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Hope bubbles a month before NCAA tourney; February finds some invitations in mail, but many others lack stamp


Whoever came up with the terminology for at-large teams teetering between an invitation to the NCAA tournament and an early spring break -- or for those lucky souls who get neither and play in the No Interest Tournament -- might have to figure out a new word.

Or at least make the so-called bubble out of plexi- glass.

In some cases, such as the Big 12, entire leagues might be in jeopardy of sliding into oblivion at any given moment. Others, such as the Big Ten, have a lot of good teams but no great ones and could, as a result, get more bids than any league in history. And a few, such as the Atlantic Coast Conference, better hope that reputation counts as much as performance.

"February is the month that teams will either play their way in or out," said Texas coach Rick Barnes, whose Longhorns could go either way. "There are a lot of teams with only 11 or 12 wins right now, so you have to win games."

Said North Carolina State coach Herb Sendek, whose Wolfpack is also in that category, "You can't be concerned with something you can't control. With teams winning and losing every night, things are changing every day."

With exactly a month to go before the bids are announced to the 64-team field, here's a look at who's in, who's on the bubble and who may be out. (RPI rankings are in parentheses)

ACC: Duke (1), Maryland (4) and North Carolina (11) can start making their plans for the NCAAs, though the Terrapins and Tar Heels have started to see their seeds slip a little. In what many concede to be the worst year in the ACC in recent memory, it seems unlikely that the league will get more than five bids.

Florida State (29) is the front-runner for the fourth, with the potential fifth bid up for grabs. Georgia Tech's home loss to N.C. State on Tuesday left the Yellow Jackets (34) with a tough stretch that began with a home game against Duke yesterday and a three-game road trip to follow. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack had won two straight going into yesterday's game against Clemson and play host to struggling Maryland on Wednesday, a game on which it can build its RPI (64).

Atlantic 10: Two years after getting five bids for the first time in conference history, it seems doubtful that the A-10 will get more than three unless some team other than Temple (27), George Washington (37) or Xavier (52) wins the league tournament in Philadelphia next month.

Rhode Island (77) has finally begun winning with some regularity, having won six of eight going into yesterday's game against Temple. But the Rams will have to keep on winning, and are scheduled to play three of their last four on the road. In Rhode Island's favor is the star power of sophomore Lamar Odom.

Big East: Despite the comeback the onetime power league has made this season, it is still laden with bubble teams. After Connecticut (4), St. John's (11) and Miami (25), it's anybody's guess how many more will get in. The fourth will now likely be Syracuse, since the Orangemen will jump from 49 after their upset of the Huskies on Monday.

Both Rutgers (33) and Villanova (39) are strong bubble teams, but Providence (62) didn't help itself with its recent loss at Notre Dame. After a quick start earlier in the season, Seton Hall (55) is also starting to fade and a second straight NIT invitation for Tommy Amaker seems more likely.

Big Ten: Can the 11-team league break its record of seven bids by getting eight this year? The power ratings certainly suggest so. Five are already a lock, seven a likelihood: Michigan State (6), Wisconsin (8), Iowa (9) Purdue (18) and Ohio State (19), with Indiana (14) and Minnesota (15) closing in.

Minnesota now must go on the road for four of its last six games starting today at Michigan. Northwestern (41) also could make things interesting down the stretch, but the Wildcats have road games remaining at Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa. Will eight be enough?

Big 12: Going on the assumption that former powerhouse Kansas (17) is still a potential No. 4 seed despite its departure from the Top 25, Missouri (31) and Texas (57) have a pretty good chance as well. The Longhorns have overcome an 0-4 start this season in Barnes' first year in Austin and have won nine of their last 10 to go 12-9.

While Texas has the easiest road during the second half of the conference season -- the Longhorns play three teams in the upper half at home -- Oklahoma probably has the toughest. The Sooners (56) have to play at Texas and Missouri in the next eight days, then play host to Kansas.

Conference USA: Cincinnati (2), a likely top seed, is the only team to have locked up an invitation. Alabama-Birmingham (42) is 15-7 overall, with five of its losses coming to teams that were either ranked in the Top 25 when they played the Blazers or in the Top 25 now. The Blazers also will get to play the conference tournament in Birmingham.

North Carolina-Charlotte (22) is the only team in the country to have beaten the Bearcats, and also has an overtime loss against North Carolina. After that, it depends on whether Louisville (28), now that its postseason ban has been reversed, can right itself after a recent four-game losing streak. DePaul (74), with a star-studded freshman class, will likely have to win the conference tournament to be invited.

Southeastern: Five has been the SEC's magic number when it comes to NCAA tournament invitations, and it looks like that will be the number for the third straight year. Kentucky (7) and Auburn (10) are both looking at No. 2 seeds. Tennessee (21) and Florida, No. 32 before its win over Kentucky, also should be in.

Georgia (38) and Arkansas (47) are on the bubble, but Alabama (93) has a long way to go. The Bulldogs had lost five straight games -- albeit three on the road with home games against Kentucky and Auburn -- before Wednesday night's win at Vanderbilt. The Crimson Tide plays four of its last six at home.

Pac-10: After getting five bids in 1995 and 1997, only four teams were invited last season. Three are in right now -- Stanford (5), Arizona (13) and UCLA (16). After that, five teams are in contention for one or two spots. Because of its RPI, Washington (20) probably has the best chance.

Oregon State (98) has been a major surprise this season, but the Beavers have yet to prove they can win away from home in the league (0-4) or in a neutral setting (0-3).

Arizona State (51) has been solid under new coach Rob Evans, but has no big wins. Cal (67) has a win over North Carolina, but could finish the league with a losing record.

Western Athletic: Tulsa (35) has the highest RPI in the league, and, despite a recent three-game losing streak, Texas Christian (36) is in good shape with five of the next seven games at home. So is Utah (53), which has been steadily climbing with its 12-game winning streak and has been mentioned as a possible fourth seed by some.

The bubble teams in the WAC are last year's conference tournament champion, Nevada-Las Vegas (49), and Fresno State (59), which has won four of its last five and six of eight. Despite a questionable RPI, New Mexico (104) will get plenty of consideration with a win over Arizona as its high mark of the season.

And how about the teams from smaller conferences with high individual power ratings? Those who could make it even if they don't win their respective postseason tournaments are Siena (23) in the Metro Atlantic, Toledo (26) or Miami of Ohio (40) in the Mid-American and either Southwest Missouri State (24) or Creighton (30) in the Missouri Valley.

"With teams like Valparaiso and Western Michigan winning games last year, that will help the smaller conferences," said George Washington coach Tom Penders. "Will they take teams like that rather than an ACC team with a 6-10 record? Fortunately they use computers. It's a whole lot better than politics."

Pub Date: 2/07/99

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