- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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As is customary this time of year, there was no shortage of bubbly college hoops action on this late-February Saturday. Let's tease out some winners and losers along the NCAA tournament cut line, shall we?
Kentucky: No question about it: The Wildcats got their most important win of the season Saturday night.
The fact that I just wrote that should give you an idea of just how trying this UK season has been, because it's not like Missouri is some untouchable juggernaut. The Tigers toppled Florida this week at home, sure, but for most of their season, they've been inconsistent, particularly on the road. It was entirely fathomable that a hampered Kentucky team could beat Missouri, is what I'm saying. This was not a shock. But that doesn't make it any less important.
Simply put, Kentucky needed a win to prove it is still at least a viable NCAA tournament entity, a team that wouldn't merely roll over after losing star do-everything defender Nerlens Noel. There is enough time left in the post-Noel-ACL-tear season for the NCAA to essentially throw out what Kentucky looked like for months with Noel and to spend the majority of its time evaluating how the Wildcats look now, without him. Before Saturday, that impression would not have been a positive one. Kentucky lost at Tennessee by 30 and barely beat Vanderbilt at home, 74-70. Missouri offered a perfect opportunity: a potential résumé win against a beatable team. After 40 minutes and one overtime, UK took full advantage of that opportunity.
In the end, though, Missouri is just Kentucky's first top-50 RPI win. The Wildcats' admission into the tournament is far from settled. Their remaining schedule is both promising and a little scary; Kentucky has to go on the road to beat Arkansas and Georgia in the first week of March, and then finishes at home March 9 against Florida. There is another opportunity here -- arguably two, if you want to include Arkansas. But John Calipari and his still-chugging young team have much more work to do.
Villanova: Since its back-to-back late-January wins over Louisville and Syracuse, Villanova has been in something like a bubble limbo. Those wins were enough to put the Wildcats in the conversation for a bid, sure, but were they enough to totally outweigh that Nov. 20 loss to Columbia or a sweep at the hands of Providence or a No. 179 nonconference strength of schedule?
No, Villanova needed more. And in the past seven days, Jay Wright's team got it. Last Saturday, the Wildcats won at Connecticut. On Monday, they fended off Rutgers. This Saturday, they got by far their biggest victory of the three, a 60-56 upset of a very good Marquette team whose RPI (14) makes a win against it one of the more valuable in the Big East. Between that and UConn, Villanova added two top-30 RPI wins to its résumé. If the Wildcats can avoid losing to Seton Hall on Monday night, they might not even need to split their last two games, at Pitt and versus Georgetown. One thing is clear: Villanova is heading in the right direction.
North Carolina: If you looked at just North Carolina's RPI and strength-of-schedule numbers, you might not be able to tell UNC is having a down season, at least according to its own lofty standards. The Tar Heels have the 26th-best RPI in the country and a top-15 SOS; a bare-bones blind résumé test would put them in the tournament over a lot of teams we currently see as "better."
Such are the perils of the RPI, of course, but the larger point about North Carolina is that for as bad as Roy Williams' team has often been this season, things aren't nearly so dire where the tournament is concerned. And while Saturday's win over NC State -- a 76-65 victory in Chapel Hill -- won't suddenly lock up UNC, it did add another top-25 win to a category in which a late-December home win over UNLV (another team arguably overrated by the RPI) was the only previous data point. UNC's next four games -- at Clemson, Florida State, at Maryland, Duke -- will decide this team's fate, but the clouds are already beginning to lift.
Oklahoma: Speaking of quietly impressive NCAA tournament résumés, how about the Oklahoma Sooners? Lon Kruger's team has a top-20 RPI, a top-five SOS and a top-10 nonconference mark. How is this possible? Oklahoma wisely limited the number of truly bad RPI teams it played in November and December, helping put most of its nonconference successes in the top-100 field (even if those teams -- UTEP, West Virginia, Northwestern State, Texas A&M, etc. -- stack up to far less than the sum of their individual RPIs). Anyway, if a second win over Baylor on Saturday (90-76 in Norman) doesn't totally lock the Sooners into the tournament, let's just say it's close. What a job Kruger has done.
Wichita State: There wasn't a ton of suspense surrounding Wichita State's BracketBusters matchup with Detroit on Saturday; it's hard to imagine the Shockers missing the tournament at this point. But with just a home game against Evansville and a road trip to Creighton left, Saturday's LOL -- lack of loss, a completely silly term I like to use every now and then -- shores things up quite nicely.
Creighton: Let's be clear: Losing on the road at Saint Mary's hardly makes you a loser. In a normal context, you take your trip to Moraga, Calif., in stride; you don't start freaking out because Matthew Dellavedova carved you up. He does that to everyone.
But it's time to face facts on Creighton. The Bluejays are not a lock for the NCAA tournament. We've had them as such since the first edition of Bubble Watch, and we've kept the faith since. We don't like to downgrade locks, because locks should be locks, so we delay any possible decision to do so. Then fans ask us how Creighton can be a lock and Wisconsin not, for example, and I have to try to explain, and lately people have responded with ever more confused looks. Rightfully so. Creighton might have looked lock-worthy a month ago, but since then it has lost four of its past six, including Saturday's loss at Saint Mary's and consecutive losses to Indiana State, Illinois State and Northern Iowa. None of those teams is bad, of course, but when you throw those sorts of middling-RPI losses onto a profile with a 48 RPI and a 119 SOS, whose three best wins came against Wisconsin, Akron and Cal -- no, you are not a lock. You're actually a lot more like a 10-seed.
It's time we adjust accordingly.
Alabama: Alabama began Saturday on the thinnest edge of the NCAA tournament bubble. ESPN.com Bracketologist Joe Lunardi listed Alabama as the second-to-last team in his next four out, and the Bracket Project's aggregated list matched that distinction. There was little to no breathing room at LSU. Of course, Alabama lost at LSU, 97-94. It's pretty simple stuff: The Tide are out of the tournament conversation until further notice.
Baylor: On the one hand, it's hard to blame Baylor for its recent three-game losing streak. Playing at Kansas State and Oklahoma is no easy feat -- those are good teams, especially at home -- and Iowa State's spread-out offensive attack can get hot just as quickly away from Hilton Coliseum as inside it. As losses go, those are three pretty OK losses for Baylor. And yet the aggregated effect is bad. The Bears are now just 16-11 with a No. 60 RPI. They're 2-8 against the RPI top 50, with only one of those wins (Oklahoma State) actually looking "good" at this stage of the season. (The other is that Dec. 1 win at Kentucky. Meh.) The good news: Kansas State and Kansas still have to go to Waco. But do you really trust this talented but uneven Baylor team to win either of those games at home? I don't.
Iowa: There are reasons Iowa's NCAA tournament chances were always a long shot. They include the 325th-ranked nonconference strength of schedule, sure, and the road losses to Purdue and Virginia Tech, not to mention that 80ish RPI. But more than any of that, the reason Iowa's route to the NCAA tournament looked so difficult two weeks ago can be summed up in one word: schedule. Down the stretch, Iowa's chances for marquee wins were few and far between -- a home game against Minnesota, a road game at (gulp) Indiana -- but the schedule also was peppered with RPI trip wires: Northwestern, Penn State, Nebraska, Purdue. On Saturday, Iowa tripped one of those wires, losing at Nebraska, 64-60. This nearly happened at Penn State last week (Iowa escaped 74-72), and maybe it was inevitable -- it is really hard to go an entire month without losing at least a game or two that you probably should have won. For the Hawks, the upshot is that whatever at-large bid hopes they now have probably rest on a victory at IU, and I'm not sure even that would be enough. I hate to quote John Lennon from his bitter post-Beatles comedown days, but as John Lennon said: The dream is over.
Arizona State: Fascinating bubble case here. At this time last week we were praising the Sun Devils for completing an unlikely sweep of Colorado. Now this Saturday we're trying to figure out how they managed to get swept by a decidedly mediocre Washington team, including tonight's loss at home. With only one decent win to speak of in the nonconference (vs. Arkansas) and nothing that even remotely qualifies as a decent road win outside of Boulder, ASU is in perilous spot now with all three of its remaining regular-season games on the road (at UCLA, at USC, at Arizona). Time to worry in Tempe.
Indiana State: The survivors category is reserved for teams that did just enough to avoid completely destroying their résumés in one fell swoop, and that description certainly applies to the Sycamores. On Saturday, ISU held on to a 65-64 home win over Iona, whose 131 RPI would have ended Indiana State's chances of getting an at-large bid pretty much in their tracks. (This is one of the main criticisms of the now-sunsetting BracketBusters, by the way, that it ended up hurting just as many mid-majors as it helped.) Instead, a win keeps the flicker of hope alive, if only barely.
California: A win at Oregon State isn't going to improve your profile, but the lack-of-loss properties can't be understated. Oregon State's abysmal 179 RPI would have dragged Cal's 50s-ish RPI even farther down and would have punched a hole in one of the best qualities of its résumé -- its lack of bad losses. Cal won, stretched its wins streak (which began at Arizona on Feb. 10) to five and will return to Berkeley for the final three games of the season, all at home. Nice.
Tennessee: Tennessee is still in the picture. That would have been silly to say a few weeks ago, but since then the Volunteers have torn off five consecutive wins, the most recent of which was Saturday's 93-85 victory at Texas A&M. None of those was really impressive -- maybe a 30-point win over Kentucky counts, but maybe it doesn't, given the timing of Noel's injury (your mileage might vary here) -- but the Vols will at least be in the conversation when Florida arrives in Knoxville this week.
Xavier: Of the dozens of teams way out on the bubble fringe, the Musketeers were intriguing if only because of their closing schedule: VCU, Memphis, Massachusetts and Saint Louis, all at home, followed by a season-closing trip to Butler. Enticing, right? It didn't begin well. Xavier lost that first game, 75-71, to VCU, and unless XU can rattle off an unbeaten finish against some of its league's best teams, it has no chance of getting into the tourney.
Stanford: The Cardinal gave Oregon a run in Eugene on Saturday but eventually fell short, 77-66, and the end result is a still-ugly RPI, a 1-8 mark against the RPI top 50 and a 5-11 mark against the top 100. Oh, and that top-50 win came at home against Cal back on Jan. 19. Just not a whole lot here.