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Bouncing from bubble to Sweet 16

Ask any team in the Sweet 16 and the answer is the same:

"We expected to be here."

So, why were nearly half on the bubble just a couple weeks ago?

Alabama easily could have been replaced in the field of 65 by Colorado. Syracuse was fighting Notre Dame for the sixth Big East bid as late as mid-February. Vanderbilt, Nevada, Xavier or UAB? Each were near or on the bubble as Championship Week tipped off.

Yes, the margin of error was thin. The difference between the NIT and NCAAs maybe one or two wins over the course of a 28-game season.

Not every team needed a dramatic turnaround, or automatic bid to get into the Dance. But, while UAB and Nevada had the strongest cases, each could have been snubbed if the committee looked at the numbers a little differently, or if the Wolf Pack hadn't won the WAC title.

UAB won a share, albeit a fifth, of Conference USA. The Blazers were 9-5 at one point this season. They finished by winning 11 of their final 15 games, including a critical win at Charlotte. An early loss to Western Michigan looked fine as the season progressed.

"All season long people doubted us and that we shouldn't have been here but they forgot to tell those 15 young men that,'' UAB coach Mike Anderson said after the Blazers beat No. 1 Kentucky in the second round in Columbus on Sunday.

Nevada was 9-6, 3-3 in the WAC. But the Wolf Pack finished going 11-2 in their final 13 games. Even if the Wolf Pack hadn't won the WAC tournament title, beating Kansas in December and the overall record of 23-9 probably would have earned them a bid. Losses to Connecticut and Pacific didn't hurt. The only bad losses were to Portland and SMU.

"My guys did a great job of buying into what we had to do, especially defensively and being aggressive," Nevada coach Trent Johnson said. "And we've got good players."

Xavier's turnaround occurred when it was 10-9 and the Musketeers focused on defense, put Justin Cage in the starting lineup and got its seniors to produce. The Musketeers ripped off 15 of 16 wins, including an A-10 tournament title and the automatic berth.

Vanderbilt probably made its case early with non-conference home wins over Indiana, Michigan, and an SEC win over Kentucky which put the Commodores at 14-4 at the time. But if anyone had reservations about Vanderbilt's 8-8 SEC record, or 19-8 overall record heading into the SEC tournament, they were erased after the quarterfinals. Vanderbilt beat Ole Miss in the first round and then upset Mississippi State in the quarterfinals. That win not only put Vandy in the tournament but shot the Commodores up to a No. 6 seed.

Syracuse was 14-5, 4-4 in the Big East when the Orangemen lost consecutive road games at Connecticut and at Providence. The Orangemen were reeling a bit considering they were playing without point guard Billy Edelin, who had gone AWOL the week before. Edelin is still in the program but not on the team, forcing Gerry McNamara to be the point guard.

"Losing a guy like that in the middle of the season meant we had to come together," Syracuse junior forward Hakim Warrick said. "That was our turning point."

Syracuse ripped off seven of eight wins, including road wins at Pittsburgh to snap the Panthers' 40-game homecourt winning streak, at Georgetown on a McNamara buzzer-beating 3-pointer, at West Virginia and a victory at home against Connecticut.

"We lost four out of five games and looked like an NIT team," Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins said. "But we turned it around behind the greatest coaching job coach (Jim) Boeheim has done."

Syracuse now plays Alabama in the Phoenix regional semifinal. Alabama's turnaround is somewhat simpler.

The Tide was 11-4, 3-1 in the SEC West when second-leading scorer Earnest Shelton hurt his knee. He missed the next two games -- losses at Ole Miss and to Florida -- before returning for a game at LSU. He couldn't go more than five minutes in the loss.

He returned to play at South Carolina and at Kentucky but the Tide lost those games, too, to drop to 11-9, 3-6. They looked like an NIT team, at best, at this juncture.

So, what did the Tide staff do?

"We made a spread sheet for our guys and showed them our RPI, our conference RPI and explained that if we started winning we still had a chance to get into the NCAA Tournament," Alabama assistant coach Philip Pearson said. "We had the No. 1 rated schedule in the country. We played (and lost to) Pittsburgh at a neutral site, beat Oregon in Las Vegas, played (and lost) at Xavier, and beat Wisconsin. We knew we could still get in."

But the Tide still needed a defining moment. It didn't come until Feb. 21 when they won at Mississippi State to move to 13-10 and 5-7 in the SEC.

"We knew that if we just got to 7-9 we could get in," Pearson said. "Our players kept reading that they were out of it. They thought we were cooked, but we knew we weren't. We didn't tell them we only needed two more wins, but that's what we said amongst ourselves."

Alabama got three more wins to finish 8-8, including wins at Auburn and at Arkansas. The Tide nearly got to 9-7 but lost in a thriller at home to Mississippi State.

"The five-game losing streak had something to do with Earnest," Pearson said. "We just sat down with the team and told them where we were and that we could still turn this thing around. Now look: Antoine Pettway hits a shot to beat Southern Illinois and Stanford misses a 3-pointer at the buzzer ... and we're in the Sweet 16."

Not bad after being on the bubble.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.