By Tim Gutowski Published Feb 15, 2005 at 5:05 AM

{image1} Three weeks from Sunday, the NCAA Tournament selection committee will dispense 65 bids for its annual spring extravaganza. Over the next month, dozens of teams will play their way in or out of March Madness as they state their case to the committee.

Locally, the last four weeks of the season are of vital importance to three teams for three different reasons. First, the Wisconsin Badgers are attempting to solidify a possible No. 5 or 6 seed, as well as earn a favorable geographical draw in the sub-regionals. Second, the UW-Milwaukee Panthers are trying to claim the Horizon League's automatic bid or rack up enough wins to earn consideration for an at-large bid. And third, the Marquette Golden Eagles are trying to save a sputtering season and play their way onto the proverbial bubble.

Despite a couple of disappointing losses to top-ranked Illinois, the Badgers are in solid position to claim their seventh consecutive NCAA bid. At 16-6 overall and 7-4 in conference, the Badgers can finish 19-8, 10-6 (before conference tournament play) by merely winning their final three home games against Michigan, Indiana and Purdue. Bo Ryan's team also travels to Michigan State and Ohio State, and a road win in either locale would solidify a probable a No. 6 seed.

UW's current ESPN RPI ranking is 15, and the Badgers have quality non-conference wins against Alabama (12) and Maryland (23). What UW lacks -- in or out of conference -- is an impressive road victory, which always seems to hurt the Badgers come seeding time. Sweeping MSU and OSU would solve that and put the Badgers in position for a No. 4 or 5 seed, but that isn't likely. Instead, I expect them to win all three games at home (perhaps with some difficulty), lose both games on the road, and then fall in either the semifinals or finals of the conference tournament. If that is the case, the Badgers will probably earn another No. 6 seed, possibly a 7.

UWM (19-5, 12-2) has all but sewn up the Horizon League title, needing only a win against either Butler or Cleveland State or one UW-Green Bay loss in its final three conference games to clinch the crown. The Panthers also play a "Bracket Buster" ESPN2 game at Hawaii this weekend, but beating the Rainbows (who rank just 99 in ESPN's RPI) wouldn't be a huge win in the eyes of the committee; it would be a road win, however, so that should help.

But as I wrote last month, the Panthers' weak RPI (69) should preclude them from getting an at-large bid. However, with the conference title in tow, UWM will host any Horizon League tourney game it plays in, and it's unlikely the Panthers will lose at U.S. Cellular this year. UIC, who won in Milwaukee in last year's tournament, is always dangerous, though. The Panthers may stumble once in their final three regular-season games, but I expect them to win the Horizon League tourney and claim an automatic bid. Without it, UWM will be NIT-bound.

It's strange to think about it now, but just a few weeks ago I was wondering if Marquette had the goods to contend in Conference USA. Sadly, they don't. At 17-7, 5-6, MU's record is deceiving. The Golden Eagles have been badly overmatched against the conference's best teams, and the 47-point drubbing at Freedom Hall was the most embarrassing loss of Tom Crean's tenure. Worse, Marquette's five conference wins have come against the only five teams below them in the standings.

Still, Crean's squad has a sliver of a chance to get to the dance. First, the committee may take into account Travis Diener's injury, which caused him to miss several games in the middle of conference play. But they'll only do so if the Golden Eagles play their way onto the bubble over the next few weeks. They're already on the bubble, you say? Not really.

At 59 in the latest RPI, MU is on the outside looking in. Tough conference games against good competition down the stretch will help that number, but MU needs wins. They're in ninth place in CUSA and haven't had a notable victory since the UW game in December. To even be considered, they'll have to win four of their last five games, including two against the powerful trio of Louisville, DePaul and Cincinnati. That would put them at 9-7 in league play. From there, two more wins in the conference tourney might do it. The committee likes teams that are playing well down the stretch, and MU would have to be playing very well to pull off what I just described.

Unfortunately, I don't see that happening. They'll probably win two of the last five, perhaps three, and then lose early in the conference tournament. For the second straight year since reaching the Final Four, it appears that Marquette is headed to the NIT.

Sports shots columnist Tim Gutowski was born in a hospital in West Allis and his sporting heart never really left. He grew up in a tiny town 30 miles west of the city named Genesee and was in attendance at County Stadium the day the Brewers clinched the 1981 second-half AL East crown. I bet you can't say that.

Though Tim moved away from Wisconsin (to Iowa and eventually the suburbs of Chicago) as a 10-year-old, he eventually found his way back to Milwaukee. He remembers fondly the pre-Web days of listenting to static-filled Brewers games on AM 620 and crying after repeated Bears' victories over the Packers.