There are so many cliches, nicknames and buzzwords associated with the NCAA Tournament, perhaps more than any other singular sporting event. The Big Dance. March Madness. The Bubble. Cinderella. Even the more important rounds in the tourney have descriptive adjectives attached to their names. They aren't just games. It's the Sweet 16. The Elite Eight. The Final Four. The term "buzzer beater" becomes part of everyday vernacular. I could write an entire article consisting of just these glorious words, terms and phrases. In fact, I'm off to an excellent start.
College Basketball enthusiasts cite the NCAA Tournament as the purest form of hoops. The players are not in it for the money; the sole goal of the student-athlete is to string together a win or two or three to catapult your school to glory. Of course, not every player's individual motivation can be gauged, so the idea is both naïve and noble at the same time. At its core, though, March Madness is simply about basketball; the agony and ecstasy of the buzzer beater, competing styles of play, coaching giants strategizing against one another. The matchups lead to the intrigue, lead to the upsets, lead to the championship.
In other words, don't fret when your bracket gets busted (and rest assured, it will). Instead, revel in the joy of the sport at its pinnacle. Moments that will last a lifetime. Christian Laettner. Bryce Drew. Magic vs. Bird. And of course, all the clichés you could possible handle.
Some more tourney tidbits in this week's "Four on the Hardwood Floor:"
1. Harvard clinched a berth in the Big Dance for the third-straight season. Coach Tommy Amaker's squad stunned New Mexico in the second round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament, so the Crimson shouldn't take anyone by surprise this time around.
2. There will be no Dunk City in this year's tourney. Florida Gulf Coast, last season's NCAA Tournament bracket buster, succumbed to Mercer in the Atlantic Sun Championship. Mercer hasn't been to the tourney since 1985.
3. How about those Chanticleers? Yes, that would be the ballers from Coastal Carolina, who won the Big South title over Winthrop and will make their first appearance in the bracket since 1993.
4. The Green Bay Phoenix may be on the outside of the tournament looking in after a stunning Semifinal loss in the Horizon League to Milwaukee. Either the Panthers or the Wright State Raiders will steal the bid from Green Bay. While the Phoenix do have an excellent win over Virginia, placing two teams from the Horizon League into the Big Dance may be too much to ask from the committee. Stay tuned to find out.
The Big Dance is just around the corner. Let's look at other teams battling the bubble.
Nebraska – Sunday's win over Wisconsin was huge for the Cornhuskers, who likely secured a berth in the Big Dance with the 77-68 victory. With wins over Ohio State and Michigan State on their resume as well, the 'Huskers improved to 11-7 in the Big Ten. Bad losses to Purdue, Penn State and Illinois all came on the road in conference action, so the committee will likely be less harsh on Nebraska for those slip-ups. In reality, the worst loss of the season came in late November to Conference USA foe UAB. Despite the best non-conference win coming over mediocre Georgia, the Huskers have enough big conference victories, and an RPI of 35, that their spot in the tourney should be all but guaranteed.
Tennessee – The Vols have had a curious season, to say the least. Tennessee had double-digit wins in the conference but lost twice to Texas A&M and once to Vanderbilt. The Vols looked overmatched against the more athletic units in Gainesville and Lexington. The non-conference slate was equally perplexing, as UT beat ACC Champion Virginia by 35 points, but lost to mediocre NC State and Conference-USA foe UTEP. Four wins to close the season have put the Vols in stellar position, though, and 11 wins in a major conference, despite a down year for the SEC, is nothing to scoff at. One more win in the SEC likely secures a spot for the Vols in the mayhem.
Dayton – The Flyers have gotten hot at the right time. The Flyers won nine of their last 10 regular season games to become the sixth team in the Atlantic 10 conference with double-digit wins in conference. During that stretch, Dayton took down fellow tournament-bound squads in Saint Louis, George Washington and UMass. Early season wins over Cal and Gonzaga certainly helped their cause as well, though the loss to an awful USC squad in late December sticks out as a bad loss on their resume. Still, an RPI of 40 leads to the belief that the Flyers will be dancing.
Pittsburgh - The Panthers have floundered at times this season, but have done enough as a whole to warrant consideration. Pitt hasn't quite been able to get over the hump this season in big games; the Panthers haven't beaten a ranked opponent, despite two close calls against Syracuse and heartbreaking losses to Cincinnati, Virginia and North Carolina. However, the Panthers also avoided any bad losses. At 23-8 overall, and 11 wins in the newly improved ACC, the Panthers have been consistent. They do not have the rollercoaster resume of other bubble squads, but that may not a bad thing.
Stanford –Unlike Oregon, Colorado and Arizona State, who all have the same 10-8 conference record as Stanford, the Cardinal do not have a big win over Arizona on their resume. The Cardinal did beat Connecticut earlier this season as well as UCLA, but the lack of a true signature win does seem to hurt Stanford. With seven teams having 10-plus wins in the Pac-12, Stanford will likely have to do something during the conference tourney to make them stand out to the committee. Otherwise, the Cardinal risk being lost in the shuffle of an ultra-competitive Pac-12. In other words, the Cardinal still have a shot, but there is likely work left to be done. Limping down the stretch hasn't helped their cause, either.
Saint Joseph's – The Atlantic 10 had a huge season as a conference, making the Hawks a bubble team despite a standout year. St. Joe's has 11 conference wins, but dropped their last two heading into the A-10 Tourney, including an ugly 71-63 defeat at the hands of 15-15 La Salle. Still, they did beat VCU and UMass once and the above-referenced Dayton twice. The other problem with the resume for the Hawks is that they lack any huge wins, and the non-conference slate was particularly subpar. A loss to a poor Temple squad in early December stands out as a big negative. Still, they did challenge themselves with games against Villanova and Creighton, so that should count for something. With 21 victories overall, the Hawks could be an A-10 win or two away from the NCAA Tournament.
Xavier – Xavier has a better shot at making the tourney than St. John's and Georgetown, but they are far from assured a spot in the Madness. The Musketeers have a couple of stellar wins and a few damaging losses. Xavier beat Cincinnati on a neutral court and took down Creighton at home, but lost once to an awful USC squad, and twice to subpar Seton Hall. The recent knee injury to starting center Matt Stainbrook could be of particular importance; the Central Michigan transfer strained his MCL, and his impact in the Big East Tournament is questionable. Still, the Musketeers have bigger wins than fellow bubble team Providence, and were more consistent than a team like Georgetown. The Musketeers still need at least one win in the Big East Tournament to feel decent, though.
Arkansas – The Razorbacks haven't been in the NCAA Tournament since 2008, but the frontcourt tandem of senior Coty Clarke and freshman Bobby Portis could push them into the big dance. The Razorbacks may end up facing Tennessee in the SEC tourney, with the winner likely assured of an NCAA berth. The Razorbacks swept the season series against Kentucky, and also had a nice non-conference victory over SMU. Interestingly, they split with two teams at the bottom of this article, beating Minnesota but losing to Cal. 21-10 overall, 10-8 in the conference, the Razorbacks have an extremely similar report card to so many other bubble teams. They could distinguish themselves with a run in the SEC bracket.
St. John's – As a native New Yorker, I'm pulling for the Johnnies, but I just don't know if the Red Storm have enough of a tournament resume to get the invite. Too many bad losses may sink the St. John's ship, including an excruciating 77-75 loss at DePaul on January 14th. DePaul is a putrid 3-15 in the Big East this season. A revamped and lackluster Big East as a whole will also hurt the chances for the Red Storm. Only two teams are guaranteed tourney slots at this time, Villanova and Creighton. The Johnnies do have a signature win over Creighton, but lost twice to fellow bubble team and Big East opponent Xavier. St. John's first-round Big East tournament matchup with yet another team on the cusp in Providence could go a long way towards determining its fate.
Georgetown – G-Town may have one of the strangest tournament resumes of all. The Hoyas beat Creighton, Michigan State and VCU (all tournament teams), as well as Xavier. Yet they lost to lowly Northeastern, a colossally bad defeat, and were beaten twice by Seton Hall. When it comes down to it, the committee hates to see a sub-.500 conference record, and that's exactly what the Hoyas have this season (8-10). Even worse, as previously mentioned, it was a down year for the revamped Big East, missing some of the usual suspects including Syracuse, Louisville, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Barring a surprising run in the Big East tourney, the Hoyas will likely be headed to the NIT.
Minnesota – The Gophers' bad losses in conference play could doom their chances of appearing in March Madness. Slip-ups against Purdue, Northwestern and Illinois really hurt, despite wins against Iowa, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Minnesota suffers from the same ailment as Georgetown; the Gophers are under .500 in conference play at 8-10. They did play Syracuse in the non-conference portion of their schedule, but the Gophers' biggest win outside the Big Ten came against another bubble team in Florida State. There are so many teams like Minnesota, and simply not enough spots to take everyone. The Gophers may be wondering how things went so wrong after an 11-2 start to the year.
California – The uber-competitive Pac-12 has created a cluster of squads with remarkably similar resumes. The preview of Stanford's chances above holds true for the Bears as well. Cal has wins over Arizona, Oregon and Colorado, all tourney-bound units. A loss to UC-Santa Barbara isn't pretty, but falling to USC (2-16 in Pac-12 play) may be worse. The Bears split with Stanford, but lost to Dayton and Arkansas. The head-to-head matchups between some of these bubble squads could eventually prove crucial, and possibly be the deciding factor, in whether certain teams make the field of 68. Cal is also not a 20-win team, another benchmark that makes its inclusion difficult. A win over Colorado in the Pac-12 quarterfinals is a must if the Bears want to advance to the dance.