Gene Collier: NCAA tournament bubble teams endure a tortured existence
March 12, 2017 12:01 AM
Steve Helber/Associated Press
Wake Forest head coach Danny Manning directs his team during the second half against Virginia on Jan. 8 in Charlottesville, Va.
By Gene Collier / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On Selection Sunday, like way too many Americans, I am fretful about teams on the bubble, my own personal pathogen of raw anxiety running deep, all the way to the bedrock questions.
What is the bubble?
Why do they call it the bubble?
Where is the bubble?
What are the bubble’s innate properties?
And worst of all, a question I’d never considered until this week: Who is the bubble?
“To coin a phrase that’s almost certainly never been used before,” wrote noted ESPN bubble watcher Eamonn Brennan, “this is where the bubble stops being polite, and starts getting real.”
So it’s human, in its way, the bubble. Cognizant of societal conventions, yet potentially vengeful. Hmm.
When the NCAA’s Men’s Basketball Selection Committee unveils the 68 teams that comprise this year’s tournament Sunday evening, its most unspeakable methods of psychological torture will be deployed on the bubble teams, those village-of-the-basketball-damned schools nearest the indeterminate line that separates the invited from those with their souls fed into a garbage disposal. It’s almost better to be Pitt, Duquesne, or Robert Morris, all so far from the bubble they can’t even hear it pop.
According to the New England Journal of Bracketology, both bracketologists and bubblewatchers alike can and have long since identified this year’s bubble teams, but without agreement on their exact number or their inescapable fate. Are we talking about eight bubble teams, 12 bubble teams, or closer to 20 bubble teams? Thus the exact dimensions of the bubble itself remain unknown. To solve that I guess you need the Bubble Space Telescope.
The Associated Press reported this week that Wake Forest, despite losing to Virginia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament, was still “thought to be on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.”
So there’s a left side? That probably depends on your genesis story. Where the B word came from isn’t clear from the ancient texts, but the bubble is thought to have originated in or around, of all things, the Indianapolis 500.
A web site called phrases.org.uk lists its first citation as a report in the The Lima News, in May of 1970:
“On the 'bubble' is rookie Steve Krisiloff whose 162.448 m.p.h. was the slowest qualifying speed last weekend. With only six spots open, Krisiloff's machine would be ousted if seven cars qualified at a faster speed this week end."
General consensus holds that this is why Syracuse is today “firmly on the bubble,” not on the margins, nor on the perimeter, nor on the elephant, nor On Golden Pond, nor even on the Krisiloff.
Other scholars suggest the whole bubble idea was introduced 316 years before the 1939 debut of the NCAA Tournament, and that the father of the bubble is Shakespeare himself. Not only is the bubble referenced in Macbeth (“Double double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble.”), they posit, but the Bard further included a metaphorical recipe for how the committee has determined the tournament field ever since (“Fillet of a fenny snake, in the cauldron boil and bake; eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog, adder's fork and blind-worm's sting, lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing, for a charm of powerful trouble, like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”)
Today, of course, these ingredients are known as RPI, SOS, and I think EKG, the RPI, SOS, and EKG of your opponents and your opponents’ opponents, signature wins and bad losses, etc.
Still, we’ve so far avoided the broader question. While it’s one thing for this post-modern culture to have dozens of credible bracketologists, and even dozens of websites self-situated to rate the bracketologists (and presumably sources who do nothing but rate the raters, cuz raters gonna rate), it’s another to have inveterate professional bubble watchers who dedicate months of their lives evaluating a small number of college basketball teams who are going absolutely nowhere over the next three months.
Why is the question.
Virginia Commonwealth is the answer.
“We didn’t even get the team together because we didn’t think we were gonna be in,” said VCU coach Will Wade, in town this week with the Commodores for the Atlantic 10 tournament and remembering a day six years deep in the rear view. “The coaches, we were in the office, getting things ready for the NIT (a kind of unlovely March Sadness parting gift) and when they announced the first group on the selection show, we heard UAB. We were so mad because we had played UAB right before Christmas and had totally blown that game. Had the game won. Then a few minutes later we heard our name and we went crazy. I mean there was a dog pile of coaches in the hallway!”
Wade, then an assistant to Shaka Smart, now at Texas, remembers a full week of torture leading up to the bubble moment.
“We’d lost the conference championship game on Monday of that week, so we had a week to just stew over the ratings, living and dying on every result everywhere in the country,” he said. “What kept us going was that (bracketologist) Jerry Palm had us in, and I think the year before he’d had a perfect bracket, so that was our one sliver of hope.”
This was 2011, the first year the NCAA expanded the field to 68, including what’s now called the First Four, the elimination games that solidify the field at 64. VCU toppled USC in Dayton and took the Trojans’ 11 seed, the first step in becoming the first and only team to go First Four to the Final Four. The Commodores then beat Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State, and Kansas before losing to Butler in the national semifinal. Meanwhile, perhaps you’ll remember, Pitt’s 28-6 Panthers drew a No. 1 seed, survived UNC-Asheville, and promptly lost to Butler on a day not even Talib Zanna could save them.
“I just remember being so thankful,” said Darius Theus, the backup point guard on that VCU team and now the university’s director of student-athlete development. “We didn’t finish the season very strong and we were just figuring our chances were slim and none. Then we got in, it was such a shock, we just wanted to show everyone we were a good team.”
Forever redefining the potentialities of Cinderella, still the only fairy tale character ever cited in this affair, VCU is and was the rarest of exceptions. Since the expansion of the tournament in 1985 to 64 teams (just eight times its original size), only one team seeded 12th has gone as far as the Elite Eight. The lowest seeded team to win the national title was 8th seed Villanova in 1985, but just about every team in the same hemisphere as the bubble has flamed out. In 32 years, only six No. 13 seeds have reached the Sweet 16, and only two No. 14 seeds have done the same. No team seeded No. 16 has ever won a game in the NCAA Tournament.
Might be an indication the tournament is too big. I know. Crazy talk.
Anyway, on Selection Sunday, here’s to the bubble teams and especially to the bubble watchers, for they have infinitely more patience and discipline than I, never mind it’s a low bar.
It is recorded, you should know, by the Guiness World Records people, that in April of 2014, someone named Gary Pearlman created the largest free floating soap bubble of all time using a string tied between two fishing poles – 834 cubic feet.
Now there’s a bubble I could probably watch. Just not for long.
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