Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Bubble Team's Worst Nightmare

It happens every year. A major conference team comes out of nowhere in their conference tournament to make it to the championship and, in some cases, win the title. It also happens in some mid-major conferences that were expected to get one bid but then send two dancing because of upsets in the league tournaments.

The aforementioned situation is a nightmare for bubble teams hoping to get bids to the NCAA Tournament. When teams that are locks for the NCAA Tournament lose in their respective conference tournament and a mediocre team that gets hot at the right team either makes the championship or wins the automatic bid, teams on the fence become some of the most nervous people in the world. You hear the announcers every March:

"Well, [fill in bubble team of choice] has to root for [fill in league favorite] if they want a bid to the NCAA Tournament. If [fill in upstart team] pulls off yet another upset, it means that there is one fewer at-large bid for the bubble teams."

This year is not going to be any different. With all of the parity in many of the leagues across the country this season, there are several teams that could make Cinderella runs in their respective conference tournaments. In some leagues, these teams are in the lower half of the league and win an early game before getting on a run, and all of a sudden they look like the second coming of the UNLV teams from the early '90s. In other conferences, these Cinderella teams are just ones that have a decent chance to upset the heavy favorite and steal the automatic bid.

Who are the main candidates to pull a Mississippi State and make this kind of run in Championship Week 2010? Let's take a look at several conferences from around the country, and find teams that have the ability to win a few games in early March.


Boston College: With the top seven teams in the conference looking good for NCAA Tournament bids, it will be up to a team from the bottom five to potentially make a run. Considering Miami is a disaster away from home, Boston College could be the main sleeper. The Eagles have played Florida State, Duke, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech to single-digit games, and also beat Clemson. They also have one of the best offensive quartets in the conference, with forwards Joe Trapani and Corey Raji and guards Rakim Sanders and Reggie Jackson, an explosive highlight reel waiting to happen. If they are hitting on all cylinders, this is certainly a tough out on a neutral court.

Big East

St. John’s: The conference tournament will be in New York City, on one of the Red Storm’s home courts, Madison Square Garden. More importantly, though, the Johnnies are playing well lately, defeating Notre Dame and South Florida on the road and knocking off Louisville at home in the past two weeks. They are very inconsistent offensively and tend to fall apart in the second halves of games, but they play solid halfcourt defense and have some versatile weapons on the offensive end. If the perimeter players are knocking down outside shots, look out for the Red Storm.

Big Ten

Michigan: Heading into the season, the Wolverines were expected to be one of the main contenders in the Big Ten, and a potential Sweet Sixteen team. While that went downhill pretty quickly, they are still a formidable opponent that has shown some fight throughout the conference campaign. They knocked off Minnesota and Ohio State, and have hung tough with Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan State. Moreover, Manny Harris is one of the most talented players in the league and can carry the Wolverines on his back. With DeShawn Sims posing a match-up problem for opponents, Michigan could be a team to keep an eye on during the conference tournament. If Northwestern is completely out of the at-large hunt by the time early March rolls around, the Wildcats will be tough too.

Big 12

Texas Tech: The bottom half of the Big 12 has been terrible lately. Nebraska has lost 11 of 12, Iowa State nine of 10, Colorado and Oklahoma eight of 10 and Texas Tech four in a row. However, it is necessary to pick one of those five since the top seven are looking solid for NCAA bids. I went with the Red Raiders, based on their one-two punch of guard John Robertson and Mike Singletary, who scored 43 points – including 29 straight – in last year’s Big 12 Tournament. Additionally, Texas Tech loves to get up-and-down the floor and could pull an upset or two if its shots are falling. This is a team that has shown the ability to hang with Texas A&M, Texas and Missouri – don’t overlook them.


Arizona: Giving the Pac-10 the benefit of the doubt, I’ve generously considered California, Washington and Arizona State in the NCAA hunt. Therefore, Arizona seems like the best bet to make a deep run out of the rest of the conference. Just three weeks ago, Arizona had defeated California at home to move into a tie for first place with the Golden Bears. Automatic bid dreams danced in the young Wildcats’ heads – and they proceeded to lose four of their last five games. However, they have the pieces to make a run. Nic Wise is a point guard capable of taking over a game, and freshman forward Derrick Williams has been a very productive player this season. Kyle Fogg can shoot, and Jamelle Horne leads a host of versatile players.


Arkansas: I pegged the Razorbacks as an SEC sleeper back in November, and did it again in January when conference play rolled around. While neither of those picks really panned out, Arkansas is playing its best basketball of the season over the past month, and could find itself with the top seed in the SEC West. The Razorbacks have won six of their last eight, including wins over Mississippi, Mississippi State and South Carolina. Courtney Fortson is one of the most productive all-around point guards in the country, and Rotnei Clarke has unbelievable range. Marshawn Powell and Michael Washington provide inside balance. Don’t focus on the 14-13 record; with Fortson in the lineup, this is a completely different team.


Duquesne: I was tempted to go with Saint Louis at this spot, but the Billikens could find themselves in the at-large mix with a strong finish. The Dukes are an excellent choice as well, as they have won six of their last nine games, including back-to-back wins over Charlotte and Dayton. Moreover, they have five double-figure scorers, including one of the best stat sheet stuffers in the country, forward Damian Saunders. For the season, he is averaging 15.0 points, 11.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 2.8 steals and 3.3 blocks per game – watch him. 


Hofstra: The CAA Tournament is always one of the more exciting conference tourneys to watch, and this season will be no different. Old Dominion leads a group of six teams within three games of each other at the top of the standings, and then comes Hofstra. The Pride have won eight of their last nine games, including an impressive 11-point victory at Northeastern on Tuesday night. Point guard Charles Jenkins is one of the best players at the mid-major level; he can flat-out score. If he gets hot, he can single-handedly carry Hofstra.


Marshall: The Thundering Herd might be in fourth place in the league, but they don’t have much of a shot at an at-large bid. Therefore, the only way this team is making the Big Dance is by stealing the auto bid – don’t count them out. Marshall has won five in a row, including wins over UAB and Tulsa. The Herd have one of the best frontcourt tandems in the conference in Tyler Wilkerson and Mr. Triple-Double, Hassan Whiteside. Throw in double-figure scorers on the perimeter in Shaquille Johnson and Damier Pitts, and shooter Chris Lutz, and this is a solid group.

Missouri Valley

Illinois State: Northern Iowa hurt itself with a loss to Evansville on Tuesday, and Wichita State is in a load of trouble, so the MVC Tournament could be there for the taking. Illinois State has won five in a row, including road victories over Bradley and Creighton. The Redbirds have one of the most exciting players in the conference in guard Osiris Eldridge, who can shoot the three and also finish with the best of them. Lloyd Phillips is a playmakers, and forward Dinma Odiakosa is a double-double threat. Don’t count out Missouri State, either – the Bears have lost tons of close games this season.

Mountain West

Colorado State: With the top four teams in the league in the NCAA hunt, it could be tough for a second tier team to break through and steal the automatic bid. However, don’t count out the Rams potentially ruining UNLV or San Diego State’s NCAA Tournament hopes and then pulling another upset or two. All of their league losses were to the top four teams in the conference, and their trio of guard Dorian Green and forwards Andy Ogide and Travis Franklin is solid.

West Coast

Portland: Gonzaga is going into the conference tournament as a lock, while Saint Mary’s still harbors at-large hopes. That leaves Portland as a potential party-crasher. The Pilots got off to a great start this season, defeating Oregon, UCLA and Minnesota in November (each of those wins looked better back then). However, they have struggled somewhat since then. Don’t let that fool you, though. If Portland’s gunners – Nik Raivio, T.J. Campbell, Jared Stohl – are hitting their outside shots and Robin Smeulders and Luke Sikma are productive down low, this team is a tough out.

Other Teams to Keep an Eye On: Wright State (Horizon, Butler); Niagara (MAAC, Siena); Louisiana Tech (WAC, Utah State)

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