Bubble Watch: Saturday winners and losers

March, 3, 2013
3/03/13
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In addition to plenty of just-plain-great games -- Louisville's win at Syracuse, Marquette's big home win over Notre Dame, that amazing Duke-Miami thriller at Cameron Indoor Stadium -- Saturday was also filled with bubble action, from the start of the day to its finish.

That's typical, of course; this is the time of year when NCAA tournament at-large selection very rapidly shifts from the theoretical to the concrete. What isn't so typical is the level of carnage wrought on this Saturday, the sheer number of teams with bubble hopes that suffered losses -- some of them devastating.

How do I know Saturday was a bubble massacre? Your Tennessee Volunteers -- a new bubble entity this week after their victory over Florida -- managed to lose at Georgia (RPI: 142), 78-68, and, according to our own Joe Lunardi, moved into the bracket. Yeah. That happened.

That is one of the things worth remembering about the bubble, of course: It's all relative. We need to get to 68 teams somehow. And if everyone falls apart, maybe, in the end, no one does.

Here is your Saturday Bubble Watch update:

WINNERS

Creighton: For months, Creighton had no place in the bubble conversation. It was assumed, and not unfairly so, that the Bluejays and star forward Doug McDermott would rather effortlessly coast through Missouri Valley Conference play, maybe suffer an upset or two, and not have to worry much or at all about locking up an at-large bid in case Arch Madness proves to be exactly that.

And then things came apart. Creighton dropped a game at Drake. McDermott's scoring dried up in a hard fall at Indiana State, which was followed by a close home loss to Illinois State and a 61-54 upset at Northern Iowa. The Bluejays barely got past Evansville -- a fourth straight loss would have started a major panic -- and last Saturday's trip to Moraga, Calif., for a BracketBusters matchup with Saint Mary's didn't go so well, either. All of a sudden, Creighton, a lock in our Bubble Watch since the month-old first edition, was at semi-serious risk of missing the NCAA tournament.

Its fans can breathe easier now. McDermott's 15-of-18 shooting, 41-point masterpiece led the Bluejays to a 91-79 win over Wichita State -- another surefire tournament team in its own right -- Saturday afternoon. If there was any doubt in the selection committee's mind, having your All-American reclaim his status with a Bill Walton-esque shooting performance over the best competition your league has to offer should just about shore everything up. Finally.

Boise State: Boise State will be just as thrilled about the aforementioned Bluejays' big win -- all season, Boise State's best bubble credential has been its surprising late-November win at Creighton. That win looks much better now.

But Boise State should mostly thank itself, and by "itself," I mean Derrick Marks. Marks had a McDermott-like day: 38 points on 13 of 18 from the field with 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals. Most important is he did it in a 78-65 win over Colorado State, a top-20 RPI team and a very good one to boot. (It's worth making a distinction, as teams ranked in the top 20 in the RPI aren't always actually good, but CSU definitely is.) Marks put his team on his back, to steal a phrase from that awesome Marshawn Lynch YouTube video, and the combination of a win over Colorado State and Creighton's big win will put Boise back into the serious at-large conversation -- the fifth team from the nine-team Mountain West to deserve such talk.

Oklahoma: The Sooners snuck up on us this season. It's OK to admit it: No one really expected much in Lon Kruger's second year in Norman, and if there was any expectation at all, it was to keep getting better and maybe surprise a few people in an otherwise-down Big 12. But Kruger's group of unheralded, workmanlike guys has done much more than that. By now, the Sooners have all but locked up an NCAA tournament bid. Sure, sure: There was that loss at Texas earlier in the week, but Oklahoma's convincing win over bubble-stuck Iowa State on Saturday was huge, and the Sooners' computer numbers -- a No. 29 RPI, a No. 9-ranked SOS, a No. 28 nonconference schedule figure -- and big wins over Kansas and Oklahoma State make them impossible to ignore. They have West Virginia and TCU left. If they handle business, they're in.

Massachusetts: It is worth noting, of course, that even after beating Memphis at home this week, Xavier's RPI is still just No. 87. It is also worth noting that the Minutemen's only top-50 win came at La Salle, which, while a decent team, is nobody's idea of a season-defining power. But even after noting all that, we should also note that UMass won at Xavier on Saturday, something the touted Memphis Tigers were unable to do just a few days prior. That definitely counts for something. With a home game against Butler next on the docket, Derek Kellogg's team still has time to make some noise — or at least reverse the damage of last week's loss at St. Bonaventure.

Arkansas: So, what's a home win over Kentucky worth these days, anyway? It's a good question: The Wildcats beat Missouri in their own building just seven days ago, but that's their only top-50 win of the season, and it's safe to say the selection committee won't hold John Calipari's team in vaunted regard with injured forward Nerlens Noel out. So it's hard to know how much this victory can aid Arkansas' late push toward the bubble finish line. But I do know this: It can't hurt. On a day when so much of the rest of the bubble, particularly the SEC versions, seemed intent on imploding, a win over a fellow bubble team counts as a totally positive development. (A win at Missouri on Tuesday would be even better.)

California: Hey, remember when Cal was kind of bad? It happened this season, I swear it did -- it was just Dec. 29 when a depleted Harvard toppled the Bears in Berkeley, after all. You can be forgiven if you don't quite remember, because it hasn't been the case for weeks. On Saturday, Cal rattled off its seventh consecutive win, a 62-46 destruction of visiting Colorado. This stretch began with a win at Arizona and included a home victory over UCLA and a win at Oregon. With no bad losses weighing them down, I'm not sure how the Bears could miss out on the tournament now.

UCLA: The Bruins completed their season sweep of Arizona Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion. UCLA wasn't really on the bubble -- not like some of these other poor, desperate souls -- but even so, it's safe to say sweeping the Wildcats makes you a lock. This file is officially closed.

LOSERS

Kentucky, Tennessee, and — gulp — Ole Miss: Does anyone from the SEC actually want to go to the NCAA tournament? Is everybody already thinking about spring football? What on Earth is going on?

We talked about Kentucky in the Arkansas blurb; the Wildcats remain one of the more intriguing at-large cases for the committee to handle, but I'm not sure their status as a just-above-the-bubble squad was totally damaged by a loss at Arkansas. And Tennessee, as we mentioned in the intro, managed to lose at Georgia and still move into the bracket. Wait, what? Huh? How does that happen?

[+] EnlargeAndy Kennedy
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsAndy Kennedy has seen Ole Miss turn a 17-2 start into a 21-8 mark after Saturday's ugly loss.
The answer brings us to Ole Miss.

On Saturday, Ole Miss lost to Mississippi State. It's a little bit difficult to explain how bad this loss is without sounding a little bit mean to the Bulldogs, but I don't live in the South, so I don't have to couch my insults with the written equivalent of "Bless your heart": Mississippi State is horrible. Awful. The Bulldogs were riding a 13-game losing streak, to no real fault of theirs or their coach's, as -- thanks to injuries and being at the start of a rebuilding process -- Rick Ray has just seven scholarship players at his command this season. Mississippi State's RPI is No. 236. It began Saturday ranked No. 277 in the KenPom.com efficiency rankings, just one spot below mighty Samford. Many fans believe this to be not only the worst Mississippi State team, but the worst Southeastern Conference team of all time.

That team beat Ole Miss on March 2.

Not only is it a disaster for the Rebels, who have lost in recent weeks at Texas A&M and South Carolina and have turned a 17-2 start into a 21-8 mess, it's also a disaster for coach Andy Kennedy, who began the season on the proverbial hot seat and needed this Ole Miss team to be the redeemed group that got back to the NCAA tournament. It looks less likely than ever that is going to happen. And why? Mississippi State. It doesn't get much worse than that.

Arizona State: Speaking of stalled redemption songs, it's been hard to not root this season for the Sun Devils, who soaked up freshman point guard Jahii Carson's dynamic skill like a sponge en route to a very legitimate spot in the at-large conversation, a far cry from the depths of the let's-just-pretend-it-never-happened 2012 campaign. But Herb Sendek's team appears to be fading a bit late: It fell at home to Washington last Saturday, missed a close one at UCLA on Thursday, and suffered an absolutely brutal 57-56 loss at USC on Saturday. The Washington loss was easily the worst, but because USC began the season so poorly (before it fired coach Kevin O'Neill), a one-point loss looks worse for bubble purposes than it actually is (as USC has been playing really good basketball for about a month). Just tough breaks here.

St. John's: This week, the Red Storm suspended D'Angelo Harrison, one of its most gifted and frustrating players. Whether that departure can be blamed for Saturday's loss is questionable; what I do know is a loss at Providence for a team with an already very shaky bubble case is not a good thing. You probably know that, too. Failing two wins in its final two regular-season games -- at Notre Dame, versus Marquette, good luck -- Steve Lavin's team may well miss the tournament.

Iowa State: Poor Cyclones. Really. Sure, Saturday's 86-69 loss at Oklahoma was ugly on the score line, but a) Oklahoma's good, and b) can you really blame Iowa State? After what happened in Hilton Coliseum this week? Being on the receiving end of one of the worst calls of the season -- in a sport that feels ever more infected by awful officiating -- hurts. Not beating Kansas when you should following an emotionally intense performance. Seeing Fred Hoiberg's young child crying on the sideline hurts. Of course, no one in that locker room will be throwing a pity party, nor should they: Iowa State still has a very good chance of getting into the Dance. But the Wednesday home game against Oklahoma State looms large.

Indiana State: Ah, Sycamores. You thrilled us with your win over Miami at the Diamond Head Classic; you dazzled us with victories at Wichita State and against Creighton. Unfortunately, you've now lost five of your past six, including Saturday's loss at Evansville (RPI: 100) and defeats to Missouri State (RPI: 212), Bradley (RPI: 171) and Drake (RPI: 131). Failing a deep run in Arch Madness, the dream appears to be over.

Akron: Before Saturday's shocking loss at Buffalo, a 12-17 team with an RPI of 241, Akron's last loss came on Dec. 15. Hopefully the committee takes that into account, because this really is a good team. But the margin for error for mid-majors like Akron is always razor-thin. You can't lose random league games to bad opponents, and when you do, you should probably pick a team that isn't Buffalo. It'll be really interesting to see how this résumé will be viewed going forward.

SURVIVORS

Temple: Temple had just regained its footing. The Owls had a rough, wild February, wherein they played five consecutive one-point games in conference play, a stretch that included a home loss to Duquesne. But things were looking up: A win at UMass, a home non-one-point-win over La Salle, a double-digit win at Charlotte, and Thursday's solid home victory over Detroit all injected a little life into an at-large profile that included a big win over Syracuse, a nice win over Saint Louis, and not much else. And surely the Owls would take care of things at home against Rhode Island on Saturday, right? Wait … right?

Right. Phew. Temple held on for a 76-70 victory over a Rhode Island team that has played a lot of its Atlantic 10 foes really tight in the past two months; shaking the Rams off is no easy feat. (Just ask Saint Louis, which last lost when Rhody upset the Billikens in Saint Louis. True story.) That Temple was able to do so must have elicited a major sigh of relief from fans, and coach Fran Dunphy, and not necessarily in that order.

Cincinnati: It's hard to say Cincinnati would have been in bubble trouble with a home loss to Connecticut on Saturday, but our eyebrows would have been ever so slightly raised. It would have been Cincinnati's fourth straight loss, after all, albeit to three solid-to-great (UConn, Notre Dame, Georgetown) Big East teams. The Bearcats held on for a five-point win over Kevin Ollie's scrappy guys, and there's little reason to raise eyebrows now.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Alabama: When you're a bubble team in the SEC -- oh god, here we go again -- you don't get many opportunities for marquee wins. Missouri is decent but not great, whether in the RPI or otherwise. Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Ole Miss don't come anywhere close. (Obviously.) Really, your only opportunity to drastically change the perception of your team or the trajectory of your season -- or both -- is to beat Florida. Florida's really good. If you can knock the Gators off, you deserve to be viewed differently. If you can do it at Florida? You should probably get into the NCAA tournament on sheer principle, which is why Alabama's 12-point loss in Gainesville on Saturday, while expected, is still a missed opportunity: Shockingly enough, the Crimson Tide had Florida well within striking distance as late as the final two minutes of regulation. That final score is a mirage; this game was close, and Alabama just couldn't quite get there when it counted.

Baylor: It's been easy to poke fun at Baylor this season. The Bears play a wacky zone defense. They've probably underachieved. Those uniforms. Etc. But I refuse to make fun of Baylor after Saturday's absolutely brutal last-second loss. It would be easier than ever. The Bears did inbound the ball out of bounds over the the full length of the court without touching it with one second left, and then allowed Rodney McGruder to get free and fire a game-winning 3-pointer within that one second on the ensuing baseline out-of-bounds play. That's a borderline-comical way to lose. But it's also incredibly brutal.

That is, of course, in part because Baylor desperately needed a big win to buttress its bubble case; the Bears are directly atop the bubble right now, and the biggest flaw in their résumé is their lack of marquee wins. The visit from Kansas State was a plum opportunity to knock off a really good team with a really good résumé, and Baylor was just that close.

"Ouch" doesn't even begin to describe it.

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