There's still time. I have to remind myself that sometimes, because my brain is currently on bubble overload. Today we'll publish our second Bubble Watch of the season, and as I'm learning (this is my first year doing Bubble Watch) it's really hard to spend so much time evaluating teams and not let the bubble picture tinge every piece of analysis you write. Because it is only the first week of February, and the bubble picture is far from complete. It's an important thing to remember.
That said, we are far enough into the season that we can be sure of a few things, and one of the few things I'm sure of, right here, right now (hat tip: Jesus Jones) is that 2010's national title runner-up needs to win its conference tournament even if it wants to avoid being 2011's NIT inclusion.
Yes, we're talking Butler, and yes, Butler lost again last night. This wasn't just any old loss, though. It was a loss to mighty Youngstown State, a team that is now 2-10 in the Horizon League and 6-14 overall. The Penguins are about as bad a loss as you can take at this point in the season, both in RPI terms and from a sheer reality-based (read: efficiency) perspective. Youngstown's RPI comes in at -- avert your eyes -- No. 269. Their Pomeroy rank is No. 276. They are, not to be rude, a pretty bad team. And now Butler will have to pay the consequences.
Of course, the Bulldogs wouldn't be in this position if Youngstown State was their only bad loss. It isn't. The Bulldogs have been swept by Wisconsin-Milwaukee in conference play and lost to Evansville at home all the way back in November; all of those losses carry a distinct "bad loss" stench that will be hard to wash off. Nor do the Bulldogs have any really good wins to speak of. Their only RPI top 50 victory came against Cleveland State on Jan. 7, and their wins against Florida State and Washington State in the Diamond Head Classic in December won't do them much good when it comes to impressing the committee.
But perhaps the most damning piece of their profile is this: After last night's loss, Butler is now 6-5 in Horizon League play. 6-5! The Horizon League is never a conference in which you can go 6-5 through your first 11 games and expect to make the NCAA tournament with anything but a late-season conference tournament title run. It just isn't going to happen.
Can Butler do it? Well, sure. Frankly, anything can happen in conference tournaments, and you'd probably still take the Bulldogs' experienced starting five over any team in the Horizon League in a single-game elimination tournament. But Butler has been hounded (sorry) all year long by its very mediocre defense. It's no secret the Bulldogs have seen a drastic downtick in defensive efficiency since losing Gordon Hayward and Willie Veasley from last season's team. At this point in the season, projecting an equally drastic "hey, we figured it out" development in Indianapolis seems like wishcasting. (This is shocking, considering how well Ronald Nored and Shelvin Mack defended opposing guards in last year's NCAA tournament. It appears we should have been giving just as much credit to Hayward and Veasley.)
These Bulldogs are not who we thought they were. And, as of last night, their at-large chances are kaput. In a season full of surprise disappointments, Brad Stevens's team -- which has gone from the precipice of a national title to the National Invitational Tournament in a matter of 10 months -- might be the biggest letdown of all.