College Basketball Bubble Watch
Villanova among the teams that lock up bids as Champ Week continues
Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Wednesday night. RPI and SOS numbers will update in the morning.
For bubble purposes, Champ Week is a bit like the college hoops season writ small. It begins a bit slowly but builds into a crescendo by Thursday, Friday and Saturday, just in time for everyone to sweat out Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Monday and Tuesday were largely quiet days along the cut line, and for the most part we avoided the customary rush of bid thieves that shrink and tighten things for the various schools still clinging to hopes of an at-large bid.
Naturally, Wednesday was a bit more eventful: The early rounds of the Big East, Big 12, Mountain West and Pac-12 tournaments all kicked off, and through Wednesday night we saw only minor tweaks. Villanova and Colorado firmed up their bids by avoiding bad losses. Thanks to Jahii Carson's brilliant 34-point performance, Arizona State notched a thrilling overtime win over Stanford and held fast to the very tail end of the bubble, with a chance to make real waves against UCLA Thursday. And Providence's loss to Cincinnati officially spelled its doom.
Probably the biggest, or at least the most straightforward, bubble task of the night belonged to Boise State, which had a chance to double down on its late-season win over San Diego State in their first Mountain West tourney tilt. Instead, the Broncos -- hampered by a brutal 0-for-12 start from star guard Derrick Marks -- fell short. A win may not have guaranteed Boise's bid, and a loss doesn't guarantee their exclusion, but there's no question they left a major opportunity on the table.
As usual, Thursday, which features nearly 50 games in total, will be a much more eventful day, including more than our fair share of bubble drama. Short of securing an automatic qualifier spot, teams may not be able to repair their entire season's reputation on the final week before the NCAA tournament. But for the score of teams you see below, many of whom are almost indistinguishable from the other, resume-wise, what happens Thursday could be the difference between the Big Dance and the NIT. It's a big day. Stay tuned.
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Temple|
Work left to do: La Salle
Temple [23-8 (11-5), RPI: 37, SOS: 58] I'll award Temple a bump up to should-be-in turf today, not only because it doesn't cost me anything -- the lock moves are the ones I must fully commit to -- but also because despite all the uneven play and insane results and frequent lack of defense and everything else Temple has been this season, we can't take away that neutral-court win over Syracuse. It may not have the luster it did two months ago, but it still has luster, and it's the kind of win (alongside victories over Saint Louis, La Salle and Saturday's win over VCU) that can get the committee to happily overlook the fact that you lost to Duquesne at home. Which happened. That's a real thing. I'm just not sure it will matter much anymore.
La Salle [21-8 (11-5), RPI: 38, SOS: 86] For almost a month now, I've considered La Salle to be a relatively safe eventual bubble pick, meaning while the Explorers haven't done anything to warrant a lock or even should-be-in spot, I sort of casually figured their at-large profile would be good enough when all was said and done. It's easy for those sorts of impressions to take hold, but it's always worth it to reevaluate, and under that sort of scrutiny you can see why the Explorers aren't yet totally safe: Fully 16 of their 21 wins came against teams ranked outside the RPI top 100. That's not La Salle's fault; that's the cost of doing business in the back half of the Atlantic 10. But it's why, despite all of the seeming solidity, the Explorers are still at serious risk of falling out of the bracket entirely. (Of course, that home loss to Central Connecticut State back on Nov. 18 doesn't help. Talk about the gift that keeps on giving, oy.)
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Work left to do: Virginia, Maryland|
Virginia [21-10 (11-7), RPI: 66, SOS: 132] If any Virginia fans were celebrating after Sunday night's win over Maryland, they might want to pull back just a bit. The Cavaliers still have a really depressing fact of bubble life working against them: too many bad losses. As ESPN Stats and Info's Ryan Feldman wrote on our blog this week, UVa has seven losses to teams ranked outside the RPI top 100 (ranging from 118 to 317). In the past 20 seasons, no team with that many bad losses has received an at-large bid to the tournament. And in fact, only three teams -- 2011 USC, 2005 Saint Mary's and 2004 Washington -- have gotten a bid with more than four such "bad" losses. Also working against Virginia? Nonconference schedule. This is nothing new, of course, but the selection committee has long since put the word out that bad noncon schedules will be judged harshly come March; it's the type of quality that has kept more than a few otherwise (apparently) deserving teams out in recent seasons. Virginia's nonconference schedule strength -- No. 299 -- is very much in that group. Of course, the Cavs also won at Wisconsin and beat Duke, UNC and NC State at home, and had players missing for some of those ugly losses early in the year. But even so, while Virginia remains alive, it may be more difficult than anyone thinks for the Cavs to actually seal that bid come Selection Sunday.
Maryland [20-11 (8-10), RPI: 82, SOS: 118] Maryland, on the other hand, is just about totally cooked. The Terps had a chance to keep pace with the rest of the bubble at UVa Sunday, but they let it slip away, and with the exception of their home wins over NC State and Duke, the only other top-100 wins this team has came against Stony Brook and Boston College. Just look at the Terps' chintzy collection of 16 sub-150 wins; they simply HAVE to schedule better in the years to come.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Oklahoma|
Work left to do: Iowa State, Baylor
Oklahoma [20-10 (11-7), RPI: 35, SOS: 16] So here's the one thing you really don't want to do if you're even remotely close to the NCAA tournament bubble on March 9: Lose at TCU. Oklahoma's resume is otherwise staid and unspectacular, but adding a loss to the 226th-ranked RPI squad is not a good look this time of year. The Sooners should be OK -- and the fact that they play Iowa State in the first round of the Big 12 tournament is nice, because that really wouldn't be a bad loss -- but their prospects are obviously less assured now.
Iowa State [21-10 (11-7), RPI: 47, SOS: 57] Bubble teams have different mandates at different times. This weekend, Baylor's was "get a big win at home." Iowa State's was the exact opposite: Avoid an ugly loss on the road. The Cyclones came through at West Virginia, which is always a tricky place to play, and their reward is a spot just above the dire cut line, with Oklahoma lined up on the first-round Big 12 tournament schedule. Plus, if the committee can roll back footage of Iowa State's two games against Kansas, I find it hard to believe it couldn't at least grant some partial credit. The Cyclones are in pretty solid shape here.
Baylor [18-13 (9-9), RPI: 62, SOS: 18] Hello Baylor! Where have you been, like, all season? The Bears, as you may have heard, beat Kansas this weekend. But that's only 10 percent of the story; Baylor absolutely stomped Kansas this weekend, 81-58. Weird, right? I know. This is the same team that lost at Texas last Monday, had lost five of its past six and had fallen to basically everyone of note in the Big 12 to date. And all of a sudden they whoop the Jayhawks? Eh? Anyway, the upshot is probably not quite as positive as some Baylor fans might be hoping: The damage the Bears did to this résumé in the past few months can't be erased overnight, and their three sub-100 RPI losses and 3-10 mark against the top 50 might yet keep them out of the tournament. A neutral-court victory over Oklahoma State Thursday would be just what the doctor ordered.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Minnesota, Illinois|
Work left to do: Iowa
Minnesota [20-11 (8-10), RPI: 24, SOS: 2] Minnesota is hilarious. I think that's the best, sanest approach to understanding these Gophers, particularly for their fans -- they're just messing around with everyone at this point. I'm not sure how else you explain one team's ability to beat Indiana on its own floor, and then lose back-to-back games to Nebraska and Purdue in the matter of 10 days. What's even funnier is that Minnesota is still in better shape than most of the teams on this page. It's like the Gophers experienced what it was like to basically have the tournament thing sewn up in January, and decided to just take the rest of the season off. Or maybe they're just trying to increase my workload. Whatever the case, their first Big Ten tournament game is against Illinois, so the bad loss risk is relatively minimized. Odds are the Gophers will back their way into this thing. But it's not like they've been convincing in doing so.
Illinois [21-11 (8-10), RPI: 41, SOS: 9] For my purposes, Illinois is Minny Lite: The Illini likewise doing their best to prevent us from fully locking them in to the tournament, the only difference being their defeats are much more forgivable. Losing three of your past four is fine when the losses come at Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State. With those back-to-back Indiana and Minnesota wins in early February, John Groce's team got into really strong position. But the coup de grace remains that true road win at Gonzaga. They're not a lock, but they're not going to miss out.
Iowa [20-11 (9-9), RPI: 76, SOS: 125] Iowa really isn't that far out of this thing: The Hawkeyes were among Joe Lunardi's next four out Monday, ahead of Arizona State and below Alabama, and that looks about right to me. As I've written before in this space, Iowa is drastically underrated by its 72 RPI; adjusted efficiency tells us this is one of the 30 or so best teams in the country. And usually 9-9 in the Big Ten is enough to get you a very serious look. The problem is, the Hawkeyes scheduled so badly in the nonconference -- noncon SOS: 305 -- that they won't receive any benefit of the doubt from the committee. But if they can knock off Michigan State in the second round of the Big Ten tournament? You never know.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Work left to do: Boise State|
Boise State [21-10 (9-7), RPI: 44, SOS: 61] Talk about a missed opportunity. Boise began the game as cold as possible, mostly because lead guard Derrick Marks suffered an off night against a particularly stifling defensive team; Marks went 0-for-9 in the first half and rattled off 12 straight misses before he finally found some production in the second half. It was right around that time that San Diego State started doing everything in its power -- mostly in the form of some just downright inexplicable turnovers -- to let Boise back in the game. That?s exactly what happened: BSU got a few easy fast break buckets, started knocking down a few shots, and even took a second-half lead, before Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley calmed things down and pulled away in the two-and-a-half minutes. So, where does Wednesday night?s loss leave the Broncos? About where they were before. From a sheer resume standpoint, it?s hard to imagine the committee punishing Boise for losing to a good SDSU team on a neutral court, particularly on an obviously off night. The loss adds another top-30s-ish defeat to the ledger, leaving Boise just 4-7 against the top 50. The good news is the Broncos still have that nonconference road win over Creighton as the ace up their sleeves, as well as a top-40 RPI figure and three other quality conference wins (UNLV, Colorado State, SDSU, all at home). But they?re also 100 percent on the bubble, a No. 11 seed at the absolute best, and not only did they not show their best in Vegas, they now have to sit around and wait while their SEC bubble competition hashes things out in the days to come. It?s hardly an enviable position.
|Teams that should be in: Oregon|
Work left to do: Arizona State
We're moving Colorado into the lock field Wednesday night. It's not because CU's six-point first-round win over Oregon State was especially impressive, because, you know, it's Oregon State. But by avoiding that bad loss, the Buffaloes have advanced to a second-round matchup with Arizona, which is a no-lose proposition. If the Buffs win, they're obviously in. If they lose, well, so what? It's a loss to Arizona, which would be a No. 4 seed (or so) in the bracket were we to seed the field today. So the Buffaloes -- who are in great shape RPI and schedule-wise, more on which below -- move up. Meanwhile, Cal joins them. The Bears do still have a potential bad loss on the horizon, but their resume is good enough already that said loss couldn't possibly drop them out of the tournament, considering the number of less-well-apportioned squads below them on the S-Curve. Which leaves just two Pac-12 teams to settle.
Oregon [23-8 (12-6), RPI: 53, SOS: 127] If we're making Colorado and California locks, we have to do the same for Oregon too, right? I thought so at first, too. But when you dig into Oregon's profile even a little bit, you're reminded that the Ducks do still have the ever-frightening built-in selection committee excuse that most frequently results in the surprising exclusion of otherwise deserving teams on the ledger: a brutal nonconference schedule. Oregon's 261st-ranked nonconference slate shouldn't be a deciding factor, not for this obviously solid squad. But this team hasn't been all that good down the stretch (even a loss to Utah) and was swept by both Colorado and Cal. A loss to either Washington or Washington State on Thursday would add a bad loss to the profile, and that prospect prevents us from feeling totally safe about locking the Ducks in just yet. They'll get in, but we err on the side of safety here.
Arizona State [21-11 (9-9), RPI: 81, SOS: 122] The Sun Devils are still alive, and thus still on this page, but only barely. Wednesday's 89-88 Pac-12 tournament win over Stanford was absolutely thrilling, and featured a brilliant 34-point performance (on 22 shots) from freshman point guard Jahii Carson, and it was an unqualified success if only because it allowed Herb Sendek's team to fight another day. But a win over Stanford doesn't carry much in the way of bubble cachet (Stanford's almost nonexistent NCAA tournament profile is disproportionately less impressive than its actual on-court performance, unfortunately), and Arizona State will still carry that prohibitively high RPI and downright ugly No. 284-ranked nonconference strength of schedule. (Plus, those bad losses to DePaul and Utah aren't going to go away.) Fortunately, ASU's win gave them the opportunity to do it again Thursday, this time against a surefire tournament team in UCLA. A win there would move the Sun Devils closer to the right side of the bubble, if not totally in the tournament. A loss would almost certainly end their season.
|Work left to do: Kentucky, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Alabama, Arkansas|
Missouri's a lock, even after a loss. I know that seems counterintuitive, particularly because the Tigers are just 2-8 (with those two wins coming at Mississippi State and South Carolina) in true road games this season; doesn't the committee like to see teams capable of playing on the road? Well, sure, and that is the biggest flaw on the Tigers' résumé. But it isn't one big enough to outweigh the rest of the relative strengths, not least of which is neutral-court wins over Illinois and VCU, not to mention a top-30 RPI and solid schedule figures. It'd have been nice to see Missouri take its show on the road more convincingly in SEC play, but the Tigers' inability to do so isn't going to come close to costing them a bid.
Kentucky [21-10 (12-6), RPI: 50, SOS: 65] After Saturday's win over Florida, John Calipari said he told his team it had to either drown or learn to swim -- there was also a metaphor about a life raft involved in there somewhere; all I know is it was far less tortured than my bit about the castle -- and it's safe to say the Wildcats landed on the latter option. So they're in, right? Not exactly. For one, a win over Florida isn't quite the season-changer it used to be. For another, the rest of Kentucky's resume contains just one other "good win" -- at home against Missouri -- a bad loss at Georgia suffered just last week and a whole mess of mediocrity otherwise. As of right now, I'd wager the Cats are just on the right side of the bubble. But only barely -- they're not safe. And either Arkansas or Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament could be full of bad-loss potential.
Tennessee [19-11 (11-7), RPI: 55, SOS: 34] On Sunday night, Tennessee was our own esteemed Bracketologist's first team out of the field. Kentucky was his second-to-last team in (with Virginia taking up the rear). I am loathe to disagree with Joey Brackets about anything, least of all the whims of the selection committee, but wouldn't you rather have Tennessee's resume? Yes, the Vols were swept by Georgia, but they also beat Wichita State, Florida, Missouri and Kentucky, the latter of which came by a margin of 30 points. They're 4-4 against the top 50, 9-9 against the top 100, and with better schedule figures than UK both overall and out of conference. This is all really mediocre stuff -- it's like saying one piece of fruit is less bruised than the other -- but if you have to take at least one of those pieces of fruit home, why would you take Kentucky over UT? In any case, the only thing the Vols should be worried about is making sure they don't lose to either South Carolina or Mississippi State when whoever wins shows up on the second day of the SEC tournament. A loss in that one equals NIT. Period.
Ole Miss [23-8 (12-6), RPI: 56, SOS: 148] Likewise, about the only argument you can make for Ole Miss over Tennessee (never mind Kentucky) is the Rebels' sweep of the Vols; otherwise, this profile is really weak. There's just one top-50 win -- over Missouri -- and Ole Miss got spanked in the rematch in Columbia; plus, there is that No. 150 schedule and No. 286 nonconference mark. It's tougher to schedule at Ole Miss in the nonconference than a lot of other high-major programs, but still -- that last number is a huge drag here.
Alabama [20-11 (12-6), RPI: 61, SOS: 89] By avoiding a home loss to Georgia Saturday, Alabama didn't do much to move up the cut line, but it did accomplish one thing: It continued to wield quite possibly the most yawn-inducing NCAA tournament résumé in the country. A home win over Kentucky, losses to Dayton, Mercer, Tulane and Auburn, and nothing much in between. It's just ... blah.
Arkansas [19-12 (10-8), RPI: 74, SOS: 78] The Razorbacks' 30-point loss at Missouri last week probably did them in, but if the committee really sticks to its no-margin-of-victory dogma, Arkansas at least deserves a look for its wins over Oklahoma, Florida, Missouri and Kentucky. Remember: I said "a look." Maybe a glance would be appropriate.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Work left to do: Middle Tennessee, Saint Mary's|
Memphis is always going to have its doubters this season, and not unreasonably so; despite a perfect C-USA season, Memphis has still yet to beat anyone better than Southern Miss. But the Tigers did beat Southern Miss twice, and everyone else in the C-USA a bunch, too, and at the end of the day the RPI is what the committee uses to help it figure out just how good a bunch of wins over a league like the 2013 C-USA is. Under that metric, Memphis didn't just go 16-0 in its league, it went 11-4 against the RPI top 100 and ended up with a top-20 RPI. The doubters -- or haters, which I prefer to spell with five z's ("haterzzzz") -- may not believe, but they wouldn't until the Tigers won a game in the tournament anyway. They have officially ensured that opportunity. Meanwhile, we wave a fond farewell to two of our favorite longtime Bubble Watch others: Louisiana Tech and Akron. The Bulldogs lost their final two regular season games, which was all it took to boot their already suspect profile out of consideration. The Zips lost two of their past three, and were forced to suspend starting point guard Alex Abreu after Abreu was charged with allegedly trafficking and possessing marijuana. And you thought losing a couple of games down the stretch after an otherwise brilliant season was the worst way to lose your at-large bid chance. It can always be worse. Oh, and a quick note on Wichita State: Had the Shockers lost before the Missouri Valley final Sunday, I would have taken them out of locks, much as I did with Creighton a few weeks back. But that didn't happen; Gregg Marshall's team fell to the Bluejays in the final, and while Wichita State is closer to the bubble than we previously assumed, I don't think the Shockers are close enough to be at real risk of missing out. So that's that. All of which leaves us with just three Others left to figure out:
Middle Tennessee [28-5 (19-1), RPI: 29, SOS: 135] As I mentioned in the introduction, after its loss to FIU (Richard Pitino strikes!) in the semifinals of the Sun Belt conference tournament Sunday, Middle Tennessee now becomes one of the most interesting bubble cases in recent memory. On the one hand, MTSU is obviously a good basketball team. You can watch them play -- YouTube is a wonderful thing -- or you can delve into their efficiency statistics; as of this writing, Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency ranks hold Middle up as the 31st-best team in the country. The Blue Raiders went 19-1 in their league, which is admittedly a very bad league, but still -- 19-1. And they pushed themselves, Long Beach State-style, in their scheduling, ending up with a top-10 nonconference SOS and a top 25 RPI for their troubles. Oh, also, one more thing: It would be a real bummer to see this team miss the tournament for the second year in a row. It deserves to go, and conference tournament automatic qualifiers are profoundly stupid. (Why the Sun Belt would prefer to send the winner of a weekend-long crapshoot as opposed to its 19-1 regular-season champ, I'll never know.) But the unfortunate "having said that" part of all this is as follows: Middle has beaten zero top-50 opponents and just two teams in the top 100. All of their other 26 wins came against teams ranked outside the top 100. Yes, you read that right: Of Middle Tennessee's 28 wins, 26 came against teams ranked below the RPI top 100. I utterly loathe the chorus of "who have they beaten, they'd be the 10th-worst team in BCS Conference X herp derp" bleating that comes from fans of high-major bubble schools this time of year. It's gross. But if a Kentucky fan were to ask that about Middle Tennessee, could you really form a cohesive defense? A 3-point home win over Ole Miss is your best shot, and I have no idea whether that will be enough to convince the committee.
Saint Mary's [27-6 (14-2), RPI: 33, SOS: 105] The Gaels had a shot to make this thing academic -- and serve as a possible, if not probable, automatic bid thief -- Monday night in the WCC final against hated rival Gonzaga. Instead, as they have all season, the Bulldogs rolled, winning 65-51. What does that mean for Saint Mary's? Not a whole lot, honestly. The Gaels still have just one top-50 win -- at home over Creighton -- and their only other top-50 opportunities were the three games they lost to the Zags (by a combined 36 points). Fortunately Matthew Dellevadova's buzzer-beater at BYU fell, because a sweep over BYU is probably the most complimentary part of this resume, and it almost didn't happen. And now the Gaels will be forced to sweat out the rest of the week, hoping the bubble doesn't tighten, and their high-major counterparts on the No. 11 and No. 12 lines don't do a bunch of damage in the conference tournaments this weekend.