Bubble teams in do-or-die situations

Mar 6, 2001 6:32 AM

This week, the week before Selection Sunday, we continue our review of possible tournament teams, taking a closer look at some teams entrenched firmly on the bubble.

Some bubble teams are the fourth or fifth best teams in major conferences. Others are good, small conference squads that can’t be assured of a tournament spot unless they win their conference tournament.

Creighton is one of those teams, although the Blue Jays had an outstanding season and should be dancing, whether they win the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament or not. Last year, they got to the tournament after going 23-9, and lost to Auburn in the first round, 72-69. That was their third straight postseason experience, their second in a row in the NCAA. In the 1999 tournament, they beat Louisville before falling to Maryland. They went 22-9 that year. They’ve been even better this season.

Going into the weekend, they’re 23-6, including 14-0 at home. They haven’t lost since falling at Evansville on Jan. 24. They have a number of quality wins this season, too. They’ve beaten Providence, Colorado State, Georgia State (22-4 with an RPI of 42), Tulsa, Nebraska and Wyoming. Creighton has an RPI rating of 24, and should feel good about their chances. The committee loves teams that have had success in the tournament, teams playing well over the last part of the season. The Jays fit both of those criteria and their RPI is high.

On the other side of the ball, there are the high-profile programs with around .500 records in their conference. A lot of teams are in that boat, but let’s take a look at just a couple of them. First up is Penn State. According to the RPI, the Big 10 is the strongest conference in the nation. That should benefit the Lions. They’re ranked 34th in the country by the RPI, are 17-9 on the season, and around .500 in the conference. They’ve won four of their last six going into the weekend, and have a couple of nice non-conference wins, including victories over Kentucky, Pittsburgh, Temple and Princeton.

There’s little question that, on talent, Penn State is one of the best 65 teams in the country. But other factors go into a team’s selection. One is their conference. The problem for Penn State is that there are too many good teams in the Big 10. Michigan State, Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio State are probably already in. Indiana and Iowa certainly deserve some consideration, too. Somebody in the Big 10 is going to be disappointed. If they can’t win a game or two in the conference tournament, it might be Penn State.

Most teams in the Big East are in the same boat as Penn State. The conference has great depth but, unless you count Boston College, there isn’t an elite team in the bunch. On pure talent, the Big East probably has seven or eight of the top 65 teams in the nation. Unfortunately, all of them can’t make it. Villanova is a perfect example. The Wildcats have one great player in Michael Bradley; wins over Temple, St Joe’s and two over Connecticut, but it lost more statement games than it won. They’ll need to get hot in the Big East tournament to feel comfortable about their chances.

One team that’s already had a very tough season, off the court as well as on, is Oklahoma State. The plane crash has been well documented. The team has come back since then to play some fine basketball. Heading into Saturday’s tilt with Oklahoma, the Cowboys have won five of their last six, improving their record to 19-7. They have a high RPI rating of 53, but they’ve had great success in the tournament over the last three seasons, going 6-3, and making it to the Sweet 16 last year.

They also have one of the best coaches in the country: Eddie Sutton. It’s easy to see why Sutton is so good. He prepares his team. They play good defense and never quit. This isn’t his most talented team, but they have a lot of size. It’ll be a very tough team to deal with in the Big 12 Tournament.

Of course, there are many more teams on the bubble. With the major conference tournament coming up, there’s a lot of time left before their fates are sealed. Once more, this weekend promises to be a feast of delights for hoops fans, whether they’re betting the games or just trying to figure out who to ride in the office pools.