The precarious situation on the NCAA Tournament bubble could be what decides whether the deep Big Ten or the brutal Big 12 get the most teams into the 68-team field come Selection Sunday.
The Big Ten headed into the semifinals Saturday with seven teams with a spot reserved: Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Purdue and Rutgers. The league’s biggest rival likewise has seven sure things with Texas set to play Oklahoma State in its title game Saturday night: the Longhorns and Cowboys along with Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, West Virginia and Kansas — assuming the Jayhawks navigated a COVID-19 outbreak that bumped them from the Big 12 Tournament.
That leaves bubble-dwelling Maryland and Michigan State to potentially break the tie.
The Terps (16-13) let a chance for a statement-making win against the fourth-ranked Wolverines slip away with a 79-66 loss Friday. It had significant NCAA Tournament ramifications, even if the headlines were about Michigan coach Juwan Howard’s ejection following a few choice words with Maryland counterpart Mark Turgeon.
Still, the Terrapins coach spoke afterward as if they were certain to make the NCAA Tournament field.
“We’ve come a long ways. Nobody can deny that,” Turgeon said, “but to have Selection Sunday and our team is going to be called — I think six weeks ago, nobody would have believed that. I’m proud of this team.”
If they do make the field, it may have come at the expense of Michigan State. The Terps beat the Spartans (15-12) one day earlier in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.
If the Spartans make it, they can point to five wins in the final eight games, including three against top-5 teams Michigan, Ohio State and Illinois — the latter in back-to-back games at the Breslin Center.
“In fairness, this has been three weeks from hell,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said, “but it’s also been three of the more exhilarating weeks of my coaching career, when you can beat some of the teams we beat and you play the way you did and you earn them. We grinded it out. We did it the right way.”
The question now is whether it will be enough. For Maryland, too.
ON THE RISE
Might both teams in the Conference USA title game make the NCAA Tournament field? Western Kentucky looked poised and polished in beating a quality team in Alabama-Birmingham in the semifinals, and if the Hilltoppers fall against North Texas on Saturday they could steal an at-large bid from somebody else.
Southern Methodist hadn’t played a game since Feb. 8, when coach Tim Jankovic’s team breezed past East Carolina to improve to 11-4 on the season. But after COVID-19 forced six games to be canceled, the Mustangs headed into the American Athletic Conference quarterfinals against Cincinnati feeling shaky about their NCAA Tournament hopes.
Then the Bearcats squeaked out a 74-71 victory Friday that might have pushed SMU right off the bubble.
Another team sitting wobbly Friday was Ole Miss, which could have used a win over LSU to shore up its chances of making the field. But when the Tigers escaped with a 76-73 victory, it left the Rebels waiting anxiously for Sunday.
GAME TO WATCH
There are a few teams worth watching heading into the weekend if only because they have the chance to win a league title and swipe a potential bid from somebody else.
In the American, upstart Cincinnati will face Wichita State in the semifinals with the Shockers likely assured an NCAA Tournament bid, but the Bearcats needing two more wins.
In the Big East, the only hope Georgetown has of making the field will be to win the championship. But that’s certainly possible given the Hoyas already have beaten Marquette, Villanova and Seton Hall in consecutive days.