Commentary

Bubble Watch

Updated: February 11, 2014, 8:33 PM ET
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

It's a new season in the world of Bubble Watch

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

Behold the return of the Bubble Watch! Look upon the Watch's works, ye mighty bubble teams, and despair!

That's right. It's time to officially kick off everyone's favorite part of the college basketball season, when everyone agonizes over every win and loss, when every result feels as if it has a massive impact on your school's season.

Of all the basic misunderstandings about NCAA tournament selection, that's probably the biggest: that results in February necessarily matter more than those that came in November. In recent seasons, the NCAA has definitively proved that to be a canard, and it's important to keep in mind moving forward. In other words: deep breaths.

A few other helpful reminders:

• Locks are genuinely reserved for teams that have absolutely zero chance of missing the NCAA tournament. It's a little conservative sometimes, but that's probably for the best. The "should be in" category exists for a reason, you know?

• RPI is far from the only criteria that matters. In some cases, teams with good RPIs fail to make the tournament in favor of teams with more questionable numbers, but fuller résumés. Everything is of a piece.

• The Watch will update every Tuesday and Friday from now on, with more regular updates as Selection Sunday draws nearer.

• All RPI numbers based on ESPN RPI data.

• The introduction will be more interesting in future editions, promise.

Any other questions? No? Then let's get to it.

American Athletic Conference

Locks: Cincinnati

Teams that should be in: Memphis, Connecticut, Louisville

Work left to do: SMU

Cincinnati is a guarantee to make the tournament. The rest of the league is not quite so safe.

Memphis [18-5 (7-3), RPI: 26, SOS: 33] The various local and national debates about Josh Pastner's tenure at Memphis have always overlooked one minor thing: The man knows schedule math. In Conference USA, this was a must. In the American, it has resulted in top-35 RPI, strength of schedule and nonconference strength of schedule numbers. The Tigers have taken care of business against lesser teams and acquitted themselves well against the upper crust.

Connecticut [18-5 (6-4), RPI: 31, SOS: 70] The Huskies have a loss at No. 178 RPI Houston on their ledger, which is not ideal. But otherwise, their resume is pretty solid: No. 31 RPI, solid schedule figures, with wins at Memphis and over Florida, which would probably be a No. 1 seed if the field were selected today.

Louisville [19-4 (8-2), RPI: 34, SOS: 89] Is Louisville going to get a bid to the 2014 NCAA tournament? Probably. Are the Cardinals a sure thing? Not quite. Their resume is hardly befitting of a team that brought back key pieces of last year's national title squad, let alone one that ranks in the top 15 in both offensive and defensive (adjusted) efficiency. Their best nonconference win came at home against Southern Miss, and their only other top 100 victories are at UConn and home vs. SMU. They also have solid numbers, and no bad losses, so they're probably fine. But a few slips here and there down the stretch and this thing could get interesting.

SMU [19-5 (8-3), RPI: 40, SOS: 123] The Larry Brown-led Mustangs are one of the surprise teams of the season. Are they a tournament team, too? The answer is a resounding "maybe." SMU has three big wins over UConn, Memphis and Cincinnati, and they play some of the best defense in the country. But the Mustangs' lackluster schedule -- their non-con slate ranks 297th overall -- and lack of road wins means the committee will raise an eyebrow unless SMU does something on the road (at UConn and Memphis, say) in the coming weeks.

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Atlantic 10 Conference

Locks: Saint Louis

Teams that should be in: Massachusetts

Work left to do: George Washington, Virginia Commonwealth, Richmond, Saint Joseph's, Dayton

No team in the country has had a quieter run of success than Saint Louis. The Billikens can be counted on. UMass' resume looks pretty good. The rest of the A-10 is manic.

Massachusetts [19-4 (6-3), RPI: 12, SOS: 57] The Minutemen have a really tidy RPI figure next to their name, which is one good reason to think they'll safely land in the bracket. Another is the top-heaviness of their schedule, so to speak: 15 of their 23 games to date were played against the RPI top 100. So, although Derek Kellogg's team might not have one or two crazy-impressive victories, it does have a sheer mathematical volume of wins many other teams lack.

George Washington [19-4 (7-2), RPI: 27, SOS: 114] The Colonials are experiencing something of an offensive renaissance under fourth-year coach Mike Lonergan. They first popped onto our radar when they knocked off Creighton on a neutral court Dec. 1, then really stood out when Maurice Creek hit a game winner to drop Maryland a week later (back before everyone knew Maryland was so mediocre). Wednesday night's game at VCU would be a huge win -- and a season sweep of the Rams.

Virginia Commonwealth [19-5 (7-2), RPI: 28, SOS: 96] The Rams and their hyper-pressing system were one of the most talked-about teams entering the season, but early losses to Georgetown, Florida State and Northern Iowa put a stop to that in a hurry. But VCU had won 11 of its past 12 before Saturday's loss against Saint Joseph's. Within that 12-game stretch, the Rams' only loss came on the road to a good George Washington squad. VCU still has a Nov. 12 win at Virginia -- and a friendly RPI -- to fall back on.

Richmond [15-8 (5-3), RPI: 43, SOS: 26] Richmond doesn't have a loss as bad as Temple to its name, and it has better RPI and schedule numbers to boot. But it also hasn't earned a better win than UMass at home, which is OK, I guess, but hardly the stuff tournament resumes are made of. Home games against GW and VCU await, but the Spiders have to avoid picking up a road loss to bubble land mines Duquesne, Rhode Island and George Mason along the way.

Saint Joseph's [16-7 (6-3), RPI: 44, SOS: 49] In one sense, it's kind of hard to penalize the Hawks too much for their Dec. 4 loss at Temple. Weird things happen in Philly 5 rivalry games, and Temple isn't an easy place to play under normal circumstances. But, for all its faults -- and the RPI has so many faults -- it is designed to cut through that kind of fuzzy, subjective noise. The RPI says Temple is the 180th best team in the country. That's a rough loss to have on a pretty mediocre resume.

Dayton [16-8 (4-5), RPI: 55, SOS: 54] No one better personifies the marginally wild nature of the 2013-14 season than the annual resume roller coaster that is the Dayton Flyers. The same team that looked great in wins against Gonzaga and California in Maui also lost to Illinois State, USC and Rhode Island. Who knows?

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Atlantic Coast Conference

Locks: Duke, Syracuse

Teams that should be in: Virginia, Pittsburgh

Work left to do: North Carolina, Florida State, Clemson

Two Saturdays ago, Syracuse and Duke played the best game of the 2013-14 season. Today, they meet again, sort of, as the ACC's two early locks. The Orange won that game, of course, and still haven't lost; they're the obvious overall No. 1 seed right now. Duke, meanwhile, has shaken off some ugly early-season defensive woes -- was it so long ago that Vermont scored 90 points in 65 possessions in Cameron? -- and matched its sterling offense with more adaptable defensive work.

Virginia [20-5 (11-1), RPI: 20, SOS: 34] Last season, Virginia was a good team that lost too many bad games, particularly in November and December, and ended up in the NIT as a result. This season, Tony Bennett has nothing of the sort to fret about. UVa's worst loss came at Green Bay, the Horizon League's best team, and a bubble squad in its own right; the rest of its resume is top-to-bottom solid. There are some tricky challenges ahead -- at Clemson, at Virginia Tech -- but it's unlikely we'll have to wait until the March 1 home date against Syracuse to lock things in.

Pittsburgh [20-4 (8-3), RPI: 24, SOS: 75] The Panthers are a good team with a solid RPI number and so-so schedule figures, and one that hasn't lost many games -- avoiding Saturday's upset at Virginia Tech was massive, as bad losses go. But the Panthers also don't have much in the way of notable wins. A neutral-court victory over Stanford is the only one to speak of, if that counts. Cue Wednesday night's visit from Syracuse.

North Carolina [16-7 (6-4), RPI: 37, SOS: 21] The early top contender for weirdest resume of the 2013-14 season goes to the Tar Heels. You'd think it impossible that a team with wins against Louisville and Kentucky -- and a win at Michigan State, before the Spartans' injury woes -- could somehow still have work to do, but losses to Belmont, Wake Forest, Miami and sub-150 RPIer UAB have made that scenario a reality. Fortunately, the numbers are all good. A win Wednesday night against Duke would do wonders.

Florida State [14-10 (5-7), RPI: 63, SOS: 46] Speaking of losses to Miami, the Seminoles suffered just that Monday night, falling at home to the Hurricanes. It's hardly a deal-breaker, but it did give the already so-so Noles their worst RPI loss of the season, thus solidifying the probability that Leonard Hamilton's team will spend the next month wavering from one side of the bubble to the other.

Clemson [15-7 (6-4), RPI: 64, SOS: 119] Clemson beat Duke. That happened. Right now, that's about all you can say for the Tigers' resume. You can say much more about them as an actual team -- namely, that they defend really well. But wins are what get you into the tournament, and the Tigers need more of them.

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Big 12 Conference

Locks: Kansas, Iowa State

Teams that should be in: Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas State

Work left to do: Oklahoma State, Baylor

How insane is Kansas' schedule? The Jayhawks have played the No. 1 overall schedule and the No. 1 nonconference schedule, rank No. 1 in the RPI, have faced 14 top-50 teams (and won eight times) and have played just three -- three! -- teams outside the top 100. That, my fellow Bubble Watchers, is insane.

Oklahoma [18-6 (7-4), RPI: 21, SOS: 25] At a glance, Oklahoma's Dec. 30 home loss to Louisiana Tech looks bad, right? What's with that? Louisiana Tech is quite good, it turns out, a bubble team in its own right, and anyway, the Sooners boast top-25 RPI and SOS numbers, a solid group of wins, and no real bad losses (Feb. 5 at West Virginia, which is suddenly playing great basketball, doesn't count).

Texas [18-5 (7-3), RPI: 23, SOS: 66] The Longhorns' nonconference schedule wasn't much to write home about -- that's part of the reason it took people so long to realize Texas was good -- but they made the most of a good opportunity at North Carolina on Dec. 18. Since then, they've beaten Iowa State, Kansas State and Kansas in Austin, avoided any bad losses, and compiled some pretty solid computer components along the way.

Kansas State [17-7 (7-4), RPI: 29, SOS: 16] Of course, the Wildcats knocked off the aforementioned Jayhawks on Monday, improving their own record against the top 50 to 6-3, with wins over Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, George Washington and Gonzaga. Only the Gonzaga win came on a "neutral" court (it was in Wichita, Kan.), and, save the Wildcats' smattering of questionable losses, that might be the only real knock against their selection accomplishments to date.

Oklahoma State [16-7 (4-6), RPI: 35, SOS: 29] Would the Cowboys be in the "Work left to do" field if Marcus Smart hadn't pushed a mouthy Texas Tech fan in the chest? Probably. The loss to the Red Raiders was bad in its own right, and the only good nonconference win was a home destruction of Memphis on Nov. 19 -- a team that turned around and beat OSU on a neutral court 12 days later. Without Smart, though, the Sooners could very well lose their next three games (at Texas, Oklahoma, at Baylor), and then we're really talking bubble trouble.

Baylor [14-9 (2-8), RPI: 59, SOS: 5] How do you know when it's Bubble Watch season? When you find yourself looking at Baylor's nitty-gritty sheet and wondering how a team that handled Kentucky on a neutral court can have such an otherwise blah profile. Fortunately, the Bears' strength of schedule is in the high single digits, and that might end up being a deciding factor. But for now, avoiding a loss at TCU and knocking off Kansas State and Oklahoma State at home thereafter is of the highest priority.

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Big East Conference

Locks: Villanova, Creighton

Teams that should be in: Xavier, Georgetown, Providence

This is the first edition of the Bubble Watch to cover the new-look Big East, which means it's the first to not have, like, 12 bubble teams to work through in any given set. It's jarring! (But also kind of nice.)

Xavier [16-7 (6-4), RPI: 46, SOS: 51] The Musketeers' win over Cincinnati back on Dec. 14 wasn't just a nice little mini-upset in a heated local rivalry game. It was the distinguishing win on this team's profile. The next-best victories are over Tennessee (Xavier also lost to the Vols on a neutral court), Providence, St. John's, Georgetown and Wake Forest. Meh. Throw in losses to USC and Seton Hall, and you've got yourself a pretty good team with an underwhelming CV.

Georgetown [15-9 (6-6), RPI: 52, SOS: 24] It was easy to write the Hoyas off a few weeks ago, and maybe we still should. But the Feb. 1 win over a depleted and exhausted Michigan State team at least keeps them in the conversation, which is surprising, since this is a suspension-riddled version of the same team that lost to Northeastern (RPI No. 218!) in November.

Providence [16-9 (6-6), RPI: 53, SOS: 60] While the Musketeers would probably be in the tournament if the field were seeded today, Providence doesn't even have that much going for it. The Friars' only big win (against Creighton) came at home; their only road win against a top-100 opponent was at St. John's. Their home game on Feb. 18 against Villanova will be a big, big fixture.

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Big Ten Conference

Locks: Michigan State, Michigan

Teams that should be in: Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa

Work left to do: Minnesota, Indiana

We often hear conferences described as either "top heavy"or "deep" but never anything about the in-between. I'm not sure what you'd call the 2013-14 Big Ten, in which an injury-pocked Michigan State team and a struggling Michigan squad with a great resume sit atop a league with so many maybes. Thick through the middle? Actually, don't answer that.

Wisconsin [19-5 (6-5), RPI: 7, SOS: 3] News flash: The Badgers are going to get into the NCAA tournament. For all of the Sturm und Drang about the Badgers' January struggles, the worst loss Wisconsin suffered in that stretch was a home defeat to Northwestern, which is still (barely) a top-100 RPI team. Meanwhile, Wisconsin still has wins over top-50 RPI teams Florida, Saint Louis, Virginia (on the road), Iowa and Michigan State, not to mention top-10 numbers in every major selection category. We'll play it safe on locking them in for now, but that's just caution.

Ohio State [19-5 (6-5), RPI: 15, SOS: 9] The Buckeyes might be turning things around. They, like Wisconsin, had a bad January. They beat Nebraska but lost to Michigan State, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Penn State. Fortunately for Thad Matta, he scheduled a nonconference slate with more than its fair share of top-100 games, including a victory over North Dakota State (No. 49) that looks better now than it did at the time.

Iowa [18-6 (7-4), RPI: 32, SOS: 52] Iowa's profile could -- maybe should -- be a lot better. The Hawkeyes lost by five points to Villanova in overtime, at Iowa State by three and at Wisconsin by four (after that famous Fran McCaffery blowup). They've squandered a lot of opportunities, is the point. And yet they're still something like a No. 4 or a No. 5 seed in the tournament at this point (Joe Lunardi has them at No. 4), coming off a blowout win over Michigan. If they avoid losses at Penn State and Indiana in the coming week, they'll be totally fine.

Minnesota [16-8 (5-6), RPI: 39, SOS: 4] Minnesota has a couple of decent wins on its ledger, but the biggest factor in its favor is its strength of schedule, which is the fourth-best in the country, according to the RPI. Minnesota's numbers are all pretty solid -- a top-40 rank, a top-20 nonconference schedule -- and a couple of key wins over destined bubblers Florida State and Indiana won't hurt. Games at Wisconsin and Northwestern are on deck.

Indiana [14-9 (4-6), RPI: 75, SOS: 76] Who knows? The Hoosiers have lost to Northwestern and beaten Michigan and Wisconsin on the same floor (their own). They took Michigan State to the wire in East Lansing, Mich., and lost at Nebraska nine days later. It's a talented, young, frustrating and inconsistent team, and one with a ton of work to do to make up for the fact that its best nonconference win (in a weak schedule) came against Washington. Oof.

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Mountain West Conference

Locks: San Diego State

Work left to do: New Mexico

San Diego State's 19-1 record is almost as impressive as the Syracuse and Wichita State unbeaten streaks, seeing as it includes a road win at Kansas. Xavier Thames & Co.'s only loss came to Arizona back in mid-November, and the only question now is how a down Mountain West will affect their eventual seed.

New Mexico [18-4 (9-1), RPI: 33, SOS: 80] New Mexico: For a conference with such a high quality ratio in recent seasons, it is profoundly strange to see just one non-SDSU Mountain West team in the bubble mix. But here we are, and here the Lobos are, 18-4 and winners of 11 of their past 12, and still not a guaranteed tourney inclusion. Huh.

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Pac-12 Conference

Locks: Arizona

Teams that should be in: UCLA

Work left to do: Colorado, Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford, California

Whatever form Arizona takes without injured forward Brandon Ashley, the Wildcats' high seed is already guaranteed. No team in the country has a better trio of nonconference wins (at San Diego State, at Michigan, vs. Duke in Madison Square Garden), not to mention an 8-0 record against the top 50. It's set.

UCLA [18-5 (7-3), RPI: 19, SOS: 22] Of the rest of the non-Arizona Pac-12, only UCLA is solidly in the field as of Tuesday. The Bruins would need a historic collapse -- against a favorable schedule, to boot -- to somehow miss out on Selection Sunday.

Colorado [18-6 (7-4), RPI: 25, SOS: 31] Colorado's RPI feels drastically high for a team with exactly one noteworthy win (Dec. 7 vs. Kansas), which came before Spencer Dinwiddie's season-ending injury. That doesn't mean the Buffaloes should feel safe going forward, of course, but it does prove the value of scheduling well, and avoiding too many cupcakes in doing so.

Arizona State [18-6 (7-4), RPI: 38, SOS: 79] Are you starting to sense a theme? No one in the Pac-12 save Arizona and, to some degree, UCLA has really distinguished itself resume -wise, and Arizona State is no different. Taken as a whole, ASU's CV is OK; the Sun Devils didn't fatten up on cupcakes the way they have in recent seasons. But they need far more than home wins over Colorado and Oregon to feel anything close to safe by mid-March. Friday's visit from Arizona is their best and most obvious chance.

Oregon [15-8 (3-8), RPI: 41, SOS: 12] There was a time when the Ducks looked like the most likely non-Arizona Pac-12 title contender. Then, in January, they started losing, and they haven't stopped. After an 0-2 trip to Arizona and Arizona State last week, the Ducks are 3-8 in the Pac-12 with exactly one top-50 RPI win: vs. Brigham Young. Yikes.

Stanford [15-7 (6-4), RPI: 42, SOS: 32] Stanford nearly beat Cal to the Arizona upset punch back on Jan. 29, playing the Wildcats to a 60-57 home loss in front of a vintage Palo Alto, Calif., crowd. The good news is a top-35 strength of schedule and an RPI buttressed by a win at UConn on Dec. 18. But like Cal, the Cardinal have to go 2-0 against Washington and Washington State this week to avoid sinking further into the bubble morass.

California [15-8 (6-4), RPI: 50, SOS: 48] Without Justin Cobbs' game-winning step-back jumper against Arizona two weeks ago, the Bears' profile looks meager: Wins at Stanford and Oregon (meh), losses to Dayton, UC Santa Barbara and USC (double meh), 6-7 against the RPI top 100, 9-8 against the top 150, so-so computer numbers, etc. A 2-0 run through this week's trip to the Washington schools would be nice.

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Southeastern Conference

Locks: Florida, Kentucky

Work left to do: Tennessee, Missouri, Ole Miss, LSU, Arkansas

Florida is obvious -- the Gators' only two losses came at Wisconsin and Connecticut, and they have No. 1-seed-level numbers -- but Kentucky? Sure, the Wildcats have a top-10 RPI and a top-10 strength of schedule, with a top-20 nonconference slate. The tip-top wins aren't there, and there's some potential to compile a few bad late-season road losses, but it's just as likely UK will knock off Florida in Rupp Arena on Saturday. The Wildcats will get in. The real question is this: Is the SEC a two-bid league?

Tennessee [15-8 (6-4), RPI: 47, SOS: 14] Tennessee beat Virginia and has a tough schedule, and that's about it. The other noteworthy Vols opponent (Xavier) ended in a 1-1 split, and home losses to NC State and Texas A&M are troubling. Thing is, the Vols are a pretty good team on a per-possession basis; they just haven't translated that to a sheet of quality wins. Let's see how tonight's home game against Florida goes, shall we?

Missouri [16-7 (4-6), RPI: 48, SOS: 72] Would Missouri be in the tournament if the field were selected today? Questionable at best: The Tigers' home win over UCLA (offset by a few bad losses, including a home loss to Georgia) is about all there is to their resume, which is not a whole lot when your stretch schedule doesn't include a game against Florida or Kentucky.

Ole Miss [16-7 (7-3), RPI: 51, SOS: 83] The Rebels are another of those SEC teams that belong in this space more because the bubble is soft than because of any particular accomplishments of their own. They still have Kentucky and Florida at home, though, so let's keep an eye out for now.

LSU [15-7 (6-4), RPI: 60, SOS: 85] Losses to Rhode Island, Alabama and Georgia take some of the shine off a home win over Kentucky, and now LSU takes its paltry RPI to Texas A&M and Arkansas in its next two games. It has chances for big wins in the closing weeks at Florida and Kentucky, but (a) good luck, and (b) it might not matter by then, anyway.

Arkansas [15-8 (4-6), RPI: 72, SOS: 87] The Razorbacks are way outside the bubble picture at this point and have to do a ton in the next few weeks just to stay on this page. Thankfully, the bubble is soft, and the first-week Bubble Watch edition is generous. But yeah. Not good.

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Other at-large contenders

Locks: Wichita State

Work left to do: Gonzaga, Toledo, Southern Miss, Brigham Young, Indiana State, Louisiana Tech, Green Bay, UTEP

Gonzaga [21-4 (11-1), RPI: 22, SOS: 95] The Zags have admirably battled injuries to amass a top-25 RPI figure and a 20-4 overall record. They're 8-3 against the RPI top 100. But the best of those wins, according to the RPI, came against BYU -- that's literally the only noteworthy victory here. Letting Saturday's would-be win at Memphis slip away in the closing minutes was a brutal loss, and the Zags will close the regular season with a four-game road trip to BYU, San Diego, Pacific and Saint Mary's. Tough.

Toledo [20-3 (8-2), RPI: 30, SOS: 146] The classic great-RPI-with-a-bunch-of-bad-wins mid-major, Toledo's best wins are over in-state rivals Cleveland State and Akron, and 15 of their 19 victories have come against teams ranked outside the RPI top 150. The safest bet is winning the MAC tournament, because there isn't a whole lot the Rockets can do between now and then to boost their profile.

Southern Miss [21-3 (8-1), RPI: 36, SOS: 166] The Golden Eagles have a solid RPI number and ... actually, that's about it. With just four games against the top 50 and ugly C-USA losses to avoid, Southern Miss' at-large chance is best described as a long shot.

Brigham Young [17-9 (9-4), RPI: 45, SOS: 23] With wins over Stanford and Texas -- the first on the road, the latter on a neutral court -- the Cougars proved they could beat tournament-level teams. But their missed opportunities (a two-point loss to Iowa State, a four-point loss at Oregon) may come back to haunt them, now that they've dropped three ugly road games (Pepperdine, Loyola Marymount, Portland) in the WCC.

Indiana State [18-6 (9-3), RPI: 58, SOS: 133] At home last week, the Sycamores nearly ended Wichita State's unbeaten run, and their 13-point win at Notre Dame on Nov. 17 made them a team to watch. And they're pretty good! But the Irish keep looking worse and worse, and ISU doesn't have a whole lot else on which to hang its proverbial hat.

Louisiana Tech [20-5 (8-2), RPI: 71, SOS: 221] If the Bulldogs get in the NCAA tournament, look out: This is a genuinely great defensive team with a 20-5 record for a reason -- a team that beat Oklahoma on its own floor, no less. The only problem is those 16 games against the sub-150.

Green Bay [19-5 (9-2), RPI: 74, SOS: 187] The Phoenix are having their best season in years, which really kicked off with a home win over Virginia on Dec. 7. They're the class of the Horizon League, and a solid defensive group -- and still might have to win the conference tournament to get close to a tournament bid when all is said and done. The margin for error in the Horizon is just brutally thin.

UTEP [18-6 (8-1), RPI: 76, SOS: 124] The Miners have a neutral-court win over Tennessee, which would be awesome if Tennessee wasn't itself such a shaky bubble proposition. As is, there's probably not enough here. Also, they lost at home to New Orleans, which, no offense, but gross.

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