March Madness bubble watch: North Carolina takes a swing at knocking out ACC partner Syracuse

Welcome to March.

We suspect it will be a happier March for all who love college basketball than the one we endured 12 long months ago.

It may not be a pleasant month for those who fall on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, but the fact that we can be assured there will be a tournament in 2021 might make it better even for fans of those teams.

MORE: Bracket predictions 1.0: Projecting the Field of 68

So welcome, also, to the first Sporting News Bubble Watch of the season. We hope this helps you as you navigate the most wonderful time of the year.

NCAA bubble games to watch Monday

North Carolina at Syracuse, 7 p.m., ESPN

The Tar Heels (15-8, No. 41 NET) took an enormous step away from the bubble with Saturday’s 78-70 victory over ACC leader Florida State, which made Roy Williams’ 900th career victory a huge one. With victories over Louisville, Duke, Stanford and one in the first meeting with the Orange, the Tar Heels have a reasonable case for inclusion that could only be damaged with a defeat tonight.

That’s in part because it would give some life to the fading hopes of Syracuse (13-8, No. 56 NET), which took a huge blow with consecutive losses to Duke and Georgia Tech.

Remember, it’s never a matter of, “Well, the ACC will only get so many bids.” But when bubble teams wind up on the same court, it makes great sense to try to eliminate the competition.

Other bubble action:

Western Kentucky vs. Florida International. Western (16-5, No. 74 NET) is leading Conference USA with a 9-2 record that translates to an .818 winning percentage, the only C-USA team above .800 in league play. But this is a highly competitive league whose tournament could produce any one of a half-dozen champions without requiring a major upset, including UAB and Louisiana Tech (both 19-6 overall), North Texas (13-7) or Old Dominion (14-6).

The Hilltoppers have the best at-large case in the league, from their success in conference to non-league victories over Alabama and Memphis. Fans of bubble teams will root hard for the Hilltoppers to keep rolling.

Dayton at St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies (13-3, No. 28 NET) are a projected No. 10 seed by the Bracket Matrix composite of roughly 100 NCAA Tournament projections. They stand first in the Atlantic 10 with an 11-3 record, but the pandemic limited them to only two non-conference games, so every league victory is essential to their at-large case.

UMass at Saint Louis. The Billikens (12-5, No. 50 NET) are the functional opposite of their A-10 partners, the Bonnies. They did well in non-league play, posting a 7-1 record that included wins over LSU and N.C. State. But pandemic interruptions have limited them to nine league games, of which they’ve won just five. This is their final regular-season game.

Saint Joseph’s at Richmond. The at-large chances for the Spiders (12-6, No. 54 NET) are slim, as they’re only 6-4 in the A-10 and their best non-league win collapsed with Kentucky’s season-long struggles to win games. This game will do nothing for their case but, in the case of defeat, wreck it. The Spiders need to excel in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, which will be played in their home city.

Air Force at Colorado State. The Rams (14-4, No. 28 NET) should close a solid regular season by beating one of the Mountain West’s weakest teams. Then comes the league tournament, which also features bubble-bound Utah State and Boise State.

(All records are against Division I competition only. All NET rankings come from

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