Big East & ACC Tournament Bubble Talk: Miami & South Florida

The battle on the NCAA bubble is intense in the Big East and ACC, and particularly down in the southern part of Florida. Today, TheSportsNotebook will take a look at the cases of bubble teams in Miami and South Florida, and briefly summarize the rest of the conference.

Miami (16-9, 7-5): I thought Miami would be in better shape right now. Jim Larranaga came down from George Mason to take his crack at coaching in a power conference. He’s got a great tandem on the front line with Kenny Kadji and Reggie Johnson, both of whom stand 6’10”. Both have played well this season, and at times Johnson has stepped up to become truly dominant. Collectively, they average 25 points/13 rebounds a game, and Kadji is able to step out and hit the three-ball. With help, they’d be a good foundation for a true ACC contender.

The problem Larranaga’s had is in his backcourt. Miami’s got very talented guards with junior Durand Scott and senior Malcolm Grant, but both have had tough season shooting the ball. The point production is there (this duo also combines for 25 ppg), but efficiency is now, with Grant struggling at 33 percent from the floor. Even worse, there is consistent three-point shooter in the backcourt. Freshman Shane Larkin, the son of Cincinnati Reds’ Hall of Fame shortstop and ESPN analyst Barry Larkin, has promise here, but while Larkin’s 35 percent from behind the arc is good enough to justify taking the shot, it won’t stretch a defense out. Hence, if Miami wants consistency from behind the arc, they have to get Kadji outside, which in turn takes away from a key team strength.

Miami stepped up with a big win on Super Bowl Sunday when they won in overtime at Duke, but that’s the only notable win they’ve got this year. The schedule is filled with losses to fellow bubble contenders—the ‘Canes lost at Ole Miss, at Purdue, at West Virginia, and at home to Memphis and N.C. State. That’s a collective body of work that gives the selection committee plenty of reason to reject you in a close race, and with’s Joe Lunardi currently projecting Miami as a #12 seed and one of the last four teams to make the field, this is nothing if not a close race.

While I don’t like Miami’s resume I still like their talent, and the win at Duke showed why I believe they can play well in these final four games and in the ACC tournament. The ‘Canes play at Maryland tomorrow, and then have a huge home game with Florida State. Next week they have an even bigger road game at N.C. State—currently one of the last four to miss the field according to Lunardi—and then a home date with lowly Boston College. This isn’t a team I’d want to mess with if I were a #4 or #5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, as Kadji and Johnson present a lot of matchup problems. The question is whether they can find the consistency the rest of the way to get that shot.

Lunardi currently projects Miami as one of five ACC teams to get a bid. Duke and North Carolina are each sitting as #2 seeds, while Florida State—tied for first with the Big Two, albeit   a weaker non-conference resume—is sitting on #4. Virginia is at #8. Then you have Miami and N.C. State squarely on the bubble with the ‘Canes leaning in. But that’s a race that will change with each game both teams play. Maryland has slipped to 15-11 overall and short of winning out and grabbing a couple wins in the ACC Tournament, is not going to the NCAA.

South Florida (17-10, 10-4): When South Florida started poorly in November and December there was no reason to think it would be impacting our thinking in late February. The Bulls lost at home to Old Dominion and Penn State, and dropped road games to Virginia Commonwealth and Auburn, along with a predictable defeat at Kansas. They lost in Big East play to UConn, Marquette and Georgetown. But other than that, they’ve turned it around in conference play and been very consistent, putting together a 10-4 conference record and at 17-10 overall are now back in the picture for the NCAA Tournament. If not for those home losses to ODU and Penn State, South Florida would be a lock.

South Florida is a team oriented toward the frontcourt with five of its top seven players going 6’6” or taller, and the go-to player is 6’10” senior Augustus Gilchrist. He’s averaging an 11/5 each night. Gilchrist has been an impact player in the Big East through his career and is finally getting a chance to prove it in big games in these coming weeks.

Anthony Collins is the freshman at the point and a good shooter, at least inside the three-point line. After Collins, the Bulls are mostly a team of interchangeable parts. Toarlyn Fitzpatrick is more of a rebounder, while Hugh Roberson is a good shooter, but for the most part Stan Heath has some flexibility in how he uses the five players between Collins at the point and Gilchrist in the post.

It’s easy to look at South Florida’s Big East record and think that will be enough to carry them, but they really don’t have much in terms of quality wins. A home win over Seton Hall is the best conference victory on the schedule, while Cleveland State is the best non-conference win. That would have to be the reason Lunardi currently projects him as one of the first four teams to miss the NCAA bracket.

The good news for Heath is that not only is he close enough to be in the margin of error, but the remaining schedule provides plenty of chances to get those quality wins. South Florida visits Syracuse and Louisville in these final two weeks and has home games with fellow bubble teams Cincinnati and West Virginia. If the Bulls can even split those four games and finish 19-12/12-6, you’d have to like their chances going into the Big East tournament. Of course the bad news is they’ll need more than Gilchrist to win two of those games. It’s time for the supporting cast to step up.

Lunardi is currently showing Big East teams Seton Hall and Cincinnati sneaking into the field, while South Florida just misses. I’m not as sold on Seton Hall, while I think the Bearcats are better off than the ESPN bracketologist gives them credit for. Conversely, a projection of UConn at #11 seems optimistic to me given the Huskies poor play since Jim Calhoun was sidelined. West Virginia is sitting on #10, reasonably safe, but one loss puts them back on the bubble. The absolute locks are Notre Dame (#6), Georgetown (#3), Marquette (#3) and Syracuse (#1).