Sunday, March 17, 2013
Bubble Watch: The latest update
By Eamonn Brennan ESPN.com
It's Christmas Eve on the bubble -- will it be presents or coal for these teams?
Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Saturday. RPI and SOS numbers will update in the morning.
At this point -- with less than 24 hours until the selection committee submits its picks to the Columbia Broadcasting System for suspenseful dissemination to the masses -- we should have a pretty good idea of where we stand. And we do. But as a friendly favor to bubble watchers and bracketologists everywhere, selection committee chairman Mike Bobinski was willing to be surprisingly specific in an appearance on the network Saturday afternoon.
When asked where the committee -- which works steadily over this weekend in advance of Sunday's final push -- stood in its deliberations, Bobinski said the group had essentially narrowed down its list of bubble teams (which it officially calls "under consideration") to 13. Those 13 teams were vying for "between two and six" open spots in the field.
That sounds exactly right. You'll see more than 13 teams in the list below, because we can't be 100 percent sure on the range of teams the NCAA might be mulling over right now and which specific, even minuscule, criteria could eventually define its final bracketing choices. Some of the teams you see here are in good enough shape that, while we may not be willing to lock them up, we would be surprised if they weren't chosen.
Others are total long shots, but not so ridiculous that the committee couldn't shock us by valuing something we're not used to seeing.
The biggest litmus test for selection committee dogma -- for the predictable nexus of RPI, SOS, nonconference schedule and performance against the various nitty-gritty rankings breakdowns (top 50, top 100 and so on) that have made bracket selection a relatively predictable affair -- will be the Iowa Hawkeyes. The Hawks lost to Michigan State in a close game Friday and were the victims of a few questionable calls down the stretch. They were also one of the 40 or so best teams in the country by just about every metric except the RPI, and their performance -- even if you are relying on sketchy criteria like conference record (9-9 in the Big Ten), per-possession statistics (the Hawks play top-20 efficiency defense) or even the infamous "eye test" -- make the Hawkeyes look like a much better team than a handful of more staid bubble contenders.
Because the committee relies so heavily on RPI, nonconference scheduling and all the rest, it appears more likely than not that Iowa won't get in, despite its obvious quality. But the committee has surprised us before. You just never know. And that's what makes the final 24 hours before Selection Sunday such a weirdly thrilling experience.
Atlantic Coast Conference
Locks: Duke, Miami, North Carolina, NC State
Work left to do: Virginia
If only. That's the operative phrase for Maryland fans Saturday following the Terrapins' hard-fought ACC semifinals loss to North Carolina. If only Maryland, a clearly talented team but one with its share of flaws, had played like it did in Greensboro, the entire season would have been different. If only Maryland could play like that more than three times a year. If only the Terps had lined up something more than the 300th-ranked nonconference schedule. If only the Terps had won a few more non-Duke games against the RPI top 150, against whom they went just 5-11. Were a couple more of those things not hypotheticals, these guys wouldn't be off the bubble the night before the selection committee finalizes its work. Instead, they most certainly are and are thus off the Bubble Watch page once and for all.
Virginia [21-11 (11-7), RPI: 74, SOS: 130] For the past few weeks, opinion on Virginia has been split. The Cavaliers got a huge boost from their impressive Feb. 28 home win over Duke, but undid it almost immediately with losses at Boston College and Florida State. They have a collection of quality victories and an even bigger collection of atrocious losses (some of which were suffered at injury-induced partial strength, admittedly, but there's only so much explaining when Old Dominion is involved). Their adjusted efficiency and BPI numbers point to an underrated, tough defensive team. Their RPI and strength of schedule numbers scream NIT. After Friday's 75-56 ACC tourney loss to NC State, it looks more likely than ever that the Cavs are going to fall short. Historically, few teams with Virginia's profile get in the NCAA tournament. The only saving grace is that November win at Wisconsin, but will that be enough to tip the scales in their favor, even with all that other ugliness? I doubt it.
Big East Conference
Locks: Syracuse, Louisville, Marquette, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Villanova
Nothing to see here, folks. At this point in the Big East, they're either locks or the opposite of that.
Big Ten Conference
Locks: Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Wisconsin
Teams that should be in: Minnesota
Work left to do: Iowa
Minnesota [20-12 (8-10), RPI: 30, 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 [21-12 (9-9), RPI: 72, SOS: 129] Just a brutal loss for Iowa Friday night. For the second time, the Hawkeyes lost a close game this season -- another of a string of close losses (Indiana, at Minnesota, at Wisconsin), any of which could would have made the Hawks less desperate to beat Michigan State at the United Center. As it stands, Iowa will go down as a very solid young team that lacked the wins (and the schedule) to make a realistic push for an NCAA tournament spot. I'll keep these guys on the page as an homage, and in the minuscule chance the NCAA pulls a reverse Minnesota on them, but yeah -- not happening.
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: 41, SOS: 19] 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 [22-11 (11-7), RPI: 45, SOS: 56] The Cyclones had a chance to drop Kansas once and for all Friday, and after two heartbreaking overtime losses -- the one at home a highly questionable, ref-influenced ordeal -- Fred Hoiberg and his team wanted this one bad. Unfortunately, Kansas remains very good at basketball, and the Jayhawks managed to contain ISU's top-10 efficiency offense and pour in points on the other end. Where does that leave the Clones? Exactly where they were before. I don't feel quite so good as to completely guarantee their position with lock status, because the committee is always capable of anything. But I feel good enough to tell you, just between us, that I'm like 98 percent sure Iowa State is going to get in the 2013 NCAA tournament.
Baylor [18-14 (9-9), RPI: 65, SOS: 14] 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.
Locks: Arizona, UCLA, Colorado, California, Oregon
Work left to do: Arizona State
Arizona State [21-12 (9-9), RPI: 84, SOS: 109] 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.
Locks: Florida, Missouri
Work left to do: Kentucky, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Alabama
Ole Miss [25-8 (12-6), RPI: 50, SOS: 143] The Rebels live! Unlike bubble counterpart Kentucky, Ole Miss managed to take care of business against lowly Vanderbilt on Saturday. That win, plus the buzzer-beating quarterfinal victory over Missouri, has Andy Kennedy's team in the SEC final, where it will try to knock off the mighty Florida Gators and make its NCAA tournament invitation an automatic affair. The question is what happens if (or when) the Rebels fail to spring the upset. Would that loss be enough to knock Ole Miss off the bubble? Would a close loss affect the committee's decision differently than a blowout? (You would think this would be an obvious "yes," and usually it is, but the committee is prickly about avoiding margin of victory.) Ole Miss' profile is so mediocre, and its current position so close to the cut line, that the best plan of action is to take the matter out of the committee's hands. This was a nice run to get to SEC tournament final Sunday, but there are no guarantees.
Kentucky [21-11 (12-6), RPI: 56, SOS: 76] "We had an opportunity," John Calipari said. "It was in our hands to take it out of everybody's hands, and we didn't take care of business. We laid an egg." For someone whose teams rarely trouble themselves with the NCAA tournament bubble, the man knows the score. Kentucky entered Friday squarely on the tournament bubble and its goal was to avoid a bad loss to Vanderbilt en route to the semifinals. Instead, Ryan Harrow went 2-of-15 ("And missed 12 layups," Calipari said) and the Wildcats laid said proverbial egg. As with Maryland, it's important not to overstate the importance of one conference tournament game; it is still just a small fraction of the overall season. But UK is now 4-4 with losses to Georgia and Vanderbilt and home wins over Missouri and Florida since Nerlens Noel's knee injury, and Kentucky's resume was never impressive in the first place. If the committee members decide to pass, could you really blame them?
Tennessee [20-12 (11-7), RPI: 58, SOS: 50] The Volunteers did well to avoid a bad loss to Mississippi State Thursday night, but that was the end of the positive SEC tournament news. On Friday, the Vols reverted to their early-season offensive selves, shooting 32 percent en route to a 58-48 loss to fellow bubbler Alabama. Indeed, the loss may have hurt Tennessee more than it helped the Crimson Tide -- Joe Lunardi, for one, moved Tennessee out of his field after the defeat. Whatever the Vols' exact position (and it may be so close here that distinctions between specific teams are almost beside the point), the fact of the matter is that UT is 100 percent at the mercy of the committee, with a thoroughly so-so profile and no games left, two days before Selection Sunday. It's not a comforting place to be.
Alabama [21-12 (12-6), RPI: 60, SOS: 79] Does a loss to Florida knock you off the bubble? It shouldn't right? Unfortunately for Alabama, that's what happened to the Crimson Tide in Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology update Saturday. We never doubt Joey Brackets in this space, but it is a slightly confusing switch; losing to Florida on a neutral court shouldn't necessarily disqualify you from the tournament. But quibbling over that would obscure the fact that Alabama's resume was never particularly good in the first place. I'll keep them here just in case, but it's hard to find much to like on this at-large profile. It's always been blah, and so it remains.
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.
Atlantic 10 Conference
Locks: Saint Louis, Butler, VCU
Should be in: Temple
Work left to do: La Salle, UMass
Temple [23-9 (11-5), RPI: 41, SOS: 61] Temple lost to UMass in the A-10 tourney Friday night. That means we can't put Temple up on the lock line. But we can also look at Temple's profile and recognize that, save some surprise from the NCAA, the Owls are probably around a No. 11 seed at worst right now. Indeed, this result did more for the Minutemen than the Owls.
La Salle [21-9 (11-5), RPI: 40, SOS: 81] As of Friday evening, the Explorers are in a weird position. They haven't done anything drastic -- suffered a bad loss or notched a marquee win -- to their profile in months. They've lost understandable games (at Temple, at Saint Louis, to Butler in the A-10 tournament Friday) and have beaten pretty much everyone they should have beaten. And yet, thanks to a lack of truly elite wins, especially outside the league, and thanks to a Nov. 18 loss to Central Connecticut State that continues to haunt them to this day, the Explorers have ended their pre-Dance season hanging in the bubble balance.
Massachusetts [21-11 (9-7), RPI: 55, SOS: 71] The Minutemen were a very late (re-)addition to the Watch after their Friday A-10 quarterfinal win over Temple, but it was clear even then that the win hadn't done enough to get them inside the bracket. They were merely back in the conversation, and only barely so. Saturday's loss to VCU shouldn't take them totally out of that conversation, but it's hard to imagine the committee really being interested after that missed opportunity. They can stay on the page, because we're inclusive like that. But it's a total long shot. The quality wins just aren't there.
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: 31, 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: 102] 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 [25-8 (12-4), RPI: 35, SOS: 84] Say this much for the Golden Eagles: They aren't hurting themselves. Conference USA is so bad (save USM and Memphis, obviously) that even playing in a single-elimination tournament in this conference is a recipe for bubble ruination; all it takes is one loss to wave farewell. But Southern Miss keeps advancing, first against UAB and again Friday against UTEP, which sets the Golden Eagles up for the third crack at Memphis they so desperately need.