March Madness bubble watch: Big night for Michigan State with rivalry game, chance to approach ‘lock’ status

Here’s an essential truth about those teams that have found themselves on the March Madness bubble: Sooner or later, they’re going to tell you whether they really want to play in the NCAA Tournament.

It happened in 2019, when Ohio State faced Indiana in a second-round Big Ten Tournament game that bracket analysts identified as one in which the winner would have a strong chance of being included in the field and the loser almost certainly would fall short.

The Buckeyes entered that showdown with an 18-13 record and left at 19-13. They made it. IU did not.

So what are we to make of the statement issued Wednesday night by the Stanford Cardinal?

Handed the challenging assignment of visiting the Southern California Trojans, Stanford scored 17 points in the first half, shot 25 percent from the field, turned over the ball 16 times and fell behind, at one point in the second half, by 34 points. The Cardinal’s fourth consecutive defeat, 79-42, dropped them to 14-12 on the season.

All these recent losses were without star big man Oscar da Silva, but this level of performance is difficult to justify by the absence of any one player.

That’s something to consider as the “bubble” games continue through conference tournaments in the next eight or nine days. Who really wants to be in? It’s not as simple as that, but that does cover a lot of ground in the discussion.

Here’s a look at today’s short list of such games:

NCAA bubble games to watch Thursday

Richmond vs. Duquesne, Atlantic 10 Championship Round 2, 11 a.m., NBCSN. Are we still listing Richmond (12-7, No. 62 NET) as a bubble team? It is difficult to see the Spiders reaching the NCAA Tournament without the A-10’s automatic bid, but the tournament bracket offers the opportunity, in theory, to knock off regular-season champ St. Bonaventure in the quarters and bubble-bound Saint Louis in the semis. So it’s not over ‘til it’s over.

Michigan State at Michigan, 7 p.m., ESPN. The Spartans (14-10, No. 71) forced their way onto the bubble with victories over Illinois and Ohio State, and they would be in a pretty safe position had they won at Maryland on Sunday. Now, with two games against the rival Wolverines to close the season, they’ll need to split to feel secure. That’s a mountainous task, given that the Wolverines have only lost twice this season. But it’s better than no chance at all. If MSU were to win, it would own five Quad 1 victories — including three against teams on Sporting News’ projected top two seed lines — and nine against the first two quadrants. It’s weird for a team to be so close to locking up a bid and, at the same time, so close to missing the field altogether. But this is an unusual season.

Wyoming at Utah State, 9:30, FS1. Utah State (15-7, No. 47) has not played since completing a series sweep of Nevada on Sunday, but the Aggies are having a heck of a week. Stanford, Seton Hall, fellow Mountain West contender Boise State — all have played their way off the bracket and onto the selection committee’s wait list since. Somebody’s got to take their place, though it won’t be the Aggies if they don’t handle their business against the 12-9 Cowboys.

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