The NCAA Tournament bubble has turned blue: Carolina blue, Duke blue, UConn’s navy blue and that deep shade of green that adorns Michigan State’s uniforms.
Yes, green is a shade of blue, so long as there is a Spartans basketball player wearing it.
These college basketball bluebloods, for various reasons in this most unusual college basketball season, find themselves fighting for the last few NCAA Tournament bids that will be awarded on Selection Sunday, March 14.
Which, for some of them, represents significant progress.
Duke, under .500 as recently as Feb. 9, has won four in a row and forced itself into the NCAA Tournament conversation. After losing six times in an eight-game stretch to fall to 10-9, Michigan State earned Quad 1 victories over Indiana and Illinois in the space of four days and revived its potential to earn a bid.
On the other hand, North Carolina and Indiana have stumbled often enough that neither can approach March with any sense of security about being involved with the “Madness” portion of the month.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is the added complication of not knowing exactly what to expect from the NCAA Tournament selection committee. How much can they rely on the NET rankings when there’s so much less data available to process through their formula? Can they really depend on schedule-strength rankings when merely getting onto the court was a challenge for everyone involved? Whereas in past years coaches had a general idea of what might get them into the tournament, recognizing that standard is a challenge in 2021.
And for coaches such as Tom Izzo, Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams, the bubble isn’t familiar territory, anyway.
Here’s what they’re all up against as the intensity of the competition on the NCAA Tournament bubble approaches scalding temperatures:
Vs. Quad 1: 2-3
Vs. Quad 2: 4-4
NET ranking: 48
Best win: vs. No. 15 Virginia
Worst loss: at No. 168 Miami
Schedule: Louisville, Saturday; at Georgia Tech, March 2; at North Carolina, March 6.
Overview: This sets up so nicely for the Blue Devils that it almost seems like they are fated to keep alive a string of NCAA Tournament appearances that dates to 1996. These are all consequential games, with Louisville fighting to stay away from bubble territory and the other two both needing victories either to enter the discussion (Tech) or avoid slipping out (UNC). Both of the road games will be Quad 1 opportunities for the Blue Devils. They are 1-2 against these opponents, but Duke has played like a different team since freshman forward Jaylen Johnson left the program.
Chances of making it: Better than Duke haters will want to hear.
Vs. Quad 1: 4-8
Vs. Quad 2: 2-1
NET ranking: 75
Best win: vs. No. 4 Illinois
Worst loss: at No. 96 Northwestern
Schedule: at Ohio State, Thursday; at Maryland, Feb. 28; Indiana, March 2; at Michigan, March 4; Michigan, March 7.
Overview: The funny thing about the Spartans’ resume is they actually have nearly the same record against Quad 1 as Texas Tech (4-7), and the Red Raiders still are being ranked in the top 20 by Associated Press voters. MSU’s recent change in approach, with veteran wing Aaron Henry more frequently initiating the offense and guard Rocket Watts free to concentrate on scoring, has made the team more effective. But getting through this schedule will require a monumental effort. At the least, the Spartans must win the Maryland and Indiana games, and it would be greatly beneficial to take one of the other three. If they do that, they’ll probably make it. And they’ll deserve it.
Chances of making it: Winning half of the games in that stretch is not a 50/50 proposition.
Vs. Quad 1: 1-6
Vs. Quad 2: 6-1
NET ranking: 33
Best win: vs. No. 49 Duke
Worst loss: No. 86 Marquette
Schedule: Florida State, Saturday; at Syracuse, March 1; Duke, March 6.
Overview: Give credit to Roy Williams for choosing to arrange a Marquette visit for Wednesday in an attempt to dress up the Tar Heels’ record and keep them from sitting a full week because of a pause in Boston College’s program that wiped out a game scheduled for Tuesday. But the Tar Heels went out and lost the game, allowing Marquette freshman Dawson Garcia to dominate with 24 points and 11 rebounds. That puts the Tar Heels in a challenging position, because each of those three remaining games is a challenge; for a team trying to fight its way into the bracket, that might be a good thing. For a team trying to stay there, a few more Wakes might have been welcome.
Chances of making it: Not what they were before Wojo came (back) to town.
Vs. Quad 1: 2-3
Vs. Quad 2: 2-2
NET ranking: 46
Best win: vs. No. 13 Southern California
Worst loss: vs. No. 77 St. John’s
Schedule: Marquette, Saturday; at Seton Hall, March 3; Georgetown, March 6.
Overview: UConn is 7-2 with star guard James Bouknight in the lineup; he missed eight games with an elbow injury. So a lot of Huskies fans feel that should be the deciding factor. However, they lost two of the three most difficult games in which he played (home against Creighton, at Villanova). If UConn is going to say, “We’re a tournament team with Bouknight,” it needs to make its case on the court. That means closing with three straight wins, including one against bubble-bound Seton Hall.
Chances of making it: It may come down to the Seton Hall game — or working their magic at Madison Square Garden in the Big East Tournament.
Vs. Quad 1: 2-9
Vs. Quad 2: 6-1
NET ranking: 54
Best win: at No. 5 Iowa
Worst loss: vs. No. 96 Northwestern
Schedule: Michigan, Saturday; at Michigan State, March 2; at Purdue, March 6.
Overview: Because of their enormously challenging schedule, a season sweep of Iowa and a fair number of wins that flirt with the descriptor “quality,” the Hoosiers were in good shape to make the field as Michigan State visited last Saturday. IU sprinted to a big first-half lead, gradually saw that dwindle and then were overwhelmed in the final 10 minutes. With point guard Robert Phinisee in an 0-for-13 slump with zero points in the past two games, which included a blowout loss Wednesday at Rutgers, the offense hasn’t been able to conjure enough points to win. The Hoosiers are 0-2 through the “easy” part of their final stretch. It is not beyond reach to turn this around, but it seems unlikely.
Chances of making it: They’ve probably got a better chance of finishing on an 0-5 skid.
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