How the weekend changed life for 18 NCAA tourney bubble teams

Butler really needed a win it didn't get Saturday against Xavier.

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INDIANAPOLIS – I spent a couple days last week at NCAA headquarters going through the annual mock NCAA tournament selection process, so naturally every game I watched this past weekend was filtered through my NCAA-tournament-projecting lens, with special attention to the bubble teams.

Pretty soon, the closer we get to Selection Sunday – less than four weeks away! – you’ll be wearing that same filter.

Saturday’s Butler game against fifth-ranked Xavier felt like a good place to start. After all, the Bulldogs were the very last team into the field in my colleague Stewart Mandel’s most recent bracket projection. A team that was ranked in the top 10 at the new year has stuttered its way through Big East play, its 6-6 conference record belying the fact that four of those conference wins came over St. John’s and DePaul, the bottom two teams in the Big East. A win at Hinkle Fieldhouse Saturday over a deep, talented Xavier team that is absolutely Final Four-capable would go a long way to quell any doubts about the Bulldogs’ worthiness to get that at-large bid. I figured that former Butler head coach Brad Stevens, home from the Boston Celtics for All-Star break and sitting in the stands to cheer on his former team, might provide the needed inspiration.

Alas, it was not meant to be. A Xavier team that made one of 21 threes its last time out made half of its 18 attempts against Butler. That wasn’t the only reason Butler lost, but it was enough. A bubble team needs good wins; that’s the bottom line with the NCAA tournament selection committee. And there are only so many opportunities left.

Now the Bulldogs are looking toward the final four weeks of the season with exactly two wins against top-50 RPI teams (Purdue and Seton Hall) and only one regular-season top-50 RPI game left (at Villanova – good luck with that). The opportunities have dwindled, the bubble has begun to feel precarious, and you could hear it in head coach Chris Holtmann’s voice after Saturday’s game.

“It’s disappointing,” Holtmann said. “Certainly we have our work ahead of us.”

Precarious is one way to describe life on the NCAA tournament bubble. You could also call it ulcer-inducing. Or unfair. Or sometimes just a little bit silly. These teams are constantly worrying about not only themselves but the teams on the bubble with them.

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Butler caught a break over the weekend, when Seton Hall slipped back into the top 50 in the RPI rankings without even playing a game. That meant Butler got one more top-50 win on its resume despite losing to Xavier. The RPI is only one of six metrics the NCAA tournament selection committee uses to pick the at-large teams, but it may be the most important one, and so a tiny disruption in the RPI force could mean a disproportionately large shift in a bubble team’s NCAA tournament hopes.

Let me assure you: I had no shortage of texts from bubble team coaches over the weekend, worrying about the results of our mock tournament selection committee’s meeting. And that was a pretend selection process, a month before the actual selection committee meets!

All around the country this weekend, bubble teams lived this tenuous existence, celebrating a good win or lamenting a missed opportunity.

LSU got a good win over the weekend, and now it feels like its wobbly NCAA tournament resume – which was always skewed by the early-season asterisks of injured Keith Hornsby and transfer Craig Victor having to sit out a number of games that turned into losses – looks good enough to warrant a bid. At least, that’s what I assumed after looking at some of the bracket projections and taking a quick look at LSU’s resume. Then I peaked at the Tigers’ current RPI. It’s 72. That would be the lowest RPI ever to make the NCAA tournament as an at-large selection.

UCLA on Friday night missed one of the few big opportunities it had left, dropping a hard-fought road game to Arizona. A loss at Arizona State on Sunday night might have put an absolute dagger in UCLA’s at-large chances, but the Bruins left Tempe with a win.

Vanderbilt remains a flummoxing bunch. Yes, the Commodores beat Auburn on the road Saturday, which is something Kentucky couldn’t do. But plenty of folks thought this team had the talent to win the SEC, and it is sitting at 15-10 with an RPI of 57.

Washington’s flimsy NCAA tournament resume took a hit Saturday when the Huskies lost a heartbreaker at Colorado. There was a surprising amount of support for the 15-10 Huskies at the mock selection process, mostly due to the RPI’s outsized love this season for Pac-12 teams. I don’t see it, though. This is a team that’s 61st in RPI and 72nd in KenPom and without any great wins. Barring some big-time victories (games against Cal and Oregon remain), I think this team will need a run deep into the Pac-12 tournament to make the tournament.

Cincinnati avoided a resume-killing loss when the Bearcats easily handled East Carolina at home. Mick Cronin’s squad is a bit of a conundrum: It’s ranked 27th in KenPom but 62nd in RPI. This is one of the many difficulties of having six metrics available: You can often pick whichever one you’d like to boost whatever argument you want to make. A couple big games loom for Cincinnati: UConn and SMU, both at home.

Bronson Koenig and Wisconsin got the biggest bubble team win of the weekend when they knocked off second-ranked Maryland.

Wisconsin got an enormous win, beating Maryland on the road to continue a seven-game winning streak. Barring some bad losses, it feels like Wisconsin is heading toward the tourney. It’s too early to put any bubble team in there as a lock, but the Badgers got the most important win of the weekend.

Texas Tech’s win was almost as big as Wisconsin’s. Blowing out a Top-25 team on the road (Baylor) was a statement that Tubby Smith’s team is legit, especially coming on the heels of its upset of Iowa State. This solid defensive group has a prime opportunity for an enormous win when Oklahoma visits Lubbock this week.

St. Joe’s just kept on rolling with a blowout win over La Salle. Phil Martelli’s squad may not have a signature win – its best RPI victory is over Princeton – but a 21-4 record speaks for itself. An enormous opportunity comes this week when Dayton visits Philly.

Kansas State lost in overtime to Oklahoma State. Bruce Weber’s team has been solid this year, but losing to a team ranked 145th in RPI won’t help a tourney case that still has a lot more to prove. That’s K-State’s first loss to a team outside the top 100 in RPI, but the Wildcats still need a couple more prove-it wins. A brutal three-game stretch – home against Kansas and Texas then at Iowa State – will provide opportunities.

Clemson, a team with a bizarre resume (wins over Louisville, Duke and Miami; losses to UMass and Minnesota), handled Georgia Tech. Clemson’s goal the rest of the way ought to be to avoid bad losses, as only one regular-season game remains against a likely NCAA tournament team (Virginia).

Michigan came back to beat Purdue – a huge win for a team whose resume had a big asterisk next to it because star player Caris Levert had missed a bunch of games. This is the type of clincher win that means Michigan ought to make it into the tournament with ease, assuming it doesn’t suffer a bad loss or two.

Syracuse easily dispatched a Boston College team that it could not afford to lose to. And that came a few days after handling another bubble team, Florida State, at home on Thursday.

Florida State will need to keep looking for a big win after Miami held off the Seminoles’ comeback.

Florida State nearly got exactly what it needed: a big-time win over Miami, a team ranked in the top 10 in the RPI. But the Noles’ furious comeback fell just short, and life sitting directly on the bubble will continue.

Cal had one of the best weeks of all the bubble teams, beating likely NCAA tournament teams Oregon and Oregon State. The problem, and a problem the selection committee will note: Only one of the Golden Bears’ 17 victories has been away from home (against Wyoming in December). Cal is 1-9 in road games and neutral-court games. If the NCAA tournament were held at Haas Pavilion, you could just pencil Cal in as your national champion.

Creighton is quietly building a case that it should be part of the field. There is a huge disparity in Creighton’s metrics – the Bluejays are 80th in RPI but 42nd in KenPom – but a Saturday win at Marquette can only help Greg McDermott’s 17-9 team. The Bluejays are in that bizarre RPI-induced position of having to hope that Seton Hall and Butler win some games so that Seton Hall stays an top-50 RPI win for Creighton and Butler becomes one. The final two games on Creighton’s regular-season schedule – at Providence and at Xavier — could be a referendum on whether this team vaults into the NCAA tournament conversation.

Alabama got its second good win in a row, beating Florida on the road days after beating a suddenly foundering Texas A&M team. Alabama doesn’t scream tourney team to me, but there are some pretty decent wins on that resume: Notre Dame, Wichita State, Clemson and South Carolina. The Tide have won five of their last six.

And finally, Valparaiso, is an excellent mid-major squad I had stumped for in the mock selection process. After watching Butler miss an opportunity to solidify its case against Xavier, I drove 2½ hours north to see a team I believe could be one of this season’s sneakiest heading into the NCAA tournament, a team with a chance at becoming a Cinderella – if it gets in. The Crusaders are ranked 29th in KenPom and have the nation’s second-ranked defense – an amoeba-like zone that frequently traps opponents into turnovers.

I like this team – I like this team a lot – but RPI does not, ranking the Crusaders 66th. And apparently I’m a curse for bubble teams. Valpo blew a six-point lead on Wright State with a bit over a minute left, and a tip-in with one second remaining might have blown an too-big hole in Valpo’s NCAA at-large resume. I worry this team could become like Murray State last season: a talented bunch that ought to be in the NCAA field but because of the vagaries of being a mid-major school will need to win its conference tournament to get there.

Bryce Drew’s Valparaiso team could end up getting hurt by its mid-major label.

After the upset loss, everyone’s mind was on the bubble: Not just my mind, and not just Valpo coach Bryce Drew’s mind but even the mind of the coach who’d just beaten Valpo.

Wright State head coach Billy Donlon was fired up at the post-game press conference. He gave one of the most spirited defenses of an opponent’s NCAA tournament worthiness that I’ve ever heard.

“Valpo’s an at-large team – I don’t care what anybody says,” Donlon said, nearly shouting. “If this team played in the ACC they would finish in the top half and get an at-large. People pick whatever metrics they want. Let me tell you – that team will wins games in the NCAA tournament. They’re every bit as good as the Butler teams (that went to the Final Four out of the Horizon League). They’re right there.”

This is part of the unfairness of being a mid-major team on the bubble. The scales are weighted against you. You have to get good wins to prove your worth, but you have only a handful of chances at those good wins in non-conference play.

“It’s pick-a-metric in the NCAA tournament,” Donlon said. “It’s the haves versus the so-called have-nots.” It’ll be an absolute travesty, whatever happens, if these guys don’t make the NCAA tournament.”

I’m sure plenty of coaches of bubble teams feel the same way about their own squad.

And now there are four weeks left. So state your cases, bubble teams. It’s time to prove your worth.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.