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Thursday, March 14, 2013
Bubble Watch: The latest update

By Eamonn Brennan
ESPN.com

The annual rite of March: widespread bubble misunderstandings

Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Thursday. RPI and SOS numbers will update in the morning.

CHICAGO -- It is the season for a lot of things -- the gross wet cross between winter and spring, taxes, calling in "sick" to watch college basketball -- but it's hard to type my favorite annual rite of March: widespread bubble misunderstanding.

It never fails. We spend six weeks trying to understand this stuff, to cull some reasonable order from the chaos that is the NCAA tournament selection process, and as soon as conference tournament weekend starts, all of a sudden it's like our predictable, staid rules no longer apply. All bets are off.

Which brings us, of course, to Minnesota.

After the Golden Gophers' buzzer-beating loss to Illinois in the first round of the Big Ten tournament Thursday afternoon -- a game they began with an utterly horrific first half -- one didn't have to search hard for analysts suddenly proclaiming Minnesota was done. You may have heard this or read it. Even at the Big Ten tournament, the media room was abuzz with bubble intrigue: Were the Gophers out? They were 8-10 in Big Ten, 5-7 in their last 12 and 5-10 since a 15-1 start vaulted them inside the top 10. Hadn't this team misspent its chance?

No! Look: The Gophers are no one's idea of a fearsome team. They turn the ball over far too much. They don't defend particularly well. Even the most ardent Minnesota fan (heck, even Tubby Smith) would admit this group has squandered its talent and experience and a totally promising start to the season with six weeks of mediocrity, and there are no easy answers for why.

But despite all that, the Gophers are still likely to get in the NCAA tournament because they're still OK based on the metrics that really matter. They played the second-ranked schedule in the country and the 12th-ranked nonconference slate. They have a top-25 RPI, which is historically a near-guarantee of NCAA tournament selection. They have some variously impressive wins on their ledger (Indiana, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Memphis and at Illinois).

Those formal criteria more often correlate to tournament selection, and the criteria you often hear bandied about are typically outdated emphases. So, no, conference record isn't a deciding factor. Neither is recency. The final 12 games don't matter more than the first 12, and no, there are no bonus points awarded (or subtracted) for conference tournament wins. Advanced efficiency numbers -- including ESPN's own BPI -- might be considered in the committee room, but they are far less important than the NCAA's own RPI, which underpins the entire organization of its infamous nitty-gritty team sheets.

Because it always eventually becomes a subjective exercise, the NCAA's selection criteria can be hard to pin down. This is the root cause of the confusion. But the confusion is also self-imposed: Our brains are wired to suffer from the recency effect, and besides that, we want single-elimination March games to mean more than just 1/30th of a season. We want clear, black and white implications. We crave narrative. Win and you're in. Lose and you're out.

It is rarely this simple, and so the misinformation spreads.

Fortunately, Bubble Watch is here, ready to help guide you through the next three-plus days, which promise to be intense. And remember, kids: Only you can fight the spread of bubble misinformation.

Now back to your regularly scheduled program. ----------

Atlantic Coast Conference

Locks: Duke, Miami, North Carolina, NC State

Work left to do: Maryland, Virginia

Virginia [21-10 (11-7), RPI: 66, SOS: 132] If any Virginia fans were celebrating after Sunday night's win over Maryland, they might want to pull back just a bit. The Cavaliers still have a really depressing fact of bubble life working against them: too many bad losses. As ESPN Stats and Info's Ryan Feldman wrote on our blog this week, UVa has seven losses to teams ranked outside the RPI top 100 (ranging from 118 to 317). In the past 20 seasons, no team with that many bad losses has received an at-large bid to the tournament. And in fact, only three teams -- 2011 USC, 2005 Saint Mary's and 2004 Washington -- have gotten a bid with more than four such "bad" losses. Also working against Virginia? Nonconference schedule. This is nothing new, of course, but the selection committee has long since put the word out that bad noncon schedules will be judged harshly come March; it's the type of quality that has kept more than a few otherwise (apparently) deserving teams out in recent seasons. Virginia's nonconference schedule strength -- No. 299 -- is very much in that group. Of course, the Cavs also won at Wisconsin and beat Duke, UNC and NC State at home, and had players missing for some of those ugly losses early in the year. But even so, while Virginia remains alive, it may be more difficult than anyone thinks for the Cavs to actually seal that bid come Selection Sunday.

Maryland [21-11 (8-10), RPI: 82, SOS: 118] The Terps survived an NIT-guaranteeing potential loss against the typically dismal Wake Forest Demon Deacons Thursday, a win which nonetheless still leaves them outside serious bubble contention. After all, the Terps do have just four wins against teams ranked better than 150 in the RPI; that two of them came against Duke and NC State doesn't really matter, given the utter softness of Maryland's nonconference schedule (No. 297), ugly RPI and a sheet full of cupcakes. It's easy to pick on, say, Southern Miss when we're talking about the mediocrity on the bubble, but really, the fact that the Terps are even still in fringe contention for an at-large bid says it best. And with all of that discouragement out of the way, Maryland's win Thursday did one thing: It gave them another crack at Duke. I'm not sure I''d slot Maryland in the tournament even if they do win Friday, but that win obviously couldn't hurt.

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Big East Conference

Locks: Syracuse, Louisville, Marquette, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Villanova

Providence's initial inclusion in the Bubble Watch was always based on two interrelated factors. The first was the weak bubble, which was (and remains) ripe for the picking; the other was speculation. If the Friars could have knocked off Cincinnati in the Wednesday round of the Big East tournament, they would have had a crack at Georgetown, and hey, you never know, right? Forget all that. After Wednesday's 61-44 loss to the Bearcats, Providence is officially headed to the NIT.

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Big Ten Conference

Locks: Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Wisconsin

Teams that should be in: Minnesota

Work left to do: Iowa

I haven't felt at all shaky about Illinois' chances since the Illini ended their immense January slide with an upset win over Indiana on Feb. 7, followed by a string of victories, including a solid road win at Minnesota. Since then, Illinois has been pretty safe bubble-wise, if not a total guarantee. After Thursday afternoon's win over Minnesota, it's time to lock them in. That victory wasn't super impressive -- Minnesota scored 16 points in the first half, after all -- but it is not unfair to see the Illini as a potentially disruptive 9- or 10-seed in the NCAA tournament bracket. When (OK, if) they get hot, look out.

Minnesota [20-12 (8-10), RPI: 24, SOS: 2] In case you were thinking single-elimination postseason play would free Minnesota from the shackles of inconsistency, forget it: The Gophers were their same baffling selves in Thursday's first-round Big Ten tournament loss to Illinois, even within the course of one game. They played one of the worst halves of a season that has featured plenty of them, ending with five more turnovers (11) than made buckets (six). So: Minnesota is out, right? No. True, the Gophers are no lock; the selection committee could still decide that recency matters above all else. But let's be real: It is almost impossible to compare the Gophers' resume to the eight or 10 bubble teams hovering around the cutline and conclude that Minnesota has had a worse season than almost any of them. Their RPI and SOS numbers are such that they should have wrapped this bid up a month ago. They didn't, and they've given the committee plenty of recent excuses to ditch them entirely. But if history is any indication, they're in. It's just that simple.

Iowa [21-11 (9-9), RPI: 76, SOS: 125] The Hawkeyes ran roughshod over Northwestern in Thursday's Big Ten tournament finale, taking over from the beginning of the game and never letting the Wildcats -- who have been decimated by injuries, and without question the worst team in the league over the last month -- present a serious threat. But like several other bubble teams today, the Hawkeyes don?t just need to avoid bad losses. They need to make a real wave. They need to get a win, or two, that will convince the committee to look past that ugly nonconference schedule and RPI and focus more closely on the team's solid performance during Big Ten play (which saw them finish at 9-9 with brutally close losses to Indiana, Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin) and their top-20 efficiency defense. Fortunately, that type of win is available Friday, in the form of No. 3-seed Michigan State. It won't be easy, but making a late bubble push with the 310th-ranked noncon SOS never is.

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Big 12 Conference

Locks: Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State

Teams that should be in: Oklahoma, Iowa State

Work left to do: Baylor

Oklahoma [20-11 (11-7), RPI: 35, SOS: 16] The Sooners haven't collapsed of late to the same degree as Minnesota -- that's almost impossible -- but they are somewhat similar to the Gophers in that their impressive computer numbers should help offset an unflattering finish. The Sooners fell asleep in their final Big 12 game, a 70-67 loss at TCU, and would have obviously benefited (maybe with a lock spot) had they been able to stop Iowa State's dangerous offensive attack in Kansas City on Thursday. Instead, OU picked up another L. Somewhat like Minnesota, at this point there's still a chance the committee could surprise us all and bypass the Sooners, which is why they aren't a lock here. But by the end of the week, as things settle down, they should retain solid position.

Iowa State [22-10 (11-7), RPI: 47, SOS: 57] Iowa State fans invaded my Twitter replies clamoring for a move to lock status after Thursday's Big 12 tourney win over Oklahoma. Not so fast, my friends. The Cyclones do get a move up from "work to do" to "should be in," not only because they added a nice victory, but because compared to some of their comparable bubble foes, their Friday opponent (Kansas) can't possibly hurt the resume. And, oh by the way, Iowa State played Kansas to overtime twice this season, and may just break through against the Jayhawks on Friday. If they do, we'll lock them. If they don't, oh well. They'll still be in pretty decent position, if not enough of a slam dunk to lock up before Selection Sunday.

Baylor [18-14 (9-9), RPI: 62, SOS: 18] Say this for the Bears: They've never given up. Despite all of the ups and downs of their past few weeks -- from five losses in six games from Feb. 16 to March 4, including a brutal last-second loss to Kansas State and an ugly performance at Texas to a mysteriously blowout win over Kansas last weekend -- the Bears have always at the very least kept plugging. That was the case again Thursday night, when they fell behind Oklahoma State 26-11 in the first half, but clawed all the way back to make a real game in the second. Unfortunately, they still lost 74-72 when a Pierre Jackson 3 clanked off the rim. Make no mistake: A win over the Pokes would have helped in a major way. As of now, even after the KU win, Baylor is still probably on the outside of the field looking in; their 3-10 record against the RPI top 50 reeks of a team that had a lot of opportunities to get the job done and ultimately just couldn't.

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Pac-12 Conference

Locks: Arizona, UCLA, Colorado, California, Oregon

Work left to do: Arizona State

The wait is over: Your Oregon Ducks are officially locked in to the NCAA tournament. The Ducks looked a lot like a lock as early as a month ago, but some untimely injuries -- specifically to freshman Dominic Artis -- set them back slightly, and their sketchy RPI and strength of schedule numbers kept us from taking the plunge with them when we locked up Colorado and Cal earlier in the week. But the Ducks avoided an ugly drop to Washington (in overtime, no less) Thursday night, and given their current placement in the bracket (the Internet bracketologist hive mind has them at a No. 9 seed; Joe Lunardi concurs) even a Cal-esque loss to Utah wouldn't be enough to knock them out. Oh, and speaking of Cal? The Bears took a bit of a plummet after that aforementioned loss to Utah, ending the night in Lunardi?s last four byes. The positive news is there is still a gap between them and the bubble abyss, they?re done playing, and it would be a borderline miracle for them to be leapfrogged collectively in the next few days. So they're still a lock in BW's humble opinion. Deep breaths.

Arizona State [21-12 (9-9), RPI: 81, SOS: 122] The Sun Devils had their chance. After Wednesday's thrilling overtime win over Oregon State, they got out in front of UCLA Thursday, leading by as many as 15 in the second half. But the Bruins fought back to claim the win, and as such, Arizona State is almost certain to find themselves on the outside of the tournament looking in. I'm keeping them on the page because a) pixels are free, and b) there's a tiny, tiny chance the committee does something unusual and sneaks the Sun Devils in. But at just 6-8 against the top 100 and with an RPI in the 80s, it's not looking good.

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Southeastern Conference

Locks: Florida, Missouri

Work left to do: Kentucky, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Alabama

SEC is bubble central. Fully four teams still have a chance to move in or out of the field before the weekend is out, based not only on their varying mediocre resumes but also on their work against each other in the days to come. You may notice I said four teams and not five. (If not, please try to pay closer attention.) Indeed, on Thursday we officially waved farewell to Arkansas. Despite wins over Florida, Missouri and Oklahoma, the Razorbacks were always a long shot, mostly due to their utter inability to play competently on the road. That trait carried over onto the neutral courts of the SEC tournament, at which Arkansas fell to Vanderbilt Thursday night. After 15 or so years of dreary hoops, the Hogs are still in just their second year under Mike Anderson, and Arkansas fans should have plenty of patience. Even so, this was a disappointing season, one that will almost certainly end with an NIT berth.

Kentucky [21-10 (12-6), RPI: 50, SOS: 65] After Saturday's win over Florida, John Calipari said he told his team it had to either drown or learn to swim -- there was also a metaphor about a life raft involved in there somewhere; all I know is it was far less tortured than my bit about the castle -- and it's safe to say the Wildcats landed on the latter option. So they're in, right? Not exactly. For one, a win over Florida isn't quite the season-changer it used to be. For another, the rest of Kentucky's resume contains just one other "good win" -- at home against Missouri -- a bad loss at Georgia suffered just last week and a whole mess of mediocrity otherwise. As of right now, I'd wager the Cats are just on the right side of the bubble. But only barely -- they're not safe. And either Arkansas or Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament could be full of bad-loss potential.

Tennessee [20-11 (11-7), RPI: 55, SOS: 34] Tennessee's first goal at this week's SEC tournament -- avoid the bad-loss landmine that is Mississippi State -- is officially in the books. That win doesn't put UT in the tournament (this should be obvious, but someone in our chat asked about it Thursday, so maybe it's worth clarifying) because all wins are not created equal. But what it does do is set the Volunteers up for something close to a knockout matchup against Alabama Friday. The Vols could simultaneously solidify their bid and damage a bubble competitor's (albeit a long-shot competitor), which is like getting two birds for the price of one stone. I think that's how that saying goes. Anyway, big game, and one UT can afford to lose more than the Crimson Tide -- but only barely.

Ole Miss [23-8 (12-6), RPI: 56, SOS: 148] Likewise, about the only argument you can make for Ole Miss over Tennessee (never mind Kentucky) is the Rebels' sweep of the Vols; otherwise, this profile is really weak. There's just one top-50 win -- over Missouri -- and Ole Miss got spanked in the rematch in Columbia; plus, there is that No. 150 schedule and No. 286 nonconference mark. It's tougher to schedule at Ole Miss in the nonconference than a lot of other high-major programs, but still -- that last number is a huge drag here.

Alabama [20-11 (12-6), RPI: 61, SOS: 89] By avoiding a home loss to Georgia Saturday, Alabama didn't do much to move up the cut line, but it did accomplish one thing: It continued to wield quite possibly the most yawn-inducing NCAA tournament resume in the country. A home win over Kentucky, losses to Dayton, Mercer, Tulane and Auburn, and nothing much in between. It's just ... blah. But beat Tennessee on Friday afternoon and we'll start to talk. ----------

Mountain West Conference

Locks: New Mexico, UNLV, Colorado State, San Diego State

Teams that should be in: None

Work left to do: Boise State

Boise State [21-10 (9-7), RPI: 44, SOS: 61] Talk about a missed opportunity. Boise began the game as cold as possible, mostly because lead guard Derrick Marks suffered an off night against a particularly stifling defensive team; Marks went 0-for-9 in the first half and rattled off 12 straight misses before he finally found some production in the second half. It was right around that time that San Diego State started doing everything in its power -- mostly in the form of some just downright inexplicable turnovers -- to let Boise back in the game. That's exactly what happened: BSU got a few easy fast break buckets, started knocking down a few shots, and even took a second-half lead, before Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley calmed things down and pulled away in the two-and-a-half minutes. So, where does Wednesday night's loss leave the Broncos? About where they were before. From a sheer resume standpoint, it's hard to imagine the committee punishing Boise for losing to a good SDSU team on a neutral court, particularly on an obviously off night. The loss adds another top-30s-ish defeat to the ledger, leaving Boise just 4-7 against the top 50. The good news is the Broncos still have that nonconference road win over Creighton as the ace up their sleeves, as well as a top-40 RPI figure and three other quality conference wins (UNLV, Colorado State, SDSU, all at home). But they're also 100 percent on the bubble, a No. 11 seed at the absolute best, and not only did they not show their best in Vegas, they now have to sit around and wait while their SEC bubble competition hashes things out in the days to come. It's hardly an enviable position.

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Atlantic 10 Conference

Locks: Saint Louis, Butler, VCU

Should be in: Temple

Work left to do: La Salle

Temple [23-8 (11-5), RPI: 37, SOS: 58] I'll award Temple a bump up to should-be-in turf today, not only because it doesn't cost me anything -- the lock moves are the ones I must fully commit to -- but also because despite all the uneven play and insane results and frequent lack of defense and everything else Temple has been this season, we can't take away that neutral-court win over Syracuse. It may not have the luster it did two months ago, but it still has luster, and it's the kind of win (alongside victories over Saint Louis, La Salle and Saturday's win over VCU) that can get the committee to happily overlook the fact that you lost to Duquesne at home. Which happened. That's a real thing. I'm just not sure it will matter much anymore.

La Salle [21-8 (11-5), RPI: 38, SOS: 86] For almost a month now, I've considered La Salle to be a relatively safe eventual bubble pick, meaning while the Explorers haven't done anything to warrant a lock or even should-be-in spot, I sort of casually figured their at-large profile would be good enough when all was said and done. It's easy for those sorts of impressions to take hold, but it's always worth it to reevaluate, and under that sort of scrutiny you can see why the Explorers aren't yet totally safe: Fully 16 of their 21 wins came against teams ranked outside the RPI top 100. That's not La Salle's fault; that's the cost of doing business in the back half of the Atlantic 10. But it's why, despite all of the seeming solidity, the Explorers are still at serious risk of falling out of the bracket entirely if they don't beat Butler on Friday. (Of course, that home loss to Central Connecticut State back on Nov. 18 doesn't help. Talk about the gift that keeps on giving, oy.)

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Other at-large contenders

Auto bids: Gonzaga, Belmont, Creighton

Locks: Wichita State, Memphis

Should be in: None

Work left to do: Middle Tennessee, Saint Mary's, Southern Miss

Middle Tennessee [28-5 (19-1), RPI: 29, SOS: 135] As I mentioned in the introduction, after its loss to FIU (Richard Pitino strikes!) in the semifinals of the Sun Belt conference tournament Sunday, Middle Tennessee now becomes one of the most interesting bubble cases in recent memory. On the one hand, MTSU is obviously a good basketball team. You can watch them play -- YouTube is a wonderful thing -- or you can delve into their efficiency statistics; as of this writing, Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency ranks hold Middle up as the 31st-best team in the country. The Blue Raiders went 19-1 in their league, which is admittedly a very bad league, but still -- 19-1. And they pushed themselves, Long Beach State-style, in their scheduling, ending up with a top-10 nonconference SOS and a top 25 RPI for their troubles. Oh, also, one more thing: It would be a real bummer to see this team miss the tournament for the second year in a row. It deserves to go, and conference tournament automatic qualifiers are profoundly stupid. (Why the Sun Belt would prefer to send the winner of a weekend-long crapshoot as opposed to its 19-1 regular-season champ, I'll never know.) But the unfortunate "having said that" part of all this is as follows: Middle has beaten zero top-50 opponents and just two teams in the top 100. All of their other 26 wins came against teams ranked outside the top 100. Yes, you read that right: Of Middle Tennessee's 28 wins, 26 came against teams ranked below the RPI top 100. I utterly loathe the chorus of "who have they beaten, they'd be the 10th-worst team in BCS Conference X herp derp" bleating that comes from fans of high-major bubble schools this time of year. It's gross. But if a Kentucky fan were to ask that about Middle Tennessee, could you really form a cohesive defense? A 3-point home win over Ole Miss is your best shot, and I have no idea whether that will be enough to convince the committee.

Saint Mary's [27-6 (14-2), RPI: 33, SOS: 105] The Gaels had a shot to make this thing academic -- and serve as a possible, if not probable, automatic bid thief -- Monday night in the WCC final against hated rival Gonzaga. Instead, as they have all season, the Bulldogs rolled, winning 65-51. What does that mean for Saint Mary's? Not a whole lot, honestly. The Gaels still have just one top-50 win -- at home over Creighton -- and their only other top-50 opportunities were the three games they lost to the Zags (by a combined 36 points). Fortunately Matthew Dellevadova's buzzer-beater at BYU fell, because a sweep over BYU is probably the most complimentary part of this resume, and it almost didn't happen. And now the Gaels will be forced to sweat out the rest of the week, hoping the bubble doesn't tighten, and their high-major counterparts on the No. 11 and No. 12 lines don't do a bunch of damage in the conference tournaments this weekend.

Southern Miss [24-8 (12-4), RPI: 36, SOS: 76] How much does the RPI matter? That is the fundamental question underpinning Southern Miss' bid, because other than some OK computer numbers -- a top-40 RPI, SOS numbers in the 70-80 range -- Southern Miss' resume is practically empty. That didn't change with a win over UAB in the C-USA tournament Thursday; the Golden Eagles' best victory is still a home win over Denver (a good team that is going to miss out on the tournament because of a bummer of a loss in the WAC tournament Thursday). Southern Miss has no top-50 wins, and their only chance to get one is to meet Memphis in the final and do something it couldn't do in its own building: win. But the Eagles are still in the mix, albeit on the outer fringes. Southern Miss [23-8 (12-4), RPI: 37, SOS: 79] Southern Miss! With all due respect to the Golden Eagles, who are a well-coached outfit under first-year man Donnie Tyndall, I kind of can't believe Southern Miss is on the bubble. That win over Denver is really good and only looking better by the day (Joe Scott's boys are a top-30 efficiency squad), but other than that Southern Miss hasn't beaten anyone. Their inclusion in the field would be based solely off some decent computer numbers and the Golden Eagles' willingness to go out and play people in the nonconference (at Arizona, at La. Tech, Wichita State in Wichita). That is an admirable trait, but you have to beat somebody along the way, right?