Is it possible we will see neither of the two teams who played for the NCAA title last April in this year’s Field of 68?
With 26 days until Selection Sunday, both Connecticut and Butler each have some work to do in order to give themselves a chance to get back to where they were a year ago.
Four years ago, Florida and Ohio State—the two finalists from the year before—both missed the NCAA Tournament. Ohio State, who were runners-up in 2007, won the NIT in 2008. In 2010, North Carolina—the 2009 national champs—missed the NCAAs.
Last year, Butler were in a dicey situation after going to the finals in 2010. At this same point of the season, the Bulldogs were 18-9 overall and were fighting to stay on the bubble. They wound up finishing the regular season on a nine-game winning streak to finish 23-9 and won the Horizon League tournament to earn the league’s automatic bid.
Meanwhile, Connecticut were never really in danger of not making the NCAA Tournament last year. While the Huskies weren’t playing particularly well toward the end of the regular season, they had been competitive enough in a loaded Big East to ensure they would be fine come Selection Sunday.
This year, neither team is in as good a spot as they were last year. As a result, both are more of a doubt to be part of the brackets than a certainty.
What will it take for each to return to the NCAAs this year? Here’s a breakdown.
UConn currently sit at 15-9 overall and at just 5-7 in the Big East.
That conference record would have been more justifiable a year ago, when the Big East was clearly the nation’s best conference. This year, their record seems a bit more suspect given the league is not quite as strong—particularly the teams in the top-half—as last year.
What is more alarming, and most recent, is that UConn has lost six of their last seven games. That has put the team in the position they find themselves in now.
To be fair, UConn has had a pretty brutal stretch of league games of late. The last seven of the Huskies’ Big East opponents includes road games against Syracuse, Georgetown and Louisville (all losses). Also included in that are two games against a surging Notre Dame (whom UConn split with). However, the home loss to Cincinnati and a road loss to Tennessee are games we are used to seeing UConn teams win.
For the season-to-date, UConn have a few good wins on their profile, but nothing that would strike anyone as a true signature win. Defeating Florida State in the Bahamas is a quality win, as is beating Harvard at home. The Huskies’ win at Notre Dame is probably their best win at this point.
If those are the wins that UConn have to bank on to make the NCAA Tournament, there will be some serious sweating going on wherever the team decides to meet on March 11th.
Outside of another miraculous five-day run at Madison Square Garden, UConn need to take advantage of a couple remaining opportunities on their schedule in order to secure an NCAA bid.
The first of those will come on Saturday when UConn hosts Marquette (No. 12 AP). This will be a critical game for the Huskies against the second-place team in the Big East. Marquette could be on their way to a top-four seed in the tournament. A win over the Golden Eagles could give UConn their best win thus far this season and would put them in a much better position than they are as of now.
UConn also has another game with Syracuse on Feb. 25. Obviously, a win over the Orange would be the best of signature wins. Given the fact that the Huskies played pretty well for most of the game in Syracuse, they may have a shot to pull off an upset.
If they don’t beat Syracuse, UConn might have to make sure they beat Pittsburgh at home to end the regular season. While Pitt is struggling to stay on the bubble themselves, a win could ensure the Huskies a 9-9 finish in league play.
A 9-9 finish—just like last year—would likely put UConn in a good position to lock up a tourney bid with a win or two in the Big East Tournament. Anything short of that would require a very deep run in New York.
Butler is not in the same situation as last year—they are off the bubble entirely this season.
At 16-12 overall, Butler simply lost too many games in the season’s first two months to overcome. Having to adjust to life without star players Shelvin Mack (early departure) and Matt Howard (graduation), Butler had trouble getting their footing early on. The Bulldogs lost to Evansville and Ball State, as well as to Valparaiso at home.
Despite having won seven of their past nine games, Butler is still a few games back of Horizon League-leader Valparaiso at 10-6 in league play. The Horizon is a pretty good league, but six losses in league play simply won’t cut it for Butler.
While they do have wins over Purdue, Stanford and most recently Cleveland State, their sub-100 RPI pretty much ensures they have only one avenue back to the NCAA Tournament.
The one route Butler must take to get back to the Field of 68 is to win the Horizon League tournament.
While Butler almost certainly won’t be the top-seed or the favorite to win, there shouldn’t be much doubt that they can win it. Butler has won it each of the past two years, and four of the past five. That winning experience should not be discounted when the league tourney gets underway.
In addition, the emergence of a couple of young players has helped Butler improve their offensive capabilities—something that has been lacking through most of the season. Freshman Roosevelt Jones is averaging just over 13 points per game in the past five games, and sophomore Chrishawn Hopkins is scoring over 10 points per game in his last five after an extended slump over the middle portion of the season.
If those two can continue to produce points and Butler can avoid a disastrous shooting night, then the defense should give them a chance to win any matchup they encounter in the Horizon League tournament.
What also may work in Butler’s favor is a key injury to arguably the league’s top team, Cleveland State. D’Aundray Brown, one of CSU’s leading scorers and rebounders, missed all of the Vikings’ loss to Butler this past weekend with a groin injury. He is also expected to miss the team’s next three games.
If one of the league’s best teams—with Valparaiso being the other—is not at full-strength by the time March rolls around, the road is paved a bit smoother still for Butler.
Edit: After Tuesday night's games, Butler is just a half game behind Cleveland State for second place in the Horizon League. The team who finishes in second place would have a double-bye in the conference tournament. That means Butler would only have to win two games to win the championship.
Clearly, UConn has more chances throughout the next four weeks to play their way in to the NCAA Tournament. Between their remaining Big East games and the conference tournament, if the Huskies win two or more games against teams in the upper tier of the league, they will be tough to exclude from the Field of 68.
However, that would require interim-coach George Blaney getting things back on track fairly quickly. Another two weeks of subpar ball and UConn could be out of the at-large picture altogether.
Butler will potentially have to win four straight games (if they finish third or lower) to win the Horizon’s automatic bid. It’s not a great situation to be in, but if you want to count on a team to potentially do it, why not Butler?
All that said, UConn are still—despite recent woes—in more control of their NCAA fate. They don’t necessarily have one must-win game; they just need to start playing better down the stretch.
If one of these two goes, it will likely be UConn.
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