Bubble teams hope for invite

It’s the most prestigious dance in the land. With only 65 invitations available, the NCAA Tournament is the toughest dance in the country to earn an invitation to. Even worse for hopefuls is that 31 of the 65 invites go directly to conferences champions. Thirty-four spots remain, but when 40 to 45 teams stake their claim at going to the postseason, the bubble begins.

Who has a date, and who will have to watch the dance will all get sorted out by Sunday. Conference tournaments will play a major role, as will coaches who have the next four days to lobby for their teams.

‘I think our team is worthy, but I don’t make that decision,’ said Georgia Tech head coach Paul Hewitt. ‘I feel like we need to go out and play well. If you got a chance to go out and win the game – win the game. We’ve got a chance to erase all doubt and that is to win this weekend.’

The Yellow Jackets (17-10, 8-8) – who lost in last year’s title game, 82-73, to Connecticut – are one of the most intriguing bubble teams. They played without star BJ Elder (13.4 ppg) for 11 games. Georgia Tech is just 6-8 since Jan. 12 and a Friday showdown with Virginia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference quarterfinals could be the deciding factor. An RPI of 36 and the 20th toughest schedule in the country won’t hurt either.

‘I feel like we have an opportunity coming up here on Friday to help our chances,’ Hewitt said. ‘And until all the games are finished and the quote resume is finished, I try not to get into what they are thinking and how they are going to view things.’

Also playing on Friday is the 2002 national champion Maryland Terrapins (16-11, 7-9). Gary Williams’ squad has been to the NCAA Tournament 11 consecutive years but without a run in the ACC tournament similar to last years’, the Terps may miss out.

Williams says he knows the importance of qualifying for the NCAA tournament.

‘It makes a statement,’ Williams said. ‘The tremendous emphasis on the NCAA Tournament – until you make it people really look at your program like ‘well you had a decent year, but you didn’t make the NCAA Tournament.’ If you want to be considered one of the big boys you have to make the NCAA Tournament.’

Maryland – which has the 12th toughest schedule in the country – will face Clemson, a team Maryland lost to twice during the regular season, on Friday.

The bubbles aren’t just in the ACC.

Move to the Southeastern Conference where Mississippi State has as big a bubble as anyone. The Bulldogs (21-9, 9-7) appear to have enough wins to get in, but Rick Stansbury’s team is winless (0-5) against the Top 25 and is just 2-7 against the RPI Top 50. MSU would most likely be the fifth team from the SEC, but Stansbury says with all his team has been through there shouldn’t be much of a question.

‘I think it tells you where a program is at to tell someone that our season was disappointing at 21 wins, nine SEC wins and a likely NCAA bid,’ Stansbury said. ‘For this team to return only three starters from last year and we lose one of them, and for this team to put themselves in this position, they deserve a lot of credit.’

From the Deep South to the Midwest, Iowa State is surrounded by a big question mark. The Cyclones (17-10, 9-7) finished sixth in the Big XII Conference. They had a six-game midseason losing streak, but responded by wining nine of 11 to finish strong. Wayne Morgan’s bunch won at Kansas, at Texas and is 5-3 versus Top 25 teams.

Often times this metaphoric bubble has existed for just major conference teams – not anymore.

Southern Illinois (26-7, 15-3) has an RPI of 16 but hasn’t played a ranked team all season. A team with 27 wins has never been turned away from the dance. But could 26 wins and a loss in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament have the Salukis headed to NIT?

Northeastern or Vermont will square off in the American East title game this weekend. UVM (23-6, 12-2) danced the last two years. Northeastern (21-8 15-3) hasn’t been to the CAA Tournament since 1991. This season it lost twice – by a combined 13 points – to the Catamounts. But what if the Huskies win? UVM with an RPI of 23 a strength of schedule ranked 16th and a superstar named Taylor Coppenrath could get an at-large bid. An America East team with an at-large bid – that’s right.

However the next five days shake down, one thing is for certain. This Sunday, 65 teams will find out where they will be dancing next week, and all of them will have their dancing shoes ready.

In case you missed it:

With 12:48 remaining in the first half of Sunday’s Wake Forest – North Carolina State contest, Chris Paul punched Julius Hodge – in the groin. Following a battle underneath the basket Paul’s fist met Hodge’s groin.

‘Sunday night was emotional for me for many reasons,’ Paul said in a written statement Monday, ‘and I let my emotions get the best of me.’

The emotion will cost the preseason All-America pick one game. Paul has been suspended for Friday’s ACC quarterfinal. Wake will play the winner of Florida State and N.C. State

Number of the week: 6

Six teams ranked in the top 10 lost this past week. No. 6 Duke was the only squad to fall to a ranked opponent (North Carolina. Illinois, Kentucky, Kansas, Oklahoma State and Washington all lost to unranked teams).

Player of the year – times three.

Coppenrath of Vermont won his third consecutive America East Player of the Year Award. Coppenrath joins the late Reggie Lewis (Northeastern) as the only other player to win the Roberson Award three times. Coppenrath has 2,306 career points entering this weekend’s America East title game.

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