College Basketball Bubble Watch
Heading into a crucial bubble weekend, late-charging teams like Gonzaga make a move
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Work left to do: Richmond|
After moving Temple and Xavier to the lock lobby this week (by the way, if you want to know what the "lock lobby" is, picture a swanky airport lounge where impressive teams check their e-mail and wait for their counterparts in comfort and style), the only question left to settle is whether the Atlantic 10 can get a third, and maybe a fourth, team in the tournament. The Watch gave Duquesne the benefit of the doubt Tuesday, but the Dukes are officially done after their one-point home loss to Rhode Island on Wednesday night. With absolutely nothing on the nonconference profile, they simply picked a bad time to lose four out of five games. There is some hope for Dayton; the Flyers could potentially inch into the conversation with a win over Xavier on Sunday. But in all likelihood, the A-10's chances of adding another at-large team will come down to Richmond's performance down the stretch. Can the Spiders finish unbeaten?
Richmond [21-7 (10-3), RPI: 67, SOS: 170] Richmond didn't help itself with last week's loss at Temple, but it didn't hurt itself much either, and the Spiders rebounded nicely -- if inconsequentially -- with a home win over St. Bonaventure on Sunday. Richmond's résumé, despite its solid win-loss totals and a victory over Purdue, still features ugly computer numbers and a handful of damaging losses that have kept this team from gaining much ground in the thick of the bubble picture, which is where Chris Mooney's team remains. So yes, the Spiders need another big win. The problem is finding it. Richmond has three games left on its schedule, and none of them is likely to impress the committee all that much. In the end, UR might find itself needing a strong performance in the A-10 tournament to sew things up. A loss before then might just seal the Spiders' fate.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Florida State|
Work left to do: Virginia Tech, Boston College, Clemson, Maryland
A big welcome back to the Maryland Terrapins, who finally got a top-50 RPI win this week, albeit one against a depleted Florida State team in College Park. Does that win mean the Terrapins are tourney-bound? Uh, no. At least not yet. But Maryland now has a plausible path to tourney consideration, and for that, it just barely sneaks back on the page today. Really, though, the Terps are like the rest of the non-Duke, non-UNC teams in this conference: uninspiring, fading or both.
Florida State [19-8 (9-4), RPI: 45, SOS: 94] The Seminoles need to be careful. No, they aren't at great risk of missing out on the tournament at this point -- hence the whole "should be in" thing -- but they did look rather ugly at Maryland on Wednesday night, and they have an improving Miami team next on the docket, followed by a home game versus North Carolina and a trip to NC State to finish out the season. Three losses would make the Noles a far-less-inspiring 19-11 and 9-7 in conference play, with only two wins against the RPI top 50 (over Duke and fading Boston College), a loss to Auburn and their best player (Chris Singleton) sitting on the sideline with a boot on his foot. The committee surely would notice those things if this team falters down the stretch. As it is, FSU is still OK, and we're not into predicting doom and gloom for anyone. But the Seminoles do need to be careful.
Virginia Tech [18-8 (8-5), RPI: 51, SOS: 97] Every time you think the Hokies are going to truly solidify their tournament chances, they find a way to throw themselves right back in the middle of the bubble mess. That's where Seth Greenberg finds his team (and not for the first time) after Saturday's loss at Virginia that completed a sweep by the Cavs. (Tuesday night's win over Wake Forest means exactly nothing.) The Hokies' profile remains just so-so, complete with OK overall and conference records, mediocre RPI and strength of schedule numbers and a group of wins that's headlined by ... Florida State at home? Virginia Tech is probably still in the tournament right now, which means it'll have to turn around what's remaining of its challenging schedule -- home games versus Duke and Boston College before a season-closing trip to Clemson -- into an opportunity rather than a liability. This one's going to come down to the wire.
Boston College [16-11 (6-7), RPI: 58, SOS: 17] The Eagles, like the teams below them in this space, are barely hanging on. That status comes thanks to Wednesday night's home loss to Miami, which is not a total killer -- the Hurricanes are hovering in the mid-60s range in the RPI, at least -- but is exactly the kind of loss a team with an already shaky at-large profile can hardly afford. The Eagles now have a sub-.500 conference record and spend their next two games traveling to Virginia and Virginia Tech before closing out the regular season versus Wake Forest. That creates a nonexistent margin for error. At this point, Reggie Jackson & Co. have to win all three of those games to get into the tournament.
Clemson [18-9 (7-6), RPI: 61, SOS: 87] The Tigers are basically where they were at the end of last week, which is to say they're in the conversation but out of the tournament, at least of this writing. The Watch wasn't willing to discount this team's long-shot chances after an eight-point loss at NC State last week, and it's not willing to give the Tigers much credit for merely holding serve against Miami on Sunday. No, this team isn't out of it yet, but it still needs to help itself out to have a chance of sneaking into the tournament. That means handling Wake Forest on Saturday, giving Duke a run at Cameron next week and closing the season with a home win over Virginia Tech.
Maryland [18-10 (7-6), RPI: 72, SOS: 68] Maryland's profile didn't get all that much better this week; its win over Florida State was both nice and necessary, but it's not exactly a marquee victory, and the team's RPI is still dangerously low. Still, someone has to play in this tournament, and it's not hard to imagine the committee at least giving the Terps a look if today were Selection Sunday. Hence their return to the Watch. The good news is Maryland doesn't have any bad losses on its record. The bad news is this team's computer profile is still awfully weak, and it might have to win all three of its remaining ACC games (at UNC, at Miami, versus Wake) to impress the committee enough in the regular season. A 2-1 record probably would force the Terps to make a strong showing in the ACC tournament. This remains a very long shot, but, hey, it's a shot.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Work left to do: Kansas State, Baylor, Colorado, Nebraska|
Congratulations, Big 12: You are now at least a four-bid league. Yes, the Missouri Tigers made their long-awaited move into lock status this week after thoroughly trouncing Baylor 77-59 on Wednesday night. It wasn't an unexpected result, but it was enough to ensure that this team's impressive profile isn't at risk of serious damage even if the Tigers fail to beat any of their remaining opponents. (Missouri goes to Kansas State and Nebraska, followed by a rematch against Kansas in Columbia to end the season.) The rest of this conference -- with the possible exception of Kansas State -- remains very blah. Nebraska, Colorado and Baylor will have to do something big in the next 10 days if any or all of them want to be included in the tournament.
Kansas State [19-9 (7-6), RPI: 26, SOS: 4] Kansas State probably could have afforded a loss at Nebraska more than Nebraska could afford a loss at home versus Kansas State. Fortunately for the Wildcats, Nebraska found a way to be even uglier and more disjointed than Frank Martin's team in the closing minutes of Tuesday night's game. The Cats' 62-57 victory gave them their third straight win, got them to 18-9 overall and 7-6 in the Big 12, and perhaps most importantly avoided an addition to the loss column before the KSU plays Missouri at home and Texas on the road in two of its final three games. Mizzou's troubles on the road should give Kansas State an excellent chance at a big win Saturday, but even if Jacob Pullen & Co. can't come through, they should beat Iowa State at home to end the season on March 5. In other words, this team won when it needed to -- if only barely -- and would need a bit of a collapse to miss out on the tournament at this point.
Baylor [17-10 (6-7), RPI: 68, SOS: 39] For a while there, Baylor looked like a legitimate right-on-the-bubble team. That is not a compliment this season, especially not for a group with this sort of prodigious talent. The Watch keeps waiting for this team -- with its paltry record, bad computer figures, lack of quality wins and smattering of bad losses -- to pull a Kansas State and figure itself out. It hasn't. Instead, it lost to Texas Tech at home and got blown out at Missouri in its past two games. Now it's really showtime: If the Bears are good enough to be in the tournament, they'll beat Texas A&M at home Saturday. They'll also beat Oklahoma State next week, and they'll give Texas a run for its money on March 5. If they don't, they won't. If you can't pull it together by the final week of the season, you shouldn't complain when the committee passes you over.
Colorado [17-11 (6-7), RPI: 73, SOS: 74] Does the Watch think the Buffaloes are in the bubble picture at the moment? Not really. But if the committee was trying to seed the field today and was considering Nebraska and Baylor, it would be criminal if Colorado didn't also get a look. No, Tad Boyle's team hasn't been impressive lately. Yes, its nonconference schedule was awful. Yes, that RPI is gross. But Colorado does have more good wins -- including one over Missouri and a season sweep of Kansas State -- than either Baylor or Nebraska, and its overall record is right there as well. Saturday is go time, as Texas travels to Boulder for a game the Buffaloes almost have to win if they want to get anything more than a cursory look come Selection Sunday.
Nebraska [18-9 (6-7), RPI: 75, SOS: 75] Nebraska fans were excited about this team both before and after their team's huge win over Texas on Saturday. Will that enthusiasm last? The aforementioned loss to Kansas State this week was a major missed opportunity; the Cornhuskers had a superior team on the ropes at home and couldn't finish when it mattered most. With that weak RPI and nine of their 18 wins coming against teams with an average RPI of 291 -- this was not a quality schedule -- the Huskers almost have to win out (including a win or two in the Big 12 tournament) to make a legitimate case for an at-large bid.
|Big East Conference|
|Teams that should be in: West Virginia, Cincinnati|
Work left to do: Marquette
For those of you nonbelievers out there, it's time to just come out and admit it: The Big East is very likely to land 11 at-large bids in the 2011 NCAA tournament. The Watch added St. John's to the seemingly never-ending list of Big East locks earlier this week, but no remaining Big East bubbler has done enough to join them just yet. That said, Cincinnati is rapidly making a move with its three-game win streak, including a win at Georgetown on Wednesday night. The Bearcats have gone from shaky bubble case with an awful nonconference schedule to strong at-large candidate that can focus on improving its seed. This conference's last remaining question mark -- Marquette -- made a huge move up the at-large ladder Thursday night with its roller-coaster of a win at Connecticut.
West Virginia [17-10 (8-7), RPI: 16, SOS: 3] West Virginia very nearly put itself over the top Saturday, when it beat Notre Dame 72-58 in Morgantown. A loss might have put WVU's once-solid tournament chances in even greater jeopardy. As it is, it's pretty hard to imagine this team missing the tournament, and Thursday's road loss at Pittsburgh won't do much to change that fact. Still, we'd like to see the Mountaineers finish strong -- their last four games are at Rutgers and versus Connecticut and Louisville at home -- and that stretch still looks challenging. Another win or two, and this unremarkable but solid team will ride its unimpressive but solid profile into the Dance.
Cincinnati [22-6 (9-6), RPI: 31, SOS: 85] On Tuesday, the Watch said that a Cincinnati team that finished at least 2-2 in its last four games would get into the tournament rather easily. Perhaps the Watch was too conservative. The Bearcats earned the win of their season at Georgetown on Wednesday, the kind of top-10 RPI win that does wonders to solidify a decent at-large profile that had been lacking a truly marquee win. No more. Cincinnati's remaining three games can't really hurt its chances -- Connecticut at home, Marquette on the road and a rematch with Georgetown in Cincy on March 5 -- and even if UC wins only one (how's that for conservative?), this team will still be 10-8 in the Big East and 23-8 overall with either four or five top-50 wins on its résumé. Barring something strange and entirely unforeseen, Mick Cronin's resurgent team won't have anything to worry about on March 13.
Marquette [17-11 (8-7), RPI: 54, SOS: 31] The Watch -- and in blog form, for that matter, yours truly -- has been saying the same thing about Marquette all season: The Eagles had to close out a marquee win if they wanted to get in the tournament. On Thursday night, they finally, mercifully did just that. Yes, Marquette had decent wins before its gutty overtime road victory at Connecticut; it previously beat Notre Dame, Syracuse and West Virginia. But all of those games were at home. The win in the XL Center does a few things: It helps balance all those "good" losses, it proves the Eagles are capable of beating a top team on the road and it moves Marquette above .500 heading into three very winnable remaining games (versus Providence, versus Cincinnati, at Seton Hall). Marquette probably needs to win two of those to feel entirely safe -- now is not the time to stack up any "bad" losses -- but this once-shaky profile is now far less so. Finally.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Work left to do: Michigan State, Illinois, Minnesota|
After three days of late-season hoops, the Big Ten picture remains the same: Ohio State, Purdue and Wisconsin are all very much in the tournament, Illinois and Michigan State are looking so-so if not totally safe, Minnesota appears to be fading and Penn State and Michigan are both trying like crazy to get within shouting distance of the bubble. That's especially true of the Wolverines, who saw their chance at a marquee win ripped from them thanks to Wisconsin freshman Josh Gasser's banked buzzer-beating 3 in Ann Arbor on Wednesday night. The good news for the Wolverines: If they finish with two wins (at Minnesota, versus Michigan State) and make a decent showing in the Big Ten tournament, they'll still deserve bubble love -- and full-on at-large consideration. The same goes for the Nittany Lions if they pull a Kansas State/Nebraska and take down a No. 1-seed contender -- in PSU's case, a home opportunity against Ohio State next week.
Michigan State [16-11 (8-7), RPI: 38, SOS: 10] Are we witnessing another patented Tom Izzo turnaround? After looking dead in the water at Iowa and Wisconsin in the first week of February, Michigan State has won three of its past four games -- including a 61-57 win over Illinois on Saturday and a 53-48 rally at Minnesota on Tuesday -- and the only loss in that stretch came in a close game at Ohio State that saw the Spartans give one of their best performances of the season. Yes, MSU still has those 11 losses, and no, a 5-8 record against the RPI top 50 (especially when two of those wins are the aforementioned games versus Minnesota and Illinois) still isn't much to write home about. But if Michigan State continues to finish the season strong -- especially when Purdue comes to East Lansing on Sunday -- this team will avoid missing the tournament for the first time in 13 seasons. Barely.
Illinois [17-11 (7-8), RPI: 43, SOS: 16] Frustrated fan bases seem to be the theme in the Big Ten. So what better segue to discuss the Illinois Fighting Illini? It's hard to punish Illinois for its two most recent losses -- at Michigan State, at Ohio State -- but they certainly didn't help this once-promising team's suddenly so-so profile. The "last 12 games column" on the Illini's nitty-gritty page looks remarkably ugly, which is what happens when you lose eight of your past 12. Now the Illini are languishing with a sub-.500 conference record and a very so-so 17-11 overall mark. The RPI isn't great, the "good" wins are limited (do Michigan State and Minnesota count?) and those losses to Indiana and Illinois-Chicago (yeesh) continue to drag this profile downward. Illinois should get at least two wins in its remaining three games (versus Iowa and Indiana, at Purdue), so it should end up at .500 in the Big Ten by season's end. That would be enough to get this team into the tournament. But it's unlikely to excite the orange-clad faithful much.
Minnesota [17-10 (6-9), RPI: 48, SOS: 36] Minnesota: As tough as Michigan's near misses have been on Wolverines fans, the Gophers faithful have reason to rival them for sheer long-term frustration. A month ago, Minnesota was 15-4 overall and 5-4 in Big Ten play and -- thanks to its early-season wins over West Virginia and North Carolina as well as a Jan. 13 home win over Purdue -- looking worthy of a seed in the top half of the bracket. Then on Jan. 22, point guard Al Nolen broke his foot, a loss made worse by the midseason transfer of starting shooting guard Devoe Joseph. Things have gone only downhill from there. Minnesota has lost six of its past seven, including a loss at Penn State last Thursday and a loss at home to Michigan State on Tuesday. The Gophers are now 6-9 in Big Ten play. Now Minnesota absolutely has to win its final three games -- versus Michigan, at Northwestern, versus Penn State -- just to get back to .500 in conference play. The Gophers also have to hope their early-season wins still mean something to the selection committee (according to the committee's rules, they should), enough to outweigh any legitimate concerns about this team's competitiveness without Nolen. As of now, it's not looking good.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Teams that should be in: UNLV|
Work left to do: Colorado State
Until Colorado State does something to get itself off the bubble -- either for better or for worse -- not much is likely to change in the Mountain West, at least where the Watch is concerned. UNLV firmed up its already-solid profile with a win at New Mexico on Wednesday night, but the Runnin' Rebels won't be a lock until they officially avoid upsets in their final two games vs. Wyoming and at Utah. Saturday's huge showdown between BYU and San Diego State will be the must-watch of the weekend, but it won't have any effect on the bubble picture. At this point, the intrigue comes down to Colorado State, and that intrigue will likely exist until the Rams' season-closing, last-chance opportunity at SDSU on March 5.
UNLV [21-7 (9-5), RPI: 30, SOS: 42] We seemed to forget about UNLV's profile for a while there, but while we were enjoying the dual MWC brilliance of the Cougars and Aztecs, UNLV was quietly building out an already-solid NCAA tournament résumé. The nonconference wins are there (Wisconsin, Kansas State, Virginia Tech); the RPI is there; and the bad losses -- with the exception of a Dec. 15 home loss to UC Santa Barbara -- aren't there. UNLV still isn't a lock, because an (incredibly unlikely) 0-2 finish could still put it at risk of missing out. But if that doesn't happen, the Rebels should be good to go. Strong finish for Lon Kruger's team.
Colorado State [18-9 (8-5), RPI: 40, SOS: 26] Meanwhile, the Rams are still clawing at the NCAA tournament's door. They missed a big opportunity in letting UNLV escape Moby Arena with a win Saturday. A victory there would have completed a season sweep of the Rebels and given the committee a serious head-to-head talking point if the two teams were ever examined as bubble competitors on Selection Sunday. Instead, Colorado State finds itself fighting an uphill battle. That battle began with a game at BYU on Wednesday, and while CSU acquitted itself well in Provo, it came away with little to show for it in an 84-76 loss. The Rams now might have to go 3-0 in their final three games -- which include a road trip to SDSU on March 5 -- to get themselves onto the right side of the bubble cut line. Either that or a run to the MWC tourney title game. In other words, the Rams' chances are not looking good.
|Work left to do: Washington, UCLA|
Thanks to Washington State's well-deserved banishment from the Watch on Tuesday, there isn't much movement to report in the Pac-10. Washington and UCLA both appear to be in good shape, though neither has totally firmed up its bid just yet. Both will get opportunities to do so in the coming days, as Washington finishes its Pac-10 schedule with three straight home games, including one against -- you guessed it -- UCLA. The Bruins have a much more challenging slate ahead of them, one that includes Saturday's home date vs. Arizona and a two-game road swing to Seattle and Pullman. But in all likelihood, both teams will be in the tournament, and both could move up a line (or two) by the time the Watch reassesses each next week.
Washington [19-8 (10-5), RPI: 34, SOS: 70] The Huskies participated in yet another Pac-10 thriller Saturday. Unfortunately, thanks to Derrick Williams' well-timed and monstrous athleticism, Washington left Tucson without much to show for it. In other words, despite all that talent, strength and offensive skill, the Huskies still have to finish the season with a few wins to feel totally safe about their at-large chances. Lorenzo Romar's team had no issues with Cameron Dollar's Seattle team Tuesday night -- that would have been a killer -- and now the Huskies get to tidy up in the Pac-10 with three games at home vs. Washington State, UCLA and USC. That's a very favorable closing stretch, one that could yield a 3-0 mark and get the Huskies to 22-8 (and 13-5 in conference play) by the end of next week. And yes, 2-1 is OK, too. In other words, anything but a shocking collapse probably sees this team into the tournament. But man, a win at Arizona would have been nice.
UCLA [20-8 (11-4), RPI: 39, SOS: 43] The Watch thought about moving UCLA up, but that was before Sunday's 76-72 OT loss at Cal. It's not a profile-killer by any means, but it does keep the Bruins a step or two from feeling totally solid about their at-large chances. UCLA still has those impressive wins (over St. John's and BYU) and only one ugly loss (vs. Montana), and it added another win to its résumé Thursday night, albeit one over a very down Arizona State team. Still, UCLA has at least three more chances to get quality victories in its remaining games vs. Arizona (which it only trails by one game for first) on Saturday and the Washington schools (on the road) next week. Of course "chances to get quality victories" also means "games against tough teams and/or in difficult environments." It's possible that UCLA could lose all three. Would the Bruins still be in OK shape? The Watch thinks so, but it will cross that bridge when it comes to, um, it.
|Work left to do: Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama|
If Tennessee's season has a theme -- and in a season this sporadic and unpredictable, consistent themes can be hard to find -- it's the Vols' ability to thrive on the court while their head coach and athletic director are pilloried off it. Tennessee received its notice of allegations related to the well-documented alleged recruiting violations by coach Bruce Pearl and his staff from the NCAA Committee on Infractions on Tuesday. That was the same day the Vols went to Nashville and got a huge road win over one of this conference's three locked-in teams (and a top-25 RPI win to boot). Tennessee still has to finish strong here, but it should be in good shape moving forward. Otherwise, this conference hasn't changed all that much, as Georgia and Alabama still need to keep winning -- UGA fell short in the second half at Florida on Thursday night -- to solidify two profiles of varied quality.
Tennessee [17-11 (7-6), RPI: 32, SOS: 2] It's no secret that the committee loves big wins. After all, the age-old cliche "Who did you beat?" exists for a reason. In other words, for all the various warts on this profile -- the bad home losses, the mediocre record both in and out of conference -- the Volunteers' big wins over Villanova, Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt (twice), as well as their No. 1-ranked strength of schedule figure and a whopping nine victories against the RPI top 50, should be more than enough to get them into the NCAA tournament barring some sort of drastic late collapse. (Don't put that past this team, either.)
Georgia [18-9 (7-6), RPI: 41, SOS: 34] Georgia had a chance to possibly seal its at-large deal Thursday night, as the Bulldogs appeared poised to knock off Florida in the O-Dome, before the Gators eventually took control and sealed another strong home win. That loss doesn't exactly hurt Georgia -- you're supposed to lose to Florida on the road, after all -- but at some point this team might want to add another win or two to its top-50 RPI column to balance all those top-50 RPI losses. The good news is that the Bulldogs haven't lost a single game this season outside that category, and they do have wins over Kentucky and at Tennessee in their back pocket. As long as the Dawgs win two of their next three -- home games vs. South Carolina and LSU before the season-ender at Alabama -- they should be in pretty good shape heading into the postseason.
Alabama [19-8 (11-2), RPI: 66, SOS: 132] The facts about Alabama remain the same. The Crimson Tide are the SEC's best defensive unit, arguably its best team (as Basketball Prospectus' John Gasaway noted Tuesday, the Tide have the best efficiency margin in the SEC) and have a glimmering 11-2 conference record to back it up. They also have an ugly RPI, a bad strength of schedule and some truly questionable nonconference losses to St. Peter's, Iowa, Providence, Seton Hall and Oklahoma State. Can a team with that kind of conference record -- not to mention that impressive efficiency, though it's not as if the committee cares about little things like "how well a team actually plays" -- miss the tournament? If the Tide finish strong against Ole Miss (away), Florida (away) and Georgia (home), the question might not matter. But if Alabama picks up another couple of losses, even if those losses are to good teams, Anthony Grant's team could become an interesting litmus test for the committee and one of the few true potential "snubs" in 2011.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Teams that should be in: George Mason, Old Dominion|
Work left to do: Utah State, UAB, Memphis, Missouri State, Butler, Saint Mary's
Is Saint Mary's done? That's the most pressing question among this group -- plenty of whom look like tournament long shots -- after the Gaels' dramatic, thrilling and ultimately crushing home loss to Gonzaga on Thursday night. The Watch is keeping Saint Mary's on for now, if only because this team isn't likely to drop all the way out of selection committee consideration just yet. But after three straight losses, the Gaels' path to the NCAA tournament is starting to look very questionable. At best. It's not all doom and gloom here in the others section this week, as Old Dominion moves up a line, next to Colonial Athletic Association rival George Mason, in the "should be in" category. The Monarchs have long had one of the more convincing at-large resumes in the CAA, and they're finally backing it up with some conference dominance to boot. Meanwhile, Missouri State and Wichita State stay alive if only because the Missouri Valley regular-season champ -- provided that champ gets to the final of the conference tournament -- might still get a look from the committee. And yes, VCU's loss to Drexel on Tuesday moves the Rams out of the Watch again, and probably for the last time. Sorry, but going 3-4 down the stretch and losing three straight conference games just isn't going to cut it.
George Mason [24-5 (15-2), RPI: 28, SOS: 102] Yes, Jim Larranaga's team took a long-awaited move up to "should be in" territory last week -- the first in this group to do so -- thanks to what was a mighty impressive stretch. The Patriots beat fellow at-large contender VCU by 20 on the road. That was Mason's 12th straight win; on Saturday at Northern Iowa, it got its 13th; No. 14 came against Northeastern on Thursday night. Throw in the top-25 RPI, the 8-4 record versus the RPI top 100 and only one bad loss (to Wofford in late November), and it's hard to imagine the Patriots, even without a truly marquee win on their docket, missing out on the tournament. They're clearly a notch or two (or 10) above the rest of this group.
Old Dominion [23-6 (13-4), RPI: 29, SOS: 76] Thanks to its nonconference schedule, ODU has long had the strongest at-large case in the Colonial, a case that has been only strengthened by the Monarchs' recent wins over Virginia Commonwealth and Cleveland State, a top-50 RPI team in its own right. The question is whether "one of the strongest at-large cases in the Colonial" -- which includes a nice RPI, a decent strength of schedule and wins over Xavier, Dayton, Richmond and George Mason -- is strong enough to get Old Dominion in the tournament by season's end. The Watch thinks so, especially after Thursday night's dominant win at James Madison moved this team to 23-6 overall and 10-5 vs. the RPI top 100.
Utah State [25-3 (12-1), RPI: 24, SOS: 127] Finally, mercifully, the Aggies earned their first top-100 RPI win of the season. That victory came Saturday at Saint Mary's, the product of a second-half run that should help establish Utah State as more than a traveling WAC sideshow incapable of beating teams with a pulse. Whether one "marquee" win -- against a team coming off a loss to putrid San Diego, no less -- will be enough to get the Aggies in the tournament is a different story. More likely than not, the Aggies will win the WAC tournament. If they don't, they could become the subject of some interesting bubble debate, even after the win in Moraga.
UAB [19-7 (9-4), RPI: 35, SOS: 65] The Blazers got back on the Watch on Tuesday after holding on for a win over UCF in Birmingham. With its strong RPI, Mike Davis' team has been hovering around the bubble cut line for weeks and it's still very much in this discussion. But as with Southern Miss, the March 2 game in Hattiesburg will be crucial for this team's chances of asserting itself as one of the few (if there is more than one) C-USA entities worth a second glance in the committee room March 13.
Memphis [21-7 (9-4), RPI: 37, SOS: 56] We were ready to write the Tigers off entirely, but this soft bubble has been kind to the Tigers, and Memphis is still in the discussion, if not in the tournament. There are those sweeps of Southern Miss and UAB after all. That said, this résumé (RPI excluded) is pretty awful, and it only got worse with Saturday's 15-point loss at Rice. The Tigers rebounded with a win over Houston on Tuesday, but that's just a small step toward what should probably be a 4-0 finish -- with games at UTEP, at East Carolina and versus Tulane left on the schedule -- before the Watch feels remotely confident about this team's ability to sneak into the tournament.
Missouri State [22-7 (14-3), RPI: 47, SOS: 151] After Saturday's blowout BracketBusters loss at Valparaiso, Missouri State's bubble outlook is essentially the same as Wichita State's. The Bears have to win the regular-season title and almost certainly have to at least reach the MVC tourney championship game to have a chance of sneaking in. Wednesday's road win at Illinois State doesn't change that. There's just not enough on the nonconference record for either the Shockers or the Bears to hope for amnesty if they do anything less than that in the coming weeks. And that includes beating Wichita State at home Saturday.
Butler [20-9 (12-5), RPI: 50, SOS: 81] As we wrote last week, the Watch is a little shocked to be including Butler at this point in the season. After all, those six sub-50 RPI losses, including a loss to near-300 squad Youngstown State earlier this month, haven't gone anywhere. Nor have the five losses in the Horizon League, which you'd think would discount the Bulldogs from an at-large bid sight unseen. But it should be noted that they've won their past seven games, including Saturday's dominant victory at Illinois-Chicago, and they have banked a handful of wins that plenty of mid-major at-large candidates would be happy to have, including decent wins over Washington State and Florida State en route to the Diamond Head Classic title. And although Butler could have used a high-profile BracketBusters win, it seems to have gained almost as much by default -- with none of the associated risk -- by sitting this season out.
Saint Mary's [22-7 (10-3), RPI: 55, SOS: 129] The hits just keep on coming for the Gaels. Saint Mary's followed its loss at San Diego -- a team with a plus-300 RPI -- with a home loss to Utah State in the BracketBusters on Saturday. Then the Gaels lost an emotional, hard-fought battle to archrival Gonzaga in overtime Thursday night, and that might be the straw that broke this wobbly at-large camel's back. Saint Mary's obviously can't afford another loss in the regular season -- only a home game with Portland remains -- and it almost certainly has to get to the WCC tournament final to have a chance an at-large bid. Frankly, if the Gaels do make it that far, they'd be better off just finishing the job there. After three straight losses, this team just doesn't have much on its resume to recommend it.