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Bubble baggage: the weight of unfamiliar pressure

Life on the NCAA tournament bubble is difficult enough as it is.

A long season winds toward its conclusion, which means that bodies are wearing down. There’s no mid-February week off for an All-Star break as there is in the NBA. Legs aren’t as fresh. The physical dimensions of late-February and early-March basketball are imposing in their own right.

Then come the psychological aspects of this challenge which don’t even relate to the mind-body connection.

Teams on the bubble don’t occupy a “one size fits all” dynamic, but they all hear — to varying degrees — how special or important it would be to make the Big Dance. The overachievers on the bubble are showered with a mixture of praise and encouragement, creating the kind of excitement which sometimes leads to giddiness… and a lack of stone-cold focus. Underachievers on the bubble hear a lot about the idea that “If you don’t make the NCAA tournament this season, it’s a huge letdown for everyone.” That kind of thought — even if it initially comes from the outside world — can seep into the minds of players and hijack their levels of confidence.

How good you are. How good you need to be. How big this moment is. How big this moment could be. Players can try to seal themselves off from other students, and to a certain extent, the practice court and the locker room offer sanctuary from the coming Madness of March, but it’s all so extraordinarily difficult for 18-to-21-year-old human beings to maintain perfect calm and equilibrium through the bubble process.

It’s especially challenging for teams with rosters that aren’t familiar with these kinds of tensions at this point in a season.

Look around, and you’ll quickly see why.

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Florida State is used to life on the bubble, but not some of its new players such as Dwayne Bacon. The shooting guard has not been able to elevate his game in the precise portion of the season when the Seminoles have needed something special. Florida State hasn’t made the NCAAs since 2012. New blood was supposed to make the 2015-2016 roster good enough to lift FSU to a higher level, but Dwayne hasn’t been able to bring home the… well, you know how that sentence ends.

Elsewhere in the ACC, Clemson — which overachieved for much of the season — has plainly sagged in the face of bubble pressure over the past few weeks. Losses to North Carolina State and (Tuesday night) Georgia Tech have moved Clemson off the bubble for now. Perhaps the Tigers can play their way back onto the bubble, but they’ve fallen well below several other teams, to the point that they’re not centrally in the conversation at this time. Clemson didn’t figure to contend for an NCAA berth before the season began, so the world Brad Brownell’s team entered in February was a strange one.

It showed.

You can see this in the ACC, and you can see it in so many other corners of the country.

Saint Bonaventure, profiled over the weekend, is exhibiting the inconsistency of a team which hasn’t been through this rodeo before — at least not at this stage of the season. The Bonnies might have been in the bubble picture in late January over the past few seasons, but they haven’t been this involved in a bubble race since they went Dancing in 2012. This current crop of players is finally in the middle of the chase for a tourney ticket. Losing to La Salle but then winning at Dayton reveal a team which is hungry yet so very vulnerable to the stresses of the season.

That last sentence very much applies to Texas Tech, only with one twist: When the Red Raiders played a poor first half against an inferior team, they managed to stop their freefall and regroup. Winning Tuesday night against TCU after trailing by 14 points late in the first half (12 at halftime) represents a profound triumph for Tech — not over an opposing team, but over the distractions, hype, excitement, and the sense that a berth is already locked up. A loss would have thrown the Red Raiders into a very uncomfortable situation. They did extremely well to fend off TCU and solidify their at-large candidacy, but their narrow escape reminds everyone in college basketball how hard it is to cope with this kind of pressure when it’s unknown.

These Texas Tech players have toiled in the shadows the past few seasons under Tubby Smith. They’ve rebuilt a program from rock bottom. What’s unfolding right now is entirely new — not to Tubby himself, but to his roster. Even in a moment of sweet victory, Texas Tech’s players might have discovered something about the way in which bubble pressure can ambush a team.

Washington and Oregon State watched their 2015 seasons collapse well before an NCAA berth was a realistic late-February talking point. The Huskies and Beavers have both wobbled in recent weeks. Their bubble game Wednesday night and subsequent games will reveal how well they can stare into the center of the storm.

Vanderbilt hasn’t come particularly close to the NCAAs since 2012. This season, the Commodores were expected to be a tournament team, but it seems that a lofty aspiration — attended by a lot of hype — inhibited the freedom and flow with which Vanderbilt played in last season’s NIT. Still in ownership of a chance to play its way into the field, Vandy showed some mettle in a Tuesday-night win at Florida. That is a mere prelude, however, to this weekend’s upcoming clash with King Kentucky in the SEC. Vanderbilt must win that game or a March 5 clash at Texas A&M in order to have a chance to Dance.

Will this VU team, absorbing the magnitude of what’s ahead, rise above the previous three months of struggle and setbacks?

Bubble pressure. It’s never easy to deal with, especially for teams that experience it for the first time, or with more intensity than in previous seasons.

Matt Zemek

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.

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