by Paul West
At last, March Madness is just around the corner, with Selection Sunday just days away. And in a season that’s been pretty topsy-turvy, the bubble teams are eyeing the conference tournaments hoping to play themselves into the big dance. The 16-16 Mount Saint Mary’s Mountaineers have played themselves in by winning the NEC tournament, much to the consternation of everyone who doesn’t play or root for Mount Saint Mary’s; this, of course, shrinks the “bubble” by one team. Joe Lunardi’s famous “last four in/last four out” predictions are in constant flux, and provide little solace to teams who aren’t widely considered a “lock” for the tourney. Below are some teams that are real threats to do damage in March–but would be well advised to play themselves off the bubble during Championship Week.
The West Virginia Mountaineers are a team that’s been trending upward for a while, despite losing games down the stretch. They average 78.5 points per game, and are 12th in the nation in strength of schedule. Their 102-77 blowout win over Iowa State, at the time ranked #11 in the country, shows their upside. Their 78-56 loss to a Kansas State, a fellow bubble team, shows their downside. Most recently, they beat eighth-ranked Kansas 92-86, a well-timed performance on the cusp of the postseason. Despite an absence of big names, they have two players averaging over 17 points, and as a team they shoot well from the line. Coaching is often a tournament x-factor, and Bob Huggins should be able to help his guys get their act together. They’re the 6th seed in the Big 12 Tournament this week, and their first game is against third-seeded Texas. A win against Texas should help them relax on Selection Sunday. If they don’t play well against Texas, they could wind up in the NIT.
The St. John’s Red Storm are a team I picked weeks ago as a possible bracket buster. First in the country with 7.6 blocks per game, they defend well and can score in transition. They’ve played a lot of tough games, and coach Steve Lavin has continued to push the right buttons. They’re 37th in the nation in strength of schedule, and have battled injuries on and off this season. Still, they’ve beaten Creighton twice and most recently took down Marquette in double overtime. They’re the 5th seed in the Big East Tournament, starting off against fourth-seeded Providence. They play well at Madison Square Garden, the site of the Big East Tournament, and if they pull off one or two victories this week it will be hard for the selection committee to turn them down. They night still be alive if they lose, but not if they lose badly.
The Oregon State Beavers looked solid for a while, playing in a tough and balanced Pac 12. Then they closed the season going 3-6 in their last nine games, putting their tournament standing in serious jeopardy. They’re 22nd in the country in strength of schedule, which should speak well for them despite their recent struggles. They’re not particularly strong at free throws; their second leading scorer, Devon Collier, shoots a brutal 58.6 percent from the line. But the Pac 12 Tournament is fairly wide open, as the conference is fairly well balanced, and if the Beavers win a few games they could play their way into a double-digit seed. They kick off their conference tourney as the 10th seed against their primary rivals, the 7th-seeded Oregon Ducks, with whom they split this season. If they make their way through Selection Sunday, the Beavers will really have to earn it. But it’s possible.
The Minnesota Golden Gohpers are another team that’s played tough games against good opponents all year. They have the 33rd toughest strength of schedule in the country; their most questionable losses are to Arkansas and Illinois, neither of whom are all that bad. Nothing about the Gophers leaps off the page or the screen, but they just seem to hang around, and play tough no matter the opponent. But the Gophers have 12 losses and are 8-10 in conference, which means they’ll have to impress in the Big Ten Tournament as the 7th seed. They open the tournament against 10th seeded Penn State, and a loss might doom them on Selection Sunday. Two wins should make them a shoo-in, whereas only winning their first game would leave them sweating out Selection Sunday.
The LSU Tigers are a tough team that attacks the glass. With the 50th ranked strength of schedule in the country, they haven’t had an easy run and they’ve played close games against good teams. The Tigers are in the top 25 in the country in defensive rebounds, steals and blocks per game, and their transition play helps them average 75.6 points per game. they start the SEC Tournament as the 7 seed, lined up against Alabama. If they lose, they’re probably finished. If they win, they might need to win again to get to 20 wins and sway the committee. A strong rebounding team that runs in transition and can score will be a big threat if they make it past Selection Sunday.