Welcome to Fieldhouse Confidential, a regular college basketball feature from Will Leitch, Mike Tanier and Matt Brown, published every Friday. Tanier will return next week.
* * *
Life on the bubble is a cruel existence, with emotions differing wildly depending on your perspective.
On one end of the spectrum, fans of Kentucky and North Carolina are left to panic, contemplating the unthinkable. In the middle, there's Maryland, which made 11 straight dances from 1994 to 2004 but is on the verge of missing the tournament for the third straight year and the sixth time in nine years; Juan Dixon is not walking back through that door, and reality has set in. On the other end is Boise State, which is in the running for only its sixth tournament appearance ever. In Lexington and Chapel Hill, the bubble is a terrifying, unusual place. In College Park, it's become a regular nuisance. In Boise, it's stressful yet exhilarating.
We're less than five weeks away from tipoff of the NCAA tournament. Pressure builds in a time when coaching careers are made and broken. The March dreams of seniors hang in the balance, or, in the case of the 2013 season, big names look to avoid embarrassment. The last month of the regular season is a contentious time with everyone on edge. Bubble teams may have only a couple opportunities left to notch wins over great teams to build their resumes. They'll face each other in contests that feel like elimination games. Overall, they'll have more chances to hurt their resume than help it.
This weekend feels as important as any with few standout matchups but a long list of games that will shape the bubble picture as teams look to start packing for the opening round in Dayton.
In a ridiculous season like this, one that saw four of the top five teams lose last week, one that's had a new No. 1 almost every week, it's fitting that the bubble is just as fluid and uncertain. Usually, it's tough to feel bad for a bubble team that misses the dance, because chances are they'll lose anyway. But in an upset-riddled season, anyone who makes the 68-team field can go in believing they have a chance to string together a few wins. It hardly seems that seeds will matter, and while there is a clear top tier of seven or eight teams, everyone is vulnerable. All that matters is making it to the show.
We've already seen Kansas lose to TCU, so don't be naïve: The same fate could belong to your team too.
Tomorrow afternoon, a ranked team is going to play in New York City, and I'm going to go see them. But they're not playing at the Garden; Maroon 5 is playing there Saturday night, and I wouldn't be caught dead at a Maroon 5 show. Barclays Center is booked too; Marc Antony's in town. No, I'm going to hop on the subway from Brooklyn and take the D up to the Bronx. Brad Stevens' Butler Bulldogs are in town.
The Bulldogs, currently ranked No. 11 in the AP poll and No. 10 in the coaches poll, will be playing their first game in the Atlantic-10 against the Fordham Rams, at Rose Hill Gym. If you've never been to Rose Hill, walking in the building is like visiting what college basketball must have been like in 1925. I mean that almost literally: That's the year Rose Hill opened. (It's the oldest on-campus venue still being used.) The place hasn't been updated that much since then, which is both charming – thanks to its stone-structured walls and welcoming size – and detrimental to the program, considering it's not the sort of place that wows potential recruits. It holds 3,200 fans, but not usually.
It will Saturday, though. Butler is the best team to come into Rose Hill for a while, though you might be surprised to learn that if Fordham wins, it won't be that much of a breakthrough -- the Rams beat a ranked team at Rose Hill just last season, defeating Harvard in January 2012.
I am not holding my breath for a Fordham victory. (KenPom has Butler as a 14-point favorite, and I think he's being kind.) The crowd's still going to be great – it's a sellout, with a large percentage of the fans expected to be students – and it's going to be a rare experience to see such a high-quality team in such an intimate venue. I cannot wait. The game is on CBS Sports Network, and with just 3,200 seats, you might even just see me. And hey, you never know: Maybe I'll finally get that court-storming I've been waiting for.
All right, enough sentimental whimsy. Let's get to it. Remember: The S-Curve lets you know the top team on each line, the one closest to the next seed. There are geographic and regional concerns with the seeding that must be accounted for, but we won't worry about those until we get closer to Selection Sunday. And, as always, the main purpose of fake brackets is to remind us that, sometime very soon, we will get a real one.
S-CURVE (automatic qualifiers in CAPS)
No. 1: INDIANA, MIAMI (FLA.), Duke, Michigan State
No. 2: FLORIDA, Michigan, GONZAGA, KANSAS
No. 3: NEW MEXICO, Arizona, SYRACUSE, Louisville
No. 4: Ohio State, Kansas State, Georgetown, Marquette
No. 5: Pittsburgh, Oklahoma State, Minnesota, Oregon
No. 6: Cincinnati, Wisconsin, BUTLER, Notre Dame
No. 7: N.C. State, Colorado State, Missouri, CREIGHTON
No. 8: Wichita State, San Diego State, Virginia Commonwealth, Ucla
No. 9: MEMPHIS, Oklahoma, Nevada-Las Vegas, Illinois
No. 10: Colorado, Kentucky, St. Louis, North Carolina
No. 11: La Salle, Baylor, Mississippi, Iowa State
No. 12: MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE, LOUISIANA TECH, Virginia (play-in), Indiana State (play-in), St. John's (play-in), Arizona State (play-in)
No. 13: BUCKNELL, BELMONT, AKRON, HARVARD
No. 14: STEPHEN F. AUSTIN, VALPARAISO, DAVIDSON, SOUTH DAKOTA STATE
No. 15: LONG BEACH STATE, NORTHEASTERN, NIAGARA, MONTANA
No. 16: SOUTHERN, STONY BROOK, FLORIDA GULF COAST (play-in), BRYANT (play-in), NORTH CAROLINA CENTRAL (play-in), HIGH POINT (play-in)
Last Four In: Virginia, Indiana State, St. John's, Arizona State
Last Four Out: Temple, St. Mary's, California, Maryland
Next Four Out: Charlotte, Villanova, Boise State, Lehigh
Lots of bubble teams had bad losses this week; that Arizona State could fall to Utah and Indiana State could fall to Missouri State, and they're both still in, should tell you all you need to know.
Locks: Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State, Michigan State
Not Entirely Dead: Iowa
Locks: Louisville, Syracuse, Marquette, Pittsburgh, Georgetown
Probables: Cincinnati, Notre Dame
Bubbling: St. John's, Villanova
Not Entirely Dead: None
Locks: Duke, Miami (Fla.)
Probables: North Carolina State
Bubbling: North Carolina, Maryland, Florida State, Virginia
Not Entirely Dead: None
Locks: New Mexico
Probables: Colorado State
Bubbling: San Diego State, UNLV, Boise State
Not Dead Yet: Wyoming
Locks: Arizona, Oregon
Bubbling: UCLA, Arizona State, Colorado, California
Not Dead Yet: Washington, Stanford
Locks: Kansas, Kansas State
Probables: Oklahoma State
Bubbling: Baylor, Iowa State, Oklahoma
Not Dead Yet: None
Bubbling: Mississippi, Kentucky, Missouri
Not Dead Yet: Texas A&M, Alabama, Arkansas
Bubbling: Virginia Commonwealth, Temple, St. Louis, La Salle, Charlotte
Not Dead Yet: Xavier, St. Joseph's, Massachusetts
Any questions or obvious omissions, leave 'em in the comments or email me at email@example.com. And enjoy the games this weekend.
What to Watch: Bubble Edition
No. 2 Duke at Maryland (6 p.m. Saturday, ESPN)
The greatest rivalry in college basketball was played on Wednesday, with Duke rallying to beat North Carolina in Durham. But does anyone loathe the opposition more than Maryland fans welcoming Duke to College Park? One of the ACC's most heated rivalries doesn't have much time left with Maryland heading to the Big Ten in a couple years, and the Terrapins have lost their last two home meetings in the lopsided rivalry by double digits. Saturday evening could follow the same path. Duke beat Maryland by 20 in Durham on Jan. 26, and the Terrapins are in desperate need of a big win as they find themselves on the outside looking in, according to many bracket projections. They're just 5-6 in the ACC, and the rest of the schedule -- headlined by bubble games against North Carolina and Virginia -- is lacking in marquee opponents. Duke has stayed afloat without Ryan Kelly, being one of the few top teams to survive the last few weeks unscathed, despite close calls against UNC and Boston College. In a weekend lacking big games, maybe we should expect another round of chaos. If so, Duke walking into a lion's den in College Park seems like a spot ripe for an upset. But in reality, this is a mediocre Maryland team that's especially mediocre offensively, and it may be destined to tread water on its way to the NIT.
Pick: Duke 74, Maryland 64
Oklahoma at No. 17 Oklahoma State (1:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN3.com/Big 12 Network)
The basketball version of Bedlam looks much different than a few weeks ago when Kansas appeared to be running unimpeded toward another Big 12 title. Kansas and Texas have won every Big 12 regular-season title since 2005, when Oklahoma split with Kansas. Both the Sooners and Cowboys have defeated the Jayhawks recently, and Oklahoma State in particular has picked up tournament traction behind the outstanding play of star freshman point guard Marcus Smart, a likely lottery pick. The Cowboys now sit tied with Kansas and Kansas State at 8-3, with Oklahoma one game back. The Cowboys have now won six in a row, but they must turn the tables on their in-state rival Sooners, who won 77-68 in Norman on Jan. 12 and are searching for a big road win to bolster their tournament case.
Pick: Oklahoma State 71, Oklahoma 63
Virginia at North Carolina (Noon Saturday, ESPN3.com/ACC Network)
Virginia has the unexplainable resume. On one hand, the Cavaliers are 8-3 in the ACC, with home wins against N.C. State and North Carolina and a road win at Wisconsin, which never loses in Madison. On the other hand, they've lost to Wake Forest, George Mason, Delaware, Georgia Tech, Clemson and, most inexplicably, Old Dominion, a team that's 3-22. How can one possibly come to terms with that loss to Old Dominion? It's the kind of game that's grounds for tournament banishment by itself. Yet here we are, and the Cavaliers travel to Chapel Hill for a crucial bubble game for both teams. Virginia has some key wins. North Carolina doesn't and is coming off back-to-back losses to ACC heavyweights Miami and Duke.
Pick: North Carolina 80, Virginia 77
No. 25 Kentucky at Tennessee (1 p.m. Saturday, CBS)
So … now what? How does Kentucky replace Nerlens Noel, who tore his ACL in Wednesday's loss to Florida. With Noel, Kentucky still lost most of its big games – Duke, Notre Dame, Baylor, Louisville – and this year's SEC provides few chances to truly bolster a resume. Saturday's game against Tennessee presents the kind of sneaky test that a bubble team can't afford to lose. The Vols are just 13-10, with wins over Alabama and Wichita State and a horrendous-to-watch 37-36 loss at Georgetown. Even in a bad year for the SEC, any road win for Kentucky is important, especially given the unfortunate events of the last week.
Pick: Kentucky 62, Tennessee 58
Baylor at No. 10 Kansas State (7 p.m. Saturday, ESPNU)
Kansas State opened the season quietly under Bruce Weber, losing its big games against Michigan and Gonzaga by double digits, but overall the Wildcats have put together a very good season, with their other losses at Iowa State and both home and away against rival Kansas. All five losses are to good teams, but they've also tallied a huge win over Florida in late December, two wins over Oklahoma and one over Oklahoma State. But Saturday night is a sneaky game against a Baylor team that took a big hit when it lost three straight games to Oklahoma, Iowa State and Oklahoma State before rebounding to win the last two. Star Baylor guard Pierre Jackson struggled in three games against the Wildcats last year, but look for a turnaround in a crucial road upset. Baylor's too talented to sink to the NIT.
Pick: Baylor 77, Kansas State 74
Boise State at No. 19 New Mexico (9 p.m. Saturday)
It's hard to believe that a seven-loss, sub-.500 Mountain West team is in the tournament mix, but here we are. Such is the strength of one of the deepest conferences in America, and Boise State does have wins against Creighton (on the road) and UNLV. Those two by themselves aren't enough, and the Broncos are surely still kicking themselves for coming back only to lose 63-62 on a shot with 2.8 seconds left at San Diego State last week. The Broncos are on the fringe, and a win at The Pit would be crucial to legitimizing their resume after losing to the Lobos in overtime at home in January.
Pick: New Mexico 72, Boise State 68
What to Watch: Best Games Edition
No. 13 Ohio State at No. 20 Wisconsin (1 p.m. Sunday, CBS)
Both the Buckeyes and Badgers played thrillers Thursday night, with Ohio State barely surviving at home against Northwestern (the 10-point margin is not an accurate representation of the game) and Wisconsin falling in overtime to rival Minnesota on the road. In typical fashion, the Badgers scored only 53 points in a game with extra time. The Buckeyes won the meeting in Columbus 58-49 in January, but since then the road has been tough with losses to Michigan and Indiana. The Big Ten is brutal, but both these teams are tournament locks, especially after the Badgers – who rarely lose at the Kohl Center – took down Michigan with the help of a miracle shot last week.
Pick: Wisconsin 55, Ohio State 53
No. 16 Pittsburgh at No. 20 Marquette (1 p.m. Saturday, CBS)
The Big East has been rather quiet this year, but the conference is strong with one of the best championship races in America. Neither Pitt nor Marquette has garnered much national attention, but both are in the Top 25, both are in the thick of the wide-open race -- Marquette in a three-way tie for first at 8-3 and Pitt just half a game back at 8-4 -- and Pitt's actually No. 4 in the ratings on KenPom.com. The Panthers certainly aren't flashy, with, amazingly, no player averaging more than 10.9 points per game, but they're efficient, and they've now notched wins over Georgetown, Syracuse, Cincinnati and Connecticut (plus a 25-point win over Lehigh before the Mountain Hawks lost C.J. McCollum). They've won seven of eight since losing at home to Marquette in overtime.
Pick: Marquette 65, Pittsburgh 61