February 28, 2011
Whether it was 15-loss Houston winning the Conference USA tournament last year or last-place Georgia storming through the SEC tournament in 2008, there's always an off-the-radar team that manages to steal a bid from an at-large hopeful each March.
Here's a look at four potential bid thieves this season that fans of potential bubble teams should watch out for during the next two weeks:
1. USC (17-12, 9-7, fourth in Pac-10)
As a result of the lack of elite teams in the Pac-10 again this year, the conference is ripe for a middle-of-the-pack squad to rise up and win three straight games in March to steal a bid. The most likely candidate to pull off that feat is definitely surging USC, which has won four straight games to move into fourth place in the conference and has the benefit of playing the Pac-10 tournament in downtown Los Angeles.
The Trojans have some brutal losses on their portfolio that will likely prevent them from earning an at-large bid, but they've also shown the ability to beat top teams when focused on defense and when pounding the ball inside on offense. Wins over NCAA tournament teams Texas, Tennessee, Arizona and UCLA show that USC can be a threat when playing its best basketball.
2. Hofstra (20-10, 14-4, third in CAA)
Top seeds George Mason and Old Dominion have essentially locked up NCAA tourney bids regardless of how they fare in the conference tournament, so there's a chance for a motivated lesser team to spring an upset here. While fading fourth-seeded VCU has the talent to make a run and fifth-seeded Drexel finished strong down the stretch, the most likely candidate is probably Hofstra.
As the CAA's third seed, Hofstra would not have to play either first-place George Mason or defacto-host VCU until the title game. The Pride is 2-4 against fellow top-five CAA teams, but it has won six of seven to close the regular season and has the league's runaway player of the year in senior guard Charles Jenkins.
3. Washington State (18-10, 8-8, sixth in Pac-10)
If USC is the Pac-10's most dangerous potential bid thief, Washington State can't be too far behind. Behind All-American candidate Klay Thompson, the Cougars defeated Gonzaga and Baylor in non-league play and became the only Pac-10 team to win at rival Washington on Sunday night.
For Washington State to make a run in the Pac-10 tournament, it's critical the Cougs don't fall to seventh in the conference because they don't want to have to play an extra game before the quarterfinals. It would also help if junior college transfer Faisal Aden got healthy to provide scoring support for Thompson. A knee injury has kept Aden out of the lineup recently and limited him to 19 minutes and 1-for-9 shooting against the Huskies.
4. Rhode Island (18-10, 9-5, fourth in Atlantic 10)
Instead of staggering to the finish line as it has in recent seasons, Rhode Island is actually building momentum heading into March this year. The fourth-place Rams have won four of five and have an opportunity to add two more wins against middling George Washington and St. Bonaventure this week.
Xavier and Temple are NCAA tournament locks and Richmond remains an at-large hopeful, so the question for the Rams is whether they're capable of upsetting any of those three next week. Rhode Island lost by double figures against the Musketeers and Owls in their only meetings of the season, though the Rams did pull off an impressive win over the third-place Spiders last month.