illini have really put themselves in a bind lately and it just gives the Committee more reason to focus on early season losses to the likes of Georgia, Utah and Bradley, none of whom are really any good.
Verdict: BARELY IN
Kent State: (23-8, 13-3) The Flashes really just need to win the MAC Tournament to be safe. It’s always going to be hard to get an at-large bid from a mid-major such as the MAC despite going 13-1 in their last 14 games. Kent State lost to a decent Northeastern and to Pitt, Xavier and South Florida on the road. The Flashes needed to win at least two of those games to keep the Committee’s attention, and they didn’t. A win against UAB is good and all, but losses to Buffalo and Wisconsin-Green Bay sting. Kent State will always have a soft spot in my heart as I fondly remember their trip to the Elite Eight in 2002 because my beloved Indiana Hoosiers absolutely bombarded them with 3-pointers (IU hit 7-of-7 from behind the arc in the game’s first 10 minutes all but sealing the game from the jump.)
Verdict: IN ONLY IF IT WINS MAC
Louisville: (20-11, 11-7) I hate it that Louisville has basically built an entire resume on the strength of just two games. Apparently, Rick Pitino knows how to break through the Syracuse zone and no one else does, as the Cardinals knocked off the Orange twice this year, including a must-win last week in the finale at Freedom Hall. But other than the wins versus Syracuse, Louisville has just one more against a Big East team with a winning record (Notre Dame in overtime at home). The Cardinals’ most notable non-conference win is their season opener against a below average Arkansas team. A 19-point loss to St. John’s and 22-point defeat to Charlotte looks awful on the resume. As does a Dec. 12 loss to Western Carolina. Fellow bubble team UNLV also beat Louisville. Pitino said as long as Joe Lunardi has the Cardinals in his bracket, he feels safe. Well unfortunately for Slick Rick, I ain’t Joe.
Verdict: PAINS ME TO DO IT, BUT IN
Marquette: (20-10, 11-7) Very little separates Marquette from its opponents as evidenced by four of the Golden Eagles’ last five games going to overtime. And seeing as three of those came against the likes of St. John’s, Seton Hall and Cincy (none above .500 in conference), I’m skeptical. In all, Marquette has just two wins against teams in the Big East with a winning conference record (Georgetown, Jan. 6 and Louisville March 2). Being the only Big East team to lose to DePaul in two years is downright debilitating as is a loss to ACC garbage N.C. State. A non-conference win against Xavier looks good on paper, but it happened around Thanksgiving. That’s a long, long time ago.
Verdict: MY LAST TEAM IN
Marshall: (23-8, 11-5) Marshall probably has the best player no one has seen in freshman big man Hassan Whiteside, a projected lottery pick in next year’s NBA Draft. The Thundering Herd has won eight of their last nine, but a five-game skid from Jan. 20-Feb. 3 will be the team’s undoing. Marshall had a chance at least to raise a few eyebrows against North Carolina, Old Dominion and West Virginia, but alas lost all three.
Memphis: (23-8, 13-3) Not finishing atop Conference USA is something new for Tigers’ fans, something they won’t have to get used to with a stud recruiting class coming in. But it doesn’t bode well for 2010. Memphis has won seven of its last eight, but wasn’t able to pick up a marquee non-conference win. However, it wasn’t for lack of trying. The Tigers scheduled Gonzaga, Tennessee, Syracuse and Kansas, but failed to win any of those contests. They beat UAB twice, but lost their only meeting to C-USA regular season champs UTEP. When your best non-conference win is against Summit League champs Oakland and you play in a weak conference yourself, you’re in trouble. Losses at Houston, SMU and UMass won’t help either.
Minnesota: (18-12, 9-9) The Gophers are 5-4 in their last nine, and they are in danger of snapping Tubby Smith’s impressive streak of 16 straight 20-win seasons. Minnesota really needed to take advantage of Robbie Hummel’s injury when the Purdue forward went down in the first half of their XX matchup. The Gophers eventually lost by one. An overtime loss to Northwestern also stings, as does two defeats to Michigan, including an inexplicable blowout loss last week. Minnesota still picked up decent wins against Wisconsin (by 16 points), versus Butler and at Illinois, but they have work to do in the Big Ten Tournament if they want to go dancing.
Mississippi State: (21-10, 9-7) The Bulldogs are 5-5 in their last 10 and only have two wins versus SEC teams with winning records in conference play (both vs. Ole Miss). They did manage to take Kentucky to overtime Feb. 16, but lost. A win in that game would have been nice, but alas they fell short. Mississippi State also lost to Atlantic 10 bubble contender Richmond, a team I have in the field. When your best non-conference wins are against Old Dominion (Nov. 28) and Wright State (Dec. 16), you’re in trouble. They did beat UCLA and DePaul, but so did pretty much everyone else. Losses to Western Kentucky, Auburn, Arkansas, Alabama and Rider don’t do the Bulldogs any favors.
Missouri: (22-9, 10-6) I thought I’d like Mizzou’s resume more than I do. The Tigers have just one win versus the Big 12′s top-four (a Jan. 9 home win against Kansas State). Missouri’s best non-conference win was in the Bragging Rights showdown between Illinois, another bubble team. A 1-point loss on the road to Oral Roberts could haunt Missouri as might a Jan. 16 loss to a poor Oklahoma team. A few wins in the Big 12 Tournament are a must if Missouri wants to avoid landing in the NIT.
Notre Dame: (21-10, 10-8) Getting Luke Harangody back will do the Irish a world of good, and unlike their other Big East bubble buddies, at least the Irish have proven adept at beating more than one good opponent. Notre Dame has four wins against teams with winning records in Big East play (an overtime win at Marquette, at Georgetown and home wins vs. Pitt and West Virginia). The Irish’s Thanksgiving holiday tournament play is a wash, beating bubble team St. Louis, but losing to Northwestern.
Oklahoma State: (21-9, 9-7) An uninspiring non-conference slate could hurt the Cowboys (most notable wins versus sub-standard Stanford and Utah teams), but Oklahoma State managed to finish the regular season 5-2 in its last seven including win against Kansas and Baylor. Add in a road win at Kansas State on Jan. 23, and the Cowpokes resume has some legs. Oklahoma State’s bugaboo is its play on the road as six of the team’s last seven losses have come away from Gallagher-Iba Arena. And then there’s the 21-point loss to Tulsa Dec. 2. But as I’ve stated time and time again, it’s a weak bubble year, and someone’s got to go dancing.
Ole Miss: (21-9, 9-7) The Rebels went 0-6 against SEC teams an above .500 conference record, meaning they beat up the dregs of a mediocre league. They do have some nice non-conference wins, beating UTEP in overtime Dec. 16 at home and knocking off Kansas State real early in the season (Nov. 20), but there’s just not enough on the resume to warrant selection. Perhaps a win versus West Virginia or Villanova might have changed things, but the Rebels couldn’t pull of the upsets.
Saint Louis: (20-10, 11-5) Winners of seven of their last nine, the young Billikens might sneak into the field of 65. Their last two losses came against the A-10′s elite, a two-point loss to Xavier and a six-point loss to Temple. Saint Louis’s other two most recent losses were road overtime defeats at George Washington and at Charlotte in January. Now, they’ve got some bad non-conference losses, losing to the likes of Bowling Green, Missouri State, Georgia and Iowa State, but the strength (or the perceived strength) of the A-10 should help Saint Louis. However, we cannot confirm whether or not the rumor that Rick Majerus will go on a hunger strike if the Billikens aren’t selected is true or not. Restaurants across the Midwest pray it’s not.
San Diego State: (22-8, 11-5) How many bids does the Mountain West get? We all know BYU and New Mexico are locks, but San Diego State is hoping to slip in. The Aztecs are 8-2 in their last 10, split their regular season series with the Lobos and beat fellow Mountain West bubble team UNLV. But SDSU lost twice to BYU, and struggled against quality non-conference opponents, losing to St. Mary’s, Arizona State and Pacific. Playing in the Aztecs favor is the fact they really only have one bad loss, a two-point defeat at Wyoming Jan. 9.
Seton Hall: (19-11, 9-9) The Pirates are 7-2 in their last nine after Tuesday night’s track meet in the opening round of the Big East Tournament. But two wins each versus Providence and Rutgers (a combined 9-27 in Big East play) doesn’t really do it for me.) Add a win against 1-17 DePaul and I’m really not impressed. Seton Hall has just two wins versus teams Big East teams with winning conference records (Louisville Jan. 21 and Pitt Jan. 24). Personally I don’t think any team that finishes with a .500 or lower record in conference play should ever be considered for NCAA Tournament play, I don’t care how massive your conference is. Out of the league, the Hall’s best win is against Ivy League champ and sleeper favorite Cornell. But is that really good enough?
South Florida: (20-11, 9-9) Dominique Jones is fun to watch and all, but like I just pointed out with Seton Hall, if you finish .500 in your conference, you’re better suited for the NIT. The Bulls have just two wins against Big East teams with winning conference records (at Georgetown Feb. 3, vs. Pitt Jan. 31). A Thanksgiving time win against Kent State serves as South Florida’s most notable non-conference victory. Not exactly ideal. Throw in losses to Central Michigan, South Carolina and St. John’s and we’ve got problems.
Texas: (23-8, 9-7) I know what you’re thinking, “This kid is freaking off his rocker if he thinks a team ranked No. 1 midway through the season is on the bubble.” Well the Longhorns haven’t been very good as of late. In fact, they haven’t even been mildly good. Texas is 6-8 in its last 14 games. The Longhorns are 1-6 against the Big 12′s top-five teams and are hanging their conference hat on two wins against Oklahoma State. In non-conference play, Texas beat Michigan State and Pitt, which is good and all, but that was before the turn of the new year. It’s a good thing Rick Barnes cares more about preparing his kids for the NBA rather than NCAA Tournament glory because if I was running the show, they’d be sitting at home.
UAB: (23-7, 11-5) I miss Mike Davis, I really do. He was fun to cover as a student journalist at Indiana and despite his failings as a coach, you won’t find a nicer man. That doesn’t change the fact that his Blazers are most likely NIT bound. UAB had a chance to enhance its resume with its last two games, and the Blazers blew it, losing close games to Conference USA’s top-two teams, UTEP and Memphis. Including Marshall, UAB went 0-5 against C-USA’s top squads. A win against Butler is good and all, but it’s not enough.
UConn: (17-15, 7-11) The fact that UConn was even considered a bubble team is a laughingstock. The Huskies finished the year four games under .500 in Big East play, yet some analysts said that if UConn had won a few games in conference tourney, they’d have a legitimate shot. Are you kidding me? They are 7-11 in a conference with teams like St. John’s, Rutgers, Providence and DePaul. They finished the regular season on a three-game losing streak, knowing they had to win those games. OK, so they beat West Virginia, Villanova and Texas. They also lost to Michigan and Providence. Talent-wise, the Huskies probably are among the best 65 teams, But so what. You still have to win games, and the Huskies didn’t do enough of that this year.
Verdict: DON’T WASTE MY TIME
UNLV: (23-7, 11-5) The Rebels started the season 12-1 and have won nine of their last 12. You’d think that would be good enough. UNLV split with the season series with BYU and New Mexico, the two teams above them in the Mountain West. Arizona and Lousiville are the top non-conference scalps for the Rebels, but losing twice to a bad Utah team and also dropping a game to USC is hard to overlook for a team from a non-power conference trying to snag an at-large bid. With most of the major conferences struggles, UNLV could slip into the tournament, and perhaps the Mountain West gets four teams into the Big Dance, but it’s going to be tight.
Virginia Tech: (23-7, 10-6) It seems every year Hokies coach Seth Greenberg bemoans the NCAA Selection Committee. And this year, if Virginia Tech doesn’t get in, he might have a legitimate beef if one solely looks at the team’s overall record. But upon closer inspection, there’s really not much to the 23 wins. OK, so the Hokies beat Wake by five (Feb. 16) and Clemson by 11 (Feb. 6), but I’ve got both of those schools on this bubble list too. So it’s not exactly beating Duke or Maryland, which they didn’t do. Virginia Tech’s non-conference wins don’t set my heart aflutter either. Penn State, Georgia and Iowa stink and Seton Hall, arguably the Hokies’ best non-league win, finished .500 in the Big East. If Greenberg is trashing his office late Sunday night it’s probably because his Hokies lost to Boston College, North Carolina and Miami (a combine 15-32 in ACC play).
Wake Forest: (19-9, 9-7) The record looks nice and all, but the Demon Deacons have lost four of their last five, including bad losses to North Carolina and N.C. State, both of whom are 5-11 in conference play. Wins against Maryland and Clemson provide substance as do overtime wins against tough Atlantic 10 foes Xavier (Jan. 3) and Richmond (Dec. 31). But a 1-point loss to last place Miami Jan. 9 is a definite blemish as is a 10-point defeat to William & Mary.
Washington: (21-9, 11-7) Have I mentioned how whack the Pac-10 is this year? Luckily for the Huskies, they are starting to play well at the right time of year winning, nine of their last 11 games. Washington has picked up wins against Cal, Arizona State and Arizona in conference, but also lost to the likes of USC (twice), UCLA and Oregon. Not good. The Huskies’ non-conference slate was also something of a mixed bag, beating Texas A&M, but losing to Texas Tech.