Big-name teams still fac­ing work for NCAA berths

An early con­fer­ence tour­na­ment loss prob­a­bly would elim­i­nate sev­eral.

Austin American-Statesman - - SPORTS - By Kevin Lyt­tle klyt­tle@states­man.com

Col­lege bas­ket­ball can be a cruel sport in March. Poor Bel­mont. Mon­mouth, too. They com­pletely dom­i­nated their con­fer­ences this year, got dumped in their league tour­na­ments and, poof, they won’t be heard from again. Ditto, Valpo. Buh-bye. No NCAA mo­ment for you. Oh, but you can make those NIT reser­va­tions.

Such is life in the one-and-done con­fer­ence tour­na­ments, where ev­ery­thing a team did over four months can be wiped out by one fall-away jumper at the buzzer.

Now the em­i­nently more for­giv­ing power con­fer­ences and high ma­jors take over, where just about ev­ery­body with a winning league record gets an NCAA bid. Still, there are rea­sons to pay close at­ten­tion lead­ing up to Se­lec­tion Sun­day this com­ing week­end, and here are five of the big­gest:

1. Bet­ter win to get in

Plenty of big names are pro­jected to be just above or just be­low the NCAA Tour­na­ment cut line. Mar­quette (19-11), Prov­i­dence (20-11), Syra­cuse (18-13), Wake For­est (18-12) and even Van­der­bilt (17-14) all are play­ing well and might have worked their way “in” as of to­day, but a slip-up in a con­fer­ence tour­na­ment opener could be enough to knock any of them out.

Cal­i­for­nia (19-11), USC (23-8) and Xavier (19-12) are trend­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion. For most of Fe­bru­ary, each looked solid. Now each has work to do this week to punch a ticket. Same for Kansas State (19-12), which won its past two games but was 2-8 be­fore those wins.

2. Mak­ing a late push

Iowa (18-13, 10-8) and Illi­nois (18-13, 8-10) were long shots as recently as two weeks ago. The Hawkeyes closed 4-0; the Illini 4-1. Keep a close eye on them in the Big Ten Tour­na­ment, which in­ci­den­tally is in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., for the first time.

Rhode Is­land (21-9, 13-5) is a tal­ented team that fi­nally got healthy. The Rams could make a push in the At­lantic 10 bracket. Utah (20-10, 11-7) has come alive in the Pac-12. And over­look­ing its ugly record in the ACC, Clem­son (16-14, 6-12) has lost 11 games by six or fewer points.

3. Bid steal­ers

There aren’t many be­cause the mid-ma­jors are down this sea­son, but Mid­dle Ten­nessee (27-4, 17-1) de­serves to be in the field if it doesn’t win the Con­fer­ence USA Tour­na­ment. The Blue Raiders beat Michi­gan State in the first round of the NCAAs last year and have ba­si­cally the same team back.

Ne­vada (25-6) can make a pretty fair case for it­self if the Wolf Pack, with a 35 RPI, fail to win the Moun­tain West Tour­na­ment.

4. Top of the crop

Kansas, Vil­lanova and prob­a­bly North Carolina have locked up No. 1 seeds. They won the three best leagues. Case closed. Gon­zaga needs to grab the WCC Tour­na­ment ti­tle Tues­day night to pos­si­bly nail down the fi­nal top seed. The Zags should worry about Ore­gon, UCLA or Ari­zona winning the Pac-12 Tour­na­ment.

5. The Texan con­nec­tion

Best guess is that just three or four teams from the state will make it. Bay­lor has so­lid­i­fied its po­si­tion as a No. 2 seed. Surg­ing SMU, with a 13-game winning streak, is up to a No. 5 in our pro­jec­tions, with an out­side shot at a No. 4.

Af­ter that, Sun Belt champ UT-Ar­ling­ton, which just had an eight-game win string snapped, will al­most cer­tainly have to sur­vive the con­fer­ence tour­na­ment, even though the Mav­er­icks have a solid 39 RPI.

SWAC champ Texas South­ern is the heavy fa­vorite in its league, which is known for un­pre­dictable tour­na­ment results.

ROD AYDELOTTE / WACO TRI­BUNE HER­ALD

Johnathan Mot­ley and Bay­lor ap­pear headed for a No. 2 NCAA seed, but only two or three more teams from Texas look like can­di­dates to make the field.

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