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Bubble Breakdown: Marcus Paige’s last-second layup likely dooms NC State to the NIT

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Leslie McDonald embraces Marcus Paige after his game-winning layup (Getty Images)

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.

When North Carolina's Marcus Paige drove around a ball screen and laid the ball softly off the glass with 0.9 seconds to go in overtime, the sophomore guard did more than merely propel the Tar Heels to a victory over rival NC State.

Paige also almost certainly snuffed out the Wolfpack's last hope of a late surge to secure an NCAA bid.

NC State will still have zero RPI top 50 victories entering March after Wednesday night's 85-84 home loss to the Tar Heels. Granted the Wolfpack have a serviceable No. 54 RPI and only two losses to teams outside the top 70, but none of that outweighs the fact that their two most notable wins came against bubble team Tennessee and fringe NCAA contender Florida State.

Had NC State beaten North Carolina, that would have given the Wolfpack one marquee win with the chance to secure another before the ACC tournament at Pittsburgh on Monday. Now, even if the Wolfpack do upset the Panthers and defeat Boston College and Miami at home to close the regular season, they would probably need to reach the ACC title game and beat an elite team along the way in order to have any hope of landing an NCAA bid.

That NC State is in this position is its own fault in a lot of ways. The Wolfpack are a remarkable 0-8 against RPI top 50 teams this season, the last two losses coming by a point apiece at Syracuse and at home against the Tar Heels.

North Carolina gave NC State chances with a pair of ill-advised off-ball fouls, the first on Leslie McDonald with just a couple ticks left in regulation and the Tar Heels up two and the second on James Michael-McAdoo with the score tied late in overtime. T.J. Warren made only one of two with eight seconds left and the Wolfpack failed to stop Paige from attacking the rim going left, a criminal mistake considering the point guard had torched NC State the entire second half and is much more comfortable going left than right.

Paige had 31 of hi 35 points after halftime, 21 of which came on seven 3-pointers. T.J. Warren had 36 points, but it will be a bittersweet night for the NC State star because that production was not enough to get the Wolfpack a win they badly needed.

BUBBLE TEAMS WHOSE STOCK ROSE WEDNESDAY

Arizona State (20-8, 9-6): If a pair of listless road losses at Colorado and Utah raised concerns about Arizona State, then the Sun Devils answered them with a bounce-back win Wednesday night. They pounded fellow NCAA tournament hopeful Stanford 76-64 in Tempe to improve to 9-6 in the Pac-12 move closer to securing a spot in the field of 68. With a No. 32 RPI, only one truly bad loss to Miami and victories over Arizona, Colorado, Stanford, Cal and Oregon, the Sun Devils are solidly in the NCAA tournament as of today. Two more wins, whether in the regular season or the Pac-12 tournament, would make Arizona State an NCAA tournament lock. Even just one might be enough considering how favorably Arizona State's profile compares to other bubble teams.

• Tennessee (17-11, 8-7): Tennessee did something most bubble teams failed to do on Wednesday night. The Vols won a game they were supposed to win. A 75-68 victory at lowly Mississippi State certainly isn't proof Tennessee belongs in the NCAA tournament, but it at least gets the Vols back on track after a loss at Texas A&M. Where does Tennessee stand now? Probably right about on the cut line. 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 two games against non-NCAA tournament teams and the regular season finale at home against fellow bubble team Missouri, Tennessee may need 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.

• LSU (17-10, 8-7): Demolishing Texas A&M had to be cathartic for LSU following its heartbreaking loss at Kentucky over the weekend. It kept the Tigers on the fringes of the bubble picture, but they're still more likely to miss the NCAA tournament than to make it. 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, LSU's margin for error is almost nonexistant. 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 Saturday or upset either the Gators or the Wildcats in the SEC tournament.

BUBBLE TEAMS WHOSE STOCK FELL WEDNESDAY

Nebraska (16-11, 8-7): The feel-good story of Nebraska's surge into NCAA tournament contention hit an obstacle it couldn't overcome Wednedsay night: Ice-cold 5 of 18 shooting from Big Ten player of the year candidate Terran Petteway. Between that and 15 turnovers, the Huskers couldn't stay within striking distance at Illinois and fell 60-49. One loss won't doom Nebraska to the NIT, but it certainly cuts into the Huskers' margin for error and leaves them outside the field of 68 for now. Anything short of three wins in its final three regular season games against Northwestern, Indiana and Wisconsin probably ensures that Nebraska would have work left to do in the Big Ten tournament.

• Richmond (18-10, 8-5): Seldom can one loss send a team tumbling out of the bubble picture, but that's how damaging George Mason's upset of Richmond may be for the Spiders. Since Richmond's lone quality wins have come against UMass and St. Joseph's, the Spiders' at-large candidacy depended on solid computer numbers boosted by a lack of losses to teams outside the RPI top 100. Those numbers will surely take a hit now because George Mason entered Wednesday's game 2-10 in the Atlantic 10, 9-17 overall and 152nd in the RPI. Richmond still has three tough games left against Rhode Island, VCU and Dayton. The Spiders might have to win them all to put themselves in decent shape heading into the Atlantic 10 tournament.

• Cal (18-10, 9-6): Unable to accomplish a whole lot in non-league play this season, Cal needed a strong performance in the Pac-12 to make the NCAA tournament. A 5-0 start and a win at first-place Arizona put the Bears in good shape, but they've backslid toward the bubble for the past month. Wednesday night's 87-59 loss at Arizona was Cal's sixth in its last 10 games and left the Bears with only three RPI top 50 victories this seaosn. Cal would probably be in the NCAA tournament if the season ended today, but the Bears are not so safe that they wouldn't be in jeopardy with a loss at Arizona State on Saturday and a home split against Colorado and Utah the following week.

Baylor (18-10, 6-9): Had Baylor extended its win streak to five with a victory at Texas on Wednesday night, the Bears would have been in great shape to secure an NCAA bid with three games left in the regular season. Instead the Bears fell behind by 15 at halftime and couldn't quite complete a road comeback, falling 74-69 to the Longhorns. Non-league victories over Kentucky, Colorado and Dayton give Baylor hope despite its sub.-500 league record, but Baylor may not want to tempt fate by finishing 7-11 in the Big 12. As a result, it's critical the Bears win their final two home games against Texas Tech and Iowa State before heading to Kansas State for the regular season finale.

Stanford (18-9, 9-6): Just when it seemed safe to pencil Stanford into the NCAA tournament, the Cardinal suffer a letdown and deliver a turnover-filled, defense-optional performance in a one-sided loss at Arizona State. They trailed by double digits midway through the first half and never really mounted a serious charge thanks in part to 15 turnovers and 10 threes from the Sun Devils. Stanford would still make the field of 68 were the season to end today thanks to its collection of quality wins, but like rival Cal, the Cardinal can't get complacent. Were they to lose at Arizona on Sunday and manage only a split at home against Utah and Colorado next week, they might need a win in the Pac-12 tournament to assure themselves of a bid.

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