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As The Bubble Turns

There are only two days left until March, but few teams are snapping up available spots in what is currently a not-that-crowded (Big) Dance hall.

So many teams began Wednesday night firmly on the bubble but in possession of a chance to move up the ladder. With three to four regular season games remaining on most power conference teams' schedules, the chance to accumulate wins is still real. In a week and a half, a "hot streak" might not be long enough or substantial enough to transform a resume. Right now, however, any power conference team can still produce a strong finish to the regular season and bridge that with a deep run in the conference tournament, thereby creating a five- to seven-game surge that would indeed represent the difference between the NIT and the NCAAs.

North Carolina State, Nebraska, Richmond, and West Virginia inhabited this basic position, poised finely between the worlds of opportunity and danger.

They all lost. 

What does this mean for the rest of the bubble? In some ways, these results produce more clarity. In a larger context, though, they probably expanded the bubble rather than shrinking it. Here's an explanation:

On one level, Wednesday's bubble losers did enable some NCAA tournament hopefuls to breathe a little easier. North Carolina State's inability to get a quality win against North Carolina leaves the Wolfpack without another shot at a high-value win opportunity until the ACC Tournament. N.C. State's toughest remaining regular season opponent is Pittsburgh, a team that's just inside the field of 68. North Carolina, moving toward fifth seed territory, would have been the substantial kind of scalp the Wolfpack so desperately needed. As things stand, N.C. State needs to win five games before Selection Sunday to have a realistic Dance chance. This loss increases the chances that the ACC will bring only five teams to the NCAA tournament.

Clemson has to win six games (winning out through the ACC semifinals) just to have any shot at an at-large bid. Maryland is in a similar spot, but the Terrapins at least get to face Virginia in the regular season finale, giving Mark Turgeon's team a chance to dramatically bolster its resume. Teams on the bad side of the bubble (as the ACC bubblers in fact are) want to play elite teams at this time of year, because top-tier wins are precisely what can take a "bad side of the bubble" resume and turn it into a portfolio worthy of a No. 11 seed or a First Four appearance in Dayton.

Florida State is the team in the ACC bubble cluster that is gaining ground with each passing day. The Seminoles' early-season non-conference losses (Florida, Michigan) have only looked better as the season has continued, boosting FSU's resume. Moreover, the Noles have the biggest win opportunity of any ACC bubble team, a season-ending game with Syracuse just before the ACC Tournament. If Florida State can pick off that game, it will probably enter the ACC Tournament with a better-than-even chance of making the field. Yet, the larger overall effect of the past few days is that the ACC will need something special to happen if it's going to get more than five teams in the Dance. 

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Nebraska's loss to Illinois makes the Huskers' regular season finale against Wisconsin a must win. The bad news is that Nebraska faces a tough matchup against the Badgers, but the good news — as noted above — is that a quality team gives a bubbler the chance to improve its body of work. The other product of Nebraska's loss is that Minnesota now has an indisputably superior resume when compared to the Huskers. Life for the Golden Gophers has taken a 180-degree turn since they fell behind Iowa, 32-21, midway through the first half on Tuesday night in Minneapolis.

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Richmond's loss in the Atlantic 10 bursts the Spiders' bubble. This is good news for Saint Joseph's, which seems to be solidifying its hold on an 11 seed or, at worst, a spot in the First Four. In the Big 12, West Virginia's loss to Iowa State means that it will now have to avoid a bad loss to TCU and then beat mighty Kansas a week later if it wants to enter the Big 12 Tournament with realistic NCAA hopes. West Virginia's struggles make life better for Baylor — which is in surprisingly good shape for a team that is likely to finish below .500 in its conference — and an Oklahoma State team that has a chance to play its way into the field in the coming days (Kansas on Saturday, Kansas State on Monday, and Iowa State on March 8).

Not many teams are punching tickets to the NCAA tournament, but for groups of bubble competitors within various conferences, the struggles of one team represent an early Christmas present for the other. 

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments in 2014. He contributes to Crossover Chronicles and other Bloguin sites.

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