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Analysis | NCAA men’s tournament bracketology: The bubble gets tighter on Friday

It’s one of selection week’s great traditions. A coach whose team is trending toward the NIT rather than the NCAA tournament is offered the chance in his postgame news conference to stump for his team.

Sometimes, they’re particularly memorable. Former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg’s insistence after a 2008 ACC semifinal loss that the selection committee would have to be “certifiably insane” to leave out the Hokies comes to mind. (The committee left the Hokies out).

Then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum. Take North Carolina’s Hubert Davis after the Tar Heels’ 68-59 loss effectively ended the tournament hopes of last year’s national runner-up.

“I don’t know,” Davis said. “I know it’s hard for you guys to think that I’m not thinking about that. Our record is our record. I think regardless of our record, I think we have shown throughout the entire year that we can compete and play and beat anybody in the country.”

Their record is 20-13, including 11-9 in the ACC. No North Carolina team has finished with a winning record in conference play and been excluded from the NCAA tournament since 1974, when each conference was limited to one team.

Carolina’s set of victories included a home defeat of Virginia last month. It was the “one” in the Tar Heels’ 1-9 Quadrant 1 record. They went 6-4 in Quad 2 games, picking off N.C. State, Charleston and Clemson at home, Ohio State and Michigan on neutral courts and Syracuse on the road. On paper, their worst loss was either to Pitt at home or Wake Forest on the road.

It isn’t enough, and it is not how anyone envisioned the Tar Heels would careen into mid-March. This was a preseason No. 1 team, which goes to show you a bit too much of preseason rankings is based on a small March sample size of the previous year.

Still, imagine if North Carolina lost in the second round last season. Most would have figured a core group of guards RJ Davis and Caleb Love, wing Leaky Black and forward Armando Bacot could have, at minimum, sailed into the NCAA tournament.

“It’s not a great feeling,” RJ Davis said. “It’s not the expectation we had coming into the year. It’s definitely frustrating and disappointing.”

As Hubert Davis navigated the stump speech that wasn’t, he sounded like a man who wanted to neither lie to everyone in the room nor throw his players under the bus. Not an easy task, especially less than a half-hour after North Carolina’s NCAA hopes almost surely met their end.

“At the end of the day, we had chances,” Hubert Davis said. “For eight or nine of the 13 losses that we had, we were up in the second half. So we had our chances.”

As for other business Thursday …

  • Losses probably finished off the tournament prospects of Michigan (to Rutgers) and Nevada (to San José State), and Oklahoma State (fell to Texas) could be off to Dayton after its Big 12 tournament split.
  • The last of the potential bid snatchers were shuffled out of the Big East tournament, which joins the Big 12 tournament where the remaining bracket impact concerns seeding rather than selection. That still leaves the American Athletic, ACC, Big Ten, Conference USA, Mountain West, Pac-12 and SEC for bid-thieving activity.

Here’s what to look for Friday …

Big Ten quarterfinal: Rutgers vs. Purdue, noon (BTN)

Rutgers (19-13) definitely needed its 62-50 defeat of Michigan, during which it held the Wolverines to 1-for-17 shooting in the first 19 minutes of the second half. It might need another high-end victory for its colorful résumé, and beating Purdue would check that box.

Bracket impact: The Scarlet Knights would earn some insurance with a victory, but a loss wouldn’t necessarily doom them to the NIT.

Conference USA semifinal: Florida Atlantic vs. Middle Tennessee, 12:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

The top-seeded Owls (29-3) will try to avoid getting bumped into the at-large pool against Middle Tennessee (19-13). The Blue Raiders dealt Florida Atlantic its most recent loss Feb. 16

Bracket impact: Same as before. Borderline teams really want Florida Atlantic to win this tournament since it will gobble up an at-large berth if it loses in the next two days.

American Athletic quarterfinals: Houston vs. East Carolina, 1 p.m. (ESPN2); Memphis vs. Central Florida, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)

Teams at the edge of the field start off with a little more wiggle room in the American. Houston is going to be a No. 1 seed. Memphis is safely inside the field, roughly around the No. 9 line. Everyone else is a potential bid thief.

Bracket impact: So long as Houston or Memphis wins the championship, the American tournament won’t have ripples on the selection of the field.

SEC quarterfinal: Mississippi State vs. Alabama, 1 p.m. (ESPN)

Similar to Rutgers, Mississippi State did itself some good Thursday by surviving an overtime encounter with Florida. The Bulldogs have no holes or serious flaws in their résumé — particularly relative to the other teams near the edge of the field — and would reduce their concern from minimal to nonexistent with an upset of the Crimson Tide.

Bracket impact: Mississippi State shouldn’t have to worry about play-in territory if it reaches the SEC semifinals.

Big Ten quarterfinal: Ohio State vs. Michigan State, approx. 2:30 p.m. (BTN)

Listed only because the 13th-seeded Buckeyes (15-18) are the Big Ten’s sole remaining potential bid snatcher. Ohio State has defeated Wisconsin and Iowa on back-to-back days and has won four of five. The only loss in that stretch? Saturday’s 84-78 misstep at Michigan State.

Bracket impact: If Michigan State wins, the rest of the Big Ten tournament should cause no heartburn for teams at the edge of the field.

Big Ten quarterfinal: Penn State vs. Northwestern, 6:30 p.m. (BTN)

Penn State’s third defeat of Illinois this season moved them even more safely into the field — perhaps enough to avoid a trek to Dayton altogether. Beat Northwestern for the second time this month and the question of whether the Nittany Lions must deal with a play-in game should be fully settled.

Bracket impact: Penn State got the victory it needed Thursday night. Everything from here should be gravy.

Pac-12 semifinal: UCLA vs. Oregon, 9 p.m. (Pac-12 Networks)

In 2013 and again in 2019, Oregon popped up as a Pac-12 tournament champion to earn a No. 12 seed in the NCAA tournament. If history is to repeat, the Ducks (19-13) will need to end UCLA’s 11-game winning streak in Friday’s semifinal and then win Saturday’s title game.

Bracket impact: None if UCLA wins, but the tension will grow in Las Vegas if Oregon lingers into Saturday night.

Mountain West semifinal: San Diego State vs. San José State, 9:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

San Diego State (25-6) is the Mountain West’s regular season champion and assured of an NCAA berth. San José State (20-12) foiled Nevada’s fading field of 68 hopes on Thursday while also earning its first conference tournament victory since the 2011 WAC tourney and securing the program’s first 20-win season since 1980-81. Former Nebraska coach Tim Miles has worked wonders, but the Spartans are not a viable at-large possibility.

Bracket impact: A San Diego State victory ousts a lurking bid snatcher. A loss makes Saturday’s title game in Las Vegas must-see TV for teams at the edge of the field.

ACC semifinal: Clemson vs. Virginia, approx. 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

Clemson (23-9) is this year’s unicorn, even more so than Rutgers. The Tigers have winning records against all four of the quads on the team sheets, the sort of thing usually exclusive to top 20 teams. It also has multiple Quad 4 losses; of at-large contenders, only Texas A&M and Utah State can say the same. Its No. 333 nonconference strength of schedule is the worst among at-large possibilities; only Rutgers (No. 309) and Kansas State (No. 312) are also in the 300s. How the Tigers get treated is anyone’s guess, but they stand out in comparison to the rest of the edge of the field for at least as many bad reasons as good ones.

Bracket impact: It would be easier to write off Clemson if it lost this game rather than made the ACC final. But there’s an argument to be made the Tigers should be in regardless, just as there’s one suggesting the nonconference schedule and losses to Loyola Chicago (oof!) and Louisville (double oof!) will keep them out if they don’t win the automatic bid. Clemson is the wildest wild card left in the deck.

SEC quarterfinal: Kentucky vs. Vanderbilt, approx. 9:30 p.m. (SEC Network)

Vanderbilt (19-13) has won nine of 10 after avenging a mid-February loss to LSU in Thursday’s SEC second round. The Commodores still need some more victories — and the plural form is probably the correct one — but they did pull out a two-point triumph in Lexington on March 1.

Bracket impact: The SEC is purged of potential bid snatchers if Vanderbilt is bounced.

Pac-12 semifinal: Arizona State vs. Arizona, approx. 11:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Arizona State (22-11) needed to do something in the Pac-12 tournament. Handling Southern Cal, 77-72, qualifies. The Sun Devils are not metrics darlings, but they do rank in the top 60 of the result-based rankings on the NCAA team sheets and have commendable Quad 1 (5-5) and Quad 2 (4-5) records. The loss to Texas Southern (NET of 309) is a dud, but there’s a growing case for Bobby Hurley’s bunch.

Bracket impact: Arizona State should at least be in the conversation for one of the last spots even if it loses tonight. But if it wins, it will have probably done enough to play its way in.

Mountain West quarterfinal: Boise State vs. Utah State, approx. midnight (CBS Sports Network)

Merely mentioned for the sake of thoroughness, both of these teams should be good to go at this point. Boise State (24-8) owns a 3-4 record in Quad 1 games and is a combined 12-6 against the top two quads. Utah State (25-7) has a modest 1-4 mark in Quad 1 games but is 9-1 against Quad 2.

Bracket impact: For Utah State, a victory should remove any chance it gets shipped to Dayton.

Rest of the schedule (none with a significant impact on the edge of the field or with immediate bid-snatching potential) …

American Athletic quarterfinals (Fort Worth, Texas): Cincinnati vs. Temple, approx. 3:30 p.m. (ESPN2); Tulane vs. Wichita State, approx. 9:30 p.m. (ESPNU)

ACC semifinal (Greensboro, N.C.): Miami vs. Duke, 7 p.m. (ESPN2)

Big East semifinals (New York): Marquette vs. Connecticut, 6:30 p.m. (Fox Sports 1); Xavier vs. Creighton, approx. 9 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)

Big Ten quarterfinal (Chicago): Indiana vs. Maryland, approx. 9 p.m. (BTN)

Big 12 semifinals (Kansas City, Mo.): Kansas vs. Iowa State, 7 p.m. (ESPN); Texas vs. TCU, approx. 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Big West semifinals (Henderson, Nev.): UC Irvine vs. Cal State Fullerton, 9 p.m.; UC Santa Barbara vs. UC Riverside, approx. 11:30 p.m. (ESPNU)

Conference USA semifinals (Frisco, Texas): North Texas vs. UAB, approx. 3 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

Metro Atlantic semifinals (Atlantic City): Iona vs. Niagara, 6 p.m. (ESPN News); Marist vs. St. Peter’s, approx. 8:30 p.m. (ESPN News)

Mid-American semifinals (Cleveland): Toledo vs. Ohio, 5 p.m. (CBS Sports Network); Kent State vs. Akron, approx. 7:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)

Mid-Eastern Athletic semifinals (Norfolk): Howard vs. Maryland-Eastern Shore, 6 p.m.; North Carolina Central vs. Norfolk State, approx. 8:30 p.m.

SEC quarterfinals (Nashville): Missouri vs. Tennessee, approx. 3:30 p.m. (ESPN); Texas A&M vs. Arkansas, 7 p.m. (SEC Network)

Southwestern Athletic semifinals (Birmingham, Ala.): Alabama A&M vs. Texas Southern, 3 p.m.; Grambling State vs. Jackson State, 9 p.m.

Western Athletic semifinals (Las Vegas): Sam Houston vs. Grand Canyon, 9 p.m.; Utah Valley vs. Southern Utah, approx. 11:30 p.m.

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Last four included: Pitt, Providence, Rutgers, Oklahoma State

First four on the outside: Arizona State, Wisconsin, Clemson, Nevada

Next four on the outside: North Carolina, Michigan, Vanderbilt, Oregon

Moving in: None

Moving out: None

Conference call: Big Ten (9), Big 12 (8), SEC (8), ACC (5), Big East (5), Mountain West (3), Pac-12 (3), American Athletic (2), West Coast (2)

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Indiana is right there at the edge of the No. 4 line, and it has a lot more to gain from its potential Big Ten title game path (Maryland, then Northwestern or Penn State) than Virginia does with beating North Carolina and possibly Clemson. … VCU is the top seed in the Atlantic 10 tournament, which will take Friday off before a Saturday semifinal session featuring the top four seeds (the Rams against Saint Louis and Dayton facing Fordham). It’s a one-bid league regardless of who wins it. …

Baylor has 11 Quadrant 1 victories, which is a lot for a team that might get nudged off the No. 2 line after its Big 12 tournament loss to Iowa State. Then again, the Bears have 10 overall losses, which is also a lot for a potential No. 10 seed. … Southern Cal is in the top 40 of four of the six team sheet metrics, including both of the results-based measures. The Trojans should be safe from making a trip to Dayton despite their loss to Arizona State.

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How far will Iowa State’s 10 Quadrant 1 victories take it? The No. 5 line might be the limit if the Cyclones lose to Kansas in the Big 12 semifinals. Iowa State isn’t ranked in the top 16 of any of the team sheet metrics; it is No. 17 in the NET and is in the 20s in four of the other five measures. … Xavier avoided a second loss to DePaul (barely) and can probably lock in a No. 4 seed or better if it can turn back Creighton in the Big East semifinals. …

Thursday’s loss to Ohio State leaves Iowa vulnerable to sinking back into 8/9 game territory. … N.C. State got drubbed in the ACC quarterfinals, suffering its third loss to Clemson. But the totality of the Wolfpack’s profile suggests (top 50 ranking in four of six team sheet metrics, no bad losses, .500 record away from Raleigh) suggests this is a team that will get in with a fair amount of room to spare.

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None of the team sheet metrics have West Virginia ranked lower than 31st. Even with a 19-14 record, the Mountaineers’ projection as a No. 9 seed here might turn out to be too low. … The more you look at Providence, the easier it is to envision the Friars getting shipped to Dayton. A big issue for them is a lack of quality victories away from home. They should get in, but a double-digit seed awaits. …

Utah State effectively finished the climb for an at-large berth by dispatching New Mexico in the Mountain West quarterfinals. The Aggies are playing for Dayton Avoidance Insurance at this point. … Pitt got clobbered, 96-69, by Duke in the ACC quarterfinals, and the blowout sent its NET ranking down 11 spots. It’s a reminder how much getting demolished even once can harm a team’s metrics.

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San Diego State has handled its business about as predictably as anyone. The Aztecs are 1-5 in upper Quadrant 1 — the very toughest games — and 24-1 in all other games. They get a Quad 2 game against San José State in the Mountain West semifinals. … Auburn ranks between 27th and 32nd in all of the team sheet metrics. The Tigers have earned their placement in an 8/9 game. …

Kansas State is not getting to the No. 2 line after its Big 12 quarterfinal loss to TCU, and it’s possible the Wildcats end up getting bumped to the No. 4 line before the weekend is out. … Illinois, a second-round loser to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament, will head into the NCAAs without having claimed a Quad 1 victory since Dec. 6 against Texas. The Illini are 2-10 in Quad 1 games, 18-2 in the rest of their contests.

Their record is 20-13, including 11-9 in the ACC. No North Carolina team has finished with a winning record in conference play and been excluded from the NCAA tournament since 1974, when each conference was limited to one team.


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Donovan Larsen

Donovan is a columnist and associate editor at the Dark News. He has written on everything from the politics to diversity issues in the workplace.

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