March 21, 2005

Bubble Fatigue II

With the exception of N.C. State, the bubble teams in this year's NCAA hoops tournament live up to the trend of irrelevance.

Carl Bialik

Last week, amid blanket coverage of big-conference college-basketball bubble teams' pretournament angst, I wrote that we should ignore the hype.

Teams from the big-six conferences that have gotten a seed between 9 and 12—prime bubble territory—never do much in the tournament. Of 27 such teams in the prior seven tournaments, just six made the Sweet Sixteen and none made the Elite Eight.

This year, six bubble teams from the big conferences made the committee's cut. Three were gone in the first round, and two more got knocked off today. The lone survivor aiming to cure the curse of the bubble: North Carolina State, which eliminated defending champion UConn.

The larger context is that big-conference schools get undue attention at the expense of their smaller-conference brethren, who more than ever are competing fearlessly and evenly with the nation's top-ranked teams when they meet in March.

That trend holds this year, even though it hasn't been a banner year for small conferences. Just three schools outside the big six—Louisville, Utah, and Wisconsin-Milwaukee—made the Sweet Sixteen. Nonetheless, take a closer look at the 16 first-round games between seeds 1-4 and seeds 13-16. Though just two lower seeds—No. 13 Vermont and No. 14 Bucknell—won the games, 12 of the games were decided by 13 points or less. The average victory margin for the higher seeds, 10.75, was down 36% from a year earlier; the next-lowest average margin in these games in the past five years was 14.3 points in 2002.

More tidbits about this year's set of supposed mismatches:

•In five of the games, the higher seeds were trailing or tied in the last four minutes.

•Seven of the lower seeds were within five points in the last minute of the game.

•All but one of the 16 games—North Carolina's rout of Oakland—was within 10 points in the final 14 minutes.

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Article by Carl Bialik

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