Dancing Dozen: What These 25 Teams Need to Do to Grab the Last 12 At-Large Bids.

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For 25 teams desperately wanting to play Cinderella this year, there are roughly 72 hours before the clock strikes midnight and their carriage turns into an NIT-bound pumpkin.

 

Before I bore you with the Bubble Math that everyone skips right past anyway, I’ll let you know that I will be eliminating 2-3 teams per day on twitter (@kerrancejames) until we’re left with the field of 68. I’ve been doing this since February 8th, and I’ve done this for each of the past two seasons, in each of which I ended up correctly predicting all but one team that made it into the tournament.

 

If you’re looking for a certain team and you can’t find them on this list, you can safely assume they are already a lock or have already been eliminated. If you’re not sure whether your team has been locked or eliminated, your time would be better spent re-evaluating their resume, but you could also ask me via comment or twitter.

 

There are 33 teams that I have already decided are locks to make the tournament. Eight of those teams should end up receiving the automatic berth by winning their conference tournament. Emphasis on “should.” For every Utah, Oklahoma, and Virginia that inexplicably wins their conference championship, another bubble bursts.

 

Assuming eight of those teams actually do win their conference tournament, 25 of the 37 at-large bids have already gone to teams that are considered locks. My spreadsheet indicates 25 teams left fighting for the last 12 at-large bids. Below, you’ll find what each of them needs to do in order to fit into a glass slipper.

 

 

Teams Who Just Need to Avoid Disaster:

 

UCLA

(22-9, 13-5 in Pac-10, 13-3 in last 16.)

Three Best Wins: Vs. BYU, vs. Arizona, vs. St. John’s.

Three Worst Losses: Vs. Montana, vs. Virginia Commonwealth, @ California.

 

Washington

(20-10, 11-7 in Pac-10, 5-6 in last 11.)

Three Best Wins: Vs. Arizona, swept UCLA, @ USC.

Three Worst Losses: Swept by Washington State, @ Oregon State, @ Oregon.

 

As was the case last year, the Pac-10 seems to have collectively limped its way into March. I think the Bruins are in great shape, and probably just need to show up against Oregon tonight in order to guarantee a tournament invite; something that looked extremely improbable when they started the season 3-4.

 

Washington has easily been one of the most enjoyable teams to watch this season, and it would be a crying shame if they were unable to play on the grand stage. They are one of the most fast-paced teams in the nation, but I’m willing to bet that a lot of my fellow east-coasters can only recall one highlight from a Washington game, and that’s the one with Derrick Williams swatting Darnell Grant’s last second shot into the 27th row. With a win over Washington State tonight (a game that will likely end at around 2:00 AM EST), the Huskies can rest assured that they will sneak into the field for a 2nd straight year. A loss will leave things severely up in the air, especially if Wazzu, USC, or Cal can make a deep run in this conference tourney, because it’s unlikely that the Pac-10 gets four bids this year, and Washington would be the odd man out.

 

 

Illinois

(19-12, 9-9 in Big 10, 6-9 in last 15.)

Three Best Wins: vs. Wisconsin, vs. North Carolina, @ Minnesota.

Three Worst Losses: vs. Illinois-Chicago, @ Indiana, @ Northwestern.

 

Michigan

(19-12, 9-9 in Big 10, 8-3 in last 11.)

Three Best Wins: @ Michigan State, @ Clemson, @ Minnesota.

Three Worst Losses: vs. UTEP, @ Indiana, @ Northwestern.

 

The Illini and Wolverines face off against each other in the 2nd round of the Big Ten tournament. Regardless of what you think of their resumes, in this particular season, I think we can all agree that the winner of that game will lock up a spot in the Big Dance while the loser likely sweats out Selection Sunday.

 

In my mind, Michigan needs this game way more than Illinois does. If fellow bubble teams Michigan State, Clemson, and Penn State  all fail to make the tournament, Michigan will end up having only one win over a tourney-bound team (Oakland)…maybe a 2nd one if Harvard beats Princeton on Saturday, but I think you get the point. The best thing about Michigan’s resume right now is that they’re actually winning games down the stretch, which not very many other teams on this watch can claim as fact.

 

Illinois has been struggling to say the least, but at least they can point to wins over highly touted teams like Wisconsin and North Carolina. That being said, I’m sure the committee won’t be too thrilled if they finish the season losing ten out of sixteen, and also have a HORRIBLE loss to Illinois-Chicago.

 

Nevertheless, the formula is simple for both of these teams: win one game and you’re in.

 

 

Richmond

(24-7, 13-3 in A-10, 11-2 in last 13.)

Three Best Wins: Vs. Purdue, vs. Virginia Commonwealth, @ Duquesne.

Three Worst Losses: Vs. Bucknell, @ Iona, vs. Georgia Tech.

 

Richmond has quietly put together a solid resume, and could almost assuredly even stomach a loss to Rhode Island on Friday on its way to the field of 68. Aside from that November win over Purdue, there isn’t too much meat in the wins category, but 13-3 in the A-10 is nothing to scoff at. If you ask me, they’re pretty much a lock to lose in the first round of the tournament, but they’re also pretty much a lock to get there.

 

Clemson

(20-10, 9-7 in ACC, 7-6 in last 13.)

Three Best Wins: Vs. Florida State, @ Miami, vs. Virginia Tech.

Three Worst Losses: @ Virginia, @ North Carolina State, vs. Michigan.

 

As mediocre as the middle of the pack may be, you know the ACC is going to send at least four teams to the tournament, and for the time being, Clemson holds that golden ticket. There’s nothing to love or hate about their resume, unless you choose to love or hate the complete lack of signature wins or detrimental losses. Odds are their game against Boston College in the 2nd round of the ACC tourney will have the same consequences as the Illinois/Michigan game in the Big Ten, but considering they hold the regular season victory over BC, I like Clemson’s chances.

Utah State

(28-3, 15-1 in WAC, 23-1 in last 24.)

Three Best Wins: @ Saint Mary’s, @ Boise State, @ Hawaii.

Three Worst Losses: @ Idaho, @ Georgetown, @ BYU.

 

A USU loss in the WAC tournament would be a disaster for at least a dozen teams, including itself.
All I see on their resume is one good win, one ugly loss, and four months of otherwise non-impactful wins and losses. Before their BracketBusters win at Saint Mary’s, we were all but ready to write them off as needing to win their conference tournament to get in. I would strongly prefer it if they just went ahead and won the damn thing, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m curious to see what would happen if they lost.

 

Teams Squarely on the Bubble:

 

Georgia

(20-10, 9-7 in SEC, 6-4 in last 10.)

Three Best Wins: Vs. Kentucky, @ Tennessee, vs. Colorado.

Three Worst Losses: @ Alabama, Vs. Tennessee, vs. Xavier

 

Alabama

(20-10, 12-4 in SEC, 10-4 in last 14.)

Three Best Wins: Vs. Kentucky, @ Tennessee, @ Mississippi State.

Three Worst Losses: Vs. Saint Peter’s, vs. Iowa, vs. Seton Hall.

 

If Georgia can take care of Auburn this afternoon, the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide are slated to face off again for the 2nd time in less than a week. See: Illinois/Michigan or Clemson/Boston College for how I expect the result of that game to impact their selection status. Considering the SEC tourney is being played in Georgia, they should be able to take care of business.

Virginia Tech

(19-10, 9-7 in ACC, 9-5 in last 14.)

Three Best Wins: Vs. Duke, vs. Florida State, vs. Penn State.

Three Worst Losses: Swept by Virginia, @ Georgia Tech, swept by Boston College.

 

Ho hum. Virginia Tech is trying to play its way out of the tournament again. They really can’t afford to lose to Georgia Tech today, and they’d sleep a lot better on Selection Sunday Eve if they were able to knock off Florida State in the 2nd round. Having been swept by BC in the regular season, they’ll probably have to make it further than the Eagles do, considering six bids for the ACC seems a little absurd this year.

Colorado

(20-12, 8-8 in Big 12, 6-8 in last 14.)

Three Best Wins: vs. Texas, vs. Missouri, swept Kansas State.

Three Worst Losses: @ San Francisco, @ Harvard, @ Iowa State.

 

By narrowly beating Iowa State yesterday, Colorado kept its hopes alive, which is something that cannot be said for Nebraska or Baylor after crushing defeats. They have been so close to playing their way out so many times, but with those wins over Texas, Missouri, and a regular season sweep of Kansas State, I find it hard to believe that the committee would leave out Colorado while sending a similarly middling resume such as Michigan’s to the tournament.

Michigan State

(17-13, 9-9 in Big 10, 5-8 in last 13.)

Three Best Wins: vs. Wisconsin, vs. Washington, swept Minnesota.

Three Worst Losses: @ Iowa, vs. Michigan, @ Penn State.

 

From being ranked 2nd in the preseason to holding on for dear life, I don’t think anyone saw this kind of season coming for Sparty. You can’t ever count out Izzo, though. It might have to come earlier than usual, but MSU always ends up winning a few more games than you expect them to in March. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them get through Iowa and Purdue, which would be good news for them, because they just might need both games to get in.

 

Teams Who Still Need Help:

 

Boston College

(19-11, 9-7 in ACC, 6-7 in last 13.)

Three Best Wins: Vs. Texas A&M, @ Virginia Tech, vs. Providence.

Three Worst Losses: Vs. Yale, vs. Harvard, swept by Miami.

 

They may have a record extremely similar to that of Virginia Tech, and they may have swept the Hokies in the regular season, but I think they’re worse off / more desperate. At least Virginia Tech has a gigantically quality win over Duke. When I look at Boston College’s resume, I feel like I’m looking at Richmond’s, only with significantly more losses. The Eagles had one quality win way back in November, and since then have gone 0-4 against the best teams in the ACC. Needless to say, if they drop this first round game against Wake Forest, they are NIT-bound. I think they absolutely have to beat Clemson to go dancing, and might even need to knock off UNC to feel really safe.

Oklahoma State

(19-12, 6-10 in Big 12, 5-8 in last 13.)

Three Best Wins: vs. Missouri, vs. Kansas State, vs. Alabama.

Three Worst Losses: vs. Virginia Tech, @ Texas Tech, @ Oklahoma.

 

The loss to Oklahoma to close the season was somewhat catastrophic, but they could more than make up for it with a win over Kansas today. Their conference record is a huge blemish on the resume, but if they add a win over the Jayhawks, there are definitely worse 20-12 resumes out there still in consideration. A loss today would certainly end their season though.

Colorado State

(19-11, 9-7 in MWC, 4-5 in last 9.)

Three Best Wins: @ UNLV, vs. Southern Mississippi, vs. New Mexico.

Three Worst Losses: Vs. Sam Houston State, vs. Hampton, @ Air Force.

New Mexico

(20-11, 8-8 in MWC, 7-4 in last 11.)

Three Best Wins: @ BYU, vs. BYU, vs. Colorado State.

Three Worst Losses: @ Wyoming, swept by Utah, vs. Northern Iowa.

 

The formula is pretty simple for these Mountain West bubble teams: win the game against each other + beat BYU = go dancing. Unlike the Illinois/Michigan and Clemson/Boston College games, the loser can consider itself eliminated while the winner almost assuredly still has work to do.

UAB

(22-7, 12-4 in C-USA, 11-3 in last 14.)

Three Best Wins: @ Arkansas, vs. UTEP, vs. Virginia Commonwealth.

Three Worst Losses: @ Tulsa, vs. Southern Mississippi, @ Arizona State.

Memphis

(22-9, 10-6 in C-USA, 6-5 in last 11.)

Three Best Wins: Vs. Gonzaga, @ UAB, swept Southern Mississippi.

Three Worst Losses: @ Rice, vs. Tulsa, @ Southern Methodist.

UTEP

(23-8, 11-5 in C-USA, 6-4 in last 10.)

Three Best Wins: Vs. Michigan, vs. Memphis, vs. Texas Tech.

Three Worst Losses: @ East Carolina, vs. Central Florida, vs. Georgia Tech.

 

America’s conference is still looking a lot like a one-bid league, but with Big 12 teams dropping like flies and a bunch of other mediocre teams guaranteed to lose games today, it just might be possible that C-USA gets two bids if two of these three teams face off in the conference final. That’s still a long way from a reality, and depends heavily on UTEP getting there since Memphis and UAB would face each other in the semifinals, but it’s still a possibility.

Penn State

(16-13, 9-9 in Big 10, 6-7 in last 13.)

Three Best Wins: vs. Wisconsin, vs. Michigan State, @ Minnesota.

Three Worst Losses: vs. Maine, vs. Maryland, @ Mississippi.

 

I can’t believe it either, but the Nittany Lions still have an outside shot at an at-large bid. Sadly for Happy Valley, they are pretty abysmal away from home, so a deep run in Indianapolis is unlikely, but assuming it includes wins over Indiana, Wisconsin, and possibly Purdue, we might see a 19-14 team in the tournament.

Washington State

(19-11, 9-9 in Pac-10, 5-6 in last 11.)

Three Best Wins: Vs. Gonzaga, swept Washington, vs. Baylor.

Three Worst Losses: @ Arizona State, vs. Stanford, vs. Butler.

USC

(18-13, 10-8 in Pac-10, 8-5 in last 13.)

Three Best Wins: Vs. Texas, vs. Arizona, @ Tennessee.

Three Worst Losses: Vs. Rider, vs. Bradley, @ TCU.

 

For each of these middle-of-the-road Pac-10 darlings, it might take two more wins to get in, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if both of them pulled it off. For Wazzu, it would result in a three game season sweep over Washington, which would have meant a lot more back in January, but it still counts for something. Beating UCLA after finishing off that sweep would certainly push them into the field. And if USC were to add a second win over Arizona to a resume that already features a win over Texas, they would also probably have enough firepower to sneak in.

Tennessee

(18-13, 8-8 in SEC, 3-6 in last 9.)

Three Best Wins: Vs. Pittsburgh, vs. Villanova, @ Vanderbilt.

Three Worst Losses: Vs. College of Charleston, vs. Oakland, vs. Charlotte.

 

The Volunteers just keep losing games, and that early season win over Villanova just keeps getting less and less valuable. They absolutely have to beat Arkansas tonight, and probably need to beat Florida tomorrow in order to have a realistic shot. But if you aren’t sleeping on Tom Izzo, then you aren’t sleeping on Bruce Pearl either.

Saint Mary’s

(24-8, 11-3 in WCC, 2-4 in last 6.)

Three Best Wins: Vs. St. John’s, @ Gonzaga, vs. Mississippi State.

Three Worst Losses: @ San Diego, @ Portland, vs. Gonzaga.

Virginia Commonwealth

(23-11, 12-6 CAA, 5-6 in last 11.)

Three Best Wins: Vs. UCLA, @ Old Dominion, @ Wichita State.

Three Worst Losses: @ Northeastern, @ Georgia State, @ South Florida.

 

Welcome to the prayer zone. Maybe you still like Missouri State or Coastal Carolina, but these are the two teams who have already been eliminated from their conference tournaments and need to hope beyond hope that a good number of teams on the bubble do the same in the very near future. Thanks to a better record and bigger wins, Saint Mary’s is in much better shape than VCU, but having lost four of their last six games, they can’t possibly feel too safe, no matter what Joey Brackets says about  their seeding. If VCU is able to sneak in, it wouldn’t be the first time the CAA sent three teams to the tournament, and last time that third team made a run all the way to the Final Four.

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Ten Teams You’ll Want to Get to Know Before Selection Sunday

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Anyone could tell you that either Duke, Kansas, or Ohio State is probably going to win the national title. However, the key to winning your office pool is pinpointing sleepers. These ten teams are going to break a lot of brackets. Stick with me and they won’t break yours.

Four Potential First Round Upsets

It’s been a decade since a 2-seed lost in the first round, and any one of these teams could be lacing up their glass slippers to break that streak if they end up receiving a 15-seed.

Belmont

The Bruins went on the road this past weekend and beat ETSU by double digits in what should be their biggest test in 2011; unless they receive a tough draw on Bracket Busters Weekend. There’s an outside chance that they finish the regular season with a 29-3 record with those two losses coming @ Vanderbilt and @ Tennessee (twice), each of which was a single digit loss. It’s unlikely that they would fail to win their conference tournament, but if they did, with the new 68 team bracket, it’ll be tough to argue that a 30+ win team shouldn’t make it to the big dance, regardless of their strength of schedule.

Anyway, what I love about this Belmont team is that they don’t rely too heavily on any individual player: no one on the team averages 25 minutes per game, and yet they’re the 10th highest scoring team in the nation. Eleven guys on the team are averaging at least ten minutes per game, which means a lot of guys are getting experience and a lot of guys are staying rested for the long haul. They recently made it to the tourney thrice (2006-2008), and while only two current players were even on the roster for any of those games, it’s safe to say head coach Rick Byrd gained from the experience, as each game ended up being more competitive than the last, culminating in the Duke/Belmont 71-70 nail biter in 2008. Next on Byrd’s agenda is a post-season victory.

Bucknell

Northern Colorado

Of the 346 teams in Division I basketball, only two shoot better than 76% from the free throw line and better than 40% from the three point line: Bucknell and Northern Colorado. Neither of them has anything else particularly intriguing on their resume, and with seven losses apiece and a lack of competitiveness in their games against tournament-caliber teams, there’s no chance either of them receives an at-large invitation if they fail to win their respective conference tournaments; but if either of these teams can make it to the tournament, what’s more crucial to pulling off an upset in March than clutch free throw and three point shooting?

Coastal Carolina

Maybe that free throw / three point percentage stat didn’t impress you enough to pick Bucknell or Northern Colorado, but this next one should blow your mind. There are four teams in the nation currently ranked in the top 30 in assists per game, rebounds per game, points per game, and field goal percentage: Kansas, Pittsburgh, Washington…and Coastal Carolina. I’m apparently the only person outside of Myrtle Beach who has noticed what the Chanticleers are up to, because despite a current 16 game winning streak which has given them a record of 18-2, they only received 2 points in the latest AP poll. Lunardi currently has Coastal as a 15-seed, pitted against Villanova in the first round in Washington DC. If that actually happens, I’ll make sure I’m in attendance for that potential upset.

Three Underperforming Teams No One Wants To Face

Every year in every sport there are a handful of teams that were too highly touted in the pre-season, and by mid-season it’s beyond evident that they didn’t deserve the respect they were given. In some cases, such as with Butler, Gonzaga, and Memphis this year, teams are basically ranked based upon rosters they used to have. In the other cases, we’re dealing with teams who haven’t quite put it together even though they have all the necessary pieces. Any one of these three teams could easily still get a 4-seed if they’re able to start doing what everyone expected them to do from the beginning. At the same time, any or all of these teams could very well play themselves out of the tournament altogether, despite opening the season ranked in the top ten. Trust me, there are at least 68 other teams who would strongly prefer that these teams never begin to gel, because with the head coaches that they have, anything is possible.

Kansas State

When you consider Frank Martin is the most terrifying coach since Bobby Knight’s heyday, what’s so dumbfounding about this team is how incredibly undisciplined they are. They turn the ball over more than 291 other teams in the nation. There are only nine teams who have a lower team free throw percentage than Kansas State. They literally miss an average of ten free throws per game.

If Mike Singletary’s failure in San Francisco didn’t teach you that ruling with an iron fist no longer works in sports, learn it from Frank Martin. I thought he was going to remove Jacob Pullen’s head from his body during last night’s game against Baylor…and they were winning by eight at the time. Dear Frank, next time one of your guys pisses you off, instead of making him run wind sprints, make him shoot 500 free throws. You’re never going to make it to the tournament by giving away ten points per game at the charity stripe.

Michigan State

I’ll never understand how to calculate SOS, but I guarantee the Spartans have had one of the five toughest schedules thus far, and they still have to play games in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ohio State. Nevertheless, you would think the pre-season #2 team would be able to win at least a couple of the seven games they’ve lost thus far. Unless they completely shit the bed down the stretch, they’ll probably get into the tournament as a severely battle tested 7-seed with 11 or 12 losses.

They’re a much better team than they’ve demonstrated thus far. I think it’s only a matter of time before they hit their stride. Once they do, we’ll be reminded that Tom Izzo is 35-12 in the NCAA Tournament since 1998. When it’s time to fill out your bracket, just remember the Michigan State Corollary: unless they lose in the first round, they always win at least one more game than anyone expects them to win.

North Carolina

As an unabashed Duke supporter, this one concerns me the most: All they need is for one perimeter threat to emerge and, along with the Barnes/Henson/Zeller three-headed monster, they will become a force to be reckoned with.

As is the case with most teams with an already shaky backcourt, their weakness is playing on the road. At home, the Tar Heels are 9-0, including a big win over Kentucky. Away from home, they are 4-5, including a jaw-dropping twenty point loss at Georgia Tech.

Similarly to Michigan State, at the rate they’re going, they’d probably get into the tournament as a 6-seed, and with Roy Williams at the helm, there’s no telling what they could do from there.

Two Non-BCS Schools Who Could Do Some Damage

Utah State

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a Utah State team with little more than a close loss to BYU just cracked the Top 25 and is gaining popularity around the nation as a potential Cinderella. Sounds a lot like the 2008-09 season in which they lost a first round heartbreaker to Marquette, doesn’t it? The only difference is that this year they have seven guys averaging more than ten minutes per game, and all of them are juniors and seniors who won’t merely be satisfied with another great regular season after two straight disappointing postseason showings.

Beware the Aggies with the chip on their shoulder. For either winning the WAC or getting in as an at-large, there’s no way they’ll be seeded lower than a 13; but no matter where they end up, you can already take a first round win to the bank, and I wouldn’t be shocked to see them make a Davidson-type run to the Elite Eight.

BYU

Speaking of Davidson, if your 2008 bracket didn’t love Stephen Curry, you can make up for it in 2011 by riding Jimmer Fredette to the top of your office pool. If you haven’t had a chance to see him in action, set your DVRs for Wednesday night at 10PM ET when BYU hosts San Diego State in what’s quietly shaping up to be one of the ten greatest games of the regular season. It should be an interesting battle since SDSU is holding opponents to 59 points per game, but then again, UNLV is holding opponents to 61 points per game, and Jimmer dropped 39 on them three weeks ago.

What makes the Cougars so deadly is that they’re more than just Jimmer and a quartet of mediocre mid-major cheerleaders. Jackson Emery is one hell of a second fiddle, and Hartsock and Davies are more than capable enough to make an opponent pay for doubling Fredette.

Kemba Walker and UConn are getting more publicity and favoritism in the polls since they’re a Big East team, but if UConn and BYU faced off in the tournament, I would take the Cougars in a heartbeat. If there’s a team out there this year that’s going to pull off a deep run in the tournament a la Gonzaga, Davidson, or Butler, it’s BYU.

Dark Horse To Win It All

Washington

I’ve been on the Washington bandwagon since the Maui Invitational; frequently betting the over in their games because Vegas is apparently unaware that they average 95.7 points per game at home. The problem with picking them very far in the tourney is that they only average 75.1 points per game away from home. They aren’t particularly reliable from the free throw line either, currently tied for 261st in the country (with Pittsburgh for what that’s worth). I also liked them a lot more before Abdul Gaddy tore his ACL, but even without him, they definitely have the pieces to put together a six game winning streak in March.

Aside from possibly Will Buford and Jared Sullinger, Isaiah Thomas and Matthew Bryan-Amaning are arguably the best inside-outside duo in the nation. Wilcox, Suggs, and Holiday are each shooting better than 41% from beyond the arc, and they’ve each taken their fair share of shots in the process. If they’re able to start getting some 2009-10 numbers out of Venoy Overton, I don’t know how anyone other than Washington can stop Washington. They’re already the third highest scoring team in the nation, and they haven’t allowed an opponent to score 80 points in a game yet this season.

Every March, I end up doing at least a dozen different brackets based on new statistical ideas that I come up with, and of course, I always have one bracket based entirely on gut feeling. For the past seven years, the same stat-based bracket has done better than any of the others: Average Margin of Victory times Conference RPI. Not only does that bracket always win, but in four of the past seven seasons, it had the correct Final Four and National Champion.

Relevance? If things remain relatively the same as they are now, with the exception of the Big East beating itself up as always, Washington would have the 4th highest rating in that bracket behind Ohio State, Kansas, and Duke. Sounds like a pretty realistic Final Four to me.

Will I actually pick them to win it all? Highly doubt it. Would I be surprised if they’re still playing in April? Not at all.