With Selection Sunday now just 18 days away, we have a clearer picture of which teams are on the NCAA tournament bubble -- and those teams are appropriately anxious. This is the time in the season when a game between, say, Villanova and Seton Hall is in fact a very big deal, even though the teams in question entered the contest with Big East records of 9-6 and 2-13, respectively.
Today I want to take a closer look at four of those anxious teams, and specifically I hope to shed some light on how exactly they landed themselves on the bubble. All of these teams were at one time -- whether in the preseason, at some point over the past three months, or both -- considered worthy of an at-large bid, but now that worthiness is being called into question. What happened?
Next to each team I've included their current status according to my colleague Joe Lunardi's latest bracket projection. Here are four nervous teams, and how they arrived at their present condition:
Villanova: Last four in
At the moment, Lunardi has the Wildcats in the field of 68 -- but only just barely, and a lot can change between now and Selection Sunday. Meaning Jay Wright's team is in a precarious position.
And you can make a pretty good case that a team with wins over Louisville, Syracuse, and Marquette should not find itself in a precarious position. Indeed, one of the underreported stories of this college basketball season has been the fact that Villanova has made a dramatic improvement on defense. The Cardinals and the Orange tend to get all the attention when it comes to D in the Big East, but it's actually Nova that's limiting conference opponents to the lowest two-point shooting percentage (40.9) of any team in the league. So why is an at-large bid not yet nailed down?
The aforementioned loss to Seton Hall in Newark this week didn't help Villanova's tournament resume, certainly. That's a road game that's been successfully navigated this season by a non-tournament team like Providence, to cite one example, yet the Wildcats couldn't pass that test. Instead Wright's team fell to the Pirates 66-65, after allowing Fuquan Edwin to score five points in the game's final 13 seconds.
Still, at least that was a road game, and, say what you will about the Pirates, they are in the Big East. (For now.) No, the true elephant in the room whenever Villanova is discussed by the selection committee is going to be the Wildcats' 75-57 loss at home to Columbia on November 20. The Lions are currently 3-7 in the Ivy League, and Kyle Smith's team has lost home games this season to the likes of Marist, Elon, and Dartmouth. Against the Wildcats, however, Columbia was a different team, holding Nova to just 22 first-half points.
The common element linking the Seton Hall and Columbia losses is anemic offense. In Big East play, Wright's team has scored just 0.99 points per possession, making this the No. 9-rated offense in a 15-team league. In particular Nova has struggled to take care of the ball, committing a turnover on 23 percent of their Big East possessions. If Villanova finds itself on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday, the Wildcats' lack of scoring will be the most likely culprit.
Temple: Last four in
The best day of Temple's season was December 22, when the Owls defeated then No. 3-ranked Syracuse 83-79 in Madison Square Garden. "We know we're a good team," Anthony Lee said after that game. "When we play like we're capable of, we think we can beat anyone."
Unfortunately for Fran Dunphy's team, "anyone" did not include Canisius, St. Bonaventure, or Duquesne this season. In particular, the 84-83 loss at home to the Dukes may really hurt Temple in the committee room. That game occurred relatively late in the season (Valentine's Day), and the winning team is currently 1-12 in Atlantic 10 play.
Khalif Wyatt is a gifted scorer -- he gave his team a chance in that Duquesne game by going 15-of-15 at the line -- and as a team the Owls are well above-average on offense. And it's true that Lunardi does have Temple in the field of 68 for now. Certainly that 10-point win at home against Saint Louis on January 12 looks better and better as the Billikens continue their march toward what may be an A-10 title.
But Temple has simply been unable to get stops when they need them, allowing A-10 opponents to ring up well over a point per possession. Dunphy's defense isn't bad, but it is average (No. 10 in the 16-team league), and average may not get the job done on Selection Sunday. It's going to be close.
Baylor: First four out
In the preseason no one would have thought the Bears would be on this list of teams, least of all Scott Drew. When you have the Big 12 preseason player of the year, one of the most highly acclaimed freshmen in the country, and two Elite Eight appearances in the past three years to your credit, "bubble" is not the first word that comes to mind.
But that is indeed where Baylor finds itself as March begins. Losses at home to College of Charleston and Northwestern will follow this team in every single selection committee discussion. The loss to the Wildcats at least has an asterisk attached: Bill Carmody's team then had Drew Crawford and Jared Swopshire in the lineup, and both players have since been sidelined by injury. Still, there are no asterisks to be found by the words "College of Charleston," or, especially, "at home."
Now the good news for Drew. His team has an absolute jewel of an opportunity to play itself into the tournament. This Saturday Kansas State will come to Waco, and the Saturday after that it will be Kansas that visits the Ferrell Center. To win one or both games, the Bears will need to improve their performance on offense significantly. How a team with Pierre Jackson, Isaiah Austin and the under-hyped but highly-efficient Cory Jefferson can be making just 46 percent of its twos in conference play is a question Drew might have an entire offseason to ponder if this offense doesn't at long last start clicking.
Maryland: Next four out
On November 7, the NCAA declared Xavier transfer Dez Wells eligible to play for Maryland in 2012-13, and the common reaction was that this would make the Terrapins a force in the ACC. With Alex Len and Wells teaming up as a formidable inside-outside combination, Maryland would surely be a solid at-large pick in the 2013 brackets.
It hasn't worked out that way. Maryland is actually in the most doubtful position of the four teams featured here, which is interesting in as much as, unlike the other three, Mark Turgeon's team doesn't really have any "bad" losses. The worst one would have to be the home loss to Florida State on January 9, but certainly that's more respectable than some of the defeats recorded by Villanova, Temple, or Baylor.
The Terrapins' problem is not with their profile as much as it is with their performance. Turgeon's men are 7-7 in conference play, and the really treacherous things about that record is that three of Maryland's last four games will be played on the road (at Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, and Virginia). The Terps have given the ball away on 23 percent of their ACC possessions. That's a surprisingly high turnover rate -- easily the league's worst -- and it has severely limited what this team can do on offense. If the Terrapins do indeed miss out on a bid, they will have let this opportunity slip through their fingers. Literally.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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