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Surviving a week on the NCAA bubble



It is a full week until Selection Sunday, the day in which the NCAA Tournament bubble bursts -- come 6 p.m. on March 11, a team is either in or out. There's no discussion, no debate, only congratulations and condolences.

So while much is still in USF's hands -- a win Wednesday night against Rutgers or Villanova would be a good start -- much of the week, both before and after the Bulls' run in Manhattan, will be about watching and waiting as the bubble shifts around USF.

And since USF is relatively inexperienced with life on the bubble, we should go over a few basics of what to root for and root against. Surviving a week on the bubble requires nearly the opposite of how most fans view championship week: underdogs are your enemy, top seeds and general order your friends. You do not want March Madness this week.

Bubble projections to this point presume something that doesn't always happen, that the top teams will prevail in conference tournaments. When that doesn't happen, a lesser team takes an automatic bid, and the top seed that didn't win may then gobble up an at-large bid, effectively lowering every team on the bubble by one spot. So ...

One-bid leagues must stay one-bid leagues: By my count, there were seven conferences expected to merit a single bid, with a top team in the RPI top 50. So any surprise champions introduce a new team to the bubble, potentially ahead of USF. Murray State came through and won the Ohio Valley. Harvard (corrected) needs to earn the automatic bid that goes to the Ivy League regular-season champ. Bulls fans want Middle Tennessee (RPI 44) to win the Sun Belt on Tuesday, and Oral Roberts (RPI 40) to win the Summit the same day, even if those two teams might wind up below USF on the bubble.

Three more potentially troubling one-bid leagues end Saturday, like the Big East: Long Beach State (RPI 34) needs to win the Big West, Iona (RPI 39) must win the Mid-American and Nevada (RPI 47) must win the WAC.

Two-bid leagues must stay two-bid leagues: This is a little more complicated, but the idea is the same -- don't let lesser teams earn their way into the field by taking an automatic bid. That means today at 2, Creighton has to win the Missouri Valley and not Illinois State. It means on Saturday, either Memphis (RPI 18) or Southern Miss (RPI 17) has to win Conference USA, and on Sunday, either Temple (RPI 12) or Saint Louis (RPI 30) should win the Atlantic-10.

Outlast other Big East bubble teams: To me, USF's biggest vulnerability is the fact that it's publicly perceived as the Big East's 10th team. If the committee decides the league isn't worth 10 bids, you don't want to be the first on the chopping block. USF has the sixth seed in the tournament and will likely be ahead of a few in the RPI, but the most visible way to move up the Big East pecking order is to outlast other teams on the bubble in Manhattan.

To some extent, playing the last game on Wednesday should help that. Win that game, and 11 Big East teams will be eliminated before USF even plays on Thursday night. Between 8th-seeded West Virginia and 9th-seeded Connecticut, one will eliminate the other, and that winner has to play Syracuse early on Thursday. The most vulnerable might be Seton Hall, which dropped to the 10th seed after losing to last-place DePaul and opens with a Providence team that's won two of three. If the Pirates lose Tuesday and the Bulls win Wednesday (having beaten Seton Hall head-to-head) you could argue USF will be ahead of Seton Hall on the bubble.

Lastly, in the next eight top conferences -- all expected to earn at least three bids -- you don't want Cinderella making an appearance. Again, as long as teams that were already in win their leagues' automatic bids, it doesn't hurt the bubble teams. So enjoy the week ahead -- we'll be here to explain what's good and bad for USF, and of course, in New York when the Bulls have their future in their own hands.

[Last modified: Sunday, March 4, 2012 12:53pm]


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