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Crunch time has arrived for teams on bubble

2/28/2005

Editor's note: Charlie Creme will project the 2005 NCAA Tournament bracket each month throughout the season. Click here for a glance at this month's field of 64, and be sure to check out Creme's take on each team. This projection includes games through Feb. 14.

Question: What do Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Iowa, Oklahoma, Alabama and Florida have in common?

Answer: Through Monday, all six were in contention for an NCAA berth, but also carrying sub-.500 conference records.

For the purposes of this February projection, a losing conference mark does not have the same level of impact it will in March or for the committee on Selection Sunday. But it does play a role. And that is why the Hokies, Hawkeyes, Sooners and Gators are in -- and the Yellow Jackets and Crimson Tide are out.

Recent history tells us that while finishing the season below .500 will not exclude any of these clubs from the NCAA Tournament, each would significantly reduce its stress level on March 13 with a win streak over the next few weeks. Because if the status quo exists in a month, no more than one or two of these teams will make the tournament.

Four times in the last four seasons a team has failed to win as many league games as it lost and still been awarded an at-large bid. Arkansas (6-8) and Texas (7-9) both did it in 2001, Georgia (6-8) made it in 2002, and Missouri (7-9) snuck in last season.

So which of this season's sub-.500 bunch has the best shot?

The best comparison is probably last year's Missouri team because it was the most recent, and the Tigers, at 45, had the lowest RPI rating of the four "success" stories.

Through Sunday, only Alabama had a worse RPI than Missouri. 'Bama also had a lower SOS rating (31) than the Tigers (23), so I'm eliminating the Tide. Alabama didn't make the cut in February and won't in March if nothing changes.

So let's compare the rest:

Team Rec RPI SOS Nonconf Top-100
Record Wins

Missouri ('04) 17-12 45 23 9-2 8
Florida (5-6) 14-10 33 10 9-4 7
Iowa (5-7) 16-7 35 35 11-0 8
Oklahoma (5-6) 12-9 36 11 7-3 7
Va. Tech (3-7) 14-9 26 7 11-2 6
Ga. Tech (5-6) 13-9 38 15 9-3 5

No one in this group has played particularly well lately, and that hurts, too. (Missouri, at 6-4, is the only club with a winning record in its last 10 games. OU is 5-5, Florida is 4-6, and Iowa, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech are each 3-7.)

But if only one of these bids was up for grabs, Iowa would likely be the choice. The Hawkeyes' overall record is easily the best and they've already equaled Missouri's number of quality wins.

The most interesting case is Virginia Tech. The Hokies have the best RPI and SOS, but have lost four of their last six and have a huge hole from which to climb in the ACC. Tech has to win all four of its remaining games just to get to .500. Those games include road matchups at Maryland and Florida State.

The bottom line is lackluster season-long conference performance does not reverse itself come NCAA time. The Missouri team of 2004 used as the barometer was a 24-point, first-round victim of Stanford as a No. 11 seed.

In fact, of all the sub-.500 teams involved here, only Arkansas four years ago was a first-round winner.

The message is clear. The tournament atmosphere must start a month early for some teams.

Last four in: UCLA, George Washington, Louisville, Oklahoma

Last four out: Villanova, Georgia Tech, Purdue, Alabama

Charlie Creme can be reached at cwcreme@hotmail.com. RPI and SOS ratings courtesy of collegerpi.com.