NCAA conference tournaments will add some pieces to the March Madness puzzle this week. For now, bracketologists are scrambling to solve a mess with few clear answers.
The process began on Saturday night when Murray State cemented an automatic bid in a 77-65 Ohio Valley Conference victory over Belmont.
While onlookers can breathe a sigh of relief knowing Ja Morant will partake in the NCAA tournament, the Bruins now must cross their fingers as a bubble squad.
Before conference tournaments kick into full force, let's take a look at what the experts are saying about Belmont and three other fringe March Madness candidates.
Belmont had stockpiled 14 straight victories before succumbing to Murray State on Saturday. Although they must now sweat out Selection Sunday, the Bruins still send an impressive portfolio to the committee.
At 26-5, Belmont ranks No. 41 in RPI and No. 53 in KenPom's team rating. Despite a lack of standout wins in a soft schedule, the mid-major squad received a groundswell of support following its OVC title defeat:
Gary Parrish @GaryParrishCBS
FINAL: Murray State 77, Belmont 65. Ja Morant is in the NCAA Tournament. And hopefully Belmont is too. Who needs a bunch of average Power-5 schools in this bracket? Put Rick Byrd’s team in the First Four against one of them — then watch Belmont beat an average Power-5 team by 13.
Entering the weekend, ESPN's Joe Lunardi had Belmont as a No. 12 seed, but Murray State wasn't invited to his projected tournament. This could indicate trouble, as CBS Sports' Jerry Palm listed the Bruins among his first-four cuts on Sunday.
Also working against them, they'd become just the second OVC club ever to receive an at-large bid. As Palm noted, no team in any conference has received one with a strength of schedule ranked outside the top 200 since 2006.
Following Saturday's loss, head coach Rick Byrd said he's "not going to campaign" for his club, per the Nashville Tennessean's Mike Organ.
"To be 16-2 in this league, this year with this team, I'm as proud as I can be, and that means we've got a really good basketball team," Byrd said. "How that compares with the other people that are going to be on the NCAA tournament bubble, I don't know."
Belmont deserves its first March Madness appearance since 2015, but don't be shocked when it gets snubbed for a power-conference squad with lesser credentials.
Temple is more than just a sentimental selection after upending No. 25 UCF in Fran Dunphy's final regular-season game.
Following Saturday's 67-62 upset, the Owls jumped ahead of the Knights as the No. 3 seed in the American Athletic Conference tournament.
They also boast a win over top-seeded Houston, which is allotted a No. 3 slot in the NCAA tournament by Lunardi and Palm prior to Sunday's win over Cincinnati.
Residing at 23-8 with an average point differential of plus-4.0, the metrics don't form a consensus on the Owls.
Lunardi and Palm, however, each included Temple in their latest brackets. Even without running the gauntlet, a strong showing in the AAC tournament would go a long way.
Sports Illustrated's Michael Beller said a run including another win over Houston or Cincinnati would punch a ticket for the Owls.
An early exit could conversely end Dunphy's 13-year run as Temple's head coach. Winners of six of their last seven, the team should at least hold its own enough to earn a No. 12 seed as an at-large inclusion.
Clemson and NC State
Lunardi projects the ACC to lead the way with nine March Madness representatives. A stacked grouping headlined by Virginia, North Carolina and Duke also features Clemson and NC State fighting for consideration.
The two bubble teams happen to open the ACC tournament against each other on Wednesday. Beller believes the victor will cement an invitation, but the loser won't necessarily get left out in the cold.
Yet Lunardi has both schools listed among his first-four in, so a one-and-done could conceivably knock out the loser. Palm, who has the Wolfpack among his first-four out, called it a probable "elimination game."
Each 9-9 in ACC play, NC State and Clemson carry underwhelming records of 21-10 and 19-12, respectively. Tough schedules could nevertheless bail them out, as the Tigers and Wolfpack respectively rank No. 28 and 31 in KenPom's adjusted team ratings.
They have also looked strong in defeat this season. NC State fell short by a point in overtime to Virginia—a near top-seed lock—in January, and Clemson's last loss occurred on March 2's 81-79 thriller with North Carolina.
Recent defeats to Florida State and Georgia Tech put NC State in higher jeopardy of getting excluded with a loss on Wednesday. Since the selection committee favors the major conference participants, look for both of them to sneak into the field after another highly competitive head-to-head matchup.
Prediction: In (both)