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Published: Sunday, 3/16/2008

NCAA bubble teams face anxious moments

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Ohio State coach Thad Matta and senior Jamar Butler will be anxious to see the NCAA selections. The Buckeyes are 19-13. Ohio State coach Thad Matta and senior Jamar Butler will be anxious to see the NCAA selections. The Buckeyes are 19-13.
TERRY GILLIAM / AP Enlarge

INDIANAPOLIS - Some basketball players consider selection weekend as the crowning moment in a college career.

Joel Cornette equates it with some of his most tormenting memories.

The former Butler star, now an assistant coach at Iowa, vividly recalls the euphoria he felt when Butler received an at-large bid in 2003, his senior season, and the agony of being left out a year earlier.

But it was the anxiety of living on the NCAA tournament bubble twice that makes Cornette cringe when thinking about the teams about to endure those nerve-racking moments this weekend.

"It's the ultimate lack of control of your own destiny that's the most difficult thing," he said. "The worst day is Sunday, watching the selection show and it never seems to be one of the first games they announce. It always seems to be the third or fourth bracket. It's just awful."

By this time next week, more than a dozen teams will have experienced the torment Cornette describes.

The NCAA tournament selection committee is in Indianapolis this weekend, saddled with the job of selecting the 34 best at-large teams in the nation, pairing them up against the 31 automatic qualifiers and then listening to the critics pick them apart.

That's easy compared to the challenge of surviving bubble week.

The lucky teams go into the weekend with a chance to impress the 10-member committee by playing deep into their conference tournaments.

The unlucky ones resort to watching tournament results, rooting for favorites, reading projections and praying committee members find them worthy of joining the 65-team field.

"People don't talk about it, but you can see it on their faces," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said during the Big Ten tournament. "It's one of those things like not getting a job you're supposed to get. But it's part and parcel of the process. When you have a cut tournament, it adds meaning and you're going to have joy and you're going to have disappointment."

While many television viewers witness the players' raw reactions thanks to live feeds from college campuses, few see the tension that mounts during the days and hours preceding the selection show.

Teams have to prepare for unknown opponents in unknown destinations.

Assistant coaches crunch numbers and become amateur bracketologists, advising players of the potential ramifications of games being played. The distractions coaches admonish players to ignore during the regular season often become the main topic in the locker room and around town. And until the brackets are announced, the pressure only builds.

"It's awful because you practice and you prepare and in the back of your mind, there's a real level of uncertainty," Cornette said. "It's one of the worst experiences you can have."

Among the teams facing that predicament this weekend are:

•Virginia Commonwealth, winner of 24 games and the Colonial Athletic Association regular-season championship. It lost in the conference tournament and must hope the selection committee is generous enough to give the Colonial two bids.

•Kentucky, finished strong and continued to win despite losing freshman Patrick Patterson to a season-ending ankle injury. A strong showing in the SEC tournament would certainly help the Wildcats, who are usually a tournament lock.

•Ohio State, last year's national runner-up played one of the nation's most difficult schedules but may need a strong showing in the Big Ten tourney to solidify its case.

•Villanova and West Virginia. Villanova helped itself by beating Syracuse in the Big East tournament Wednesday, which many considered an elimination game, but now must wonder whether West Virginia has taken its spot by reaching the Big East semifinals.

One complication is what role the midmajor schools will play in the selection process.

Five schools from non-power conferences - Xavier, Butler, Drake, Gonzaga and Davidson - were all ranked in the Top 25 last week. Butler, Davidson and Drake all earned automatic bids by winning conference tournaments, taking themselves off the bubble. It also means some additional at-large spots will be open, giving schools like Gonzaga, VCU, St. Mary's, Illinois State and South Alabama hope they'll get in.

One school Cornette supports is VCU.

"I've seen Virginia Commonwealth a couple of times this year and last year, and they can compete with anyone," he said. "They're definitely one of the best 64 teams. But to know you have a team that's more than capable of competing against the big teams and you're worrying about winning one game, it's a tough deal."

And losing only makes the weeklong wait more difficult for everyone - as Cornette knows all too well.

"From a player's perspective or a coach's perspective, I understand that because most of the time, to some extent, they're in control of their own destiny," Delany said. "Here it's a committee process, and there always seems to be about 20 teams in that position, so it is tough on them."



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