College Basketball Handicapping: Surprising Bubble Teams
by Robert Ferringo - 2/23/2010
“Where the hell did they come from?”
Keeping your finger on the pulse of the college basketball betting landscape this time of year is a dizzying exercise. With all of the talk of bubbles, brackets, and Bob Knight it’s tough to keep track of who is streaking and peaking and who is crashing and not cashing.
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Wednesday’s slate includes five teams that have, seemingly, come out of nowhere to do significant damage within their conferences over the last two months. And in their own way and to varying degrees all five teams have worked their way into the national scene and the NCAA Tournament at-large bid discussion this time of the year.
That these teams are playing their best ball at the right time shouldn’t be surprising to people that have followed these teams closely this year. But to the common square bettor these teams had been left for dead long, long ago. However, some key personnel additions, a soft spot in the schedule, a few lucky bounces and fortunate numbers, and low expectations have created a perfect storm of opportunity for this handful of teams.
Here’s a look at five teams that have come out of nowhere to put themselves in position to dramatically impact the march to the NCAA Tournament:
San Diego State (20-7, Mountain West) – As recently as Jan. 13 the Aztecs were just another mediocre team in a mediocre conference. On that date they were just 10-5 overall and 1-2 in their conference, with a 22-point loss at St. Mary’s and an eight-point loss at Pacific on their resume. Since then SDSU has ripped off an 8-2 rush with just two-point losses against BYU and New Mexico (in OT) as their only blemishes. The Aztecs – who lost as much experience to graduation as any team in the country – have played their way onto the bubble and are just two games out of a share of the MWC title. They play a huge game at BYU on Wednesday and will try to avenge that 71-69 home loss from a month ago.
New Mexico State (17-9, WAC) – On Dec. 15 UCLA beat this New Mexico State team, 100-68. Now, if you’ve watched UCLA play this year you know just how ridiculous it is to think of them scoring 100. At that point NMSU had also lost by 21 to UTEP, by 17 to New Mexico and by 32 at St. Mary’s. Ouch. Since then, NMSU is 14-3 SU and 10-4 ATS and is just a game-and-a-half out of first place in the WAC. And the reason that the Aggies were getting tooled on early was because they were without the services of two of their best players, and their two best forwards, Wendell McKinnes and Troy Gillenwater. That pair has returned and now this group is on a tear. They have home games against Idaho and Boise State next before tricky road games against Nevada and Utah State to close the year. If they happen to win out, and if the selection committee takes their early roster woes into consideration, and don’t be stunned to see this team’s name on the bubble in the next week or so.
UTEP (20-5, CUSA) – Speaking of UTEP, the Miners have made a cameo appearance in the Top 25 after ripping off a 10-game win streak that includes victories at Memphis and UAB as well as a dominating sweep of Tulsa. This team has covered the spread in seven of nine games and controls its own destiny in Conference USA. The Miners are on the verge of ending Memphis’ four-year run atop the league and could give the conference its first at-large team since 2006. This team has five players averaging 10 points or more and has enough athleticism to play with just about anyone in the nation. It will be interesting to see if this team lets success get to its head. But if they can stay focused this team should keep dancing.
Arkansas (14-13, SEC) – No team in the country has come out of nowhere like the Razorbacks. Now, some would say that second place in the SEC West isn’t exactly “somewhere”. But when you consider that just prior to New Year’s this group was coming off a 70-47 loss to Baylor and was still relying on heavy minutes from a walk-on from the golf team. (I’m not joking.) Rape allegations and all manner of off-court issue robbed this team of any shot at a “normal” season. But these poster children of turbulence have gone 6-2 (SU and ATS) in their last eight games after an 8-11 start that was much, much, much uglier than that record suggests. Arkansas is now tied for the division lead and will have a shot to muck up the works for all of the bubble teams (as well as teams playing for seeding) in this conference. And given where this team has come from, don’t count out a serious run in the SEC Tournament. We’ve seen it happen in each of the past two years that a team has “come out of nowhere” to win the league’s automatic bid.
St. Louis (18-8, Atlantic 10) – The Atlantic-10 is the “it” conference at the moment and will end up with at least three teams in the NCAA Tournament because Richmond, Xavier and Temple have already earned a slot in the field. But right now it’s the Billikens that have a clear road to the league’s regular season title. They are 1.5 games back from league-leader Richmond (they split the season series) and they presently rate out close to Rhode Island and Charlotte, two teams fighting for at-large bids. St. Louis has won six straight (including wins over Dayton and Rhode Island) and since Australian sensation Cody Ellis was cleared to play in early January this very, very young group has gone 9-3 SU and ATS.
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