Selection Sunday is mere days away, but it feels like we know just as much about the “who’s in” and “who’s out” question as we did at the 2012-13 season’s midpoint.
Yes, conference champions in smaller conferences have locked their place in the field. But during the conference tournament period, the focus deviates from seeding and other considerations for the most part. Instead, most fans and pundits are concentrated on which bubble teams are getting into the Big Dance and which others will get relegated to the NIT.
We obviously won’t know the answer to that question until Sunday. The selection committee has a known criterion they work with, but it seems like every season one or two “locks” get left out in the cold for a shocking selection. And for bubble teams, there is only one way to avoid the unpredictable whims of the selection committee: Perform so well in your respective conference tournament that it leaves a lasting impression heading into Selection Sunday.
Which teams are most in need of leaving a lasting imprint? Here is a look at a few teams that still have a ton of work to do in their conference tournaments this weekend.
(Note: Head here for ESPN's Joe Lunardi's latest look at the projections for the 2013 NCAA Tournament bracket.)
Virginia Cavaliers (21-10, RPI: 64)
With wins over Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State, the Cavaliers had to feel pretty good about themselves at the beginning of March. They were a No. 10 seed on Joe Lunardi's bracket on March 1 following the win over the Blue Devils and it seemed like—with an easy finish to the regular season staring at them in the face—a tournament bid was preordained.
However, Virginia floundered after Joe Harris put the team on his back in Charlottesville. They lost two straight road contests over Boston College and Florida State by one possession and needed overtime to take down fellow bubble team Maryland. Once fully ensconced in the tournament picture, the Cavaliers are still “in” at the moment—but are currently a “first round” participant, according to Lunardi.
Though being in the tournament is slightly comforting, we all know how precarious the bubble can be this time of year. It only takes one or two shocking runs from an unforeseen team to vault into the Big Dance by winning their conference tournament, and thus leaving the Virginias of the world out.
That’s what makes the Cavaliers’ ACC tournament run so critical. They don’t have to take home the crown in Greensboro to make the Dance, but taking down North Carolina State in the quarterfinals is. As is showing up and giving Miami—their likely opponent in the semis—a good scare in the following round. All humans are victims of recency bias, and that’s especially the case for the NCAA selection committee.
Virginia isn’t going to impress with style points. Tony Bennett’s system is so heavily structured and slow-moving that if the Cavaliers were a car, even octogenarians would complain that they were holding up traffic.
So, in order to impress the committee, they’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way: winning and battling against top-seeded teams.
Tennessee Volunteers (20-11, RPI: 53)
Alabama Crimson Tide (20-11, RPI: 61)
It’s imperative that we group these two teams together not only because they are firmly on the bubble, but also because both sides will be playing for their lives against one another in the SEC tournament. The loser of their matchup is out. There will be no requiem for the lost—they’ll just be gone, gallivanting off to a likely top seed in the NIT.
The winner of the matchup, however, places itself firmly in the discussion on Sunday. The SEC is having a down season overall—they are just eighth overall in total conference RPI, per CBS Sports—but it’s hard to fathom a scenario in which only three representatives make the NCAA tournament (Ole Miss is also in this conversation).
Heading into Friday’s matchup, Tennessee is favored to make the Dance over Alabama for good reason. The Volunteers have calling-card victories over Florida and Missouri and are 9-3 over their last 12 games—both huge factors on Selection Sunday. The Crimson Tide, meanwhile, have just two wins one can even consider “good” (Kentucky and Villanova) and blew a golden opportunity to defeat Florida on March 2.
That said, it’s hard to pick either side as an overarching favorite. Tennessee and Alabama split their home-and-home this season with both contests being decided by one possession. The combined score of the two games was a jarringly close 121-119 in favor of Alabama. Both sides play below-the-median paces, holding possessions to a minimum and emphasizing solid team defense.
With a matchup vs. Florida likely in the offing for the quarterfinal victor, this may be the single biggest “bubble watch” contest on Friday.
Iowa Hawkeyes (21-11, RPI: 72)
Playing in the nation’s second-best top-to-bottom conference in terms of RPI, the Hawkeyes have had plenty of chances to get their signature win this season—it just hasn’t happened yet.
Iowa is 0-5 versus teams inside the RPI Top 25 and 4-8 versus Top-50 teams, with four of those defeats coming by four points or less. The Hawkeyes have been on the precipice of solidifying their resume plenty of times this season but have not been able to get the job done down the stretch.
They will get perhaps their last chance on Friday vs. Michigan State. The Spartans head into Friday’s matchup ranked ninth in RPI, eighth in the AP poll (though that’s irrelevant for the selection committee) and with two straight victories. Tom Izzo is a habitual tournament juggernaut as well, which leaves Iowa’s chances pretty low according to most pundits.
What the Hawkeyes do have, though, is confidence they can beat Michigan State. Fred McCaffery’s squad played its Big Ten counterparts down to the wire in January, as Keith Appling needed to hit four vital free throws down the stretch for the Spartans.
While it’s easy to chalk that up as a fluke—Iowa was at home, after all—the Hawkeyes did not play all that well offensively. They needed Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe both to have utterly brilliant performances off the bench in that contest, combining for 29 points on 11-of-14 shooting, to even have a lead in the first place. With Roy Devyn Marble absent for that contest and Aaron White only intermittently effective, it’s possible that Iowa could play better, not worse the second time around.
If the Hawkeyes are able to pull a shocker, they may go from “next four out” to firmly in the conversation on Sunday.