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Potential ticket-punching games, my Cinderella team and much more


If you watched UConn hold off West Virginia on Monday night, and if you saw Florida blitz Tennessee Tuesday night in Gainesville, you probably thought the same thing I did: Those guys just punched their ticket.

That, my fellow Hoopheads, is what the bubble boys need to do these next two weeks. Yes, they have to avoid bad losses (especially at home), but if you really want to differentiate yourself from the pack, you have to pull out a game that no one expected you to win. And the opportunities are there, because for teams like West Virginia and Tennessee, this part of the season is a grind. They know they are going to the NCAA tournament, so they are just trying to slog their way through these last few games. They are ripe to be plucked, and it's up to bubble teams to reap that fruit.

If you scan through the schedules of other bubble boys, you find a large sample of other opportunities for them to pull off bid-clinching wins (barring an ensuing collapse). So before I get to your e-mails, here are several ticket-punching possibilities to watch out for in the coming days:

Dayton at Temple, Wednesday, 6:30 p.m. ET: The Flyers (18-8) looked like a safe at-large team for most of the season, but they have lost two of their last three to fall into bubble territory. They have a neutral-court win over Georgia Tech, but like a lot of teams they have been terrible on the road. Should they miss out on this opportunity, their final chance to acquire some breathing room comes March 4 at Richmond.

San Diego State at BYU, Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET, CBS College Sports: This is the Aztecs' final game against a team ranked in the top 100 of the RPI. The Cougars are ranked 22nd in the RPI and are notoriously difficult to beat in Provo. Plus, San Diego State (20-7) only has one road win against a team ranked in the top 100, so this would really stand out on its resume.

Clemson at Maryland, Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET: On the surface, Clemson (19-7) should be in pretty good shape with a 7-5 ACC record and a No. 35 ranking in the RPI. But look a little closer and you'll see that the Tigers' best true road win was at N.C. State. Not only will that give the committee some pause, but three of Clemson's remaining four games are on the road (Maryland, Florida State and Wake Forest). Should the Tigers lose all three and beat Georgia Tech at home (which is far from automatic), that would leave them 8-8 in the ACC and gasping down the stretch.

Cincinnati at West Virginia, Saturday, 2 p.m. ET: I've been trying to make the case that the Bearcats (15-11), who own neutral court victories over Vanderbilt and Maryland and swept UConn, deserve a bid, but it's hard to include a team with 11 losses. This game against the Mountaineers begins a brutal three-game stretch for Cincinnati to close the regular season. It is followed by a home game against Villanova and a road date at Georgetown. Realistically, Cincinnati will probably have to win two of these three to be in a decent position entering the Big East tournament. One win among those three will at least keep them in the conversation.

Maryland at Virginia Tech, Saturday, 4 p.m. ET: Maybe the Terps could help two teams punch their tickets this week (which could put Maryland back in a precarious position). The Hokies (21-5) could really use a road win tonight at Boston College, but failing that this would be another chance to bolster their resume the way they did by beating Wake Forest at home last week. If Virginia Tech loses at BC and then at home to the Terps, the Hokies will probably have to win their regular season finale at Georgia Tech to feel good about their at-large chances heading into the ACC tournament.

Purdue at Minnesota, Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network: The Gophers (16-10) put themselves back on the bubble by beating Wisconsin at home last week. A win over the surging Boilermakers would really help their cause, especially if they can follow it up with a road victory at Illinois. Minnesota has lost 10 games this season, and a few of them (Portland, at Miami, home vs. Michigan) look even worse in retrospect. But if they win out they would finish the regular season 11-7 in the Big Ten. I'd have to believe that would be enough to get them into the field.

Louisville at Marquette, Tuesday, March 2, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU. This could actually be considered a ticket-puncher for whoever wins, but Marquette (17-9) needs it a little bit more. The Golden Eagles have two losses outside the top 100, so they need as much house money as they can get. Since their other three remaining games are against St. John's, Seton Hall and Notre Dame, this is the Eagles' last chance to raise some eyebrows before the Big East tournament.

Richmond at Charlotte, Saturday, March 6, 2 p.m. ET: The 49ers (18-8) have also been going the wrong way lately by losing three straight games, including at home to Duquesne. They could obviously strengthen their hand by winning at Rhode Island on March 3, but a win here would give them a season sweep over the Spiders. Also, keep in mind that Louisville was missing several players when Charlotte beat the Cards in Freedom Hall on Dec. 5.

Tennessee at Mississippi State, Saturday, March 6, 6 p.m. ET ESPN: Realistically, the Bulldogs (19-8) have to win their last four games to get an at-large, but this one in the regular season finale would make a great impression on the committee heading into selection weekend. Mississippi State has a season sweep over Ole Miss in its favor, but its best RPI win came against Old Dominion on a neutral court, and the Bulldogs also have four losses outside the top 100. No margin for error here.

As for the Mailbag, we'll start with a couple of e-mails I received in response to this week's Hoop Thoughts column taking you all behind enemy lines to hear what some coaches had to say about 19 teams from four power conferences. (Remember, part two will be published on Monday.) I obviously couldn't include every team, but there were two omissions that garnered the most outrage. To wit:

Let me get this straight: You profiled five Big East teams but you left out Pittsburgh? Pitt is 10-4 in the Big East, having beaten the three teams in front of them, yet Connecticut is profiled at 6-8 in the Big east and 16-11 overall. Georgetown is 8-6 in the conference and 18-7 overall. [EDITOR'S NOTE: This was written before UConn and Georgetown won their next games.] How does this make sense?-- Tom Lampl, Ketchum, Idaho

I'm curious as to why Maryland wasn't on your list, yet they are second in the ACC, and there are teams like UConn which are under .500 in their conference. The Terps have a lot of experience with [Greivis] Vasquez (the first player in ACC history to score 1,000 points, collect 700 rebounds and 600 assists), [Eric] Hayes and [Landon] Milbourne, and [Jordan] Williams is starting to develop as a center.-- Drew Love, Baltimore

I did not have any specific reason to leave off those two teams, but since they are both going to be in the tournament and have the potential to make it to the second weekend, I got on the horn on Tuesday and spoke with an assistant coach from each conference who has scouted them. Here's what they had to say:

MARYLAND: Defense and rebounding are probably their biggest weakness. The teams they lost to -- Clemson, Wake Forest and Duke -- all have big guys who just pounded them inside. So if they're missing shots, they're in trouble because they can't make it up on the glass. Also, Greivis Vasquez does not play any defense. They like to hide him by having him guard someone who's not good. But they are a very good offensive team because they share the ball so well. You have to keep Vasquez out of the middle of the floor because he has great vision and he's so good with those little floaters. He has toned down his emotions on the road, which is good, although at home he's giving you more shimmy shakes than ever. The young kid, Jordan Williams, is developing into a nice post player. He's kind of a Lonnie Baxter in waiting. And the guy who is really underrated for them is Eric Hayes. He's such a good shooter so he can play off Vasquez, but he's a good ball handler and knows how to run their stuff. They're both seniors, and you can't emphasize enough the importance of experience.

PITTSBURGH: Probably their biggest concern is their lack of depth in the backcourt. Travon Woodall comes off the bench, but beyond that it's kind of questionable, which could hurt them as they go deeper into the tournament. I wouldn't say percentage-wise they're great shooters, but they do hit big shots. I would have said their inside game would be a problem, but Gary McGhee has turned out to be pretty good for them. They also don't have a true point guard. Ashton Gibbs finds a way to get it done, though I think his quickness as a defender is a question mark. If they go against a team with quick guards that can make plays off the bounce, they can struggle with that. Marquette gave them trouble, though they ended up beating Marquette because of their size. Gilbert Brown is a really good, long, athletic wing. He has been around a long time, and the guys who left from last year passed down some of their toughness. They really share the ball on offense, they do all the right things defensively, they're methodical. They want to grind you out in the half court more than get into an up and down game. If they had to get into a running game, that might expose their lack of a point guard and lack of depth on the perimeter.

And now for the rest of your e-mails.

Hey Seth, I have one little question about the tournament. I keep hearing these experts say how unpredictable this tournament will be and how it's unlikely many 1 seeds will make the Final Four. However, in the media bracket, you had three 1 seeds and one 2 seed going to the Final Four. Whom should I believe?-- Will, Richmond, Va.

Believe me. I don't have the exact numbers in front of me, but over the last 20 years I'd say at least 75 percent of the national championship teams were either a 1 seed or a 2 seed. So having a lot of chalk advance to the Final Four is the rule, not the exception. Will this year's tournament be unpredictable? Of course -- because every tournament is unpredictable. That, however, is usually confined to the earlier rounds.

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I am also hearing a lot of people talk about how wide open this thing is, but that is another misconception. It is very unusual that one team enters the tournament as the dominant, unquestioned team to beat. People like to revise history and say North Carolina was that team last year, but let's not forget that the Tar Heels stumbled into the tourney, largely because Ty Lawson's foot injury was a question. Lots of people (myself included) picked someone other than North Carolina to win it all.

Oh, and while we're debunking myths, let's stop talking about how there is more parity this year than ever before. There is no more parity in college hoops right now than there has been over the last 10 years, and there is certainly not a surfeit of high-quality teams trying to get into this thing. If anything, I'm seeing a lot of mediocrity when it comes down to deciding whom to give those last three or four at-large bids. That's par for the course.

I was looking at conference rankings based on RPI numbers and was shocked to see the Big Ten at number four. With four legitimate top-20 teams (Purdue, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State) out of 11, how can the Big Ten be behind the ACC (which they beat in the challenge for a change) and the SEC?-- Jeff DeMars, Arlington, Va.

Actually, the Big Ten is ranked fifth in the conference RPI, not fourth. I'm no math geek, but my understanding is the conference RPI rankings are mostly a reflection of the middle and bottom teams in the leagues. The Big Ten is strong at the top, but it also has four teams with horrible RPI rankings: Michigan (141), Iowa (190), Penn State (197) and Indiana (214). That will drag a league down far more than good teams like Purdue (7), Wisconsin (19) and Michigan State (28) will prop it up. The SEC, by contrast, has only one team ranked below 140, and that's No. 219 LSU.

Incidentally, the same principle applies to strength of schedule. If a team has played a bunch of teams with really low RPI rankings, that will hurt its SOS more than playing strong teams will help. That's why many conference commissioners are taking a firmer, more broad-based approach to scheduling by demanding that the middle and bottom teams in the league stay away from teams ranked below 200. Former Atlantic 10 commissioner Linda Bruno started doing that several years ago in her league, and that is a big reason why the Atlantic 10 has such a strong RPI profile -- which, naturally, will result in more NCAA bids.

Which double-digit seed do you think will be this year's Cinderella?-- Lee Swenson, Sioux City, Iowa

Like a lot of people, I've got my eye on UTEP. Derrick Caracter has had a terrific season, and he gives the Miners a presence in the paint to complement high-scoring guard Randy Culpepper. If UTEP can win out in the regular season, I think it would have a very good chance at an at-large bid if it were to lose in the final of the Conference USA tournament.

One of the things I look for in spotting potential Cinderellas is a single player who can put a team on his back and score a ton of points, a la Stephen Curry. That's why I'm keeping my eye on Oklahoma State. James Anderson has very quietly had a phenomenal season. The 6-foot-6 junior swingman is sixth in the nation in points (22.5 ppg), he is in the top 10 in the Big 12 in field-goal percentage and free-throw percentage, and he is also chipping in 6.1 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while converting 36 percent from three-point range. Does that sound like a guy you'd like to face in March?

The idea of a men's team having a perfect season seems a dim memory from the past -- Knight at Indiana before "the fall" or Wooden at UCLA. The tendency today for many top-caliber men's players seems to be that it's better to be a star in a good program than to be a well-regarded role-player in a great program. So what makes the UConn women's program so dominant? Is there something to the notion that Geno recruits players of a certain character and temperament, not just skills? Is there something substantive to the notion that women are better team players than men?-- Joe, Branford, Conn.

This is an excellent question to raise, though I would disagree with Joe's explanation of this discrepancy. I have often said that I do not believe a men's team will ever go undefeated again. Things have changed dramatically since Indiana last did it in 1976. There are a lot more quality players who can play for non-elite programs. The wave of underclassman defections to the NBA accelerated in the mid-90's and now prevents programs from retaining their dominance. The reduction of scholarships from 15 to 13 has made it harder for the big boys to hoard talent. Most of all, the media attention on the sport has increased exponentially since '76, which brings much more scrutiny to a team trying to make it through the season with a perfect record.

If we turn our sights to the women's game, we see that in many ways it resembles the men's game in 1976. Women's teams are still able to award 15 scholarships. They do not have to deal with defections to the pros on nearly the same scale. And while there are more good female players than ever, and there is more media attention on the women's game than ever, it is still a far cry (one hopes) from where it will be 10 or 20 years from now. This is not to take anything away from what Geno Auriemma and his magnificent players are doing, but I think it is unfair to assert that he is a far superior coach to anyone working in the men's game, or that his players have more sterling character than the guys who are playing for Kansas and Kentucky.

It will be interesting to watch how the women's game evolves over the next decade, but my sense is that it will move more towards parity. Someday we may look back on Auriemma's 2009 and 2010 UConn Huskies and wonder whether anyone will be able to repeat their perfection.

Cal not making the tourney? Looks like they will have 21-23 wins playing one of the hardest schedules in the country. The games they lost at the beginning of the year were played without their best all-around player, Theo Robertson. With him in the lineup, it is reasonable to believe Cal would have defeated Ohio State and New Mexico. I'm not saying Cal is a juggernaut out of an incredibly weak Pac-10, but not making the tourney? C'mon, man.-- Adam, San Ramon, Calif.

Don't shoot the messenger, Adam. The Bears further undermined their cause after this e-mail was written by losing at Oregon State. While I agree the committee should take Robertson's injury into account, it is quite the leap to assume they would have beaten Ohio State and New Mexico if he were healthy in those games.

The reality is, Cal has been hurt by the Pac-10's overall weakness. Normally a team can improve its RPI by winning games inside the conference, but that has not been the case this year for the Golden Bears. Now they will have to go into Selection Sunday without a single victory over a team ranked in the RPI top 50. Keep in mind that there will be several bubble teams who will NOT make the tournament who will have two or three wins against the top 50.

Here's another way to look at it. The final at-large teams are usually seeded 12th. In many mock brackets, including Jerry Palm's, Cal is projected to be in the tournament as the Pac-10's automatic qualifier, yet the Bears are seeded 13th. That should tell you a lot about where they stand.

The one point Adam raises that will really help Cal is their strength of schedule. They are ranked first in the country in nonconference SOS and 10th overall. If they win their last three games, they will end the regular season with a 13-5 record in the league. If they win twice more in the Pac-10 tourney and then lose in the final, they will have a fighting chance to make the field. But I still say they'll be on the outside looking in.

The BracketBusters games should involve bubble teams from all conferences. Here are some matchups I would like to have seen this year:

- Florida vs. Dayton- Mississippi vs. UTEP- Utah State vs. Oklahoma State- Seton Hall vs. Siena- Louisiana Tech vs. Mississippi State- St. Mary's vs. Cal- Washington vs. San Diego State- Wichita State vs. Marquette- Virginia Tech vs. Old Dominion- Minnesota vs. Kent State- Rhode Island vs. Cincinnati- South Florida vs. Florida State

Butler and Northern Iowa have already locked up at-large bids, so they should not have to play in BracketBusters. Bubble teams should have to play in it instead.-- Jeremy Simmons, Starke, Fla.

Let's set aside for the moment my belief that Northern Iowa has not quite locked up an at-large bid. (The Panthers' loss to last-place Evansville Tuesday night has to hurt.) And let's also set aside the fact that nobody has to play in the BracketBusters. The games are set up by ESPN, and teams can decline the invite if they wish. Jeremy is still on to something here, and it's similar to a proposal I have been floating for several years now.

My idea is that the teams from BCS conferences who earned the last few at-large bids should play true road games the following season against the top mid-major schools who were left out. Or, if you want to drop the artificial categories, you could have the last few at-larges play the first teams left out regardless of conference affiliation. Let's see how well Butler would do if it had to travel to Berkeley to face Cal. ESPN could call it BubbleBusters or something like that.

I'd like to think coaches from the Big Six leagues would be eager to participate, because the public is savvy enough to understand that if, say, Virginia Tech were to lose at St. Mary's next year, that would not be a bad loss. Alas, I'm sure this idea will never come to pass, because the Virginia Techs of the world don't need the exposure -- or the headaches -- that games like these can bring. But hey, a guy can dream, can't he?