Selection Sunday rightfully commands plenty of attention, but most of the teams on the NCAA tournament bubble must make their final impressions now. Much of the process of sorting through the final at-large bids will unfold in the next two days. One or two teams usually find a way to play their way in. Others bow out quickly, a la Syracuse on Wednesday in the ACC tournament’s second round. In any case, just about everyone will have the chance to make their final case. Check back here through the day for analysis on those scrambling for the final spots in the field.

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Visualizing the bubble


Vanderbilt goes for the triple

A decidedly borderline NCAA tournament team, Vanderbilt did precisely what it should have (take notes, Iowa) against an opponent that disappointingly struggled to finish the regular season a little north of .500.

The Commodores shook off a sputtering offense in the first half and cruised to a 66-41 victory over Texas A&M in the second round of the SEC tournament.

That sets up a third matchup between Vanderbilt (18-14) and No. 17 Florida. The first, on the road, ignited the Commodores’ recovery from 8-10 afterthought. The second, in Vanderbilt’s home gym, closed out the regular season and gave another jolt to the profile of a team with the nation’s top nonconference strength of schedule and five top-50 wins. KenPom (No. 40) smiles upon them, Sagarin (No. 49) less so.

It’s just … those losses. All those losses — with one of them at a poor Missouri team. If Vanderbilt got in as an at-large, it would become the first 15-loss team to get in via that path. (If Vanderbilt finishes with 14 losses, it will have won the SEC tournament and not need an at-large bid).

Somebody must fill the last couple spots in the field. With a victory tomorrow, and maybe even without one, Vanderbilt could be one of those teams.

Iowa delivers an ill-timed dud

Iowa missed the memo about leaving the NCAA selection committee with a good impression.

Like, really missed it.

Borderline tournament teams sometimes get run off the floor in their conference tournaments. And they sometimes lose to foes they shouldn’t (or can ill-afford to do so against).

But rarely does anyone combine those two problems in such a spectacular failure the way Iowa did in the second half of its Big Ten second-round game against Indiana.

The Hoosiers turned a three-point lead into a 95-73 rout of the Hawkeyes, a setback that could very well crush Iowa’s chances of slipping into one of the final spots in the field. Indiana shot 67.9 percent from the floor after the break, and its advantage at one point ballooned to 31.

Iowa falls to 18-14, and while it’s only one game and doesn’t undo some of the good the Hawkeyes accomplished down the stretch, it’s one pretty terrible game for a team that had an acutely borderline case to begin with. This is good news for the likes of California, Vanderbilt and even Syracuse, and bad news for the Big Ten’s hopes of coaxing an eighth team into the field of 68.

California maintains some hope

It was nearly impossible to do less to help itself over the last month than California had. It dropped five of its last six regular season games, beating only a dreadful Oregon State team along the way. Then it drew (and held off) Oregon State in its Pacific-12 tournament opener, and on Thursday, the Golden Bears secured a 78-75 victory over Utah behind 26 points from Jabari Bird.

Beating Utah doesn’t make Cal look vastly better, and no one should write the Bears into the NCAA tournament in black ink, but it provides a chance to grab a win that would really matter tomorrow night in Las Vegas.

Entering the tournament, the Golden Bears found their postseason prospects rapidly fading (and with a single top-50 victory to their credit, that might have happened even without losing to teams like Stanford and Colorado). A loss to Oregon State would have been a non-starter. And while beating Utah in the quarterfinals wasn’t going to be of much use, it would set up a vital showdown with Oregon in Friday’s semifinals.

TCU could have used this upset two weeks ago

The first genuine surprise result in the power conference tournaments has come in the form of Texas Christian’s 85-82 defeat of Kansas. The Jayhawks should still find themselves as a No. 1 seed come Sunday, so there isn’t much of an impact at the top of the bracket.

If this was nearly anytime in February, it would have qualified as a profile-altering victory for the Horned Frogs (19-14). But TCU stumbled into the Big 12 tournament on a seven-game losing streak, going from surprise NCAA tournament contender to NIT fodder (at best) over the last three and a half weeks of the regular season. At 3-10 against the top 50, this isn’t the compelling resume.

Now, TCU has won almost as many games in the last two days (two) as it did in the last seven weeks before arriving in Kansas City (three). It gets Iowa State next, and a possible Big 12 title game if it can upend the Cyclones.

TCU had a bit of a road issue — it owned one top-150 victory entering the day — but its biggest problem was the pile of losses it accumulated. The Horned Frogs jump back into the conversation at the edge of the field, but there’s more for Jamie Dixon’s bunch to do. If nothing else, the Horned Frogs really could have used this result when it visited Kansas on Feb. 22 and still had a few weeks to polish its profile.

Seton Hall handles its business

Seton Hall had gone from scuffling along the edge of the tournament field to looking as if it was fairly safe inside of it over the last two weeks. That is what a four-game winning streak to close the regular season can do at this stage of the season.

The Pirates (21-11) made it five in a row Thursday, knocking off Marquette, 82-76, behind a near-triple-double from Angel Delgado (12 points, 16 rebounds, nine assists). Seton Hall now is over .500 away from home and has lost just twice in the last 10 games after a lethargic 13-8 start. The trip to the Big East semifinals should remove all doubt about the Pirates’ postseason worthiness.

Seton Hall might just go ahead and win the whole thing. After all, that’s what Kevin Willard’s bunch did last year at the Garden.

Marquette should be fine, even with this result. The Golden Eagles (19-13) have their share of losses, but also own seven top 50 wins (including a defeat of Villanova). Unlike a team with a similar number of high-end triumphs (ahem, Syracuse), Marquette has won at Creighton and Xavier. It’s not the greatest profile, but we’re not talking about the Golden Eagles as a No. 6 seed.

Marquette should make a perfectly decent No. 10 seed, with the possibility of being bumped to Dayton for a play-in game. The early exit denied the Golden Eagles a chance to improve their resume, but they should still make the NCAA tournament for the first time under Coach Steve Wojciechowski.

With Maten back, Georgia could be a nuisance

Forward Yante Maten returned Thursday from a knee injury that cost him Georgia’s last four regular season games. That helped the Bulldogs (19-13) edge Tennessee, 59-57, and advance to face top-seeded Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference quarterfinals.

Which means J.J. Frazier gets to face Kentucky in the SEC quarterfinals.

Georgia put two scares into the Wildcats, and Frazier is the primary cause of those problems for John Calipari’s team. He had 23 points in an overtime loss in Lexington and another 36 in a five-point setback at home against Kentucky. And with Maten back in the fold, there’s another high-end player for Kentucky to deal with tomorrow afternoon.

Georgia is missing quality victories on its resume (its lone top-50 triumph came against Vanderbilt), but it’s a commendable 7-8 away from home and has only one setback outside the top 100 (Oakland). It doesn’t belong all that close to the field of 68 right now, but it would suddenly have a better case if it can finally upend Kentucky the third time around.

Middle Tennessee bears watching

The edge of the NCAA tournament field isn’t especially strong. There’s also an absence of regular season champions from likely one-bid leagues that could steal a spot in the field if they happen to lose. That’s good news for average power conference programs.

One possible exception is Middle Tennessee (28-4), the defending champ in Conference USA and the top seed in this year’s event. The Blue Raiders have a 15-2 record away from home, a top-40 RPI and a nonconference strength of schedule ranked 18th coming into the day. And not that it matters for this year, but you may recall they pulled off a 2/15 upset of Michigan State last season.

Working against them: A modest set of victories (UNC Wilmington and Vanderbilt are the highlights) and tepid advanced metrics rankings (No. 52 KenPom, No. 63 Sagarin). Truth be told, this is the sort of team that would be a better at-large bet three years ago than now, given the committee’s evolving (or is it de-evolving?) preferences.

Nonetheless, Kermit Davis’s veteran team bears monitoring this week, just in case. The Blue Raiders handled Texas-San Antonio, 86-70, in the C-USA quarterfinals, putting them within two victories of an automatic bid. That would also prevent them from getting tossed in the same bin as Illinois State as teams that piled up a ton of victories only to lose at the wrong time.

Illinois bows out quickly

Michigan needed a while to arrive in Washington for the Big Ten tournament. It didn’t require much time, though, to send Illinois out of town.

The Illini absorbed a 75-55 defeat in the Big Ten’s second round that effectively put an end to their unlikely NCAA tournament chances. John Groce’s bunch had won four in a row entering the final weekend of the regular season, but back-to-back losses will relegate Illinois (18-14) to the NIT.

The nicest thing that could be said about Illinois even when it was hovering a couple games over .500 was that it hadn’t suffered any silly losses. Then the Illini went to Rutgers and fell on the final weekend of the regular season. Illinois was a long shot, regardless, with a relatively thin top to its portfolio (home defeats of Michigan and Michigan State, a victory over Virginia Commonwealth in Miami) coupled with production that didn’t lead it to great numbers in any metric. This loss just extinguishes those faint chances.

The Wolverines’ second-round game vs. Illinois — one with NCAA tournament implications for both teams — was pushed back 20 minutes to a 12:20 p.m. tipoff because of travel delays that kept Michigan from arriving at Verizon Center until after 10:30 Thursday morning.

The uncertainty surrounding the start time began Wednesday, when the Wolverines’ team plane skidded off the runway in high winds upon departure from the Ann Arbor airport. That delayed their flight to Dulles Airport outside of Washington until early Thursday morning.

Who to watch on Thursday

  • Iowa: The other Big Ten bubbler, the Hawkeyes take on Indiana to open the evening session at Verizon Center. A win might be enough for Peter Jok and his teammates to finish the job and bag a stealth NCAA tournament bid.
  • California: The Golden Bears need to make a splash in the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas. Beating Utah doesn’t count, but that would send them to the semifinals and a possible date with top-seeded Oregon.
  • Vanderbilt: If and when the Commodores lose in the SEC tournament, they’ll have 15 defeats. That would be the most for any at-large selection. They’ll begin play in the SEC’s second round against Texas A&M.
  • Providence: The Friars might be safe, but why bother putting that theory to the test? Instead, Providence can solidify its status when it meets Creighton in the evening’s late game at Madison Square Garden.

Thursday’s bubble-related games (all times Eastern)
California vs. Utah, approx. 5:30 (Pac-12 Networks)
Iowa vs. Indiana, 6:30 (ESPN2)
Vanderbilt vs. Texas A&M, 7 (SEC Network)
Mississippi vs. Missouri, approx. 9:25 (SEC Network)
Providence vs. Creighton, 9:30 (Fox Sports 1)

Other notable games:
Michigan State vs. Penn State, approx. 2:25 (BTN)
Louisville vs. Duke, approx. 2:30 (ESPN/ACC Network)
Kansas vs. Texas Christian, approx. 3 (ESPN2)
Oregon vs. Arizona State, 3 (Pac-12 Networks)
Butler vs. Xavier, 7 (Fox Sports 1)
Florida State vs. Virginia Tech, 7 (ESPN/ACC Network)
West Virginia vs. Texas, 7 (ESPNU)
Northwestern vs. Rutgers, approx. 8:55 (ESPN2)
Arizona vs. Colorado/Washington State, 9 (Pac-12 Networks)
Baylor vs. Kansas State, 9:30 (ESPNU)
Notre Dame vs. Virginia, approx. 9:30 (ESPN/ACC Network)
UCLA vs. Southern California, approx. 11:30 (ESPN)