College Basketball Bubble Watch
What do we mean when we say 'every game counts'?
Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Monday, Feb. 27.
On Monday, Texas coach Rick Barnes checked in with ESPN Radio's Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo. Van Pelt asked Barnes, as a coach whose teams don't often find themselves on the bubble, how it felt to be going through such a tenuous late-season situation. Barnes responded as you'd expect -- we focus on one game at a time, etc. -- but he did hit on something that felt especially insightful:
"I've told our guys from the very first game that we played: 'If you don't think this game is important, wait until March and you'll find out.'"
Truer bubble words were never spoken. The Watch spends a lot of time discussing what teams do late in the season, and for good reason: With each new game, a signature win or disastrous loss can have a huge effect on a team's chances of making the NCAA tournament. (And also, that's when we start writing Bubble Watch. There is that.)
But two years ago, an NCAA eager to maximize the full length of the college hoops season did away with the criterion that weighted a team's final 12 games more heavily than the 20 or so contests that preceded them. Sure, many committee members no doubt still like to see teams trending upward at this point in the season, and "last 12 games" is almost certainly still a discussion point from time to time. But any line-by-line reading of the committee's principles is clear: Whether it's mid-November or mid-February, every game counts.
In other words, while it's tempting to overreact to one win or loss, it's important to maintain some perspective. These last, final weeks of the season are crucial to any bubble team's chances of making the tournament. But for each win that would seemingly transform a profile -- and the deluge of eager fans proclaiming on Twitter that Team X "has to be in!" -- there are just as many that move the needle far less than you'd immediately assume.
And that's your random bubble thought of the day. One to file away, at least.
OK, enough musing. Let's get to the good stuff. Without further ado, here's the latest edition of the Watch:
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Virginia|
Work left to do: Miami (FL)
NC State is off the page. Missing three straight major signature opportunities -- the collapse at Duke followed by home losses to UNC and Florida State -- is bad enough, but taking your fourth straight loss at Clemson, as the Wolfpack did Saturday, is the fastest way to find yourself off the bubble. The good news? Mark Gottfried got closer to the NCAA tournament in his first season than Sidney Lowe ever did in his tenure. Clearly, the future is bright. But unless NC State beats Miami and goes crazy in the ACC tournament, that future likely will have to wait.
Virginia [21-7 (8-6), RPI: 37, SOS: 91] But for a few awry possessions Saturday, and a Tyler Zeller head-fake-drive-drunk that emphatically gave the Tar Heels the key final basket, Virginia very nearly beat North Carolina, a win that would have made its at-large bid a surefire lock. Instead, the Cavaliers fell 54-51 at home. Two games -- Thursday's home game versus Florida and Sunday's road trip to Maryland -- remain. As long as UVa doesn't go 0-2, it'll be fine. The truth is, the Cavs are probably fine regardless. But a .500 record in a down league and a 2-5 top-50 mark wouldn't exactly scream lock.
Miami (FL) [17-10 (8-6), RPI: 47, SOS: 38] On Sunday, the Hurricanes did what NC State couldn't: They toppled one of the ACC's top teams at home, even without the suspended Reggie Johnson. The 78-62 win over Florida State added a crucial top-end win that looks rather nice up there aside from that Feb. 5 road win at Duke. But there is still work to be done. A win at NC State on Wednesday could be a must, and obviously Miami can't afford to drop the season finale to Boston College at home. There are still plenty of profile holes (a 3-9 record versus the RPI top 100 and a 5-7 road/neutral record, to name two), so Miami can't afford to rest on its laurels.
|Big East Conference|
|Work left to do: Connecticut, Seton Hall, South Florida, West Virginia, Cincinnati|
Despite a weekend full of high-stakes Big East action, little has changed along the bubble line. All five teams are still in contention for an at-large bid, and all five have various amounts of work to do in this week's final two Big East games to either seal their bid or fall off the bubble line completely. It's go time.
Connecticut [17-11 (7-9), RPI: 30, SOS: 1] Are the Huskies finally, at long last, trending upward? Last week's win at Villanova was huge for two reasons: It was a win (duh), and its ending (on Shabazz Napier's 30-foot game winner) seemed like the kind of emotional boost that this team desperately needed. It carried some of that into Saturday's home upset bid of Syracuse, an upset bid that ultimately fell short but was nonetheless one of this team's best all-around performances in the past few months. UConn's Big East struggles threatened to overshadow its universally good computer numbers, but if the Huskies can manage to get two wins down the stretch (at Providence, home versus Pitt), they'll probably get in this thing, struggles and all.
Seton Hall [19-10 (8-9), RPI: 43, SOS: 35] Just when you think the Pirates have gotten over the bubble hump once and for all, they do something like this ... and totally sabotage themselves! Saturday's home loss to Rutgers pretty much washed away the good feelings from last week's signature win over Georgetown. In aggregate, the Georgetown win helped more than the Rutgers loss hurt, but even so, this résumé still has plenty of holes. A loss at DePaul on Saturday -- hardly an impossible feat -- could be disastrous.
South Florida [18-11 (11-5), RPI: 46, SOS: 33] Saturday's win over Cincinnati was big. The Bulls are clawing and fighting their way up the S-curve, and any time you can take a chunk out of another bubble team's profile in February, well, that's a good thing. But USF's win hardly guarantees its spot in the tournament. The Bulls' profile is still a strange artifact: The Big East record (11-5) looks tournament-worthy, but the 4-10 road/neutral record, the 1-7 mark against the RPI top 50 and the utter lack of quality nonconference wins (Cleveland State being the best) mean USF can't plan on anything as it turns to its final two regular-season games at Louisville and at home versus West Virginia. The good news? The last two games are at Louisville and at home versus West Virginia. Those are opportunities, and USF would be well-served to take advantage.
West Virginia [17-12 (7-9), RPI: 48, SOS: 8] The Mountaineers still have that top-10 strength of schedule and that top-25 nonconference slate on their resume, as well as a top-10 RPI win over Georgetown. And, well, that's pretty much it. Bob Huggins' team lost a major opportunity to notch a marquee win down the stretch when Marquette escaped Morgantown with a one-point win Friday; that loss was WVU's seventh in its past nine games and moved it to 7-9 in the Big East and just 17-12 overall. Assuming the Mountaineers beat DePaul on Tuesday, their season-ending road trip to South Florida just might determine their at-large chances. That is not something the Watch ever thought it would write.
Cincinnati [20-9 (10-6), RPI: 76, SOS: 132] Cincinnati's win over Louisville on Thursday was huge for this team's profile; it gave the Bearcats their fifth win against the RPI top 50, and there are plenty of bubble teams that would love to own wins over Georgetown, Louisville, Notre Dame and even UConn. But the Bearcats' nonconference performance could come back to haunt them. The RPI is still hovering in prohibitive territory. No team in the last 15 years has received an at-large bid with an RPI outside the top 75. Even more dire: The nonconference SOS is ranked No. 323 in the nation. Last season, we saw Alabama play a bad nonconference schedule, take a couple of bad losses (i.e., Cincy's loss to Presbyterian), turn it on in conference play (finished 12-4) and rack up a bunch of top-50 wins despite a thoroughly mediocre RPI. And settled for the NIT. Could the same fate befall the Bearcats? If the Watch had to guess, it would say Cincinnati's in, at least as of today. But a win over Marquette on Wednesday still feels crucial.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Purdue|
Work left to do: Northwestern
Last week, the Watch watched (ahem) with interest as Iowa dropped Indiana and Wisconsin in consecutive games at home. Could the Hawkeyes make a last-ditch, come-from-nowhere run at the NCAA tournament? The answer, alas, was no: Iowa lost at Illinois on Sunday, officially ending any unlikely hopes that Fran McCaffery's team had. Which brings us to Illinois. Could the Illini, which melted down in extreme fashion in February, become 2012's first zombie bubble team? OK, probably not. But if Illinois goes 2-0 the rest of the way -- which would mean beating Michigan at home and Wisconsin on the road -- it'd at least be back in the picture with six wins over the top 50. Fancy that.
Purdue [19-10 (9-7), RPI: 39, SOS: 24] The Boilermakers picked an excellent time to play their best game of the season, one in which Lewis Jackson, Robbie Hummel and Terone Johnson relentlessly diced Michigan's defense en route to a 75-61 win. It appears, as Ryne Smith intimated two weeks ago, that this team doesn't seem to mind the loss of guard Kelsey Barlow. Whatever the case may be, the win in Ann Arbor was Purdue's sixth over a top-50 RPI team this season, a number few bubble teams could ever hope to match. A surprise loss at home to Penn State this week might shake things up, but all in all, the Boilermakers are looking really safe.
Northwestern [17-11 (7-9), RPI: 40, SOS: 9] The vital signs were looking ugly. Northwestern missed a major chance to push itself over the bubble hump when it lost to Michigan in OT in Evanston last week. Next up was a trip to Penn State, a place the Wildcats hadn't won since 2002. A loss to the Nittany Lions may have forced Northwestern to beat Ohio State this week and would have put major pressure on a road trip to Iowa on Saturday. But Northwestern won 67-66, so things are looking up again. A win over Ohio State would come close to sealing the deal, but the real test may come in Iowa City. The Wildcats are so close. Can they come through?
|Big 12 Conference|
|Work left to do: Texas|
Cue the celebrations in Ames, Iowa: The Cyclones are going back to the NCAA tournament. Iowa State's profile isn't overwhelming, but its solidity moved it up to "should be in" territory last week in part because Iowa State, with its last three games at Kansas State, at Missouri and at home versus Baylor, couldn't possibly take a bad loss going away. But after Saturday's win at K-State -- which gave the Cyclones a clean sweep of the Wildcats in addition to that big home win over Kansas -- this team can't miss the tournament. What Fred Hoiberg has done with this team, constructed primarily of cast-off transfers and leftovers from Greg McDermott's failed tenure, can't be overstated. As if the guy needed to be more popular in central Iowa. What a season.
Texas [18-11 (8-8), RPI: 55, SOS: 29] A win at Texas Tech is good for one reason: It wasn't a loss. The Longhorns can come away from Saturday feeling good about that much, even if last week's missed opportunity against Baylor still looms large. Texas still has Oklahoma on the schedule, followed by its last big chance for a marquee win. Unfortunately, that chance comes at Kansas, where the Jayhawks almost never lose. A 1-1 mark in the season's final two games would put Texas at 19-12 overall, 9-9 in the Big 12, with a 4-9 mark away from home and a 4-9 mark against the RPI top 100. Is that good enough to get in? Maybe. Maybe not. This team is smack dab on the bubble, and the margin for error Wednesday night against Oklahoma -- or, for that matter, in the Big 12 tournament -- is practically zero.
|Teams that should be in: California|
Work left to do: Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Colorado
The Watch took Colorado off the page after a 74-50 home loss to Stanford, and we assumed, barring a win over Cal, that would be the last we'd hear from coach Tad Boyle's bunch. Such is the 2012 Pac-12: Just a few days after a 24-point home loss, Colorado bounced back with a 13-point win over the Bears, giving them one of this league's rare top-50 RPI wins and getting them back in the bubble picture, if only barely. Colorado is nowhere near safe here, which goes for the entire league, really. Even Cal has some loose ends to tie up.
California [23-7 (13-4), RPI: 35, SOS: 101] The Watch is keeping Cal on the "should be in" line, but it doesn't feel all that confident in the decision. The chief concern following the Bears' loss at Colorado on Sunday was the Pac-12 standings: Cal now trails Washington by half a game, and if the Huskies win their final two at UCLA and USC, Cal will lose out on a regular-season title that has appeared to be its destiny. The bubble concerns are less prominent; Joe Lunardi still had the Bears as a No. 9 seed in Monday's bracket, which seems a tad high, but is nonetheless indicative of what a good RPI can do for you, even in a league this bad. But remember: Cal's best nonconference win came at home versus Weber State. Outside of a gaudy overall record and a good conference record in a bad conference, there just isn't much here. For now, we'll stick with the Bears here. But a loss at Stanford this weekend could mean trouble.
Oregon [20-8 (11-5), RPI: 52, SOS: 78] Arizona has long seemed like the putative third team in from this league, but why is that, exactly? In contrast with Oregon, the Wildcats have essentially the same overall and league records, a worse road record and a worse RPI. Arizona does have the win at Cal and a statistically better nonconference mark, but overall, the similarities between these two resumes are striking. In any case, Oregon is still on the wrong side of the bubble, and it definitely needs to win its last two (versus Colorado and Utah) and maybe even make a little run in the Pac-12 tourney to flip the script. But what once seemed like a long shot looks slightly less so now.
Washington [20-8 (13-3), RPI: 53, SOS: 80] If the RPI had never been invented, and eye test was our only metric for evaluating potential NCAA tournament teams, the Huskies would probably be a lock. This is the Pac-12's most talented -- and heck, maybe its best -- team, something the Huskies have a chance to make official with title-clinching wins at USC and UCLA this week. But unfortunately, a regular-season title wouldn't guarantee an at-large spot, not with a profile this shaky. The computer numbers have come up since the Watch started this whole process, but not enough to feel safe, and Washington's lack of top-end wins in the nonconference (and arguably questionable losses to Nevada and South Dakota State) really drag on the profile overall. In the end, this may come down to the committee: What is a stellar record in this Pac-12 really worth? How much does the eye test factor in? Because this team looks fully tourney-worthy until the very moment you start poring over its nitty-gritty sheet. Judging by the metrics the committee uses, things look far shakier on paper.
Arizona [21-9 (12-5), RPI: 71, SOS: 110] Assuming Sean Miller's team doesn't succumb to disaster at Arizona State on Sunday, the Wildcats will finish the regular season 22-9 and 13-5 in the Pac-12. In any other season, "22-9 and 13-5 in the Pac-12" would pretty much settle the argument: Of course that team is getting in the tournament. This season? Not so fast. Arizona's RPI is still hovering around the 70 mark, its only truly good win came at California (a good win by any metric, it should be said), and its next-best victory was probably a road win at New Mexico State. The good news, of course, is that the bubble is soft. But there are no guarantees here.
Colorado [19-9 (11-5), RPI: 77, SOS: 95] Friday, we said Colorado could get back on the page if it beat Cal, and lo and behold, that's exactly what happened. Had the Buffs not suffered that baffling 24-point home loss to Stanford three days prior, their at-large chances would look at least slightly stronger. As it is, this team's true claim to fame might be that it has beaten each of the other four teams in this space at least once (all of which came at home). But it also fell on a neutral court to Maryland, lost at home to Wyoming, and has an RPI that stretches tournament credulity and just four true road wins: at Air Force, at Arizona State, at USC and at Utah. This team is in the chase, but it has to beat both Oregon and Oregon State on the road to make that hunt worthwhile.
|Teams that should be in: Alabama|
Work left to do: Mississippi State
Welcome to Lockville, Vanderbilt fans. How does it feel? (Good, right?) If it seems weird to move a team up to lockdom after a loss, well, Vanderbilt's loss at Kentucky is hardly a normal loss, and the Commodores acquitted themselves well throughout. If members of the committee were watching, they saw the Vandy team most reasonable observers (i.e., those who didn't put this team in the top 10 to start the season) expected: A good offensive squad with multiple balanced weapons, albeit one with its fair share of defensive issues. Either way, with a top-25 RPI, a top-10 strength of schedule and a top-20 nonconference SOS, even two more losses down the stretch (versus Florida on Tuesday, at Tennessee) won't keep Vanderbilt from dancing.
Alabama [19-9 (8-6), RPI: 24, SOS: 14] Like Vanderbilt, Alabama also makes a move this week, albeit merely to "should be in" status. But considering where this team could have headed in recent weeks -- when coach Anthony Grant suspended leading scorers JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell -- that's an accomplishment in and of itself. The Watch expected Bama to fade a bit, and understandably so, but instead Grant's team (which has since reinstated Green and suspended Mitchell for the rest of the season) has won its last three against Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi State. Provided nothing wacky happens this week (the Tide host Auburn and finish at Ole Miss), this profile's strong computer numbers should put them in the tournament with relative ease.
Mississippi State [19-10 (6-8), RPI: 63, SOS: 68] On Monday, Mississippi State forward Arnett Moultrie was asked whether he thought his team would come together and figure it out in time to right a ship that has now lost its past five games. Moultrie's answer, per the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, was as follows: "Maybe not. Probably not." Needless to say, that's not a good sign. The only good news here is that Mississippi State's early work might still be enough to carry it through the recent swoon, which included losses to Georgia, LSU, Auburn and Alabama (and Kentucky, but, you know, no shame in that). All of a sudden, this team is 6-8 in the SEC, 5-7 away from Starkville, and 7-8 against the RPI top 100. Throw in the prohibitively high RPI and the thoroughly mediocre nonconference SOS -- not to mention the obvious chemistry issues affecting this bunch -- and you've got a recipe for the bursting of a once-promising bubble.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Work left to do: Colorado State|
You know the drill: Plucky Wyoming is too far off the bubble to warrant a space on this page, while New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State are all solidly in the field. That leaves just Colorado State -- which has a major opportunity this week -- left fighting for its spot in the Dance.
Colorado State [17-10 (6-6), RPI: 25, SOS: 4] The Rams have played six conference games on the road. They've lost all six. They've played six conference games at home. They've won all six. Therein lies the dual nature of this team's at-large bid. Still, the good news abounds. Colorado State still has those almost crazy-high RPI and SOS figures next to its name. Even better, the Rams get a ready-made bubble opportunity Wednesday night when UNLV comes to town. If Tim Miles' team keeps up its perfect MWC home trend, it will add another marquee win to its profile and quite possibly sneak above some of the other would-be bubble hopefuls with which it is currently battling for the final remaining spots. The work won't be done there, as Air Force (another team that plays everyone tough at home in MWC play) lies in wait Saturday, but the addition of a top-15 RPI win to a profile that already has really strong (probably too strong, but blame the RPI) computer numbers might just do the trick.
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Saint Louis|
Work left to do: Saint Joseph's, Xavier, Dayton
On Friday, the Watch took Saint Joseph's off the page while levying the accusation that the Hawks had overlooked the Richmond Spiders (to whom St. Joe's lost at home) in advance of Saturday's Big 5 matchup with Temple. If that was true, well, it worked out: Phil Martelli's team got a bonafide big win over the Owls Saturday, earning itself a path back onto this page and back into the bubble picture. Meanwhile, Saint Louis' loss at Rhode Island briefly halted the march to March, Kenny Frease's big Saturday kept Xavier alive, and Dayton fought through a must-win matchup with UMass. Big week ahead.
Saint Louis [22-6 (10-4), RPI: 31, SOS: 121] A loss at Rhode Island and its stratospheric RPI is hardly the kind of thing a team still searching for that Big Dance guarantee needs. It's the kind of thing that causes the Watch to realize that beyond a solid RPI number and an 8-5 record away from home, the Billikens really don't have all that much on their profile. Saint Louis has somehow played just two top-50 RPI teams this season and lost both. Before Saturday, the best part about this profile was its cleanliness: Sure, SLU didn't have much in the way of big wins, but it didn't have much in the way of losses -- just five, for that matter. A win at Xavier would be helpful this week, and we're not ready to bump SLU down a notch, but it needs to tread carefully from here on out.
Saint Joseph's [19-11 (9-6), RPI: 51, SOS: 31] This is the quintessential bubble team. An RPI hovering around 50. A road/neutral record (7-8) hovering around .500. A couple of good wins (Temple, Creighton) and a couple of bad losses (American, Charlotte). Still, the Owls did what they needed to do this past weekend by knocking off the Owls, so the Hawks are no doubt part of the conversation heading into their regular-season finale at St. Bonaventure. Win that tricky road contest and we've got yet another team to keep an eye on at the A-10 tourney.
Xavier [18-10 (9-5), RPI: 54, SOS: 52] The Musketeers avoided a potential bubble-burster against Richmond on Saturday, thanks in large part to Kenny Frease's season highs in both points (19) and rebounds (14). But there is much work to be done. This team's best road win since the New Year came at Charlotte; in other words, while Tuesday night's trip to Saint Louis is a major opportunity, it will also be a huge challenge. At this point, thanks to a solid nonconference schedule and the pre-brawl late-game excellence of Tu Holloway, Xavier's profile looks better than many of the teams on the bubble. But the differences aren't overwhelming. X still needs wins.
Dayton [18-10 (8-6), RPI: 61, SOS: 54] Dayton's back-to-back wins over Duquense (road) and UMass (home) marked its third and fourth victories in the past five games. The Jan. 7 win at Temple and the Dec. 7 win over Alabama both look excellent, and a Jan. 4 win over Saint Louis isn't too shabby, either. Those victories gave the Flyers their current 3-3 record against the RPI top 50, which, at least in the regular season, is how they'll finish. This team's two remaining games come at Richmond and at home versus George Washington, and you're not going to get a signature win in either place. What you could get, if you're not careful, is a bad loss, or even two, and Dayton's current bubble status -- it is almost certainly on the outside of the field looking in -- won't survive, either.