- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Saturday wasn't packed with as many high-quality, top-10 games as we've become used to -- we're spoiled, us hoops fans -- but it did feature a plethora of variously shaky NCAA tournament hopefuls looking to add further credentials to their respective résumés. Here's a look at who won and lost, and who survived and missed out, in a jam-packed day of bubble action.
Maryland: For Maryland fans, there's nothing in the world better than beating Duke, particularly after a three-year drought against their hated rivals. The same can be said for Maryland's place on the bubble. The Blue Devils are hardly the best team in the country (even if this week's coaches poll inexplicably disagreed) but they did enter Saturday with the No. 1 RPI in the country, the product of victories over Minnesota, VCU and Louisville in the November Battle 4 Atlantis (as well as a home win over Ohio State). Maryland entered Saturday planted about as firmly as possible on the tournament bubble, with prohibitive RPI (70) and SOS numbers (SOS: 119; nonconference SOS: 301), and with just one top-50 win, a 51-50 home defeat of NC State, to its name. Duke presented the right combination of a beatable team with a hugely flattering NCAA tournament profile, and the Terps took advantage.
Does that mean they're a lock? Hardly. The Terps would do well to avoid some potential scares on the road (at Boston College, at Georgia Tech, at Wake Forest) and take down North Carolina at home March 6, which is probably their last chance to beat a fellow potential tournament team. And they're still just outside the bracket in Joe Lunardi's latest configuration. But Saturday's win was a huge step forward, no doubt about it.
North Carolina: Speaking of North Carolina, the Tar Heels still have plenty of work to do themselves before they can feel safe about their spot in the NCAA tournament. But this was a good week. Not only did Roy Williams' team get a promising 93-81 win over Virginia on Saturday -- if you can stretch Virginia to that many possessions, let alone 93 points, you are officially in control of the ballgame -- but it played probably its best game of the season in Wednesday night's close loss to Duke. For strict RPI purposes, that Duke loss will go down as nothing more than that -- a loss to a good team on the road. But the committee was surely watching (it happened to be gathered in Indianapolis for meetings and mock selection), and for a committee never shy about applying the "eye test," UNC's week was a winner.
Philly trio: Philadelphia hoops might not be at its vintage best these days, but things are trending upward. Villanova backed up its back-to-back wins over Syracuse and Louisville -- the wins that made it a bubble entity in the first place -- with a solid road victory at Connecticut. Temple, which lost to Duquesne 84-83 this week, saw karma return the favor in an 83-82 win at fellow bubbler Massachusetts. And sneaky-good La Salle just keeps winning, this time in a Big 5 matchup victory over St. Joe's.
Arkansas: For the first two months of the season, the Razorbacks were among the most disappointing teams in the country. After all, why shouldn't this team be good? At the very least, why can't Arkansas play in the tournament? The Razorbacks have an NBA guard in BJ Young and some nice pieces around him, and Mike Anderson's Nolan Richardson-inspired up-tempo system isn't just perfect for Arkansas' basketball climate, it's also effective. But soft defense plagued this group throughout November and December as it embarked on what appeared to be yet another mediocre campaign.
That might still be true -- Arkansas did lose at Vanderbilt 67-49 just seven days ago, somehow -- but it's at least worth noticing the Hogs' big wins. On Feb. 5, they handed Florida its first SEC loss of the season, and Saturday afternoon, Young's two late and-1 plays helped Arkansas notch a win over Anderson's former school, Missouri. There is a long way to go before the Razorbacks will start getting serious tournament looks, but at least they seem interested in the postseason.
UCLA: The Bruins aren't in dire bubble shape but they don't have a ton of room for error, and they had a tough assignment Saturday, playing a surging Stanford team on the road. They got out of Palo Alto with an 88-80 win -- say this much for Ben Howland's team: It can really score -- to remain on the right side of the bubble conversation.
Arizona State: What a wacky week for the Sun Devils. After last week's three-point home loss to Stanford, ASU fell at Utah, which is better than it was last season (by a lot) but still not one of the 100 or even 150 best teams in college basketball. The only way Arizona State could erase the damage of that defeat was with a big, unlikely win at Colorado -- itself coming off a 13-point win over Arizona -- which, of course, is exactly what happened. Given Colorado's top-20 RPI, ASU's victory in Boulder puts a check in all the boxes the committee holds dear and should help the Sun Devils' own No. 76 RPI to boot.
Kentucky: There were plenty of questions to ask in the wake of Nerlens Noel's season-ending ACL injury at Florida, among them what it meant for Noel's professional career, what (if anything) it said about the one-and-done rule in the NCAA and so on. But chief among them was what the injury would mean for Kentucky's season, and how the Wildcats -- already a somewhat shaky bubble proposition -- would respond. The answer, received Saturday, was "not well." In its first post-Noel game, Kentucky was blown out at Tennessee, 88-58. It was a fair bet to assume the loss of Noel would hurt UK's defense; he is, after all, one of the nation's best shot-blockers-slash-turnover-creators. But no one could have assumed Kentucky would suddenly become the type of defense that allows 88 points to the Volunteers, themselves an often-brutal offensive outfit.
This is all bad news. Because the NCAA tournament selection committee appraises teams based on what they'll be when the tournament begins, it doesn't pay much attention to what happens before a key player gets hurt. The first three months of the season are essentially moot; the committee will evaluate Kentucky on what it does from now until Selection Sunday, and if Saturday was any indication, that appraisal will not be favorable.
Indiana State: The Sycamores were one of the feel-good stories of the season, an unheralded bunch that emerged from the tough Missouri Valley in lieu of popular preseason tourney picks such as Northern Iowa and Illinois State. Unfortunately, after Saturday's loss at Bradley (RPI: 175) -- which followed a loss earlier this week at Missouri State (RPI: 207) -- much of the bloom has come off this rose. To wit, Lunardi moved Indiana State out of the field in his late bracket update Saturday. Indiana State has four games left in the regular season and one major bubble opportunity: Tuesday night's home date against Wichita State. If ISU can't manage to take down the Shockers in Terre Haute, its final three games (Iona, Drake, at Evansville) won't do much to help.
Air Force: Between Jan. 19 and Feb. 2, Air Force rattled off five consecutive Mountain West Conference wins, beginning with Boise State and ending with a home victory over San Diego State. The Falcons lost a pair of road games in early February, at New Mexico and Nevada, but came back with another huge home win over UNLV on Feb. 13. All of which made Saturday's home game against Colorado State and its top-15 RPI something like a must-win. Instead, the Falcons fell short, 89-86. I wouldn't count this team out just yet -- it has proved it can play with pretty much anyone in the MWC -- but with its current computer numbers (including an RPI in the 60s and a noncon SOS ranked outside the top 250), Air Force's at-large margin for error is now drastically slim.
The middle portions of the Atlantic 10: Those of you waiting for the Atlantic 10 to start making some sort of sense can keep waiting, but I'm done. It simply isn't going to happen. But with all that chaos governing the league, it seemed possible some of the more middling teams -- Xavier, Charlotte, UMass -- could extend this one-year-only 16-team's NCAA tournament contenders deeper than anyone previously assumed. But all three of those teams lost Saturday: Xavier lost at Dayton, Charlotte was handled at Saint Louis and UMass missed a big opportunity in a one-point loss to Temple. Much like the A-10 in general, there are varying degrees of résumé in that group. But the overwhelming impression of that trio is mediocrity.
NC State: The Wolfpack are in much better bubble shape than most of the teams above, but the fact remains that a home loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday would have called into question just how tourney-built the Wolfpack really are. Since its Jan. 12 home win over Duke, NC State has lost at Maryland, at Wake Forest, at Virginia and in Durham (as well as a one-point home loss to Miami), and last Sunday only barely got by at Clemson (final score: 58-57) in one of its ugliest offensive outings of the season. NC State entered Saturday's game with a 6-5 record in ACC play and a 2-5 record on the road. And things were dicey in Raleigh. NC State needed a five-minute second-half Hokies drought and a 14-point run, plus overtime, to get past Erick Green (who notched 29 points and eight assists) and company. We might not remember it in March, but that might end up being the best -- or at least the most important -- win of NC State's up-and-down season.
Creighton: Two weeks ago, in my first edition of Bubble Watch, I put the Bluejays on the lock line because ... well, because, why not? Of course they were going to make the tournament. Two weeks later, after Creighton lost consecutive games at Indiana State, at home against Illinois State and at Northern Iowa, the Bluejays' profile -- two top-50 wins (over Wisconsin and Akron), an RPI of 50, a SOS of 114 -- suddenly looked like anything but a lock. That made Saturday's trip to Evansville fraught with intrigue, and the Purple Aces were more than happy to play the spoiling role. But thanks to Doug McDermott's 21 points and 10 rebounds and a 9-for-18 night from 3, Creighton held on 71-68, avoiding its fourth loss in a row and -- much more importantly -- avoiding making me break my "I don't unlock locks; that's why they're locks" Bubble Watch rule. At least for now.
Ole Miss: For all the hype Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson has received at various times this season, Ole Miss is not a guaranteed tournament team. The Rebels' only marquee win came at home against Missouri, which hasn't played like a marquee-win type of team in months, and besides, Missouri blitzed Ole Miss in Columbia one month later. The Rebels' is the type of profile that is safe only in so far as it's not as shaky as the Villanovas of the world, but it is just as vulnerable to bad losses in an SEC full of them. In other words, Saturday's rally and eventual 84-74 OT victory over Georgia was crucial, if expected.
Virginia: The Cavaliers were hardly the favorite in Chapel Hill on Saturday, but they could have very much used a road win over an ostensible ACC team, and they bossed the game so handily when UNC visited Charlottesville that it seemed entirely plausible the same could happen in a different venue. It didn't -- UNC hung 93 -- and so the Cavs and their truly bizarre at-large profile remain in precarious position.
Oklahoma: Advanced stats tell us Oklahoma has been playing some very good basketball for the past couple of months, even as the Sooners failed to clinch big results in close games against Kansas State (twice) and at Kansas. When they toppled the reeling Jayhawks in Norman last week, they proved they could break through against a top team, and we shouldn't have been surprised when the Sooners pushed Oklahoma State to the brink in Stillwater on Saturday afternoon. Nor, perhaps, should we have been surprised when Oklahoma State sealed a tight five-point win. But man, would that one have been huge for OU.
Boise State: Unlike fellow MWC bubble-crasher Air Force, we've seen the Broncos coming since Nov. 28, when they upset Creighton in Omaha. Unfortunately, Boise hasn't gained Air Force-esque steam as the season has progressed, its only notable victory a home win over UNLV. On Saturday, the Broncos played New Mexico tight for 37 minutes and trailed by just two points with three minutes left to play. Then the Broncos faded. There's no shame in losing at New Mexico, but when you have the nation's third-ranked RPI squad on the ropes in its own building, it has to hurt when you can't come through.