Dribble Handoff: Predicting which sub-50 NET college basketball teams will make the 2021 NCAA Tournament

When the NCAA released its Jan. 27 update of the NET rankings last year, UCLA stood at No. 124 with a 10-10 record that suggested an NIT bid might be the best the Bruins could hope for in Mick Cronin’s first season as coach. Even that seemed optimistic. By March, however, the Bruins had miraculously played themselves onto the NCAA Tournament bubble by winning nine of their final 10 regular season games.

The NCAA Tournament was ultimately canceled, but UCLA made the First Four in a bracket projection from CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm, and the lesson learned from those Bruins rings true: a month can be enough time for a power conference program to build an NCAA Tournament resume form near-scratch. That should come as an encouragement to a handful of tournament hopefuls that would likely be on the outside looking in if the field of 68 were selected this week.

When you factor in the automatic qualifiers from all the low and mid-major conferences who reach the NCAA Tournament field, being 50th or below in the NET is incredibly treacherous territory in terms of candidacy for an at-large bid. But that’s where several major conference teams find themselves at this point in the season.

So who from the group of teams ranked 50th or below in the NET will rally and make the NCAA Tournament this season? Our writers made selections for this week’s edition of the Dribble Handoff:

Clemson is entering Wednesday night’s clash with Louisville on a three-game losing streak that immediately followed a pause due to COVID-19 issues within the program. So, things haven’t been going well. But the Tigers, who are 51st in the NET as of Wednesday morning, are still 5-4 in the first two quadrants with victories over Alabama, Florida State and Purdue, and all four losses fall inside the first quadrant. So you’d be wise not to let this losing streak get things twisted. Big picture, Clemson still has a resume that would have Brad Brownell’s team safely in the Field of 68 if the 2021 NCAA Tournament started today. That’s a fact. And with four of Clemson’s next five games scheduled to be played inside Littlejohn Coliseum, I’m going to trust the Tigers to get back on track, do enough to finish above .500 in the ACC and make the NCAA Tournament for the second time in a four-year span, which should lead to Brownell getting a 12th year at the school next season. — Gary Parrish

I want to take a team that’s out of the ordinary here, but also a team that I think is positioned well enough to win out and make a move. Looking at the American Athletic Conference, there’s a good chance this is no more than a two-bid league this season. But I do think the league is too sturdy to be anything worse than that. There’s going to be another team that gets in aside from Houston, and SMU figures to be the best of the bunch. The Ponies sit at No. 53 in the NET as of this story’s publishing. They’re 51st in the Massey Composite rankings. Home vs. Memphis at Houston are the next two. If SMU wins both, it will have split its season series with both teams. This is a longer shot, but I’ll take it because this figures to be the second-best team in a league that should worm its way to two bids. — Matt Norlander

You’re telling me I can bet on a Hall of Fame coach with a roster plenty talented enough to compete with any team in the Big Ten, and all I’ve got to do is put faith in said coach transforming his club into an NCAA Tournament qualifier? Where do I sign up? I’ll concede Michigan State hasn’t had a picturesque start to its conference slate with two wins and four win losses and a three-week layoff from COVID issues top it all off, but c’mon, people. Let’s not overthink this. Sparty has appeared in 22 consecutive NCAA Tournaments under Izzo with less talented rosters than the one he’s working with now. This is a no-brainer. They’re hovering at No. 84 in the NET, but with 11 Big Ten games left — three of which they welcome ranked teams at home — I’m willing to wager Izzo and Co. start clicking and pad the resume enough to be at-large worthy. — Kyle Boone

Duke ended a three-game losing streak and might have saved some student newspaper reporters from more Coach K condescension by pulling out a win on Tuesday night over Georgia Tech. Sophomore forward Matthew Hurt has been solid most of the season, but freshmen Jalen Johnson and DJ Steward are starting to settle in as well. The trio combined for 54 points on 18-34 shooting against the Yellow Jackets. Their collective performance served as a reminder that Duke still has enough time and talent to gel into an NCAA Tournament team after a terrible start that featured a lengthy COVID-19 disruption. With a 6-5 (4-3 ACC) record and a No. 78 ranking in the NET, it’s clear Duke still has a ways to go. But ornery as he’s been this season, Coach K is still Coach K, and there is too much talent on this roster to believe that Duke will languish in mediocrity during what appears to be another down year for the ACC.  

You might ask what the difference is between Duke and Kentucky, and the answer is multi-pronged. Duke, though not great at outside shooting, is considerably better at it than Kentucky. Secondly, the Blue Devils appear to have players in Hurt and Johnson capable of taking over a game — unlike Kentucky, which still has no clear-cut go-to option when needing a critical bucket. — David Cobb

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