Bubble Breakdown: Michigan State faces must-win game

The most intriguing aspect of Thursday's slate of conference tournament games will be watching how a lengthy list of bubble teams fare in early-round games that many of them cannot afford to lose.

Michigan State won't lock up an NCAA bid by beating Iowa, nor will Boston College against Wake Forest, Virginia Tech against Georgia Tech or USC against Cal. However, a loss in any of those games would almost certainly relegate any of those four at-large hopefuls to the dreaded NIT.

Here's a look at my take on the bubble picture as it stands entering Thursday's action. Remember that the margin between some of these teams is so thin that it's very subjective differentiating between them and that it could change considerably as a result of conference tournament results the next four days.

Who's in and Who's out?

61. Richmond (24-7, 13-3, RPI: 58): Even though the Spiders failed to beat Atlantic 10 front runners Temple and Xavier this season, simply avoiding bad losses down the stretch enabled them to finish three games clear of fourth-place Duquesne. An Atlantic 10 quarterfinal win over Rhode Island might be enough to secure a bid for Richmond, while a semifinal win over likely opponent Temple would make the Spiders locks.

62. Alabama-Birmingham (22-7, 12-4, RPI: 28): How you view UAB's profile largely comes down to whether you believe an abundance of wins over Conference USA teams in the top 75 of the RPI should merit a bid. The Blazers won the the league title, boast a strong RPI and defeated VCU and Arkansas outside of league play, but the lack of a marquee win on this resume is a concern.

63. Boston College (19-11, 9-7, RPI: 44): If Boston College can defeat woeful Wake Forest on Thursday, it will set up an all-important ACC quarterfinal clash between the Eagles and fellow at-large hopeful Clemson. The Eagles probably cannot afford to lose that game because a non-conference victory over Texas A&M and a sweep of Virginia Tech are the only standout wins on their resume. {YSP:MORE}

64. Michigan State (17-13, 9-9, RPI: 47): If Michigan State is going to make the NCAA tournament as an at-large team, the Spartans will have to do it with 14 losses on their resume. A 70-63 loss at rival Michigan on Saturday ensured the Spartans will need at least a first-round conference tourney victory over Iowa and maybe a quarterfinal upset of Purdue before they feel confident their name will be called on Selection Sunday.

65. Michigan (19-12, 9-9, RPI: 57): Amid all the griping about bubble teams being unable to play their way into the field, Michigan emerged as an exception, rallying from a 1-6 start to Big Ten play to raise its conference record to 9-9. A season sweep of rival Michigan State gives the Wolverines hope, but Michigan must win its Big Ten quarterfinal against Illinois to solidify its chances.

66. Colorado (20-12, 8-8, RPI: 68): Having narrowly averted a season-crushing loss to Iowa State in the first round of the Big 12 tournament on Wednesday, the Buffs can take aim at a potentially huge quarterfinal victory over Kansas State. A third win over Kansas State this season coupled with victories over Missouri and Texas ought to send Colorado to the NCAA tournament despite mediocre computer numbers dragged down by far too many victories over teams with RPI's 300 and above.

67. Saint Mary's (22-7, 11-3, RPI: 48): What may cost the Gaels a bid is a late-season slide that included a pair of losses to Gonzaga, a home loss to Utah State and an inexplicable loss to woeful San Diego. Does an early home win over St. John's and going 1-for-3 against the Zags counteract that poor finish? Let's just say it's going to be a nerve-wracking week for the Gaels.

68. Clemson (20-10, 9-7, RPI: 59): Aside from a victory over Southern Conference tournament champion Wofford in November, the only certain NCAA tournament team the Tigers have beaten is Florida State at home. That's why it's essential Clemson gets a second win over Boston College (or Wake Forest) in Friday's ACC quarterfinal to set up a potential semifinal matchup with North Carolina, which could provide the Tigers the marquee victory they need to go from bubble hopeful to at-large lock.

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69. Alabama (20-10, 12-4, RPI: 83): Alabama remains the most fascinating bubble team in the field because of the conundrum of whether its strong SEC season counteracts its woeful non-league performance. No matter which side of that argument you fall on, an SEC quarterfinal victory over Georgia is a must and a run to the conference title game would all but lock up a bid.

70. Virginia Tech (19-10, 9-7, RPI: 66): The perennially bubble-bound Hokies are in this tenuous position yet again because they followed up a win over Duke with galling losses to fellow bubble teams Boston College and Clemson. A win over Florida State is the only other noteworthy victory on Virginia Tech's profile besides the Duke game, so the Hokies may need to beat Georgia Tech and Florida State in the ACC tournament to feel good about their chances.

71. USC (18-13, 10-8, RPI: 70): A split at Washington and Washington State last week kept USC's at-large hopes alive, but the Trojans likely need to reach the Pac-10 title game on Saturday to feel confident. While marquee wins over Texas, Tennessee, Arizona, UCLA and Washington bolster USC's case, no bubble team has a worse collection of losses than Rider, Bradley and TCU, not to mention a sweep at the hands of Oregon.

72. VCU (22-11, 12-6, RPI: 50): The Rams' rally against Old Dominion in the CAA title game fell a few buckets short, which may end up condemning them to the NIT. Can solid wins over UCLA, George Mason and Old Dominion outweigh a poor finish to CAA play that included losses to Drexel and James Madison? Doubtful.

73. Memphis (22-9, 10-6, RPI: 38): A win over Gonzaga, a sweep of Conference USA champ UAB and a decent computer profile are what's keeping Memphis on the at-large radar despite a disappointing season. That's likely not enough at the moment to land the Tigers in the field, but a run to the Conference USA title game could bolster their case.

Wednesday's bubble recap:

Oklahoma State 53, Nebraska 52 — The Huskers' slim NCAA hopes disappeared with this loss.

Colorado 77, Iowa State 75 — Avoiding a second crushing loss to Iowa State was a must for the Buffs.

Marquette 67, West Virginia 61 — If the Big East wasn't a lock for 11 bids already, it likely is now.

Oklahoma 84, Baylor 67 — Wave goodbye to Baylor, one of the nation's biggest underachievers.

Thursday's bubble look-ahead:

• Colorado vs. Kansas State — Buffs can take a big step toward locking up a bid with a third win over the Wildcats.

• USC vs. California — The Trojans likely need to reach the Pac-10 title game to have realistic hope.

• Michigan State vs. Iowa — Must-win for the Spartans. Period.

• Virginia Tech vs. Georgia Tech — Ditto, Va. Tech.

• Boston College vs. Wake Forest —  The Eagles need this win to set up a possible all-or-nothing ACC quarterfinal with Clemson.

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