Women’s basketball Bubble Watch: Can Michigan, Maryland and Penn State make the NCAA Tournament? – The Athletic

By Mark Schindler1h agoSupported By

(Editor’s note: This is part of the Bracket Central Series, an inside look at the run-up to the men’s & women’s NCAA Tournaments, along with analysis and picks during the tournaments.)

The college season has been defined by stellar play in the youth of the game, with true freshmen piecing together some of the best collegiate seasons we’ve seen in basketball history. That’s unlikely to change as we head into March, as many of the top freshmen headline teams ripe to make runs in the NCAA Tournament.

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Who are the freshmen going under the radar you need to know about who could make a splash in March?

Syracuse has been a superb watch this season, led by silky scorer Dyaisha Fair. Syracuse has a 41.1 percent offensive rebound rate, the fifth highest rate in the NCAA, according to CBB Analytics. More than 20 percent of the Orange’s total points scored come from second-chance opportunities.

Enter Alyssa Latham. The 6-foot-2 freshman has started the majority of the season for Syracuse and embodies the principles that have spurred on coach Felisha Legette-Jack’s team. Latham hustles like a sixth-year grad student, attacking the glass with a ferocity, blocking shots with tenacity and racking up mileage like few bigs can. Her offensive game is still unearthing, but she’s shown some potential in her pick-and-pop game and putting the ball on the floor facing up. She’s a crucial part of what makes Syracuse so hard to play against, and how she elevates in the postseason will be important.

While we’re on teams that wear orange and rebound the ball at a high level, how about Oregon State?

Though her box score doesn’t immediately jump off the page, the subtleties of Donovyn Hunter gravitate me to her game. She’s recently come up absolutely massive for the Beavers, averaging 10.8 points and 5.2 assists over their last five games, bouncing back after being held scoreless at Stanford.

She’s adept at initiating the offense and playing with composure beyond her years, but then she equally makes herself a threat off the ball, making timely cuts, hitting her open shots and maintaining spacing in OSU’s offense. Hunter excels defensively on the ball and continues to grow in her all-around assertion on the floor. She has a bright future in Corvallis, but she’s contributing at a high level now.

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Fairfield is the only team in the country besides undefeated South Carolina without two losses, and the mid-major has the potential to make life tough for a higher-seeded opponent. The Stags play a tenacious brand of high-pressure defense, routinely go deep in their bench and have crafted a premier level of organic offensive spacing in coach Carly Thibault-Dudonis’ second year at the helm.

Freshman forward Meghan Andersen is shining brightly running with the Stags, leading them in scoring, rebounds, blocks and made 3s. She’s a crafty scorer from all levels, shooting nearly 70 percent on 2s, just shy of 40 percent from deep and over 90 percent at the line. Andersen plays through contact in the post and the pocket of the defense in a mesmerizing way, doing so against power conference opposition as well earlier in the season.

If you catch yourself wondering how the Stags have a second-quarter lead in a tournament game, you can be assured that Andersen has been a significant factor. Also, don’t sleep on fellow freshman guard Kaety L’Amoreaux. She’s the tip of the spear on Fairfield’s press and an absolute competitor.

As freshmen impact the game at the highest level, our Bubble Watch is an impact freshman in its own right, entering its maiden voyage. You can find Bubble Watch weekly on Fridays and Bracket Watch on Tuesdays, detailing the ins and outs of what’s shifting as we inch closer to March Madness. You can check out the men’s Bracket Watch and Bubble Watch too.

As a brief reference, a team that’s “Locked in” has largely been solidified as making the field, barring what happens the rest of the season. Teams that are “Projected in” are ones that are trending toward a guaranteed at-large bid but can still fluctuate as the season winds. “On the bubble” is reserved for the gray area, and the group we’ll spend the most time with.

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If your team is “On the bubble,” it’s likely below a No. 7 seed, and could benefit from quality wins to separate from the pack. As we get closer to Selection Sunday, that group will start to narrow as the opportunities to get off the bubble in either direction will diminish. Records and stats are through Wednesday’s games.

ACC

Locks: Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Louisville, North Carolina State Projected in: North Carolina, Florida State, Miami, Duke

On the bubble: N/A

Team Record NET SOS
Duke 16-7 22 8
Florida State 17-8 40 49
North Carolina 13-9 29 9
Miami 16-7 37 75

Spotlight On: Florida State and Miami

The Seminoles and Hurricanes are in similar spots. Both currently are in the field but need of a consistent stretch and likely a strong conference tournament showing to catapult into better seeding. Florida State has struggled with consistency this season, putting together the highest of highs as it beat Virginia Tech and UNC in a single weekend last month. The Seminoles also suffered significant lows, losing to Virginia the next week and getting blitzed by Duke for a near 40-point loss.

If Florida State drops Sunday’s game against Miami, its chance at climbing from a No. 7 seed to the No. 6 line is pretty slim. The same can be said for Miami, as the ‘Canes have largely made weight by chewing through the middle of the conference, although their win over NC State looms large to keeping them off the bubble. A loss this weekend narrows the window to carve out their own destiny outside of the ACC tournament.

Big Ten

Locks: Ohio State, Iowa, Indiana Projected in: Michigan State, Nebraska, Penn State On the bubble: Maryland, Michigan

Team Record NET SOS
Michigan 16-9 50 70
Maryland 14-10 34 5
Michigan State 17-7 23 51
Nebraska 16-9 33 38
Penn State 16-8 26 65

Spotlight On: Maryland and Penn State

The middle of the Big Ten is an enigma. There are a million on-court reasons for why things do or don’t work from one team or another, it’s hard to not just look at the standings and matchups, and chuckle.

“Can they do it on a cold, wet Wednesday night against Wisconsin?” has been a question exemplified by the conference this season, as that’s been as good as any legitimate barometer for consistency in the league.

Penn State felt the brunt of that this past week, losing to the Badgers — the Nittany Lions’ third straight loss after a six-game winning streak. It’s worth noting they lost Tay Valladay for the season, a frustrating blow for a terrific player who had found a career groove in Happy Valley. They have one more chance at a marquee win, taking on Ohio State next week at home. Until then, Penn State needs to hold serve against the Terrapins, who it recently dismantled.

Maryland also needs this win. Penn State is a strong team, oscillating in and out of the Top 25 on my ballot this year, but the Terrapins’ 36-point loss to the Nittany Lions was embarrassing. The Terps’ strength of schedule has them as my last team in, but they need to play 40 full minutes every game for the remainder of the season — something coach Brenda Frese has consistently harped on. Rectifying that loss is an essential first step for Maryland to move out of the First Four.

Jakia Brown-Turner will likely play a significant part in a Terps’ victory. She’s found her groove in College Park over the past month, averaging 18.3 points, eight rebounds and 2.1 assists per game while shooting 54 percent from the field since Jan. 14.

Big 12

Locks: Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas State Projected in: Baylor, West Virginia, Iowa State On the bubble: Kansas

Team Record NET SOS
Baylor 18-6 20 47
Iowa State 14-9 38 11
West Virginia 21-3 19 80
Kansas 14-10 44 23

Spotlight On: Kansas

Kansas went to work this season, set to test itself after a run to a WNIT championship … and boy, did the Jayhawks!

Their near top-20 schedule is pockmarked with significant matchups, defined by their Cayman Islands Classic games, where they pushed Virginia Tech to the brink in a one-point loss and a competitive game against UConn.

They entered Big 12 play 7-4, but struggled mightily out of the gates before recovering to hand Baylor its first loss of the season. They’ve been up and down, but Kansas is now 5-1 since its close road loss in its rivalry game against Kansas State. The Jayhawks need to handle business against BYU and UCF in the last few weeks of February, or they’re likely out of the mix for the tourney. With three ranked opponents remaining on the schedule, snagging one or even two significant wins would be instrumental in pushing Kansas to its second NCAA Tournament under coach Brandon Schneider.

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We shouldn’t get hung up on hypotheticals, but it’s worth pointing out that the Jayhawks are about six points and 40 seconds aways from being a 16-8 team that would be in the field. They have the talent and earned respect with a competitive nonconference schedule, but they need another statement win or two to pop the bubble.

Big East

Locks: UConn, Creighton Projected in: Marquette On the bubble: Villanova

Teams Record NET SOS
Villanova 16-8 39 24
Marquette 19-6 35 84

Spotlight On: The whole conference

The Big East is more likely to be a two-bid conference than sending four teams to the Big Dance. UConn and Creighton have locked up spots after playing the best nonconference schedules in the league and securing solid wins before largely controlling the Big East.

Marquette looked the part headed into conference play, starting the year 12-0 (including a win over Creighton), but the Golden Eagles have gone 7-6 since. Their wins over Illinois and Arkansas are solid resume additions, but as the season has gone on, those wins don’t hit quite the same as they did in November. Especially considering Marquette ranks just 231st in nonconference strength of schedule, it couldn’t afford a dry run in the Big East. The Golden Eagles need to win out but would also benefit greatly by a successful conference tournament run.

Villanova played a much stronger schedule outside the Big East, ranked 13th, that’s only looked better as the year’s gone on. However, the Wildcats ended nonconference play 7-5 (including a loss to St. John’s) with a plethora of close losses. They’ve handled Marquette but have lost to Creighton and Connecticut. With an opportunity against each on the road before the end of February, Villanova could play its way in. Losses won’t exclude Nova entirely, but it will only put the Wildcats further in the bubble.

Pac-12

Locks: Stanford, Colorado, UCLA, Oregon State, USC Projected in: Utah, Washington State On the bubble: California, Washington

Team Record NET SOS
Utah 16-7 6 26
Washington State 15-10 25 14
Washington State 13-10 47 46
California 15-10 61 21

Spotlight On: Washington State

The Cougars started the season with high hopes, snagging marquee wins before heading into the final season of Pac-12 play. They improved to 15-6 after beating UCLA in Los Angeles, primed to make a surge in conference play, but star guard Charlisse Leger-Walker suffered an ACL injury in that game that required season-ending surgery.

The Cougars have dropped four straight since, understandably, but they put up stiff competition along the way.

I had Washington State projected in the field this week on the No. 10 seed in the Albany 2 Region — out of the bubble, but trending toward it. The Cougars have six regular-season games left, half against ranked teams. They need to sweep the Arizona schools during their weekend trip to the desert and take down Oregon back home in Pullman. If they do that and scrap out a game against a ranked team (No. 11 Oregon State, No. 22 Utah or No. 8 Colorado), they’d be close to safe because of the strength of their top wins, schedule and full resume.

SEC

Locks: South Carolina, LSU Projected in: Tennessee, Alabama, Texas A&M, Mississippi State On the bubble: Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Auburn, Arkansas, Florida

Team Record NET SOS
Tennessee 15-8 43 6
Mississippi State 20-6 31 40
Texas A&M 17-6 30 86
Alabama 19-7 27 69
Ole Miss 16-7 54 55
Vanderbilt 18-7 58 54
Arkansas 17-9 64 43
Auburn 15-8 56 60
Florida 13-9 52 25

Spotlight On: Vanderbilt

The Commodores went through a rough patch in the middle of SEC play, with wins against Auburn and Georgia sandwiching a five-game losing streak, including single-digit losses to Ole Miss, Alabama and Tennessee. That firmly dropped Vanderbilt from in the field to on the bubble.

Vandy had a competitive nonconference slate, although the signature game came from almost beating NC State in Raleigh. It showed the Commodores belonged at the top level of the sport, but a loss is still a loss on the resume. Their defense has been as pesky as ever, but the scout has been written on how to defend Vanderbilt — packing the paint and daring some of Vandy’s guards and wings to shoot it from 3, where the Commodores rank eighth in SEC play shooting 31.4 percent.

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Can Vanderbilt adjust and find traction during the final stretch of the season? A silver lining has been freshman forward Khamil Pierre finding her footing, averaging 14 points and 6.9 rebounds per game over the last month and stepping in as a starter the past two games.

With rematches against Tennessee and Arkansas in the next week, the Commodores can push back into the field, not facing another currently-ranked opponent for the remainder of the regular season.

Others

Lock: Princeton Projected in: Saint Joseph’s On the bubble: Green Bay, George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth, Columbia, Belmont, Eastern Washington, Rhode Island, Davidson

Team Record NET SOS
St. Joseph’s 23-2 55 155
Green Bay 18-5 46 143
George Mason 18-5 62 121
Richmond 22-4 49 73
Davidson 18-6 72 128
VCU 20-4 78 110
Rhode Island 16-11 88 108
Belmont 17-6 70 82
Eastern Washington 17-5 79 287
Columbia 16-5 63 102

Spotlight On: Columbia

The Lions returned less than half of their minutes played from last season, with key seniors transferring out for their graduate seasons. It was a jelling process for Columbia to find its rhythm again coming off a record-setting season and winning the Ivy League regular-season title.

After starting 2-4 this season, Columbia has lost just one game, an 80-65 loss at Princeton — the current league leader and an at-large team for me regardless of whether the Tigers lead the conference right now. The Lions are currently on the outside looking in. They played an average nonconference schedule but are really hurt by their 17-point loss to Georgia. A comfortable win over Villanova is their best on the table. Their final regular-season meeting with Princeton next week is their last chance to make a statement to the selection committee.

Junior guard Cecilia Collins has come on strong since losing to Princeton, averaging 19.5 points and 4.3 assists, doing so with staggering efficiency. Her uptick in play could be substantial for the Lions, as they went cold during the second half of that game with Princeton, leading to transition runouts and easy offense on the other end. A more balanced attack with limited turnovers and an ability to slow the pace defensively could give Columbia a chance to make this a two-bid league.

The Bracket Central series is part of a partnership with E*TRADE.

The Athletic maintains full editorial independence. Partners have no control over or input into the reporting or editing process and do not review stories before publication.

(Photos of Penn State’s Tay Valladay and  Maryland’s Jakia Brown-Turner: Michael Hickey / Getty Images, G Fiume / Getty Images)

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