March Madness bubble watch: Big East needs Seton Hall or Xavier rally to avoid record decline

By | March 6, 2021

It has been exactly 10 years since the Big East Conference established a record by sending 11 of its 16 members to the NCAA Tournament. A lot has changed since. Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame and UConn left. Villanova stayed and took complete command of the league. UConn decided to return.

So it’s a different Big East that is looking at the possibility of earning just three berths in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. It would tie the record for the least number of schools the league has sent to the tournament since the 1985 expansion to 64 teams. The only other time it happened was in 1993, when Pitt, Seton Hall and St. John’s represented the league.

Villanova and Creighton are locks this time. Connecticut is all but assured of a bid. Seton Hall and Xavier, both of which play their final regular-season games Saturday, are stuck on one side of the bubble or the other as the result of defeats earlier this week.

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The Big East has flourished as a basketball-first league since the 2013 exodus of longtime members Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame to the ACC, followed by West Virginia’s departure for the Big 12 and the split between the private schools that did not sponsor FBS football and those whose athletic futures were dependent on it.

There’s been a bit less flourishing this year.

Seton Hall and Xavier still have time to change that, though, as we’ll see in Saturday’s bubble watch (all times Eastern):

Rutgers at Minnesota, noon, Fox. It’s pretty much over for Minnesota, whose injuries wrecked what had been a promising season. Rutgers (13-10, No. 37) once was solidly in the field, even flirting with an advantaged seed, but an offensive slump over the past three weeks has led to four losses in six games. The Gophers are just good enough to win this game — especially at The Barn — and cause the Scarlet Knights real problems.

South Florida at Wichita State, 1 p.m., ESPN+. Aside from the win at Houston last month, which was a nice achievement, there isn’t much to recommend the Shockers (12-4, No. 63) as an at-large selection. There just isn’t much to hold against them, though. They have no bad losses. Every one of their defeats is classified as a Quad 1 game except one against Missouri, which is a No. 7 seed in Ryan Fagan’s bracket projection for Sporting News. The way this is going for so many bubble teams, Wichita can’t help but make it. Unless it loses games such as this one.

Old Dominion at Western Kentucky, 5 p.m., CBS Sports Network on Facebook. The Hilltoppers (17-5, No 79) are favored to claim Conference USA’s automatic bid, but that kind of result can’t be assured until the final buzzer of the league tournament. They still can position themselves for an at-large bid, and their case actually is stronger than Wichita’s. But they’ve got games on consecutive days against ODU, which enters with a 14-6 record and five wins in the past six games. Western cannot afford to lose either one.

Duke at North Carolina, 6 p.m., ESPN. It’s hard to believe that this game is stashed inside a list of games involving bubble teams. It’s doubly amazing that both teams are fighting for their NCAA Tournament survival. Duke is more desperate; this is a must-win for the Blue Devils (11-10, No. 58). For the Tar Heels (15-9, No. 44), a positive result could all but assure their inclusion. There’s never been a Carolina-Duke game like it!

Breaking down Duke’s odds | Breaking down UNC’s odds

Saint Louis vs. St. Bonaventure, 6 p.m., CBS Sports Network. Although the Bonnies (13-4, No. 29) were able to claim the Atlantic 10 Conference regular-season title, their inability to get on the floor for a quorum of games makes it difficult to understand how the committee will evaluate them. They very well could be in the field however this one goes, but another quality win — it’s a Quad 1 game for both sides — might seal the Bonnies’ case. It’s a little trickier for the Billikens (13-5, No. 40) because they dropped two Quad 3 games following a return from a long COVID pause.

Vanderbilt at Ole Miss, 7 p.m., SEC Network. The Rebels (14-10, No. 56) are like Jason from “Friday the 13th.” They just won’t seem to go away no matter what is done to them. Swept by Georgia? Wrecked by Mississippi State? Upset by Vandy? Yet here they stand, with a 7-8 record against Quads 1 and 2 combined. They are way toward the back of the bubble line, but not dead. Yet.

Seton Hall at St. John’s, 7 p.m., FS1. Seton Hall (13-11, No. 57) was hanging around the edge of the bracket, waiting for an opportunity to gain a quality win in a Big East that has grown short of them as such teams as Marquette and Providence faded. The Pirates’ game against Connecticut was exactly the chance necessary, but they let it get away. Now it’s about containing the damage and hoping to achieve something exceptional at the Big East Tournament.

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Xavier at Marquette, 9 p.m., FS1. We warned you Xavier (13-6, No. 53) was in a vulnerable position as the Musketeers followed their essential win against Creighton with road games against Georgetown and Marquette. It was the worst possible scheduling luck; both teams are good enough to beat tournament-quality opponents, but neither did it often enough to represent a quality win or a forgivable loss. It hurt the Musketeers to lose at Georgetown. Following that with a defeat at Marquette might finish them as an at-large candidate.

Utah State at Fresno State, 11 p.m., FS1. Fresno already fouled up the NCAA case of one Mountain West partner, Boise State, with a win earlier this week. The Bulldogs could make it two in a row by closing their season with a home victory over the Aggies (17-7, No. 48). Utah State has revived its case by winning three in a row after being swept by Boise, but Fresno sophomore wing Deon Stroud is on a nice roll — he’s 5 for 9 on 3-pointers in his past three games — and will be a challenge to contain.