College Basketball Bubble Watch
Where will the bid thieves come from?
In this week's Bubble Watch video, we warned fans of bubble teams everywhere to beware the bid thieves. This is one of those general, evergreen pieces of bubble counsel -- something even we forget, every season, right up to the point that the first wave of conference tournaments reminds us. Oh yeah. The bubble is going to shrink.
The bubble always shrinks. It's not really a question of if. The better question -- especially this season -- is where: Where, exactly, will the bid thieves come from?
What makes the 2014-15 season different? Loyal Bubble Watchers will note that this season's "others" (read: mid-majors) category has been startlingly thin all winter. (Outside of Wichita State and Northern Iowa in the Missouri Valley, and Gonzaga -- and BYU -- in the West Coast Conference, naturally.) It's not we haven't tried; every week, we scour the sport's mid-major leagues looking for fresh résumés worthy of consideration. And it's not that there aren't good mid-major teams out there. Sure, conference consolidation has gobbled up many of the perennial "others" favorites (Butler, VCU, Davidson, etc.), but there are plenty of good teams still plying their trades in mid-major leagues. Murray State. Buffalo. Stephen F. Austin. Louisiana Tech. Harvard. Green Bay. We're probably missing a few.
The problem is that none of these teams have worthy NCAA tournament résumés. All of them need to win their conference's automatic bid to get in. A so-so mid-major league with one great team is the would-be bid thief's path of least resistance. This season, those paths don't exist. If Murray State loses in the Ohio Valley final, its conqueror won't steal a bubble team's bid. It will take Murray State's.
This means the bid thieves will have to come from high-major leagues. There, the chances are far more dim. Think about it: If you're, oh, Kansas State, to steal a bid you have to beat at least three of the Big 12's best on consecutive nights. That's insanely hard. It happens, but it's rare.
To pre-cog 2015's bid burglars before they commit their vile deeds, the best bet seems to be the sort-of-but-not-really-high-major conferences -- the tweener leagues. UConn is playing the American tournament in Hartford, Connecticut. There's one suspect. Saint Mary's in the West Coast Conference. Wyoming in the Mountain West. Richmond or Rhode Island in the Atlantic 10. All conceivable. All of which could steal a bid from a team that has been on the bubble since January.
Of course, any such predictions are folly. And not just because college basketball is kind of crazy. Predictability is antithetical to the bid thief's nature. That's how they get to be thieves in the first place. If they seemed tournament-worthy already, they wouldn't be thieves.
So, no, no one really knows how much the bubble will shrink these next few weeks. One bid? Three? Five? We only know that it will -- and, when it does, a tiny mid-major won't be to blame.
Did we miss a team? Include the unworthy? Want to stump for your favored mid-major? Send your feedback, suggestions and hilarious jokes to me on Twitter @eamonnbrennan
Note: All RPI data via ESPN RPI is updated through March 5.
|American Athletic Conference|
|Work left to do: Temple, Cincinnati, Tulsa|
Here's the thing about UConn, which Huskies fans kept asking us about right up until Ryan Boatright's wayward, last-ditch attempt in Thursday night's 54-53 home loss to Memphis: The Huskies are actually pretty close to being a bubble team, just not in the conventional sense. Conventionally, would-be bubble teams have an attainable path to consideration. UConn hasn't been there in a while. But if the Huskies hadn't lost to Texas on a buzzer-beater, and hadn't gone to OT against Temple, they wouldn't be so far off. Shaq Goodwin's shot Thursday night was merely a reminder of how many close games this team has dropped, and how easily things could be different.
Temple [21-9 (12-5), RPI: 35, SOS: 72] We still don't have a whole lot else to add about Temple. Since Feb. 22's dire 39-point outing at Tulsa, Temple has handled Houston and East Carolina, about which the less said, the better. Thanks to elite defense -- like, top-10 in-overall-adjusted-efficiency-level elite defense -- the Owls have posted some of the most promising non-SMU efficiency margins in their league, and they've looked their best throughout conference play, as Fran Dunphy's rotation has gotten whole. But the lack of quality wins (apart from that huge 25-point blowout of Kansas, of course) made this a somewhat bottom-heavy resume. Fourteen of Temple's 21 victories have come against teams ranked outside the RPI top 150. That KU win may end up being the difference between a double-digit seed that is nonetheless safely in the field and a trip to Dayton, or even worse. The lesson, as always: Every game matters.
Cincinnati [21-9 (12-5), RPI: 38, SOS: 57] Wednesday night's win at Tulsa wasn't the most impressive feat of Cincinnati's season. That distinction goes to the Bearcats' regular-season sweep of American standard-bearer SMU. Still, the win was nice in that it helped depress the stock of a would-be bubble competitor and kept the Bearcats just slightly above the bubble fray. They're not safe, though. A loss to Memphis on Sunday and an early tournament exit would at least put them at risk, especially if the handful of teams behind them improve their standing in the coming weeks. For now, though, things are good.
Tulsa [21-8 (14-3), RPI: 47, SOS: 110] The Golden Hurricane's home loss against Cincinnati left this team and its thoroughly middling resume about where it started the week, which is on the bubble. Or, more precisely, on the wrong side of the bubble. It's not like Tulsa is so far off as to be out of contention, and if the field were seeded today, maybe they'd win the coin flip of a 50-50 committee argument. Hey, maybe! The biggest problem is also the biggest solution: Tulsa's last chance to impress before the conference tournament comes Sunday at SMU. That is a low-odds chance, but at least it's a chance.
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Work left to do: Davidson, Richmond|
The Atlantic-10 remains as fluid and fascinating as any league in the country. Six weeks ago, VCU looked like a monolith. Since Briante Weber's career-ending injury on Jan. 31, the Rams have lost six of their past 10 -- including being swept by metro rival Richmond -- and have fallen to 11-6 in conference play, behind not only Dayton and Davidson, but Rhode Island. All while making us sweat about our already-conservative lock decision at least twice. Speaking of Richmond, the Spiders have wrested their way back into the bubble picture after weeks on the sidelines. Rhode Island, despite falling off the bubble this week, is still in third place at 12-5 and still gleefully overachieving. And finally, how about those Flyers? Somehow, Archie Miller turned a literally short-handed roster -- Dayton has no rotation player taller than 6-foot-6 -- into the league's most reliable inside-the-arc scorers. Winners of six of their past seven, including a Feb. 28 win at VCU and Tuesday's victory versus Rhode Island, the Flyers have now done enough to seal their lock. They may not have the most impressive résumé you'll see, and that Feb. 21 loss at Duquesne still stings. But they'll get in, A-10 tourney title or not.
Davidson [22-6 (13-4), RPI: 30, SOS: 121] On Jan. 31, Davidson lost at 9-11 St. Joe's. On Feb. 4, it fell at home on a last-second shot to 12-8 St. Bonaventure. The Bubble Watch was just getting started, and the Wildcats looked miles away from mattering. Look what they've done since: eight straight wins. Big efficiency margins. Vastly improved defense. Borderline unguardable offense. On Thursday night came the punctuation mark, an 82-55 thrashing of VCU that put Bob McKillop's team into a first-place, 13-4 tie with Dayton. Anyone who watched Davidson do more than hang with Virginia in Charlottesville back in late December knew this team had a special offensive group. But few could have seen this run coming. Don't get it twisted: The Wildcats are still hampered by a weak nonconference schedule and a lack of quality wins therein. This is still a full-fledged bubble team, and it may well be until Selection Sunday. But how many bubble teams would you argue for in place of Davidson? Maybe a couple? It's on the right track, and that's a massive understatement.
Richmond [18-12 (11-6), RPI: 54, SOS: 30] Richmond is a long shot. Let's make that clear. Richmond is not so much of a long shot, however, that it can be discounted from this space entirely. Indeed, in five straight wins -- highlighted by last week's second win over VCU -- the Spiders have salvaged their long-lost at-large hopes to the point that a Saturday win over Saint Louis and a strong showing in the A-10 tourney might well put them in the picture. OK, make that a "very strong" showing. Like a "lose in the final to a good team on a buzzer-beater" kind of strong showing. Still, Chris Mooney's team isn't out of it yet.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Teams that should be in: NC State|
Work left to do: Miami (FL)
At least Pittsburgh made it easy on us. Earlier this week, we saw the Panthers hanging around in more than a handful of brackets, including Joe Lunardi's, and while we agree with Joe the vast majority of the time -- he is the Bracketfather, after all -- we just couldn't get on board. A team with Pittsburgh's lack of top-100 wins? One capable of such a disastrous finish as what occurred in a loss at Wake Forest? There was simply no case to make, even relative to the other so-so teams on the bubble ... or was there? Were we missing something? Maybe, but it doesn't matter now. Pitt followed up Sunday's loss at Wake with Wednesday's home defeat to Miami, which kept the Hurricanes alive (if barely) and officially snuffed out Pittsburgh's hopes.
NC State [18-12 (9-8), RPI: 45, SOS: 6] A Feb. 28 road loss at Boston College took a little of the shine off of what had been a season-affirming stretch of Wolfpack basketball: three games in 10 days, during which Mark Gottfried's team knocked off Louisville and North Carolina on the road. Meanwhile, Boise State's surge toward the postseason made NC State's Nov. 28 win over the Broncos look like a quality victory, adding a fourth top-50 win to a category that already includes the words "Duke," "Louisville," and "North Carolina." (Oh, and look out for Richmond, too. A fifth may be on the way.) Despite those wins, the BC loss was worrisome, not only because it added an ugly loss to the bottom of the profile, but because it dropped the Pack to .500 in ACC play. After Tuesday's ugly but effective win at Clemson (whose starters combined to shoot 11-of-46 from the field; yuck), the Wolfpack are guaranteed at least a .500 ACC record no matter what happens in Saturday's regular-season closer against Syracuse. Throw in those elite schedule numbers, and a win locks them in. They're very close already.
Miami (FL) [19-11 (9-8), RPI: 64, SOS: 61] The Hurricanes are still alive. Wednesday's 67-63 win at Pitt was impressive in its own right, considering how hard it is to win with the Oakland Zoo in your proverbial grill. For us, though, it did more to invalidate Pittsburgh's case, and reinforce the portrait of a team that just wasn't very good this season, than it buttressed Miami's. Had the Hurricanes handled their business weeks before (as in their close call at Louisville, or their bad loss at Wake Forest, or when they dropped back-to-back games to Georgia Tech and Florida State), Wednesday's win could have been a clincher. This resume remains difficult to enthusiastically defend. Most troubling is the Hurricanes' RPI. Normally, the raw RPI figure doesn't warrant a mention. But when your profile basically boils down to a win at Duke and little else, having a mid-60s RPI number that flirts with the imaginary high-60s historical cutoff is less than promising. A loss at Virginia Tech on Saturday would end the debate; a win will keep Jim Larranaga's team in the hunt for a big win or two in the ACC tournament next week. We'll see.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Oklahoma St|
Work left to do: Texas
Maybe we're just losing our mind, which is always possible in the first week of March, but we're almost as excited for Kansas State's trip to Texas as we are for any other game -- including Duke-North Carolina! -- on the Saturday schedule. We have no idea what to expect. K-State could continue the form it displayed during last week's back-to-back upsets of Kansas and Iowa State. Bruce Weber and Marcus Foster could ignite the first intra-team brawl since Renardo Sidney's glory days at Mississippi State. Jacob Pullen and Rodney McGruder could emerge from the locker room to challenge Foster to a three-way ladder match, with the winner retaining the rest of Foster's college eligibility. Texas could win two games in a row. Anything is possible.
Oklahoma St [18-11 (8-9), RPI: 42, SOS: 22] Big, big win over TCU on Wednesday. What's that you say? An oxymoron? How dare you. The Horned Frogs may be 4-13 since their retroactively comical 13-0 nonconference start, but one of those four wins came at the Cowboys' expense, 70-55. That was the first in a stretch of four OSU losses, all of which -- home vs. Iowa State and West Virginia, at Texas Tech -- were winnable. Suddenly, the Cowboys' case was looking shaky enough to deserve a status downgrade. Losing to TCU again would have been a complete disaster. Having won, the Cowboys deserve a return to the should be in line. Their sweeps of Baylor and Texas and win over Kansas should keep them in safe enough position that a loss at West Virginia on Saturday probably wouldn't hurt them too much, even if it left them with an 8-10 record in the Big 12. At the very least, Saturday isn't a must-win. That's good news, because if you find yourself playing a must-win game on the final weekend of the regular season in Morgantown, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.
Texas [18-12 (7-10), RPI: 39, SOS: 9] Hey, it's a start. After "wow, great game" and "man, Myles Turner sure is tall," that was our first reaction to Texas' 61-59 overtime win over Baylor on Monday night: It's a start. That is not the kind of thing you want to be saying about a team on March 6. It's especially not the kind of thing you want to say about a team that has already lost 10 Big 12 games. But it's where the Longhorns have left themselves, and there is no one else to blame. Rick Barnes' team got to this position by somehow plowing through 89 percent of its conference campaign -- in a league with a bunch of really good teams! -- without notching more than one top-50 win. After Monday, it has two. (And, with Iowa's push into the top 50 this week, three overall. Huzzah!) If Texas can manage to avoid the weird off-and-on hilarity that is Kansas State, it will finish 8-10 in the Big 12 with a 3-11 top-50 record, a 6-12 mark against the top 100, one of the nation's 10-toughest overall schedules, and a puncher's chance of turning what was rapidly becoming a disaster into at least a trip to the First Four. That's all it is, though -- a chance. On Monday night, Texas guard Javan Felix said Barnes described the Baylor win as "[giving] us another breath." There are few better ways to put it than that.
|Big East Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Xavier|
We've got to admit: We did not see St. John's coming. If you'd told us a month ago that we'd be locking up the Red Storm at any point before Selection Sunday, we would have politely informed you that the Bubble Watch doesn't cover the NIT. From Dec. 31 to Feb. 3, the Red Storm went 3-7, lost to DePaul, Creighton and (pre-collapse) Seton Hall, let a home game against Duke slip through their fingers, and generally looked like the kind of talented but disjointed outfit that costs coaches with just one year left on their contracts -- in this case, Steve Lavin -- their jobs. Since then, the Johnnies are 7-1, including a convincing win at Marquette Wednesday that eliminated any and all bad-loss potential from the regular-season schedule. On Saturday, the Red Storm go to Villanova, where a win would be insane and a loss doesn't matter. They've swept Providence and Xavier, beat Georgetown handily on Feb. 28, and are playing their best basketball at the best possible time. Believe it or not, the Johnnies are a lock.
Xavier [18-12 (8-9), RPI: 41, SOS: 15] There's nothing to worry about for the Musketeers. Sure, from one perspective, a Feb. 28 home loss at Villanova was a missed opportunity -- not only a chance to completely lock up their bid but boost their eventual seed ceiling another line or two. And yeah, a loss moved Xavier to 18-12 overall and 8-9 in the Big East, and a sub-.500 record in conference play at the end of the regular season is historically less than ideal from an at-large standpoint. Still, Saturday said more about Villanova (and how incredibly good it is) than anything about the Musketeers. If Chris Mack's team falls at Creighton on Saturday, then we'll have to reconsider. If the Musketeers win, they're (probably) a lock.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Work left to do: Indiana, Illinois, Purdue|
There are plenty of ways for bubble teams to lock up an NCAA tournament bid, but two seem most prevalent. There are drama queens, teams that make late February and early March pushes through grand, sweeping gestures. Either they rattle off a bunch of wins (St. John's) or knock off heavyweights on the road (NC State). Then there are the chuggers. Chuggers don't do anything crazy. They just kind of, well, chug along, picking up more wins than losses, winning and losing at expected intervals, making neither great strides nor great missteps along the way. Both Michigan State and Ohio State, two of today's three Big Ten locks, are of this phylum. The Spartans and Buckeyes are both solid-to-good teams with solid-to-good resumes who could have taken a turn for the worse, or the better, at various points in the past month. Instead, they've quietly and incrementally pieced their bids together. Iowa is more of the former. The Hawkeyes looked very bubbly a month ago, but after five straight wins -- including Tuesday's 14-point drubbing of Indiana in Bloomington -- they sit at 11-6 in the Big Ten with only one game (at home vs. Northwestern) left on the regular-season docket. Whatever the method, the result for all three is a trip to the 2015 NCAA tournament.
Indiana [19-11 (9-8), RPI: 51, SOS: 31] The flip side of Iowa's push into the field was a rapidly deteriorating situation at Indiana. Fortunately for the Hoosiers' NCAA tournament hopes, the off-court noise -- bad attendance and booing fans, athletic director Fred Glass giving coach Tom Crean a robust vote of confidence Thursday -- doesn't factor into the bubble conversation at all. The source of that noise, however, does. The Hoosiers are 4-7 since a big home win against Maryland on Jan. 22, and it never has been as good since. After last week's road loss to Northwestern, the Hoosiers slipped closer to the bubble than at any point all season, but there was still reason to be optimistic: This week would bring two winnable home games against Iowa and Michigan State. If IU plays as it did Tuesday, it will lose to Michigan State at home. That would probably still be enough to get Indiana in, but it would be close. And it would still leave the possibility of an opening-round loss in the Big Ten tournament, which could convince the committee they've seen enough. Would we predict that outcome? No. But at this rate, it's hardly far-fetched.
Illinois [19-11 (9-8), RPI: 58, SOS: 62] The Illini's 86-60 home win over Northwestern on Feb. 28 was a nice way to bounce back from three straight losses, even if it didn't do much to change Illinois' bubble standing. The same goes for Wednesday's 12-point home win over checked-out Nebraska. The real news from Illinois' past week was the return to the starting lineup of guard Rayvonte Rice. After starring for the Illini a season ago -- and by "starring," we mean "doing pretty much everything" -- Rice has missed much of the 2014-15 season thanks to injuries and suspensions. It has taken him until March to earn his way back into John Groce's starting lineup. But now that he has, and is playing exceptionally well in the small sample since, it wouldn't be a shock to see the Illini make a major late push toward the field, a project they'd begun in earnest well before Rice's arrival. If Rice shows well at Purdue on Saturday, and Illinois gets out of Mackey Arena with a win, the committee will have to take Rice's return into account.
Purdue [19-11 (11-6), RPI: 63, SOS: 66] If you have to take losses in March, it helps to look like a tournament team. We wrote as much after Sunday's loss at Ohio State. The same is true of Wednesday's loss at Michigan State. In neither instance did the Boilermakers -- playing two good teams in tough environments on the road -- look like anything but a worthy Big Dance invitee. In the meantime, BYU's win at Gonzaga pushed the Cougars up into the RPI top 50, making Purdue's best nonconference win look even better. Our reminder from after a Feb. 19 win in Bloomington still applies, though: There are no guarantees. Purdue may look drastically different from the team that lost to North Florida and Gardner Webb in December, but those losses don't just go away. Neither does Purdue's sub-200 nonconference schedule, or its too-high-for-comfort RPI number. That all makes Saturday's home game against Illinois really important -- not just for Matt Painter's team to avoid a loss, but to protect its flank from a potential bubble usurper in the process.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Work left to do: Colorado St, Boise State|
Breathe deep, Aztecs fans: San Diego State is now a lock. We've had the Aztecs on the purgatorial should-be-in line longer than any other team this season, which somehow suggests some sins along the way. Not so. San Diego State has been completely solid throughout. After a good-but-not-great nonconference, its only losses in the past month have come to the two other likely tournament teams in its league, and while we were surprised by a 10-point home loss to Boise State on Feb. 28, the Broncos are also trending in the right direction. The real reason for SDSU's extended stay on the Watch is the Mountain West. After a half-decade as the west's best, the 2014-15 MWC brought down years from typically competitive programs like UNLV, New Mexico, even Utah State. Throw in the usual batch of RPI landmines -- like Saturday's Viejas visitors, Nevada (RPI: 300!) -- and the Aztecs' margin for error was far slimmer than in recent seasons. They've managed admirably. And they guard like maniacs. They're getting in.
Colorado St [25-5 (12-5), RPI: 27, SOS: 129] Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the least-update-able team of the 2014-15 Bubble Watch season! (Cue tepid applause.) It's remarkable how little there is to say about the Rams at this point. This team is right on the bubble. This team has been right on the bubble for what? Three months? But because CSU's last five games comprise a who's who of who's bad in the Mountain West, and because Colorado State keeps winning these games that a) it should win and b) don't help its resume, there's very little to report. If that changes, it will be because CSU loses at Utah State Saturday, or drops an early round game in the conference tournament. Both seem unlikely.
Boise State [23-7 (13-4), RPI: 40, SOS: 126] Now that's how you get in the tournament. A Feb. 28 win at San Diego State was a massive accomplishment. (Wednesday's win at pitiable San Jose State, not so much.) It marked the first home loss for San Diego State in 29 games, a product not just of the Aztecs' excellence but of the intense fandom that excellence has inspired. Boise State had never been all that impressed; in their previous three tries at Viejas Arena, Boise lost by one, two, and three points, respectively. Maybe we should have seen it coming. In any case, the win may well have lifted Boise State into the tournament bracket for good. It certainly kicked their raw RPI figure up several notches, added a top-25 RPI win on the road, put them at .500 against the RPI top 50 and 6-4 against the top 100 and -- and this may be the most important part -- was the team's 12th win in its last 13 games. The committee may not consider recent results as one of its official criteria, but there will be more than a handful of committee members who at least take it into account when comparing bubble teams side-by-side. Boise has that, and more, going for it.
|Work left to do: Oregon, UCLA, Stanford|
Oregon's 10-wins-in-12-games burst into the bracket has been a thing to behold, but even with the regular season in the books, the Ducks might not be 100 percent safe just yet. That leaves the Pac-12 in a mostly static place: Two locks. Three bubble teams. One advancing. One sitting still. And one -- hint: Stanford -- falling apart at the worst possible time.
Oregon [23-8 (13-5), RPI: 31, SOS: 67] Although Stanford has flailed and UCLA has just sort of sat there on the bubble refusing to move, Dana Altman has Oregon on the verge of the NCAA tournament. After Wednesday's regular-season finale, a 65-62 win at pesky Oregon State, the Ducks are 10-2 in their past 12 games and 9-1 in their past 10, a stretch that includes home wins over Utah and UCLA and road victories at Cal, Arizona State, Stanford and, as previously mentioned, OSU. The end result is a 22-8 record with one good win (vs. Utah), a couple of bad losses (at Washington and Washington State), a totally respectable 9-6 top-100 record and an air of refined professionalism. Seriously, people: This is how you get in the tournament. Beat the teams you're supposed to beat. Occasionally knock a good team off at home. Oh, and make sure Joseph Young takes a lot of shots. That helps, too.
UCLA [19-12 (11-7), RPI: 52, SOS: 34] UCLA's regular season is now in the books, and we have almost nothing to say about the Bruins that we haven't said five or six times already. This team is on the bubble. It finished its regular season with three home games -- all wins -- against Washington, Washington State, and USC, none of which was going to materially affect that fact that UCLA was, is and will continue to be on the bubble. (Unless it lost, of course. You get the idea.) All that remains to change this team's toss-up odds of a tournament bid is the Pac-12 tournament, where it will have to avoid an early-round loss at the very least. If the Bruins can beat Oregon in the process, that certainly would help. If they can knock off Utah or Arizona, well, then we'll have more to add.
Stanford [18-11 (9-8), RPI: 65, SOS: 74] Almost immediately after Stanford fell 67-62 at Arizona State on Thursday night, Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Eisenberg described the plight of the Cardinal in succinct Twitter form: "Stanford's path to the NCAA tourney after tonight's loss: Beat Arizona in Tucson or beat Arizona in the Pac-12 semis. In other words, NIT." That pretty much sums it up. On Tuesday, we wrote that we felt bad for Stanford because the Cardinal were suffering close, understandable losses while being victimized by a Texas slide that only exacerbated the problem. That's still true. But it's hard to feel too bad for a group that loses back-to-back games to Oregon (at home) and Arizona State (on the road), teams a desperate NCAA tournament hopeful should beat. Instead, Johnny Dawkins' team let both slip, and now the calculus is simple: Either win in Tucson on Saturday or go crazy in the Pac-12 tournament. Gulp.
|Work left to do: Texas A&M, LSU|
So, in the end, this is the true measure of how good Kentucky is: You can lose to the Wildcats at home and become a lock in the process. We kid, of course. Georgia's newly locked-in status has far less to do with its admirably creative approach to a near-upset of UK -- though if the committee was watching the Bulldogs' execution, it certainly didn't hurt -- than with its entire body of work. The Bulldogs don't have a wealth of high-end wins, but two of their three best came on the road, and they're 10-8 against the top 100 with excellent RPI and schedule numbers to back it up. The same is mostly true of Ole Miss, albeit with a better conference record (11-6), a more impressive conference road win (at Arkansas), a suddenly valuable road win at Oregon, and three inexplicable home losses in November and December (Charleston Southern, TCU, Western Kentucky). Either way, both teams are straddling the No. 8/9 seed lines at this late date. For either to miss the tournament, they'd have to drop two straight this weekend and next, and somehow have the dozen-or-so teams between them and the cut line pass them in the next nine days. Not going to happen.
Texas A&M [20-9 (11-6), RPI: 48, SOS: 89] Some bubble teams, like LSU, rack up big wins and bad losses in nearly equal measure. Some just putter forward, beating decent teams, losing to good ones, while holding the line against ugly results. Say hello to Texas A&M. The Aggies are 0-6 against the RPI top 50. Their worst loss came on the road at Alabama. They've won the games they should win and lost the games they should lose and almost never broken from that pattern, including Tuesday night, when they fell 66-62 at Florida. This allergy to wave-making gives critics few weak points to hammer away at. It also offers little for a favorable committee member to highlight if the argument is tight on Selection Sunday. A home win against Alabama on Saturday won't change that. A loss just might.
LSU [21-9 (10-7), RPI: 53, SOS: 94] After a tidy home win over Ole Miss on Feb. 28, it looked as if LSU had left its season of bubble discomfort behind. Perhaps not. The Tigers followed up a couple of weeks of impressive play with an absolute stinker of a home loss vs. Tennessee on Wednesday. It was the kind of loss for which the best explanation is merely that, well, this is how teams end up on the bubble in the first place. The Tigers were capable of beating West Virginia on the road in early December, and of pushing Kentucky to the limit in early February; they were also capable of losing to Missouri, Mississippi State, and Auburn, the worst of what the SEC has to offer. Some bubble teams stay in their mediocre lane; others veer wildly back and forth. LSU is the latter. They could win at Arkansas on Saturday. They could also lose by 30. Provided they follow up with a win, or maybe two, in the SEC tournament, they should remain just a notch ahead of the cut. Emphasis on "should."
|Other at-large contenders|
|Work left to do: BYU, Old Dominion|
Murray State fans have been on a furious get-out-the-tweet campaign of late. Guys, we hear you. Yes, we know the Racers went 16-0 in the Ohio Valley. Yes, we know how good sophomore guard Cameron Payne is. It's just, well, the Racers are 26-4 overall, right? That's a solid record. Except that of those 30 games, just three -- three! -- have come against RPI top 100 opponents. Maybe, if those losses to Houston and Portland never happened, we'd be able to get on board. But we can't, and the committee won't, either. The OVC tourney title is the only way forward.
BYU [23-8 (13-5), RPI: 43, SOS: 80] The Cougars are still on the bubble, and probably rightfully so. One win -- even a win as good as the one BYU got on Feb. 28, when it spoiled Gonzaga's senior night -- does not an entire resume make. That said, if we were on the committee, it would be a personal goal to get BYU in the tournament. For starters, the Cougars are one of the nation's most entertaining teams, with two of the nation's best (and most entertaining offensive players). At the very least, they should be good for an 85-83 game or two on the first weekend. But after the win in Spokane, there is also a very rational case to be made. All of BYU's losses came by single digits. Several came in overtime. This is a function as much of skill (or lack thereof) as luck (or lack thereof). Advanced analytics universally love BYU, and rightfully so -- this is a good team whose resume doesn't quite do it justice. Hopefully, the committee sees past the team sheet. Barring a disaster in the WCC tournament, we think it probably will.
Old Dominion [23-6 (12-5), RPI: 46, SOS: 153] Typically, mid-major teams with at-large potential come with a predictable set of circumstances. Usually, they have a huge win total, buttressed by the total domination of their league, rough schedule numbers, and few, if any, elite wins, thanks to smart high-major teams knowing better than to put them on the schedule. This is how you get the archetypal Billy Packer argument against these teams: They "haven't beaten anybody," the line goes. ODU defies these stereotypes. Occasionally -- as in nonconference wins over VCU, LSU and even Richmond -- this is to the Monarchs' benefit. Other times -- as in their 11-5, third-place C-USA record and their losses to Middle Tennessee, UAB, and UT-San Antonio -- it is to the Monarchs' detriment. By winning their last five, including Feb. 21 over Louisiana Tech (the current C-USA standings leader) Old Dominion has at least kept itself on the very fringe of the bubble picture. A 5-2 record against the top 100 is impressive, as long as you ignore the fact that a team with 22 wins has played just seven top-100 games. With one more regular-season game before the conference tournament, it will be fascinating to see how it plays out.