This March the madness arrived early, before selection Sunday, and it's nervous time for bubble teams like USC

The NCAA tournament's annual drama has become so all-encompassing that it is colloquially known as March Madness.

That sometimes obscures the fact that the action leading up to the tournament can be even better.

Hours before the selections will be announced Sunday, a wild conference tournament weekend has made the bubble very crowded — for USC, too.

With 21 wins and a blowout victory over UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament first round, the Trojans felt good about their chances last week. Most prognosticators agreed. Now? Maybe a little less so.

As of Saturday morning, the NCAA selection committee told reporters that 21 teams were vying for seven final spots, an unusually big group, which could make Sunday's selection more dramatic than in most years.

As of Saturday evening, ESPN projected USC as a No. 9 seed — likely occupying one of those seven final spots.

Typical for this time of year, more than seven coaches think their teams should be a lock.

On Thursday, USC Coach Andy Enfield said there should be "no question that we deserve to be in the tournament."

Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin, asked about his team's chances, barked, "I don't even know why anybody would ask us the question, based on what we have accomplished this year versus the rest of the field."

Michigan Coach John Beilein may disagree. Compared to the other bubble teams, he said, "we're as good as any of those other teams, or better," and thus deserve a bid.

Monmouth Coach King Rice has "believed that all along."

One coach stayed mum: Jim Boeheim of Syracuse. He's the object of the fiercest debate. When Boeheim served a nine-game suspension, Syracuse stumbled. When he did coach, Syracuse looked like a tournament team.

Should the committee take his absence into consideration?

"To pretend he's not a difference maker would be a mistake," selection committee chairman Joe Castiglione told Syracuse.com.

This season's bubble bottleneck was made possible by unusual parity. At the mid-major level, a spate of upsets means the favorites must hope for at-large invitations.

Will St. Bonaventure (22 wins) get a bid? Early-season darling Monmouth (27 wins)? Perennial contender Wichita State (24 wins)?

Gonzaga hasn't missed the tournament since Bill Clinton was in the White House, and the Bulldogs got in again by defeating St. Mary's in the West Coast Conference tournament final. Will the Gaels (27 wins) steal a bid, too?

Parity also created some particularly dramatic conference tournament games.

On Saturday, Seton Hall, which hadn't even been to the Big East championship game since 1993, won the conference title. Denzel Valentine rebounded his own missed free throw to save the game for No. 2 Michigan State in a Big Ten nail-biter against Maryland.

And Friday produced drama the NCAA tournament would be lucky to match.

In the morning, Michigan moved into tournament consideration when little-used reserve Kameron Chatman defeated 10th-ranked Indiana on a last-second three-pointer. He was such an improbable hero that Michigan's point guard thought he was passing to a different, better-shooting teammate.

"Their hair looks the same," the point guard, Derrick Walton, explained later.

In the afternoon Connecticut moved into consideration with a three-quarter-court buzzer beater that sent its game against Cincinnati into a leg-quivering fourth overtime, where the Huskies finally prevailed.

In the Pac-12, both semifinal games went into overtime, too.

In the Big 12, Kansas' Wayne Seldon unleashed a dunk so vicious that television announcer Brent Musburger cried out, "Save the women and children!"

Buddy Hield and Oklahoma appeared to have won the late game against West Virginia on yet another half-court heave. But an agonizing review found Hield had released the ball a fraction of a second late.

Musburger was on that call, too. By then, his voice was all but gone.

There were must-see finishes in four different conferences, in just one day — and there were still championship games to play.

Many saw the craziness coming. This season has lacked a dominant team.

Six different teams have been ranked No. 1, and many teams are still in play for top seeding in an NCAA regional.

Both ACC tournament finalists, North Carolina and Virginia, could be No. 1 seeds — but the committee may avoid two teams from the same conference in a season like this. Villanova may have squandered its chance by losing to Seton Hall. Michigan State would make a strong case by winning the Big Ten on Sunday. And Oregon could sneak in from the Pac-12.

Top-ranked Kansas is the only certainty. The Jayhawks seem destined for the No. 1 overall seed after winning the Big 12 championship Saturday.

In the Big 12's toughest season in a long time, Kansas emerged for its 12th straight regular-season title. Now, it has a tournament trophy too.

In a season of uncertainty, at least some things stay the same.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter: @zhelfand

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 13, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Be wary of the tides of March - College basketball is madder than ever, and that could be bad for a bubble team like USC." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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