College Basketball Bubble Watch
As Bubble Watch makes its season debut, a few things to keep in mind
Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Tuesday, Feb. 5.Bubble Watch is back! It's the most wonderful, and confusing, time of the year. The wonderful part should be self-evident, but why so confusing? I'll tell you why: Because the NCAA tournament selection committee's criteria for picking and seeding the tournament field is different from what yours truly usually uses to rank and analyze college basketball teams. Typically, yours truly uses advanced tempo-free statistics -- like those available at KenPom.com, or on our own analytics team's Basketball Power Index, which tracks teams on a per-possession basis and uses finely tuned metrics to provide a reasonably accurate projection of team quality -- alongside good old-fashioned 24/7 college hoops viewership. The NCAA tournament selection committee, as you know, ranks and organizes its own information with the outdated and crude Ratings Percentage Index, which doesn't track per-possession performance, often produces wacky outputs and is hugely susceptible to smart coaches who know to, in essence, game the system. This gap creates two different arguments: • How good is my team?
• How good is my team's tournament résumé? That's where the confusion comes in. It is tempting to argue the actual merits of various teams while totally ignoring what the NCAA's RPI says about them, just as it is tempting for some fans (trust me, my email inbox knows) to use RPI and RPI strength of schedule to prove their team is actually better than anyone thinks. Bridging this divide is, needless to say, frustrating. So let's make it clear from the very first Bubble Watch: This column is about your favorite team's chances of making the NCAA tournament. It is about looking at the NCAA's various selection criteria and using that criteria to accurately predict where each team sits in the tourney picture with (now) less than six weeks left until Selection Sunday. It is a gauge of what a given team needs to do before it can feel safe on said Sunday, based on how the selection committee has historically settled the matter. In the future, when the NCAA updates its organizing principles and/or I am made His Highness the Grand Potentate of All Basketball, this confusion won't be an issue. In the meantime, let's make sure we're all on the same page. Deal? Deal. Without further ado, here's the first edition of the 2013 Bubble Watch:
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Work left to do: La Salle, Massachusetts, Virginia Commonwealth, Temple, Saint Louis|
The Atlantic 10 is a bit of a mess, at least if -- like me -- you count among your work responsibilities a weekly top-to-bottom power ranking of the conference. Things are no less confusing as it pertains to the bubble, though at least we have Butler, with its wins over Indiana, Gonzaga and Marquette, to provide at least some measure of certainty.
La Salle [15-6 (5-3), RPI: 28, SOS: 31] Wins against Butler and at VCU -- in three days time, no less -- were exactly what the Explorers needed to buttress an already impressive RPI/SOS matrix. That home loss to Central Connecticut State in November is a weird result that could come back to haunt La Salle, but right now this is a slightly-above-average profile.
Massachusetts [14-6 (4-3), RPI: 47, SOS: 70] UMass is sort of the reverse of VCU: Everything about their per-possession stats tell us the Minutemen simply aren't very good this year. But the RPI disagrees, and if it means getting in the tournament, long-suffering UMass fans will happily take that trade. A Jan. 30 win at La Salle was massive, and should help clear off some of the less-than-pleasant stench left over from Jan. 19's home loss to George Washington.
Virginia Commonwealth [18-5 (6-2), RPI: 49, SOS: 94] After a November home loss to Wichita State, the Rams impressed early in the Bahamas, dropping a then-highly touted Memphis team before playing both Duke and Missouri very tight on a neutral floor. But those games weren't wins, Memphis is by no means elite, Missouri has slid and all of a sudden VCU's best win came against Belmont at home. And Belmont is good! It's just that VCU's ability greatly outstrips its RPI plaudits to date, and the Rams can't approach the rest of the A-10 season taking anything for granted.
Temple [14-7 (3-4), RPI: 54, SOS: 61] One of the most baffling teams in the country. On Dec. 19 they lost at home to Canisius; on Dec. 22 they beat Syracuse in Madison Square Garden. On Jan. 6 they pushed Kansas to the limit in Allen Fieldhouse; four days later they lost at Xavier, and nine days later they fell at home to St. Bonaventure. That neutral-court Syracuse win could be the deciding factor in a mid-March bubble showdown, but Temple has work to do to be a part of that conversation first.
Saint Louis [16-5 (5-2), RPI: 56, SOS: 91] The RPI has not been a huge fan of Saint Louis's schedule to date, though we've definitely seen worse, and a 3-1 record against the RPI top 50 (especially against New Mexico, with its top-five RPI, and Butler) is nice. Saint Louis has to avoid ugly losses on the road in A-10 play and hope the committee realizes how tough Rhode Island was playing just about everybody in January, but it shouldn't need to come to that.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Teams that should be in: North Carolina State|
Work left to do: North Carolina, Florida State, Maryland, Virginia
Duke and Miami are pretty obvious selections for fundamentally similar reasons: At full strength, both teams are among the best in the country. Duke did its best work pre-Ryan Kelly injury when it beat Minnesota, Kentucky, VCU, Louisville and Ohio State in the nonconference. When Miami has had both Reggie Johnson and Durant Scott on the court, the Hurricanes are undefeated. 'Nuff said.
North Carolina State [16-6 (5-4), RPI: 19, SOS: 11] The Wolfpack may not be living all the way up to their too-lofty preseason expectations -- they'll have to defend better to do that -- but their win over No. 1 RPI-holder Duke, and a dearth of bad losses, makes them a likely NCAA tournament team at this point. Thursday night's trip to Cameron Indoor would be a massive win, but at this point for NC State, avoiding a bubble slide will be just as much about avoiding bad losses.
North Carolina [16-6 (6-3), RPI: 31, SOS: 41] The Tar Heels' at-large resume doesn't have much to recommend it. The numbers are merely OK, borne of a few tough dates on the nonconference calendar, but this young, formless team's only "good" win came against UNLV at home. On a weak bubble line, this current profile might be good enough to sneak into the tournament, but UNC has to put away some quality wins.
Florida State [13-9 (5-4), RPI: 58, SOS: 13] Florida State? Really? Even with a 13-9 record and a low-50s RPI? And only one top-50 win, over fellow bubble team BYU? Make no mistake: This is a long shot. It has a lot more to do with FSU's overall strength of schedule than anything else, but the Noles absolutely need to topple Miami at home Feb. 13 to stay in this picture for long.
Maryland [16-6 (4-5), RPI: 68, SOS: 111] You might be able to make the case for Maryland on a talent basis, as center Alex Len and small forward Dezmine Wells provide a pretty potent inside-out combo. But the Terps could still easily find themselves on the outside of the bubble thanks to a noticeable lack of top-50 wins (NC State being the only one) and really ugly strength of schedule numbers (their noncon SOS is 292).
Virginia [15-6 (5-3), RPI: 100, SOS: 233] This is one of the weirdest at-large profiles in recent memory. The Cavaliers' RPI figure is shoddy, and the only thing uglier than their overall strength of schedule is the nonconference figure (335). But UVa is 3-0 against the RPI top 50, 5-0 against the top 100, and has a really impressive late-November win at Wisconsin to headline the festivities. Why is the RPI so bad? Because the Cavs lost against Delaware and Old Dominion, as well as four sub-100 road losses against George Mason, Wake Forest, Clemson and Georgia Tech. There is much work to be done.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Kansas State|
Work left to do: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Baylor
Never mind that home loss to Oklahoma State: The Jayhawks may be in slightly less commanding position in the Big 12 title chase, but their bubble status is basically beside the point. The only real question is whether Bill Self's team can stockpile enough good wins before the end of the season to nail down that practically annual No. 1 seed.
Kansas State [18-4 (7-2), RPI: 24, SOS: 73] As top 50 wins go, a sweep over Oklahoma may not do much for you. But Oklahoma State is hardly shabby, and Florida -- regardless of the loss at Arkansas Tuesday night -- is still about as good as they come. Couple that with a lack of sub-top-50 losses and solid computer numbers and you've got a K-State team that should be safely ensconced in Lockville sooner rather than later.
Oklahoma [14-7 (5-4), RPI: 23, SOS: 5] You know who we don't talk about in the Big 12? Oklahoma. (Go ahead: Name one Sooner. Thought so.) But Lon Kruger's team really does have a shot at an NCAA bid not only because the Sooners are playing modestly efficient hoops but because their nonconference schedule didn't gorge itself on ugly guarantee games. There is more work to be done, starting with Saturday's home date against Kansas, but the computer numbers here are eminently favorable.
Oklahoma State [15-5 (5-3), RPI: 29, SOS: 56] A win at Kansas gets you in, right? If only it were that simple. Oklahoma State has a lot going for it, Saturday's win at storied Phog in particular, but the Cowboys are still just 3-4 against the top 50, 4-4 away from home and in possession of just a so-so noncon SOS (150). It would be shocking to see the ever-impressive Marcus Smart & Co. miss out, but there's still some padding to be done here.
Iowa State [16-6 (6-3), RPI: 34, SOS: 57] The Cyclones were supposed to be down after the departure of Royce White to the NBA draft. Instead, thanks to a spread-floor offense, third-year coach Fred Hoiberg has them in position for another tournament bid. A Jan. 23 loss at Texas Tech was regrettable, and man would that OT loss at Kansas have been nice, but other than that this is a safely average profile to date.
Baylor [14-7 (5-3), RPI: 50, SOS: 21] Back on Dec. 1, when we all thought Kentucky was good -- before we realized the Wildcats might become good, but weren't anywhere close yet -- Baylor got what appeared to be a totemic win at Rupp Arena. Instead, it's a decent road win, but as far as the RPI is concerned that win is less impressive than a victory at Oklahoma State or Oklahoma. Go figure. In any case, the Bears have been routinely inconsistent all season, and their solid SOS figures won't save them if they start dropping ugly games in Big 12 play. There's also that losing to Northwestern and Charleston at home thing.
|Big East Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Marquette, Cincinnati, Georgetown|
Work left to do: Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, St. John's, Villanova
The Big East is always a big bubble beast, and this year is no different, though we do have two certainties -- Louisville and Syracuse -- in front of us. Both teams are among a handful of national title contenders, both have a top 10 RPI and combined the two are 10-4 against the RPI top 50.
Marquette [15-5 (6-2), RPI: 16, SOS: 15] How good is Buzz Williams? After losing his two best, eldest and most important players (both of whom were Big East POY candidates last season), Williams has his team within striking distance of lock status by the first week of February. The only "bad" loss in this group came at Green Bay; the rest were a one-point Maui loss to Butler, at Florida, at Cincinnati and at Louisville. Plus, the Eagles' remaining schedule is heavy on winnable road games and helpful home dates (see Feb. 25 vs. Syracuse).
Cincinnati [18-4 (6-3), RPI: 20, SOS: 30] As Pitt begins to realize its potential, Cincinnati's Big East opener win at the Peterson Events Center will only look better and better. In the meantime, the Bearcats have four top-50 wins, top-30 RPI and SOS figures, and an 8-1 mark (including 3-0 on neutral courts) away from their own gym. These guys look good to go.
Georgetown [16-4 (6-3), RPI: 28, SOS: 76] The Hoyas are a bit like brutalist architecture: ugly to the point of occasional disgust, but otherwise effective. The Hoyas' offense will occasionally put up mid-50s scores, but more frequently their defense exerts control over the game. Georgetown went 10-1 in the nonconference with a lone loss coming on a neutral court to IU, and after a couple of letdowns in league play they seem to have regained their momentum, especially in that win over Louisville. The numbers won't knock your socks off, and there are some tough road games ahead, but it would take a massive collapse for this team to miss the NCAA tournament.
Pittsburgh [19-5 (7-4), RPI: 36, SOS: 71] The Panthers have sat at the nexus of the "how good is my team" argument all season long, mostly because their per-possession statistics resemble those of a top-10 outfit, while their actual wins and (five) losses beg to differ. The RPI probably underrates this team a good deal, but Pitt's uncharacteristically weak nonconference schedule is mostly to blame for that. Expect this team to keep improving (it started with a win over Syracuse Saturday), and to have a much better profile in a few weeks than it does right now.
Notre Dame [18-5 (6-4), RPI: 39, SOS: 81] The Irish's nonconference SOS is just 257, which is somewhat unfortunate: Saint Joe's was "supposed" to be the A-10 favorite, Kentucky is usually not a fringe top-50 RPI team, and Purdue is in the midst of a rare rebuilding season. Even so, the Irish are in pretty good shape and that could be improved by a couple of things. The first is better defense; the second is a home win over Louisville Saturday night. Mike Brey is no doubt hoping for both.
St. John's [14-8 (6-4), RPI: 57, SOS: 28] I admit, I did not expect the first edition of Bubble Watch to include St. John's. I'd essentially written off the Red Storm as a talented team that was nonetheless too young and too inconsistent to warrant much at-large attention. But the RPI and SOS numbers are what they are, and perhaps the committee will be willing to look past all the questionable losses (Murray State, at San Francisco, UNC-Asheville) if Steve Lavin's team makes an impressive push down the stretch.
Villanova [14-9 (5-5), RPI: 66, SOS: 46] Two weeks ago Villanova's at-large tournament case was basically nonexistent. But when you beat Louisville and Syracuse in four days, becoming the first unranked team since Ball State in 2001 to beat two top-five teams in the same week, your tournament prospectus can change that quickly. That said, Nova's RPI is still well outside the usual range, it was swept by Providence and it has that home loss to Columbia (RPI: 235) hanging over its head. Two very good wins won't be enough to drag the rest of this profile over the finish line.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Minnesota, Ohio State|
Work left to do: Illinois, Wisconsin
The Big Ten is widely considered the best conference in the country, so it should be no surprise its three best teams are already well-situated in regards to the tournament. IU and Michigan are both battling for a No. 1 seed, while Michigan State's combination of quality conference play and its neutral-court November win over Kansas make it a lock going forward.
Minnesota [17-5 (5-4), RPI: 10, SOS: 3] Here's a situation in which the RPI actually does meet with reality. If all you'd heard about Minnesota was that four-game losing streak -- including a loss at Northwestern Jan. 23 -- you could be forgiven for wondering why the Gophers are already on the brink of clinching a tournament spot. Truth is, this is still a very good team, and their RPI and SOS ranks (including a noncon SOS of 13, and a noncon RPI of 2) reflect as much.
Ohio State [17-5 (7-3), RPI: 18, SOS: 27] The Buckeyes as a team are very good but not elite, too reliant on the scoring of Deshaun Thomas, but as good defensively as nearly any team in the country. Their profile -- which includes home wins over Michigan and Wisconsin, a home loss to Kansas, road losses to Duke, Illinois, Michigan State and Michigan and nothing even remotely close to a bad RPI loss -- has them in fittingly good at-large position.
Illinois [15-8 (2-7), RPI: 40, SOS: 8] Here's another really fun profile, even if nerve-wracked Illinois fans would probably disagree. Because the Illini started so hot from beyond the arc (and caught Ohio State on a particularly brutal day for the Buckeyes), they've managed to notch a trio of truly impressive wins: at Gonzaga, vs. Butler in Maui, at home over Ohio State. But since they've gone cold from beyond the arc (they're shooting the lowest percentage in conference play to date), they've started 2-7 in the Big Ten, including a blowout home loss to Northwestern. Right now, they're on the bubble. How much will those good wins mean?
Wisconsin [15-7 (6-3), RPI: 41, SOS: 36] The only thing unusual about Wisconsin's resume is the November home loss to Virginia, which was totally out of character for a program that normally handles pretty much anyone who comes to the Kohl Center. Other than that, UW is 4-5 against the top 50, 7-7 against the top-100, with RPI and SOS numbers in the 30s. Odds are they'll be fine, but there's some firming up to do first.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Teams that should be in: UNLV, San Diego State|
Work left to do: Colorado State, Boise State, Wyoming, Air Force
In a conference that could get as many as six NCAA tournament bids, New Mexico appears to be the only absolute lock at this point. With that top-5 RPI and SOS, there would need to be a absolute collapse for the Lobos to miss the tourney.
UNLV [17-5 (4-3), RPI: 17, SOS: 17] On Tuesday's edition of ESPNU's "The Experts," ESPN analyst Matt Doherty made a good point about UNLV to date: Anthony Bennett, so brilliant in November and December, has hit what Matt called the "January freshman wall." It has been easy to pick nits about this Rebels team thus far, and they do have their flaws, Bennett's recent inconsistency among them. But as far as the Watch is concerned, that top-20 RPI, solid SOS figures and lack of anything remotely resembling a bad loss have them in very solid selection shape right now.
San Diego State [16-5 (4-3), RPI: 30, SOS: 63] The Aztecs are in pretty solid shape. They've had their upsets on the road in MWC play -- Air Force and Wyoming have both knocked them off -- but those teams are both in possession of RPIs in the 60s, and such is life in the 2013 Mountain West. As such, the Aztecs don't have a bad loss, and while their remaining road games are brutal (at Colorado State, UNLV, UNM and Boise State), for the purposes of the Bubble Watch it's hard to see how that could really downgrade their status. As long as they don't fall apart, they'll get in.
Colorado State [18-4 (5-2), RPI: 15, SOS: 47] The 2011-12 season's two most overrated-by-the-RPI teams were Colorado State and Southern Miss. The former coach of the latter, Larry Eustachy, is now in charge of the former, and so it should be no surprise to see the Rams boasting a top-15 RPI despite a 1-3 record versus the top 50 and a loss to Illinois-Chicago. How does that work? CSU kept the real RPI drags to a minimum and played Washington, Montana, Denver, Evansville, Virginia Tech, St. Bonaventure and UTEP instead. You need some luck ? those teams have to be beatable but neither too good nor too bad -- for it to work, but it worked, and now in the thick of a tough conference slate, the chances Colorado State misses out on the tournament with a top-15 RPI are very small. RPI gaming: If you can make it work, more power to you. (Oh, and by the way, the Rams are pretty good.)
Boise State [15-6 (3-4), RPI: 52, SOS: 95] If only the RPI considered Creighton as good as the rest of us do, Boise State's win in Omaha all the way back in late November would be the bubble gift that keeps on giving. Instead, Creighton's RPI is a mere 33, the Broncos don't have a whole lot else (besides a home win over UNLV) to speak of, and Boise almost certainly needs more help to get/stay on the right side of the bubble in weeks to come.
Wyoming [15-6 (2-6), RPI: 63, SOS: 84] Despite a reputation for feasting on opponents in the harsh elevation of Laramie, Wyo., the Cowboys have a 5-3 record away from their home gym this season. Unfortunately, they also loaded up on a number of sub-150 RPI teams, which has dragged down their computer number significantly. They still have UNLV and Colorado State at home, so there are chances for more upsets. But without Luke Martinez, this team's hopes are dwindling. Stay tuned.
Air Force [14-6 (5-2), RPI: 67, SOS: 97] How good is this MWC? Air Force, probably the sixth-best team in the league, has a real chance of getting an at-large tournament bid. The profile is decent but not great, with no bad losses and only one good win, Saturday's upset of San Diego State. The Falcons will have to double and triple down in coming weeks to make this outside shot a reality.
|Teams that should be in: Oregon|
Work left to do: Colorado, UCLA, Arizona State, Stanford
Say this for the Pac-12: It is definitely better than last season. That could be damnation by faint praise -- last season's Pac-12 was historically, almost laughably bad -- but in this case it isn't: The whole league really is better. That starts at the top. Arizona is a legitimate top-10 outfit that, while flawed, could still keep improving its young frontcourt, keep getting better as the season goes along, and maybe even make a run at the national title.
Oregon [18-4 (7-2), RPI: 26, SOS: 98] The Ducks have suffered from the injury of freshman point Dominic Artis, losing their last two road games at Cal and Stanford. Even so, Oregon is in good at-large shape thanks to a nonconference win at UNLV and conference wins at UCLA and Arizona, a mid-January stretch that established Dana Altman's team as a real contender in the 2013 Pac-12. The SOS numbers are a little shaky (the noncon SOS is 259) but other than that, it's a totally worthy profile. Barring collapse, the Ducks will be in.
Colorado [14-7 (4-5), RPI: 25, SOS: 18] You've got to feel for the Buffs, because one of their top-50 losses -- a 92-83 loss at Arizona Jan. 3 -- really should have been a win. (In case you have no idea what I'm talking about, which is unlikely, Google "Sabatino Chen Arizona.") Were that win on the books, Colorado's tidy computer numbers would probably put it over the top. As it is, the Buffs are 2-6 on the road (with a loss at Utah to boot) and have just two top-50 wins, over Baylor and Colorado State. Big stretch at Oregon, at Oregon State and home against Arizona -- grudge match! -- to come.
UCLA [16-6 (6-3), RPI: 45, SOS: 29] One of the more polarizing teams of the season to date, UCLA has often been confounding, and its profile shows it. The same team that won handily at Arizona also, just six days later, lost at home to USC; the same team that played Georgetown to a five-point loss in Madison Square Garden also, just six days later, lost at home to Cal Poly. Those bad losses call the rest of the résumé into question, though a low-40s RPI with good-to-average SOS numbers and a 3-3 record against the RPI top 50 is enough to get you into the tournament at the end of the day. But it's not yet the end of the day; UCLA has to keep getting better.
Arizona State [17-5 (6-3), RPI: 61, SOS: 108] The Sun Devils were atrocious a year ago, but the long-delayed eligibility of talented partial qualifier Jahii Carson has had the exact effect Herb Sendek predicted: Arizona State is vastly improved. That said, they're still a fringe bubble team. Home wins over UCLA and Colorado are nice but not résumé-makers, the computer numbers aren't favorable, and that 78-61 home loss to DePaul could come back to bite them. Much more work to be done here.
Stanford [14-8 (5-4), RPI: 65, SOS: 61] If Arizona State is a fringe bubble team, Stanford is whatever comes outside of that fringe. (High-orbit? Choose your own metaphorical adventure.) The Cardinal are 4-6 away from home and just 1-6 against the RPI top 50 with not much in the way of computer support. The recent win over Oregon got them on this page, but there's still work to do -- and lots of it.
|Work left to do: Missouri, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Alabama|
Don't overreact too much to Florida's loss at Arkansas Tuesday night. Sure, it wasn't the most promising sign to see the Gators down 31-13 to a mediocre Arkansas team in the first half, and the final result wasn't much better. But the Gators are still the class of the SEC, and still a No. 2 seed at this point.
Missouri [16-5 (5-3), RPI: 35, SOS: 66] The good news for the Tigers? That Jan. 30 loss at LSU wasn't the total profile-destroyer it might otherwise seem; the (purple and gold) Tigers are ranked just outside the RPI top 100. Still, this defense-averse team appears to be trending in the wrong direction, and it still needs to improve a résumé that lacks a truly marquee win. Oh, and is there going to be a road win this season? Like, at least one?
Kentucky [16-6 (7-2), RPI: 44, SOS: 68] Even two weeks ago, it remained an entirely open question whether the defending national champions were going to make this year's NCAA tournament. Last week's win at Ole Miss, followed by a close road win at Texas A&M, has helped quash some of those concerns. The Wildcats appear to be coming together, and Nerlens Noel is living up to his billing as one of the best interior defenders in the game. That said, there is still plenty of meat on this bone: The win in Oxford is UK's only top-50 victory, and 11 of UK's wins have come against teams ranked outside the top 150. The chief concern here is the avoidance of ugly losses, but a split with Florida down the stretch would be nice, too.
Ole Miss [17-4 (6-2), RPI: 48, SOS: 127] For all of the buzz hyperactive guard Marshall Henderson has generated this season -- much of it in .GIF form -- the Rebels are by no means a guarantee to go to the NCAA tournament. They've yet to suffer a bad loss (Indiana State definitely doesn't count, nor does at Middle Tennessee) but the combination of a weak nonconference schedule and a bad SEC has left them with one top-50 victory and some ugly computer figures. If the tournament was seeded today, they'd be in, but the margin for error the rest of the way probably isn't as great as you might think.
Alabama [14-7 (6-2), RPI: 62, SOS: 50] Of the SEC's potential tournament at-larges, Alabama's resume is by far the shakiest. The Crimson Tide have one top-50 win (Kentucky), losses to Dayton, Mercer and Tulane, and not a whole lot else. Another bad loss or two and this dream may be over rather quickly. But 6-4 against the top 100 is enough to keep them on for now.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Work left to do: Belmont, Middle Tennessee, BYU, Memphis, Saint Mary's|
The "Others" category is where we take all the teams not in the Big Six, MWC or A-10, throw them into a big bubble jumble and make them fight for their survival. Every week, depending on their strategies, they can vote other teams off in what we call a "tribal council," and ? OK, OK, I was just reciting the rules of "Survivor." This late into Bubble Watch, I tend to get a teensy bit loopy. What you need to know is this: Creighton and Gonzaga are both absolute locks to make the NCAA tournament, as no manner of late-season collapse (which isn't going to happen anyway) could keep them from it by this point. They are not only among the best mid-majors in the country, but among the nation's best teams, full stop.
Belmont [19-4 (10-0), RPI: 21, SOS: 53] The Bruins are good. Everything we know about them tells us so, whether per-possession metrics, the RPI or the fact that Rick Byrd's program churns out darlings with more yearly regularity than a K-Pop record label. (Hiyo!) Even better, Belmont did its part, going on the road and building a top-five nonconference schedule. The loss at Kansas was really a win, RPI-wise, but at the end of the day the only answer to the totally predictable "who have they beaten?!" question is a good Middle Tennessee team. The Bruins really could have benefited from a game against Creighton in the BracketBusters (and lobbied hard for it, according to the word on the street) but got Ohio instead, which, though a good team, probably won't do much for this profile. The RPI and SOS figures all check out. But what will the committee value most? This is going to be a fascinating story for the next six weeks.
Middle Tennessee [20-4 (12-1), RPI: 33, SOS: 124] MTSU was a good team last year, and was 25-4 until a season-ending loss at suddenly hot Western Kentucky and a first-round Sun Belt tourney upset against Arkansas State kept them from serious at-large consideration. They're back and even better in 2012-13, with one of the 30 best efficiency defenses in the country and an impressive nonconference SOS (No. 16). The problem, as always, is quality wins: MTSU is 1-2 (with a win against Ole Miss) against the top 50 and only 2-3 against the top 100, and they don't play anyone currently ranked higher than 147 in the RPI before the end of the regular season -- which once more ends at Western Kentucky.
BYU [18-6 (8-2), RPI: 42, SOS: 65] BYU's situation is straightforward: The Cougars need big wins. Unfortunately, despite an improved WCC, the chances to get those big wins really still come against Sainst Mary's and Gonzaga. BYU barely lost its chance for a win over the Gaels when Matthew Dellavedova hit an insane, last-second 3 in Provo; the trip to Gonzaga was never close. In an ideal world, the Cougars win out ? including at St. Mary's and home against the Zags. Anything less than that and it's anyone's guess.
Memphis [18-3 (7-0), RPI: 43, SOS: 116] Memphis coach Josh Pastner has openly stated that his annual goal is to have a top-five nonconference strength of schedule, which is good thinking: That way, the Tigers can rack up some quality wins in November and December and have something to fall back on just in case they don't win the C-USA tournament in March. Only this year, it didn't really work out that way: Memphis lost its three best games to Louisville, VCU and Minnesota, and typically reliable programs such as Tennessee, Ohio, Northern Iowa and Harvard all ended up having RPIs lowers than 85. That means Memphis can't afford to slip up in C-USA play often, if at all, and should probably take care of business in two remaining games against Southern Miss.
Saint Mary's [19-4 (8-1), RPI: 60, SOS: 209] How big was that Dellavedova buzzer-beater in Provo? Not only was it arguably the shot of the season to date -- eclipsing the totally brilliant Tyler Haws game-winner that came before it -- but it gave the Gaels their only top-50 win and their lone road win against a top-100 team. When Saint Mary's lost at Northern Iowa in late December, it was seen as no big deal, but now UNI is struggling. Neutral-court losses to Pacific and Georgia Tech aren't helping, and neither is that chubby SOS. This might be asking a lot, but I'd say Saint Mary's needs to get Gonzaga, BYU and Creighton at home to feel really safe about its tournament chances. And you know what they say about two out of three.