The Heroes and Villains of Championship Week
As the calendar turns to March, America tingles with the anticipation of the Cinderella stories sure to emerge over the course of the next four weeks. Blissfully ignorant of these “inferior leagues” these last four months, all eyes now turn to conferences like the Colonial, Horizon, and WAC.
Especially if you’re a fan of a bubble team. Your team’s chance for NCAA glory may hinge upon a smaller school taking care of its own business and making the Tournament itself. As Aesop advised in The Lion and the Mouse, this time of year, “little friends” may indeed prove great friends.
Without further ado, here are the 2010 Bubble‘s Heroes and Villains:
Butler - Everyone loves Butler. Along with the next team on the list, this school embodies the very essence of the Cinderella. The Bulldogs are an absolute ironclad lock for the top half of the bracket. If they lose at any time from here on out, it’s an at-large bid “off the table.”
Gonzaga – The Zags probably garner a bit more ire than the Bulldogs, but bubble teams across the land know they have friends in Spokane for another week. Despite two bad losses to San Francisco and Loyola Marymount late in the year, the Zags thumped their closest rival, Saint Mary’s, and everyone outside the Bay Area hopes they’ll do it again in the WCC Tournament.
New Mexico – What is a potential #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament doing on this list? Well, the Lobos are the likely draw for bubblicious San Diego State in the Mountain West semifinal. San Diego State has a worthy at-large profile already, and what’s missing is a marquee W away from home. If the Lobos quell that dream, they almost certainly knock SDSU from serious consideration. Doing so simultaneously hurts Saint Mary’s chances a bit, since the Aztecs are the Gaels’ best victim.
UTEP – The Miners have quietly moved their way into near-lock position in the unheralded CUSA. They still travel to surprising Marshall and host UAB even before the conference Tournament, though, and a loss to either team in the CUSA Tournament would probably gobble up another at-large bid.
Northern Iowa – Despite a paranoid over-reaction by some Panther fans to an Egleseder-less loss in Evansville, UNI is looking good for a return trip to the NCAAs. The Valley Tournament is notorious for its first-round upsets, though, and Cedar Falls is receiving lots of good karma through Sunday afternoon.
Old Dominion – The Monarchs went 15-3 in a top-heavy but underrated Colonial League this year and have emerged as the only team from the league with a legit at-large profile…mostly by avoiding bad losses. The CAA would be a one-bid league if ODU were able to cut the nets down in Richmond.
California – While I personally don’t believe that Cal has a worthy at-large profile, the fact is that we’ve never seen a team with Cal’s resume. As bad a year as it’s been for the conference, it would certainly be safer for all Bubble parties–and probably the conference itself–to see the Golden Bears emerge victorious at the Pac-10 Tournament. If the Bears lose, the Pac-10 might still only get one team into the Big Dance, and not its best.
Utah State – The Aggies are clearly the best team in the WAC, and the only one with a reasonable chance at an at-large bid should they fail. They haven’t lost since the first weekend in January and it’d be tough for the Committee to leave them home even if they fell early in Reno.
Richmond, Temple, and Xavier – If the Atlantic 10 final pits two of these three teams against each other, Bubble teams everywhere will breathe a sigh of relief.
Detroit - The Titans are only 9-9 in the Horizon League, but have lost a TON of close games, including an OT loss at home to Butler and a five point L in Hinkle Fieldhouse.
Saint Mary’s – The Gaels are the team with the best chance of knocking the Zags off their perch at the top of the WCC, and although Portland had a chance for an at-large at the start of conference play, the Pilots have fallen off the pace. SMC can punch its ticket for the NIT if it loses to Portland in the semis. Reaching the final would be problematic for other bubble teams, and winning would be very problematic.
San Diego State – As mentioned in the section above, SDSU is missing a marquee road win. Knocking off arguably the hottest team in the country, New Mexico, on a true neutral floor (UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center) would do the trick. Losing that game probably keeps the Aztecs on the outside looking in.
Marshall – The Thundering Herd have quietly had a surprising year, alone in fourth place in the conference. They’ve already won at UAB, played West Virginia very tough in their annual rivalry, and are riding a 7-game winning streak. I wouldn’t put it past them to win the CUSA’s automatic bid just yet.
Wichita State – The Shockers haven’t had a great year by any means, but they were the first team to knock off Northern Iowa…
William & Mary, George Mason, Northeastern and VCU – None of these teams has a worthy at-large resume, but they’ve all had very good years in the CAA. William & Mary is the only one that hasn’t beaten the Monarchs already…but there are obviously plenty of potential pitfalls for ODU regardless.
St John’s – The Johnnies have already played spoiler a number of times in The Garden this year, against Temple, Cincinnati, and Louisville. I doubt they have what it takes to win FIVE games in a row, but anything’s possible in The Mecca.
Northwestern – The Wildcats’ at-large hopes evaporated with their abysmal showing in State College over the weekend. But Bill Carmody’s team is always a tough Big Ten Tournament out with its throwback style.
Georgia – UGA has been a very dangerous team at home, and close to home, all year. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the SEC Tournament has moved from Atlanta to Nashville in 2010. But Georgia could be on a lot of people’s minds if it adds a couple of big-name SEC schools to its hit list that already includes Illinois, St Louis, Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Florida.
North Carolina – Still time for UNC to decide it wants to play like it did against Michigan State at the start of the year. I’m just sayin’…
UCLA – UCLA already beat Cal (in Berkeley) and if anyone is going to send any fans to Staples Center, it’s the Bruins. Side note: what’s the over under on average game attendance this year? 1,800?
Nevada – For some reason, the Wolf Pack get to host the WAC Tournament, which seems hugely unfair, much like San Diego getting to host the WCC Tournament for all those years. Nevada’s not a bad team, though, and took Utah State to overtime at the Lawlor Events Center earlier this year.