USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach says you shouldn’t be surprised if these small school teams make a magical run in the NCAA tournament.

Each bubble team offers a different story.

Rhode Island hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1999 and could get an auto bid by beating Virginia Commonwealth on Sunday in the Atlantic 10 tournament final. Or it could be the first team in or out of the field of 68 if it loses.

Illinois State, which has been done playing since last Sunday when it lost in the Missouri Valley final to Wichita State, hasn’t gone dancing since 1998 when its current coach Dan Muller was lacing it up for the Redbirds. Barring a surprise bid by attrition or flat out mercy for a remarkable season by the committee, that drought could continue for this elite mid-major.


Then there’s Syracuse, hailing from the powerful ACC, which has an RPI in the 80s and has only won two games away from home. But it’s Syracuse. Will last year’s Final Four result — which should hold no weight whatsoever — subconsciously let the committee put an undeserving team in? Jim Boeheim thinks so. And so does ESPN.

Illinois, which boasts a top-25 strength of schedule and has a whopping 10 top-100 wins on its résumé, but seems like a long shot now considering the program fired coach John Groce. Were the Illini tipped off they didn’t make it?

These are the four teams hanging right on the edge of the Selection Sunday bubble, poised to either get snubbed or put on their dancing shoes. On the cusp of the Selection Show, here’s a look at the nine bubble teams — and their credentials — sweating it out the most.


Wake Forest

With wins against Louisville and Miami, no bad losses, a top-40 RPI and top-20 strength of schedule, the Demon Deacons (19-13, 9-9) are the safest of remaining bubble teams.


Seemingly safe and off the bubble for a while, the Friars (20-12, 10-8, 55 RPI) fell back on it as one of the last four in due to Xavier’s big win over Butler in the Big East tournament which coincided with Providence’s loss to Creighton, who just got pummeled by Villanova in the Big East title game.


The Trojans sport an RPI of 41 and are 4-2 against top-100 teams. Their loss to UCLA in the Pac-12 tourney was close, and they already have a win against the Bruins on their résumé, as well as a nice victory against SMU. If the numbers aren’t there, the eye candy is.

Kansas State

The Wildcats upset Baylor in the Big 12 tournament for their second victory against the Bears with the other coming on the road. Still, it’s a non-conference strength of schedule in the 200s that could cause the committee to use the Wildcats as an example — sending a message that teams should challenge themselves even if they’re in a power conference.

Rhode Island *

The Rams hammered Davidson by 24 points and have a chance to get the automatic bid in the A-10 championship against VCU, a team it beat by 10 points in their last meeting. Should they falter, they will be as close as it gets. If a team like Syracuse or Illinois State sneak in, RI could be the team that suffers. Saint Bonaventure, a team with two horrendous losses last season, had much a much better profile than the Rams. And got snubbed. It’s a weak bubble, but losses to Fordham and La Salle stand out. One thing to note about this team: Will the committee pay close attention to injuries? Clearly the Rams look their best right now — having won seven in a row — and part of why they weren’t at top gear was due to a slew of injuries.

A-10 TITLE: VCU knows Rhode Island’s a tough out


Illinois State

The Redbirds (27-6, 17-1) don’t seem to have enough meat alongside some crucial résumé blemishes and just one top-50 victory — against Wichita State. But the committee has put teams of Illinois State’s caliber in before. The Redbirds, sporting an RPI of 33, weren’t just co-champs in the Missouri Valley, they were head and shoulders better than everyone else. Way worse at-large teams have gone dancing. One of them: VCU in 2011. The whole Syracuse went to the Final Four last year argument shouldn’t matter, with that as a mid-major example.


Just how much has the committee veered away from RPI as a metric that really matters to get teams in the NCAAs? For mid-majors, that metric has been a saving grace over the years. But in the past few seasons the committee has put a lot more stock on top-50 wins, which the Orange (18-14, 10-8) have in bunches after finishing in the middle of the pack of the ACC. Wins against Duke, Florida State and Virginia look really, really nice. But their RPI of 84 is literally 50 percentage points worse than Illinois State’s. Mid-majors don’t get the chance to play elite teams — on their homecourt — like ‘Cuse does. And two wins away from the Carrier Dome should be the deciding factor here.


The Fighting Illini (18-14, 8-10) lost in the Big Ten tournament to Michigan, which could win the title on Sunday and help Illinois’ chances. Had this team not lost to Rutgers in its season finale, maybe Groce would still have a job and opportunity to prove himself in the NCAAs one last time. But it’s difficult to not look at his firing as a foregone conclusion that this team is not getting in. Illinois’ best wins all came against pretty borderline teams, though, beating Virginia Commonwealth, Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa. Those are all averages victories to go with an RPI in the 60s.


The Bulldogs (19-14, 9-9) will likely be a team of What Ifs considering they almost beat Florida and Kentucky in overtime losses and just couldn’t get the marquee win that would’ve put them over the edge like fellow SEC bubble team Vanderbilt did against Florida. A top-20 strength of schedule looks good, but their top wins were all against other bubble teams. Plus they had a blemish with a loss to Oakland.



? Houston

? Georgia Tech 

? California

? Alabama

? Iowa

? Indiana

? Clemson

? Ole Miss

? UT Arlington



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