The goal is to be peaking in March.
NCAA tournament bubble teams often follow that script by playing their way into the field before Selection Sunday. While the selection committee examines the full résumé from November to March for an at-large bid, teams that are winning big games or putting together win streaks in late February are making a strong case at the right time. Sometimes, like Sweet 16 finisher Oregon last year, the momentum can lead to an automatic bid by winning the conference tournament.
Still, for these fringe teams to become NCAA tournament sleepers, winning is essential.
Here’s a look at seven bubble teams with momentum poised to be sleepers in March Madness.
UCLA. The Bruins (17-11, NET score of 76) are hot and have played themselves onto the bubble with five consecutive wins, including Quadrant 1 road victories at Arizona and Colorado. After a rough start in coach Mick Cronin’s first year, UCLA has found its identity at the right time and can still win the Pac-12 title. The last three games of the regular season won’t be easy, though, starting with a similarly hot team in Arizona State visiting Thursday.
Providence: The Friars (16-12, NET score of 48) have been on the outside looking in for a while. But they’re in the mix as a No. 11 seed or play-in seed thanks to three huge wins in Big East play, led by home victories against top-five projected seeds Seton Hall and Marquette. Providence’s credentials feature seven Quadrant 1 victories, more than any bubble team at this point.
LANDSCAPE CHANGE:College basketball must adjust to coming transfer rule
BRACKETOLOGY:Maryland misses chance to move up to No. 1 seed
JAYHAWKS AT TOP:Kansas returns to No. 1 spot in men’s basketball poll
Clemson: The Tigers (14-12, NET score 74) are starting to come on strong with three wins in a row, including a defeat of Louisville last week. They also own a win over Duke on their profile, but still has to play themselves in because of a December-January skid when they lost six of seven. The ACC has been down this year, meaning more than a few marquee wins will be necessary down the stretch.
Memphis: Coach Penny Hardaway had a preseason top-15 team before NBA lottery pick James Wiseman left the team. The Wiseman-less version of the Tigers (19-8, NET score 61) has taken a while to come together and been largely inconsistent. But two wins last week appeared to signal a turn in the right direction, mainly a one-point defeat of league leader Houston. Precious Achiuwa (15.2 ppg, 10.1 rpg) gives Hardaway a dynamic playmaker to fuel a late-season push.
UNC Greensboro: The Spartans (23-6, NET score 62) have been overshadowed by East Tennessee State’s strong season (and at-large bid worthy profile) in the Southern Conference. But they could very easily play themselves onto the right side of the bubble as a No. 12 seed by winning out and reaching the Southern Conference tournament title game against ETSU. If UNCG does make it to March Madness, this is a team that played Kansas close back in November and beat Georgetown on the road.
Richmond: The Spiders (20-7, NET score 49) had a five-game winning streak snapped with a road loss to St. Bonaventure on Saturday, but are still in the mix to garner at at-large bid. The Atlantic 10 is a unique mid-major league with Dayton in line for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. Rhode Island is also on the bubble as a projected No. 10 seed. If Richmond can put together another winning streak stretching into the A-10 tourney, its chances of hearing its name called on Selection Sunday are high.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.
A look at the projected field of 68 courtesy of USA TODAY Sports’ bracketologist Shelby Mast: