Saddle Up: Life during bubble time

March, 6, 2013
3/06/13
10:30
AM ET
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action.

No. 5 Georgetown at Villanova, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2

Nothing is ever totally cut-and-dried on the bubble. It's important to remember, because every season, when early March rolls around, we can sometimes treat fluid situations with an undue amount of certainty. It is tempting to say that one win will get a team in; it is fun to turn regular-season games into do-or-die affairs. It's kind of how we're wired. But such depictions rarely capture the whole story.

And with that caveat out of the way -- well, let's just say the closest you can get in early March to a black-and-white bubble scenario -- with stakes as simple as "win and you're (probably) in" -- comes with the two big bubble games on the 7 p.m. ET docket Wednesday, beginning with Georgetown's trip to Villanova.

It's pretty straightforward stuff: Villanova is as on the bubble as a bubble team can be. It is currently one of Joe Lunardi's last four teams in; the Bracket Matrix aggregate projection posits the Wildcats as the tournament's final at-large No. 12 seed. The résumé is right in this season's bubble wheelhouse: Villanova has an RPI of 55, a strength of schedule of 30, a nonconference mark of 143. It is 6-10 against the top 100, 4-7 against the top 50, and 3-1 against the Top 25. It has home wins over Louisville, Syracuse and Marquette (and a pretty good road win at UConn) to its name. It also has losses to Columbia and Seton Hall and was swept at the hands of the Providence Friars. There is much to like, résumé-wise, and plenty to not like.

That makes tonight's game against Georgetown so very massive. The Hoyas are the nation's hottest team, winners of their past 11, including road wins over Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Syracuse and Connecticut, and home wins over Louisville and Marquette. They are in contention for a No. 1 seed (but then again, who isn't?), are one of the sport's most ruthless defensive outfits and have probably the nation's best player in the past month, forward Otto Porter, destroying all in his path. Knocking them off would give Villanova wins over essentially every top team in the Big East, albeit at home; could the committee really overlook a 10-8 Big East team with four top-15 RPI wins? (Conference record doesn't factor into selection, the committee says, but you get the point.) On this typically soft bubble? I have a tough time imagining it could.

No, "win and you're in" might not be a perfect description, but it's about as close to a set of stakes as you're going to get in the always-percolating world of the NCAA tournament bubble. Let's just come out and say it: Villanova needs to beat Georgetown. Simple enough, right?

No. 13 Oklahoma State at Iowa State, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU

It is not a total oversimplification to say that Iowa State is in basically the same position as Villanova. Sure, there are some differences in the résumés. Iowa State's strength of schedule figure (65) is a bit lower than Villanova's, and its record against the RPI Top 25 (2-5) isn't quite as enticing. The Wildcats are 6-7 in true road games; Iowa State is 3-8. But when you balance everything out, and you include the eye test and the way Iowa State's often brilliant offense has pushed its conference's best team (Kansas) to the brink not only at home but at Allen Fieldhouse -- and would have won that home game were it not jobbed by a truly awful block-charge call down the stretch -- it is not unfair to see the Cyclones as basically equals with Villanova on the bubble cut line.

Lo and behold, Iowa State is also among Lunardi's last four teams in, and is also a No. 12 seed on the Bracket Matrix. It's a dead heat.

Maybe it's fitting, then, that both teams have such similar tasks at hand -- and at the same time, no less -- Wednesday night. OK, so getting Oklahoma State in your own building might not be quite the same type of opportunity as Georgetown, but it's close, and whatever is lost in the RPI number is gained in sheer beatability, which is a word I just made up.

On a good night, if its offense clicks against Marcus Smart and the Cowboys' stingy defense, the Cyclones are fully capable of riding a wave of Hilton magic to a win over Oklahoma State. That would give them their third top-30 win and would, at the very least, help provide a counterpoint to all of the credible losses (the Kansas duo, a two-point loss at Oklahoma State, a tight game at K-State, and so on) that have kept Iowa State's résumé from looking much better than it does.

And it wouldn't hurt to wash away Saturday's blowout at Oklahoma, which essentially cost the Cyclones some serious progress on a day when pretty much every similar bubble team lost.

So yeah, big game. Two big games. Nothing is guaranteed, and nothing is cut-and-dried, but tonight at 7, we get about as close as we ever can. Should be fun.

Elsewhere: That's not the only bubble action Wednesday night: North Carolina travels to Maryland, which is itself in need of a quality win (and only recently has UNC begun to qualify in that category); Temple (another of Lunardi's last four in) has to avoid what would be an abysmal loss at Fordham; and Tennessee has to do the same at Auburn after Saturday's loss at Georgia.

We're already anticipating Sunday's huge Indiana-Michigan matchup in Ann Arbor, but before we do that, it's worth stopping and noting that first, Michigan has to win at Purdue. Even a week ago, I would have said "Ha ha, and your point is?" because Purdue was playing really bad basketball. But just Saturday, the Boilermakers spoiled Wisconsin's senior day at Kohl Center, and all of a sudden a trip to Mackey in early March sounds like not very much fun at all. ... New Mexico is at Nevada. ... The best (and hottest) team in the A-10, Saint Louis, will try to keep its winning streak alive at Cintas Center, one of the conference's toughest home venues.

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