There were a few smaller conference upsets that limited the number of at-large bids the larger conferences usually dominate.
Many of the teams on the “bubble” are perennial favorites, like Kentucky who want to defend their title. A few newcomers are also on the bubble, like La Salle who haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1992.
Which current bubble teams are safe to receive at-large bids and which teams still have work to do?
Minnesota Golden Gophers (20-11) – Minnesota had the second toughest strength of schedule in the entire country. They were ranked as high as #5 early in the season, but fell out of the top-25 at the beginning of their Big Ten schedule. They have struggled mightily with bad losses to Nebraska and Purdue, but I still think the Big Ten is strong enough to get most of their bubble teams into the tournament. The Golden Gophers are a team that could either go out very early or mess up everyone’s bracket and go deep into the tournament. This team has been one of the most inconsistent teams in the country.
Illinois Fighting Illini (21-11) – I feel the Illini are in better than that Minnesota. They have marquee wins over Butler, Indiana, Ohio State and Minnesota. The only bad loss they had came in-conference to Purdue. I hope Illinois win a few games in the Big Ten tournament for one selfish reason, I want to see Brandon Paul. The senior is only expected to be drafted in the second round of this year’s 2013 NBA Draft, at best, but he’s fun to watch.
Iowa State Cyclones (21-10) – The Cyclones are in good shape at the moment. They have marquee against Kansas State and Oklahoma State. They also took Kansas into overtime in both of their games this season. They didn’t leave the winner in either game, but the committee could look at those games in a positive way. The only way Iowa State can drop out of the tournament if they lose to Oklahoma in the first round of the Big 12 conference tournament.
California Golden Bears (20-10) – The Bears are one of the hottest teams in the Pac-12 at the moment. They won eight of their last ten games, but had a messy altercation between coach Mike Montgomery and star Allen Crabbe. They have marquee wins against Oregon [twice] and at Arizona. I have them currently in line to get an at-large big and they could be a possible upset team if they make it. I like a team with leaders who are juniors or older. Leading scorers Justin Cobbs, Richard Solomon, and Crabbe are all juniors.
Kentucky Wildcats (21-10) – After losing Nerlens Noel to a season-ending ACL injury, many had written Kentucky off as an NIT team. Kentucky went into the season with a roster as talented as any other team in college basketball. Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress are potential Lottery picks in this year’s NBA Draft. They only have two marquee wins (Vanderbilt, Florida) and one bad loss (Georgia). They played the best teams in the country in their non-conference schedule, but didn’t end up with win against any of the marquee teams (Duke, Louisville). I have Kentucky currently in, but a first-round loss in the SEC tournament could burst their bubble.
Temple Owls (23-8) – I selfishly want to see Temple in the NCAA tournament to see Khalif Wyatt to end his college career on a high note. The Owls have two marquee wins against Syracuse and VCU on their resumé, but a bad loss against Duquesne makes their marquee wins less impressive. I currently have Temple in the field, but need at least one more win to completely ensure an at-large bid.
La Salle Explorers (21-8) – Pending any mid-major conference upsets, I have the Explorers barely in the NCAA Tournament field this season. Their wins against Butler and at VCU make a strong argument for an at-large bid. The one blemish (more like a gun shot wound), is their loss to Central Connecticut at home. The loss game in November, so hopefully the committee doesn’t factor such an early season loss against them as much. If the committee does put a limit on the number of Atlantic 10 teams to make the field, Temple has a better chance. You could easily talk me out of putting them in, but at this moment, I have them getting in.
Saint Mary’s Gaels (27-6) – I have the Gaels as one of the last two teams in the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga ran away with the West Coast Conference this season. St. Mary’s have given them fits in the past, but Gonzaga was too good this season. I have them in based on their RPI ranking (#33). Making it to the West Coast Conference finals and two wins against another bubble team (BYU) is what pushed them into the tournament field.
Virginia Cavaliers (21-10) – Virginia have seven losses to team outside the RPI top 100. I believe the only reason Virginia is included in the bubble talk is because they beat Duke two weeks ago. The Blue Devils were without Ryan Kelly and the committee will keep that in mind. They will need to beat a few teams in the ACC tournament to get an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Villanova Wildcats (19-12) – I have the Wildcats currently out of the NCAA tournament. They do have a few big wins against Syracuse and Georgetown, but they have losses to many of the teams on the bubble (Alabama, Providence [twice]. Temple, La Salle). They will need to upset a few teams in the Big East tournament to lock up an at-large bid.
Iowa Hawkeyes (20-11) – Iowa is the one Big Ten bubble team I don’t expect to make it into the NCAA Tournament. Unlike Minnesota and Illinois, the Hawkeyes lack a win they can hang their hat on. They lost to every ranked team in the Big Ten. They will need to make it to the Big Ten tournament final to even have a fighter’s chance at getting an at-large bid. I see them getting an NIT invite, but that’s it.
Oklahoma Sooners (20-10) – The Sooners were a vanilla 20-9 team heading into their last regular season game against TCU. Unfortunately, they left Fort Worth, Texas with a loss. TCU has an RPI of 226, so that could be the nail in the coffin for the Sooners. They do have one last shot at redeeming themselves. They play another Big 12 team on the bubble in the first round of their conference tournament. If they beat Iowa State, they will get in…but that’s a lot to ask of them. At the moment, I have the Sooners on the outside looking in.
Oregon Ducks (23-8) – The Ducks were a lock to make the NCAA Tournament at the beginning of February, but it all fell apart. They finished 5-6 with a few bad losses during that stretch. They need a marquee win in the Pac-12 conference tournament to make their case for an at-large bid.
Ole Miss Rebels (23-8) – As much as I want to see one of the best ‘white boys’ in college basketball, Marshall Henderson, to make the tournament, they are out. The Rebels only have one win against the RPI top-50. They need to at least make the semifinals in the SEC tournament to make a stronger argument for an at-large bid.
Tennessee Volunteers (19-11) – This one is hard. The Volts have marquee wins again Wichita State, Florida, Missouri and Kentucky, but lost twice to Georgia. For as many good wins they have on their schedule, they have a bad loss to cancel the win out. The SEC isn’t very good this year, so I have the Vols currently outside the NCAA Tournament field. The tiebreaker is Kentucky beating Tennessee. I only see the conference getting three teams in, but a fourth team could sneak in if the mid-major tournaments go as planned.
Alabama Crimson Tide (20-11) – Alabama is another team in a long line of vanilla teams in the SEC. You can’t make an argument for or against them. The only negative thing I could say about them is that their loss to Mercer sticks out like a sore thumb. They would need to leapfrog Ole Miss, Tennessee and Kentucky in order to receive an at-large bid.
Boise State Broncos (21-9) – The Mountain West is loaded this season. San Diego State, Colorado State, New Mexico and UNLV are expected to receive, at least, an at-large bid. It’s hard to imagine the conference getting five teams into the Dance, but if Boise State would beat UNLV on Thursday, we could see five teams from the Mountain West conference getting into the NCAA Tournament. That is more teams than I see coming from the SEC and Pac-12. Impressive.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (28-5) – It’s hard to make a case for MTSU to receive an at-large bid. The only argument once could make is that they beat nearly everyone they faced in-conference (19-1 record), but the Sun Belt is bad. They lost to Florida International in the conference tournament semifinals. I really want to see them in the tournament, but I doubt the Sun Belt will get two teams in the tournament field. The Blue Raiders are the most interesting team the committee will need to make a decision about.
Southern Miss Golden Eagles (23-8) – Southern Miss had balls this season. They decided to go on the road and play Arizona, Louisiana Tech, and Wichita State, but didn’t come out with a ‘W’ in any of those contest. A 23-8 record is very good, but they don’t have a single marquee win on their resumé. I see them being one of the top seeds in the NIT tournament. I hope they keep scheduling big non-conference games, but it will work in their favor at some point.