You have to win your way into the NCAA tournament, not back in. Thus, if you end up being a bubble team Selection weekend, it's important to have what I call a "hang-your-hat win."
Let's face it, when the committee is looking at the dozen or so teams vying for the last few spots, it will be looking at a big pile of mediocrity. Any win that stands out from the pile will be huge at that stage of the process. So as the proverbial bubble starts to take its first cloudy, slightly amorphous shape, here are five potential bubble teams with hang-your-hat wins that I predict will stand out six weeks hence:
Florida State 70, Florida 66, Dec. 3 Yes, the Gators didn't have Corey Brewer in this one (he was out with mono) and yes, the game was in Tallahassee. But Florida is a virtual lock to be a No. 1 seed, and if the Gators go into the tournament with only two or three losses, it's going to be a real boon to the Seminoles' hopes if they delivered one of them.
Drexel 81, Villanova 76, Dec. 9; Drexel 84, Syracuse 79, Dec. 19 Not only will these two huge road wins help build the Dragons' case for an at-large bid, it should also help the CAA get what it deserves -- namely, three teams into the tournament. It would be hard to justify sending Villanova or Syracuse ahead of Drexel when they couldn't even beat the Dragons on their own home floors.
Texas Tech 71, Arkansas 56, Dec. 16 The Red Raiders' wins at home over Kansas and Texas A&M were obviously huge, but a 15-point pasting on the road (though the game was in Little Rock, not Fayetteville) against an NCAA tournament team will look especially impressive. Most bubble teams won't have a lot of high-quality road wins -- or they wouldn't be on the bubble in the first place.
Missouri State 66, Wisconsin 64, Nov. 24 This game was played on a neutral court (it occurred at the South Padre Island Invitational) and it will seem like ages ago by the time the tournament rolls around. But Wisconsin could legitimately go into the tournament with two losses. If you're a bubble team, wouldn't you like to be one of only two teams that beat the Badgers all year?
UNLV 58, Nevada 49, Dec. 9 This one was a true road game, and it came against a team that has lost twice and been ranked in the polls all season. It has been hard for the Rebels to garner much attention with Air Force soaking up all the oxygen in the Mountain West, but UNLV is tied with the Falcons for first place and has just one more loss than they do. If UNLV is a bubble team, it will be an awfully good one.
• Eric Devendorf's 0 for 11 shooting night in Syracuse's loss to Notre Dame on Tuesday night (the Orange's third straight loss) is a perfect microcosm of the Syracuse's season. This team's guards just don't shoot it well enough. Can you imagine an NCAA tournament without Syracuse or UConn?
• I don't know about you, but the more I watch North Carolina '07, the more I see Kentucky '96
• Speaking of the Heels, I was amazed to learn that before last weekend's thrashing by North Carolina, Arizona had never lost a game at home under Lute Olson by more than 12 points. That's a pretty amazing stat. Still, you have to wonder whether the Wildcats will ever recover psychologically from that whuppin.
• I saw Duke's Jon Scheyer play several times in high school, and I must say he is making a much smoother transition to college than I imagined he would. His pass to David McClure to beat Clemson was a sensational display of poise and precision. And I'm not just saying that because he's a fellow M.O.T.
• Pitt's Ronald Ramon still has too many quiet games for my taste, but the Panthers are so good in so many other areas that when Ramon is aggressive and making shots, they're nearly impossible to beat.
• Several mid-major leagues, knowing they will most likely only send one team to the NCAA tournament, allow their regular season champs to host the conference tourney. I wish every league did that. It would give more meaning to the regular-season title.
• I hope Notre Dame fans realize most of the schools the Irish play and recruit against wouldn't have suspended Kyle McAlarney for a single game, much less an entire semester. ND is still probably bound for the tournament, but this could have been a really dangerous team if it had McAlarney.
• Do you realize that LSU is officially a bubble team -- at best? This is another team whose guards can't score. It's a problem when your best perimeter player is Glen Davis, not least because when Davis is shooting long jump shots he's not under the boards to grab an offensive rebound.
• If Georgetown could get 6-8 freshman forward DaJuan Summers to have an impact every game, the Hoyas could take a major step forward. He may be the best pure scorer they have.
• An SEC coach, you and I both respect, told me he thinks Arkansas is actually better without Ronnie Brewer. The coach's logic was Brewer was too often a one-man show (albeit a talented one), whereas now the Hogs are sharing the ball and playing better as a team.
• It's a shame Wake Forest is having such a bad year, because otherwise everyone would know just how good Kyle Visser is.
• Texas A&M is a tough, tough team, but I still worry the Aggies are not explosive enough on offense to make a deep run in the NCAA tourney.
• I didn't realize until watching Northern Iowa lose to Wichita State on Tuesday night that UNI forward Grant Stout was such a good shooter. By the way, that was a terrific game. I only wish I could catch more of the Valley on the tube.
• Michigan needs a quality road win in the worst way. The Wolverines' best road win to date came at Miami (Ohio). Like I said, you can't get an at-large bid to the NCAA tourney unless you prove you can win away from home. In the meantime, Wednesday night's loss at home to a bad Iowa team has pushed the Wolverines way, way out of contention for an at-large bid.
• Kentucky's Joe Crawford is an immeasurably better player when he attacks the basket.
• I don't know how much you non-media types really care about this stuff, but I read recently where an Ohio State spokesman said that Greg Oden would talk to the media after a game only if he had a good game. To me, that's really bush. If you can talk when you play well, you can talk when you don't play well.
• One fly in Florida's ointment: The Gators are not getting enough production from their bench.
• When you see how well Texas Tech is playing, you can appreciate how strained the players were by the pressure that mounted as Bob Knight's record-breaking win approached. Now that it's over with, they can just relax and play up to their capabilities. Speaking of which, what in the world has gotten into Darryl Dora lately?
• I happened to be talking to Bruce Pearl the day before his body-painting stunt at the Tennessee-Duke women's game. Pearl told me what he was thinking of doing and asked my advice. I told him in no uncertain terms not to do it because the media would rip him for it. Just another example of someone making a brilliant choice by not following my advice.
• Did you happen to see Bill Self reaming out his guys with his team leading by more than 20 points in the second half against Nebraska? No question he is trying to elevate his team's mental toughness for the home stretch.
• Ohio State looked really, really young in that second half against Michigan State, don't you think?
• When a team is holding for the last shot with the clock winding down, I'd say seven out of 10 times they wait too long to initiate the play.
• I recently read Marquette coach Tom Crean invited Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy and Milwaukee Brewers pitching coach Mike Maddux to the Golden Eagles' trip to Pittsburgh. I don't know of a coach in America who seeks out more people in other sports the way Crean does in an effort to expand his own horizons.
• OK, so Oregon's Aaron Brooks wasn't allowed to play against Washington because he flagrantly elbowed Washington's Ryan Appleby during last year's Pac-10 tournament. But I think it's just silly that the league wouldn't even let Brooks sit on Oregon's bench during the game. Sure, Brooks, who is from Seattle, would have heard some jeering from the hometown fans, but so what? (And if you want to read a great piece on Brooks, be sure to check out Cory McCartney's Fast Break column this week.)
• People have properly recognized Ben Howland's current team (UCLA) as well as his former team (Pittsburgh) are both having fabulous seasons. Time to give the same recognition to Trent Johnson for how well both Stanford and Nevada are doing. Believe me, you don't want your favorite team playing Stanford in the NCAA tournament.
• And Oklahoma may be struggling, but Jeff Capel gets partial credit for how great his former school, VCU, is playing.
1. North Carolina 2. Pittsburgh 3. Kansas 4. Nevada
1. Florida 2. UCLA 3. Butler 4. Indiana
1. Wisconsin 2. Duke 3. Marquette 4. Oklahoma State
1. Oregon 2. Ohio State 3. Memphis 4. Texas A&M
The first thing you'll notice is that I have Oregon as a No. 1 seed and UCLA a No. 2. As far as I know, I'm the only person who has the Ducks as a No. 1, but follow my logic: Besides the obvious (Oregon beat UCLA the only time the teams played), I think you have to discount one of Oregon's two losses because Brooks did not play against Washington. Meanwhile, Oregon has quality road wins at Rice, Georgetown, Arizona and Washington, with its only loss at full strength coming by two points at home to USC. Plus, Oregon is 5-0 against teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI while UCLA is 6-2. If UCLA beats Oregon on Thursday night, I'll flip them back next week, but if the Ducks do win in Pauley then everyone will have them as a No. 1 seed.
Elsewhere, I moved North Carolina to my No. 1 overall seed ahead of Florida, but that won't matter much because either way the Tar Heels are going East Rutherford and San Antonio, respectively. It's also not easy to figure out what to do with Butler, Memphis and Nevada. Those guys aren't going to get much credit for winning a bunch of league games, so even if they don't lose again it will be hard for them to get to the top two lines.
Indiana, meanwhile, moved into my top 16 by virtue of its defeat of Wisconsin on Wednesday night. The Hoosiers replaced Virginia Tech, which lost at home to N.C. State. As for the other teams that got left out, you might think Washington State is getting slighted, but the Cougars are actually 1-3 versus the top 50. Arizona is ranked No. 6 in the RPI, but that's just another example of why a team's overall ranking means so little, especially at this relatively early stage. The other teams knocking at the door are Air Force and Tennessee.