Women’s basketball Bubble Watch: Texas A&M picks up steam, Villanova needs to fight – The Athletic

By Mark SchindlerFeb 23, 2024Supported By

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

Power conferences understandably dominate discussion, particularly Bubble Watch talk, this time of year. All the teams fighting in the middle, yearning for resume-supplementing wins, provide some of the most notable matchups and storylines.

However, it’s worth pausing and noting some of the more under-the-radar seasons in the country, especially the programs that we are trending toward hearing about in March. I can think of few teams more deserving of that mention than Marshall.

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The Thundering Herd are 20-6, a standout record on its own but even more notable when recognizing this is the first time since the 2016 season they have eclipsed the 20-win mark and just the second time since they left the Southern Conference in 1997. This is West Virginia native Kim Caldwell’s first season at the helm in Huntington. She led her alma mater, DII Glenville State, for seven seasons, including a national championship in 2022. In her first foray as a head coach at the highest level of collegiate basketball, something special is brewing.

Adding extra layers of context, Marshall sat at 2-4 at the end of November and last season’s leading scorer, Roshala Scott, opted to transfer out after those first six games (and later committed to Sun Belt rival James Madison). Since the start of December, the Herd have gone 18-2, propelled by an upset win over Florida on Dec. 2, their first win over a power conference opponent since 2007.

They play out of the box and away from the norm, ranking fifth nationally in pace of play and first in 3-point attempts per game. They’re a smaller team, their tallest player stands 6 foot 1, and they often play three- and four-guard lineups. Caldwell will typically use a full 11-player rotation, with only one player averaging more than 26 minutes per game in Sun Belt play. Marshall is swarming defensively, not unlike the nearby Mountaineers in Morgantown, culminating in the 13th-highest steal rate by a Division I team.

The Herd will drive and kick nonstop, they’re going to spread the floor at all times, and they’re going to pressure opponents in all facets of the game. Up two games on Troy in the conference standings, Marshall is closing in on locking up the top seed in the Sun Belt tournament. While winning that will earn an automatic qualifier bid for the NCAA Tournament, Marshall should absolutely be on your radar.

ACC

Locks: Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Louisville, North Carolina State, Notre Dame Projected in: North Carolina, Florida State, Duke On the bubble: Georgia Tech, Miami

Team Record NET SOS
Duke 17-9 21 7
Florida State 20-8 41 65
Georgia Tech 15-13 67 56
Miami 16-10 45 63
North Carolina 18-9 33 28

Spotlight on: Duke

Duke takes on NC State on Sunday at Cameron Indoor, and it is a significant inflection point for the Blue Devils. They have the talent and versatility to make a deep postseason run, but piecing together the consistency is the next part.

They are comfortably projected to make the tournament, but picking up another significant win would go a long way to locking them into a higher seed. That could open the door to hosting if they were to make a run in the ACC tournament.

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Duke has the qualities of a sleeping giant, and drubbing Syracuse from start to finish was indicative of that notion. Coming off tight losses to two of the best in the league (and country) in Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, the Blue Devils made a statement win on the road. Now, can they build off that?

Their defense is brutal to play against, their posts are fantastic at protecting the rim and moving the ball on offense, and they have dynamic guard play across the board. Jadyn Donovan had arguably her finest game in a Duke uniform against the Orange, and she’s emblematic of this team. There’s another level that can be reached; it’s just about finding it as the regular season winds down.

Big Ten

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

Team Record NET SOS
Illinois 13-12 44 78
Maryland 14-10 31 12
Michigan 16-11 48 50
Michigan State 19-7 22 58
Nebraska 18-9 30 42
Penn State 16-11 28 74

Spotlight on: Illinois

The Fighting Illini have had one of the most interesting and trying seasons in Division I. Illinois is 1-9 in games decided by single digits, seven of those decided by two possessions or fewer.

They played in nine such games last season, with a 6-3 record.

It’s not as simple as deducing everything down to close games and shooting variance, but it does stand out. Illinois is much better than its record indicates, and its recent play, as well as the rest of the bubble teams in the Big Ten, has it in the mix. The Illini are 5-2 since they dropped consecutive games against Maryland and Ohio State in January, headlined by their 20-point blowout of Indiana in Champaign on Monday — their most notable win of the year.

The Illini are still on the outside looking for a tournament bid, but they have an opportunity to play themselves in with their final three Big Ten games, taking on Iowa, Michigan State and Nebraska.

Adalia McKenzie has been a bright spot during this stretch, often guarding opponents’ best perimeter player. After a strong start to the season, she struggled a bit with being assertive within the flow of the offense, but she has taken huge strides in that regard. McKenzie has taken 10 or more attempts in five of her last six games, averaging 15.5 points per game and four offensive rebounds while shooting 57.1 percent.

She’s a skilled and gifted slasher with a budding in-between game and court vision that her assist numbers don’t do justice. As the Illini push to make the NCAA Tournament, her play will undoubtedly make a difference.

Big 12

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

Team Record NET SOS
Baylor 20-6 19 44
Iowa State 15-10 40 9
Kansas 15-11 43 20
West Virginia 22-4 20 75

Spotlight on: Iowa State

The Cyclones encountered a skid in late January that bled into the beginning of February after their eight-game winning streak put them on the map. They’ve gotten back to playing .500 since their loss to Oklahoma, but picking up a double-overtime win over Kansas State was a massive boost to their tournament resume. A rematch with the Wildcats next week is one of the biggest games remaining on the Big 12 schedule.

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Iowa State played a difficult nonconference schedule, ranked 30th in the country, while integrating five freshmen who play significant minutes, and they were without senior point guard Emily Ryan for much of it. Wins over Troy and North Dakota State are solid, but the best wins have come in the Big 12. It helps greatly that the Cyclones have been close in largely every game except for their lone meeting with Texas.

Defeating BYU and Cincinnati will be key in holding the course, and another win over Kansas State could carry the Cyclones from a No. 11 seed to a No. 8 or higher with some wiggle room in the Big 12 tournament.

Regardless of what happens, Iowa State’s exploits have been awesome to watch. The future is wildly bright in Ames with Addy Brown and Audi Crooks asserting themselves as immediate impactors and potential stars in the league. A postseason run would be an exciting punctuation on their first season.

Big East

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

Team Record NET SOS
Marquette 20-6 32 80
Villanova 17-9 47 34

Spotlight on: Villanova

The Wildcats put themselves in a tough position last week after dropping a game to Butler at home, keeping them firmly on the bubble and dropping them out of the last four in.

However, the Cats have the opportunity to earn their way into the field over the next week. Villanova takes on Creighton in Omaha this weekend before making its way to Storrs to take on UConn. Win these two games and hold serve at home in the final game against DePaul, and the Wildcats should make the field at-large.

That is much easier said than done, as they’ve dropped both of their previous meetings with the Bluejays and Huskies, but Lucy Olsen provides a unique challenge for any team as one of the most prolific and versatile scorers. For Villanova to win these games, it needs to look to center Christina Dalce to perform at a high level. She’s one of the best rim protectors and rebounders in the Big East, and coach Denise Dillon’s squad will need her at her best in both matchups.

Pac-12

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

Team Record NET SOS
Arizona 14-12 42 21
California 15-11 61 15
Utah 17-8 6 26
Washington 13-12 50 52
Washington State 16-11 25 24

Spotlight on: California

Can Cal make its way to the Big Dance?

Though it is entrenched on the bubble, in that second group outside the first four out of the field, the answer is yes. As has been the case with most of the teams still fighting their way into the field, some luck outside of their own play will be key, but the Golden Bears have a few factors in their favor.

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First and foremost, a head-to-head win against Auburn — their most notable win outside the Pac-12 — could play a part. The Tigers have oscillated on and off the bubble, and that head-to-head win will mean something if the teams find themselves close in seeding like they have much of this season. Along those same lines, Washington State has understandably trended down since Charlisse Leger-Walker’s injury against UCLA, going 1-5. Cal owns the season series against the Cougars, one win prior to Leger-Walker’s knee injury and one after.

In the same way head-to-head results could factor against Auburn, it could also work against Washington State, as it is currently one of the last byes in the field. But the Cougars face Oregon and Oregon State before making the vaunted road trip to play Utah and Colorado to close the regular season.

Cal has an easier schedule, playing Arizona State and Arizona this weekend before hitting the road for the Oregon schools next week. Dispatching the desert schools at home is a must, especially with the Wildcats also categorized as a deeper bubble squad. A win against Oregon State in Corvallis would give Cal a huge boost and be the best win on Cal’s resume.

It’s tight, but the Bears aren’t out of it yet.

SEC

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

Team Record NET SOS
Alabama 20-8 29 71
Arkansas 18-10 63 43
Auburn 16-10 52 59
Florida 14-11 58 33
Mississippi State 20-8 34 38
Ole Miss 19-7 49 47
Tennessee 16-9 37 3
Texas A&M 18-8 36 81
Vanderbilt 19-8 59 48

Spotlight on: Texas A&M

The Aggies picked up one of their most important wins of the season, ousting Arkansas 73-67 in College Station. The final score doesn’t encapsulate how wild that game was for A&M; Arkansas held the Aggies to 20 points in the first half, including an ugly five-point second quarter.

But they came out after halftime absolutely renewed, playing with pace in the half court, moving the ball with purpose and opening up outside shots with their high-low game and player movement around it. If A&M had lost, that likely would have taken it out of the bubble entirely and severely hampered hopes of a chance at the tournament. But Janiah Barker came out with one of her best halves of the season, and Sahara Jones and Sydney Bowles came up big from 3.

Can A&M use this as a springboard after knocking Arkansas out of the bubble?

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Coach Joni Taylor’s team hits the road this weekend to take on another SEC team on the tournament fringe: Auburn. Snag this win, and the Aggies put themselves in a great position, having that head-to-head edge. (It’s notable they earned that edge over other bubble teams Kansas and Cal.) Those matchups are a very small part of the equation, but they matter when splitting hairs, which is precisely what the bubble is about.

Others

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

Spotlight on: George Mason

In year three under the direction of Vanessa Blair-Lewis, George Mason has developed into a legitimate A-10 contender. For just the second time since 2004, the Patriots will finish conference play with a winning record, their fourth season in the last 20 years finishing with a winning record overall (their third was last season).

What’s made the A-10 perhaps my favorite conference to watch this season is the parity at the top. The usual conference powers are all entering rebuilding phases or having down years while programs that have been on the rise since the pandemic have taken center stage, leading to a cluster of five teams within striking distance of the A-10 lead and an NCAA Tournament berth.

George Mason has been on the outside looking in since Bracket Watch started — a solid resume but firmly in the Bubble. Its losses are to Maryland at College Park, East Carolina and then Rhode Island, St. Joseph’s and Davidson in conference. None of those is a bad loss (although losing by 21 to East Carolina hurts), but adding as many more marquee wins as possible is paramount. It’s worth noting that injuries to key rotation players in February have contributed to those losses.

The Patriots have the opportunity to shore up that resume Saturday when they host Richmond, the A-10 leader, for their first and only meeting this season.

Look to Zahirah Walton, the Patriots’ second-leading scorer, to make an impact off the bench. She’s a dynamic defender, capable of mucking up the passing lanes and protecting the rim in help. She’s a ferocious rebounder and aggressive attacking the basket, something that could be fun to watch against the Spiders.

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 Janiah Barker, Lucy Olsen: Eakin Howard / Getty Images, Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

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Mark Schindler is a 2021 graduate of the University of Toledo and has been working in basketball in a scouting and writing capacity since 2019. Alongside his current Bracket Watch and Bubble Watch series at The Athletic, you can find his work with Seven Star Digital covering all things basketball.

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