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Bubble Breakdown: Baylor’s revival continues with key road win at West Virginia

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Royce O'Neale had a career day to lead Baylor to a big win (USATSI)

With less than one month remaining until Selection Sunday, the NCAA tournament bubble is beginning to take shape. Bubble Breakdown is the Dagger's daily look at the results that impact who's in and who's out.

Not even three weeks being left for dead when it fell t0 2-8 in the Big 12, Baylor has staged an impressive revival.

A four-game win streak culminating with Saturday's 88-75 road win at West Virginia has the Bears squarely back in NCAA tournament contention with four games remaining in the regular season.

Despite a conference record still two games below .500, Baylor has a top 50 RPI boosted by marquee non-league wins over Kentucky, Colorado and Dayton. Throw in a sweep of fellow bubble team Oklahoma State and a victory over Kansas State in Big 12 play, and the Bears (18-9, 6-8) actually have higher-caliber victories than the majority of their bubble competitors.

The concern for Baylor is that its remaining schedule is loaded with potential losses. It starts with a road game Wednesday against a Texas team that already beat the Bears by 14 points in Waco. Then comes a winnable home game against Texas Tech, a more difficult home test against Iowa State and a season-ending road trip to Kansas State.

Guessing how many wins Baylor needs to make the NCAA tournament is tough this far from Selection Sunday, but the Bears would certainly be a strong candidate if they were able to reach .500 in league play. With anything less than three out of four wins to close the regular season, Baylor will probably have work left to do in the Big 12 tournament.

Three wins are conceivable for Baylor if it can score with the ease it did in the second half on Saturday when it erased a six-point halftime deficit and seized control late in the game.

Reserve forward Royce O'Neale enjoyed a career day, scoring 22 points, connecting on 8 of 8 field goal attempts and burying all four of his 3-pointers. Four other Bears scored in double figures in Morgantown as Baylor shot 54.2 percent from the field.

Credit Baylor for winning in a place where West Virginia (15-12, 7-7) had defeated Iowa State, Kansas State and Oklahoma in its last three home games.

With two NBA prospects in its frontcourt, a talented point guard in Kenny Chery and a sharp-shooting wing in Brady Heslip, Baylor certainly has the talent to make the NCAA tournament. Now it just has to finish the job to make sure its February revival doesn't go to waste.

BUBBLE TEAMS WHOSE STOCK ROSE SATURDAY

• Stanford (18-8, 9-5): A little more than three weeks after letting the chance for a huge home win slip away against Arizona, Stanford did not make the same mistake against the Pac-12's other marquee program. The Cardinal responded after UCLA cut a 14-point second-half lead to three, pulling away again for a crucial 83-74 victory. With marquee wins over UConn and UCLA and solid victories against Arizona State, Cal and Oregon, Stanford is in good position to make the NCAA tournament despite a challenging finishing stretch. The Cardinal visit Arizona State and Arizona next week before concluding the season with Utah and Colorado at home. If Stanford wins even two of those four games, they might not even need a Pac-12 tournament win to secure an NCAA bid.

• Georgetown (16-11, 7-8): Just when Georgetown seemed to be on the verge of sliding out of NCAA tournament contention, the Hoyas' sometimes punchless offense delivered a bounce-back performance to get them right back into the bubble mix. Markel Starks tallied 22 points and Jabril Trawick had 13 as Georgetown shot 51 percent from the field in a 74-52 rout of visiting Xavier. Though Georgetown still has only 16 wins and remains under .500 in the Big East, its resumé is stronger than you'd think. Non-league victories over Michigan State, Kansas State and VCU are far stronger than most bubble teams can boast. The Hoyas close the season with challenging road games at Marquette and Villanova and a home game against Big East co-leader Creighton. One win is an absolute must to keep their at-large hopes alive. Two or more, and Georgetown would be in good shape entering the Big East tournament.

• Oklahoma State (17-10, 5-9): Forgive Oklahoma State for celebrating its 84-62 win over Texas Tech even if it came at the expense of a team long since eliminated from NCAA tournament contention. The Cowboys had lost seven in a row prior to Saturday to fall from the top 15 in both polls to the outskirts of the bubble conversation. Marcus Smart's return from suspension reinvigorated Oklahoma State as he had 16 points, 10 assists and six steals against the Red Raiders. Saturday's victory was a first step for the Cowboys, but plenty of work remains. Following Monday's road game at TCU, Oklahoma State finishes with Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa. Two wins in its final four games is a necessity for the Cowboys, and three would put them in favorable position entering the Big 12 tournament.

Richmond (18-9, 8-4): Many of us assumed Cedrick Lindsay's season-ending knee injury was a death blow for Richmond's NCAA tournament hopes, but the Spiders are trying to show that may have been premature. They've won four of five since that injury including a convincing 62-49 victory over La Salle on Saturday afternoon. The strength of Richmond's profile is a top 50 RPI boosted by a slew of wins over teams ranked between 60 and 90. The weakness is that the Spiders lack marquee wins, with their two biggest coming against UMass and St. Joseph's. They probably need to win their next two road games against lower-echelon A-10 teams George Mason and Rhode Island before taking swings at VCU and Dayton in their last two regular season games.

BUBBLE TEAMS WHOSE STOCK FELL TUESDAY

Minnesota (17-11, 6-9): Seemingly in position to secure a key road win at Ohio State after building a 10-point halftime lead, Minnesota crumbled in startling fashion in the second half. Sam Thompson scored 16 of his 19 points in the second half as the Buckeyes outscored the Gophers 46-18 en route to an easy victory.  Minnesota is now in trouble, having lost six of its last eight games to fall to 6-9 in the Big Ten. They have a top 10 strength of schedule and victories over Wisconsin and Ohio State, but the remaining schedule is challenging with Iowa and Michigan up next before a season-ending game against Penn State. At least two out of three wins are probably a must for the Gophers.

• Tennessee (16-11, 7-7): In some ways, Tennessee lost twice Saturday. Not only did the Vols fall at middling Texas A&M 68-65 in overtime, a Xavier team that doubles as one of Tennessee's quality wins looked even worse in losing at Georgetown. Where do the Vols stand now? In striking distance of the bubble but in trouble. Tennessee has an RPI outside the top 50, two bad losses to Texas A&M and a list of top 50 wins that starts and ends with Virginia. With its next three games against non-NCAA tournament teams and the regular season finale at home against fellow bubble team Missouri, Tennessee probably needs to win out to feel good about its chances entering the SEC tournament. Otherwise the Vols will be in jeopardy of landing in the NIT for the third straight year under Cuonzo Martin.

• St. John's (18-10, 8-7): Since a disastrous 0-5 start to Big East play, St. John's has climbed out of that hole by winning nine of 11 games. One of the losses was a three-point setback at top 10 Creighton last month. The other was a three-point defeat at top 10 Villanova on Saturday afternoon. Squandering two late chances to tie the Wildcats will sting for a while for St. John's because of the boost a victory would have provided, but the Johnnies have to be mature enough to realize they're still in position to reach the NCAA tournament anyway. Their final three games include home games against Xavier and DePaul and a visit to Marquette. Three wins would put St. John's in favorable position entering the Big East tournament. Even two wins would probably leave the Johnnies still squarely in NCAA tournament contention.

• LSU (16-10, 7-7): The most heartbreaking loss by a bubble team on Saturday? LSU is the leader in the clubhouse. A Julius Randle put-back with three seconds left in overtime saved Kentucky after Andre Stringer had given the Tigers a one-point lead at Rupp Arena seconds earlier on a driving layup. When LSU plays as well as it did Saturday, it's almost unfathomable to think the Tigers have a better chance to miss the NCAA tournament than to make it. Nonetheless, that's clearly where LSU stands with an RPI in the mid-60s, bad losses to Rhode Island, Alabama and Texas A&M and only five top 100 wins the whole season. A home victory over Kentucky helps, but to have a realistic at-large shot, the Tigers need to avoid bad losses the rest of the regular season and either win at Florida on March 1 or upset either the Gators or the Wildcats in the SEC tournament.

• Xavier (18-9, 8-6): If Xavier has been a step or two ahead of the rest of the Big East bubble teams the past few weeks, the Musketeers are rapidly falling back to the pack. Their 74-52 meltdown at Georgetown on Saturday leaves them tied for third place with St. John's and just a half game ahead of Marquette pending the rest of the weekend's Big East results. Xavier would likely still be in the field if the season ended today thanks to a win over Cincinnati in December and some key victories over fellow bubble teams, but the Musketeers have work left to do down the stretch to secure a bid. Adding to the challenge for Xavier: a difficult remaining schedule that begins with a visit to surging St. John's next week and also includes home games against Creighton and Villanova.

Ole Miss (16-11, 7-7): Thanks to a disastrous past two weeks, Ole Miss' faint at-large heartbeat has now flatlined. First the Rebels dropped a pair of winnable road games at Alabama and Georgia last week. Then this week, they squandered their last two chances for marquee wins, falling convincly at home to Kentucky on Tuesday before putting up a better fight but still losing against first-place Florida on Saturday. Since it lost to Dayton and Mercer in non-league play and failed to record any especially notable wins, Ole Miss pinned its at-large hopes on performing well against SEC foes. A 7-7 league record and a dearth of meaningful wins besides victories over bubble teams LSU and Missouri isn't going to cut it.

More from the bubble breakdown series:

• Saturday, Feb. 15: Disastrous week sends Indiana tumbling out of contention
Sunday, Feb. 16:
Out of nowhere, Nebraska enters picture with win at Michigan State
Tuesday, Feb. 18: Providence lets opportunity slip away against Villanova
Thursday, Feb. 20: In a near must-win game for BYU, the Cougars topple Gonzaga

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