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Bubble Banter: Bids will be earned, and lost, today

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The latest NBC Sports bracketology can be found here. That is where the seeds you see below come from. 

This post will be updated throughout the day.

WINNERS

Vanderbilt (RPI: 48, KenPom: 42, next four out): The Commodores might have just punched a ticket to the tournament with a win over No. 12 Florida. But it’s complicated, enough so that I needed to put it in a separate post.

Seton Hall (RPI: 50, KenPom: 57, play-in game): Like Vanderbilt, Seton Hall just about punched their ticket to the dance today, winning at Butler and given themselves an elite win. We wrote much more about Seton Hall’s chances right here.

Providence (RPI: 55, KenPom: 55, No. 10 seed): The Friars avoided doing something really stupid, as they knocked off St. John’s on Saturday. Providence has played their way into the NCAA tournament it seems, and barring something crazy happening this week, Ed Cooley will have his team back in the tournament despite losing Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil.

Marquette (RPI: 57, KenPom: 30, No. 9 seed): The Golden Eagles beat Creighton at home to close out the season, a win that probably puts Marquette into the tournament. The concern with this team isn’t whether or not they’ve put together enough wins on paper. They have five top 45, eight top 50 and 10 top 100 wins on the year, including a win over Villanova. The problem? Four of those five top 45 wins came against Creighton and Xavier after those two teams lost their star point guards, Mo Watson and Edmond Sumner, for the year to torn ACLs. It’s going to be very interesting to see how the committee values those wins. In the past, they have not penalized a winning team for an opponent missing a player, but in this case, given just how bad those two have been without their PGs, it’s worth considering.

Wake Forest (RPI: 38, KenPom: 31, play-in game): The Demon Deacons landed a massive win on Saturday, going into Blacksburg and picking off Virginia Tech. Combine that with the fact that Wake knocked off Louisville during the week, and I think Danny Manning has gotten his team into the tournament. They’re 19-12 on the season with three top 40 wins — one of which is a top five win — and they have a non-conference strength of schedule that ranks 14th. They played four true road games during non-conference play, and that doesn’t count playing Charleston in the Charleston Classic. Throw in the fact that their “worst” losses are at Syracuse and a sweep at the hands of Clemson, and there’s a lot to like about this résumé. They probably need one more win, maybe two, but don’t be shocked when they’re in the field.

Xavier (RPI: 32, KenPom: 46, No. 11 seed): It’s hard to believe I’m saying this, but Xavier, who was ranked in the top 25 in February, had to win this game to keep themselves on the right side of the bubble. The Musketeers had lost their previous six games and seemingly lost any and all confidence that they had left. Given the way they’ve played since Edmond Sumner went out with an injury, I would strongly recommend winning a couple of games in the Big East tournament. They won’t be anywhere near safe with a loss in the first round.

Kansas State (RPI: 59, KenPom: 35, first four out): The Wildcats are still in the mix, as they knocked off Texas Tech. K-State is probably still on the wrong side of the cut-line, meaning that they should what to win two games in the Big 12 tournament in order to feel comfortable on Selection Sunday.

Syracuse (RPI: 79, KenPom: 51, No. 11 seed): Syracuse pounded Georgia Tech in the Carrier Dome on Saturday, adding even more strength to a profile that is probably good enough to get them into the tournament. The Orange have three top 15, six top 50 and nine top 100 wins. They’ve also done almost all of their work at home and have three sub-100 losses on their résumé. I think the Orange have some work left to do.

USC (RPI: 35, KenPom: 64, play-in game): The Trojans picked up a win they had to get against Washington, putting them in a position where they probably need to win two games in the Pac-12 tournament — their opener and a game against whatever elite team (I believe it will be UCLA) they get in the quarterfinals — to really feel comfortable about their chances on Selection Sunday. It’s also worth noting here: USC lost four games this season without Bennie Boatwright, the team’s leading scorer this season.

Illinois State (RPI: 33, KenPom: 45, No. 12 seed) and No. 21 Wichita State (RPI: 43, KenPom: 10, No. 10 seed): Both the Shockers and the Redbirds reached the final of the Missouri Valley tournament, which is what this league needed to have happen for a real change at getting two teams into the tournament.

Middle Tennessee (RPI: 39, KenPom: 53, No. 10 seed): The Blue Raiders did what they needed to do, taking care of Florida Atlantic and heading into the Conference USA tournament with a 17-1 league record. MTSU is probably in the tournament as of today, the problem is what happens if they lose in the tournament and take another bad loss.

Rhode Island (RPI: 41, KenPom: 48, first four out): The Rams kept their at-large hopes alive with a come-from-behind home win over Davidson on Saturday. I still think URI probably needs to win until they beat either Dayton or VCU in the Atlantic 10 tournament to really feel like they have a chance. That said, they have a win over Cincinnati and another over VCU, but a top 20 non-conference schedule. They’re going to be right there on the cut-line regardless of how next week plays out.

VCU (RPI: 24, KenPom: 47, No. 10 seed): The Rams got the win they needed on Saturday, beating George Mason at home. That should be enough to just about lock them into a bid. I can’t see them being leap-frogged by enough teams to put them on the wrong side of the bubble even with a first round Atlantic 10 loss, but I would recommend winning a game just to be safe.

SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 18: Head coach Cuonzo Martin of the California Golden Bears reacts to a play in the second half against the Hawaii Warriors during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 18, 2016 in Spokane, Washington. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Head coach Cuonzo Martin (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

LOSERS

Illinois (RPI: 56, KenPom: 65, play-in game): At this point you just have to feel bad for Illinois fans. The Illini, who haven’t been relevant nationally since all of Bill Self’s players graduated during the Bruce Weber tenure, looked like they had played themselves into a position to get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013. They had won four in a row and five of their last six … and then set all of that work on fire by losing at Rutgers on Saturday. The appeal of Illinois’ résumé was that they had done some good things without taking a bad loss this season. Rutgers is a bad loss, and those good things? Well, the more you look at them, the less good they look. Illinois had five top 50 wins but just one top 45 win. They have a top 25 win but no top 20 wins. Illinois probably needs at least two wins in the Big Ten tournament now.

Cal (RPI: 53, KenPom: 54, first four out): The Golden Bears might have found a way to play themselves out of the NCAA tournament. This week, they scored a total of 90 points in losses at Utah and at Colorado. They’ve lost five of their last six games, which also includes a five-point loss at Arizona and a loss at home against Oregon where Cal blew a 15-point lead with 10 minutes left. Their only win in that stretch is over Oregon State at home, who is the worst high major team in college basketball. The Bears have just four top 100 wins, and their only win over an at-large candidate is against USC, who is in a play-in game in our latest bracket. Get to the finals of the Pac-12 tournament. That’s my advice.

Georgia (RPI: 49, KenPom: 52, next four out): The Bulldogs needed to win at Arkansas to give themselves a real chance at an at-large bid. They lost. They’ve going to need a deep run in the SEC tournament to have a real chance.

Georgia Tech (RPI: 91, KenPom: 77, first four out): Josh Pastner has done a great job with the Yellow Jackets in his first season, but if they are going to go to the NCAA tournament, it’s going to take some ACC tournament wins to get there.

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.