With less than seven weeks to go until Selection Sunday for the 2023 NCAA Tournament, the midpoint of college basketball’s regular season has flown by. Resumes are being cemented, but there’s still time for some teams outside the NCAA Tournament picture to turn things around and reach the big dance.
Every team that qualifies for their conference tournament will have a chance to secure an automatic bid, and those with a strong finish to the regular season can play their way into an at-large bid. This time last year, Virginia Tech was just 10-10 (2-7 ACC) and clearly on the wrong side of the bubble. But the Hokies won nine of their last 11 regular-season games and then won four games in four days at the ACC Tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament as the No. 11 seed.
As it happens, the Hokies find themselves in a similar situation this season in needing a big finish to make the 68-team field. Plenty of other teams with high preseason aspirations also find themselves firmly on the wrong side of the bubble as February approaches.
For this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff, our writers pick the teams currently outside of CBS Sports Bracketology expert Jerry Palm’s projected NCAA Tournament field that they think will win to play in the Big Dance.
Texas A&M isn’t even one of Jerry Palm’s First Four Out, which is totally understandable. I didn’t write it to highlight a perceived flaw as much as I wrote it to illustrate how much work the Aggies need to do.
However, they are clearly heading in the right direction. After a 6-5 start with several upset losses, Texas A&M has gone 7-1 in its last eight games, with the lone loss coming at Kentucky. The Aggies performed as a top-10 team in the eight games, according to BartTorvik.com. So they are now 3-4 in the first two quadrants, with one more loss falling in Quadrant 3 (Murray State) and another falling in Quadrant 4 (Wofford).
It’s not great; however, eight of Texas A&M’s final 12 regular season games will be Quadrant 1 contests based on the current NET rankings. If the Aggies continue their high-level play from recent weeks, they should win enough of those Quad-1 games to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Buzz Williams. — Gary Parrish
Here’s what I trust: The strength of the Big 12. The league rates streets ahead of all other conferences in all metrics; it is undeniable that this league is No. 1. There is a gap between the top six (pick your order) of Iowa State, Texas, Kansas State, Kansas, TCU and Baylor. Any of these teams can win the league and the other four are a level or two below.
That said, I expect one of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas Tech to find a big profile. TTU is still winless in the league; it’s not dancing this season. West Virginia is 1-6 in the Big 12 and 11-8 overall. Not much better. The Oklahoma schools are both 11-9 and shaky. However, the Cowboys have a top-10 defense in the country. They own a win over Iowa State and have more home games than road games remaining. The Quad 1 wins are there. Even if it’s barely enough, even if it means going to Dayton for the first four, I’ll ride the Pokes. — Matt Norlander
No team under the ACC’s current configuration has started 1-7 in league play and earned an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. It’s nearly a decade of post-reset results that suggest such slow starts are the death knell for March Madness hopes. Virginia Tech entering the 68-team field would be unprecedented by modern standards. But the Hokies I believe.
They ended a seven-game skid in league play with a win over Duke at home, but dig a little deeper and the losing streak isn’t as bad as it seems. One loss came in overtime, three were by one possession, one was by a single point and all were by 10 points or fewer.
The team is close to turning a corner. That’s 49th in the NET, 46th in KenPom and 46th in BartTorvik — in the same neighborhood as projected NCAA Tournament teams. With a 2-7 ACC record and the losses already accumulated, Virginia Tech’s margin for error is slim. In a year where the league is historically bad, however, this team can do wonders if it’s even marginally better moving forward.
The schedule is well set and given the way Mike Young’s club has handled adversity, I’m buying low while I can. Remember: Virginia Tech opened ACC play 2-7 last year before finishing 11-9 in the regular season and winning the ACC tournament outright to eventually earn an 11-seed. Don’t write this program off too early. — Kyle Boone
At 14-7 (7-3 Pac-12), Utah is rounding into form after convincingly sweeping the Washington schools. The Utes are just 4-7 vs. Quads 1 and 2, but a perfect 10-0 vs. Quads 3 and 4. Five of their last 10 games are of the Quad 1 type, giving them plenty of opportunity to polish their resume. Senior big man Branden Carlson is playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 17 points and 7.6 rebounds on 56.8% shooting from the floor. He also blocks 2.3 shots per game. game and is shooting 43.8% from beyond the arc on 3.2 attempts per game, which is an excellent number for a 7-footer.
Carlson’s rim protection is one of the reasons Utah’s defense is among the best in the country. Opponents are shooting just 37.4% from the floor against the Utes and just 28% from beyond the arc. Both marks are in the top 10 nationally, and Utah is holding foes to just 62.3 points per game. match, which is 28th in the country.
Utah’s offense isn’t elite, but the Utes shot better than 50% from the floor in their blowout wins over Washington State and Washington last week. If these performances marked a turning point for the offense, then this team will find itself on the right side of the projected bubble in no time. — David Cobb