Conference championship week has arrived and the clock is ticking for NCAA Tournament bubble teams that are sweating it out until Selection Sunday.
A bubble team’s worst enemy – other than itself – is a team whose résumé is unworthy of a spot in the field of 68 yet is surging and playing great basketball. A three- or four-day hot streak can lead to a conference tournament championship and an automatic bid that takes away open spots for borderline at-large teams.
For instance, last year, Georgetown surged through the Big East tournament to steal the league’s automatic bid. This year, Santa Clara was a potential thief that could’ve won the West Coast Conference but narrowly bowed out of the league tourney to Saint Mary’s in Monday’s semifinals. A godsend outcome for bubble teams.
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With only so many remaining spots for the NCAA selection committee to fill, here’s a look at seven potential thieves this year:
The Orange (15-16, 9-11 ACC) are trying to avoid the first losing season in coach Jim Boeheim’s 46 years as a head coach. Son Buddy Boeheim (19.3 ppg) led the ACC in scoring this season and is a three-point marksman who can get hot to spark a deep run. That’s not out of the cards considering how weak the ACC has been this season – ranking sixth in NET scores among power conferences. There are only three surefire ACC teams slated to go dancing and four bubble teams that will need to play their way in. This is definitely a possibility for ‘Cuse, a No. 9 seed in the ACC tourney.
The Ducks (18-13, 11-9 Pac-12) were once a bubble team but now they’ll have to win the Pac-12 tournament to hear their name called on Selection Sunday. It’s doable for coach Dana Altman’s underachieving team. Oregon has lost three in a row but has shown the ability to beat the league’s three best teams, knocking off UCLA twice, USC once and playing Arizona close in a three-point road loss.
Kansas State, Big 12
The Wildcats (14-16, 6-12 Big 12) are trending in the wrong direction, having lost five in a row, but this is a team that played Kansas close and upset Texas Tech in January. Nijel Pack (17.4 ppg) can erupt offensive, evidenced by 31 points vs. Baylor. It also owns wins against TCU and Iowa State so has what it takes to play spoiler in Kansas City.
Texas A&M, SEC
The Aggies (20-11, 9-9 SEC) don’t have a tourney profile because of a disastrous eight-game losing streak but this group has hit its stride late, rattling off four consecutive wins heading into the SEC tournament – where Texas A&M will face bubble team Florida in its opener. Senior guard Quenton Jackson has takeover abilities, erupting for 28 points in a March 2 upset of Alabama and 31 in a Feb. 22 win over Georgia.
Northwestern, Big Ten
The Wildcats (14-15, 7-13 Big Ten) have shown potential to be a spoiler, playing Big Ten kingpins Wisconsin, Illinois and Purdue close. They also took down Michigan State on the road and got the best of Big Ten bubble teams Rutgers and Indiana. Veteran big man Pete Nance (14.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg) will have to break out for this team to go on a deep run and steal the automatic bid. Northwestern hasn’t been back to the NCAAs since it made history by getting there in 2017.
UNLV, Mountain West
The Rebels (18-13, 10-8 MWC) have shown they can play with the best in the Mountain West – a league with four projected teams this year. They’ve beaten MWC tourney No. 2 seed Colorado State and No. 4 seed Wyoming, which it plays in the league tourney as a No. 5 seed. Bryce Hamilton (21.8 ppg) can fill it up for coach Kevin Kruger’s upstart team.
DePaul, Big East
The Blue Demons (15-15, 6-14 Big East) are a No. 10 seed in the Big East tourney, which means they would have to dispatch St. John’s in the first round before taking a stab at upsetting No. 2 seed Villanova in the quarters. It’s a tall task, but not completely out of the question. Javon Freeman-Liberty (21.9 ppg) gives this group a fighting chance with his scoring prowess.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.