Commentary

Can these once-ranked teams pull themselves off the bubble?

Originally Published: March 7, 2008
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

In the past, Syracuse has been forced to win a few games in the Big East tournament to clinch a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

When?

Well, just last season.

And the season before, too.

So for the third year in a row, Syracuse heads into Big East tournament play with no guarantee it will earn an NCAA berth.

Two seasons ago, Syracuse entered the Big East tournament at 19-11 (7-9 league). But the Orange completed a four-game run to the Big East tournament title, during which Gerry McNamara carried his team through multiple upsets. If the Orange had not won the tourney, they wouldn't have made the NCAAs.

[+] EnlargeDonte Greene and Jonny Flynn
Marc Squire/Getty ImagesInjuries have forced Syracuse to rely on freshmen Donte Greene (right) and Jonny Flynn to try and get the Orange into the tourney.

A year ago, Syracuse was 21-9 (10-6) entering the Big East tourney. The Orange beat Connecticut in the first round but lost to Notre Dame, and just missed making the field of 65.

And now, with one regular-season game left -- a home game against Marquette on Saturday (ESPN, 4 p.m. ET) -- the Orange are a modest 18-12 (8-9).

Is this a trend?

"We haven't been where we've liked to be," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said this week.

But Boeheim was quick to point out that he can hardly remember the predicament the Orange were in two years ago heading into the Big East tournament. He also said that the previous two seasons shouldn't have any bearing on this season's team.

"We've already won [18] and been close in three or four others," Boeheim said.

The Orange were ranked in the preseason. But that might have been wishful thinking.

"We knew this was going to be a tough year since we lost six guys from last season," Boeheim said. It didn't help that Andy Rautins, who was expected to be one of the top shooters on the team, tore his ACL during the summer playing for the Canadian national team. Eric Devendorf, one of the other top shooters on the team, tore his ACL 10 games into the season. Syracuse's lone scholarship senior, Josh Wright, left the program in December.

So that meant the Orange have to rely heavily on freshmen Jonny Flynn and Donte Greene and sophomore Paul Harris. They're all talented, but probably not experienced enough to handle the rigors of the Big East.

The Orange had to start three freshmen after Devendorf was injured, the first time that happened in Boeheim's 32-year history at the school.

Syracuse has been close against Georgetown, Connecticut and Pitt at home. The Orange also lost nonconference home games to Rhode Island and UMass.

Boeheim said he's not fretting over the current situation, whether or not the Orange get into the field.

Syracuse adds a class (Kris Joseph, Mookie Jones and James Southerland) that, combined with returning players Flynn, Greene, Harris, Devendorf and Rautins, Boeheim hopes will keep the Orange at the top of the Big East.

"Hopefully we'll be back next year and keep these guys and see what happens," Boeheim said. "We have a chance to have a better year. We knew this year was going to be difficult."

Boeheim is still confident the Orange can get a bid this season, but he's a bit jaded about the selection process after last season. Either way, Syracuse will have plenty of opportunities.

Other teams that were once ranked that are in jeopardy of missing the field (not included here because it appears they will make the Dance are: Miami, Arizona State, Arkansas, Pitt, West Virginia, Saint Mary's and Clemson; NC State doesn't count here since the Wolfpack were once ranked but have been out of reach for a bid for months):

• Arizona: 18-12, 8-9 Pac-10
Remaining games: at Oregon on Saturday

How they got in this predicament: The Wildcats have had to adjust to a new system, are young and played a very difficult schedule.

But the Wildcats haven't been healthy at key points this season. Guard Jerryd Bayless missed four games with a knee injury. The Wildcats lost at Memphis, to Oregon at home and at Arizona State all without Bayless.

Guard Nic Wise was out for seven games (prior to Thursday's win over Oregon State), and the Wildcats lost five of them.

The Wildcats were 15-4 when Bayless and Wise were both in the lineup. During the past eight games, the Wildcats have gotten major minutes from their big guns, Bayless (38.5 per game), Budinger (36.5) and McClellan (36.4). And that has certainly weighed heavily on the Wildcats in late-game situations. The Wildcats are 2-7 in games decided by five points or less. Six of the top eight players on the team are either freshmen or sophomores. Wearing down is a legitimate issue.

Bad news: Even though the committee isn't supposed to focus on conference records, the best the Wildcats can do is get to .500 in the league.

Good news: Wise returned to the lineup against Oregon State on Thursday. Arizona will have opportunities to pick up quality wins in the Pac-10 tournament. If Arizona were to finish sixth, then the Wildcats will play either WSU or USC in the quarterfinals. If Arizona finishes seventh, the Wildcats would draw Oregon State in the first round and then Stanford in the quarterfinals.


Dayton: 19-9, 7-8 A-10
Remaining game: vs. Saint Joseph's on Saturday

How they got in this predicament: Injuries. Chris Wright fractured his ankle eight minutes into the first half of the A-10 opener against Rhode Island on Jan. 9. Dayton, which won the game, was 13-1 at the time.

Charles Little, who took over for Wright, fractured a bone in his big toe a week later. The Flyers were 14-1.

Dayton lost eight of its next 11. Little has returned, but Wright still isn't back. He was second on the team in scoring (10.4 points per game). The Flyers have had to rely too much on Brian Roberts, who averages 19.2 points.

Bad news: The Flyers have dug themselves into such a deep hole, their nonconference wins over Pitt and Louisville seem like a different season.

Good news: The Flyers won their last two road games -- at Fordham and at St. Bonaventure. So there could be hope and a smidge of confidence going forward that the committee might recognize if the Flyers can advance to the A-10 tourney final.


Florida: 21-9, 8-7 SEC
Remaining game: at Kentucky on Sunday

How they got in this predicament: Youth and scheduling are all factors for the Gators. The run of losses for Florida recently came on the road at Arkansas, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. The only game the Gators shouldn't have dropped came at home against LSU.

The Gators beat South Carolina and won at Georgia, but are coming off losses at home to Mississippi State and Tennessee. It might be hard to digest for Florida, but the Gators simply may not be good enough to win these games yet.

The Gators lost 87 percent of their scoring. More than anything, the perception of the Gators may have been skewed earlier in the season. The Gators weren't able to beat Florida State at home or Ohio State on the road in their two marquee nonconference games.

Bad news: The Gators missed out on a chance to impress the committee when they lost to Tennessee at home Wednesday.

Good news: Like a number of these teams, the Gators will have a chance to earn their way back by knocking off another potential bubble team in Kentucky, as well as maybe one or two opportunities in the SEC tournament next week.


• Kentucky: 17-11, 11-4 SEC
Remaining game: vs. Florida on Sunday

How they got in this predicament: Maybe it's an excuse, but injuries were a major problem.

The Wildcats' top seven players -- Joe Crawford, Patrick Patterson, Ramel Bradley, Jodie Meeks, Perry Stevenson, Ramon Harris and Derrick Jasper -- missed a combined 35 games. Patterson will miss the rest of the season with a broken foot.

Kentucky were missing at least two of those seven players in losses to Gardner-Webb, North Carolina, Indiana, UAB, Houston, Mississippi State and Tennessee.

The Wildcats did have their full roster in losses to San Diego, Louisville, Florida and Vanderbilt. Still, not having the critical players on a team that isn't deep is a legitimate reason for a losing skid.

Bad news: Patterson is out for the season.

Good news: The Wildcats beat South Carolina on the road and host Florida in the finale after nearly knocking off Tennessee in Knoxville Sunday. Kentucky's chances of being in the field seem to improve every day.


Ole Miss: 20-9, 6-9 SEC
Remaining game: at Georgia on Saturday

How they got in this predicament: The Rebels can't win on the road. Ole Miss has lost every SEC road game, five of them by nine points or less.

Ole Miss relies on freshmen and sophomores a lot. But overconfidence could be an issue, too. The Rebels were 15-1 to start the season before losing at Auburn on Jan. 19. Their reliance on two key players, freshman point guard Chris Warren and senior center Dwayne Curtis, can be daunting. If either is off, the Rebels are done.

Bad news: The Rebels will finish under .500 in the SEC. That's not going to look good.

Good news: Ole Miss has the talent to cause problems in the SEC tournament, enough to make a deep run and make the committee think about a bid.


Oregon: 17-12, 8-9 Pac-10

Remaining games: vs. Arizona on Saturday

How they got in this predicament: It can be best summed up with one name: Aaron Brooks. The Ducks miss him more than any other team in the Pac-10 misses a player from last season. The Ducks haven't had consistent play at the point throughout the season. Prior to Thursday, the Ducks had a turnover margin of minus-1.29 and were only forcing 12.6 turnovers a game. The leadership void left by Brooks was never filled.

The Ducks are also struggling to win close games. Nine of their 10 league losses are by 10 points or less.

Bad news: Oregon's overall record of 17-12 isn't tournament worthy.

Good news: The Ducks have the talent to close out and win enough games to make the field, and they have had a history of playing well in the Pac-10 tournament.


• Rhode Island: 21-9, 7-8 Atlantic 10
Remaining game: vs. Charlotte on Saturday

How they got in this predicament: The Rams certainly had a buzz about them earlier in the season. They won at Syracuse and had a lofty record.

But then the Rams lost five straight games from Feb. 13 to Feb. 27, including three straight at home. The Rams fell to 7-8 in the A-10.

Defense did in the Rams. They allowed temple to shoot 53.9 percent in the second half. Xavier shot 54 percent. UMass shot 56.7 percent in the second half. Saint Joseph's shot 56.3 percent from 3-point range. GW made 13 3s.

During those five losses, the Rams allowed 50.8 percent shooting overall and 40.2 percent on 3s as opponents averaged 89.2 points a game.

Bad news: The Rams are facing a daunting task of convincing the committee that they deserve a bid after the losing skid. Even though the selection committee says it doesn't focus on the standings but looks at each team individually, it still doesn't look good heading into the final weekend. URI is in a tie for eighth with Dayton and Saint Louis.

Good news: The Rams at least won at La Salle in their last outing, proving that they can handle a difficult assignment (La Salle had been causing quite a bit of havoc in the A-10).


Southern Illinois: 17-13, 11-7 Missouri Valley
Remaining game: vs. Northern Iowa on Friday

How they got in this predicament: The Salukis may have played a tougher nonconference slate than the roster was prepared for this season. They lost to USC, Indiana and Butler. Beating Saint Mary's and Mississippi State certainly helped the profile.

According to SIU, the Salukis' guard play lacked confidence early in the season as opponents keyed in on forwards Randal Falker and Matt Shaw.

The numbers don't lie. In the nonconference games, save the Bracketbuster game against Nevada, the Salukis shot 31.6 percent on 3s. During the Salukis' recent five-game winning streak that ended with a loss to Illinois State, they shot 46.4 percent on 3s. The outside shot opens things up for Falker.

Bad news: The Salukis were swept by Illinois State. So if it comes down to the two teams, then the Redbirds could have the edge. The two teams may face off in the MVC semifinals, too.

Good news: The Salukis are a tournament-tested crew. So SIU is surely to have a good run in St. Louis.


Texas A&M: 22-8, 8-7 Big 12
Remaining game: vs. Kansas on Saturday

How they got in this predicament: The Aggies may have been the most erratic team in the Big 12. They started the season 15-1 and ranked in the top 10. But then they started the Big 12 at 1-3 with road losses to Kansas State, Texas Tech and that five-overtime loss to Baylor. Then the Aggies reeled off five straight, including handing the Longhorns their worst loss of the season.

Then A&M followed that up with a 1-4 stretch before winning at Baylor on Wednesday. That stretch included a loss to Oklahoma in which the Aggies mustered a whopping 37 points.

The one constant has been the Aggies need to have Acie Law IV come back. They have been inconsistent at the point.

Bad news: The Aggies finish the season with Kansas.

Good news: The win over Baylor ensured that the Aggies can't finish below .500 in the conference.


Villanova: 18-11, 8-9 Big East
Remaining game: at Providence on Saturday

How they got in this predicament: First off, you could make an argument that the Wildcats shouldn't have been ranked in the first place.

But Scottie Reynolds is the focus of every opponent's game plan. The Wildcats were searching for Corey Stokes to become the steady contributor, but that didn't happen until February. The inexperience hurt the Wildcats in road losses at DePaul and at Cincinnati.

Not having Casiem Drummond (stress fracture in his ankle) for December and most of January hurt the interior game (he had 17 boards against NC State). The Wildcats went small in his absence. Shane Clark, another expected producer inside, came down with mono, which hurt, too.

You can't talk about Villanova without mentioning that the Wildcats were part of two of the most questionable endgame calls of this season: against NC State in Orlando in November and against Georgetown in Philadelphia.

Bad news: The Wildcats had two chances within the past two weeks to impress the committee, but lost to Marquette and at Louisville.

Good news: The Wildcats are sure to face an NCAA-level team in the Big East tournament. So there will be opportunities to impress the committee in the final days.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com