NCAA Basketball's Homestretch: What To Watch For Leading Up To Selection Sunday

LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 04: Jeff Withey #5, Tyshawn Taylor #10, Thomas Robinson #0 and Travis Rutherford #24 of the Kansas Jayhawks celebrate after scoring during the game against the Kansas State Wildcats on January 4, 2012 at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Mike Rutherford breaks down college basketball's biggest storylines with just 18 days to go before Selection Sunday.

Have I missed it? Have I missed the battle?

With just 18 days remaining until Selection Sunday, it's too late for casual college basketball fans to get the full experience of the 2011-12 season, but it's not too late to enjoy the final days and be adequately prepped for postseason play.

Here's what to keep an eye on over the regular season's final couple of weeks.

THE BATTLE FOR THE OTHER TWO NO. 1 SEEDS

It's a fact that has been beaten to death in recent years, but that doesn't make it any less important; one seeds are significantly more likely to make the Final Four than any other in the tournament. While certain aspects of college basketball are definitely overhyped or overanalyzed, the attention heaped upon the importance of being a No. 1 seed is just.

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Barring an unforeseen collapse, No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Syracuse -- a pair of teams boasting one-loss records -- are going to comprise half of the elite top seed group. The other two spots, however, are very much up for grabs.

The Candidates:

MISSOURI (25-3)

The third-ranked Tigers appeared to be cruising toward "penciled in" status before Tuesday night's loss to Kansas State. The good news is they can erase that loss right away with a win over No. 4 Kansas in Lawrence on Saturday. The bad news is a loss to the Jayhawks will suddenly leave them needing some outside help to climb back up to that top line.

KANSAS (22-5)

The Jayhawks have Saturday's showdown with Missouri and three other should-win league games to close the regular season. If Kansas snags those four victories and avoids a flameout in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals, then it should be in good shape.

DUKE (23-4)

Shocking, I know. The Blue Devils still have to face a Florida State squad that they lost to at the buzzer and a North Carolina team that it beat at the buzzer. It's hard to say Duke has the "inside track" given the difficulty of their schedule, but they're certainly in a situation where they hold their top seed fate in their own hands.

NORTH CAROLINA (24-4)

Generally when Duke and North Carolina are both ranked in the top 10 and competing for an ACC championship, whichever one prevails is also rewarded with a No. 1 seed. I'll be surprised if this year is any different. Beat the Blue Devils in the regular season finale and then win the ACC Tournament, and the Tar Heels are the top seed everyone figured they'd be at the start of the season.

OHIO STATE (23-5)

The Buckeyes have gone from virtual lock to outside looking in after losses to Michigan State and Michigan on consecutive Saturdays. The good news is they still have a shot at the Big Ten title since they wrap up the season at Michigan State, and the teams above them all have to play one another at least once.

MICHIGAN STATE (22-5)

Currently in sole possession of first place, the Spartans still have a road test at Indiana and a showdown in the regular season finale against Ohio State. Head-to-head results aren't generally given much credence at this point, but it certainly can't help Michigan State's cause that it opened the season with losses to North Carolina and Duke.

THE FIELD

There's always the chance that all the teams listed above or all but one of them could totally tank and allow someone else who doesn't to sneak in and steal a spot. If a team like Marquette or Florida got hot and won out then they would definitely warrant consideration, but they'd definitely need some help.



IS THERE A TERM FOR THE GROUP OF TEAMS IN DANGER OF MISSING THE NCAA TOURNAMENT?

In years past it was easy to dismiss the abundance of "bubble" (that was the joke, by the way) talk as unnecessary since the teams in question that wound up meriting inclusion always seemed to get bounced from the tournament relatively quickly. That has changed in the wake of VCU's run to the Final Four last year.

The Rams were a widely-criticized at-large pick that wound up participating in the debut of the so-called "first four." They then pulled off five straight upsets to crash the party in Houston and make it far more difficult to gloss over the final selections into the field of 68.

It seems like the phrase is re-hashed every year around this time, but this really is the weakest bubble I can remember. There are teams with one top-50 win and other with RPIs in the 90s that are still warranting serious consideration with less than three weeks before the bracket is set.

If you're looking for a group of teams to pay special attention to over the next 18 days, here's a start:

Texas
Seton Hall
BYU
Mississippi State
Miami
North Carolina State
UCF
Dayton
Cincinnati
Alabama
South Florida
Arizona
California
Washington
Oregon
Xavier
Colorado State
Northwestern
Saint Joseph's
VCU
Drexel
George Mason
Minnesota

And we didn't even cover the teams like Harvard, Long Beach State and Murray State who are assumed to be in, but could easily be on the bubble if they falter once more before their conference tournament and then again in their conference tournament (or, in Harvard's case, if they don't win the Ivy League).

It's a mess, but VCU proved that it's a mess worthy of attention.

WILL THE PAC-12 GET MORE THAN ONE BID?

Since the addition of the at-large bid, no "Big Six" conference has ever sent fewer than two teams to the NCAA Tournament. Even with an additional two teams in the league this year, the Pac-12 is giving that tidbit a run for its money.

California (22-6, 12-3) would seem to be the league's safest bet to warrant inclusion, but if the Bears don't win the conference tournament then things could get dicey. Washington (19-8, 12-3) is tied atop the league standings, but has zero impressive non-conference wins it can lay claim to, and also has losses to Nevada, St. Louis and South Dakota State. Arizona and Oregon would seem to be the only other realistic options, but each has five losses in a conference that is ranked 10th by the RPI.

It's going to be an embarrassing Selection Sunday for the Pac-12 regardless of what happens over the next 18 days; the best the league can hope for is that it doesn't make history.

COACHES ON THE HOT SEAT

It'll never be as bad as its football counterpart because of the ever-present possibility of postseason redemption, but the end of the regular season is also when talk of coaches who may be looking for a new job in a couple of weeks begins to heat up.

Here are the guys who need to do some serious work in order to keep their situations:

BRUCE WEBER, ILLINOIS

Weber spoke after the Illini's loss to Purdue last week as if his career in Champaign were already over, and his team has predictably laid down in its two games since then. Barring a miracle run in the Big Ten Tournament and then (probably) at least three wins in the NCAA Tournament, Weber is the safest bet in the country to get the axe at season's end. A remarkably rapid fall from grace for a man who led this same program to the national championship game in 2005.

HERB SENDEK, ARIZONA STATE

He's taken the Sun Devils to the NCAA Tournament just one time in six seasons, and his team this year is a bottom-feeder in what is perhaps the weakest Pac-10/12 of all-time.

MATT DOHERTY, SMU

The Mustangs have trouble scoring in the 60s and are in last place in Conference USA with a 2-11 record. SMU will almost certainly want to head in an entirely new direction as it prepares to join the Big East in 2013.

KEVIN O'NEILL, USC

The drama might be worth it if the Trojans were winning big, but they're 6-21 and in last place in the Pac-12. Even though his team has been ravaged by injuries this year, it'll be a surprise if O'Neill survives this.

RICK STANSBURY, MISSISSIPPI STATE

It would have been almost unthinkable to place him on this list a few weeks ago, but now the talented Bulldogs have lost four straight and are in serious danger of missing the NCAA Tournament. If Stansbury can't take a team with Dee Bost, Arnett Moultrie and Rodney Hood to the big dance, then he's (deservedly) going to be run out of Starkville.

DARRIN HORN, SOUTH CAROLINA

He's done nothing since winning 21 games in his first season. Not being able to do more with the electric Devan Downey running the show could ultimately be what earns Horn his walking papers.

JEFF BZDELIK, WAKE FOREST

Four conference wins over two seasons at a tradition-rich program is going to get you on this list.

MIKE DAVIS, UAB

UAB isn't a top-shelf job but it's still a proud program, and Davis has not lived up to its standards in recent years.

ANDY KENNEDY, OLE MISS

He's won 20 games four times over the past five seasons, but he has yet to take the Rebels to the NCAA Tournament. They aren't going this year, either.

THE RACE FOR PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Most national pundits agree that we're basically down to a two-horse race between Thomas Robinson of Kansas and Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis. Robinson appears to have a decided edge, but Davis will win some votes purely for being the best player on what is clearly the nation's best team.

Jared Sullinger, the runaway favorite to win this award at the beginning of the season, will now have to make a comeback to take Big Ten Player of the Year honors away from Michigan State's Draymond Green. Harrison Barnes of North Carolina was another preseason favorite, and though he's come on strong of late, his shot at the award was likely lost during the season's first few months.

Everyone loves writing about the "under-the-radar" guy in college basketball, so you'll hear cases for players like Creighton's Doug McDermott, Weber State's Damian Lillard, or someone else who gets red hot at the end of the regular season, but the fact of the matter is that either Robinson or Davis is going to win this award. The smart money's on the big guy from Kansas.

THE KENTUCKY/SYRACUSE DEBATE

Kentucky is a team stacked with future NBA players that has looked the part when rolling over SEC foes for the past several weeks. Syracuse has a propensity for winning ugly, thanks in large part to a Jim Boeheim 2-3 zone that's even more stifling than usual. Each team lost just once, and each's fan base believes it is the best team in the country.

It's an interesting beauty vs. brawn debate, but sadly it's one that will never have a clear answer unless the pair square off in the NCAA Tournament.

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