College Basketball Bubble Watch

Updated: January 31, 2012, 1:13 PM ET
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com


The great Bubble Watch adventure begins

Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Monday, Jan. 30.

The college hoops season comes at you so fast and so furious that it's easy to get lost in the steam and the sparks. When you finally pause -- on, say, Jan. 31 -- you find yourself confronted with the insane realization that, yes, it is indeed Jan. 31. The coming NCAA tournament, once a distant apparition, is mere weeks away.

And the increasing proximity of the NCAA tournament means one thing and one thing only: It is time to begin the great Bubble Watch adventure, in which we track and analyze every team with a chance to dance in the glorious month of March. But first, a few housekeeping notes:

• In recent years, we've been overly cautious when including a team in "locks" and "should be in," because throughout February and March we like to move teams closer and closer to "lock" status -- not the other way around. This season, we'll still apply caution, but we also plan to strive for pragmatism whenever possible. In the past, we'd wait until it was almost statistically impossible for a team to miss the tournament before we'd confer status as a lock; this year, we'll be a little more lenient. Sure, Team X could lose every game the rest of the way, and thus could miss the tournament. Will it? No. You get the idea. (This won't matter much for another week or two, probably, but be advised all the same.)

• Other than that, 2011's basic rules still apply. "Work to do" doesn't mean a team is going to miss the tournament, or is necessarily outside the tourney field looking in; it simply means a team has to keep progressing in the wins category -- whether through solid performance or the occasional big win -- to feel safe about its position on Selection Sunday. "Should be in" is self-explanatory. The Watch's advice, for what it's worth, is to not get too bogged down in semantics and denotata. At the end of the day, each team is different, each team will come with an explanation attached and, until we get to the final weeks of the season, each team's position matters much less than its story.

• Oh, and one more thing: The Watch will refer to the RPI. It will do so a lot. The Ratings Percentage Index will be at the center of countless debates about various teams this season, just like last season and the season before that and the season before that. Please know that this is not because the Watch approves of the RPI as an accurate measure of a team's NCAA tournament résumé. Quite the contrary, in fact. The RPI is an outdated, crude metric that has outlived its usefulness by at least a decade. These days, we have far more precise measures of a basketball team's actual ability, like Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, or the Logistic Regression/Markov Chain (or LRMC) ratings, or your own eyeballs, all of which (OK, especially the first two) are vastly more predictive than the RPI.

But whether we like it or not, the NCAA tournament selection committee still uses the RPI as the backbone of its entire data comparison system. A team's raw RPI matters, but so does strength of schedule and wins/losses against relative RPI categories (top 50, top 100, bottom 150 and so on). The committee doesn't say, "Well, this team is ranked No. 22 in the RPI, so it's the 22nd best team in the country." But in March, when the folks in Indianapolis compare teams' "nitty gritty" résumés, the RPI will underpin it all.

Unfortunately, the mission of the Bubble Watch is not to talk about the criteria it wishes the selection committee would use. (Though that would be fun.) No, the mission of the Bubble Watch is to provide a hopefully accurate window into the real-world chances of real-world teams. Alas, that means relying on RPI. One day, the NCAA -- which, it should be noted, usually does a bang-up job of seeding this field -- will see the error of its ways. Until then, it's ours not to reason why; it's ours but to watch the bubble. I'm pretty sure that's how that poem goes.

All right, enough with the preamble. Without further ado, I humbly present the first Bubble Watch of the 2011-12 season. And so it begins …