Thursday's Big Ten and SEC Tournament schedules typically feature bid contenders matched up with teams who are only in position to play spoiler. In the early tips in Nashville and Indianapolis today, the Michigan Wolverines and Florida Gators each saw off challenges from squads with limited postseason hopes. Neither win will get the two teams out of the Next Four Out group, which is a testament as to how closely the first eight teams out of my projected NCAA field are, but both the Wolverines and Gators get huge opportunities tomorrow.
Michigan needed overtime — and overcame a silly Derrick Walton turnover on the baseline with 0.7 seconds left — to dispatch the Northwestern Wildcats in the Big Ten's 8 vs. 9 game 72-70. Defeating a Wildcat team that's outside of the RPI Top 100 was never going to be enough to get John Beilein's team back in the field. Honestly, even a win over the top-seeded Indiana Hoosiers tomorrow afternoon might not do it either. But the Wolverines gutted out the victory and are now set up for bigger and better things.
It's a similar story for Florida. The Gators put forth their best closing performance since defeating Georgia Bulldogs in Athens on Feb. 16 to eliminate the Arkansas Razorbacks 68-61. Florida entered the game with a huge question mark, the health of center John Egbunu, who tore a thumb ligament on his shooting hand on Tuesday. While he was limited, he played 24 minutes and just missed recording a double-double with eight points and nine rebounds. With the speed bump negotiated successfully, Florida next plays the SEC's No. 1 seed, the Texas A&M Aggies, a squad the Gators only lost to by three in College Station back in January.
The second game of the day was not so fruitful for the fifth-seeded Vanderbilt Commodores, who lost 67-65 to a Tennessee Volunteers squad that was without its best player (Kevin Punter) and had to win last night to play today. The defeat dropped the Commodores to 60th in the RPI, ahead of Syracuse, but below Saint Mary's, Wichita State, Monmouth and Valparaiso. Vandy is now 7-10 against the Top 100, with just two Top 50 wins, and three losses to teams ranked 101st or worse. Plus, the Commodores are an awful 5-11 away from Memorial Gym.
With that in mind, Vanderbilt is out of my projected field for now, with Saint Mary's replacing them, largely on the strength of their computer numbers. The Gaels are not a great long-term bet, however, since their profile lacks quality wins, especially out of conference.
In the Atlantic 10 Tournament's second game in Brooklyn, the George Washington Colonials, another of this morning's "Next Four Out" took down a Saint Louis Billikens squad it lost to in its second league game of the season. A Saint Joseph's Hawks team that is currently projected as in, but really isn't all that safe, is up next for GW.
Bubble teams from coast to coast breathed a sigh of relief when the San Diego State Aztecs escaped the Mountain West Tournament quarterfinals with a 71-65 win over the ninth-seeded Utah State Aggies. But the top seed needs to win two more games to keep the Mountain West a one-bid league.
So, with the afternoon's action in mind, here's my latest projected cut line.
Last Four IN: VCU, Wichita State, Monmouth, Saint Mary's
First Four OUT: Tulsa, Valparaiso, Syracuse, Florida
Vanderbilt now sits behind George Washington and Michigan, but ahead of Hofstra, in the Next Four Out group, largely due to the Commodores' ineffectiveness away from home.