These next few days are the ultimate precursor to March Madness with every bubble team, including Providence College, fighting for its life and a few dark-horses hoping to punch their ticket the hard way by running the table in their respective conference tournament.
By Michael Parente
March Madness is upon us and some might argue the days leading up to Selection Sunday are actually more intriguing than the tournament itself. This is the only time of year when the scenarios we’ve conjured up for months actually begin to play themselves out on the court during a hectic 48- to 72-hour stretch in which hopes are dashed and dreams are fulfilled.
Such is life on bubble, a nerve-wracking week for so many teams, among them Providence College, which finds itself on the brink of its most important game in more than a decade Thursday when it plays rival St. John’s in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament.
You’d be hard-pressed to find more identical teams playing one another in a critical conference tournament game this week. The Friars and Red Storm are both on the bubble with 21-10 records. They split the regular-season series with Providence winning a triple-overtime thriller at Carnasecca Arena in January and St. John’s avenging the loss three weeks later in a lopsided win at The Dunkin’ Donuts Center. Providence has an RPI of 53 based on its strength of schedule while St. John’s is at 57 entering Thursday. They’ve even got the same number of wins against nationally-ranked teams – one – and both of them did it against Creighton, which is currently pegged as a No. 3 seed in the West according to Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology, the Holy Gospel of NCAA Tournament predictions.
For what it’s worth – and it’s worth something considering Lunardi correctly picked every team selected in last year’s tournament – neither Providence or St. John’s are among the field of 68 in the most recent edition of Bracketology, making Thursday’s game of paramount importance for both schools if they’re to have any hope of earning at least an at-large bid on Selection Sunday.
Villanova and Creighton are the only teams in the new realigned Big East considered locks for the tournament. Xavier (RPI of 47) is currently a No. 11 seed in Lunardi’s most recent bracket, but that could change with a loss in the Big East quarterfinals. In fact, Providence projected as playing for a No. 11 seed in a play-in game against Tennessee as late as Feb. 27 and then mysteriously disappeared from the tournament picture in Lunardi’s next three updates despite winning two of its final three games, so nothing is set in stone.
The general consensus among the experts is one more win will be enough for the Friars to sneak their way in, but that depends on how the rest of the week unfolds. There’s always the possibility of an upset-minded team in a power conference running the table in its respective conference tournament, grabbing an unlikely automatic bid and stealing a spot from a would-be at-large team. That’s the biggest fear among all the bubble teams, and there’s nothing Providence, St. John’s or anyone else teetering on the brink can do about it, which makes predicting brackets that much more difficult.
Take the American Conference, a top-heavy league with five teams (Connecticut, Louisville, Cincinnati, Memphis and Southern Methodist) guaranteed spots in the tournament. There’s no bubble team in this conference. The next best team outside the top five is Houston, which finished the regular season 16-15 overall and 8-10 in conference play. The only chance the Cougars have of making the Big Dance is to pull off the mother of all upsets and win the American Conference Tournament. That'd be a potential disaster for Providence and others, because with the five aforementioned locks all ranked among the Top 25, the league is clearly strong enough to withstand an upset, meaning all five teams would still earn at-large bids even if none of them win the conference tournament.
Schools like Houston could spoil the party for Providence, St. John’s or even Minnesota, which needs at least one, maybe two, wins in this week’s Big Ten Tournament to secure an at-large bid. There’s only room for 68 schools with the four play-in games, and if upsets abound in this week’s conference tournaments, an otherwise deserving team or two will find itself in the NIT bemoaning its fate on Selection Sunday.
We're only halfway through the week and two such upsets – one relatively minor, and the other more significant – have already occurred with second-seeded Manhattan upending top-seeded Iona in the MAAC (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) Tournament finals and Milwaukee, a No. 5 seed with a losing record in conference play this year, running the table in the Horizon League Tournament, including a win over top-seeded Green Bay.
The Jaspers and Panthers, who more than likely weren't going to make it the NCAAs within winning their respective conference, are now guaranteed spots thanks to the automatic bids, but the real question now is whether or not both the MAAC and Horizon League have enough sex appeal in the eyes of the selection committee to earn any at-large bids. If the selection committee thinks Iona (RPI of 65) and Green Bay (RPI of 58) deserve to get in based on their overall body of work during the regular season, that means there will be two fewer at-large bids available for the Friars, Red Storm or anyone else still on the bubble come Sunday afternoon.
Providence could ease some of the tension by winning at least two games in the Big East Tournament, which would more than likely have to include a win over top-seeded Villanova assuming the Wildcats advance past Seton Hall or Butler in the quarterfinals.
In hindsight, that triple-overtime loss to Villanova at The Dunk last month looms large considering where the Friars sit heading into Thursday’s tournament opener. We might be singing a different tune today had they pulled off that upset. They’ve had their moments this year, beating Xavier in January a week after upsetting Creighton at home. They won five in a row from Jan. 8 to 25, the high point of a season clouded by the team’s staggering lack of depth, but while their ability to win despite a six-man rotation became their tour de force, that same lack of depth hurt them when they went 1-4 during a stretch of five games in 11 days following the victory against Xavier.
The Friars won’t be able to sleep much until Selection Sunday when everyone off the bubble, on the bubble, or somewhere in between learns their fate. It’s the ultimate unknown, but these next few days will be the most fun we’ll have until the crazy first 48 hours of the actual tournament. Where Providence fits in this mess remains to be seen.
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