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Huge week for Big East teams on NCAA bubble



With four straight wins for a 10-4 Big East record, USF basketball has put itself in an unfamiliar position for late February: deservedly in conversation for the NCAA bubble, with just two weeks of play left before the conference tournaments.

The Bulls (17-10) are truly on two bubbles -- the larger NCAA one, of course, but also a mini-bubble of five Big East teams (USF, West Virginia, Connecticut, Cincinnati and Seton Hall) who could fill anywhere between two and five spots in the NCAAs beyond the consensus-lock five of Syracuse, Georgetown, Marquette, Louisville and Notre Dame.

What makes the next two weeks that much more interesting for USF is that the Bulls play two of the other four teams on that Big East bubble (Cincy and WVU) and both at home -- so far, their only games within that bubble are a very close home win against Seton Hall, and a 3-point home loss to Connecticut in their Big East opener. So those two remaining home games will largely determine how seriously USF will be considered for the NCAAs.

How are those five ranked? By conference record (and therefore, Big East tournament seed), USF is ahead, and should stay that way even if the Bulls lose Wednesday at Syracuse and next week at Louisville. There are few scenarios where USF isn't seeded somewhere around 5th to 7th in the Big East tournament, which would mean a first-day bye, then a game the Bulls are expected to win, then a game the Bulls are expected to lose.

(Looking way ahead, it's entirely possible that USF's first game in the Big East tournament would be on the second day against one of the three teams they beat twice this season -- Villanova, Pitt or Providence. The prospect of having to beat those teams a third time is a daunting challenge, but USF could draw Rutgers or St. John's as well. If USF can advance to the quarterfinals, the Bulls would likely face a team they lost badly to on the road -- better Notre Dame (an 11-point loss) than Marquette (by 20) or Georgetown (by 30).)

USF doesn't fare as well in the computer ratings -- has USF way down at 69, a full 22 spots below the rest of the Big East bubble (WVU 36, UConn 39, Cincy 40, SHall 47). According to CBS's RPI ratings, USF is much higher at 50, 30 spots ahead of Cincinnati but behind UConn (24!), SHall (36) and WVU (42). ESPN's Bracketology has West Virginia as a 10 seed, UConn an 11, Cincy 12, Seton Hall 13 and USF as one of the first four teams missing the cut.

Remember that the bubble can shift around a team -- so while Wednesday's game at Syracuse is a huge opportunity, much can change for the Bulls before they play host to Cincinnati on Sunday.

-- Cincinnati, which has won four of five, has Louisville at home on Thursday, where a win would solidify their position as a tournament team; they close with Marquette and at Villanova, so it's reasonable Cincinnati could drop all four, but more likely that they win one or two and are seeded around sixth or seventh for the Big East tournament.

-- West Virginia, which has now dropped five of its last seven, is at Notre Dame on Wednesday, then home against Marquette on Friday -- again, two opportunities to really boost their profile, but if they dropped both, they'd have lost seven of nine, would be 7-9 in Big East. Even after an easy game against DePaul, that would put considerable pressure on their season finale at USF, which could have the loser of that game needing a strong Big East tournament to get in.

-- Connecticut, which has three wins in its last 10, faces Syracuse at home on Saturday night -- lose there, and they have two light games to finish, at Providence and home against Pitt. They could fall into that 8-9 seed in New York, which would likely mean a third-day meeting with Syracuse.

-- Seton Hall has Georgetown at home tonight, their last big opportunity before they close with Rutgers and at DePaul. They too could wind up in that 8-9 game on the second day of the Big East tournament -- the loser of that game would be in a precarious position if any of the other bubble teams were to last two days longer in New York by making the Big East semifinals.

All this says is that Bulls fans have a lot of scoreboard watching to do in the next two weeks, in addition to needing continued strong play from USF in key games down the stretch. ...

[Last modified: Tuesday, February 21, 2012 11:32am]


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