Some non-BCS schools sitting pretty for at-large NCAA bids

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Which non-majors have put themselves in a position to be in the at-large discussion next March?

There is, of course, a lot of basketball yet to be played, so things may look a bit different when we launch Bubble Banter in February.  We’ll call this Stocking Stuffer Part I.  Part II will feature a look at major conference teams that could be on or near the bubble come March.

(Note: For this discussion, Atlantic 10, Mountain West, and Conference USA teams will be featured in Part II.)

Teams to watch

Murray State
The Racers have beaten Southern Mississippi at the Great Alaska Shootout, Dayton at home, and Memphis on the road.  Those were the three biggest challenges on Murray’s non-conference slate.  The victory at Memphis figures to hold the most weight, although the Tigers have not looked much like a Top 20 team this season.

Road Bumps: The Ohio Valley Conference isn’t very strong and will certainly be an anchor to Murray’s RPI and overall strength-of-schedule.  The Racers have also played three non-Division I opponents – two of those scheduled at home.  If Murray can finish its non-conference slate unbeaten, the Racers should be able to absorb a loss or two in the OVC.  Any more than that, plus a loss in the OVC tournament, would make it interesting.  How Southern Miss, Dayton, and Memphis finish the season will also be a factor.

Creighton
The Bluejays’ victory at San Diego State could pay big dividends.  Beating Northwestern (Dec. 22) will be important, too.  That would leave Creighton 2-1 against its best non-conference opponents (CU lost at St. Joseph’s).  Given the Bluejays status as Missouri Valley favorite, the outlook for an at-large bid is favorable if the scenario above unfolds.

Road Bumps: Playing on the road in the Valley is never easy, but it will be important for Creighton to avoid “bad losses” along the way.  It will also help if CU separates itself with or above Northern Iowa and Wichita State at the top of the standings.

Northern Iowa
While the Panthers are off to a strong start – including a 4-1 record away from home, they lack a marquee victory.  UNI’s win at Old Dominion was solid but the Panthers followed it up with a double-digit loss at St. Mary’s – another potential bubble team.  The game with Ohio (Dec. 20) figures to be huge for both schools.

Road Bumps: Northern Iowa will need to keep pace – and beat – both Creighton and Wichita State during the Missouri Valley season.  Much like Creighton, UNI will need to avoid “bad losses” to those at the bottom of the league standings.

Wichita State
After missing chances against Alabama and Temple in Puerto Rico, the Shockers posted a strong win over UNLV at home.  Without that, WSU’s profile is much less inviting.  Thus, the Shockers’ margin for error is a smaller than it might appear.   Last year, Wichita State missed its chances against Connecticut (Maui) and San Diego State (road) and headed to the NIT.  Will the victory over UNLV hold enough weight?  Depends on how the Rebels finish the season.

Road Bumps: See Creighton and Northern Iowa above.  The three frontrunners in the MVC need to stay above the fray and beat each other along the way.

Harvard
Without a conference tournament, Harvard doesn’t have the option of winning a regular-season title and then losing in its tournament final.  It’s all or nothing.  So the question becomes, could Harvard make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team by finishing second in a conference currently ranked 18th in the RPI?  Wins over Florida State and Central Florida in the Bahamas will help – even though Harvard was outmatched at Connecticut.  The Crimson’s game with St. Joseph’s is their last chance to make a strong impression.

Road Bumps: Other than St. Joe’s, there are no teams ranked in the Top 100 of the RPI remaining on Harvard’s schedule.  Any league losses will be to non-NCAA teams.  Finishing behind one of those teams during the course of the regular season could make an at-large bid hard to find.

Belmont
The Bruins are team many believe can win a game (or two) in the NCAAs.  But Belmont has to make the field first.  Right now, the Bruins’ best victory is a double-overtime win at Middle Tennessee State – a team the Bruins played on the road again this past week (and lost).  Saturday’s loss at Miami-OH is the one that could sting the Bruins, though.  If close counts, then Belmont’s one-point loss at Duke to open the season may help.  But there’s no question that Duke and Memphis were Belmont’s best chances to make a splash, and the Bruins missed both opportunities.  Beating Marshall (Dec.19) is now critical.  It’s the Bruins’ last chance against an NCAA-caliber team.

Road Bumps: Atlantic Sun play will offer little help, so Belmont will need to win its league (again) in impressive fashion.  Do that and the Bruins can stay in the at-large discussion.  Whether it’s enough depends on how the rest of the national landscape looks on Selection Sunday.

Iona
The Gaels’ resume is pretty solid at this point.  Iona has wins over Maryland (neutral), St. Joseph’s (home), Denver (road), and Richmond (road).  Losses are to Purdue (one point – neutral) and at Marshall.  The Gaels are currently in a stretch of eight straight road games have gone 6-1 in the first seven.  Those are numbers and schedule benefits that will compare favorably in March.

Road Bumps: Fairfield will challenge Iona for the MAAC title.  A regular-season title would certainly help the Gaels’ at-large chances.  We saw that with UAB last year.

Denver
The Pioneers have wins over Southern Mississippi and St. Mary’s at home.  Both could be fellow bubble teams.  Losses are at California and to Iona at home.  The latter could prove important if those two are compared.  That said, Denver has positioned itself as an at-large candidate if it can win a regular-season Sun Belt title and avoid many more losses along the way.

Road Bumps: Middle Tennessee State has proven it can beat quality teams, so the road to a Sun Belt title won’t be easy.  If both of those teams dominate the conference and play each other in the conference tournament final, it’ll be interesting to see if the loser garners an at-large bid.

Middle Tennessee State
An early win at UCLA is not helping the Blue Raiders much right now.  But a split with Belmont (both at home) is worthy of consideration.  MTSU’s other loss is at UAB – which hurts.  Up next is Mississippi (Dec. 21).  It’s MTSU’s last chance to put something of note on its non-conference resume.

Road Bumps: The Raiders will have to keep pace with Denver in the Sun Belt and split games with the Pioneers to have any realistic shot at an at-large bid.  If that happens, and both teams play in the Sun Belt final, MTSU will likely be on the at-large board.  It may not be enough, but they will be in the discussion.

Long Beach State – Few teams have played a tougher slate.  A victory at Pittsburgh will help, but there was also a miscue at Montana. To date, LBSU has lost at San Diego State, Louisville, Kansas and North Carolina.  Those are all good losses in close games.  The question is whether LBSU can compile enough quality wins.  It may come down to the 49ers game with Xavier on Dec. 22. 

Road Bumps: The Big West isn’t very strong so the conference road has the potential for a host of bad losses.  LBSU doesn’t have to be perfect in conference play, but pretty close.  If the 49ers can avoid more than one or two losses, they should be in the at-large picture.

St. Mary’s
In its toughest games to date, the Gaels beat Northern Iowa at home and lost at Denver. A road trip to Baylor (Dec. 22) and a date with Missouri State are St. Mary’s last chances to do anything outside the West Coast Conference.  A split is important – especially if the Gaels can pull off the upset in Waco. Then it’ll come down to St. Mary’s performance against BYU and Gonzaga in the WCC.

Road Bumps: Playing two non-DI games won’t help the Gaels and the WCC is stronger top to bottom than most people think.

BYU
The Cougars are behind the curve after opening with a loss at Utah State and falling easily at Wisconsin.  Saturday, the Cougars missed a golden chance to upset Baylor.  The rest of BYU’s non-conference slate isn’t much to talk about.  Beating Oregon at home is OK, but not the type of victory that will earn many NCAA points.

Road Bumps: At this point, BYU needs to finish with Gonzaga and St. Mary’s at the top of the West Coast Conference.  Finishing third and losing early in the WCC tourney probably won’t be enough.

Ohio – A close loss at Louisville and a victory at Marshall have the Bobcats in contention.  Ohio’s game at Northern Iowa (Dec. 20) is huge.  It would give the Bobcats another notable non-conference victory and position them ahead of UNI heading into conference play.

Road Bumps: Kent State, and a few others, will make the Mid-American Conference journey a bit challenging.  If Ohio can pile up MAC wins, avoid “bad losses”, and reach the conference title game against Kent State, an at-large bid is possible.

Kent State – The Flashes are many people’s favorite to win the Mid-American Conference.  A season-opening victory at West Virginia will help and Kent’s loss to Cleveland State won’t hurt the flashes – even though it was home.  KSU’s biggest issue is that its remaining conference slate has been pretty light, and the Flashes won’t play another Top 100 RPI team until they travel to Ohio on January 18.

Road Bumps: Kent will need a strong run in the MAC season to keep the door open.  That won’t be easy with teams like Ohio, Akron, and Bowling Green to contend with – especially on the road.

Cleveland State – The Vikings have played just two home games.  That will help CSU’s power numbers.  So will victories at Vanderbilt – although the Commodores have sputtered – and Kent State.  The dent in the armor is a “bad loss” at Hofstra.  Whether or not that plays a role depends on CSU’s performance in the Horizon League.  At this point, Horizon foes Butler and Detroit will not provide a significant resume boost Milwaukee is a wildcard.  That could change, of course, but it’s something to note.

Road Bumps: Conference play is never easy.  How the Vikings navigate the Horizon landscape will be telling.  A strong showing and regular-season title will keep CSU in the at-large picture.

Dave Ommen is one of college basketball’s premier bracketologists. You can read more of his work at Bracketville or follow him on Twitter @BracketguyDave.

“I trust the SEC office will do the right thing,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes says after bump from official

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Tennessee 63-58 loss to Texas A&M wasn’t without some controversy.

In the final seconds of the game, official Mike Nance appeared to bump into Vols coach Rick Barnes, who was standing stationary on the sideline, and the two exchanged words.

“I really have a lot of confidence in the SEC office that they are going to look at that,” Barnes said after the game about the incident, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. “I believe they will look at this game and take it apart. I just think they will do that. That shouldn’t happen in any way shape or form. I would like to say what I want to say, but I won’t because I trust the SEC office will do the right thing.”

Nance was headed to the monitor to review a call when the bump occurred, and Nance appeared to ask Barnes if the coach initiated the contact.

“Coach (Bob) Knight told me a long time ago that in a game officials are going to miss seven to nine or 10, 11, 12 calls,” Barnes said. “He kept going up every year. He said, ‘You just hope things aren’t egregious at any point in time.'”

Coach K screams at Duke fans, defending Jeff Capel

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In one of the stranger things that we’ve seen in college basketball this season, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski went off on the Cameron Crazies for what he believed was a shot they were taking at former Duke player Jeff Capel.

The crazies were chanting, “Jeff Capel sit with us.” Coach K thought he heard something else.

Check out the video:

After the game, Coach K acknowledged that he misheard what the fans said, adding that he will apologize for the mishap.

“I made a mistake,” he said. “But I’d rather make a mistake for the protection of my guy.

“I love Jeff. I erred on that side. I just hope the ACC doesn’t fine me like they did [Mike] Brey.”

He ended the back and forth with this: “Jeff can sit with me anytime.”

 

Tuesday’s Things to Know: Villanova gears up for big stretch, Auburn wins ugly in 2OT and Rutgers keeps rolling

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The headliner of Tuesday night was Virginia regaining an NCAA tournament pulse with a win over No. 5 Florida State, but there were plenty of other developments on the bubble across the country.  Here’s what else you need to know:

1. Villanova runs streak to seven ahead of grueling stretch

Jay Wright’s team had little trouble winning its seventh-straight Tuesday with a 79-59 victory at Madison Square Garden over St. John’s. Saddiq Bey was brilliant, scoring 23 points on 8 of 14 shooting, including 5 of 9 from deep. Collin Gillespie was equally great, going for 17 points, 13 boards and six assists while Jeremiah Robinson-Early had 13 points and 14 rebounds. Cole Swider and Justin Moore both had 11 to put all five Wildcat starters in double-figures to help offset the absence of the injured Jermaine Samuels.

The victory, while unremarkable given St. John’s mediocrity, keeps momentum for Villanova heading into a huge stretch that very well could decide the Big East. They’ve got Creighton at home Saturday before a trip to No. 16 Butler and then back-to-back home games against No. 10 Seton Hall and Marquette, which handed the ‘Cats their lone conference loss this season.

How Villanova emerges from this four-game stretch – and subsequently what the Big East landscape looks like – will likely be determined by a couple of things. If the ‘Cats are going to make it through in the conference driver’s seat, it’ll probably because Villanova’s defense proves for real. The Cats’ defense this season on the whole has been fine, ranking 60th nationally on KenPom, but it’s been the best in the Big East during conference play. They’ve been stingier both inside and outside the arc while improving on the glass. They’ve kept opponents from launching a lot of 3s and have mostly kept them off the line.

Wright’s team is going to be fine offensively, even if they haven’t been elite in Big East play yet. If the defense holds up, the ‘Cats are going to be sitting pretty come March.

2. No. 17 Auburn comes from behind to win in 2OT

Things were looking pretty dire for Auburn. The Tigers narrowly avoided a third loss in four games over the weekend when they blew a big lead to a sub-.500 Iowa State team, and then they fell behind by 19 in the second half Tuesday at Ole Miss.

It turned out to be nothing to be worried about, unless you were on your couch hoping to watch good overtime basketball.

The Tigers narrowly escaped, 83-82, against the Rebels, overcoming a huge deficit and mistakes of their own making that could have negated their comeback but instead will be footnotes.

Auburn shot 56 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from 3-point range in the second half to mount its comeback while Ole Miss shot just 33 percent. They nearly gave the game away, though, after taking a two-point lead in the final seconds of overtime. The Tigers missed a jumper that would have put them up four with 25 seconds left, but the shot missed and they inexplicably fouled on the rebound to allow Ole Miss to tie the game with 22 seconds left on free throws. After a missed 3 in a tie game by Danjel Purifoy, Ole Miss gave Auburn a gift it just wouldn’t accept. Devontae Shuler’s inbounds pass under the basket with 2 seconds left went astray and was headed out of bounds, which would have resulted in no time coming off the clock and Auburn getting the ball on the baseline, but Isaac Okoro, for some reason, grabbed the ball, waited a second and called timeout. Samir Doughty’s forthcoming 3 out of the huddle as time expired miss to send things to 2OT.

Ole Miss led by as many as four in overtime, but Auburn took the lead with 1:41 left. The two teams traded missed opportunities for the remainder of the game, leaving the Tigers with a win.

College basketball: Not always pretty, but rarely boring.

3. Rutgers continues to build its case

It’s been 29 years since Rutgers last made the NCAA tournament. It’s been 13 since the Scarlet Knights even finished above .500 in a season. Both those streaks seem incredibly likely to fall in just a handful of weeks.

Rutgers ran its overall record to 16-5 and its Big Ten mark to 7-3 with a 70-63 victory Tuesday at home against Purdue.

Steve Pikiell’s team is building a bulletproof resume after losses to St. Bonaventure and Pittsburgh in the first month of the season made it seem as the status quo would be very much in place in Piscataway this winter. Since then, the only three losses Rutgers have taken have all been on the road to high-quality opponents, with Michigan State, Illinois and Iowa the only teams able to get the best of them.

Rutgers is doing it o the strength of a top-10 defense that overcomes an offense that can be clunky at times, especially at the 3-point line. Defense as stout as the Scarlet Knights are playing, though, makes up for a lot of deficiencies on the other end.

Bubble Banter: Virginia, Mississippi State the biggest winners of the night

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It was a wild night on the bubble on Tuesday night, as 12 teams with their NCAA tournament hopes still up in the air were in action.

A full bubble watch breakdown can be found here. Here are tonight’s winners and losers:

WINNERS

VIRGINIA (NET: 58, NBC: Off the bubble): It is impossible to overstate just how big a win over Florida State (15) for a Virginia team that entered the night without a top 50 win to their name. They had one Quad 1 win on their resume — at Syracuse (64) — to go along with wins over Virginia Tech (50) at home and Arizona State (56) on a neutral floor. That’s it. When combined with a pair of Quad 3 losses — South Carolina (89) at home and at Boston College (153) — there’s a reason that the Wahoos were completely out of the NCAA tournament picture entering the day.

And to be honest, I’m not sure that a win over a top 20 team at home is really going to change all that much. But with just three more games against the top of the ACC left on their schedule, this was an opportunity that could not slip through their fingers.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (NET: 48, NBC: Off the bubble): The Bulldogs added a critical road win on Tuesday night, going into Gainesville and knocking off Florida (37). It’s the second Quad 1 win in six days for Mississippi State, who needs to add some pop to the top of a resume that includes a pair of Quad 3 losses. This will help.

MICHIGAN (NET: 35, NBC: 10): Michigan entered Tuesday night having lost four games in a row and five of their last six and were playing without Isaiah Livers and Zavier Simpson at Nebraska (158). They could not lost this game. They did not.

RHODE ISLAND (NET: 47, NBC: First four out): Rhode Island is in a spot where they probably cannot afford to take a loss to anyone other than Dayton (5), who they play twice, the rest of the season. On Tuesday night, the Rams beat George Mason. Next up: VCU (39) on Friday night.

UTAH STATE (NET: 62, NBC: Off the bubble): Utah State absolutely could not lose at Wyoming (299) on Tuesday, and they didn’t. The Aggies have neutral site wins over LSU (25) and Florida (37), which is enough to keep them in this discussion despite road losses at Boise State (102), UNLV (130) and Air Force (184). They make the trip to Viejas Arena to take on San Diego State (2) on Saturday, and that feels like a must-win for Utah State at this point.

LOSERS

TENNESSEE (NET: 55, NBC: Next four out): The Vols took a loss that they just could not afford to take on Tuesday, falling to a bad Texas A&M (149) at home. It’s their first Quad 3 loss, meaning that now half of their eight losses are outside the Quad 1 level. With just two Quad 1 wins, neither of which came against a top 35 opponent, Tennessee is backing themselves into a corner. The good news? They still play eight Quad 1 games, and that doesn’t include Florida at home. The Vols can survive this if they get hot.

SYRACUSE (NET: 64, NBC: Off the bubble): The Orange saw their five game winning streak come to an end on Tuesday as they fell at Clemson (81). This is not a terrible loss, but for a team that is already trying to make up ground on the field, these are the kind of losses that really hurt.

RICHMOND (NET: 54, NBC: First four out): Tuesday’s visit to the Siegel Center was Richmond’s last shot at getting a Quad 1 win dueing the regular season. They lost to VCU (39) by 17 points. For my money, the Spiders’ at-large hopes are more or less dead.

ST. JOHN’S (NET: 67, NBC: 10): The Johnnies lost for the seventh time in their last nine games when Villanova (14) waltzed into MSG and beat the Red Storm by 20. That’s not ideal. St. John’s is still in the mix because of wins over West Virginia (7) and Arizona (10), the latter of which came on a neutral court. But with road games left against Villanova, Seton Hall (12) and Butler (9), Mike Anderson’s club has backed themselves into a corner.

PURDUE (NET: 36, NBC: Next four out): The Boilermakers dropped to 11-10 on the season with a 70-63 loss at Rutgers (23) on Tuesday night. That means Purdue has dropped five of their last seven games. They’re 2-7 against Quad 1 opponents with a 29 point win over Michigan State (8), but there are a lot of losses on their resume already and the Big Ten is a bear.

VIRGINIA TECH (NET: 50, NBC: First four out): The Hokies did themselves no favors by losing at Miami (106) on Tuesday night. In the last three days, they’ve suffered their two worst losses of the season. The Hokies also have a non-conference SOS that ranks 341st, which eliminates much of their margin for error. The good news? They still have pair of Quad 1 wins — including Michigan State (10) on a neutral — and four of their five Quad 1 and 2 wins came away from home. It’s not all bad.

GEORGETOWN (NET: 52, NBC: Next four out): The Hoyas lost their third straight game on Tuesday night and have now dropped six of their last eight. Making things worse is that they were up by 13 points on Butler (9) late in the first half. This was their best chance to land an elite win this season. They still get Villanova (14) and Seton Hall (12) at home, but the biggest issue with Georgetown’s tournament chances is that they are trending in the wrong direction with just seven scholarship players.

Virginia upends No. 5 Florida State, 61-56

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Remember back to the season’s opening night? Nearly three months ago? That was when Virginia embarrassed Syracuse in a 48-34 win. That game foretold a lot of the season up to this point for the Cavaliers. Their title-defending team would have the defense that’s defined Tony Bennett’s program while the offense, well, that would be a bit of a struggle. What it did not predict was more Quad 1 wins, as the Cavaliers, despite a dominating defense, failed to rack up another such victory after that season-opener.

Until Tuesday.

Virginia injected some life into its NCAA tournament hopes with a 61-56 win over fifth-ranked Florida State in Charlottesville to pick up a critical victory in an ACC that offers far fewer marquee opportunities than in years past.

The victory was exactly what Bennett’s team needed to help buoy that resume before the start of February. January was extremely rough on them with a 3-4 mark before the win over the Seminoles put them at .500 for the month. With only four chances left against the ACC’s best of FSU, Duke and Louisville, beating the Seminoles at home may not have been an absolute-must for the Cavs, but it sure makes it a lot easier to chart a path to the tournament now, even if it’s still a rocky road, than if they had dropped the game.

Point guard Kihei Clark scored 11 of his 15 points after halftime, changing the game offensively for the Cavaliers with his dribble penetration into the middle of the Florida State defense. He wasn’t wildly efficient, but his ability to get into the teeth of the defense – creating some buckets and free throws for himself and chances for his teammates – provided just enough lift for the offensively-challenged team. His beautiful reverse layup with a minute left gave Virginia a lead it would not relinquish as it closed the game on an 8-0 run.

Mamadi Diakite had 19 points and nine boards for Virginia while Braxton Key had 13 points and nine rebounds.

The loss stops a 10-game winning streak for the ‘Noles, who led for most of the game but could not ever find any meaningful separation. Devin Vassell had 17 points to lead Florida State, which had two shots to tie the game in the final seconds but missed both 3-point attempts horribly. If Virginia can surge a little in the season’s final month, this win won’t be much more than a missed opportunity for the Seminoles, but if it proves to just be a blip on the radar for Virginia, Florida State may have done some damage to its seed line Tuesday.