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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Interpretive Dance: Yes, Virginia, there’s hope for an at-large bid

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The Cavs need one more marquee win to fully emerge from the shadows. (USAT)

Still recuperating from your midweek bar crawl? Are you nostril deep in term paper research? Have no fear, fellow bracketeers. As a companion to the Bracket Big Board, the I.D. is here to highlight all the college hardwood action from the week that was and preview the most pivotal matchups of the weekend. Unlike McLovin’s Hawaiian driver's license, there's nothing fake about this I.D. …

No two seasons are ever the same, especially in college basketball. Year-in and year-out, wild, unpredictable occurrences dominate an ever-changing landscape. Just when you think you’ve seen everything, an unforeseen upset or exhausting five-overtime thrill-ride jolts the brain.

The same could be said for those in the projection business. Every week, every night bracketologists agonize over where schools deserve to be slotted. In this age of accessibility, vetting the bracket is easier than ever. Real-time data is just a click away. But, inevitably, a small group of teams evoke perplexities, turning prognosticators into hardnosed interrogators. How many quality wins does TEAM A have? Did it play a challenging enough non-conference schedule? If TEAM B played TEAM C on a neutral court who would likely emerge victorious? How many licks would it take TEAM D to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll pop? No stone is left unturned.

That’s certainly been the case with RPI oddity Virginia.

The Cavilers are a curiosity. Among hoop heads, no team in recent memory has caused more divisiveness. From a superficial perspective, they appear to be tournament quality – gaudy overall record, an 8-3 mark in the third-strongest conference in the land (ACC) and an unblemished 6-0 record against the RPI top-100, one of those marquee wins coming at Wisconsin. However, digging a little deeper reveals a completely different story, one that explains why the Cavs are at the center of controversy.

Virginia’s peripheral numbers, for the lack of a better term, are hideous. Its non-conference strength of schedule ranks No. 326 out of 347 Division I teams. No surprise, despite playing in a fairly rigorous league, it sports an overall SOS of 155, the softest slate played by ANY high-major team this year. Heck, the Mean Green of North Texas, which plays in the 20th-toughest conference in the land (Sun Belt) has challenged itself more. Equally ghastly, the Cavs dropped six games to teams that currently rank north of No. 100 in the RPI, a neutral court loss to three-win Old Dominion back in late December the most egregious. Based on its underlying profile it would seem Virginia’s odds of dancing are akin to a Pope stepping down. Then again …

New Mexico and Air Force are the only clubs in NCAA history to ‘earn’ at-large bids despite sporting an RPI of 70-plus. Right now, Virginia stands at No. 82. With crucial matchups at North Carolina, at Miami and home versus Duke remaining, its SOS won’t be nearly the eyesore it currently is. Grab another much needed high-profile W, take care of business against the meek and finish 13-5 in the ACC, and it will be extremely hard for the Selection Committee to deny Tony Bennett and company a seed. The backside of the bubble is incredibly weak and, keep in mind, Committee chair Mike Bobinski is AD at fellow ACC school Georgia Tech.

Virginia’s state seal depicts the downfall of tyrants. However, for the Cavs to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in consecutive years since the mid-1990s, they must play like one down the stretch.

Rehearse your choreographed moves one last time. Get into costume. And press "play" on your boombox. It's time for an Interpretive Dance …

MARKET MADNESS

Here are this week’s biggest bracket bulls and bears:

DA BULLS (MOVING UP)

TEAM (18-8, RPI: 28, SOS: 5, Current Seed: 9)
Comment: It never ceases to amaze how quickly the tables can turn. Battered and bruised just over a week ago, the Fighting Abes were on the ropes, clinging to their at-large life. Threes were few and far between. Rebounds continued to be an albatross. And their defense crumbled. Despite a rousing 12-0 start, which included gigantic wins at Gonzaga and in Maui versus Butler, the enigmatic Illini stood at 2-7 with the nation's top team, Indiana, about to invade Champaign. Unbelievably, the pre-conference giant rose from its slumber. Victorious against Indiana and at Minnesota, Illinois is riding a renewed wave of confidence. D.J. Richardson has regained his long-distance stroke netting 45.5-percent from three in his past six games. Tyler Griffey, who at one point couldn't hit a grain silo from 10 feet away, is scoring from all points (30 points, 12 rebounds last two). And, most importantly, Illinois' defense is again highly active, forcing turnovers and poor shots. Some still question whether at 4-7 in Big Ten play it deserves a spot in the dance, but NO team nationally has more standout wins. Five of the Illini's 18 Ws are against RPI top-25 teams. Indiana is the only team that can boast a similar statement. Now entering the friendliest part of its schedule, Illinois is not only a near-lock for a NCAA bid, it could improbably land a top-seven seed. Get revenge at Northwestern and hold court against Penn St., and it's .500 in the toughest league in America. Daunting road matchups at Michigan, Iowa and Ohio St await, but finish 9-9 or better, which is entirely possible, and John Groce will earn a key to the city. That happens, and the Illini will be an extremely dangerous club in March.

TEAM (20-5, RPI: 31, SOS: 59, Current Seed: 4)
Comment: The hallmark of Pittsburgh basketball under Jamie Dixon has been and will likely always be playing tough, brutalizing defense. During his ten years inciting animals at The Zoo, his teams have ranked inside the top-30 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency eight times. This year, the Panthers check in at No. 9 in the category, their highest point in the category since 2004. Opponents are scoring just 0.86 points per possession against them. Many have questioned Pitt's offensive punch, but as Big East play has worn on, it has consistently executed at a phenomenal rate. It's compiled an effective field goal percentage of 50-plus in six of its past seven games. Floor general Tray Woodall has especially thrived, directing and facilitating action on the offensive end. Collectively, Pitt is one of the country's most unselfish teams. Though the Panthers aren't particularly effective from beyond the arc, they work the ball around extremely well, often finding the open man underneath while committing few turnovers. On the year, only UNLV and league counterpart Notre Dame have more assists-to-field goals made among tourney-worthy teams. Also superb on the offensive glass thanks to the tenacious play of big men Steven Adams and Talib Zanna, the BEast dark-horse is appropriately gaining more national attention. No question, Dixon has strong odds of returning to the Sweet Sixteen, a feat that's eluded him since 2009.

TEAM (20-4, RPI: 13, SOS: 44, Current Seed: 7)
Comment: The last time the Rams were ranked, in 1954, Dwight D. Eisenhower was sitting in the Oval Office, rock n' roll was just birthed and Larry King had only been married once. That, my friends, was an eternity ago. Still, Colorado St. demands your attention. In a loaded Mountain West conference it's in lockstep with New Mexico for the regular season title. Winners of five straight, including a pivotal league clash against San Diego St. Wednesday, former Natty Light connoisseur Larry Eustachy has his bunch charging at the right time. The Rams start five seniors, a rarity in an age of one-and-dones. That experience could prove invaluable in postseason play. Couple that with Pierce Hornung and Colton Iverson's incredible knack for squeezing the orange around the basket – CSU ranks second in offensive and first in defensive rebound percentage nationally – and Dorian Green's scoring versatility, and the Rams are far from sheepish. Their wimpy non-conference schedule (198 non-conf SOS) won't do them any favors in the eyes of the Committee, but the MWC's overall strength should help them attract a No. 7 seed or better. That is, if CSU survives a very difficult homestretch mostly unscathed. Four of its seven remaining games are away from Ft. Collins, including tough battles against UNLV, Boise St. and Wyoming. Watch the Rams closely. If they finish strong, they could be that No. 7 seed that topples Goliath in Round 2, an event that occurs almost annually.

Also Flaming: Oklahoma St., St. Mary's, Notre Dame

DA BEARS (MOVING DOWN)

Minnesota Golden Gophers (17-7, RPI: 14, SOS: 2, Current Seed: 6)
Comment: Gopher fans need Tubby Smith to bring back the mustache magic. On the wrong side in six of its past eight games, Minnesota has officially hit the skids. Though one game below .500 in Big Ten action, it's played the second-toughest schedule in the nation and owns 10 wins against the RPI top-100. Still, the Gophers need to right the ship in short order. Once one of the most unyielding clubs in the country, they've declined defensively giving up 1.07 point per possession since January 12. On the opposite end, they've offered a fair amount of consistency. Trevor Mbakwe is an animal in the post, generating endless second-chance opportunities. Still, inconsistencies from outside combined with an unpalatable number of turnovers have led to Minnesota's undoing. More worrisome, leading scorer Rodney Williams didn't see the floor against Illinois last Sunday due to a shoulder injury. If he's unavailable or under-performs Thursday against Wisconsin, the slide will undoubtedly continue, and possibly beyond. Minny's next four games are absolutely brutal (Wisky, at Iowa, at Ohio St., Indiana). The Gophers, similar to the snow-smothered streets outside Williams Arena, are locked in a deep freeze. Fail to win at least three more conference games, and they could stunningly tumble into the NIT.

Missouri Tigers (18-6, RPI: 35, SOS: 62, Current Seed: 8)
Comment: Once leading scorer/rebounder Laurence Bowers returned from injury January 30, Tigers Nation rejoiced. In their minds, his presence revived hopes for a favorable seed. However, their jubilation has yet to resurface. In his four games back, the forward hasn't resembled the interior beast that helped spur Mizzou to an early 14-2 record. Averaging just 8.3 points and 3.8 boards per game over his last four, he is one of several reasons why the Tigers are struggling mightily to keep their heads above water in a down SEC. Outside of his temper tantrums, Alex Oriakhi has played his tail off, but others haven't. Alongside Bowers, point guard Phil Pressey has performed erratically. He dished out 10 dimes against Auburn February 2nd only to follow up with seven turnovers in a loss at Texas A&M. Pressey really is critical to Missouri's success. The Tigers are 16-1 when he's committed fewer than 4 turnovers in a game. Mizzou's defense is also a concern. Its 1.03 points per possession allowed in SEC games ranks 11th in the league. Uncontested layups, many in transition, have plagued it. Five of the Tigers' final eight games are on the road, one of those against the Noel-less Wildcats. If Bowers' previous identity doesn't reappear soon, Frank Haith may not relish his seed come Selection Sunday.

Creighton Blue Jays (20-5, RPI: 50, SOS: 102, Current Seed: 8)
Comment: It might sound ludicrous considering Creighton spent 14 weeks in the AP Poll, but if it doesn't cut down the nets in what promises to be a zany Missouri Valley Conference tourney, it may not meet the necessary requirements for an at-large. Yes, Doug McDermott is a fabulous player whose Wooden Award candidacy is warranted, but the 'Jays' resume exudes marginality. It does own eight wins against the RPI top-100, but only two of those triumphs came against teams ranked inside the top-50. That accompanied with a non-conference strength of schedule north of 200 (215), and Creighton is painted into an undesirable corner. Losers of three straight, including a hard-to-stomach downfall at Northern Iowa on Wednesday, it sorely needs to get back on the right side of the ledger in short order, particularly with a colossal Bracket Buster matchup at St. Mary's on the horizon. That clash of mid-major titans could be a play-in game of sorts if neither school earns an automatic bid. For that to happen it must get meaningful minutes from post-man Gregory Enchenique. This season, the 'Jays are 12-1 when the space-eater scores double-digits. For now, Creighton is safe, but another slip-up or two, and it could be on the outside looking in.

Also Laming: Kentucky, NC State, Ole Miss, Arizona

SOWING THE SEEDS

This segment sifts through the bountiful weekend slate to highlight five titanic games that will bear the greatest impact on a team's "Bracket Big Board" standing

1. Virginia at North Carolina
For a pair of teams with sketchy resumes, Saturday's tango could be a play-in game of sorts. The Cavs are breathing down Duke's neck for second-place in the ACC, but need another substantive road win to help overcome its early-season missteps against weak opponents. Carolina is in a similar boat. Its top-30 SOS is at-large worthy, but with only one RPI top-50 win, Roy Williams' club has entered must-win territory. Bland offensively in league play, the Heels, off a hard-to-swallow loss at Duke, will likely succumb to Tony Bennett's constrictive, top-15 defense, especially if James Michael McAdoo remains encased in ice. Win and the Cavs may finally be in.

Prediction: Virginia 67 North Carolina 64

2. Ohio St. at Wisconsin
Bo Ryan's uncanny ability to squeeze every last drop of talent from his players never ceases to amaze. Projected to be a middling Big Ten team preseason, the Badgers, thanks to Ben Brust's heroics against Michigan, are in the thick of arguably the most exciting conference race in the country. An unrelenting defense, solid three-point shooting and general care for the basketball (No. 1 nationally in TO%) explain their ascension. The Buckeyes are no slouch, but, in order to spring the upset, they ideally need a secondary or tertiary scoring option to complement megastar Deshaun Thomas. Saying the outcome of this game hinges on LaQuinton Ross would be the understatement of the century.

Prediction: Wisconsin 59 Ohio St. 55

3. Temple at Massachusettes
On the national scene, few would give an Owls/Minutemen matchup the time of day. Marcus Camby graduated eons ago. But the battle between two former basketball factories shouldn't be overlooked. It has major tourney implications. Surprisingly, UMass hasn't danced in 15 years, but a victory over an opponent ranked inside the RPI top-50 would help beef up its mediocre resume and keep it in contention for a regular season A-10 crown. The Minutemen, 5-2 since learning of Jesse Morgan's torn ACL, appear to have weathered the storm. Receive another standout performance from floor general Chaz Williams (38 points, 17:2 AST:TO last two), and UMass could bounce off the bubble and into the field, possibly replacing the Owls.

Prediction: UMass 75 Temple 68

4. San Diego St. at UNLV
For the Aztecs to keep up with Mountain West pacesetter New Mexico and unheralded Colorado St. it must score aces on the river in Vegas. Back in mid-January the Rebels invaded the Aztec Bowl and left with an impressive 82-75 win. In that contest, Steve Fisher's crew yielded an uncharacteristic 1.12 points per possession and converted only 3-of-19 from behind the arc. How Chase Tapley preforms is pivotal in the second go-round. In his past four games, the senior is just 3-for-18 from three. Anthony Marshall was brilliant in the first matchup bursting for 20 points, his second-best scoring effort of the season. That reoccurs, and it will be a sorrow-filled trip back to SoCal for San Diego St. UNLV, bombed by Air Force Wednesday, should play with a sense of urgency.

Prediction: UNLV 70 San Diego St. 65

5. Georgetown at Cincinnati
In an unusual Friday showcase, a pair of teams heading in opposite directions will be on display. Thanks to an improved offense (51.5 effective FG% in Big East play), the Hoyas, winners of six straight, are climbing fast. Otto Porter and Markel Starks have developed into quite the inside-outside combo. The Bearcats ended a two-game slide by dispatching Villanova by 18 on Tuesday. However, for a team almost entirely dependent on the three, it has shot very poorly in recent weeks. In 12 Big East games the 'Cats have netted a mere 30.5 percent from distance. Unless Cincy rediscovers its stroke, look for Georgetown's suffocating defense to be the difference.

Prediction: Georgetown 56 Cincinnati 53

Last week: 4-1
Year to date: 7-3

Other Notable Games: Pittsburgh at Marquette, Baylor at Kansas St., Duke at Maryland, Oklahoma at Oklahoma St., Boise St. at New Mexico, Arizona St. at Colorado, Minnesota at Iowa

MID-MAJOR HALL OF FAME

What underrated player earned his bust?

Nate Wolters, South Dakota St., G
Mover over Abe, Teddy, George and Thomas, Wolters might be the biggest attraction in the Mount Rushmore State. The senior is the definition of explosive. Nine times this season he's hammered opponents for at least 25 points, including a 53-point smashing of IPFW Febuary 7. At 6-foot-4, he possesses enough size to generate the vertical space needed to get off shots, which he does at will. On the year, he's netted over 40-percent from long-range, 52.4 percent inside the arc and 82.2 percent at the charity stripe. Essentially, he's the Doug McDermott of the Summit. For the Jackrabbits to get back to the Dance, it will need a stirring tourney run in a top-heavy league. Western Illinois, North Dakota St. and SDSU have 10 conference wins each. Secure the automatic bid, and Wolters could soon become a household name.

HIGH-MAJOR WALK OF SHAME

What high-profiled player took a long, embarrassing walk home?

Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan, G
What's lower: Temperatures this time of year in Winnipeg or Hardaway Jr.'s field-goal percentage against rival Michigan St.? Tough one. In Tuesday's blowout loss in East Lansing, younger Hardaway was absolutely frigid, hitting just one shot in 11 tries. His two-point output was his lowest of the season and only the fourth time this season he failed to reach double-digits. Though Michigan is loaded with weapons, he and Trey Burke make the Wolverines tick. It's imperative both play at a high level if Michigan hopes to blaze a trail to Atlanta. Look for him to get back on track against dreadful Penn St., which is still completely defeated in conference (0-11), Sunday.

BRACKET RACKET

Each week, per your tweets, the Noise will attempt to get inside the mind of Selection Committee chairman Mike Bobinski.

There are several life events that routinely peeve me. Long-stretching lines at the DMV, slow, moronic drivers who feel a highway's left lane is their personal thruway and miscalled chargers under the basket are just a few. Along with those unappealing incidences, analysts who use football classifications to define mid-majors also chap my hide.

Because conference strength is fluid, how leagues are defined shouldn't be hard and fast. For example, this year the Mountain West ranks only behind the Big Ten in RPI strength and the Atlantic 10 is one spot ahead of supposed power the SEC. Though the WCC checks in at No. 10, Gonzaga really shouldn't be lumped in with the little guys. Its extensive track-record and traditional high NCAA seeds makes it a perennial contender, not a Cinderella.

Now that we're clear where I stand in terms of categorizing mid-majors, the school that's poised to do the most damage has to be Bucknell.

Obviously, matchups will dictate just how realistic the Bison's odds are of advancing – the latest Bracket Big Board has them playing Ohio St. in a 4-13 tilt – but this is a club no high-major should take lightly, assuming it earns the Patriot's automatic berth. The Buck is dynamite defensively holding opponents under 40-percent shooting inside the arc, surrenders few turnovers and boasts a double-doubles behemoth in 6-foot-11 senior Mike Muscala (19.0 ppg, 11.4 rpg). With non-conference wins at Purdue and versus La Salle, Bucknell could rediscover the magic it had when booted Kansas from the tournament in 2005. Fear the Bison.

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