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Bubble watch: Teams that need multiple conference tourney wins to make NCAA tournament

Nearly every year, a team or two strong-arms their way into the NCAA tournament field with a conference tournament performance. Can someone make it happen this season?

There are a handful of teams who are likely on the wrong side of the bubble heading into their conference tournaments. Teams like Villanova and Providence in the Big East each need great performances — and they're on the same side of the bracket. Only one could make a surprising run to the Big East tournament final.

Here are the teams we think need multiple wins to sneak into the field and the non-Power Five team that will be on the sidelines this week hoping it's on the right side of the bubble.

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Iowa (18-13, 10-10 Big Ten)

The Hawkeyes likely fell further off the bubble with a 73-61 home loss to Illinois on Sunday. The defeat dropped Iowa to .500 in the Big Ten and to the No. 7 seed in the conference tournament.

That means a Thursday matchup against an Ohio State team that’s rebounded under interim coach Jake Diebler. Since Diebler took over for the fired Chris Holtmann, Ohio State has won five of six and also gotten a victory over Purdue.

If Iowa can take down Ohio State — the Cyclones won by two at home earlier in the year — a rematch against Illinois awaits. This time, Iowa will need to get a win over the Illini or otherwise its tournament hopes will go kaput.

New Mexico (22-9, 10-8 Mountain West)

The Lobos enter the MWC tournament as the No. 6 seed. That means a matchup with last-place Air Force in the first round and a game against Boise State with a win. The Broncos are likely somewhere on the No. 8/9 line in the NCAA tournament. If New Mexico can knock off Boise State and also take down Nevada — another Mountain West team that looks to be solidly in the tournament — the Lobos should get the MWC another at-large bid.

CORAL GABLES, FL - MAR 04: Pittsburgh Head Coach Jeff Capel encourages his players in the second half as the Miami Hurricanes faced the Pittsburgh Panthers on March 4, 2023, at the Watsco Center in Coral Gables, Florida. (Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Jeff Capel's team finished fourth in the ACC. (Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) (Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Pitt (21-10, 12-8 ACC)

Could the fourth-place team in the ACC miss the NCAA tournament? It sure seems possible. The Panthers closed the regular season on a three-game win streak and took down NC State on Saturday. But Pitt ranks just 46th in KenPom’s rankings behind teams like New Mexico, Villanova and Indiana State.

Pitt’s at No. 44 in the NET rankings with a 2-6 record in Quad 1 games. It also doesn’t help that the Panthers lost at home by seven in December to a Missouri team that went winless in SEC play. Pitt will likely play Wake Forest in the third round of the ACC tournament on Thursday before a possible matchup against North Carolina on Friday. If Pitt can get to the semis and take down North Carolina, it could be in the tournament no matter what happens in the ACC title game.

Providence (19-12, 10-10 Big East)

The Friars stumbled to the finish as they lost three of their final four regular season games. Granted, two of those losses came against Marquette and UConn, but a win in either or both of those games could have made Providence’s NCAA tournament chances look a lot better.

Thanks to those three losses, Providence dropped to No. 7 in the Big East and takes on Georgetown in the first round. The Hoyas are the Friars’ only win in the past four games. An upset of Creighton in the second round seems like a must if Providence is going to get into the tournament.

NEWARK, NEW JERSEY - MARCH 6: Justin Moore #5 of the Villanova Wildcats in action against the Seton Hall Pirates during a game at Prudential Center on March 6, 2024 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Villanova finished 10-10 in the Big East. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) (Rich Schultz via Getty Images)

Villanova (17-14, 10-10 Big East)

The Wildcats are the No. 6 seed in the Big East tournament following losses to Seton Hall and Creighton to end the regular season. Since they missed out on the top five in the conference, the Wildcats get a DePaul team that’s won just three games all season and is winless in 20 Big East games to open the conference tournament. We can safely pencil in a win there, right?

From there, Villanova draws a Marquette team that could still be without Tyler Kolek. A win with or without Kolek on the court would be massive for Villanova’s chances. But would it be enough? We see 20 wins being the benchmark for Villanova to avoid missing the big dance.

The team rooting against everyone else

Indiana State (28-6, 17-3 Missouri Valley)

The Sycamores are left to hope that none of the teams mentioned above have a good conference tournament run. After winning the Missouri Valley regular season title, Indiana State and star Robbie Avila lost 84-81 to Drake in the MVC tournament final on Sunday. In a fair world, that loss doesn’t knock the Sycamores out of the NCAA tournament. Two of its six losses this season came from Drake and two others came from Alabama and Michigan State. But this is also a tournament selection committee that typically values Power Five mediocrity over lower-conference excellence. If we were picking the tournament field, Indiana State would be in.