Women’s basketball Bubble Watch: What makes Middle Tennessee’s a worthy mid-major – The Athletic

By Mark SchindlerMar 8, 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.)

Just under two weeks away now from Selection Sunday, the number of locks in the NCAA Tournament field is steadily increasing and the number of at-large bids available is dwindling. That makes the conference tournaments all the more enticing, as every team on the bubble, fighting for hosting position or looking to maintain top billing is ready to duel it out on a neutral court.

Can your team pad its resume? Will it claw its way into higher seeding? Who has the most to gain or lose in the waning hours leading up to the eventual bracket reveal? Let’s take a look.

ACC

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

Team Record NET SOS
North Carolina 19-12 32 21
Miami 19-11 50 74
Georgia Tech 17-15 68 70

Movement

Duke and Florida State locked themselves into the field after opening round wins in the ACC tournament. Georgia Tech drops from NCAA Tournament contention after losing to Duke.

Spotlight On: Georgia Tech

After falling to Duke in the second round of the ACC tournament, the Yellow Jackets have officially been eliminated from the bubble and are now on the hunt for a WNIT bid.

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This was a season of learning and growth for Nell Fortner’s squad — underclassmen made up six of the top nine players in minutes played this season. Kara Dunn and Tonie Morgan, its leading scorers in ACC play, took significant steps forward as sophomores. Freshman guard Rusne Augustinaite has the makings of a productive scorer as she keeps developing. The Yellow Jackets pushed multiple Top 25 teams in conference play, including a barnburner 1-point loss in overtime against NC State.

There’s a wealth of talent on their roster, and making a run in the WNIT could go a long way in elevating them for next season. Finding consistency will be key for Georgia Tech to take the steps to become a tournament team once again.

Big Ten

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

Team Record NET SOS
Nebraska 20-10 30 50
Maryland 18-12 36 9
Penn State 19-11 51 60

Movement

Illinois needed to make a strong push in the Big Ten tournament to secure an at-large bid, but their loss to Maryland bounces the Illini off the bubble and out of contention. Michigan State locked itself into the field after closing out the regular season with five straight wins.

Spotlight On: Michigan

The Wolverines found themselves on the bubble this past week of Bracket Watch. After picking up a win over Purdue to close the regular season and by beating Minnesota in its first Big Ten tournament game, Michigan is finding a rhythm and looks ready for dancing.

However, how well Penn State and Maryland fare in the Big Ten will be key. Considering how packed the bubble region is with power conference teams, it will be tough for all three teams to make the field. Picking up any wins, especially one over Indiana, who the Wolverine played only once this season, would be significant.

The NET rating is a nice gauge for understanding where teams stack up, but it’s just a measuring stick. It’s worth noting that margin of victory is an important part of how the NET is quantified. Michigan has a strong win on its resume against Ohio State and some solid wins in Big Ten play that make it formidable, but when the Wolverines lost, they lost badly. Eight of their 12 losses this season were by 15 points or more.

There are things you can point to stylistically that make them more susceptible to those kinds of losses, but I will be curious to see how the selection committee weighs that. Both Penn State and Maryland have some of the same questions, albeit to a different extent.

Big 12

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

Team Record NET SOS
Iowa State 18-10 38 11
Kansas 18-11 40 17
TCU 18-10 45 48

Movement

West Virginia is locked into the field after closing out the regular season with a win over TCU. Losses by teams near them projected in the field also helps.

Spotlight On: Kansas State

The Wildcats are far from the bubble in terms of getting into the tournament, but they are on the bubble when it comes to hosting. That’s one of the key aspects to watch play out in the Big 12 tournament this weekend. K State reached new heights this season, climbing to No. 2 in the AP Poll and looking like a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

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But an injury to star center Ayoka Lee threw a wrench in the groove the Wildcats had found. Despite her injury, they continued to churn and hold their ground, but they have largely played .500 ball since she returned. They haven’t quite been able to find the offensive cohesion that pushed them early in the season along with their top notch defense.

Can they find it again after a few days off and an early bye in the conference tournament?

If the Wildcats can make a run, pick up a couple key wins on a neutral site en route to a championship appearance and close out with at least a close game, K-State should lock up a host seed by showing it’s got its mojo back.

Big East

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

Team Record NET SOS
Marquette 22-7 37 89
Villanova 18-11 49 26

Movement

None

Spotlight On: Marquette and Villanova

Quite a few games will matter with respect to positioning and jostling for the postseason during the Big East tournament, but few are bigger than Saturday’s game between Marquette and Villanova. Neither team can afford another loss at this point.

The Golden Eagles have been playing better after a mid-season slump but could pad their resume with another statement win or two. They went 0-2 against Villanova during Big East play, and avenging those losses could go a long way in helping Marquette lock itself into the field.

The Wildcats are a little farther out in the picture for March Madness, likely needing a win against Marquette and another after that to propel themselves into the field.

Also worth noting in the Big East: If Georgetown wins its matchup with Xavier, this will be the first 20-win season for the Hoyas since 2012. That’s already impressive regardless of context, but that this staff and team have been able to rally all year after the loss of its beloved coach Tasha Butts is an even greater testament.

Pac-12

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

Team Record NET SOS
Arizona 17-15 33 13
California 18-14 59 18
Washington 16-14 42 42
Washington State 18-14 28 19

Movement

None

Spotlight On: Colorado

The Buffaloes went through the ringer late in the season, playing arguably the hardest three-game stretch anyone has this season: at Utah and then back-to-back at USC and UCLA. Those teams were a combined 38-6 at home on the season.

Part of the difficulty in the Pac-12 this season is that almost none of the losses inside the conference are “bad” on resume, but a loss is still a loss at the end of the day. Given how the committee has seemed to value late-season play, it’s going to be interesting to see how it handles Colorado.

In the first Top 16 reveal on Feb. 15, Colorado was the fourth seeded team overall, sitting at 20-4 just after losing to Oregon State over the weekend. In the latest reveal on Feb. 29, Colorado had dropped to 13th, and that was prior to its loss to Washington State and Oregon State in the second round of the Pac-12 tournament.

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I feel comfortable saying Colorado has been a Top 16 team largely the entire season. Other than its lopsided loss to NC State, it hasn’t dropped a game by double digits. The Buffs played 16 Quad 1 games, tied for the second most in the country with Ohio State, Utah, UCLA, North Carolina and Washington State. (Arizona has played 18.)

They’ll likely need some luck, but they are deserving of a Top 16 seed, even if it’s the final No. 4 seed. However, it’s all in the committee’s hands now, and if some teams that were in that range just below the Buffs get hot, Colorado could be left out of hosting the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

SEC

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

Team Record NET SOS
Vanderbilt 22-9 56 56
Auburn 20-10 44 45
Mississippi State 21-11 46 39
Arkansas 18-14 74 34
Texas A&M 19-11 43 54

Movement

Ole Miss, Alabama, and Tennessee locked themselves into the Tturnament, with Ole Miss and Alabama closing out with wins in the regular season and Tennessee’s resume and first round SEC tournament win securing its fate. Vanderbilt and Auburn played their way into projection with strong closes to the regular season, but their fates are still relatively up in the air.

Spotlight On: Mississippi State

Headed into the SEC tournament, I was intrigued to see how some of the early games would play out. Most of the middle of the league has oscillated on and off the bubble all season. Of course, beating other bubble teams is one of the best ways to better secure positioning in the field.

That made Mississippi State’s opening round loss to Texas A&M that much more deflating for the Bulldogs. It’s been a solid year in Starkville — Sam Purcell’s second as coach — but the end of the season took the air out of the tires of a talented team. The Bulldogs played a fairly easy nonconference schedule relative to their peers, ranked 127th in the country, picking up solid wins but nothing that likely puts them over the top in the committee’s eyes.

After beating LSU at home to close out January, Mississippi State seemed like a tournament lock, but going 1-6 has them on the outside as one of the last four byes in the latest Bracket Watch. That was before the SEC tournament, which would now put them out of the field and out of the First Four. I expect the Bulldogs to need some luck to find their way in.

Others

Locks: Gonzaga, Princeton Projected in: UNLV, Richmond, Toledo, Middle Tennessee, Green Bay, Columbia, Drake, Marshall, FGCU, Fairfield, South Dakota State, Eastern Washington, Cleveland State, Grand Canyon, Jackson State, Chattanooga, Stony Brook, Lamar, Albany, Norfolk State, Hawaii, Holy Cross, High Point, Sacred Heart, Eastern Illinois, North Texas On the bubble: Ball State, Belmont, Saint Joseph’s, George Mason, Rhode Island, VCU, Tulsa, Santa Clara

Team Record NET SOS
Ball State 25-4 75 181
Belmont 23-7 70 115
George Mason 22-6 63 109
Rhode Island 19-13 83 86
Santa Clara 22-7 71 194
Saint Joseph’s 25-4 61 134
Tulsa 23-8 112 135
VCU 25-4 67 94

Movement

North Texas moved back to projected in after beating Rice and Memphis to secure a share of the American Athletic Conference championship.

Spotlight On: Middle Tennessee State

You absolutely need to have the Raiders on your radar before March Madness. They need to take care of business in the Conference USA tournament, but with one game remaining in regular-season play and a 15-0 conference record, they’re en route to dancing.

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Not only is Middle Tennessee State talented, but it brings unique matchup difficulties into the tournament. MTSU is not quite as deep as it was last year, relying primarily on the production of its starting five, but it comes differently. The Raiders largely play four-out one-in concepts, with four perimeter players who can all dribble, pass and shoot.

Ta’Mia Scott has been one of the most improved mid-major players as she became a full time starter. At 6-foot-2 and as a 40 percent 3-point shooter, she brings a dynamic the Raiders didn’t have last season. It’s shown on the defensive end with her added versatility.

Savannah Wheeler just keeps getting better and is a nightmare to contain off the dribble as the head of the snake for Rick Insell’s offense. Jalynn Gregory and Courtney Whitson combine to shoot 14.5 3s per game, contributing highly to the ethos and spacing of the offense.

You’ve heard of plenty of space and pace teams that have made a splash in March Madness, so what sets this group apart?

Two things: The Raiders are 354th in the country in pace out of 360 Division I teams. Anastasiia Boldyreva is the other factor.

 

Boldyreva was a key starter last season, and she’s blossomed into a star this season, averaging 14.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3 blocks per game while shooting nearly 60 percent. At 6-6, Boldyreva is an imposing rim protector, providing an extra margin of error for her perimeter defenders. She’s a solid screener, presents herself incredibly well with deep seals and has deft footwork in the post, while also stepping out and shooting.

When opponents can’t force her out of the paint on defense or speed up the Raiders on offense, they’re in for a tough 40 minutes.

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 Anastasiia Boldyreva and Tonie Morgan: Helen Comer / USA Today Network, Matt Cashore / USA Today)

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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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