Incredibly, we are down to the final Saturday in college hoops.
While that's somewhat sad, it's somewhat exciting - as March is officially here!
It's also got a bit of a "moving day" feel in college basketball. with several teams fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives.
Here are the 10 biggest games with bubble implications heading into the weekend:
Kentucky at Florida (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, CBS)
The Gators are currently on the outside looking in when it comes to their NCAA Tournament hopes, however they will have a chance to move the needle in a big way on Saturday when Kentucky comes to town. Florida has shown they are capable of picking up big wins at home against college basketball's best teams, when they defeated Auburn in a similar must win scenario on February 19th. The problem is, Florida has failed to capitalize on that momentum, losing a huge game to Arkansas shortly after.
This Florida team should be in the NCAA Tournament but have struggled with injuries most notably to leading scorer Colin Castleton who missed six games in late January to early February with a shoulder injury. The other thing that has really cost Florida, is their Quadrant 4,15 point loss to Texas Southern who is ranked #198 on KenPom on December 6th. That isn’t only a loss that keeps you out of the NCAA Tournament, but also one that could cost head coach Mike White his job considering the reasonable frustrations of Gators fans (assuming of course they don't make the tournament). Florida has gotten progressively worse every year under White. In each of White’s seasons in charge, Florida enters with a lot of talent and expectations, but nothing to show for it. This year, the hope was that White had stopped recruiting some of the top Freshman talent and older more experienced transfers from the portal would help this Gators team.
While they’ve had their moments, Florida needs a win over Kentucky plus more in the SEC Tournament to secure a bid, which looks like a tough ask.
Indiana at Purdue (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN)
There is no one that has suffered more recent heartbreak than Indiana, as the Hoosiers have now lost 6 of their last 8 games. Following Wednesday night's narrow loss to Rutgers, the only way Indiana will be able to feel good about an NCAA Tournament bid before the Big Ten Tournament would be a win at Mackey Arena. Indiana did pick up its biggest win of the season up to date on January 20th against Purdue in Bloomington.
However, with this game being at Mackey Arena and Purdue coming off of two consecutive last-minute losses it is going to be challenging. This one will be Senior Day, for Boilers Trevion Williams, Eric Hunter Jr. and Sasha Stefonovic while also likely being the last home game for future NBA lottery pick Jaden Ivey. It has been a frustrating season for Indiana, considering they started off the season with a 17-5 record and wins over Notre Dame and Ohio State who will likely be NCAA Tournament teams along with the big Purdue win. Everything changed for this Indiana team when 5 players got suspended right before the Northwestern loss on February 8th and Indiana has not been the same team since.
The Hoosiers need one more Big Ten win to feel good about an NCAA Tournament bid, and it is not guaranteed that will happen with the way Indiana has been playing of late. The task of playing at Mackey Arena will be more difficult this time around for Indiana, as they will be playing for their tournament hopes.
Virginia Tech at Clemson (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET, ACC Network)
Since the ACC has been so down this season, many do not realize that the highest ranked team on KenPom that is currently not projected to make the NCAA Tournament is Virginia Tech who is ranked #28. The metrics and efficiency numbers love Mike Young’s group, who is underachieved for the most part, after making it to the NCAA Tournament somewhat unexpectedly a year ago. After a rough start where it looked all hope could be lost, Virginia Tech has started to play their best basketball of the season at the most opportune time, including winning 9 out of their last 10 ball games. The Hokies were able to pick up their biggest win of the season to date, last Saturday in Coral Gables against a Miami team likely to hear their names called on Selection Sunday. Virginia Tech found themselves down by 8 points with 1:42 remaining and their season on the line and somehow found a win to leave Miami with a victory.
Virginia Tech will still have some work to do in the ACC Tournament, considering the Miami victory was their first win of the season over a tournament team. However, if anyone can be a bid stealer in the ACC the winning ways of Virginia Tech can come in handy considering each of their starting 5 has experience playing in the NCAA Tournament. Clemson has closed out their season nicely winning 3 games in a row coming in, and will not be an easy place to play on Senior Night.
Ohio Valley Conference Tournament (Friday to Saturday - Championship Saturday, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
One of the best stories in college basketball this season has come from the Ohio Valley and it is the Murray State Racers. Just two seasons after losing NBA Superstar Ja Morant and winning a game in the NCAA Tournament, Head Coach Matt McMahon and Murray State went through Ohio Valley Conference play with a perfect 18-0 record. In addition, Murray State only suffered two losses on the season and one of them was against likely SEC Champion Auburn. Even if the Racers do slip up in the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament they will be hearing their names called on Selection Sunday. Murray State isn’t lacking postseason experience, despite missing last year's NCAA Tournament. There are a few holdovers from the aforementioned 2019 team. Tevin Brown, who was a Freshman on that team, is now a Senior and has developed into one of the best shooters in the country averaging 16.4 Points per Game. Another member of that team was current leading Scorer KJ Williams was recently named Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year to complete the lethal one two punch with Brown. Murray State is a team capable of winning multiple games in the NCAA Tournament and are rightfully considered the favorites to cut down the nets in the Ohio Valley. (-175)
However, the reason we have the Ohio Valley tournament on this list is for one simple reason: With Murray all but locked into an NCAA Tournament bid, it means that if they don't win, we could have our first official bid stealer of the NCAA Tournament picture - most notably from Belmont and Morehead State.
Belmont’s only hope of an NCAA Tournament bid would be winning the conference tournament but they are entirely capable of doing that. (+240) Casey Alexander’s Bruins finished 25-6 overall and 15-3 in the Ohio Valley. Each of the Ohio Valley’s Top 3 teams are all ranked in the Top 127 of KenPom and Belmont went a perfect 14-0 in Ohio Valley Conference play against teams outside the other top two. They are led by bg man Nick Muszynski, who also has NCAA Tournament experience as a key member of Belmont’s 2019 Ohio Valley Regular Season Conference Championship. Morehead State was the Conference’s representative last season, behind 5th year Head Coach Preston Spradlin, who is considered by many to be a rising star in the coaching industry. His Eagles won last year's Ohio Valley Conference Tournament behind leading scorer Johni Broome, and Guard Skyelar Porter who are both back leading the way this year. If there’s a sleeper team to win this one and knock off Murray State or Belmont it would be Spradlin’s Eagles. (+950).
Georgetown at Xavier (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, FS1)
The fact that this game is considered a “bubble” game, when Xavier started off their season 16-5 overall and was ranked in the Top 25 should be surprising. However, the Musketeers are now experiencing their 3rd consecutive March collapse and head coach Travis Steele has zero answers. Since Xavier beat Butler on February 2nd, the Musketeers are 1-6 and have now lost five games in a row following Wednesday night's loss at St. Johns.
Each of the last 2 years, Xavier’s late season struggles have been pushed aside, whether it was the 2020 NCAA Tournament being postponed or last year's never-ending COVID pauses across the sport. However, this year Xavier returned really good players including Paul Scruggs, Zach Freemantle and Nate Johnson, who all could have easily left but decided to stay for one more year hoping to avenge each of the last two seasons. Combine those veterans with a future pro point guard in Colby Jones and transfers Jack Nunge and Jerome Hunter, and there is no reason why this Xavier team shouldn’t make the tournament. With that being said, a loss to Georgetown who is trying to avoid an 0-18 Big East season would be so damaging it could keep Xavier out of the NCAA Tournament.
With former successful Xavier coaches Sean Miller and Chris Mack on the open market, the timing of another late season collapse could not be worse for Travis Steele. The Musketeers have failed to make an NCAA Tournament in each of his first 3 seasons. This is so frustrating due to the fact, that Chris Mack could not have left the program in a better spot after winning the Big East in 2018 yet Steele has failed to take advantage.
North Carolina at Duke (Saturday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN)
All of the spotlight for Coach K’s final game will be on the legend himself, however it is also a huge opportunity to secure a tournament berth for the visiting Tar Heels. North Carolina will be eagerly looking for some revenge over Duke after the Blue Devils went into Chapel Hill and beat North Carolina by 20 on February 5th. The Tar Heels have flirted with disaster recently, picking up another close win over Syracuse on Monday night in overtime. The game represented sophomore point guard Caleb Love’s season in a nutshell, as he started the game shooting one for his first nine from three but made his next three three-pointers including in the final minute of regulation and overtime to secure the victory. The Tar Heels only have one bad loss the entire season against Pitt, but also only have one win over a projected NCAA Tournament team in Michigan, who hasn’t entirely secured a bid yet. North Carolina is currently projected by most, on the line on the last 4 byes and first 4 teams in the NCAA Tournament. While a win against Coach K in his final game might be difficult, North Carolina needs to start performing well against the good teams and they are running out of time to do so
Houston at Memphis (Sunday, 12 p.m. ET, CBS)
Shortly after it looked like nearly all hope was lost for Memphis, they turned around their season in a big way to get back on the bubble over the last few weeks. Penny Hardway’s team had a lot of preseason hype, bringing in the No. 1 recruiting class in the country featuring 5 star prospects Emoni Bates and Jalen Duran along with returning mostly everyone from last year's team that won the NIT. This was a big season for Hardaway, considering Memphis was not in position to make the 2020 NCAA Tournament after a rough start and Memphis also fell short of the big dance last year.
Early on this season, Memphis was rightfully considered to be the most disappointing team in the country. Their chemistry was clearly off and Memphis took a number of head scratching losses including to SEC bottom feeders Georgia and Ole Miss along with conference losses to Tulane and East Carolina. Things had appeared to hit rock bottom after Memphis’ January 20th loss to SMU when Penny Hardaway went off on the media blaming Memphis’ injuries and age for their poor performance while being angry at the media themselves for creating negative energy.
Whatever happened, something has changed since that SMU game as Memphis has gone 9-1 in their last 10 games heading into Saturday. The biggest win during that stretch was Memphis’ February 12th win at Houston. Although it should have happened a long time ago, Penny deserves credit for being able to keep this team together after all of the rough patches they went through early in the season.
A respectable AAC Tournament showing should be enough to get Memphis in the big dance. Still, a win on Saturday would all but assure a tournament bid for a Memphis team that looked all but dead in January.
Missouri Valley Conference Tournament (Friday-Sunday - Championship Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, CBS)
The Valley has been one of the more under the radar leagues in college basketball this season, considering they have five teams ranked in the Top 100 of KenPom. While Loyola Chicago is the defending Conference Tournament champions and the gambling favorites (+160), they will have their hands full in Arch Madness.
After being considered safe for a majority of the season by bracketologists, Loyola Chicago will be sweating on Selection Sunday if they cannot secure the auto bid. The Ramblers fell to the No. 4 seed in the tournament and are fresh off a tough road overtime loss at Northern Iowa, who earned the No. 1 seed in the tournament. This is going to be the first season Loyola goes into Arch Madness without Porter Moser roaming the sidelines, as first year coach Drew Valentine looks to secure an NCAA Tournament bid.
Ben Jacobson’s Panthers (+500) are 9-1 in their last 10 games and have started to play their basketball at the exact right time. Guard AJ Green has been absolutely absurd since returning from COVID protocols, averaging 24.6 Points per Game in his last 3 games including the big overtime weekend over Loyola. Ben Jacobson is a coach that has won over 300 games in his career with four Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Championships. The price of +500 for the #1 seed in the Valley tournament, who has been playing very well of late seems very appealing.
Finally, Missouri State (+280) and Drake (+650) will be the other teams to keep an eye out on. Missouri State has the best inside/ outside combination in the Valley, including Isiah Mosely and Gaige Prim who are averaging a combined 36.3 points per game. Drake is also a team that is looking to continue the momentum built from last year's NCAA Tournament appearance. With Loyola Chicago soon off to the Atlantic 10 and all the talent Drake has recently bought in, Darren DeVries' squad looks like a good bet to become the new team to beat in the Valley.
Penn State at Rutgers (Sunday, 12 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network)
Rutgers is another prime example of a team that deserves to be in the tournament, however a couple of early season slip ups may cost them. Steve Pikell’s team has done a tremendous job building their resume by collecting wins over the Big Ten's best, especially at home. This is a Rutgers team that looked absolutely dead in late November when they lost three straight games against DePaul, Lafayette and UMass. In most instances, those three losses alone are going to be the ones that keep you out of the Tournament by themselves. With that being said, Rutgers has picked up home wins over Purdue, Michigan, Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State and Illinois along with a road win at Wisconsin. Those wins alone should be enough to get Steve Pikell’s team into the big dance.
The one problem for Rutgers, is that their “metrics” are pretty low and the committee will be using those as one of their primary tools while selecting the field. The Scarlet Knights are currently ranked #70 in KenPom and #75 in the NET. Although these metrics can be very helpful, in some instances there should be exceptions based on overall resume and Rutgers should be one of them. A handful of bracketologists currently have Indiana, who Rutgers just beat on the road in the field, thanks to an epic Ron Harper Jr. shot in the final seconds. The Hoosiers don’t have nearly as many big wins as Rutgers and just lost to the Scarlet Knights at home. Any argument that Indiana should be in the field over Rutgers should be void at this point.
Every team is going to have their fair share of off nights throughout the season and Rutgers did everything they can to fix it. A win over Penn State should be enough to get Rutgers into the big dance, however they won’t be 100% comfortable on Selection Sunday without a decent run in the Big Ten Tournament.
Michigan at Ohio State Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, FOX
Michigan has experienced an absolute rollercoaster of a season, featuring many ups and downs along the way. Most notably Michigan has been without Head Coach Juwan Howard over their last 4 games after the incident in Madison and will also miss the regular season finale against Ohio State on Sunday. This game could be what ultimately determines the Wolverines NCAA Tournament life after they split their massive 4 game homestand with a 2-2 record.
Inconsistency has been the theme of the Wolverine season, and that has been on full display over the past month in Ann Arbor. Michigan has alternated win/ loss in each of their last 8 games, showing no ability at all to build on any momentum. That was on full display Thursday Night, when Michigan was fresh off their biggest win of the season over Michigan State and a win over Iowa would likely secure an NCAA Tournament bid. Instead, Iowa was the better team from start to finish after setting the tone with an early 26-11 lead and never looking back. Michigan was also unable to capitalize from their big win last week against Rutgers, following it up with a blowout loss to Illinois. Even before Howard’s suspension, Michigan had failed to live up to the preseason expectations of being a Top 10 team. With a star-studded recruiting class along with Hunter Dickinson and many others returning from last year’s Elite 8 squad, there was a lot of excitement around the program that just hasn’t translated. Michigan did not look like a worthy NCAA Tournament team against Iowa, and similar to Rutgers and Indiana will have a lot of work to do in the Big Ten Tournament.
Follow Zac Krull on Twitter - @ZKrull_