College Basketball Bubble Watch
The great Bubble Watch adventure begins
Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Monday, Jan. 30.
The college hoops season comes at you so fast and so furious that it's easy to get lost in the steam and the sparks. When you finally pause -- on, say, Jan. 31 -- you find yourself confronted with the insane realization that, yes, it is indeed Jan. 31. The coming NCAA tournament, once a distant apparition, is mere weeks away.
And the increasing proximity of the NCAA tournament means one thing and one thing only: It is time to begin the great Bubble Watch adventure, in which we track and analyze every team with a chance to dance in the glorious month of March. But first, a few housekeeping notes:
• In recent years, we've been overly cautious when including a team in "locks" and "should be in," because throughout February and March we like to move teams closer and closer to "lock" status -- not the other way around. This season, we'll still apply caution, but we also plan to strive for pragmatism whenever possible. In the past, we'd wait until it was almost statistically impossible for a team to miss the tournament before we'd confer status as a lock; this year, we'll be a little more lenient. Sure, Team X could lose every game the rest of the way, and thus could miss the tournament. Will it? No. You get the idea. (This won't matter much for another week or two, probably, but be advised all the same.)
• Other than that, 2011's basic rules still apply. "Work to do" doesn't mean a team is going to miss the tournament, or is necessarily outside the tourney field looking in; it simply means a team has to keep progressing in the wins category -- whether through solid performance or the occasional big win -- to feel safe about its position on Selection Sunday. "Should be in" is self-explanatory. The Watch's advice, for what it's worth, is to not get too bogged down in semantics and denotata. At the end of the day, each team is different, each team will come with an explanation attached and, until we get to the final weeks of the season, each team's position matters much less than its story.
• Oh, and one more thing: The Watch will refer to the RPI. It will do so a lot. The Ratings Percentage Index will be at the center of countless debates about various teams this season, just like last season and the season before that and the season before that. Please know that this is not because the Watch approves of the RPI as an accurate measure of a team's NCAA tournament résumé. Quite the contrary, in fact. The RPI is an outdated, crude metric that has outlived its usefulness by at least a decade. These days, we have far more precise measures of a basketball team's actual ability, like Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, or the Logistic Regression/Markov Chain (or LRMC) ratings, or your own eyeballs, all of which (OK, especially the first two) are vastly more predictive than the RPI.
But whether we like it or not, the NCAA tournament selection committee still uses the RPI as the backbone of its entire data comparison system. A team's raw RPI matters, but so does strength of schedule and wins/losses against relative RPI categories (top 50, top 100, bottom 150 and so on). The committee doesn't say, "Well, this team is ranked No. 22 in the RPI, so it's the 22nd best team in the country." But in March, when the folks in Indianapolis compare teams' "nitty gritty" résumés, the RPI will underpin it all.
Unfortunately, the mission of the Bubble Watch is not to talk about the criteria it wishes the selection committee would use. (Though that would be fun.) No, the mission of the Bubble Watch is to provide a hopefully accurate window into the real-world chances of real-world teams. Alas, that means relying on RPI. One day, the NCAA -- which, it should be noted, usually does a bang-up job of seeding this field -- will see the error of its ways. Until then, it's ours not to reason why; it's ours but to watch the bubble. I'm pretty sure that's how that poem goes.
All right, enough with the preamble. Without further ado, I humbly present the first Bubble Watch of the 2011-12 season. And so it begins
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Work left to do: Temple, Saint Louis, Xavier, Massachusetts, Dayton|
It's a rare thing, but the Atlantic 10 title chase is a genuinely wide-open affair. The rise of legitimate contenders to Xavier's crown, combined with the Musketeers' surprising struggles of late, has created a league in which several teams have a chance to take the regular-season trophy. The bubble situation is much the same: None of the below boasts an overwhelmingly strong résumés, but all have the potential to punch a ticket to the Big Dance in a few weeks' time. And what about that surprising pair of Philly schools, La Salle and Saint Joe's? Well, ya never know ...
Temple [15-5 (4-2), RPI: 14, SOS: 26] At first glance, Temple's best win of the season came on Jan. 4, when it handled Duke in a 78-73 victory. But a neutral-site win over Wichita State may be just as impressive, to say nothing of a road win at Saint Louis in conference play. The Owls have won their past four games, their RPI is in the top 15, and if it wasn't for bad losses at Richmond and Bowling Green, Fran Dunphy's team probably would be a lock. As it is, the Owls are in solid shape with three wins (Fordham, Rhode Island, George Washington) likely before a Feb. 11 home date with Xavier.
Saint Louis [16-5 (4-3), RPI: 41, SOS: 110] Rick Majerus' team became one of the surprise stories of the season in November, when it knocked off BC, Nova and Oklahoma at the 76 Classic just days after toppling Washington. Unfortunately, none of those wins looks all that impressive now; none of those teams is among the RPI top 50 at this point. Unlike some of their conference compadres, the Billikens have avoided truly ugly losses, and winning at X will come in handy. But after a blowout loss at UMass, they still have work to do to solidify a tournament spot.
Xavier [14-7 (5-3), RPI: 46, SOS: 30] Whatever the Musketeers had before their Dec. 10 brawl with Cincinnati, it has gone missing since. Before the brawl, this team played with a measure of swagger, swagger it desperately needed in come-from-behind wins at Vanderbilt and at home versus Purdue. This résumé looks worse than it actually is, given the shorthanded losses in the brawl's wake, but there's no explaining away a loss to Hawaii or this team's erratic play in the A-10. Xavier has been a tournament fixture in recent seasons, but that could change this year.
Massachusetts [16-5 (5-2), RPI: 51, SOS: 130] Speaking of UMass, could the Minutemen sneak into the tournament? It's one of those long shots that will be fun to track. Their only truly quality win came Saturday over Saint Louis; the next-best victory on this résumé is probably, oh, Davidson? Saint Joe's? To get over the hump, UMass will need to build on its impressive conference start, finishing strong in league play and toppling a few of the aforementioned contenders along the way.
Dayton [14-7 (4-3), RPI: 59, SOS: 38] The Flyers have come a long way since late November, when they lost to Buffalo (bad) at home (worse) by 33 points. (Wait ... WHAT??) Since then, Dayton has racked up five of its six top-50 wins, adding to the one it obtained when it beat Minnesota in the Old Spice Classic title game. There are some terrible losses on this résumé -- worse even than Buffalo at home -- in the form of defeats to Miami (Ohio) and Rhode Island. But it's hard to ignore that 6-2 record against the top 50, no matter how inconsistent the Flyers have been.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Florida State, Virginia|
Work left to do: Miami (FL), North Carolina State
There's no question that the ACC is down this season, at least relative to its traditional status as one of the nation's elite conferences. But that doesn't mean the league won't get in on the NCAA tournament fun. Quite the contrary, actually: UNC and Duke are pretty obvious locks at this point in the season, while Virginia and Florida State should have no problem finishing the season in strong position for at-large bids. That's four. How NC State and Miami fare the rest of the season should be interesting to see. Neither team -- or still-in-it Maryland -- is looking particularly strong at this point, but hey, 68 bids have to come from somewhere. (Also, the Watch promises not to write that exact phrase -- "those bids have to come from somewhere!" -- every two sentences in the six weeks. It won't be easy, but we'll do our best.)
Florida State [14-6 (5-1), RPI: 18, SOS: 5] For all but the past three weeks, Florida State's tourney case looked specious at best. This was a team losing at home to Princeton and by 20 at Clemson, and it appeared the Seminoles' brutal offense would keep them mired in mediocrity throughout the season. Then ... UNC happened. In the past two weeks, Leonard Hamilton's team has blitzed the Tar Heels by 33, upset Duke on the road, and blown out the rest of its competition, scoring plenty of points (and defending as stoutly as usual) along the way. With those two marquee wins, the Noles -- buttressed by a strong RPI, a stronger SOS and four of their losses coming against top-50 teams -- look borderline unimpeachable.
Virginia [17-3 (4-2), RPI: 40, SOS: 156] Tony Bennett's third year at UVa has yielded a fully competitive ACC outfit, one that slows the tempo, works for a good shot and operates almost entirely through Mike Scott. The Cavaliers nearly dropped Duke (instead losing 61-58) in Cameron Indoor Stadium. That win would have been nice, because they don't have much in the way of big-time wins, except for a home victory over Michigan. Meanwhile, Virginia has been susceptible to the occasional bad loss both in ACC play (at home to Virginia Tech) and in the nonconference (lowly TCU). It's hard to imagine this team missing the tournament, but its résumé isn't quite a lock in our estimation.
Miami (FL) [12-7 (3-3), RPI: 49, SOS: 50] Jim Larranaga took over a solid backcourt with Malcolm Grant and Durand Scott, and now that forward Reggie Johnson has returned from an offseason injury, the Hurricanes have the talent to at least put up a fight in ACC play. Their computer numbers are solid. The only problem? Wins. Or, to be more precise, a lack thereof. Miami doesn't own a single win over a top-50 team; its only win over a top-100 RPI squad came over UMass. In the next two weeks, Miami's schedule reads as follows: Maryland, at Duke, Virginia Tech, at FSU, UNC. It's go time in LeBron Land, starting with the Terps, who are almost 50 spots behind the U in the RPI but could easily replace them in this space next week with a victory in Coral Gables.
North Carolina State [15-7 (4-3), RPI: 57, SOS: 25] NC State has some burgeoning young talents on the floor, and the Wolfpack have made massive improvements under first-year coach Mark Gottfried. Still, little in this résumé makes you sit up and take notice. The highest RPI win is Miami. The next-best victory is probably a neutral-court victory over Texas. Still, there aren't many bad losses in the mix, either (a home loss to Georgia Tech notwithstanding), and the RPI and SOS numbers are at least workable. NC State is staring down the barrel of its ACC schedule in the coming weeks; we'll see if it can rise to the occasion.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Work left to do: Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma, Texas|
The Big Ten is certainly deeper, but the Big 12 might have the most Final Four candidates of any conference in the country. Kansas, Baylor and Missouri are all obvious locks to make the NCAA tournament; the only issues to settle now are conference title superiority, tournament seeding, and travel arrangements. Below that troika rests a few teams who still need quality results. Iowa State is looking to turn its win over Kansas into a tourney rebirth, while Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma all vie for the bid scraps sure to be thrown the Big 12's way.
Kansas State [15-5 (4-4), RPI: 42, SOS: 86] When the Wildcats beat Missouri on Jan. 7, they didn't just upset a real-deal Final Four contender. They blew that contender out of the water. At that point, it appeared Frank Martin's team -- which won the Diamond Head Classic, too -- was a shoo-in for an at-large bid. Things are a bit murkier now. The Wildcats are just 4-4 in conference play with an OK RPI and an OK strength of schedule, as well as two losses to Oklahoma and a nonconference SOS that was hurt as much as it was helped by the Diamond Head. Fortunately for Rodney McGruder and Co., there are no more games vs. OU on the schedule.
Iowa State [15-6 (5-3), RPI: 47, SOS: 75] Hilton Magic is back. That was the common refrain after Iowa State upset Kansas, easily the biggest win in the program's recent history and one that will have Cyclones fans -- so desperate for a return to basketball boom times -- more than thrilled with The Mayor Fred Hoiberg's work in just his second season in Ames. But is it enough to get the Clones to the dance? The jury is still very much out. Saturday's win was a good one, but it was ISU's first victory against top-50 competition; the Cyclones are 2-6 against teams ranked in the RPI top 100. It was great start, but there's plenty more work to do. Tuesday's home game with K-State is huge.
Oklahoma [13-7 (3-5), RPI: 62, SOS: 47] Could first-year coach Lon Kruger get this seemingly desolate Oklahoma bunch into the NCAA tournament? It's still a long shot. OU's only two top-50 wins came against Kansas State, and while victories over Oral Roberts and Arkansas are nice to have, they aren't going to move the needle for a team that is 3-5 in league play with losses to Oklahoma State and Texas A&M, both of which are ranked outside the the top 100. Still, the fact that this team is even in the conversation is surprising and a credit to the job Kruger has done in his first year in Norman.
Texas [13-9 (3-6), RPI: 67, SOS: 12] The Longhorns are better than you think, at least according to their tempo-free stats, which rank them among the top 20 or so teams in the country. Their record belies this fact. Unless that changes -- and unless guard J'Covan Brown can channel his scoring mentality into more consistent efficiency -- the Longhorns will be on the outside of the tournament field looking in. The selection committee doesn't care about tempo-free numbers, or how close these contests are: Simply put, you have to win the games. With just two wins against the top 100 (Temple and Iowa State), Texas still has a long way to go.
|Big East Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Marquette, Georgetown, West Virginia|
Work left to do: Connecticut, Louisville, Seton Hall, Notre Dame, Cincinnati
Syracuse has slumped a bit lately but has maintained its winning ways all the same, and if the Orange right the ship -- getting center Fab Melo back would be nice -- they'll remain on the gilded path to a No. 1 seed. The rest of the Big East isn't nearly as straightforward. Georgetown and Marquette are in pretty good shape, but West Virginia sure is making things interesting, especially after Monday's home loss to a suddenly competitive Pitt team). And the rest of the conference is a jumbled mess. We may see more movement here than in any other Bubble Watch subsection this season. Should be fun.
Marquette [18-4 (7-2), RPI: 10, SOS: 32] In each of the past two seasons, Marquette was bound to the bubble, its apparent fate waxing and waning with each win or loss. No more. The Golden Eagles are in plum position this season thanks in large part to their 11-2 nonconference start, which included a massive win at rival Wisconsin. The only sub-top-50 loss came at LSU, which isn't terrible. There's almost no chance this team misses the tournament, and absolutely zero chance Buzz Williams and Co. will spend any time reprising the sweaty bubble worries of the past two campaigns.
Georgetown [16-4 (6-3), RPI: 13, SOS: 35] Given this program's propensity for late-calendar meltdowns in recent seasons, it's no wonder Georgetown fans seem to be constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. The Watch can offer no predictions to ease that anxiety, but it does know this much: The Hoyas aren't going to miss the tournament. They already have five wins over teams ranked No. 35 or higher in the RPI, they don't have anything resembling a bad loss (especially as Pitt comes around), and their computer numbers are solid all around.
West Virginia [15-8 (5-5), RPI: 29, SOS: 7] The Mountaineers have taken a couple of tough defeats in the past week, including a brutal loss at Syracuse, which came as the result of a missed goaltending call in the final moments. But the fundamentals of this squad's NCAA tournament chances remain strong. Why? Bob Huggins tests his teams, and this season has been no different: WVU boasts a top-10 strength of schedule, a top-20 nonconference SOS and a top-20 RPI. What's more, it has already played the worst of its schedule. With Kevin Jones putting up an All-America season, it seems safe to say WVU will be there in March.
Connecticut [14-6 (4-4), RPI: 26, SOS: 9] A strange resume for a strange team. The talent is there; the truly impressive wins are not. The Huskies own three top-50 victories, two of which came at home (Harvard, WVU), one of which came in the Bahamas (over FSU) in November. And there are bad losses (at Rutgers, at Tennessee) here, too. The computer numbers are decent and UConn will surely receive credit for its impressive nonconference SOS, and, yeah, by March, this team will almost certainly be in the tournament. But right now the Huskies are 4-4 in the Big East and still very much struggling, and nothing is guaranteed.
Louisville [17-5 (5-4), RPI: 27, SOS: 54] The Cardinals began the season ranked in the top 10, which was always too high. This is a good but not great team that has been hampered by injuries for much of the season, and those injuries certainly hampered Rick Pitino's team when it dropped five of seven from Dec. 28 to Jan. 14 -- including a 90-59 stinker to Providence (Providence!). But Louisville has bounced back with three straight wins, including Saturday's victory at Seton Hall. As long as that forward momentum remains, this team will be in the tournament.
Seton Hall [15-6 (4-5), RPI: 31, SOS: 18] A few weeks ago, the Pirates might have belonged in the "should be in" category. Thanks to the resurgent play of Herb Pope, the Pirates went 11-1 in nonconference play and opened the Big East with a 4-1 record that included wins over West Virginia and UConn. But the past two weeks have been problematic. Four straight losses later -- and with just those two top-50 victories -- the Hall's resume is starting to look more and more questionable. The Pirates' next three games (at Marquette, at UConn, at Rutgers, Pitt) will be crucial.
Notre Dame [14-8 (6-3), RPI: 61, SOS: 40] Like Cincinnati, Notre Dame is a team that started slow, lost a couple of winnable nonconference games but has turned it on in Big East play. Since then, Notre Dame -- without star Tim Abromaitis, let's not forget -- has won on the road at Louisville, Seton Hall and UConn. It also beat Syracuse at home. Will those wins be enough to overcome pedestrian RPI and SOS figures? Maybe, maybe not. Best advice for the Irish: Just keep winning. Obvious but true.
Cincinnati [15-7 (5-4), RPI: 98, SOS: 168] Now here's an intriguing scenario: Over the past month, Cincinnati has emerged as one of the better teams in the Big East, capable of taking down UConn in Storrs, hanging with Syracuse for 40 minutes, toppling Georgetown in D.C., and nearly beating West Virginia in Morgantown. But Saturday's loss at Rutgers didn't look good, and neither do UC's numbers: The RPI is hovering around 100, the overall strength of schedule is low and the nonconference SOS -- which the selection committee has paid special attention to in recent years -- is horrendous. Plus, there's that loss to Presbyterian. Ouch. This team still has a lot of work to do before season's end.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin|
Work left to do: Illinois, Minnesota, Purdue
Ohio State is the class of this conference, but Michigan State -- which is playing better on both sides of the ball than it has in years, even those back-to-back Final Four seasons -- isn't far behind. Indiana has two huge wins in its back pocket and Michigan and Wisconsin will be fine, but none of the three will want to play around too much with bad losses in the latter half of the Big Ten slate. The big question every year in the Big Ten -- will Northwestern finally make the NCAA tournament? -- appears to be on hold thus far. The Wildcats have started 2-6 in league play. Unless something drastic happens in the next five weeks, Northwestern's "Is this the year?" year is, well, not this year.
Michigan [16-6 (6-3), RPI: 15, SOS: 21] The Wolverines have taken their licks on the road this season, most notably at Iowa (and less notably in a near-comeback loss at Arkansas), but as of this writing John Beilein's team is in possession of -- count 'em -- seven wins against teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI. Much of that damage has been done in conference play, but any way you slice it, that's an impressive feather to stick in any team's cap.
Indiana [17-5 (5-5), RPI: 20, SOS: 44] No team in the country can boast two sheer marquee wins like Indiana's (Ohio State and Kentucky, both at home). Once those were finalized, so was the Hoosiers' at-large bid; it would have taken an unthinkable Big Ten collapse to undo the credit earned from those victories. Of course, IU hasn't been perfect in Big Ten play -- it gave away a late 11-point lead in a loss at Nebraska, and surprisingly failed to protect home court against Minnesota -- but with an unbeaten nonconference record, a strong RPI that won't dip much in the brutal Big Ten, and no losses outside of the top 100, the Hoosiers' return to relevance will almost certainly include a return to the NCAA tournament.
Wisconsin [17-5 (6-3), RPI: 22, SOS: 27] Perhaps the strangest result of the season -- not just for Wisconsin, but in all of college hoops -- came on New Year's Eve, when Iowa went into Madison and beat the Badgers on their usually impenetrable home floor. That unusually bad defensive performance aside, UW's CV is pretty much peerless: six top-50 wins (the biggest of which came over UNLV) and only four other losses, all of which came to teams ranked among the top 20 or so in the RPI. The Badgers have five more road games left on their Big Ten plate, but they're playing much better basketball these days. Not quite a lock yet, but they'll get there.
Illinois [15-6 (4-4), RPI: 33, SOS: 28] Say it with me, Illinois fans: Thank goodness for outliers. The Illini, and particularly guard Brandon Paul, have been brutal on offense in every game but one this season. Fortunately, that game came at home against Ohio State, when Paul exploded for 43 points en route to a 79-74 win. That's a big notch for a team without too many of them, though the win over Gonzaga helps, too. The good news? Illinois has only one bad loss (at Penn State). The bad news? If this team's offense keeps its current pace, it will struggle just as often as it succeeds in Big Ten play, and a few bad losses might put its tourney position in jeopardy -- outliers be damned.
Minnesota [16-6 (4-5), RPI: 38, SOS: 53] On Nov. 28, star forward Trevor Mbakwe lost the remainder of his Minnesota career to a torn ACL. That was supposed to be it for this team, but give the Gophers and Tubby Smith a ton of credit: Despite the devastating loss of their best player, they remain in the hunt for an at-large berth. Like a few of their Big Ten contemporaries, the Gophers have dropped their only "bad" loss of the season to Iowa. There isn't much in the way of really good wins (besides at IU), and the balance of the schedule trends toward cupcake. But with that better-than-you'd-think RPI, the Gophers are hanging around. That's a victory in itself.
Purdue [15-7 (5-4), RPI: 50, SOS: 64] Thanks to the return -- and a successful one at that -- of twice-injured forward Robbie Hummel, the Boilermakers are one of the nicest stories in all of college hoops. They're also, at this point, a textbook bubble team: a so-so RPI, a barely-above-.500 conference record, some solid wins but nothing to raise your eyebrows, a few missed nonconference opportunities ... all the tell-tale signs are there. Later this week, Purdue hosts Indiana. That's always a big game, but with this borderline résumé, it's already even bigger than usual.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Work left to do: Colorado State, New Mexico|
The Mountain West is unquestionably the best league west of the Rockies, and it's not really close: UNLV has deep NCAA tourney-type talent, while San Diego State has rebounded from major personnel losses in a totally unforeseen way. (If Steve Fisher isn't the coach of the year, the Watch doesn't know who is.) But the league's solidity doesn't stop there. New Mexico has a chance to earn a bid, as does Colorado State, whose shockingly high RPI will serve it well in the weeks of bubble debate to come. Even Wyoming, under the new management of first-year coach Larry Shyatt, is exceeding all expectations. Thirteen of the Cowboys' 15 wins have come against teams outside the RPI top 150, so we won't include them here yet. But if Wyoming pulls off a home win over UNLV on Saturday, well, make room for the Pokes on this page.
Colorado State [14-6 (3-2), RPI: 17, SOS: 3] If you needed an anecdotal reason to doubt the RPI -- not to mention the NCAA's continued and stubborn use of the metric -- Colorado State is it. Simply put, there's no chance the Rams are the No. 18 team in the country; frankly, it's hard to see how the RPI gods arrived at that figure. That brutal strength of schedule no doubt helps, but the Rams didn't actually win any of their tough away games, and the losses include Stanford, UNI and Wyoming -- all fringe tourney teams at best at this point in the season. That 17-point win over SDSU looks pretty, as do the computer numbers. The rest of the résumé does not.
New Mexico [17-4 (3-2), RPI: 44, SOS: 108] It's hard to get too excited about a team whose best win came over Saint Louis, and which has been beaten by the likes of Santa Clara and New Mexico State. The committee doesn't like losses to teams with big RPI numbers beside their names, and they'd surely prefer if the Lobos had beaten either UNLV or San Diego State in their first two cracks this month. The RPI number is solid at least, and if the Lobos handle business on the road against Air Force and Boise State, they get home shots at Wyoming and UNLV sandwiched around a trip to SDSU, all in a matter of eight days. The opportunities await.
|Work left to do: California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Stanford|
Each week, your humble Bubble Watcher also moonlights as a Pac-12 Conference power ranker, and the only thing worse than trying to impose order on this mess of a league is having to watch it in the first place. Yes, that's harsh. Unfortunately, it's also true. Collectively, the Pac-12 is 1-31 -- 1-31! -- against the RPI top 50. The win came against Colorado State. My goodness. Cal appears to be decent, and Washington's talent appears to be congealing in league play after a borderline disastrous nonconference slate, but no one here is anywhere close to a sure shot to make the tourney. With no marquee wins available within the league, each team's chance of impressing the selection committee in conference play is essentially zilch. This is an historically bad season for this proud conference, and the bubble situation reflects as much.
California [17-5 (7-2), RPI: 30, SOS: 66] With the possible exception of Washington, this is the best team in the Pac-12. Its best nonconference win is either Denver or Weber State. The Watch rests its case. Cal had three chances to get quality nonconference wins. It lost all three. The one-point loss at SDSU is forgivable, but the Bears were utterly routed by Missouri and utterly routed again by UNLV, and that surprisingly decent RPI is the only positive outcome from those games. This is the conference standard-bearer thus far, but as far as tournament resumes go, there's really nothing here.
Oregon [15-6 (6-3), RPI: 69, SOS: 85] The Ducks had won four in a row and looked set to move into a tie atop the league standings at 7-2 before rival Oregon State came to town and won 76-71 on Sunday. Losses like that are why the Pac-12 has been so frustrating to observe, and also why Dana Altman's squad will struggle to gain traction in the bubble conversation going forward. Oregon simply can't seem to put it all together in any sustained way. With no top-75 wins and pedestrian computer numbers, this is another long shot.
Washington [14-7 (7-2), RPI: 73, SOS: 67] This has always looked like the most talented team in the Pac-12. It is also without question the most frustrating, because talent like Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross and Aziz N'Diaye should yield something better than a 14-7 record, a bad RPI figure, a 19-point home blowout to South Dakota State and no top-50 wins (standard Pac-12 operating procedure, as you already know). The Huskies appear to be figuring it out, but it's almost too late: Failing a dominant league finish (14-4 or better?), this team will almost certainly lack the criteria it needs for an at-large bid.
Colorado [14-7 (6-3), RPI: 80, SOS: 90] Speaking of long shots, the Buffaloes don't have any bad losses (which to be fair, is actually true of a lot of Pac-12 teams -- but there just aren't any good wins either). The Buffs are 6-3 in their new league, but only one of those wins has come on the road (at USC, which means nothing), and after home games this week against Oregon State and Oregon, Colorado hits the road for five of its last seven league contests.
Stanford [15-6 (5-4), RPI: 83, SOS: 178] The Cardinal's quality nonconference wins include Colorado State, and that's only because the Rams' RPI is still much too high. Stanford played Syracuse close at Madison Square Garden in November but almost doesn't count on the bubble. After three straight losses (all on the road), Stanford has to make some serious moves in the latter half of Pac-12 play if it wants to have any chance at maintaining a spot on or around the bubble.
|Teams that should be in: Florida, Vanderbilt|
Work left to do: Alabama, Mississippi State, Arkansas
Kentucky is winning its conference games on the road, something it didn't do for much of last season, and that trait -- not to mention, you know, all that talent -- is part of the reason the Wildcats are not just a lock to make the tournament but practically a lock to earn a No. 1 seed. Vanderbilt and Florida are next in line. Simply put, neither résumé is perfect (especially UF's), but let's be real: Neither team is going to miss the tournament.
Florida [17-4 (5-1), RPI: 16, SOS: 82] Losses at Rutgers and Tennessee put a damper on the Gators' otherwise solid at-large résumé, but the only other two losses were close ones on the road to decent little squads at Ohio State and Syracuse. Sure, this team could do with some better wins. Florida State, Ole Miss and Mississippi State are the top-50 victories. Billy Donovan's team also could do with improved defense, which has been the bane of this offensive-minded squad all season. But it's very difficult to envision the Gators' missing the NCAA tourney, isn't it? It is. Because it won't happen.
Vanderbilt [16-5 (5-1), RPI: 23, SOS: 11] Early-season struggles affected this team from the start, and although much of the issues had to do with the loss of Festus Ezeli to injury and ineligibility, many of the same problems that plagued this team in recent seasons (poor finishing, weak perimeter defense and so on) were readily apparent in November and December. Since then, Ezeli has returned to the lineup, and the Commodores have picked it up. A blowout win at Marquette preceded a 5-1 SEC start, good enough that early-season losses to Cleveland State and Indiana State don't seem so dire now.
Alabama [14-7 (3-4), RPI: 32, SOS: 15] Last season, Alabama was one of the bubbliest teams on the bubble, never leaving the "work to do" field until the final days of the season, when the NCAA determined that the Crimson Tide's brutal nonconference performance outweighed its promising SEC play. Alabama doesn't have those same bad nonconference losses weighing it down this season, but it does have a sub-150 loss at South Carolina, and its only top-50 wins came in Puerto Rico (over Wichita State and Purdue) all the way back in mid-November. This team doesn't have the uphill climb of a year ago, but it's hardly a slam dunk at this point on the calendar.
Mississippi State [17-5 (4-3), RPI: 34, SOS: 70] The Bulldogs have been a bit unpredictable in Rick Stansbury's 14th season at the helm, but the addition of former UTEP forward Arnett Moultrie has given Stansbury his best interior defender since Jarvis Varnado left college with the NCAA's blocks record. Two weeks ago, Mississippi State got a major road win at Vanderbilt, buttressing a résumé that includes a 13-point win over West Virginia, a solid RPI figure and no horrible losses to speak of.
Arkansas [15-6 (3-3), RPI: 52, SOS: 63] Arkansas picked a good time to shoot the lights out, which it did for much of the first half against Michigan on Jan. 21. The Razorbacks built an early lead and held on for the win, giving them at least an outside chance at bubble relevance going forward. Unfortunately, an early loss to Houston will haunt this team for the next five weeks, and it will have to knock off at least one or two more quality opponents in league play if it wants to improve that 2-4 top-50 record.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Work left to do: Memphis, Long Beach State, Harvard, BYU, Middle Tennessee, UCF, Davidson|
The term "rise of the mid-major" gets thrown around a lot these days, particularly after the mid-major madness we've enjoyed the past two Marches, but it really does seem applicable here: Saint Mary's, Creighton and Murray State are all essentially locks to make the NCAA tournament -- and given that those teams all hail from leagues below the true mid-major financial cutoff line (or the "Red Line," as the Mid-Majority's Kyle Whelliston famously deemed it), that says something about the diffusion of talent throughout the college hoops ranks. Soon enough, Wichita State and Gonzaga are likely to join that group, and a handful of other non-power-league teams are sure to follow. And while they're not included here at the moment, keep an eye on Iona, Oral Roberts and the CAA trio of George Mason, Drexel and VCU, to name a few. They may be joining the Watch in editions to come.
Memphis [15-6 (6-1), RPI: 28, SOS: 14] It's hard to believe a team this talented, with this kind of nonconference schedule, doesn't have a few more quality wins on its ledger. Give coach Josh Pastner credit for scheduling well; the Tigers' nonconference strength of schedule is No. 13 in the country, and their overall SOS is No. 14. Nor has Memphis suffered any unsightly, low-RPI blemishes. Because of those reasons, it probably won't matter that the Tigers lost every significant nonconference game of note in November and December; as long as they handle business in C-USA, they should be a tournament team. Watch the next few weeks. Memphis has a massive game at Southern Miss on Wednesday, followed by a nonconference home date with Xavier on Saturday, followed by five straight games against teams ranked 149 in the RPI or higher. This record, so-so so far, could be very impressive before we know it.
Long Beach State [16-6 (9-0), RPI: 36, SOS: 59] Plucking an at-large bid out of the Big West requires borderline insane scheduling, and that's exactly what coach Dan Monson did this season. The Beach's schedule has included trips to San Diego State, Kansas, Louisville and North Carolina. Long Beach State went 0-4 in those games but did topple Pitt at the Pete and Xavier in Hawaii, and has suffered only one bad loss (at Montana). Would the nation's No. 1 nonconference SOS be enough to get LBSU a long look from the committee? Let's hope it doesn't come to that. This team could be a lot of fun in March; best not to leave that to chance. Winning at Creighton in BracketBusters sure would help.
Harvard [18-2 (4-0), RPI: 45, SOS: 266] Unfortunately for Harvard, a very blah Ivy League schedule can really weigh down its at-large profile. Fortunately for Harvard, the Crimson are almost certainly going to win the league's regular-season title -- and thus its at-large bid -- going away. If for some reason these events do not come to pass, coach Tommy Amaker's team wouldn't be able to make as convincing an at-large argument as it currently can, because it would have some collection of bad Ivy losses on its ledger. As it stands, Harvard's November win over Florida State in the Bahamas remains its best, and only, top-50 victory -- although victories over Saint Joe's, UCF and LMU aren't bad.
BYU [18-6 (6-3), RPI: 48, SOS: 60] The Cougars haven't beaten anyone. It's that simple. The losses are mostly understandable -- though the Utah State loss looks worse and worse, and a recent home drubbing to Loyola Marymount isn't pretty -- but without a top-50 win in the mix (Nevada is close), it's hard to see this team getting the benefit of the committee's doubt. This week, the Zags arrive at the Marriott Center, their first visit since the Cougars joined the WCC in the offseason. That's a make-or-break game for coach Dave Rose's first post-Jimmer squad.
Middle Tennessee [20-3 (9-0), RPI: 55, SOS: 228] If all goes as planned, Middle Tennessee won't need to stress Selection Sunday, because the Blue Raiders will have taken their rightful place atop the Sun Belt conference tournament field. If that doesn't happen, the Blue Raiders -- whose record is pretty, but whose overall schedule strength is not -- will be an interesting case. There are some wins to work with here: at UCLA, at LMU, Belmont, Akron, Ole Miss. As Vandy found out Saturday, this team is no joke.
UCF [16-6 (5-3), RPI: 70, SOS: 114] The Knights are in this conversation for two reasons: a Nov. 25 win over UConn in the Bahamas and a one-point home win over Memphis. Without those two results, UCF's resume is too bogged down with ugly losses -- at Tulsa, at Louisiana-Lafayette, which may or may not have played with six men in that game, too -- and ugly computer numbers to be realistic. The good news? There are still plenty of C-USA opportunities left.
Davidson [15-5 (9-1), RPI: 72, SOS: 154] Among the competitors for wackiest result of the season (right alongside Iowa's win at Wisconsin) is Davidson's shocking win over Kansas in Kansas City on Dec. 19. That victory alone, as well as a No. 12-ranked nonconference strength of schedule, should keep the Wildcats in the mix in the weeks to come. Still, Davidson would be well-advised to avoid another game like Saturday's, when it lost at Samford, whose RPI is No. 289 as of this writing. That loss alone could be a disqualification. If not, there's no margin for error now. A BracketBusters win against Wichita State is a must.