Bubble Watch: Phoenix a ‘mid-major cause celebre’

Coach Brian Wardle and his Phoenix men’s basketball team have high hopes to hear their names called when the brackets are announced for the 68-team NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. That announcement will be made on national television early Sunday evening (March 16).

Judging from the prognostications of those who follow college basketball for a living, Green Bay is a worthy candidate.

The Phoenix resume includes a 24-6 overall record (21-6 against Division I teams), a first-place 14-2 record in the Horizon League, a national computer ranking of 56, wins over ACC regular-season titlist Virginia and Conference USA champion Tulsa, and a narrow loss to Big Ten power Wisconsin.

UW-Green Bay missed out on the Horizon’s automatic bid last Saturday with a loss to UW-Milwaukee in the league tournament semifinals. (UWM went on to beat Wright State for the championship and a guaranteed NCAA slot.) Green Bay is assured of no worse than an NIT bid by virtue of its regular-season title.

Earlier in the week, top ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas and CBS Sports expert Doug Gottlieb tweeted encouraging things about the Phoenix deserving an NCAA at-large bid.

Also, at mid-day Friday, two days before the tournament field is to be announced, ESPN’s popular Bubble Watch site had Green Bay among those teams in the mix for snagging one of the last “Big Dance” spots:

  • Green Bay [24-6 (14-2), RPI: 56, SOS: 161] A warm Bubble Watch welcome back for the Green Bay Phoenix, who have become something of a mid-major cause celebre since their semifinal loss to Milwaukee in the Horizon League tournament last week. That’s not why they’re back, of course; it’s merely worth noting as the committee gets down to business in Indianapolis this weekend. No, Green Bay is back on the page because it’s not clear there are that many bubble teams with better resumes. Yeah, the Horizon League was rough, and yeah, Green Bay’s major claim to fame — its win over Virginia — came at home, in December, back when UVa wasn’t playing nearly as well as in the two months since. But they do have a reasonable RPI (high-50s) and a reasonable nonconference SOS number (also high-50s). And if the committee takes a long look and thinks the Phoenix are worthy, some of the usual considerations and comparisons could fall away. We can only predict so much.

You can see the full article and the listings for all the tournament bubble teams here.

Not all analysts, of course, are as optimistic about Green Bay’s NCAA chances. ESPN guru Joe Lunardi, for example, has lengthened his odds of the Phoenix making the field. At one point he had Green Bay listed among eight teams fighting for the final four spots, but as of Friday he had downgraded that prediction. Last year, Lunardi correctly forecast every entrant in the field.

A given team’s chances can change quickly leading up to the Sunday announcement. For example, post-season tournament games in the so-called “power conferences” — most of which played on selection weekend — can work against the candidacies of mid-major programs. A Big Ten, ACC or SEC team with an unimpressive .500 conference record can rack up big wins in the tournament and, even without winning the title and automatic bid, improve its stock with the NCAA committee. It is also true that in some years (not many, actually) the committee appears to favor instead those mid-major candidacies. Which is why predicting the NCAA field has become a cottage industry in the sports world.

Green Bay Coach Brian Wardle says his team can make a good case for inclusion. He spoke earlier this week with sports columnist Jeff Eistenberg, who writes that Green Bay belongs in the field.

“If we get called, I feel we will make some noise and make the selection committee look smart,” Wardle told Eisenberg. “We can be a team fans can really embrace. We play a fun style of basketball, we have talented players and we’ve got a couple guys who can really do some things that the nation hasn’t seen. We’d love the opportunity.

“I know we’re a good basketball team,” Wardle said. “I know we have talented players who can beat anyone on any given night. I’m just going to sit back and let things fall where they may. My big thing is always to control what we can control. We have no control anymore.”

To see the column, click here.

Finally, there’s an interesting online article that suggests that Phoenix star guard Keifer Sykes belongs in the NCAAs on character, heart and entertainment value alone: “If the tournament is watching, how could you not bring this kid to the dance?” Click here.



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