Contenders for at-larges run the gamut

Originally Published: January 5, 2006
ESPN.com

It's that time of year again, when thoughts of NCAA bids start dancing in the air. As part of our conference preview week, we wanted to take a first look at a number of the teams positioning themselves for possible at-large consideration.

(Note: This is not an all-inclusive list of bubble candidates. It is a collection of some of the more interesting cases from the nonconference season. Missouri Valley and MAC teams were excluded, as at-large candidacies likely will be settled during league play.)

The comments provided are from Bracketologist Joe Lunardi and ESPN.com senior writer Andy Katz.

Inside the RPI top 100

Wisconsin-Milwaukee (9-3)
Helpful wins: Hawaii, at Wyoming
Harmful losses: at Memphis (by 27)
The Panthers probably think they have legitimate NCAA at-large chances, but not even an inflated RPI or last year's Sweet 16 appearance change the fact that UWM almost certainly needs to win the Horizon League. Remember that early-season RPIs are like April batting averages; they can only go down.

Bucknell (9-3)
Helpful wins: at Syracuse, at DePaul, Saint Joseph's
Harmful losses: at Duke (by 34), at Santa Clara
The Bison can at least think "at-large" thanks to nonconference wins over Syracuse, DePaul, and Saint Joseph's, but a loss at Santa Clara in Cable Car Classic was unfortunate. With only Holy Cross remaining as a Top 200 opponent, Bucknell can ill-afford any "bad losses" in the Patriot League.

DePaul (7-5)
Helpful wins: Creighton, UAB, at Dayton, at Wake Forest, at Cal
Harmful losses: Bradley, at Northern Illinois, Bucknell, at Old Dominion (by 44)
The Blue Demons might be the biggest surprise among major conference teams. DePaul was supposed to take its lumps even before Big East play, but instead notched five very credible wins, some without Wesley Green. If the Demons can somehow stay above .500 in their new league, you never know.

Colorado State (11-3)
Helpful wins: Colorado, at Auburn, at Hawaii
Harmful losses: at Kansas State
I'm sure there was a good reason for the Rams to play two non-Division I games over the holidays, but if they just miss the NCAAs, don't say we didn't warn them. Regardless, CSU has a solid nonconference résumé and enters a Mountain West race with no clear favorite. A regular-season title (or even co-championship) would make the conference tournament moot.

Saint Joseph's (5-5)
Helpful wins: vs. Kansas
Harmful losses: None (but too many?)
Are the Hawks the team that scored 94 points at Gonzaga or the one with 51 points at Bucknell? Not even Phil Martelli knows at this point, and the unbalanced Atlantic 10 schedule (double dates with Xavier, Temple and GW) is unkind. The Hawks will have plenty of RPI points if they can post a win total in the high teens.

Temple (6-5)
Helpful wins: Miami, Alabama, at Penn
Harmful losses: at Rutgers, at Auburn (by 31)
The Owls have been unusually inconsistent for a John Chaney team. Temple's defense disappears at odd times (at Rutgers, at Auburn), so the Owls' 3-point shooting makes it all-or-nothing against good opponents. There are plenty of potential quality Ws on the schedule, though, for a long-sought return to the NCAA Tournament. Getting Wayne Marshall in the fold should help.

Houston (8-3)
Helpful wins: at LSU, Arizona
Harmful losses: VCU, at South Alabama, at UNLV
Houston needs to dominate the bottom half (two-thirds?) of a potentially dreadful Conference USA. A couple of bad losses would erase the goodwill of early-season victories over LSU and Arizona, although those were earned without a healthy Lanny Smith. We're going to be talking about the Cougars as a bubble team all winter long.

Arkansas (11-2)
Helpful wins: vs. Kansas, Missouri
Harmful losses: None
The Hogs are more sizzle than steak at this point, but stepping into SEC play will really help their profile. The conference is strong enough to keep Arkansas inside the NCAA bubble, but not so tough as to pile up too many losses for a team seeking a return to national prominence.

Old Dominion (9-4)
Helpful wins: Georgia, DePaul, at Virginia Tech
Harmful losses: at Drexel (by 19), at Richmond, at UAB (by 28)
The Monarchs have been like the little girl with the curl. Unfortunately, the "awful" has included a pair of blowout losses on the road. ODU needs to dominate the Colonial Athletic Association race to remain a legitimate at-large candidate, but the league seems too deep this year for that outcome to be realistic.

Colorado (10-1)
Helpful wins: at Penn
Harmful losses: None
The Buffs have been very good in a handful of road games, which bodes well for Colorado to shake its typical "not quite good enough" stigma. And the Big 12, at least for the moment, has underachieved, meaning there are probably more conference wins to be had than originally expected. Their chances look good.

Tennessee (9-1)
Helpful wins: at Texas
Harmful losses: None
The win at Texas figures to be the gift that keeps on giving, but the Vols ultimately will be judged on their SEC record. It's going to take at least a 9-7 conference slate (and maybe even 10-6) for Tennessee's first Pearl jam to end in the four-letter tournament.

Vanderbilt (9-2)
Helpful wins: at Georgetown, at Dayton
Harmful losses: None
The Commodores have a better-than-average preconference résumé and also figure to benefit from a less-than-sizzling SEC East. If Vandy can get one or two wins in their four dates with Florida and Kentucky, Selection Sunday should be dandy.

UAB (9-3)
Helpful wins: Old Dominion, Oklahoma State
Harmful losses: Western Kentucky (by 16)
Who are we to question the one team that is impossible to evaluate correctly? Is UAB the squad that thumped Oklahoma State or the one manhandled by Western Kentucky? We have no idea, really, but we do know Conference USA isn't going to help their season-long profile. If the Blazers were stock, our instructions would be "sell." Losing Demario Eddins is a big blow.

Air Force (12-1)
Helpful wins: Miami, Georgia Tech
Harmful losses: None
Doing this all without injured center Nick Welch, Air Force would fly even higher if Miami and/or Georgia Tech could make some serious noise in the ACC. With no guarantee of that, the Falcons need no worse than a top-two finish in the Mountain West to feel comfortable heading into this year's postseason.

California (8-3)
Helpful wins: UCLA
Harmful losses: at Eastern Michigan, DePaul
What a start for the Bears in Pac-10 play. Sweeping the L.A. schools on the road could (and probably should) make all the difference when it comes times to hand out at-large bids. If one assumes the Pac-10 will send more than its top three teams to the NCAAs (and we do), Cal clearly is next in line at this point. Loss to EMU came without starters Rod Benson and Leon Powe.

Notre Dame (9-3)
Helpful wins: None
Harmful losses: None
One of last year's dreaded "last four out" could be in the same boat this March. Best way to avoid that is for the Irish to finish strong, which seems quite doable when you take a closer look at the Big East schedule. Best bet? "Buy" the Irish.

George Washington (9-1)
Helpful wins: vs. Maryland, at Temple
Harmful losses: None
The Colonials aren't nearly as bad as they looked at North Carolina State. What they are is a collection of tremendous individual talents in which the whole isn't always equal to the sum of the parts. Still the class of the Atlantic 10, though, which makes the NCAA Tournament a near certainty.

Texas A&M (10-1)
Helpful wins: None
Harmful losses: None
The Aggies needed Mapquest to find their way out of College Station after 10 consecutive home games (against mostly stiffs) -- then promptly lost at Pacific in their first road test. When will people learn that judicious road scheduling is an asset, not a liability? Because A&M has done next to nothing in nonconference play, it has no margin of error in the Big 12.

Xavier (8-2)
Helpful wins: at Purdue, Saint Joseph's
Harmful losses: None
My sense is that the Musketeers are much better than their early-season numbers. Double-digit wins in the Atlantic 10 keeps them in the NCAA discussion; two or three of the right wins and they won't have to worry about a postseason snub on the order of last year.

Outside the RPI top 100

Alabama (7-5)
Helpful wins: None
Harmful losses: None (but too many?)
Nothing good happened for Alabama, despite a great nonconference schedule. The Tide must now pile up SEC Ws and/or win the West Division. Chances aren't looking all that good.

Charlotte (8-5)
Helpful wins: Davidson, at Rutgers
Harmful losses: vs. Northwestern, Mississippi State, Valparaiso
The 49ers hope winning at Rutgers has righted their ship. What we see is a team than pretty much kicked every chance it had to build a nonconference résumé. Even an improved Atlantic 10 won't be enough unless Charlotte dominates its new league, and that isn't happening from what we've seen to date.

LSU (7-4)
Helpful wins: None
Harmful losses: None (but too many?)
Good losses are only "good" if you don't have too many of them. LSU has more than its share to date -- Houston, Northern Iowa, Cincinnati and Ohio State -- with only the latter being a true road game. With another probably coming at Connecticut, the Tigers need to show themselves as best in the SEC West. The lack of Tack Minor hasn't helped.

Virginia Tech (10-4)
Helpful wins: vs. Stanford, "at Duke"
Harmful losses: Bowling Green
It's all about the ACC schedule for Virginia Tech. The Hokies must finish above .500 in conference play after what was a lackluster nonleague slate. When your "highlight" is getting unlucky at Duke, that's not enough.

Kansas (8-4)
Helpful wins: Cal
Harmful losses: None (but too many?)
The Jayhawks might be the most interesting case in years. If they are very good in Big 12 play, the point is moot and KU will be in the Tourney. If they win only nine or 10 conference games, their nonleague profile isn't enough to save the day. Beating Kentucky this weekend is essential. How much will the arrival of Darnell Jackson help?