Interpretive Dance: Judgment weekend

Brad Evans
Yahoo! Sports

Still recuperating from your midweek bar crawl? Are you nostril deep in term paper research? Have no fear, fellow bracketeers. 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 Fogell's Hawaiian driver's license, there's nothing fake about this I.D. …

As the old adage says: March comes in like a lion and exits like a dancing lunatic .

Well, at least that's what Billy Donovan always told me.

As the calendar flips to the penultimate month of the college hoops year, a sharp, pointed object is inching perilously close to the fragile bubble several ambiguous teams are firmly planted on. Rabid fans in Winston-Salem, Tempe, Philadelphia and Norman are concerned, yet optimistic, that their teams can circumvent the piercing tip of the safety pin and earn a ticket to the dance.

With numerous bubble teams' backs against the wall and matched against clubs in similar situations, this is judgment weekend.

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

Here are this week's bracket bulls and bears:

Team Conf W-L RPI SOS
Vanderbilt Commodores SEC 24-4 7 37
Comment: The Vols were Christians and the Commodores voracious lions in Memorial Coliseum on Feb. 26. The defensive woes that had previously plagued Vanderbilt are an afterthought. The Commodores' suffocating defense was a nightmare for the Tangerine Dream, limiting the Vols to a season-worst 32 percent from the field. Over Vandy's current seven-game winning streak, opponents have averaged an embarrassing 97.6 offensive rating. Equally important, the incredible backcourt productivity and experience of Shan Foster has proven invaluable on two fronts: 1) Long-distance splashes and 2) Few turnovers. On the season, Foster has converted 45.7 percent of his arc attempts, the highest mark of any player that's scored 100 or more three-point field goals this season. Meanwhile, Vandy's 14.6 offensive turnover percentage average in February clearly proves wounds are not self-inflicted. Outside of Aussie enforcer A.J. Ogilvy and key paint patroller Ross Neltner, the Commodores' don't have the depth to pound teams on the glass. They currently rank 228th nationally in OR% (offensive rebounding) and 188th in DR% (defensive rebounding) percentage. However, the fortitude and proficiency of Foster and senior guard Alex Gordon will likely have the Commodores sailing deep into the tournament.
Team Conf W-L RPI SOS
Kent St. Golden Flashes MAC 23-5 28 134
Comment: Antonio Gates-U's unforeseen 65-57 victory at St. Mary's illuminated its chances of earning an at-large nomination. Jim Christian's club electrocuted the Gaels defensively, holding one of the country's most well-balanced offenses to 32.5 percent from the field. In 20 of 28 games this season, Kent St. has played brilliant defense, limiting opponents to an offensive rating of 99 or less. Sultan of Swat, senior Haminn Quaintance, is one of the premier defenders in the nation, averaging 2.1 rejections and 1.8 steals per game. Collectively, the Golden Flashes have accrued the 18th-best defensive turnover percentage (25.0) and 13th-highest steals percentage (13.1) in DI. If junior triggerman Al Fisher, who has averaged 18.8 points per game and netted a 46.9 FG% in his past 12, can continue to light up the scoreboard and offset pressure on Quaintance in the interior, Kent St. will be a deadly 10 or 11 seed in the tournament. With other key non-conference wins against Illinois St. and George Mason and a sensational top 30 RPI, the Flashes will definitely net an at-large bid even if they are unable to survive the MAC tournament. Teams such as Wake Forest , Ohio St. and Florida will undoubtedly be wearing navy blue and gold when the MAC tourney tips off in Cleveland March 9.
Team Conf W-L RPI SOS
Southern Illinois Salukis MVC 17-12 40 10
Comment: There's a sleeping giant lurking in the Shawnee hills of "Little Egypt" and it's dressed in Salukis maroon. Once left for dead, Southern Illinois has risen from its NIT-bound grave and has re-entered the NCAA tournament conversation. Winners of five straight, including pivotal triumphs over Drake and BracketBuster foe Nevada , SIU has overcome its offensive ineptness from earlier this season. Over their current win streak, the Salukis have averaged an exceptional 113.1 offensive rating. Bruce Weber protégé Chris Lowery has leaned on a rigorous man-to-man defense to thwart opponents. Indicative of its 31st-best defensive efficiency, for the most part, SIU has played stalwartly. In its past five games, Southern has limited opponents to a stifling 0.94 points per possession. However, general inconsistencies outside Randal Falker and turnovers (204th in TO%) have tormented the Salukis offensively. If Bryan Mullins runs the point as masterfully as he has during SIU's recent success (3.25:1 AST:TO ratio in his past five), this is a team that has the grit and toughness to grind out three consecutive wins in Arch Madness. With a healthy RPI, insanely difficult schedule, 9-3 record in its past 12 and three RPI top 50 wins, SIU could attract at-large consideration with a victory over Illinois State (RPI 39) this weekend. But, more than likely, the Salukis will have to run the table in the Valley tournament to wag their tournament tails.

Team Conf W-L RPI SOS
Texas A&M Aggies Big 12 21-7 42 80
Comment: The Aggies' universal thumbs up "Gig 'em" symbol has turned upside down. Prior to notching a desperately needed victory against Texas Tech on Feb. 27, TAMU was mired in its second three-game losing streak of the Big 12 season. In those defeats, Mark Turgeon's trademark impenetrable defense came unhinged as his club allowed opponents to tally an average 112.8 offensive rating. Offensively, TAMU hadn't faired much better. During its recent downswing, it averaged an appalling 0.92 points per possession. The vacancy left by all-world point guard Acie Law is still visible. At times, the Aggies offense has looked discombobulated, deflated and fundamentally flawed. However, in its win against the Red Raiders, A&M worked the ball around the perimeter effectively, making the extra pass to find Dominique Kirk and Josh Carter open beyond the arc. That unselfishness helped TAMU tally its highest field-goal percentage (56.9) and offensive rating (139.8) of the season. With a daunting schedule remaining (at Oklahoma, at Baylor, Kansas), hopes of qualifying for the NCAA tournament could be squelched if the offensively incompetent Aggies show up to the gym in those contests.
Team Conf W-L RPI SOS
Kansas St. Wildcats Big 12 18-9 43 19
Comment: It's déjà vu all over again for the Wildcats. Through 27 games, their record is identical to what they compiled through the same number of games in '06'-'07, a year in which they didn't attract an at-large bid. Although KSU's tournament hopes are hardly dashed, fans in Manhattan are cautiously optimistic. Losers of four of its past five, K-State's once blanketing defense has unstitched. In those four losses, offenses have averaged an offensive rating of 112.3. More disconcerting, inefficiencies and inconsistencies at the guard position continue to torture this team. Jacob Pullen has performed well in two of his past three contests, but the doughnut he notched against Baylor is a primary reason why the Cats were upended. Shooting guard Clent Stewart has played even more deplorably. In his past four games, Stewart has shot a detestable 25 percent (6-of-24) from the field. Because K-State played a challenging non-conference schedule and showcases a SOS of 19, thoughts of another NCAA snub are unrealistic. However, it must win two of its past three to avoid landing on the bubble. Michael Beasley is one of the most dominant collegiate freshman to ever strap on a pair of high tops. But without a strong supporting cast, his chances of accomplishing what Carmelo Anthony did in 2003 dwindle drastically with each K-State loss.
Team Conf W-L RPI SOS
Arizona Wildcats Pac-10 17-11 1 21
Comment: The magic number for Arizona is three. Since 1999, no Pac-10 team has been denied an NCAA at-large nomination with 10 or more conference wins. At 7-8, the Wildcats are venturing into dangerous waters. Although 'Zona ranks No. 1 in the nation in strength of schedule, has endured significant injuries to marquee players and boasts five RPI top 50 wins, it is the subject of much bubble talk. Arizona has limped down the stretch, losing five of its past seven contests, allowing an average offensive rating of 113.2 in those defeats. Freshman long rifle Jerryd Bayless has performed brilliantly, averaging 22.6 points per game while netting 45.2 percent from the floor in his past 11 clashes. However, rebounding and defensive inadequacies have been problematic for Kevin O'Neill's club. 'Zona is 62nd nationally in defensive efficiency and 182nd in defensive rebounding percentage. Depth deprived and transparent defensively, this is a team that will struggle mightily to advance out of the first round of the NCAA tournament as a No. 10 or 11 seed, assuming it avoids an early March meltdown. A win against SoCal giant UCLA March 2 would certainly eliminate any tournament concerns, but without Nick Wise, the Wildcats chances of pulling the upset are minimal.

Named after a Clash classic, this segment sifts through the bountiful weekend slate to highlight seven titanic games that will bear the greatest impact on a team's "Bracket Big Board" seeding.

1. Washington St. (22-6) at Stanford (23-4)
If Tiger Woods-U has strong desires of catching UCLA, it must defend home court. The Cougars have licked their early-February wounds defensively, winning five of their past six. In those wins, they've held opponents to a lowly 87.9 offensive rating. When the Cardinal caged the Cougs by two in Pullman on Feb. 2, they did it with their interior brawn and defensive might. Stanford out-rebounded Wazzu by 16 in that contest and yielded just three long-range splashes. The length of the Lopez twins and versatility of forward Lawrence Hill will be too overwhelming for Wazzu once again.
Prediction: Stanford 61 Washington St. 56

Mid-Major Maverick
Osiris Eldridge
Sophomore, SG
Illinois St. Redbirds

Skinny: In ancient Egyptian mythology, Osiris was the deity of the underworld who granted eternal life to the pharaohs. In a way, Eldridge is also a redeemer. Eldridge is a fearless, gritty leader of an Illinois State team hungry to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade. An offensive innovator, his smooth flicks of the wrist have battered opponents from mid- and long-range this season. On the year, Eldridge has averaged 16.0 ppg, 5.6 ppg and 2.4 made threes per game. He has also converted 47.0 percent of his shots from the field and 42.3 percent from the arc. In 22 of his past 25 contests, the two-time Missouri Valley Player of the Week has eclipsed double-figures in scoring, including a career-high 34 points at Indiana St. Feb. 16. He might not get the national notoriety of other sophomore shooting guard luminaries Scottie Reynolds, Wayne Ellington or Gerald Henderson, but Eldridge is an electric performer with drop-jaw skills.

2. St. Mary's (24-4) at Gonzaga (22-6)
The hatred between Gales and Bulldogs fans makes this WCC clash one of the nation's most heated rivalries west of the Mississippi. Both teams showcase sparkling defensive efficiency rankings and are glass commanders. However, the 18 free-throw disparity in their first encounter was the difference in St. Mary's exhausting 89-85 win. Gonzaga's Austin Daye, David Pendergraft and, especially, Josh Heytvelt must cause headaches for Diamon Simpson and Omar Samhan in the paint. More importantly, the Bulldogs must prevent Todd Golden (6-for-6 from three vs. Zags on Feb. 4) from starring if they want to taste sweet revenge.
Prediction: Gonzaga 79 St. Mary's 74

3. Texas A&M (21-7) at Oklahoma (18-10)
TAMU hopes to rip through Norman. Both teams' NCAA dreams are one loss away from turning into nightmares. In their first meeting Feb. 2, OU's three-headed key monster, Blake Griffin, Tyler Griffin and Longar Longar, combined for 14 fouls and 19 points. The Sooners must attack the rim against the Aggies beefy frontline, but not brazenly. If the Aggies can pass the rock crisply around the perimeter, as they did against Texas Tech on Feb. 27, they'll be hard to beat. If not, OU, which desperately needs this game, could push A&M back toward the bubble.
Prediction: Oklahoma 63 Texas A&M 62

4. Pittsburgh (20-8) at Syracuse (17-11)
Syracuse's tournament aspirations rest on the outcome of this contest. To eliminate its baneful bubble existence, the 'Cuse's trio of heated popcorn kernels Paul Harris, Donte Green and Arinze Onuaku must contain DeJaun Blair inside and generate several second-chance opportunities. Mired in an 11-for-39 funk since his return, Levance Fields is overdue for a breakout game. If the 'Cuse wins the battle of the boards and Jonny Flynn bottles Fields, it will be right back in the at-large discussion.
Prediction: Syracuse 68 Pittsburgh 66

5. Mississippi St. (19-8) at Florida (21-7)
The blow-by-blow exchange between Marresse Speights and swat master Jarvis Varnado will be a heavyweight battle. Led by Speights, the Gators are one of the premier offenses in the nation, ranking second in two-point FG% offense. However, their despicable defense, which has allowed an offensive rating of 111.8 in seven February games, must create turnovers against a sloppy-handed Bulldogs team – MSU ranks 245th in the country in offensive turnover percentage. If MSU guard Jamont Gordon can carefully squeeze the orange (0.93 AST:TO ratio in his last five), the Bulldogs have excellent odds of stealing a victory in Gainesville.
Prediction: Florida 71 Mississippi St. 69

6. Illinois St. (21-8) at Southern Illinois (17-12)
In this crucial Valley conflict, defense will reign supreme. Southern guards Bryan Mullins and Joshua Bone must do a masterful job of handcuffing prolific Redbirds scorer Osiris Eldridge from three. On the season, SIU ranks 203rd nationally in three-point FG% defense. ISU's Anthony Slack and Dom Johnson must keep the Salukis honest defensively to limit double-teams on Eldridge. Even if that occurs, history tells us that a victory at SIU Arena will be a monumental task for the Redbirds, who haven't won there since 2001.
Prediction: Southern Illinois 60 Illinois St. 57

7. USC (18-9) at Arizona St. (17-10)
With an RPI in the mid-70s, a 7-8 Pac-10 record and three losses in its past four, Sparky is slowly losing its tourney power. Offensively, the Sun Devils have been terribly inconsistent. In their past two defeats to Washington St. and UCLA, they've managed to average just 0.83 points per possession. Now that Daniel Hackett has returned, the Trojans are close to full strength. Defensive stalwarts, USC ranks ninth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. In its first tango on Feb. 2, USC limited Arizona St. to 0.85 points per possession. Expect a similar outcome in the rematch.
Prediction: USC 62 Arizona St. 56

Other Notable Games: West Virginia (20-8) at Connecticut (22-6), Georgetown (23-4) at Marquette (21-6), Vanderbilt (24-4) at Arkansas (18-9), Kansas St. (18-9) at Kansas (25-3), Kentucky (16-10) at Tennessee (25-3), Indiana (24-4) at Michigan St. (22-6), UCLA (24-3) at Arizona (17-11), Villanova (17-10) at Louisville (23-6), Clemson (20-7) at Maryland (18-11), Davidson (22-6) at Georgia Southern (20-10), UNC-Asheville (20-8) at Winthrop (19-10) Last week's results: 4-3
YTD: 32-10 (76%)

Off-the-cuff thoughts, observations and blather from the "Big Noise."

Luke Harangody exorcised his inner Peja Stojakovic on Feb. 28, drilling a perfect 3-for-3 from long distance against Louisville. Coming into the game, the Irish big man was 0-for-4 in his career from the arc. If he can confidently take that shot with regularity, teams would be defenseless against him.

Also floating around in the Guinness glass … Notre Dame is 13-0 when Kyle McAlarney rains three or more treys in a game. Because Harangody is a runaway moose inside, teams that defend the "great equalizer" effectively (e.g. Louisville) are toxic to the Irish.

Hardly mentioned by many hoops pundits, Houston's senior guard Rob McKiver erupted for 52 points, the most in Division I this season, on Feb. 27 against Southern Mississippi. McKiver has dropped 30 or more points in a game seven times this season.

Nebraska (RPI 96) has been the ultimate spoiler this month in the Big 12. The Cornhuskers 17th-most efficient defense has suffocated Kansas St., Texas A&M and Oklahoma in consecutive games. With one of the nation's best post defenders in Aleks Maric and premier thieves in Cookie Miller, Nebraska could frighten a major opponent in the Big 12 tournament.

The four-letter network announced on Feb. 28 that soft-spoken coaching legend, Bob Knight, will provide commentary for its March Madness coverage. Because Knight has a strong infatuation for certain four-lettered words, ESPN better install a three-second delay to prevent attracting FCC fines. Dealing with Digger Phelps' smug attitude, monochromatic attire and matching highlighters for an extended period of time would make a nun curse.

When the Duke Mascot was felled by a sprained right knee in a freak student surfing accident on Feb. 27, my thoughts of who really donned the Blue Devils mask that fateful night were of this guy, not this guy. Some people can never escape the unforgiving grip of the injury imp.

Each week, per your emails, the Noise compares two closely matched resumes in an attempt to get inside the mind of Selection Committee chairman Thomas J. O'Connor. All statistical information is courtesy of Margin of victory/defeat is noted in parentheses. BBR stands for last week's "Bracket Big Board" rank.

W-L 17-11 16-10
RPI 50 76
SOS 11 78
Top 50 1-7 3-3
Key Ws St. Joe's (3)
Georgetown (7)
BYU (18)
Miami (Fl.) (2)
Duke (13)
Ugly Ls at S. Florida (11) at Georgia (22)
at BC (39)
BBR NR 46 (12 seed)

Do you really think that Wake will get in to the tourney over Syracuse? I know the Big East has some bad teams, but it is so much deeper then a weak ACC this year. Don't you feel that it would be better to reward a team like Syracuse over a team like Wake, that only has one signature win?– Justin, Harrisburg , VA

Noise: Justin, I'm no ACC apologist, but describing the No. 1 conference in the RPI as "weak" makes you seem bracket challenged.

Entering the week, Wake was far more deserving of a tournament bid than the 'Cuse for two main reasons: 1) The ACC's aforementioned No. 1 RPI and 2) The Deacons record versus the RPI top 50 (3-3).

Despite its mammoth size and slew of quality tournament teams, believe it or not, the BEAST ranks fourth in conference RPI this season. Evidently, bottom feeders DePaul, St. John's , South Florida and Rutgers have counter-balanced the stoutness of pace-setters Georgetown, Louisville, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Marquette . Although many of its teams sport records and non-conference strength of schedules that warrant NIT, not NCAA, consideration, the ultra-competitive ACC has 10 teams (out of 12) with winning records. Remember, 25 percent of the RPI formula is based on a team's winning percentage.

As for point numero dos, one could easily argue that Wake's non-conference SOS (245) is somewhat misleading. Dino's bunch defeated BYU (RPI 24) by 16 on Jan. 8 and lost by three in Nashville to Vanderbilt (7). Meanwhile, the 'Cuse's best pre-BEAST victory was against St. Joe's on Nov. 13. The Orange's defeats over formidable mid-major opponents (e.g. Siena and Cornell) have significantly boosted its non-conference SOS.

Syracuse is in deeper trouble than its faithful may think. Many Orange fans are still bitter about being shafted last year by the committee after going 22-10 overall and 10-6 in Big East play. However, Jimmy B supporters shouldn't be shocked if their team is denied a berth again this year. The committee has set a precedent for a team in the Orange's current situation. When the Big East expanded to 16 teams in '05-'06, Cincinnati was given the cold shoulder despite finishing the season with an 18-12 overall record, 8-8 conference mark, the fifth-best SOS, an RPI of 40 and a 4-8 tally versus the RPI top 50. Syracuse's resume is eerily similar. To solidify a spot in the field of 65, it must defend home court against quality opponents Pittsburgh (March 1) and Marquette (March 8).

In regards to Wake, its NCAA fortunes are still undetermined. After losing a critical bubble bout versus Maryland on Feb. 28, it has an uphill battle. The Deacons absolutely must win at Virginia Tech on Mar. 4 and emerge victorious either at Georgia Tech March 1 or in "the Joel" versus N.C. State March 8.