NCAA Tournament 2013: The Top 10 Bubble Watch Games of Week 16

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 18, 2013

NCAA Tournament 2013: The Top 10 Bubble Watch Games of Week 16

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    There are 10 games in the upcoming seven days that will play a crucial role as we watch the bubble take shape over the final four weeks of the college basketball season.

    In order to qualify as a Bubble Watch Game, at least one of the teams involved must be in a position to play its way into or out of the latest projected field as a result of the game. If both teams are in such a position, even better.

    The games are ranked by considering how drastically that individual outcome effects the stock of the team(s) involved. If the game has a potential ripple effect on teams not even playing, it gets bonus attention.

    We'll first take a look at four games of mild intrigue that missed the cut as we build up to the games with a guaranteed impact on the tournament field.

Also Worth Watching

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    Rutgers at Villanova (Monday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPNU)

    The loser of this game is definitely missing the NCAA tournament. More than likely, so is the winner. Both teams still have games left against Georgetown and Marquette, so the key win opportunities are there. Unfortunately, the losses have been piling up for too long.

     

    Southern Miss at Memphis (Saturday at 1 p.m. ET on Fox Sports)

    If Memphis wins, the Tigers become a lock for the tournament while Southern Miss loses any hope of an at-large bid. If Southern Miss wins, there’s an outside chance that the Golden Eagles get in and that Memphis misses out.

     

    Detroit at Wichita State (Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN2)

    The Titans aren't in the at-large discussion yet, but adding road wins in upcoming games against Wichita State and Temple to Saturday’s road win over Valparaiso might get them there.

     

    Ohio at Belmont (Saturday at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN2)

    Neither of these teams can afford another loss if they’re to have any shot at an at-large bid. Yes, Belmont is in danger of missing the tournament, and yes, Ohio is in remote danger of making it as an at-large team.

No. 10: Wyoming at San Diego State

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    Tip Time: Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET

    Implications for Wyoming (18-7, RPI: 62)

    A sub-.500 record in the Big Ten might be good enough to make the NCAA tournament. A sub-.500 record in the Mountain West most likely will not.

    Already sitting at 4-7, Wyoming will need to win at least three of its remaining five games to have any hope of dancing, and this difficult game against the Aztecs is the second-least difficult of the five.

     

    Implications for San Diego State (18-7, RPI: 34)

    Road losses to Colorado State and UNLV in the past week have put a shred of doubt into San Diego State’s tournament bid. At 6-5 in the conference with games at New Mexico and at Boise State upcoming, a loss to Wyoming could mean they finish the season 20-10 overall and .500 in conference.

    At that point, the shred of doubt would evolve into real concern, especially if they get bounced early in the MWC tourney.

     

    Prediction

    In the first game at Wyoming (in which the Aztecs had a whopping nine points at halftime), Xavier Thames (missed game with back injury), JJ O’Brien and James Rahon combined for two points in 47 minutes of play. The trio is averaging 23.6 PPG on the season and should play more of a factor in the rematch: SDSU 64-56.

No. 9: VCU at Saint Louis

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    Tip Time: Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network

    Implications for VCU (21-5, RPI: 35)

    The Rams are in sole possession of first place in the A-10 with seven RPI Top 100 wins and no bad losses. It would take a considerable collapse over the final five games to miss the NCAA tournament, but it certainly isn’t an easy stretch of games.

     

    Implications for Saint Louis (19-5, RPI: 44)

    The Billikens have won seven straight games, improving to 7-4 against the RPI Top 100 and moving comfortably into the field in the process. However, they still play one game each against the other four teams atop the conference standings.

    A 3-3 finish would probably be enough to get in, but a loss in this game and the subsequent trip to Butler would make things at least a little dicey.

     

    Prediction

    VCU has only played two true road games against the RPI Top 120 this season, and Saint Louis is 13-1 in its last 14 home games. In addition to the home-court advantage, the Billikens should be able to survive VCU’s Havoc defense, as they’ve turned the ball over 10 or fewer times in four of their last five games: SLU 77-70.

No. 8: Air Force at Boise State

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    Tip Time: Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET

    Implications for Air Force (15-9, RPI: 70)

    We’ve finally reached the point in the season when the Mountain West teams start eliminating each other from the NCAA tournament. At the moment, seven of the nine teams are still in contention for a bid, but there’s virtually no chance that more than five of them make it.

    The loser of this game is in serious trouble.

    The Falcons missed out on a big chance against Colorado State on Saturday night. Now more of a long shot to get in with nine losses and only five wins against the RPI Top 150, they can ill afford to lose any more games.

     

    Implications for Boise State (16-8, RPI: 42)

    Every game for the past month has been a key game for Boise State, and every game for the next month will be the same story. The Broncos are 4-6 in MWC play with three games in the next 10 days (vs. Air Force, at Fresno State, vs. Nevada) that they must win.

    They’ll probably need to win five of their final six games to be safely in the field, and a loss in this game against Air Force would make that a near impossibility.

     

    Prediction

    Air Force put up 91 points against Boise State in the first game, but the offense hasn’t traveled well this season—the Falcons are scoring just 63.3 PPG on the road as opposed to 79.2 PPG at home: Boise State 75-61.

No. 7: North Carolina State at North Carolina

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    Tip Time: Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN

    Implications for NC State (18-7, RPI: 20)

    The Wolfpack have lost five of their last nine games and were a last-second possession away from losing three of the other four. The only “comfortable” win was the first game against UNC, in which they darn near blew a 28-point second-half lead.

    The good RPI and memorable wins over Duke and UNC are the only things keeping them alive. They still have two games against Florida State along with this rematch with the Tar Heels. Losses in those three games would push them out of the field for good.

     

    Implications for North Carolina (17-8, RPI: 29)

    Virginia held its first 24 opponents under 70 points before UNC dropped 93 on them on Saturday. The Tar Heels likely would’ve beaten Duke on Wednesday if it weren’t for horrible free-throw shooting in the second half (9-of-17).

    They appear to be improving at the right time.

    If they win their next three games (at Georgia Tech, vs. NC State, at Clemson) they should be safely in the tournament. Odds are they’ll also win the season finale against Duke, erasing any lingering theories involving UNC missing the tournament.

     

    Prediction

    Historical results rarely have any bearing on the current season, but the last eight times these teams have played at UNC, the Tar Heels have won each game by an average margin of victory of 18.5 PPG: UNC 92-79.

No. 6: California at Oregon

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    Tip Time: Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPNU

    Implications for Cal (16-9, RPI: 55)

    Three weeks ago, Cal was 11-8 overall and 0-5 against the RPI Top 50. After recent wins over Oregon, Arizona and UCLA—and a lot of bad losses by other teams on the bubble—the Golden Bears are suddenly one of the last teams in the field.

    This road game against Oregon is their biggest remaining hurdle. A loss doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll miss the tournament, but a win would provide them with a little breathing room down the stretch.

     

    Implications for Oregon (21-5, RPI: 37)

    The Pac-12 is devolving into a muddled mess of mediocre members. By the end of next week, it’s conceivable that five different teams will be tied atop the standings with 10 wins. If that happens, Oregon could be in trouble.

    Still no word on when Dominic Artis will return. The Ducks have been able to eke out wins in their last three games without him, but Cal and Stanford are better than Utah and the Washington schools. Without their star point guard, they may lose both of those games, slipping in both the conference standings and in RPI. 

     

    Prediction

    Artis returns to action but takes at least a game or two to return to form. Oregon struggles to score while Allen Crabbe hits five three-pointers in carrying the Golden Bears to a huge road win: Cal 71-59.

No. 5: Wichita State at Indiana State

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    Tip Time: Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN3

    Implications for Wichita State (22-5, RPI: 37)

    The Shockers are coming off of one of the most absurd wins of the season against Illinois State. In the final 1:08, the refs blatantly missed three calls—all of which favored Illinois State—and yet the Shockers still came back from a seven-point deficit in the final 41.2 seconds, thanks to a Jackie Carmichael kick to the chest.

    (If you have a video clip of the final 1:08, please post it in the comments. The game just ended so there are no links to be found, but the world deserves to see what happened).

    Just like that, Wichita State lives to fight another day on the bubble.

    That can all change when they travel to Indiana State on Tuesday.

    A win would keep Wichita State’s resume solid enough to withstand a loss at Creighton in the season finale and still make the tournament. A loss would mean the Shockers need to win their remaining games against Detroit, Evansville and Creighton to feel safe.

     

    Implications for Indiana State (16-10, RPI: 60)

    Losses to Missouri State and Bradley have more than likely put an end to the Sycamores at-large dreams, but a 4-0 finish could get them back in the discussion—especially if they can knock either Creighton or Wichita State out of the MVC tourney.

    However, one more loss before the MVC championship game and they are officially dead and buried.

     

    Prediction

    Indiana State will win by double digits, because it makes no sense, and nothing about Indiana State’s season to date makes any sense: ISU 82-65.

No. 4: Missouri at Kentucky

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    Tip Time: Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN

    Implications for Missouri (18-7, RPI: 36)

    The Tigers are 0-6 in true road games against the RPI Top 200. Four of those losses were by one possession, but a loss is a loss no matter the margin.

    They still have two difficult road games (at Kentucky, at Tennessee) and a home game against Florida remaining, which could put them at 10 losses with only two RPI Top 100 wins in the final two months of the season—and that’s assuming they win the rematch with Arkansas.

    Once upon a time, we were trying to figure out who would be the fourth team from the SEC to receive an invite to the tournament. Now, there’s no guarantee they’ll even send two teams. 

     

    Implications for Kentucky (17-8, RPI: 43)

    A loss to Tennessee in the first game without Nerlens Noel wasn’t a huge surprise.

    Losing the game by 30 points was certainly unexpected.

    The computer resume is still pretty strong, but there are at least three losses left on the schedule if they don’t figure out how to live without Noel in a hurry. It will only take two losses for them to permanently drop out of the field.

     

    Prediction

    With only one remaining Wildcat who plays anything resembling interior defense (Willie Cauley-Stein), Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi will abuse Kentucky in the paint en route to the Wildcats’ worst home loss in seven years: Missouri 84-62.

No. 3: Creighton at Saint Mary's

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    Tip Time: Saturday at 6 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN2

    Implications for Creighton (21-6, RPI: 45)

    Despite last week’s three-game losing streak, the Bluejays are still in great shape to make the tournament. They’re 12-5 against the RPI Top 150 with a good-not-great RPI of their own.

    Three wins in the final four games should be enough to cement their bid. A loss in this game would make that significantly more challenging, given the season finale against Wichita State.

     

    Implications for Saint Mary’s (22-5, RPI: 50)

    Since losing to Northern Iowa on December 23, the blueprint for Saint Mary’s has been pretty simple: Beat Gonzaga if you can, but make sure not to lose to anyone else along the way.

    Well, the Gaels lost both games against Gonzaga, but haven’t lost to anyone else just yet.

    If they win all four of their remaining games, there’s a very good chance they’ll make the tournament; if they go 3-1 with the loss coming against Creighton, their odds are closer to 50/50.

    Either way, because their season ends a week before the major conference teams, they’ll once again be a hotly debated team over the final six days of the season as other bubble teams make runs in their respective conference tournaments.

     

    Prediction

    Creighton hasn’t beaten an RPI Top 50 team in three months; Saint Mary’s hasn’t beaten one all season. Saint Mary’s has been the better of the two teams over the past month and have the advantage of playing at home: Saint Mary’s 68-65.

No. 2: La Salle at Temple/Temple at Charlotte

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    I’m cheating a bit on these next two slides, but both Temple and Baylor have a pair of equally critical games in the next seven days.

    Tip Time: Thursday at 7 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network/Sunday at 4 p.m. ET

    Implications for La Salle (18-6, RPI: 33)

    As long as the Explorers win the three easy games (at Rhode Island, vs. Duquesne, vs. George Washington), losses in their remaining trips to Temple and Saint Louis shouldn’t derail their surprise trip to the NCAA tournament, but it would make things interesting. A 4-1 finish would expunge any doubts.

     

    Implications for Temple (17-8, RPI: 48)

    Thursday’s home loss to Duquesne was about as bad as it gets for a team on the bubble. It leaves Temple just outside the tournament field with four difficult games remaining.

    A pair of losses this week against fellow A-10 bubble teams would be one giant step towards the NIT.

     

    Implications for Charlotte (18-7, RPI: 49)

    Charlotte’s computer profile is almost identical to Temple’s, but they haven’t received an equivalent level of respect in projected brackets. After this home game against Temple, the 49ers close the season with a very winnable four-game stretch.

    If they beat Temple and eventually get to 23-7 overall and 11-5 in the A-10, it would be hard to deny them a bid. If they lose, however, a sixth-place finish in the A-10 is probably their best-case scenario, which likely wouldn’t be good enough. It’s do or die next weekend for Charlotte.

     

    Predictions

    It’s tempting to think that Temple will win both games handily because they’re Temple and because Charlotte and La Salle haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2005 and 1992, respectively. But that would be completely disregarding the impressive seasons by those perennial A-10 afterthoughts.

    Temple has played in five consecutive one-point games. Pretending that is a sustainable trend, La Salle will win the first game 77-76, and Temple will finish off a season sweep of Charlotte by a score of 71-70.

No. 1: Iowa State at Baylor/Baylor at Oklahoma

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    Tip Time: Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPNU/Saturday at 5 p.m. ET on ESPNU

    Implications for Iowa State (17-8, RPI: 47)

    The Cyclones are 14-0 at home this season, which would be wonderful if they weren’t 0-7 away from home against the RPI Top 150.

    They need to prove that they can play on the road. Even if they finish up the season 17-0 at home—which would mean upcoming wins over Kansas and Oklahoma State—if they don’t beat someone better than TCU on the road, the committee will instantly disregard their resume.

     

    Implications for Baylor (16-9, RPI: 54)

    Baylor is 7-5 in the Big 12, but all conference records are not created equally. The seven wins are vs. Oklahoma State, vs. Texas, vs. West Virginia, against TCU (x2) and against Texas Tech (x2). 

    Just so we’re clear, that’s two road wins against the two worst teams in the Big 12, four home wins against the four worst teams in the Big 12 and a nice win against Oklahoma State. Add it up and those wins hold less weight than the early-season home losses to Charleston and Northwestern.

    Aside from the win over Oklahoma State, the best win on the Bears resume was that surprise win over Kentucky that’s losing value quicker than the U.S. dollar.

    If they don’t pick up wins in both of their games this week, they’ll need to win their remaining home games against the Kansas schools and get a little help to have a legitimate argument for inclusion in the tournament field.

     

    Implications for Oklahoma (16-8, RPI 18)

    Though all three teams are 7-5 in the Big 12, the Sooners are in substantially better shape than either Baylor or Iowa State.

    The win over Kansas last week was huge, and the remaining schedule is very favorable: road games against Texas, Texas Tech and TCU and home games against WVU, Baylor and Iowa State.

    With nary a bad loss on the resume, they could lose to both Baylor and Iowa State and still potentially get a better seed than either of them.

     

    Predictions

    Iowa State finally gets a road win worth mentioning (82-79), and Oklahoma cements Baylor’s spot in sixth place in the Big 12 (73-62).