HAPPY MARCH MADNESS EVERYONE!!!

As the NCAA Bubble turned last night, we had four of the final at-large bids seeded in the Bracket Matrix (all 12 seeds) and four of the first six teams cut from that consensus field in action last night. Those eight teams went 4-4 in mostly tight games with the average margin of victory being 5.75 points. It was another exciting night on the bubble. Who were the real winners and losers? The big winners were USF and Colorado State, a pair of teams just on the outside of the current field scoring major resume wins. The Bulls went on the road, flipped the script on Louisville and eased by the Cards. Meanwhile, CSU climbed out of a 15-point halftime hole, held UNLV to less than 20 points in the second half and earned another resume win in MWC play. The big survivors were Mississippi St and Texas, who both stared down the barrel out what might have been fatal, bad losses, but made enough plays down the stretch to dodge those bullets and win. The big losers were Miami, who after taking a step forward with over FSU over the weekend, took a step back by dropping a close bubble head-to-head to NC State; Northwestern, who obviously have cornered the market on painful bubble losses over the years after it happened again last night vs Ohio State; and the A10 conference which has seen its bounty diminish from as many as 5 bids to perhaps just two with Xavier, St. Joe’s and Dayton all losing over the course of the last two nights.

The weird thing about the bubble right now is if–or more likely when–the teams holding some of the last at-large bids right now lose, who in the world would take their place? The Bracket Matrix had already reduced their group of first 8 cut from the field to six. And half of those teams have already lost since the last full Matrix update. Obviously, USF and Colorado State are going to be popping into a lot of people’s brackets over the next day or two. But who else is out there? Who can take advantage of picking up what another man spills?  Tonight is a light schedule for the bubble, but there are a couple viable candidates to get into the mix should they pull out big wins.

MICHIGAN AT ILLINOIS, LINE ILL -2, 7PM…………….Yes, Illinois remains alive for an at-large bid. In past years, the debate over Illinois would be do they deserve an NIT home game or not. But with bubble staying tissue soft the whole month of February, the Illini remain a bid contender. This despite Illinois having only one win since the end of January and only two wins in their last 11 starts. Welcome to the 2012 NCAA Bubble! Let’s be clear, Illinois is not a single win away from jumping back into the field. They need a series of wins beginning with tonight’s home contest against 16th ranked Michigan. In one corner, the Illini desperately need to jumpstart a winning streak for their postseason chances. In the other corner, Michigan is trying to win their final two games and still get a share of their first Big 10 regular season title in 25 years. Bubble stakes. Championship stakes. Sounds like just another game in a fascinating 2012 Big 10 basketball campaign. Putting the focus back on the Illini, lets talk about the winning streak they need to embark on to regain their long lost at-large status. They’d need to beat Michigan, win at Wisconsin over the weekend, then win a pair of games to qualify for the Big 10 semifinals in next week’s league tournament. They would be adding a win over Minnesota or Iowa in Round One as well as a win over one of the league’s current top–Michigan State, OSU or Michigan–in the quarterfinals. Do all that and the Illini would be getting ready for a Big 10 semifinal game with a 21-12 overall record, 10 wins in the toughest league in the land and a 7-6 record vs the RPI top-50. How many bubble teams can match that last part of their resume? If you dont think the Illini would be at-large worthy at that point, then you just dont grasp how weak the bubble is this season. Speculating is great, but it is easy to doubt if the Illini have the chops and heart to pull that streak off. Tonight, while at home, will not be a picnic. The Wolverines lost their start to Purdue and there hasnt been a better investment in college basketball the last two season than taking John Beilein’s squad after a loss. Michigan has won and covered 12 straight times after a loss dating back to last season. They’re 15-3 ATS after their last 18 losses. This season, the Wolverines are 7-0 straight up and against the spread after a loss with an average margin of victory of 10.5 points per game. Illinois is a slight 2-point favorite in this game, but the Illini are 12-19-1 ATS vs the Big 10 dating back to last year, while Michigan is 22-7 ATS vs the conference during the same time span. Hmmmmm.

WASHINGTON AT USC, LINE UW -7.5, 10:30 PM…………Washington is a Bracket Matrix 11-seed right now with 91 out of 95 mock bracketologists voting in their favor. They close their regular season with a road trip to the Pac-12’s LA schools beginning with tonight’s game against USC. I dont how comfortable the Huskies will feel if they only manage a split on this LA swing. I’m guessing that UW cant afford two losses the rest of the way, unless that second loss takes place in the Pac-12 CG. Should they drop a game during this LA swing and then lose before the Pac-12 semifinals, I think the Huskies will be NIT Bound. This would be a bad loss tonight should they fall to the undermanned Trojans, like the one UConn suffered two nights ago and like the ones Texas and Mississippi St avoided last night. Perception of this league isnt very good, so I’d expect UW to be punished for any bad losses more so than some of their other bubble brethern.

COLORADO AT OREGON, LINE DUCKS -6, 10:30 PM………The Pac-12 has been maligned all year, but dont be surprised if talk suddenly turns to as many as four teams from this league getting a tournament bid. The league already has three teams in the current Bracket Matrix, so is four really that far out of the question? Cal is a 10-seed and would need to probably not win another game the rest of the way to miss the Dance. We mentioned Washington’s situation above. Arizona is the last team in the Bracket Matrix right now as a 12-seed with 50 mock votes. They dont play until this weekend when they go to Arizona St. If Cal, UW and ‘Zona keep winning down the stretch, they wont fall out of the field. So whose the fourth team? How about the winner of tonight’s Colorado-Oregon game in Eugene. Neither team is getting a ton of bracketology support right now. They have 8 mock bracket votes between them, with the Ducks hogging seven of them. That’s good enough to be sixth-from-last cut out of the Matrix consensus. With four teams ahead of them losing last night, this is time for the Ducks to make a move, win their next 3 games, advance into the Pac-12 semifinals and steal a bid. Of course, Colorado can use the exact same road map to swipe a bid in the end. This isnt a play-in game. Call it a play-in game to possibly be involved in play-in game during the league tournament. But the way the bubble is going right now, the winner tonight might be a win in the finale over the weekend and a Pac-12 quarterfinal win away from dancing. I’ll say the same thing I said on Monday. I dont endorse the idea of this many Pac-12 getting bids, but the chances of four invites is certainly in play on March 1. Nobody would have thought that a month ago. Or even a week ago.

As far as the bubble goes, its not a night chalk full of action. Washington is trying to keep its spot secure. Illinois and the winner of the Colorado/Oregon game are trying to line themselves up as having Next should the bubble keep imploding in front of them.