College Basketball Bubble Watch
Bracket Builder Week sounds about right as we move closer and closer to go-time
Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Tuesday, Feb. 26.
This week's television coverage theme -- "Bracket Builder Week" -- is perfectly timed. This is typically the first week of Bubble Watch in which we're able, with at least some degree of precision, to look at a team's remaining schedule and reasonably posit where it might end up in the bracket discussion. With so few regular-season games remaining, we can be a bit more liberal in our use of those hallowed terms -- "locks" and "should be ins" -- and a bit more dismissive of long-shot teams who've failed to make definitive moves in recent weeks.
Such is the case in this week's Bubble Watch, which for the second straight week eschews a lengthy preamble in favor of getting right down to business. Onward:
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Work left to do: Virginia Commonwealth, La Salle, Temple|
Saint Louis' profile is hardly perfect -- let's not forget, Rhode Island beat the Billikens at home just five weeks ago -- but that was their last loss, and the nine wins since, including a sweep of Butler, have made Kwamain Mitchell & Co. a lock. Meanwhile, UMass' loss at St. Bonaventure knocked it out of bubble contention until further notice. And while Xavier definitely deserves a look after Tuesday's win over Memphis, it still has a lot more to do to get anywhere near the tournament, and the opportunities to do it -- let's see what happens against UMass this weekend.
Virginia Commonwealth [22-6 (10-3), RPI: 35, SOS: 73] This might be the most pivotal week of VCU's season. Why? The Rams aren't playing. After last Saturday's trip to Xavier (a 75-71 win), Shaka Smart's squad got an entire week to rest in advance of this Saturday's home date against Butler. Considering how much VCU's pressuring defensive style plays into its success, might this restful week provide a springboard? We'll see.
La Salle [19-7 (9-4), RPI: 36, SOS: 77] La Salle's goal in the next two weeks is simple: Just win at home. The Explorers avoided a bad loss at Rhode Island Sunday; now all they have to do is beat Duquesne and George Washington in their own place, and March 9's trip to Saint Louis won't seem like such a big deal.
Temple [19-8 (8-5), RPI: 39, SOS: 35] The Owls finally -- finally! -- ended their five-game-strong streak of one-point final margins, which is no way for a team or a fan base to live. One of those games was a one-point home loss to Duquesne, but the Owls have rebounded with wins at UMass, versus La Salle and at Charlotte. That big win over Syracuse, plus a steadily improving Saint Louis, might just save the day after all.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Teams that should be in: North Carolina State|
Work left to do: North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia
North Carolina State [19-8 (8-6), RPI: 24, SOS: 16] The Wolfpack have done plenty to earn their way into the tournament, and it would be a shock to see them somehow lose that status in the next few weeks, but they've also done just enough to prevent us from ever locking them in. Such was the case with their loss at North Carolina on Saturday. A win might have sealed the deal; a loss merely holds the line.
North Carolina [19-8 (9-5), RPI: 21, SOS: 11] The Tar Heels' three big wins in the past 10 days -- vs. Virginia, at Georgia Tech and at home against NC State -- didn't just add a couple of quality home victories against tournament-caliber teams and avoid a slightly ugly loss. It also helped boost the Tar Heels' RPI into the top 20s and added another top-25 RPI win (NC State) to a profile largely bereft of that kind of quality.
Maryland [19-8 (7-7), RPI: 67, SOS: 119] The Terps quickly undid many of the benefits they gained with the Duke win in their loss to Boston College last week, and their remaining schedule -- at Georgia Tech, at Wake, UNC, at Virginia -- doesn't bode particularly well. Are those winnable games? Sure. Are they loseable? Oh yes.
Virginia [19-8 (9-5), RPI: 69, SOS: 142] Meanwhile, Virginia remains much better than its RPI profile claims. Most efficiency-based metrics have the Cavaliers as a top-30 -- even a top-20 -- team; BPI puts UVa at No. 43. The RPI doesn't do this team justice, largely thanks to a few ugly early losses and some poorly chosen road drops (Georgia Tech, Clemson) in ACC play. With Duke arriving on Thursday, does Tony Bennett's team still have time to turn the tide?
|Big 12 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Oklahoma|
Work left to do: Iowa State, Baylor
Two new additions in Big 12 lockdom this week, so be sure to give your hearty congratulations to both Kansas State and Oklahoma State. Like with Wisconsin and Ohio State in the Big Ten, there's really no reason to be cute with KSU and OSU. They're both making the NCAA tournament. We're at the point in the season now when even the worst of the worst-case scenarios we go over still produces at-large bids for these two. Neither team got some big, season-defining win to seal that place (though Oklahoma State's one-possession loss to Kansas last week was nearly as much) but both have been continuously solid throughout the season, particularly in the last two months. I suppose there is some potential for the Cowboys to lose at TCU Wednesday night and make things slightly interesting, but even so, they should be fine.
Oklahoma [18-8 (9-5), RPI: 20, SOS: 7] The Wildcats and Cowboys aren't the only two teams movin' on up this week. Oklahoma also gets the nod, if only to the relative purgatory that is "should be in." As has been noted in this space for weeks, Oklahoma's computer numbers are stellar, they don't really have a bad loss (do your homework on Stephen F. Austin, that doesn't count) and they've won four of their last five, including a win over Kansas and a tight road loss at Oklahoma State. Provided they don't also suffer some sort of TCU/Texas-induced meltdown down the stretch, Lon Kruger's team is dancing.
Iowa State [19-9 (9-6), RPI: 53, SOS: 78] Talk about heartbreak. For the second time this season, Iowa State let victory against Kansas slip away. Did the team's bubble chances go with it? Doubt it. The Cyclones still picked up an important win at Baylor since our last edition of BW and clearly have the upper hand between those two. Nevertheless, the Cyclones are still just 2-6 against the RPI top 50. A win at Oklahoma over the weekend isn't a must, but it sure would be nice.
Baylor [16-11 (7-7), RPI: 64, SOS: 31] Yuck. The Bears have lost six of eight at just the wrong time. Granted, all six were to likely tourney teams, but at some point you have to win one or two of those games, right? Baylor has exactly one quality win since Christmas. It's one thing to have a 65-ish RPI if you have the wins to back it up; it's another when you're 15-11 overall, 2-7 against the top 50, 4-9 against the top 100, 5-7 away from your own gym and just .500 in your own conference. That screams "mediocre," which is why you'll see Baylor on the razor's edge of so many prognosticators' brackets in the next few weeks. Plenty of work to be done here, starting with those home games against Kansas and Kansas State.
|Big East Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Pittsburgh, Notre Dame|
Work left to do: Cincinnati, Villanova, St. John's
Our next Big East move to lock status comes by way of the Georgetown Hoyas, who beat hated rival Syracuse in their last Big East trip to the Carrier Dome -- insert any and all Manley jokes here -- thanks to a POY-worthy performance from Otto Porter. The upshot is the Hoyas' already-strong resume was pushed into "no chance they miss the tournament" territory.
Pittsburgh [21-7 (9-6), RPI: 37, SOS: 46] The Panthers may never have materialized into the Big East title contender their early-season efficiency numbers suggested, but even after recent losses at Marquette and to Notre Dame, their NCAA tournament profile contains just one blemish: a road loss at Rutgers suffered back on Jan. 5. An 0-3 finish could possibly keep them out of the tourney, but I seriously doubt it.
Notre Dame [22-6 (10-5), RPI: 40, SOS: 94] Notre Dame is almost the anti-Pitt: If you look at the Irish's per-possession performance, their defense has been so bad (particularly in Big East play) that you'd expect them to be much worse off in the tournament picture than they currently are. ND's ugly nonconference SOS (269) could hold it back slightly, but otherwise things are looking good.
Cincinnati [19-9 (7-8), RPI: 50, SOS: 24] The Bearcats are this week's largest Big East downgrade, because while none of their past three losses are bad -- losing to Georgetown, UConn and Notre Dame are hardly tournament disqualifiers -- an ugly finish could cause the Bearcats no small amount of anxiety in the coming weeks. I'm not worried, but let's just wait and see.
Villanova [18-11 (9-7), RPI: 55, SOS: 37] Villanova's win over Marquette on Saturday was another big step forward for the Wildcats, their biggest since the back-to-back upsets of top-five-ranked Louisville and Syracuse during the same week in late January. And then ... Villanova lost to Seton Hall. One step forward, one step back. This team remains squarely atop the bubble.
St. John's [16-11 (8-7), RPI: 61, SOS: 29] Most current brackets list St. John's as one of the first four or eight teams outside of the tournament field, which seems about right: The bubble is soft enough that wins at Cincinnati and over Notre Dame and UConn are enough to put you in the conversation, but not so soft that a 4-8 record against the top 100 can go unnoticed. Almost the definition of a team that has work left to do.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Minnesota, Illinois|
Pretty straightforward stuff: Wisconsin and Ohio State are going to the tournament. Both teams have a plethora of quality wins (especially UW), neither team has suffered many bad losses (especially OSU), and both teams have largely weathered the rigors of the best league in the country to an admirable degree. You can argue about their seeding, or whether each team's limits will hold them back in March, but let's be real: They're both dancing.
Minnesota [19-9 (7-8), RPI: 14, SOS: 1] Now, imagine if Minnesota could play like it cared all the time, huh? I'm guessing the Gophers wouldn't get blown out at Iowa (or Ohio State) and wouldn't have lost eight of their past 11 before Tuesday night's home stand against No. 1 Indiana. Minnesota came out hot against IU, riding a rowdy crowd, and it ended with the win that is sure to solidify what had become slowly sagging NCAA tournament hopes. Provided Minnesota doesn't lose to Penn State, Nebraska and Purdue in its last three, you can just about lock it up.
Illinois [20-9 (7-8), RPI: 32, SOS: 5] Illinois lost in relatively respectable fashion at Michigan on Sunday, and very little has changed in its tournament profile. Some committee members may distrust a team that went so cold for such a large part of the season, but the end-of-day body of work is what counts, and Illinois' wins -- especially over Indiana and at Gonzaga -- will eventually make it impossible to keep out of the field.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Colorado State, UNLV, San Diego State|
Work left to do: Boise State, Air Force
Colorado State [21-6 (8-4), RPI: 16, SOS: 28] CSU's rare back-to-back losses last week made for some entertaining Mountain West action -- I'll watch this team play UNLV and New Mexico (or really any combination therein) any day -- but didn't do a whole lot to change its tournament resume. A win or two might have locked them up, but as-is they're close enough already.
UNLV [21-7 (8-5), RPI: 17, SOS: 14] What a week and change for the Rebels. A home win over San Diego State, another over CSU, and then a road blowout at Wyoming, which is not an easy place to play. Similar to Colorado State in their status as almost-locked-in-but-let's-just-play-it-safe in advance of three closers at Nevada and home versus Boise and Fresno State.
San Diego State [20-7 (8-5), RPI: 33, SOS: 54] The Aztecs aren't quite as close to lock status as Colorado State and UNLV, but they're not far behind -- and a Wednesday night win in the house of the RPI's third-ranked New Mexico Lobos would be a super-fast way to get there.
Boise State [18-8 (6-6), RPI: 48, SOS: 91] The Broncos remain in this thing; their back-to-back wins over Air Force and Fresno State took care of that. The question is whether they can solidify what is one of the nation's most bubblicious profiles in the next week. Their home date with Colorado State this weekend is probably the best bet, but a trip to UNLV and another home game against San Diego State remain before the season is out. Opportunities!
Air Force [16-10 (7-6), RPI: 66, SOS: 56] A total long shot at this point, one I probably should take off but can't, because they held serve against Wyoming Thursday night. At this point, sure seems like the Falcons need to win at San Diego State and New Mexico in this final stretch.
|Teams that should be in: Colorado, Oregon|
Work left to do: UCLA, California, Arizona State
Colorado [18-8 (8-6), RPI: 26, SOS: 17] The Buffaloes' profile has its weaknesses -- namely a few road losses the Buffs would probably like back -- but all in all, it is hard to find fault with a top-30 RPI, top-20 SOS, and a top-40 mark in the nonconference schedule department. They'll get in.
Oregon [22-6 (11-4), RPI: 49, SOS: 110] Despite Dominic Artis' return coming much later than initially anticipated, the Ducks have managed to right a ship that teetered in three straight losses at Stanford, Cal and Colorado earlier this month. They've now won four of their past five, and that was the big goal -- keep things moving without Artis.
UCLA [20-7 (10-4), RPI: 42, SOS: 45] Sort of like the Bruins in general this season, UCLA's tournament resume -- at least taken as a whole -- is good, not great, nothing like the crash-and-burn squad we assumed we'd be getting when Ben Howland retooled with all that young one-and-done talent. There have been bad points and moments of brilliance, but more than anything it feels like UCLA is just sort of OK. Provided they don't fall apart in their final four games -- and they have a good chance to sweep Arizona coming at home on March 2 -- the Bruins will be seeded accordingly.
California [18-9 (10-5), RPI: 43, SOS: 34] Cal did a couple of things right this week: It got a big-time road win at Oregon and avoided a potentially ugly road loss at Oregon State (a team that's not easy to beat). That's now five wins in a row, including wins over Arizona (away) and UCLA (home), and the Bears have put themselves into suddenly solid -- if not guaranteed -- tournament shape.
Arizona State [20-8 (9-6), RPI: 85, SOS: 137] I'm not sure the Sun Devils did themselves all that much damage by losing to Washington, even at home. More important right now is the still-prohibitively high RPI and nonconference SOS number (289). Now ASU has three straight road games to close the season, which are go big or go home: at UCLA, at USC, at Arizona. It all comes down to that.
|Teams that should be in: Missouri|
Work left to do: Kentucky, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Alabama, Arkansas
Missouri [19-8 (8-6), RPI: 41, SOS: 52] The Tigers certainly helped their case with last week's home win over Florida, but after a loss at Kentucky -- not a bad loss or a good loss, necessarily, but a loss all the same -- it is still too early to start thinking about locking them in. With just four regular-season games remaining (against nary a top-50 opponent), time itself should do the trick.
Kentucky [19-8 (10-4), RPI: 46, SOS: 57] Will that home victory over Missouri be enough to get the Wildcats in the tournament? Not just yet: Most bracketologists have UK at right around a No. 11 seed; our own Joe Lunardi has them among his last four teams in the tournament. Surviving tricky trips to Arkansas and Georgia comes first, followed by a big-big-big March 9 home date with Florida that could seal things down the stretch.
Tennessee [17-10 (9-6), RPI: 52, SOS: 21] Each year, we always find at least one team or two that screams into the bubble conversation in the final few weeks of the regular season, that goes from dead in the water to tournament distance in the matter of just five or six games. Ladies and gentlemen, for the second straight year, your Tennessee Volunteers! Tuesday night's home win over Florida gave UT its sixth victory in a row, and their already-decent computer numbers (including their 32nd-ranked noncon SOS) makes them worth noting -- and Lunardi has them all the way up to first team out. Win road games at Georgia and Auburn and a huge home game against Mizzou closes out the regular season.
Ole Miss [20-7 (9-5), RPI: 58, SOS: 156] Last week's loss at South Carolina may not have been a tournament deal-breaker, but it put the Rebels in really hot water -- as much as UK is on the bubble cut line, so is Andy Kennedy's team (and, quite arguably, Andy Kennedy's job). As we've said for weeks, the only noteworthy thing about this resume is the home win over Missouri, which Missouri repaid in its own building. If you start adding sub-200 losses now, look out.
Alabama [19-9 (11-4), RPI: 63, SOS: 102] Alabama was never a particularly inspiring bubble squad -- I've yet to see the Crimson Tide play a game I thought noteworthy, and I watch a good deal of college basketball -- but their loss to LSU this past weekend may have sealed their fate. The only real hope between now and the end of the regular season is a road win at Florida March 2. Good luck with that.
Arkansas [17-10 (8-6), RPI: 77, SOS: 89] The Razorbacks' loss at Florida is no big deal; more disconcerting is the fact that they can't seem to get that RPI down into reasonable territory (it isn't often you see tournament teams with plus-75 RPIs) and have only two more opportunities (vs. Kentucky, at Missouri) to do something that might have an impact on their overall perception.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Teams that should be in: Memphis, Creighton|
Work left to do: Belmont, Middle Tennessee, Saint Mary's, Akron
Memphis [24-4 (13-0), RPI: 19, SOS: 68] I was ready to get on board with these Tigers. I'm getting a little tired of the "disappointing Memphis" storylines, of the whispers that this group of local kids has too many ever-present influences wreaking havoc on the team, of the constant harping on Memphis coach Josh Pastner for his lack of NCAA tournament wins. The whole premise is pretty unfair, and besides: Memphis is still having (another) really good season! It's just that this year, C-USA is so bad, we don't have any real proof the Tigers are as good as numbers seem to tell us. It would have been nice to see the Tigers come out and actually prove something on the road at Xavier. And while the Musketeers deserve credit for the win -- and their crowd deserves credit for making Memphis miserable -- the fact of the matter is we have every reason to question Memphis' resume, with its boosted RPI and only top-50 wins coming over Southern Miss. There are a lot of questions here.
Creighton [22-7 (11-5), RPI: 45, SOS: 103] Yes, Creighton has been downgraded from locks. We've only done it a handful of times since I started on the Bubble Watch, and it's not something I like to do: A lock is supposed to be a lock, right? But in this case I give myself a fair portion of the blame; Creighton's profile was never strong enough to deserve unflinching early lock status, and when they faltered, I probably was too late in taking them down. Anyway, enough with the procedural nonsense. Point is, after that loss at Saint Mary's, the Bluejays are more like a No. 9 or No. 10 seed than a lock -- and as long as they take care of Wednesday night's road game at Bradley, and/or the season-ending home date against Wichita State, all will be well.
Belmont [22-6 (12-2), RPI: 23, SOS: 60] A win over Ohio in BracketBusters might not tickle your fancy, but it is a quality win for RPI purposes that can't be had outside of Eastern Kentucky in Belmont's league. All of the factors point positively in Belmont's direction -- especially that No. 2-ranked nonconference SOS -- but I don't always trust the committee on mid-majors, even brand name mid-majors like Rick Byrd's program.
Middle Tennessee [25-4 (17-1), RPI: 27, SOS: 122] Same deal as ever: No top-50 wins, no losses since Jan. 3, a top-10 nonconference strength of schedule and a top-30 RPI for a team coming from a downright bad conference (the Sun Belt). I think they belong, but they've got to win at Troy and WKU this week first.
Saint Mary's [24-5 (12-2), RPI: 44, SOS: 128] BracketBusters has been accused of hurting as many good mid-majors as it has helped through the years, and that's probably fair -- though in Saint Mary's case I think we can argue the arrangement was all positive. Creighton will stay in the tournament mix, of course, and Saint Mary's gets a nice little late-season boost they really couldn't have had, outside of an upset win over the juggernaut that is the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Their tournament hopes remain very much in the balance, but they definitely look better than they did a few weeks ago.
Akron [22-4 (12-0), RPI: 47, SOS: 152] Akron's last loss came Dec. 15. That's not really an official selection committee criterion, but it is incredibly impressive. Unfortunately many of those wins have come over the MAC, which is not particularly good at basketball this season; only five of the Zips' 21 Division I victories came against teams ranked higher than 150 in the RPI.