3 Important Saturday Bubble Games to Watch

A preview of three must-win games for Saturday.

Saturday is an important day in college basketball, particularly for teams who are in a state of flux regarding their NCAA tournament hopes. While conference tournaments will undoubtedly play a major role in determining the final field, Saturday presents some interesting matchups for teams that need a win to remain viable contenders. Today we look at three games where winning or losing could be the difference in receiving a tournament bid for both teams involved.

As always, these previews are looked at through the lens of our nERD metric, which ranks squads based on the expected point differential between the team and an average team on a neutral court. Using nERD, along with algorithmic simulations, numberFire has also established projections regarding what the tournament field should look like, which also help in understanding these games.

Colorado (21-9, 10-7, nERD Rank: 51st) at
California (18-12, 9-8, nERD Rank: 59th)

Colorado went into last weekend projected as a relatively safe 7 seed in the tournament, before falling 75-64 to Utah on the road. That marked the second straight loss for them, and their third loss in the last six, raising serious concerns about their tournament chances.

Then, last night, Colorado upset Stanford 59-56 on the road, seemingly reestablishing their safety as a tournament team. But this time of year, fortunes can change on a dime and loss to a motived Cal on Saturday followed by a poor showing in the conference tournament could push Colorado out of the field. However, we're still of the belief that Colorado will turn out to be a low seven seed.

Cal’s tournament hopes are very much in doubt, and Saturday’s game against Colorado is about as much of a must-win game as you're likely to find. Cal limps into the game having lost their last three to Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah. They were already projected as a 12 seed come tournament time, before the losses to ASU and Utah. Following this losing streak, Cal's not only projected to be out, but will have to do additional work in the conference tournament to get in. A win against Colorado in the regular season finale would be a good place to start.

The nERD scores of California and Cal project less than a point difference (1.18) in favor of Colorado, if the teams to were to meet on a neutral court. This game will be played at Haas Pavilion, but this does not necessarily translate to an advantage for Cal, however, as last night’s loss to Utah marked their fourth home conference loss of the season. While both teams have gotten excellent guard play throughout the season, look for the battle of the big men to determine the outcome in this one. Richard Solomon of Cal averages a double-double per game, and is a monster on the glass. Josh Scott of Colorado is a better scorer than Solomon, and averages 8.7 boards per game himself. Look for these two to lock horns, and whoever has the better game certainly will give their team a chance to pull out a much needed win.

Missouri (21-9, 9-8, nERD Rank: 57th) at
Tennessee (19-11, 10-7, nERD Rank: 27th)

Missouri and Tennessee will square off in what is a big game for both schools. Tennessee entered the week projected by numberFire as a 12 seed, and Missouri came in as a 12 seed. Both teams have done what they need to do this week headed into Saturday’s showdown, especially Tennessee, who has shifted to a 12 seed.

Tennesee is coming off blowout wins against Vanderbilt and Auburn. Missouri handily defeated Mississippi State on Saturday, before narrowly escaping what would have been a horrible loss to Texas A&M last night. With Arkansas currently playing well and challenging for a third SEC spot in the tournament, both teams tournament resumes could benefit heavily from a win in this game.

nERD scores in this contest would favor Tennessee by a margin of 4.46 on a neutral court, and Tennessee has the added benefit of playing this one at home. The teams have already played in Columbia this year, where Missouri pulled out a 75-70 win. Jabari Brown lead the way for Missouri in that game posting a 24-5-2 stat line, while Jordan McRae put up 31 points for Tennessee.

The biggest factors in this matchup will likely be the performance of the Tennessee bigs, Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon, and the performance of the “big three” of Missouri in Brown, Jordan Clarkson, and Earnest Ross. Missouri does not have the personnel to go head-to-head with Stokes and Maymon in the post or on the glass. If Missouri guards effectively penetrate, score, and draw fouls on the Tennessee bigs, they could pull this one out. If UT pounds the post, controls the glass and protects the rim against penetration, they will be in an excellent position to punch their tournament ticket.

Pitt (22-8, 10-7, nERD Rank: 19th) at
Clemson (19-10, 10-7, nERD Rank: 59th)

Clemson comes into their matchup with Pitt barely holding on to tournament hopes, but they're still alive. They're not projected by numberFire to make the tournament, but are coming off two straight wins against Maryland and Miami this week and a quality win against Pitt to go alongside some good ACC tournament play could be enough to make the field.

Pitt entered the week projected as a 12 seed, before losing at home to N.C. State at home on Monday. This loss sent what appeared to be a relatively safe Pitt team back into the bubble discussion. And, as it stands, Pitt isn't expected to make the tournament despite such a high nERD score.

Everything coming into this game seems to favor Pitt. The nERD scores favor the Panthers by 5.63 points on a neutral court, and Pitt has already destroyed Clemson once this year, 76-43.

While this game is being played at Clemson, this is little solace, as they have lost three home games already this season. As demonstrated by the N.C. State loss, however, Pitt has not played up to their nERD score over the last month. The most concerning issue for the matchup with Clemson is how N.C. State was able to beat Pitt. That game turned into the T.J. Warren show, who put up a stat line of 41-5-3. Warren was essentially a one-man wrecking crew, who is capable of taking over a game and leading his team to victory.

Sound familiar? It should. Clemson has their own version in K.J. McDaniels, who accounts for more than a quarter of Clemson’s production in almost every statistical category. If Pitt holds McDaniels to a good - not great - game, they should pull out a win. If they allow him to go nuts like they did with Warren, things could get hairy in a hurry.