by Paul West
With four weeks left until Selection Sunday and the start of March Madness, speculation is well underway as to who will be in, who will be out, and who will be a threat if they make it to the tournament. Everyone’s got their eye on undefeateds like Syracuse and Wichita State, and many others have their eye on perennial powers like Duke, Kansas and Kentucky. Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott has helped put Creighton on the map, and rising stars like Iowa State and Virginia are surprising fewer and fewer people with every strong outing. But Selection Sunday and all its speculation and controversy often come down to the dreaded ‘bubble’: teams on the verge, a key win or loss from being in or out of the tournament. Some of these teams are more dangerous than others. Here are some teams that are positioned to secure their tournament spots with strong finishes, and could be bracket busters if they make the cut.
New Mexico Lobos (19-5, 32nd RPI)
The New Mexico Lobos are second place in the Mountain West Conference, but that’s only because they’re stuck behind San Diego State, who are ranked fifth in the country. The Lobos’ numbers don’t jump off the page, but they pass the ‘eye test’ if you watch them for a bit. They’re balanced, with three players averaging over 14 points a game. They spread the ball around and they like to run. They’ve got an experienced team, with upperclassmen at key positions. They’ve got a seven-foot center, junior Alex Kirk, who’s averaging 14.6 points and 8.5 rebounds a game. And they have a go-to player that you might not have heard of: 6’9″ Aussie senior Cameron Bairstow. Bairstow is averaging 20.3 points and 7.2 rebounds a game, and he combines athleticism with an ability to create his own shot. He’s also got playmaking ability, averaging 1.8 assists per game. The Lobos have played a number of close games this season and have tournament experience in recent years. They won’t be intimidated by anyone, and they average 76.8 points a game, which means they can keep the pace in a shootout. They crash the boards hard (22nd in the country in defensive rebounds with 26.9 per game), and if they get confident and locked in, they might make a dangerous mid-level seed.
St. John’s Red Storm (17-9, 58th RPI)
The St. John’s Red Storm had to overcome a shaky start to their season (losing five in a row from December 31st to January 16th, ending with a double-overtime loss to Providence), but have come on strong of late. In their last two home games, they beat 11th-ranked Creighton 70-65 and blew out Georgetown 82-60. Two of their losses have been to Creighton and top-ranked Syracuse, by a combined eight points. The Red Storm are balanced and athletic, they can score in bunches and they’re never out of a game. They’re first in the country with 7.9 blocks per game, and their blocked shots often lead to explosive transition play. Last but not least, they have a bona-fide scorer in 6’4″ junior D’Angelo Harrison. Having played a lot of tough, close games and overcome an 0-5 start in conference play, coach Steve Lavin has the Red Storm believing in themselves and they’re mentally prepared for the pressure they’ll experience in March. They’re more in need of a strong finish than a lot of bubble teams, but they could be on the long side of a 12-5, 13-4 or 14-3 upset if they draw a team that has trouble scoring or doesn’t match their intensity.
Pittsburgh Panthers (20-6, 31st RPI)
The Pittsburgh Panthers are fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and have lost twice to Syracuse by a combined seven points–including losing on what might be the shot of the year, Tyler Ennis’ 35-foot buzzer beater. Three of their other losses were to Virginia, North Carolina and Cincinnati by a combined eight points. They’ve played a lot of tough games, and playing in the ACC will leave them battle tested for tournament time. They play a ferocious, smothering zone defense that incorporates an occasional gap-blitz effect, and their 60.6 points allowed per game is 15th in the country. They occasionally struggle to score, but have solid interior passing and look for high percentage shots, averaging 15.8 assists per game. 6’5″ senior forward Lamar Patterson is a versatile threat who averages 4.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists along with his 17 points per game, including over 40 percent from beyond the arc. The Panthers’ passing, shot selection and experience practicing against their own defense give them an advantage against most other teams that employ a zone; it will take a strong man-to-man defense to lock them down. Their defense and tenacity could carry them through a couple of rounds, depending on their draw.
Oklahoma Sooners (19-7, 25th RPI)
The Oklahoma Sooners have had some close, tough losses this season, and they play in the loaded Big 12 Conference. With 82.7 points per game, they’re 12th in the country in scoring, and they have five players averaging double digit points. They can rebound, they’re balanced, and they spread the floor and shoot well. They also hit their free throws, shooting 74 percent as a team. Though he’s only averaging 10.5 points per game, the Sooners’ x-factor might be sophomore Ryan Spangler. A 6’8″ forward who transferred from Gonzaga, Spangler leads the team with 9.9 rebounds per game and is a great athlete who threw 71 touchdowns and averaged 37.8 yards per punt for his high school football team. Along with his athleticism, Spangler is a high-intensity player who makes big plays down the stretch and has a knack for coming up with big rebounds and loose balls. When the Sooners put it together, they can beat anyone, but three of their seven losses have come in their last five games; they’ll have to right the ship down the stretch to make sure they’re not on the outside looking in. But if they do make it in, they could be a problem.
Saint Louis Billikens (23-2, 11th RPI)
The Saint Louis Billikens are highly ranked, 11th in RPI and 12th in 12th in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll. This might make them seem something of an outlier on this list. But despite the rankings, they’re still not often mentioned in the same breath as the country’s best teams. They’re another team with lots of experience, including senior guard Jordair Jett and senior forward Dwayne Evans. While Evans is their main scoring threat, Jett combines crafty playmaking with an ability to penetrate the paint and score and a scrappy style of play that signifies his team’s stifling man to man defense. The Billikens are ninth in the country with a stingy 58.9 points allowed per game, and tend to win by scoring just enough to make the difference. This group has been in the tournament before as a lower seed, and their under-the-radar status will allow them to play with an underdog mentality despite likely having a higher seed this year. Either way, their experience, togetherness and hustle should make them a headache for any opponent.