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NCAA tournament: 5 most intriguing bubble teams

Less than three weeks before Selection Sunday, the men’s NCAA tournament field is gradually coming into focus.

Purdue, Houston and UConn are virtual locks to receive No. 1 seeds. Arizona, North Carolina and Tennessee are among the teams in pursuit of the final spot on the top seed line. The Big 12 will likely have the most teams in the field. Talented yet unreliable Kentucky will be a chic Final Four pick … and a trendy choice to be an early round upset victim.

The one area of the bracket where clarity is more elusive is at the bubble. As always, it’s still a free-for-all for the final at-large spots in the field of 68, with marquee programs in desperation mode and small-conference minnows dreaming big.

Below is a look at this season’s five most intriguing bubble teams. The list includes a recent national champion, a perennial power with men’s college basketball’s third-longest NCAA tournament streak and a team that cracked the AP Top 25 this week but likely wouldn’t receive an at-large bid if the season ended today.

GONZAGA (22-6, 12-2 WCC, KenPom: 21, NET: 21, SOR: 43)

The last time Gonzaga failed to make the NCAA tournament, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston had not yet begun dating, the frenzy over the movie Titanic had not yet subsided and Total Request Live had not yet debuted.

The Zags have work left to do to preserve that 24-year streak this March.

Gonzaga notched early season neutral-court victories over Syracuse, UCLA and USC, but none of those big-brand teams have lived up to expectations this season. That left the Zags without a victory over a projected NCAA tournament team heading into January.

Strong computer metrics and a massive February road win at Kentucky have elevated Gonzaga back into at-large contention, but the Zags don’t have much room for error. They’re still only 1-5 in Quadrant 1 games and 3-6 against the top two quadrants.

Gonzaga closes the regular season this week at 22-win San Francisco on Thursday and at WCC first-place Saint Mary’s two nights later. Sweep those, and Gonzaga can feel confident that it will hear its name called on Selection Sunday. Lose one or more, and the Zags will enter the WCC tournament facing pressure to secure the league’s automatic NCAA tournament bid.

Bracket Matrix projection as of Tuesday: Last four in

SOUTH FLORIDA (21-5, 14-1 American, KenPom: 94, NET: 84, SOR: 55)

South Florida will be the ultimate test case for how much November results truly matter.

Early Quadrant 4 home losses to sub-200 Central Michigan and Maine have buried the Bulls in all the major metrics. Two subsequent road losses to Hofstra and UMass also haven’t helped even if they weren’t quite as damaging.

Since early December, when South Florida began to jell under new coach Amir Abdur-Rahim, the Bulls have been a totally different team. They’re 21-1 during that stretch and alone in first place in the American, three games clear of second-place Florida Atlantic and Charlotte. They’ve yet to play a Quadrant 1 game this season, but they have solid Quadrant 2 victories over Florida Atlantic, SMU, Memphis and Florida State.

AP voters are willing to overlook South Florida’s early struggles: The Bulls broke into this week’s poll at No. 25.

Bracketologists have been less forgiving: While the margin between South Florida and other bubble teams has been shrinking, most don’t view the Bulls’ resume as at-large-caliber. The bad early losses are anchors since the selection committee preaches evaluating a team based on its entire body of work.

Can South Florida make the NCAA tournament without securing the American’s auto bid? It would be unprecedented for a team to receive an at-large bid while still in the 80s in the NET and the 90s in KenPom and with zero Q1 matchups. The Bulls have to keep winning and hope this committee sees them for what they are now and not what they were four months ago.

Bracket Matrix projection as of Tuesday: No. 12 seed (auto bid)

VILLANOVA (15-12, 8-8 Big East, KenPom: 33, NET: 38, SOR: 61)

A Villanova team that was the class of the Big East for years under Jay Wright is in jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament for the second straight time since his retirement. The Wildcats likely will not receive a bid without a torrid finish over the next few weeks.

Villanova began digging itself a hole in mid-November when it lost at Penn, which has proven to be a bottom-two team in the Ivy League. A few weeks later, the Wildcats dropped two more Big Five games against Saint Joseph’s and Drexel.

That trio of Quadrant 3 losses may yet doom Villanova, but the Wildcats also captured some big wins in non-league play. In a span of eight days in late November, Villanova toppled Maryland, Texas Tech, North Carolina and Memphis. The Wildcats also have league wins against Creighton and fellow bubble teams Providence and Butler.

Villanova’s remaining schedule includes a must-win game against Georgetown on Tuesday and tests against potential NCAA tournament teams Providence, Seton Hall and Creighton. Three wins in those four games feels important. Anything less, and Villanova might need to win the Big East tournament to land an NCAA bid.

Bracket Matrix projection as of Tuesday: Next four out

WAKE FOREST (18-9, 10-6 ACC, KenPom: 19, NET: 25, SOR: 44)

Poor Wake Forest.

The Demon Deacons finally topple Duke to secure their first marquee win over the weekend, only to have it get swallowed up by college basketball's latest court storming debate.

Wake Forest would likely slip into the field if the season ended today, but its NCAA tournament hopes remain precarious. The top 25 ranking in predictive metrics is a major plus, as is the lack of Quadrant 3 and 4 losses. The 6-9 record in Quadrant 1 or 2 games, however, is not.

Saturday’s win over Duke was Wake Forest’s first clear-cut Quadrant 1 win of the season. A late-November home win over Florida is also right on the cusp as the Gators keep hovering around No. 30 in the NET rankings.

Last week, with Wake Forest in the top four in the ACC yet outside of the field of 68 in most mock brackets, Demon Deacons coach Steve Forbes went on a rant about the perception of the league. He singled out ESPN’s Joe Lunardi in particular for saying that if the ACC wants more NCAA tournament bids, it needs to do a better job recruiting.

“He doesn’t like to stay in his lane,” Forbes said.

A week later, Wake Forest has played its way into most mock brackets and has improved its hopes of remaining there. The Duke win is much-needed proof that the Demon Deacons aren’t just predictive metrics darlings. They can beat elite competition too.

Bracket Matrix projection as of Tuesday: Last four byes

INDIANA STATE (24-5, 15-3 Valley, KenPom: 46, NET: 33, SOR: 36)

Which mid-major has the best chance to survive an upset in its conference tournament and still secure an NCAA bid?

It might be Princeton, which has followed up last year’s Sweet 16 run with another impressive 21-win campaign. Or it might be James Madison, which is 26-3 including a season-opening win at Michigan State.

But the most realistic at-large candidate of all is likely Indiana State, which can win the Missouri Valley Conference outright this week with victories over struggling Evansville and Murray State. The Sycamores have impressive top-40 rankings in the NET and Strength of Record and top 50 rankings in every other NCAA-approved metric.

That all sounds promising for Indiana State, but the Sycamores have one glaring hole on their resume. They’re 0-2 against opponents from power conferences, having swung and missed in road games at Alabama and Michigan State.

Can Indiana State secure an at-large bid without a top-100 non-league win? It will come down to how the Sycamores finish and what this selection committee values.

Bracket Matrix projection as of Tuesday: No. 11 seed (auto bid)

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