Brand names on the bubble: Duke, UNC among blue bloods scraping for an NCAA tourney bid

Jeff Eisenberg
·5 min read

The race for the final NCAA tournament bids should have a little more juice than normal this year.

High-profile programs accustomed to vying for No. 1 seeds and national titles are fighting just to make the field of 68.

Duke, North Carolina and Michigan State are among the multitime national champions still fighting for a berth, making this year’s NCAA tournament bubble feel more Sak’s Fifth Avenue than Salvation Army. UConn, Indiana and Syracuse also have varying amounts of work left to do to have a chance to hear their names called on Selection Sunday 13 days from now.

Which of those half dozen powerhouse programs are most likely to sneak into the NCAA tournament? And which may be left deciding whether to accept an NIT bid? Below is a look at where each of those brand-name bubble teams stand heading into March.

CONNECTICUT (12-6, 9-6 Big East, NET: 36, KenPom: 29)

  • Marquee wins: USC, at Xavier

  • Damaging losses: St. John’s, at Providence

  • Remaining schedule: at Seton Hall, Georgetown

Since leading scorer James Bouknight returned from an elbow injury two weeks ago, UConn has surged back into NCAA tournament projections and performed like a team that can win a game or two. The Huskies have won four of five, the only loss coming at Big East-leading Villanova. Four of UConn’s losses came while Bouknight was sidelined, but the Huskies need to keep winning to atone for a resume largely devoid of marquee wins. They’re 0-3 against Villanova and Creighton so far this season. Their lone win over a surefire NCAA tournament team came by three points against mercurial USC way back on December 3.

Chances of an NCAA bid: Possible

Duke's streak of 24 straight NCAA tournament appearances is in jeopardy heading into the final week of the regular season. (AP)
Duke's streak of 24 straight NCAA tournament appearances is in jeopardy heading into the final week of the regular season. (AP)

DUKE (11-9, 9-7 ACC, NET: 58, KenPom: 35)

  • Marquee wins: Virginia, Clemson, Georgia Tech

  • Damaging losses: at Miami, at Pittsburgh

  • Remaining schedule: at Georgia Tech, at North Carolina

After a four-game win streak lifted Duke back into NCAA tournament contention, the Blue Devils wasted a 37-point masterpiece from Matthew Hurt on Saturday against Louisville. As a result, Duke’s fate will now come down to how it performs away from home in Quad 1 chances against Georgia Tech and North Carolina. Two victories might be enough to propel Duke into the field of 68. Two losses would severely jeopardize the program’s streak of 24 straight NCAA tournament appearances. And a split would produce some ACC tournament drama as the Blue Devils might need a win or two to feel confident about their chances.

Chances of an NCAA bid: Possible

INDIANA (12-12, 7-10 B1G, NET: 59, KenPom: 37)

  • Marquee wins: Iowa (2), Maryland, Stanford

  • Damaging losses: Northwestern

  • Remaining schedule: at Michigan State, at Purdue

In year four under Archie Miller, with an array of veteran guards and heralded freshman Trayce Jackson-Davis manning the paint, Indiana expected to take a step forward this season. Instead, the Hoosiers are in serious jeopardy of finishing below .500 and failing to make the NCAA tournament, raising questions whether Miller is the right coach to restore this program to its former glory. Last week’s results were especially concerning given what Indiana had at stake. The Hoosiers wilted in the second half against Rutgers last Wednesday before being sliced apart by the buzzsaw that is Michigan three days later.

Chances of an NCAA bid: Doubtful

MICHIGAN STATE (13-10, 7-10 B1G, NET: 68, KenPom: 62)

  • Marquee wins: Ohio State, Illinois, at Duke

  • Damaging losses: at Northwestern

  • Remaining schedule: Indiana, at Michigan, Michigan

Thanks to its two massive recent wins over Ohio State and Illinois, Michigan State has vaulted from oblivion to the thick of the race for one of the final NCAA bids. The Spartans are still only 7-10 in the rugged Big Ten, but they do boast those two marquee victorious and road wins over fellow bubble teams, Duke and Indiana. The remaining schedule is tough — a home game against the desperate Hoosiers followed by back-to-back games against a torrid Michigan team playing better than any other team in the country. The Indiana game is vital. At least a split against the rival Wolverines might be as well.

Chances of an NCAA bid: Possible

NORTH CAROLINA (15-8, 9-5 ACC, NET: 42, KenPom: 34)

  • Marquee wins: Florida State, Louisville, at Duke

  • Damaging losses: Marquette, at NC State

  • Remaining schedule: at Syracuse, Duke

Of all the teams on this list, none are in a stronger position than North Carolina. The Tar Heels project as a 9 or 10 seed today after securing their most impressive win of the season on Saturday, a 78-70 upset of ACC-leading Florida State. North Carolina can leave no doubt if it finishes strong — and it can deliver crushing blows to the NCAA tournament hopes of arch-rival Duke and a Syracuse team on the fringes of the bubble. Outside shooting remains a glaring weakness, but the Tar Heels frontcourt makes up for it by gobbling up offensive rebounds and anchoring a formidable defense.

Chances of an NCAA bid: Likely

SYRACUSE (13-8, 7-7 ACC, NET: 55, KenPom: 61)

  • Marquee wins: Virginia Tech

  • Damaging losses: Pittsburgh (2)

  • Remaining schedule: North Carolina, Clemson

Back-to-back losses to fellow bubble teams Duke and Georgia Tech has Syracuse clinging to NCAA tournament relevance entering the final week of ACC play. The Orange probably needs to defeat both North Carolina and Clemson to maintain realistic hope of making the field of 68. While Syracuse’s record looks respectable at first glance, Virginia Tech is the lone NCAA tournament-caliber team the Orange has beaten. They are 0-6 in Quad 1 opportunities and 11 of their 13 victories have come in Quad 3 and 4 games. That screams NIT unless Syracuse surges over the next two weeks.

Chances of an NCAA bid: Very doubtful

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