We've all heard the term before. The dreaded "bubble" has become a college basketball buzzword in the past few years, giving way to weekly publications on ESPN.com and constant updates from amateur and professional bracketologists alike. Joe Lunardi has made a living prognosticating the NCAA Tournament and dissecting every aspect of an ever-expanding collection of teams on the proverbial fence of inclusion to March Madness. My two teams, Louisville and Notre Dame, have been perched precariously on the tournament bubble for seemingly the entirety of the 2009-2010 college basketball season. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey recently said that were he to write a book about this year, and let's be honest, most of his career, he would call it "Life on the Bubble." Rick Pitino is far less accustomed to fighting for his tournament life, but nevertheless the Cards find themselves trying to keep their bubble from bursting in the final month of the season. Less than a month from Selection Sunday, let's take a look at where the Cardinals and Irish stand in the eyes of the selection committee-or at least mine.
-The University of Louisville took a giant step towards tournament inclusion on Valentine's Day with a shocking upset of 3rd-ranked Syracuse in front of a crowd of 31,000 at the Carrier Dome. It's hard to figure how a team can look so lost against St. John's and completely take the country's best team (arguably) out of their element in front of their home fans. The Cards appeared to have burst their bubble beyond repair by laying an egg at the Garden, and just as they were being written off by every journalist and college basketball fan in the country, they blew it right back up again. Louisville overcame an 11 point first half deficit, using an active matchup style of defense to harass Andy Rautins on the perimeter and keep Player of the Year candidate Wesley Johnson searching for his jumpshot all day. Johnson finished 5 of 20 from the field, and apart from back-to-back threes in transition midway through the second half, Rautins was never able to get involved in the offense. Although they were just 9 of 30 from beyond the arc and 9 of 17 at the foul line, and Samardo Samuels waited until there were 8 minutes left in the game to record his first points, the Cards crashed the offensive glass all day. 16 offensive rebounds led to second chance points and deflated the crowd, and Edgar Sosa managed one of his better performances of the year, scoring 12 points with 5 assists while turning it over only twice against the Orange's vaunted 2-3 zone. Syracuse was never able to get anything going against a Louisville defense that had been playing far below its potential all season long, and as a result the Cards were able to turn a 5 against 31,005 game into a 5 on 5 battle, and if only for a day, they were better.
On the offensive end, Pitino was very pleased with the effort, lauding the ball movement and composure of his squad. Freshman Mike Marra, touted as a zone-busting specialist, proved worthy of the title, knocking down 4 three pointers, including the dagger from the left corner that put the Cards up 62-56 with 1:22 to play. The emergence of Marra's shooting confidence was a great sign for Louisville, which has been lacking spark off the bench most of the season. The Cards rank 10th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency ratings for offense, and if the defense plays at the level it did on Sunday, they just might manage to make one of their patented late season runs. As of Sunday, Louisville is 16-9, 7-5 in the Big East. The win over Syracuse represents the signature victory they had been searching for all season and had let slip away in games against Pittsburgh, Villanova, and West Virginia. The Cards upped their road record to 2-5, and earned their second win of the season over a top 50 team in the RPI. If there's such a thing as a good loss, Louisville has several to its credit, but will need to take care of business at home to feel confident about their chances of getting into the tournament. They take on a Harangody-less Notre Dame squad on Wednesday, and then travel to Chicago to face league cellar dweller Depaul on Saturday. The Cardinals boast wins over fellow Big East bubble teams Cincinnati and South Florida, but other than that, there isn't a lot to their resume, which made the Syracuse win all the more important. Even with the upset, the Cards will need to hold serve this week against ND and Depaul, and pick up a home victory over either Georgetown or the Orange to feel confident in their chances. Road games at Marquette and UConn mark chances to pick up solid road wins. Pitino has said all along he believes his team needs 11 wins in the Big East to make the tournament. If Louisville beats the teams it should beat and picks up another signature home victory, that should be more than enough to keep them from needing a run in the conference tournament to secure an at-large bid. If I know this year's team, they will certainly make it interesting.
-Notre Dame, on the other hand, is doing its best to play their way out of tournament consideration. A dreaded 2 loss week places the Irish at 17-9, 6-7 in the Big East. Granted, the loss at home to St. John's was without Luke Harangody, but a tournament team needs to take care of business at home against teams in the bottom half of the conference. The selection committee will take the absence of Harangody into account when integrating results obtained without him into the comprehensive resume, but even with their star the schedule is daunting for the Irish. The Luke-less Notre Dame men take on Louisville on Wednesday before a home date with Pitt a week later. Georgetown comes next, followed by Connecticut and a trip to Marquette. The opportunities for big wins are there, but Notre Dame needs to go out and get them. The team's struggles on the road, as well as bad losses to Loyola Marymount and Rutgers, are working hard to prevent the Domers from even being considered for tournament inclusion come March. A win over West Virginia is the only saving grace on ND's resume, and once again the out of conference schedule offers no redeeming victories. With Harangody out, Mike Brey is down to a 6-man rotation. Tory Jackson and Tim Abromaitis will have to play brilliantly to get a win on Wednesday, and Harangody will have to return to health in time for next week's date with Pittsburgh to give the Irish any chance. Ty Nash needs to step up and shoulder the load inside for a depleted squad in need of some inside muscle. None of this matters, though, if ND can't amp up the intensity on defense, force turnovers, and keep opponents from getting to whatever spots they want on the court. The Irish have never been able to get opponents out of their comfort zones and come up with key stops when they need them, but if they're going to make a run at a tournament berth, that's exactly what it will take, with or without Harangody. It's time for Mike Brey to let his polished offense run itself, and focus the rest of the season on shoring up some holes on D. Buckle up, everybody, it's gonna be a wild ride to March.