Dribble Handoff: Bubble teams that can finish strong, play their way into 2023 NCAA Tournament
With less than seven weeks to go until Selection Sunday for the 2023 NCAA Tournament, college basketball’s regular season midfield has taken off. The resumes are cemented, but there’s still time for some teams outside of the NCAA Tournament picture to turn things around and hit the big dance.
Every team that qualifies for its conference tournament will have a chance at an automatic offer, and those with a strong regular-season finish can work their way to an overall bid. This time last year, Virginia Tech was just 10-10 (2-7 ACC) and clearly on the wrong side of the bubble. But the Hokies have won nine of their last 11 regular season games, then won four games in four days at the ACC Tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament as the No. 11 seed.
The Hokies just happen to find themselves in a similar situation this season in needing a big finish to make the 68-team squad. Many other teams with lofty preseason aspirations also find themselves firmly on the wrong side of the bubble as February draws closer.
For this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff, our editors select the teams currently outside of CBS Sports Bracketology Expert Jerry Palm’s projected NCAA Tournament scope that they believe will play in the Big Dance.
Texas A&M isn’t even one of Jerry Palm’s first Four Outs, which is completely understandable. I didn’t write this to highlight a perceived mistake as much as I wrote it to illustrate all the work the Aggies have to do.
They are clearly heading in the right direction, however. After a 6-5 start with multiple troubling losses, Texas A&M has gone 7-1 in its last eight games with the only loss coming at Kentucky. The Aggies performed like a top-10 team over that eight-game streak, according to BartTorvik.com. So they’re now 3-4 in the top two quadrants, with one more loss in quadrant 3 (Murray State) and another in quadrant 4 (Wofford).
It’s not great; however, eight of Texas A&M’s final 12 regular season games will be Quadrant 1 contests based on current NET standings. If the Aggies continue their high-level play of the last few weeks, they should win enough of those Quad-1 games to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Buzz Williams. – Gary Parrish
Here’s what I’m confident in: The strength of the Big 12. The league ranks streets ahead of all other conferences in every metric; it’s indisputable that this league is #1. There’s a chasm between the top six (choose your order) Iowa State, Texas, Kansas State, Kansas, TCU and from Baylor. Any one of those teams could win the league, and the other four are a tier or two below.
That said, I think one from Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, and Texas Tech is going to find a general profile. TTU is still winless in the league; it’s not dancing this season. West Virginia is 1-6 in the Big 12 and 11-8 overall. Not much better. Oklahoma schools are both 11-9 and shaky. The Cowboys, however, have a top-10 defense in the country. They own a win over Iowa State and have more home games than road games remaining. The Quad 1 victories are there. Even if barely, even if it means going to Dayton for the First Four, I’ll roll with the Pokes. –Matt Norlander
No team under the current ACC configuration has started 1-7 in league play and won an overall bid in the NCAA Tournament. That’s nearly a decade of post-realignment results suggesting such slow starts spell the end of March Madness hopes. Virginia Tech entering the 68-team field would, by modern standards, be unprecedented. But in the Hokies I believe.
They ended a seven-game league skid with a win over Duke at home, but dig a little deeper and the losing streak isn’t as bad as it looks. One loss came in overtime, three by one possession, one by a point and all by 10 points or less.
This team is about to turn the page. He’s 49th in the NET, 46th in KenPom and 46th in BartTorvik — in the same quarter as the projected NCAA Tournament teams. With a 2-7 ACC record and the losses already racked up, Virginia Tech’s margin for error is slim. In a year where the league is historically bad, however, this team could do wonders if they are even slightly better in the future.
The schedule is setting up well on the stretch, and given how Mike Young’s club handled adversity, I’m buying low while I can. Keep in mind: Virginia Tech opened ACC play 2-7 last year before going 11-9 in the regular season and winning the ACC Tournament to ultimately earn an 11 seed. Don’t Write This Program too early. -Kyle Boone
At 14-7 (7-3 Pac-12), Utah is back to form after sweeping the Washington Schools in convincing fashion. The Utes are just 4-7 against Quads 1 and 2 but a perfect 10-0 against Quads 3 and 4. Five of their last 10 games have been of the Quad 1 variety, giving them ample opportunity to polish their resume. Senior big man Branden Carlson is playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 17 points and 7.6 rebounds on 56.8 percent shooting from the floor. He also blocks 2.3 shots per game and shoots 43.8% from beyond the arc on 3.2 attempts per game, which is a great number for a 7-footer.
Carlson’s rim protection is one of the reasons Utah’s defense is among the best in the nation. Opponents are shooting just 37.4 percent from the floor against the Utes and just 28 percent from beyond the arc. Both brands are top-10 nationally, and Utah holds the foes to just 62.3 points per game, which is 28th in the nation.
Utah’s offense isn’t elite, but the Utes shot more than 50 percent from the floor in blowout wins over Washington State and Washington last week. If those performances marked a turning point for the offense, then this team will find themselves on the right side of the projected bubble in no time. –David Cobb