College Basketball Bubble Watch
A few words on the committee that actually decides this whole thing
Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Tuesday, Feb. 12.The NCAA tournament selection committee has come a long way. By which I mean: We know what the NCAA tournament selection committee is, we know what it does, we know whom it comprises. These may seem like baseline expectations. But for years the process gave off the same vague vibe as the back room at a mid-century political party convention, replete with middle-aged white men smoking cigars, slapping backs and haggling over tournament bids with as minimal rigor as possible. And then everyone played golf. That (probably) wasn't the case, but the point is, to the outside observer, that's what it felt like. Fans didn't know how these things worked. Dark insinuations -- of committee members jobbing rival programs or coaches they didn't like; of members not being "basketball people" and thus casual about the entire enterprise -- were easy to make. It's not so easy anymore. In recent years, the NCAA -- led by former VP Greg Shaheen -- has made great strides in increasing transparency of the selection process. Every year it invites various media members to participate in a mock bracket exercise, which is one part education and one part simulation, and is no less nerdy than your average "Dungeons and Dragons" game. It's easy to get a feel for the mechanics of the process, to see how the NCAA organizes its information, to understand how all of these discrete decisions come together in the course of just a few days. Plus, the committee members are no longer opaque. Far from it. Indeed, the committee chair is always very visible, and not only on the Selection Sunday post-reveal grilling. In recent years, committee chairs have begun participating in conference calls and taking media interviews far before the bracket is due. Current chair Mike Bobinski appeared on Andy Katz and Seth Greenberg's college basketball podcast Monday, where he talked extensively about his philosophy on the committee. On Wednesday afternoon, he will conduct his first conference call with the media. You still hear some of the old conspiracy talk from time to time. (The Washington Post's John Feinstein has remained stubbornly convinced the process can't be transparent until the actual committee room has cameras in it.) And not every committee chair is good at articulating the specific reasons behind certain decisions. (Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith was particularly frustrating on this front.) But the bottom line is both media members and fans can now understand NCAA tournament selection in ways we never could before. The process, to a large extent, has been demystified. That allows us to be more exacting with our criticisms, sure -- and we'll have a lot more of those before the 2013 Bubble Watch finishes its work -- but it also allows us to recognize that, at the end of the day, it's just a bunch of people in a room trying to figure out college basketball. We can all identify with that. Without further ado, here's your second edition of the 2013 Watch. (Last week's first edition covered the season recap need-to-knows. From here on out, we'll be focusing on the latest weekly results.)
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Work left to do: La Salle, Virginia Commonwealth, Temple, Massachusetts, Saint Louis, Xavier|
La Salle [16-6 (6-3), RPI: 34, SOS: 49] Not much new to report in Explorer land this week; a home win over Fordham isn't going to do much for your resume. This is still a likely tournament selection with a top-35 RPI, but a couple of tricky games -- at St. Bonaventure Wednesday, vs. St. Joe's Saturday -- await.
Virginia Commonwealth [19-5 (7-2), RPI: 38, SOS: 92] Memphis' late rise into the ranks of the top 25 should help VCU's perception, but more important is the RPI bump Memphis got as a result of its win at the only other respectable C-USA outfit (Southern Miss) Saturday. For all their strengths, the Rams are still short on signature wins.
Temple [16-7 (5-4), RPI: 41, SOS: 48] One of the biggest problems with the RPI (arguably, anyway) is that it doesn't take into account margin of victory, thus making its evaluations of teams totally zero-sum, black and white. Temple won't mind; it beat Charlotte 89-88 and Dayton 72-71 this week. In the bubble picture, wins are wins.
Massachusetts [16-6 (6-3), RPI: 51, SOS: 91] Last week we introduced UMass as the classic "undervalued by tempo-free stats, overrated by RPI" team; the truth probably lies somewhere in between. But if you had to choose one, you'd choose the RPI, and plus it's hard to knock this week's 18-point home win over St. Joe's. Huge trip to VCU Thursday night.
Saint Louis [18-5 (7-2), RPI: 55, SOS: 109] The Billikens' RPI is still in that sketchy mid-50s range and the rest of the computer numbers are merely average -- losing a home game to a sub-150 RPI outfit (Rhode Island) will do that. But Jim Crews' team has now won six in a row. If that keeps up, the numbers will too.
Xavier [13-9 (6-3), RPI: 82, SOS: 89] A new addition to this week's Watch, the Musketeers sneaked up on us a bit. And let's be clear: With that RPI, it's still a long shot. But Xavier already has wins over Butler, Temple and La Salle in its coffer, with home games against VCU, Memphis, UMass and Saint Louis, plus a season-ending trip to Butler, still left to go. It's not there yet, but this is definitely a resume worth watching -- especially with that sparkling 4-1 record against the RPI top 50.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Teams that should be in: NC State|
Work left to do: North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia
The only intrigue as it pertains to the ACC lock field is whether Duke or the insurgent Hurricanes -- or maybe both? -- can lock down a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday. But I'll leave that calculation to Joey Brackets. I worry about the bubble line, where, coincidentally, it is time to wave farewell to Florida State. The disappointing Seminoles' profile already was shaky in last week's review, but when you lose 71-46 at Wake Forest I have no choice but to shame you with banishment, like Loki from the Kingdom of Bubblesgard. That sort of thing simply can't be tolerated.
NC State [17-7 (6-5), RPI: 17, SOS: 7] It has been easy to criticize NC State's defense -- or, more accurately, lack thereof -- and that's what held it back as Duke poured in 98 points in Cameron Indoor Feb. 7. But the Wolfpack mostly get by without elite defense, and they've had to do the same without point guard Lorenzo Brown. A 58-57 win at Clemson sure looked ugly, but it's a win.
North Carolina [16-7 (6-4), RPI: 36, SOS: 33] I suppose you could say the Tar Heels had a good opportunity at Miami Saturday, but come on: Did anyone really expect them to win? They were drubbed, and Wednesday night -- barring something unexpected -- the same will be the case at Duke. For all the fuzzy math involved in these profiles, appearances matter too, and it would behoove the Heels to not look totally out of their depth in Durham. The committee will surely be watching.
Maryland [17-7 (5-6), RPI: 71, SOS: 126] Maryland's profile isn't tons better than Florida State's, but it has a couple of distinguishing features: No sub-100 losses, one good win (NC State), a litany of respectable defeats. The only issue? FSU swept Maryland. Well, guess what, the bubble isn't a single elimination tournament; that comes later. The Terps stay. For now.
Virginia [18-6 (8-3), RPI: 72, SOS: 198] This is still one of the weirdest at-large profiles in recent memory. I mean, 6-0 against the top 100? A win at Wisconsin? What's not to like? Unfortunately lots: six sub-100 losses, 0-3 against the awful CAA, a bad RPI, a worse SOS, an even worse nonconference SOS of 320 (one game in Madison does not a noncon schedule make). You'd like to see UVa handle UNC in Chapel Hill Saturday, give Duke a run in its own building Feb. 28, and above all avoid more bad losses down the stretch.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Kansas St, Oklahoma St|
Work left to do: Oklahoma, Iowa State, Baylor
Kansas was never going to come off the lock line, but after three straight disconcerting losses -- including the infamous Topeka YMCA-level disaster at TCU -- it was comforting to see the Jayhawks wallop a really good team like K-State. The world is apparently back on its axis.
Kansas St [19-5 (8-3), RPI: 22, SOS: 47] Monday night's blowout loss at Kansas may have been disappointing, and a win would have been huge for seeding purposes, but it's not as though K-State is at risk of falling off the bubble. With the possible exception of a 170-ranked nonconference schedule -- which, to be fair, includes a neutral-court win over Florida -- there's really nothing to dislike about this resume.
Oklahoma St [17-5 (7-3), RPI: 28, SOS: 66] After this week's wins over Baylor and at Texas, the Cowboys now have won their past five, including that profile-making win at Kansas two weeks ago. There's a loss at Baylor and a December loss at Va. Tech in here, but otherwise Oklahoma State's overall CV looks a lot like K-State's -- plus a win at Kansas. That'll do.
Oklahoma [16-7 (7-4), RPI: 21, SOS: 8] Yours truly's continued quest to earn Lon Kruger's team some love continues, but if this keeps up my efforts won't be necessary. The balance of Oklahoma's schedule -- with a plurality of its wins coming against teams ranked between 50-100 in the RPI -- and its utter lack of bad losses helped it earn those excellent computer numbers. Add in the home win against Kansas, and what once seemed like a long shot at-large team looks more and more like a mid-February "Should Be In."
Iowa State [16-7 (6-4), RPI: 37, SOS: 54] Last week's nice home win against Oklahoma was followed up by an entirely forgivable nine-point loss at K-State; profile-wise, not much has changed. Still some work to do -- the Cyclones can't afford to add to that Texas Tech loss (or the 2-6 road record) with too many bad losses.
Baylor [15-8 (6-4), RPI: 52, SOS: 25] For a team so inconsistent early in the year -- remember when Baylor lost to Charleston, beat Kentucky on the road and then lost to Northwestern in Waco? -- the Bears have settled into something like a niche. They're a great defensive team with an offense that can let them down, and thus far their work in Big 12 play shows it. Can they pull through?
|Big East Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Marquette, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati|
Work left to do: Notre Dame, St. John's, Villanova
Marquette [17-6 (8-3), RPI: 16, SOS: 16] The Golden Eagles' vaunted offense didn't look like much at Georgetown Monday, but the Hoyas do that to vaunted offenses. Besides, there's not much to worry about here. With home games against Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame remaining, Marquette would almost have to lose out to not get in.
Georgetown [18-4 (8-3), RPI: 20, SOS: 62] Monday's win over Marquette added a tidy top-20 RPI victory to an already excellent profile. The only thing preventing me from locking in the Hoyas is that bad nonconference SOS (256). A win at Cincinnati Friday night probably would make that beside the point.
Pittsburgh [20-5 (8-4), RPI: 30, SOS: 65] As you'll notice above, the Panthers receive the boost to "Should Be In" this week primarily thanks to their 10-point win at Cincinnati, perhaps their most impressive of the season. There is nothing about this team that will wow you, particularly aesthetically, but their results and RPI finally seem to be catching up with their consistently excellent per-possession performance.
Cincinnati [19-6 (7-5), RPI: 32, SOS: 32] Last Wednesday the Bearcats dropped one at Providence, but any committee member who has actually seen Providence this season will know Ed Cooley's Friars really aren't that bad. The other loss came at home to Pitt, which is less a statement about Cincinnati -- they've basically been the same (good) team all year -- than about how much the Panthers continue to improve.
Notre Dame [19-5 (7-4), RPI: 43, SOS: 96] Saturday night's -- OK, Sunday morning's -- five-overtime win over Louisville wasn't just an instant classic. It was also a rather crucial top-10 RPI victory for the Irish. Surely that's what Garrick Sherman was thinking about when he came off the bench and scored 17 points in overtime.
St. John's [15-9 (7-5), RPI: 50, SOS: 13] Nice win over UConn last Wednesday, followed by a fully expected blowout loss at Syracuse Sunday, when Orange forward James Southerland returned and St. John's coach Steve Lavin was absent because of the death of his father. (Our condolences, Coach.) Next up is a Thursday night trip to Louisville. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
Villanova [15-10 (6-6), RPI: 63, SOS: 42] A home loss to Providence in early February stunk of the sort of inconsistency this team (which also beat Syracuse and Louisville and nearly downed Notre Dame in South Bend in the matter of eight days) has displayed all season. But Villanova avoided bad drops against DePaul and South Florida, and no one can begrudge Tuesday night's loss at Cincinnati. Villanova's mix of good wins, so-so numbers and strange losses put them about as squarely on the bubble as you can be. Intrigue abounds.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Minnesota, Ohio State, Wisconsin|
Work left to do: Illinois
Iowa is not the No. 91-ranked team in the country. Unfortunately, the RPI feels otherwise. According to reality-based metrics, the Hawkeyes are one of the 35 best teams in the country -- No. 31 in BPI, No. 35 in KenPom -- whose only fault is being young and thus far not very good at closing out tight games. To wit: Losses to Indiana, Michigan State, Purdue, Minnesota and Wisconsin were all decided by fewer than four points. For all of these reasons, I would like to give the Hawkeyes the benefit of the doubt. But recent history tells us that a 91 RPI and a 326th-ranked nonconference schedule are non-starters, bubble-wise. Right now, the Hawks are your overwhelming NIT favorites. We'll see if they can change that in the weeks to come.
Minnesota [17-7 (5-6), RPI: 13, SOS: 3] Since Jan. 12, the Gophers have lost six of their past eight, including at Northwestern and at home to Illinois. So how should they still be in the field? Because their numbers are pretty much as good as it gets -- top-15 RPI, top-five schedule (Tubby Smith almost entirely avoided cupcakes), No. 12 noncon SOS, it's all there. When you look at Minnesota's profile in depth, and you compare it to actual bubble teams such as Villanova or Arizona State, you see the Gophers will have to do much, much worse to execute their apparent plans of season self-sabotage.
Ohio State [17-6 (7-4), RPI: 23, SOS: 26] A win over Indiana Sunday might have put the Buckeyes into lock status, but the Hoosiers handled business in Columbus in what was easily IU's most impressive victory of the year. Ohio State's profile is a lot like its team, actually: Much better than average, even borderline elite, but largely unspectacular. They'll get in.
Wisconsin [17-7 (8-3), RPI: 31, SOS: 23] Bubble Watchers will notice Wisconsin's leap to Should Be In territory this week, and for good reason: The Badgers beat potential No. 1 seed Michigan at home. It may have taken an insane half-court buzzer-beater to do it (word to northwest suburban Chicago native Ben Brust), but all that matters is the result. With it, there are no glaring flaws or sub-100 losses and enough big-time victories that the Badgers will almost surely be back for another NCAA tournament. Same as it ever was.
Illinois [17-8 (4-7), RPI: 25, SOS: 5] Big, big week for the Illini. Bigger than big. The season could have devolved into 2012 Version 2.0, but instead the Illini -- who were really just missing their outside shot during that 2-7 Big Ten start -- bum rushed Indiana in the final seconds in Champaign, stealing a gigantic win on a last-second baseline inbounds play. They followed that up with a win at Minnesota. A week ago, the Illini's RPI was 40. After last week, it's 25. They were never quite as good as their start, but never as bad as their record in January, and now things are starting to tilt back to balance.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Teams that should be in: UNLV, San Diego St|
Work left to do: Colorado St, Boise State, Air Force
UNLV [18-6 (5-4), RPI: 19, SOS: 24] UNLV suffered its first objectively bad loss of the season Feb. 6, a 64-55 defeat at Fresno State. The good news? It's the only sub-150 loss of the season, and in fact the only sub-50 RPI loss to date. The RPI number is still strong, and that win over top-five New Mexico will remain a massive credit.
San Diego St [18-5 (6-3), RPI: 27, SOS: 57] After home wins over Boise and Fresno, the Aztecs are inching closer and closer to lock status. Why? No bad losses, a 7-4 record away from home, a nice collection of top-50 wins, etc. This week is brutal -- at Colorado State, at UNLV -- but a split basically puts SDSU in the tourney.
Colorado St [19-4 (6-2), RPI: 14, SOS: 53] The Rams have won four in a row, including at Nevada this week, and really the only thing not to like about their resume is a loss at Illinois-Chicago back on Dec. 8. Other than that, it's pretty sterling.
Boise State [16-7 (4-5), RPI: 45, SOS: 73] Tough, tough, tough loss at San Diego State. A 63-62 loss at Viejas is a bummer, because a loss is a loss, and that could have been a real profile game-changer. The next big opportunity comes Saturday at New Mexico.
Air Force [14-8 (5-4), RPI: 68, SOS: 87] Other than Wyoming, which fell off the watch this week, Air Force has the longest at-large shot in the Mountain West. The computer numbers aren't great, the Falcons have lost a lot more than they've won against good teams, and two road losses this week didn't help. But home games against UNLV and Colorado State await.
|Teams that should be in: Oregon|
Work left to do: Colorado, UCLA, Stanford, California, Arizona St
Oregon [19-5 (8-3), RPI: 42, SOS: 101] The big brains at Bubble Watch headquarters (myself, my editor Brett, and my 4-year-old yellow lab) seriously discussed taking Oregon out of the Should Be In field this week after three straight brutal losses to Stanford, California and Colorado. (Oregon's average points per game in that stretch: 51.0. Yikes.) But we ultimately decided against it, because freshman point guard Dominic Artis has been missing since Jan. 26. Without Artis, the turnover-prone team's best ball handler, Oregon's turnover rate has skyrocketed and its points per possession have plummeted. Artis is reportedly returning soon; let's see what the Ducks look like with him back in the lineup before we go making any rash decisions.
Colorado [16-7 (6-5), RPI: 18, SOS: 14] It will be interesting to see how much credit Colorado will get for a win at Oregon with Artis on the sideline; the committee takes injuries into account in evaluating results, but should Colorado be slightly docked some measure of accomplishment because its opponent wasn't whole? Did this just turn into a question for The Ethicist? Anyway, the Buffs have that loss to Utah and a few other semi-questionable road drops, but everything else about this resume, particularly the RPI and SOS figures, is exemplary.
UCLA [18-6 (8-3), RPI: 39, SOS: 38] UCLA's RPI got a seven-spot boost after home wins over Washington and Washington State, the former of which was so ugly and poorly played it nearly drove Bill Walton to tears. (Poor Bill Walton.) Anyway, same deal: UCLA isn't entirely safe, but it's trudging ever closer.
Stanford [15-9 (6-5), RPI: 56, SOS: 39] Neither ASU nor Stanford is in particularly good bubble position right now, but the 68-team bubble is profile-soft. For reference's sake, Lunardi's Tuesday bracket had both listed among his first four out. So while Stanford's win at ASU might not get everybody riled up, it was a nice head-to-head victory over a fellow bubble-dweller.
California [14-9 (6-5), RPI: 57, SOS: 36] The Bears' computer numbers were never truly bad; I considered them for the first edition for that reason alone. But they were 1-8 against the RPI top 100. That mark worsened Feb. 7 with a loss at Arizona State, but it changed in a big way Sunday, when Mike Montgomery's team upset Arizona at the McKale Center. Sure, 2-9 against the top 100 isn't much, but a win at Arizona is (at least for now) a real-deal marquee notch. Let's see if Cal can make a late push.
Arizona St [18-6 (7-4), RPI: 64, SOS: 102] The Sun Devils would have liked to pull out that 62-59 home loss to Stanford Saturday, but the Cardinal has been playing much better basketball in recent weeks, so we can let it slide. Tricky homestretch for ASU coming up here: They're at Utah (landmine) and at Colorado (a winnable road game against a top-20 RPI team), then home against Washington State and Washington, and then they finish on the road at UCLA, USC and Arizona.
|Work left to do: Missouri, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Alabama|
Missouri [17-6 (6-4), RPI: 33, SOS: 45] It was a down and up week for Mizzou: On Feb. 7, the Tigers lost at Texas A&M, but they rebounded two days later with a scalding-hot 98-point performance in a win over Marshall Henderson and Ole Miss. That's a pretty decent metaphor for Missouri's season. When they're that good from outside, look out. When they're not, they struggle to get stops, and their just-OK tourney resume bears that out.
Kentucky [17-7 (8-3), RPI: 44, SOS: 56] Before we just soullessly dive into the silly bubble implications of an 18-year-old kid's gruesome knee injury, I'll just say I hope Nerlens Noel recovers fully from his torn ACL and still makes a lot of money in the NBA. Anything less would be a shame. Of course, the biggest secondary question, the one that went rippling out through Big Blue Nation even as Noel lay screaming in agony on the O-Dome floor, was what the injury would mean for the rest of Kentucky's season. With Noel playing like a potential SEC POY candidate, the Wildcats were steadily improving, but were still near enough to the bubble to be a little bit concerned. (They're a No. 9 seed in Lunardi's bracket.) With Noel now out for the season, Kentucky has to take care of business in the final month of the season or the NCAA tournament selection committee will take that distinction into consideration -- potentially invalidating everything UK accomplished with Noel in the lineup. (See: Martin, Kenyon and Hummel, Robbie.) And those accomplishments were pretty thin in the first place.
Ole Miss [18-5 (7-3), RPI: 47, SOS: 127] All of Ole Miss's five losses have come against RPI top-60 teams (though Indiana State is wavering). Unfortunately, with the exception of Missouri -- which trounced Ole Miss in the return game Saturday -- the Rebels haven't beaten anyone. The problem? The rest of their SEC schedule doesn't offer anyone to beat.
Alabama [16-8 (8-3), RPI: 62, SOS: 63] Wins at LSU and Georgia keep the Tide on the Watch for another week, but even Anthony Grant would have to admit things aren't looking good. Why? The remaining schedule. The only shots at marquee wins come on the road at Ole Miss (doable, but not easy) and Florida (ha). The rest -- South Carolina, Mississippi State, at LSU, Auburn, Georgia -- is an RPI minefield.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Work left to do: Belmont, Middle Tennessee, Memphis, Saint Mary's|
I have one big bugaboo round these Bubble Watch parts: I don't like to take teams out of the "lock" field. Why? Because words have meaning, and when you say something is a lock, it should be, you know, a lock. You shouldn't be able to fall out of guaranteed position; you should be safe no matter what. That's the whole point of a guarantee, right? In other words, I'm not taking Creighton out of their feted position after back-to-back losses to Indiana State and Illinois State (the latter of which came at home). But I am giving the Bluejays a gentle Hulk-ian warning: Don't make us unlock you. You wouldn't like us when we unlock you. The only other changes below are the respective removals of BYU (which lost to San Diego and San Francisco and hasn't beaten anyone) and Southern Miss (which, after losing at home to Memphis, has very little going for it).
Belmont [20-5 (11-1), RPI: 24, SOS: 59] Last week I sang the Bruins' praises, and rightfully so -- as is the case almost every year under Rick Byrd's tutelage, Belmont is once again good. Thursday's loss at Murray State doesn't change that, of course, but it does introduce a bit more doubt into the equation, particularly because Middle Tennessee is the only top-50 win (and at Stanford and at Eastern Kentucky are the next two best).
Middle Tennessee [22-4 (14-1), RPI: 29, SOS: 106] This is one of those Bubble Watch blurbs I won't have to update every week (fair warning!), because the Blue Raiders' situation is simple: They have a good but not slam-dunk at-large profile with only one bad loss, which they suffered all the way back on Jan. 3. The rest of their Sun Belt schedule includes only one team not ranked below 150 in the RPI (Arkansas Little-Rock, No. 148). Just like in 2012, there is very little margin for bad-loss error. Welcome to life as the Sun Belt's best.
Memphis [20-3 (9-0), RPI: 35, SOS: 103] Memphis' win at Southern Miss Saturday impressed enough people to move the Tigers into the Top 25, and it provided a nice little RPI boost -- from 43 to 35 -- too. All good things. It's hard to gauge exactly how much better this team is since that disappointing November and December, because most of C-USA is downright putrid. But the Tigers still have five more games against RPI top-100 teams (two vs. UCF, one at UTEP, home vs. Southern Miss, at Xavier), so there are still some opportunities to bolster the computer numbers a bit more.
Saint Mary's [21-4 (10-1), RPI: 49, SOS: 180] The Gaels won at Santa Clara and San Diego this week. In other words, nothing new to report; the Gaels are a very good team (their efficiency numbers most closely resemble Creighton's) that has yet to notch anything remotely like a marquee win. Until they do, they'll remain in neutral.