After winning four consecutive games to move on the right side of the NCAA tournament bubble, Illinois played its way off it on Saturday in a head-scratching, résumé-staining loss to Big Ten doormat Rutgers, which has a dreadful RPI of 170. Now the Fighting Illini can only reach the NCAAs by winning the Big Ten tournament — by means of auto bid — or by getting to at least the final — by means of lucky at-large bid.
And, sadly, this is a loss that likely could cost coach John Groce his job following five years of mediocrity that only featured one NCAA tournament appearance — in his first season in 2013. Illinois' RPI in the 50s and top wins — against VCU, Michigan State and Northwestern twice — weren't that impressive of credentials to begin with, but the one thing the Illini had going for them against other bubble teams was no blemishes. Not after Saturday.
Here's a look at the winners and losers, among bubble teams, in Saturday's action.
Bryce Drew's group got the résumé-boosting win it was looking for in in taking down Florida for a second time this season in a 73-71 decision. Those two marquee victories, plus the best non-conference schedule in the country help, negate a 17-14 record and ugly loss to Missouri. Barring a collapse in the SEC tournament, this team looks tourney-bound.
Seton Hall Pirates
The Pirates were in pretty good position before Saturday and now are even better off. After a 70-64 win against Butler, Seton Hall notched its most impressive win of the season at the best possible time. This team doesn't want to do other bubble teams any favors by losing early in the Big East tourney, but a top-10 strength of schedule and top-35 RPI bode well for at-large consideration. Part of the concern for Seton Hall was that Xavier win not looking so good anymore after the Musketeers started plummeting. The Butler W makes up for it.
Xavier needed to do two things on Saturday: First was stop the bleeding after losing six in a row, and second was not lose to the worst team in the conference and stain their dwindling tournament credentials any more. The Musketeers did both in a 79-65 outcome. But don't expect the committee to be impressed with a win against DePaul. This team will be heavily graded on how it's played without starter Edmond Sumner, who is out for the season. And it hasn't been pretty.
USC handled a Washington team without its best player (Markelle Fultz) and stayed on the right side of the bubble. And the more SMU rises — which it did Saturday in bulldozing Memphis to claim to AAC outright — the better the Trojans look since that's one of their best wins alongside a nice one against UCLA. Barring a collapse in the Pac-12 tourney, Andy Enfield's team is sitting comfortable on the bubble.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
Playing against Virginia Tech, a former bubble team that's likely already sealed its fate for an at-large bid, Wake Forest got a huge victory on Saturday in getting past the Hokies on the road. This win puts the Demon Deacons into the field of 68...for now. It also comes on the heels of a much-needed marquee victory against Louisville. Then factor in a top-15 strength of schedule and RPI likely to be in the 30s and we're suddenly looking at a tournament team.
Rhode Island Rams
Rhode Island just barely squeaked past Davidson in overtime in a loss that would have crushed its already shaky at-large hopes and led to bad momentum heading into the Atlantic 10 tournament, where the Rams will still need to do some damage — likely beating Dayton or VCU — to hear their name on Selection Sunday. The top-20 non-conference strength of schedule is the eye candy on RI's resume, but Dan Hurley's team now needs a little more to push it over the top.
Clemson couldn’t afford any blemishes, so beating Boston College was necessary. Saturday’s win against the Eagles won’t push the Tigers in the field just yet, as there’s still work to be done. But consider Clemson thoroughly in the mix, largely due to a strength of schedule of 12. If this team can notch a marquee victory in the ACC tourney, it will be looking good.
Illinois State Redbirds
The Redbirds needed to get to the final in Arch Madness to be in the conversation for an at-large bid, and they made sure to do just that with a demolition of Southern Illinois on Saturday in the MVC semifinals. Should it lose to Wichita State in the title game, Illinois State will be as bubblicious as it gets. The problem is there really isn't enough meat on the Redbirds' résumé despite winning 27 games. Even with an RPI in the 30s and a weak bubble this year, losses to Tulsa and Murray State and plus no wins against decent teams not named Wichita State make ISU fail a blind résumé test. But perhaps the committee will be blinded by the awesome basketball the team is playing instead.
Wichita State Shockers
The Shockers, who have now won a staggering 29 games, likely have an at-large bid waiting for them should they lose to Illinois State in Sunday's Missouri Valley tourney final in St. Louis. But it might not want to chance it, as confident as coach Gregg Marshall is that his team is damn good. Might be the case, but teams with profiles similar to WSU have missed the cut. That's especially the case when its strength of schedule is right around 150. Now that the Shockers are facing Illinois State, there's no chance for a bad loss going on their résumé. And that just might be the difference-maker if it's close.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Middle Tennessee crushed Florida Atlantic by 34 points behind 30 points from sharpshooter Giddy Potts. That's a far cry from the narrow win the Blue Raiders had in a three-point win against Florida International on Thursday when they rallied from 19 points down. This team has a tournament profile for an at-large bid, and is the only mid-majors not in the Missouri Valley or West Coast to fall in that category. But a résumé blemish would likely do this team in because even an RPI of 30 can't negate a lack of big wins and key losses to Georgia State, Tennessee State and UTEP. There's room for a loss, but it depends which Conference USA team it is.
Kansas State Wildcats
The Wildcats were hanging on the bubble by a hair before Saturday and still remain that way after taking care of business against Texas Tech with a 61-48 win. Simply put, KSU couldn't afford to lose — mainly because of a non-conference strength of schedule that ranks 223rd in the nation. Should Bruce Weber and Co. win game or two in the Big 12 tournament, they'll be better positioned. Their marquee wins against Baylor and West Virginia could certainly entice the NCAA selection committee.
Alabama Crimson Tide
The Crimson Tide lost a must-win game to former bubble team Tennessee on Saturday and now have a bleak outlook of getting to the SEC tournament. There just isn't enough there on the profile for Avery Johnson's team. An RPI in the 80s and a bad loss to Texas hurt this team's chances. A run in the SEC tourney is needed.
Georgia is still alive on this bubble, but barely. An 85-67 loss to a now-safe Arkansas squad drops the Bulldogs to 18-13 on the season and .500 in SEC play. Then there are a lot of top-100 wins, but no marquee victory to help erase a résumé stain to Oakland.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Ohio State jumped into the bubble equation following wins against Wisconsin and Penn State, but Saturday's four-point loss to Indiana, a team that might've re-entered the bubble mix itself, puts the Buckeyes pretty close to falling off the bubble. The problem for Ohio State is that its best wins all came in the Big Ten, which means it has a lot of good wins and not any great wins. Credit that to a really weak non-conference slate. That and a loss to Florida Atlantic don't help for a team that went 7-11 in a weaker-than-usual power conference. There are better teams out there.
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
The Yellow Jackets needed a win against fellow bubble team Syracuse on Saturday, and came up short. Wins against North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame are all eye-popping, but so is an atrocious non-conference schedule of 268 and an RPI in the 90s. Meanwhile, last year’s surprise Final Four team looks well positioned to get back to the Dance.
Pittsburgh remains on life support after getting throttled by Virginia on Saturday, a somewhat expected outcome after Pitt beat Cavs earlier in the season. That's four in a row for a team that was barely hanging on anyway. It's hard to imagine a team that went 4-14 in league play getting in, but the only reason the Panthers are in the mix is because it's the ACC. Two of those wins came against Florida State and Virginia. Then there are non-conference victories against Marquette and Maryland.
TCU Horned Frogs
A loss to lowly Oklahoma all but seals TCU’s at-large fate. Before Saturday, the Horned Frogs’ best win came against Illinois State. One thing they had going for them was no bad losses. Not anymore. The OU loss puts finishes them at 6-12 in the Big 12 to go along with an unpretty RPI in the 70s.
Already on the wrong side of the bubble, Cal's bad loss Colorado on Saturday all but squashes any at-large bid likelihood. A deep run in the Pac-12 is about the only thing that can unbury this squad. The worst thing about the Bears' résumé is the fact that their best win comes against fellow bubble team USC. That's not going to cut it.
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