Kyusung Gong/Associated Press
Saturday is Leap Day, and there are a bunch of teams on the bubble for the 2020 men’s NCAA tournament looking to celebrate this weekend with a “leap forward” type of marquee victory as we head into March.
Believe it or not, there are conference tournaments starting Tuesday. That means Selection Sunday is rapidly approaching and teams are almost out of time to prove they belong in the Big Dance.
For many, it’s a do-or-die weekend. Either they need a big win to vault into the projected field or they need to avoid a loss that could destroy their case for a bid. Either way, there are critical contests all around the country as we close in on the end of the regular season.
Without a handy-dandy guide, it’s almost too much to try to keep track of which games are most important.
Ask and you shall receive.
We’ve broken this bubblicious weekend down into five digestible chunks to get you prepared for the biggest and/or most intriguing games in each window.
First Wave Saturday (Tips Before 3 p.m. ET)
While it’s the smallest chunk of the day, this one has a little bit of everything and is certain to start the weekend off with a bang.
In the “Colossal Opportunity” category, we’ve got Providence at Villanova (noon ET).
The Friars had one of the worst Novembers imaginable, suffering four bad losses without anything resembling a quality win. But they have stormed back into the tournament mix with an incredible February, featuring road wins over Butler and Georgetown, as well as home victories against Creighton, Seton Hall and Marquette. If they can close out the month with a road win over Villanova, it would just about punch their ticket.
Then there’s the “Just Stop the Bleeding” game with NC State hosting Pittsburgh (noon ET). Since the huge win over Duke, the Wolfpack have lost back-to-back games to Florida State and North Carolina. Beating Pitt wouldn’t assure them a bid, but a loss might knock them back out of the conversation for good.
But the big bubble games in this window are Texas at Texas Tech (noon ET) and Florida at Tennessee (2 p.m. ET).
Neither the Longhorns nor the Volunteers are particularly close to the projected field, each ranking outside the top 60 in NET and KenPom. A win Saturday could change that in a hurry, though—more so for Texas than for Tennessee.
Not only could Rick Barnes’ current program and his former program take a big step forward, they could inject Florida and Texas Tech with serious bubble trouble.
The Gators have been hovering around the No. 9-12 seed lines for the past two months and either need to avoid a misstep in Knoxville or win the season finale at home against Kentucky. Losing both would almost certainly knock them onto the wrong side of the projected cut line heading into the SEC tournament.
The Red Raiders just recently became a bubble team after losses to Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. They are now 18-10 with only two particularly impressive wins—vs. West Virginia; Louisville on a neutral floor—and they will wrap up the regular season against Baylor and Kansas next week. They’re still somewhat comfortably in the field for now, but a home loss to Texas could be a killer.
If Texas Tech and Florida both win, not much changes. Those two would likely enter the home stretch in the same position they’re in today, and the two losing teams would remain out of sight, out of mind. If both lose, though, it’s bubble chaos.
Middle Wave Saturday (Tips 3:30-7 p.m. ET)
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
There are 11 games in this window with potential bubble implications; however, most of them figure to be “Keep the Status Quo” affairs.
Five tournament hopefuls from the mid-major ranks compete in this window, but each of those bubble teams is playing a game it should win: East Tennessee State vs. Western Carolina (4 p.m. ET), VCU vs. George Washington (4 p.m. ET), UNC Greensboro at Chattanooga (4:30 p.m. ET), Northern Iowa at Drake (6 p.m. ET) and Richmond vs. Massachusetts (6 p.m. ET). All five of those opponents currently rank outside the KenPom top 150, so those are all must-win games.
On the major-conference side of things, we’ve got two SEC teams trying to stay alive with road games they should win. Mississippi State plays at Missouri (3:30 p.m. ET) followed by Arkansas at Georgia (6 p.m. ET). Neither of those teams is in the projected field at the moment, but wins would at least keep them within the first few spots among the outside looking in.
There’s also a big opportunity for Oklahoma at West Virginia (4 p.m. ET). The Mountaineers have lost five of six, so the Sooners might be able to steal a huge Quadrant 1 win. However, despite its recent struggles, WVU is almost unbeatable in Morgantown, so Oklahoma will likely lose and remain on the bubble.
Thus, the real intrigue in this block of games is contained to the ACC, where Syracuse hosts North Carolina (4 p.m. ET), Notre Dame plays at Wake Forest (4 p.m. ET) and Virginia gets a home game against Duke (6 p.m. ET).
The argument for Syracuse still being in the hunt for an at-large bid is flimsy at best, but the Orange have stunned us before by sneaking in with a weak resume. They need to win out, though, so a home loss to the sub-.500 Tar Heels would be a deal-breaker.
Notre Dame’s argument isn’t any better, as the Fighting Irish are 3-9 against the top two Quadrants, with road games against Syracuse, Clemson and Georgia Tech serving as their “best” wins. But they are still in a decent enough place in the metrics—No. 56 in both NET and KenPom as of Wednesday afternoon—that a win in Winston-Salem followed by a home win over Florida State on Wednesday would make things much more interesting.
Virginia, on the other hand, is in solid shape for a bid and could effectively seal the deal with a home win over Duke. The Blue Devils have lost two straight road games (NC State and Wake Forest) and haven’t looked great away from home in nearly two months. Of particular note for this game against Tony Bennett’s pack-line D, Duke is 21-of-90 (23.3 percent) from three-point range on the road thus far in February. If that trend continues, it’s hard to see how the Blue Devils score enough to win.
Late Wave Saturday (Tips 8 p.m. ET or Later)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press
The cream of the bubble crop for this weekend is Arizona State at USC (8 p.m. ET).
A month ago, this game barely would’ve been on the radar. USC was 17-4 and sitting pretty in the projected field; Arizona State was 12-8 and barely worth looking at. But the Sun Devils have caught fire with seven straight wins, surging into a projected No. 8 vs. No. 9 game for the NCAA tournament, while the Trojans have lost five of seven in the process of falling smack dab onto the bubble.
An Arizona State win would likely lock in the Sun Devils and would push the Trojans into a “Needs to show up in a big way for the Pac-12 tournament” predicament.
However, if USC is able to protect home court and get the W, it will be in good bubble standing heading into the season finale at home against UCLA, and it will force Arizona State into a situation where it probably needs to win both of its remaining home games against Washington and Washington State to feel secured of a bid. Either way, significant implications.
Elsewhere, Utah State at New Mexico (10 p.m. ET) is a big one, with the Aggies looking to finish the regular season on a seven-game winning streak. They were left for dead six weeks ago, but they’ve been treading water and benefiting from the many bubble teams that have shot themselves in the foot repeatedly during that time. If they win this one and avoid an immediate exit from the MWC tournament, they should be dancing.
There are also three late games involving teams with a faint bubble pulse: UCLA vs. Arizona (10 p.m. ET), Memphis at Tulane (8 p.m. ET) and South Carolina at Alabama (8:30 p.m. ET). UCLA is seeking a marquee win. Memphis is hoping to avoid yet another bad loss. And the Gamecocks-Crimson Tide game smells like a “Loser goes to the NIT; winner probably eventually does too” type of game, but it might be crucial for the victor.
Lastly, this probably isn’t quite a bubble game, but Saint Mary’s at Gonzaga (10 p.m. ET) should be a good one. The Gaels seem to be safely in, but if they get smashed in Spokane like they did in Moraga earlier this month (90-60), it’s going to raise some eyebrows.
Sunday Afternoon (Tips Before 3 p.m. ET)
Gary Landers/Associated Press
For as much action as there is Saturday, Sunday might end up being the more noteworthy day for the bubble picture. There are only seven games on the list, but they’re all huge.
We’ll start the day with Cincinnati at Houston (1 p.m. ET).
The Bearcats need this one, in large part because their resume currently consists of two Quadrant 1 wins and four Quadrant 3 losses. Last Sunday’s home win over Wichita State kept Cincinnati narrowly in the projected field; winning at Houston would be a huge boost.
A Cincinnati win would also force us to question how certain we are about Houston’s spot in the field. Recent losses to SMU and Memphis have done the Cougars no favors. Aside from a season sweep of Wichita State—a team very much on the bubble in its own right—what has Houston done this season?
If the Cougars win (which they should), they probably become a lock, and Cincinnati probably then would need to make it at least to the AAC semifinals before suffering its next loss in order to have a strong case for a bid.
Around halftime of that game, three others will begin. Rhode Island vs. Saint Louis, Indiana at Illinois and Xavier at Georgetown each tip off at 2 p.m. ET.
For Rhode Island, that’s a must-win home game against a better-than-most-realize opponent. Saint Louis twice gave Dayton a run for its money, put up a solid fight against Auburn and has blown out Richmond and VCU in its only games against those bubble teams. A loss to the Billikens would mean the Rams need to win their subsequent home game against Dayton to have any hope.
For Indiana, that’s probably more of an opportunity to improve seeding than a game it needs to win in order to dance. But that’s assuming the Hoosiers will be able to win their home games against Minnesota and Wisconsin next week. If they blow this chance against the Illini and then give one (or both) of those subsequent games away, they might be in trouble.
And then Xavier at Georgetown is quite the bubble bonanza. The Musketeers are a projected No. 10 seed, while the Hoyas reside among the first four out. A Xavier win would uncomplicate matters slightly, as it would move closer to lock status while effectively knocking Georgetown out for good. But if the Hoyas win, both Big East squads may enter the final week of the regular season in the last four in.
Sunday Night (Tips After 3 p.m. ET)
Only three games in this window, but each one is potentially massive.
Wichita State plays at SMU (4 p.m. ET) in a game the Shockers absolutely cannot afford to lose. Their best win of the season thus far was either a home game against Oklahoma or a road game against Oklahoma State, neither of which is that impressive. They are 0-4 against Cincinnati and Houston, plus road losses to Temple and Tulsa. They’re likely one more regular-season loss away from the NIT.
Then at 6 p.m. ET, it’s Stanford hosting Colorado in another borderline must-win game for the bubble team. The Cardinal might be able to sneak in by going 1-2 down the stretch, but 2-1 would increase their odds drastically. Thus, if they’re unable to win this home game against the Buffaloes, they may well need to win both of next week’s road games against Oregon State and Oregon—which isn’t likely.
Then to wrap up the weekend’s bubble action, it’s Minnesota at Wisconsin at 6:30 p.m. ET. The Golden Gophers are just about finished after blowing a big lead in a loss to Maryland on Wednesday night, but maybe, just maybe, they could still sneak in by winning out at Wisconsin, at Indiana and vs. Nebraska. That would put them at 16-14 and at least give them some semblance of hope heading into the Big Ten tournament.
So there you have it. Pop yourself about 20 hours worth of popcorn and prepare to watch some bubbles pop too. One way or another, we’re going to have a different—hopefully clearer—picture of the NCAA tournament field come Monday morning. There are merely 30 or so important games standing between now and then.
Kerry Miller covers men’s college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.