College basketball: Bubble talk heats up as calendar turns to February
Happy National Bubble Day! No cards or flowers required.
Granted, National Bubble Day might not appear on any official calendars. But on Feb. 1, college basketball hits the final full month of the regular season, and the bubble for the NCAA tournament starts to truly become part of the daily lexicon. Who’s on it? Who’s not?
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To commemorate National Bubble Day, let’s gather some of the more intriguing potentials.
Josh Pastner for ACC coach of the year? Josh Pastner for mayor of Atlanta? All seems possible. His first Yellow Jackets team lost its top four scorers from last season and was picked to finish 14th in the ACC. But here Georgia Tech is, 13-8 with wins over North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame in the bag.
It is a beguiling story, between freshman Josh Okogie’s various heroics – witness the Notre Dame buzzer beater — and junior Ben Lammers averaging 14.7 points and 9.7 rebounds, a year after he averaged 3.6 and 4.0. Georgia Tech might be 231st in the nation in shooting, but the 19th rating in field goal percentage defense balances that.
“I don’t ever forget in the first exhibition game, we had to go overtime to beat Shorter,” Pastner said the other day. “We've come a long way.” That one didn’t count, but the loss to Ohio and a 110-57 pummeling by Duke did. Georgia Tech still has work to do, and any ACC team is one bad stretch away from having its record implode. But they would be one of the better Cinderella tales if they show up in the bracket.
See the Wolverines torching Indiana 90-60 with 63.3 percent shooting. And putting up a 14-for-26 barrage in 3-pointers to chase UCLA 102-84. And averaging the fewest turnovers in the land. See D.J. Wilson, who had 34 rebounds total his first two years, lead the team this season with a 6.2 average. D.J. is short for DeVante Jaylen, by the way, the middle name given him in tribute to old Wolverine Jalen Rose. He's blossomed just in time for the 25th anniversary of the Fab Five arriving in Ann Arbor. See living, breathing Karma.
But see also the 14-8 record, and the rather unimposing No. 68 RPI. The Wolverines’ closing argument will come with five of their last seven regular season games on the road. The home dates are no picnic in the park either; Michigan State, Wisconsin and Purdue.
When the Hoosiers are good, they are very, very good. And when they're bad, they're losing to Fort Wayne. Wins over Kansas and North Carolina would presumably carry Indiana a long way, as would being among the nation’s best in such vital signs as scoring, field goal shooting and rebound margin.
But a minus-3.6 turnover margin, spotty defense and injuries to the main men – OG Anunoby gone for the season, James Blackmon Jr. battling leg issues – give one pause. A record once 10-2 is now 14-8, and any revival will have to be done with four of the last five games on the road. Indiana’s best opportunity for renewed momentum might be in the two games against Purdue. Then again, the Hoosiers are 0-2 against their own state this season; Butler and Fort Wayne.
Here are not the problems for the Shockers, who have become NCAA tournament regulars under Gregg Marshall: Neither the 19-4 record, nor the 18.8-point average scoring margin that is third best in the nation, nor the balance that allows a team with nobody averaging more than 12.5 points individually to be scoring 81.7 collectively. Nearly 38 points a game from the bench help.
Here is the problem: Illinois State’s looking awfully good in the Kingdom of Wichita State, otherwise known as the Missouri Valley Conference. If the Shockers have to get back to the tournament via the at-large route, that current No. 69 RPI is not helpful. Which makes this Saturday, when Illinois State shows up in Wichita, rather interesting.
Just call them the 5.6-seconds Bulldogs. The infamous clock malfunction at Texas A&M, where the clock incorrectly stopped at 5.6 seconds and gave them the wrong impression they had more time to win the game, is not easy to forget. The 63-62 loss is forever part of a 13-9 record. Then again, Georgia was recently walloped by 20 points at home by Alabama, and the clock was working just fine.
Tuesday’s overtime loss at Kentucky could have punched up the resume, had it gone the other way. This weekend’s trip to South Carolina might not be much fun, either. But five of the last seven games are at home. If they come up just short at the end, those 5.6 seconds are going to tick off a lot of Georgians.
The Spartans — with the non-conference schedule that was more like water boarding — aren’t in any danger of their 19-year NCAA tournament streak ending, even with a 13-9 record. Right? Right?
Well, we’ll see. Tom Izzo knows the way, but youth and injuries have made the road slippery. Michigan State must still go to Nebraska – which has become a Grade A pest – Michigan Purdue and Maryland, and play Wisconsin at home. The Spartans were given an at-large berth in the 2011 tournament with 14 defeats, but that method is not recommended.
“This is the biggest challenge I’ve had in my life here as a coach,” Izzo said recently. “There’s not many people who are trying to play four freshmen, I’m not doing it very well. I should call Cal and figure out how to do a better job.”
The 14-8 Cowboys won four in a row, lost six in a row, won four more in a row. Geez, they should make up their minds. The recent victory at Oklahoma was almost mystical – two steals in the last 30 seconds and Phil Forte’s 3-pointer for the win. The Cowboys got by, even while missing 13 of their last 15 shots.
In his first year, Brad Underwood has taken a team that went 12-20 last season and made it relevant – not to mention averaging 87.5 points a game. Oklahoma State now must go to West Virginia, then come back home for Baylor. At the end is Kansas. In between, the Cowboys will need to outscore some people.
Notice the crowd growing for National Bubble Day?
The Deacs 13-9, but has a respectable RPI. The ACC can bury you, but it also grants a near-nightly opportunity for a resume-polishing win. Besides, who could say no to a team wearing the AP patch this year, to remember that old Deacon, Arnold Palmer?
Tennessee is 13-9 and has won four in a row, Kentucky among the victims. Earlier, the Vols pushed Gonzaga, North Carolina and Oregon, stacking up the good losses. About that season-opening defeat by Chattanooga – can they take a Mulligan?
The Horned Frogs have gone from 14-3 to 14-7. New coach Jamie Dixon has to stop the bleeding quickly if he wants to get his alma mater to its first tournament in 19 years.
Cal is hoping the double-double machine that is Ivan Rabb can lead the 15-6 Bears into March. But five of the last seven are on the road.
Seton Hall is benefitting from Angel Delgado’s gargantuan appetite for rebounds. In a conference long known for its muscle men, the nation’s leading rebounder just became the first Big East player in history to get 20-plus in consecutive league games. The 13-7 Pirates have lost four of five, but a mid-February homestand, will be a time to shine. Or not. Creighton, Villanova and Xavier come to town over eight days.
The Gophers was 15-2, and now has lost five in a row. Whatever’s wrong, Richard Pitino must fix it in a hurry if the bracket is to have a pair of Pitinos, father and son.
Duke? Relax. The Blue Devils are in no danger of going uninvited to the tournament, but they are trying to survive all their trials and tribulations – including eight different starting lineups as the injuries mounted — and use February to get back to the high seed line that was supposed to be home. Also, Mike Krzyzewski’s seat is still waiting for him. All that deserves inclusion on this list.
“We’re growing up. We’re becoming more together. I think we’re understanding each other,” acting coach Jeff Capel said after Monday’s win at Notre Dame put a bounce back in the Blue Devils’ steps. “We’ve had to learn these things in the fire, which is the ACC.
“No one has had the stuff we have had . . . we’re disjointed -- team building in January, which is normally what you do in November and December. Hopefully we’re through the storm, and we can start seeing daylight.”
Lots of team hope that. It’s National Bubble Day.