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Bubble Trouble in College Hoops

By Michael McCurry
On February 18, 2013


Our first installment of Bubble Trouble introduces the concept of this column and takes a look at three of the teams that are on the fence for the Big Dance. The countdown for Selection Sunday has dropped under four weeks (March 17th), and the NCAA Tournament officially tips off on March 19th in Dayton.

Life on the NCAA Tournament "bubble" can be absolutely excruciating. It can be tormenting, stressful, traumatic and cause you to lose hair faster than LeBron James. No, to answer your snarky question, I have never personally been a member of a bubble team. But have you ever heard either a player or coach say that they authentically enjoy being safely in the at-large field one day, only to be destined for the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) the next?

Take Seth Greenberg, the former Virginia Tech coach who now makes a living by heckling Andy Katz on ESPN. In his nine-year tenure with the Hokies, Greenberg was so accustomed to being on the brink of the NCAA's that he practically lived inside of a bubble. Notorious for having impressive records that were boosted by scheduling soft out-of-conference opponents, Greenberg would go ballistic whenever CBS's Greg Gumbel hosted a full Selection Show without mentioning Virginia Tech. Eventually, Greenberg's bubble popped one too many times and caused him to be fired. He had a 170-123 overall record in Blacksburg and left with the second-most wins in program history, but his inability to get over the hump and amaze the tournament committee did him in at the end. Did I mention life on the bubble sucks?

Fortuitously for those who, like me, aspire to be bracketologists, NCAA Tournament bubble teams are as much of a guarantee in life as torn ACL's to star athletes and lackluster dunk contests. The greatest playoff system known to man hands out spots to just 68 teams, and there lies a fine line between Shaka Smart's 2011 Final Four run with Virginia Commonwealth and Seth Greenberg's perennial NIT appearances with the Hokies. Both VCU and VA Tech would flip back and forth from Joe Lunardi's "Last Four In" to "First Four Out" quicker than a Kyrie Irving crossover, however, in the end all anyone will remember is that "Shaka-ing the World" became a nationwide phenomenon while Greenberg hit the streets after being canned.

Without further ado (or further missed dunks during NBA All-Star festivities), allow me to unveil the new sensation that I have coined "Bubble Trouble." "Bubble Trouble" takes a look at a handful of teams that still have a little work to do in order to lock up a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Keep in mind that it would only be a waste of time to inform you that Penn State needs to win the Big-10 tournament, find a cure for cancer and win a bowl game to make the field. On the flip side, I'm not here to focus on the Gonzaga's and Syracuse's of the world, who barring a 2007 New York Mets collapse are safely in the tourney and poised to challenge for a title. No, this column is all about the bubble. So let's get popping!

St. John's (15-10 overall, 7-6 Big East)

Considering the fact that St. John's rotation is all freshmen and sophomores, it's incredible that Steve Lavin has the Red Storm on the bubble at all. The Johnnies had some bad early losses to San Francisco and UNC-Asheville but have since grown up and collected a few hard-knock conference wins against Connecticut, Cincinnati, and Notre Dame. The Big East may soon be extinct, but for now the league remains a great argument for bubble teams who survive its daunting rigors. St. John's can surely benefit from that, but what will help them even more is taking out either Pitt or Marquette at home over the next couple weeks.

Current Outlook: The Johnnies would miss out on the NCAA Tournament if it started today, but that wouldn't be due to a lack of big-win opportunities. Wins over Marquette or Pitt, plus a solid showing in the Big East Tournament, can put the Red Storm right back in the thick of things.

Maryland (18-7 overall, 6-6 ACC)

Ah, if only a home win over rival Duke got you an automatic berth into the Big Dance. Maryland certainly entered back into the NCAA Tournament conversation after knocking off the Blue Devils (#1 in the RPI, which is one of the tools that the committee values greatly), but they're crazy if they think they can just coast until Selection Sunday. Those in College Park who hail from Fantasyland look at Maryland's 12-1 non-conference record and all but book a ticket to March Madness. In reality, however, the Terps are 2-4 in away games and got swept by a bad Florida State team. As for their 12-1 record against non-ACC squads, that strength of schedule rank was 299. A number that high, in a category that important, spells doom for Maryland. For now. 

Current Outlook: UMD is NIT-bound for the time being, but consider this: the combined ACC record of their next four opponents (Boston College, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest) is 16-34. The Terps have to finish better than .500 in a weak ACC, and you won't find too many four-game stretches easier than this in February.  Can Maryland get it done on the road, however? Three of those four tilts take place away from the friendly confines of the Comcast Center. 

Kentucky (17-8 overall, 8-4 SEC)

Where to begin with the Wildcats? Point guard Ryan Harrow, expected by many to take the reigns from Marquis Teague and run wild, failed to record an assist or even a point Saturday against Tennessee. Nerlens Noel, the surefire #1 overall pick in the NBA draft before tearing his ACL last week, was the clear heart and soul of this team. Without Noel manning the middle versus the Vols, John Calipari suffered his worst loss as a coach since 1989. Kentucky is a muddled disaster, and their NCAA Tournament résumé isn't much better. UK does not have a win against the Top-50 in the RPI, which means they haven't beaten any teams that are locks for the NCAA Tournament. How does anyone expect to party in March when they fall victim to a statistic like that?

Current Outlook: Kentucky is on the wrong side of the bubble as it stands this minute, plain and simple. Should they not defeat either Missouri (this Saturday) or Florida (March 9th) at home, Coach Cal can wave goodbye to both Nerlens Noel and an NCAA bid. 

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