February 24, 2024

Dribble Handoff: Michigan State, Gonzaga among bubble teams capable of making 2024 NCAA Tournament


College basketball’s critics often say that the sport’s regular season is insignificant in light of how large the NCAA Tournament looms in March. However, that notion discounts the dramatic moments that lead a team to an NCAA Tournament bid in the first place.

While a handful of programs have already assembled strong enough résumés to be considered locks for the Big Dance, many more will shape their fates with each passing game over the five-plus weeks until Selection Sunday. A bad loss could wind up being the determining factor for a team relegated to the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament. Similarly, an upset could be the difference between Selection Sunday jubilation and disappointment. 

February brings urgency in college hoops. Nothing comes easily this time of year, and if you think it’s insignificant you need to pay closer attention. Everyone is playing for something, and what’s happening now shapes the storylines that will define March. CBS Sports Bracketology Expert Jerry Palm identified 19 teams as “on the bubble” on Monday. For this week’s Dribble Handoff, our writers are picking the bubble team they believe in the most.

Read more: Jerry Palm’s first Bubble Watch as March Madness approaches

Michigan State

Palm has Michigan State listed as one of the last four at-large teams in the bracket — and that was before Tuesday’s loss at Minnesota. That’s the definition of living on the bubble. It suggests things could go either way. But I still believe Michigan State will do enough before Selection Sunday to secure a spot in the 2024 NCAA Tournament and extend Tom Izzo’s streak of consecutive Big Dance appearances from 25 to 26.

Twenty-five is the record, by the way.

In other words, nobody besides Izzo has ever done what Izzo has already done, which is why his place in the sport as an all-time great is cemented. Still, the Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer will have to coach up to his reputation over the final eight games of the regular season to get the Spartans into the bracket after they started 4-5 with a loss at home to James Madison. That was rough. And Michigan State’s 4-9 record in the first two quadrants remains less than ideal (although seven of the nine losses falling in Q1 illustrates how Michigan State is mostly clear of “bad” losses even if nine is still a bunch).

Bottom line is it won’t be easy, but six of the Spartans’ final eight regular-season games are against schools ranked outside of the top 55 of the NET. That’s why I still expect Michigan State to close strong and finish on the right side of the bubble when the bracket is set in 39 days. — Gary Parrish

In the preseason, when CBS on the whole put Butler 10th out of 11 Big East teams in the predictions, I identified the Bulldogs then and there as underrated and likely to make a push in Thad Matta’s second season. One week into February and Butler’s 15-8 with a 6-6 Big East mark, having come off a 1-1 split at Creighton (a 99-98 win) and at UConn (a 71-62 loss). I think Butler is making the field, primarily because Matta has a team that isn’t mistake-prone, doesn’t really get intimidated by anyone and is reliable from the foul line (No. 8 nationally in accuracy at 78.8%). Next up are home games vs. Providence, Marquette and Creighton. Put me down for Butler going 2-1 there and clearly being in NCAA Tournament forecasts after the three-game home stand. The road wins over Marquette and Creighton are huge, as are victories against Texas Tech and Boise State. Put me down for Butler being a No. 10 seed on Selection Sunday.  — Matt Norlander

You can’t wipe some of the ugly off of Virginia’s early-season résumé; losses to Memphis and Notre Dame have not and will not age well when the committee reviews the totality of its body of work. But the Cavaliers have seemingly righted the ship, and after a 2-3 start to ACC play they are somehow 7-0 over their last seven games with wins over Clemson, Miami and NC State among them. That puts UVa one game off of UNC in the league standings and one game clear of Duke for second place.

Virginia’s 60-38 beatdown of Miami at home on Monday was further proof that it seems to have figured things out. Tony Bennett’s best teams have won with elite defense as the foundational piece, and this team with Reece Beekman and Ryan Dunn has the inside-outside defensive force to develop into a nightly pain-in-the-rear for opposing offenses. Whether the offense can consistently produce at a good enough level to lift UVa to a tourney appearance is up in the air, but I believe in Bennett and his system to continue humming along like it has the last month. If that continues, there should be enough chances in the ACC to pad the dossier with a body of work worthy of inclusion to the Big Dance. — Kyle Boone

An NCAA Tournament without Gonzaga is unfathomable. The Bulldogs have made it to 24 straight, which is second only to Michigan State (25) and Kansas (33). This clearly isn’t one of the most talented teams of coach Mark Few’s coaching career, and its lack of depth is a serious problem. But the Zags have enough meat left on the bone to overcome their current 0-5 Quad 1 record and secure a spot in the Big Dance. 

Gonzaga has no Q3 or Q4 losses and should have at least three more Q1 chances before Selection Sunday. A game at Kentucky on Saturday could be just what the Zags need to find the right side of the bubble. If not, games at San Francisco and at Saint Mary’s to close the regular season are both on track to be Quad 1 opportunities. 

The Bulldogs are hurt by the fact that wins against Syracuse, UCLA and USC in nonconference play have turned out to be relatively meaningless. But with his team’s back against the wall, look for Few to demonstrate why he’s likely going to be a Hall of Famer. — David Cobb

Outside of Arizona, Colorado has the highest ceiling of any team in the Pac-12 come tournament time because of the sheer talent on the roster. It has to get into the dance first, which could be a challenge unless it closes out conference play strong. In Jerry Palm’s latest Bracketology, Colorado is listed on the No. 11 line as one of four Pac-12 teams in the field.

The Buffaloes currently rank No. 30 in the Net Rankings and No. 27 in KenPom.com. And then there’s this: Colorado has played just 11 of its 22 games with its top seven rotation players available. That includes star freshman Cody Williams missing nine games.

This is the best core group of talent Colorado coach Tad Boyle has had during his tenure with the school. Cody Williams, KJ Simpson and Tristan da Silva will be a problem for opposing teams in March. It just has to get healthy to make some noise in the tournament. I think it can. — Cameron Salerno





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