The Dagger - NCAAB

One of the major storylines entering last season's NCAA tournament was that college basketball blue bloods North Carolina, Connecticut, Arizona and UCLA were all absent from the 65-team field.

Two or three of those teams will probably bounce back and make the field this March, but there's a decent chance we're headed toward a similar outcome for three traditional non-BCS juggernauts.

Gonzaga, Butler and Xavier, which have combined for 25 NCAA tournament berths and 10 Sweet 16 bids in the past decade, each have appeared weaker than usual during the opening five weeks of the new season. All three have ample time to regain their form during the heart of the conference season, yet their margin for error to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament has already diminished.

Last year's national runner-up Butler may be in the worst shape of all three after falling 51-49 at Xavier on Thursday night to drop to 4-4 on the season. With a loss to lightly regarded Evansville on their resume and no marquee wins thus far, the Bulldogs' only hope of bolstering their at-large chances is probably a title run at the Diamond Head Classic later this month.

Point guard woes and injuries to star Elias Harris have Gonzaga off to the same 4-4 start as Butler, but the Zags are in better position to pull themselves out of their early hole. Not only do they have a solid neutral-court win over Marquette on their resume, they also have more chances to add to it than Butler with non-league games against Notre Dame, Baylor, Xavier and Memphis left to play.

Xavier isn't playing much better than either Gonzaga or Butler, but the Musketeers have at least managed to amass a 6-2 record despite a startling lack of depth or consistent scoring options besides Tu Holloway. Outlasting Butler on Thursday night was huge for Xavier considering its upcoming schedule includes Gonzaga, Florida and rival Cincinnati prior to the start of Atlantic 10 play.

The picture will be clearer for all three of these teams by the end of the month.

If they each secure a couple of marquee non-conference victories between now and then, they'll be back on solid footing. If not, the relative weakness of their respective leagues might mean that they'll have to win their conference tournaments this March to make it back to the Big Dance.

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