College Basketball Bubble Watch
Sometimes, a schedule's strength isn't all it's cracked up to be
Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Thursday, Feb. 13.
On Wednesday afternoon, one day before the start of the 2014 media mock selection, new men's basketball committee chair Ron Wellman sat down for the customary media teleconference. One question, about Wichita State's schedule strength, led to a particularly worthwhile answer.
After reiterating the usual talking points -- the committee looks at overall and nonconference schedules, and different members will draw different conclusions -- Wellman went even further.
"Oftentimes schools will develop a schedule thinking that it is a very strong schedule, only to have their opponents fall on their face," he said. "And the schedule isn't nearly as strong as what they thought it might be originally. Those are some of the factors that we look at beyond just the RPI. There are many, many metrics that we use beyond the RPI. The RPI does a good job of capturing all those metrics, but again, the various metrics can be used by the conference members."
The first part is a fascinating bit of situational philosophy. Let's call it "schedule intent" -- what a team sets out to do with its schedule, as opposed to what that schedule eventually becomes. Wellman's response might be the first time a committee chairman has explicitly discussed this kind of next-level hypothetical consideration.
On the one hand, it makes sense, for the same reasons the committee no longer weighs late-season games more heavily than nonconference ones: The NCAA wants to encourage teams to play good games. On the other hand, who cares what a schedule was supposed to be? What does that have to do with anything? Shouldn't the schedule itself -- the actual objective strength of the actual opponents -- be the only thing that matters?
The second part, thankfully, is just a handy reminder. The committee comprises a variety of human beings who value a variety of criteria when analyzing teams. Those members will weigh different factors differently. Some might even subscribe to this whole "well, they tried" scheduling idea, which was a concept we didn't even know existed two days ago. How do you adjust your expectations for that?
This is the crucial reminder as we dig into another edition of the Bubble Watch: At some point, these are just educated guesses.
Note: All RPI data via ESPN RPI is updated through Friday, Feb. 14.
|American Athletic Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Connecticut, Memphis, Louisville|
Work left to do: SMU
Cincinnati is still a lock, Louisville should get there sooner rather than later, and UConn and Memphis aren't far behind. The gap between the five schools you see here and the bottom half of the American is as wide as any league in the country.
Connecticut [19-5 (7-4), RPI: 28, SOS: 83] UConn took care of business at home against USF Wednesday night, which means their resume is largely unchanged: 30s-ish RPI, solid schedule figures, with wins at Memphis and over locked-in Florida. Next up? Saturday's home date with Memphis.
Memphis [19-5 (8-3), RPI: 31, SOS: 54] The Tigers' Wednesday win over UCF wasn't quite the dominant performance UConn gave against USF a few hundred miles north, but that doesn't matter: The committee doesn't count margin of victory anyway. A win is a win, which is good, because now Memphis has to go on the road to UConn Saturday, followed by a visit to Rutgers (RPI: 195) next week.
Louisville [19-4 (8-2), RPI: 32, SOS: 89] The Cardinals' trip to Temple was pushed back to Friday thanks to all of this fun weather we're having out here on the East Coast. Will that matter? Probably not. Temple is just plain bad. It's nice when a team's actual performance (the Owls rank 173rd in adjusted efficiency) lines up so nicely with their RPI (183), which means Louisville should cruise to a win on the road. A loss would be, um, how to put this ... not good?
SMU [19-5 (8-3), RPI: 39, SOS: 127] The postponement of SMU's scheduled trip to Rutgers this week means nothing has changed for the Fighting Larry Browns since our last update. But it's hard to stress the importance of beating the Scarlet Knights and then Temple in this weekend's suddenly quick Friday-Sunday turnaround. The Mustangs' nonconference strength of schedule ranks 295th, and they've yet to beat a marquee opponent on the road. A loss against either of this weekend's decidedly bad opponents would hardly assuage that perception.
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Massachusetts|
Work left to do: VCU, George Washington, Richmond, Saint Joseph's, Dayton
Massachusetts [19-5 (6-4), RPI: 20, SOS: 76] At first glance, a home loss to George Mason should immediately put a team on the bubble, right? Not so fast. For starters, the Patriots have played much better basketball in the A-10 than their 137 RPI connotes. And anyway, UMass' profile is strong enough to sustain a bad loss. The Minutemen are 11-4 against the top 100 and 13-5 against the top 150, with a top-20 RPI and solid schedule numbers (including a top-35 noncon SOS). If the losses start to pile up -- and they could, with George Washington and VCU on deck -- then maybe we take a second look. But for now, UMass is fine.
VCU [20-5 (8-2), RPI: 23, SOS: 86] Wednesday night's dominant win over George Washington showcased a VCU team that has come a long way since its early-season struggles, and has quietly racked up one A-10 win after another in the process. Two of the Rams' final six contests will come against Saint Louis, beginning with their trip to Chaifetz Arena on Saturday. A win there gets them very close to, if not into, the "should be in" field.
George Washington [19-5 (7-3), RPI: 26, SOS: 96] A home-home split with VCU doesn't take much of the shine off of GW's work to date: The Colonials are still 19-5 with a tidy RPI number and that neutral-court win over Creighton to bolster their odds. This weekend, they get a shot at UMass at home, which would pair nicely as a marquee win.
Richmond [16-8 (6-3), RPI: 40, SOS: 37] First things first: Richmond didn't lose at Duquesne on Wednesday. For a team without a road win better than at William & Mary on Dec. 4, avoiding bad road losses is nearly as important. Up next are three straight home games vs. Fordham, George Washington and La Salle; we'll have a better idea of where the Spiders might end up by next week.
Saint Joseph's [16-7 (6-3), RPI: 45, SOS: 53] Phil Martelli's team was off in the midweek, so its next chance to get on the right side of the bubble -- or, perhaps more accurately, avoid falling further off of it -- comes Saturday at La Salle.
Dayton [17-8 (5-5), RPI: 56, SOS: 55] The Flyers are among our resident Bracketologist's next four out, which feels exactly right. As we wrote Tuesday, no team in the country has so impressively negated its good nonconference wins (vs. Gonzaga and Cal in Maui) with bad losses (to Illinois State, USC and Rhode Island). Dayton's next chance to really impress comes Feb. 25 at Saint Joe's.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Virginia|
Work left to do: Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Florida State, Clemson
The only notable status change in the ACC this week is Pittsburgh's last-second home loss to Syracuse on Wednesday night. Perhaps you heard something about it? Something about a 35-foot Tyler Ennis game-winner? Right. In one sense, there is absolutely zero shame in losing to the Orange; they are 24-0 for a reason. In the world of selection committee projection, however, the Panthers missed out on a huge opportunity, one that, when paired with the rest of their profile, makes a tournament spot a far less assured proposition.
Virginia [20-5 (11-1), RPI: 17, SOS: 33] On Tuesday, in the midst of singing the Hoos' praises, the Watch wrote that Virginia "had a couple of tricky games coming up -- at Clemson, at Virginia Tech." Several people wrote to the Watch on Twitter asking why Virginia Tech, one of the worst major-conference teams in college basketball, should be considered "tricky." Beyond the fact that the Hokies nearly upset Pitt two weeks ago, that is? Because playing them in their own gym is a no-win proposition. If you win, oh well, and your RPI number might still take a hit. If you lose, you did damage to your resume. Why is a game against a bad opponent tricky? Precisely because the opponent is bad. See?
Pittsburgh [20-5 (8-4), RPI: 27, SOS: 50] Why should Pitt move from "should be in" to "work to do" after losing on a last-second 35-footer? In a perfect world, it shouldn't. The Panthers didn't get better or worse based on Ennis' insane clutchness, after all. But without that win against Syracuse, the Panthers have gone 0-3 against all three of the ACC's top teams (Duke, Virginia, Syracuse). They moved to 1-5 against the RPI top 50. Their best win was a neutral-court victory over Stanford, which, meh. And their nonconference strength of schedule ranks No. 214, which is the kind of large noncon SOS number that gets good teams in trouble when their missed opportunities begin to pile up. Saturday's game at North Carolina -- Pitt's last obvious top-50 opponent the rest of the way -- is now much bigger than it should be.
North Carolina [16-7 (6-4), RPI: 33, SOS: 13] UNC's Wednesday night game against Duke was postponed thanks to the weather because the weather decided following Syracuse-Pitt with Duke-UNC was just too awesome for us to handle. As such, the Tar Heels' situation hasn't changed. Let's see what they have for the Panthers on Saturday.
Florida State [14-10 (5-7), RPI: 63, SOS: 48] FSU's loss to Miami on Monday night gave the so-so Noles their first sub-100 RPI loss of the season, and moved them to 14-10 on the season. On Saturday, they travel to Wake Forest, where the Demon Deacons are 12-2 this season. Leonard Hamilton's team will spend the next month wavering from one side of the bubble to the other.
Clemson [15-8 (6-5), RPI: 68, SOS: 126] Remember when a loss at Notre Dame's Joyce Center used to be no big deal? Expected, even? In 2013-14, it's enough to put a serious knock on your resume, which is exactly what happened to Clemson this week. It was the Tigers' second straight defeat, and it dropped them to just 4-7 against the RPI top 150. Save Jan. 11's home win over Duke, there's not much here.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas State|
Work left to do: Oklahoma State, Baylor, West Virginia
Was the Watch too hasty in locking up Iowa State? Maybe. The Cyclones' profile is really good, but it's not jaw-droppingly so, and while it is almost impossible to envision Fred Hoiberg's team missing the tournament, at 18-5 with seven games to play, almost is the key modifier. Let's see how Saturday's home game against spritely Texas Tech goes before we start getting drastic about it.
Texas [19-5 (8-3), RPI: 22, SOS: 57] Texas hammered the Marcus Smart-less Oklahoma State Cowboys Tuesday night. How much does that matter? It's hard to say. The committee probably will take Smart's absence into account, and anyway OSU was hardly on top of the world before the Big 12 suspended him for The Shove. The really interesting game for Texas comes Saturday, against a super-hot West Virginia team that's making a serious push into the bracket.
Oklahoma [18-7 (7-5), RPI: 29, SOS: 26] It's getting to the point that losses to Texas Tech are starting to become manageable. After the Red Raiders' now-infamous win over Oklahoma State on Saturday, they turned around and knocked off Oklahoma in Norman. It's hardly a good loss, if such a thing exists (OK, it does, ask Pitt), but it's suddenly not as bad as it might have looked earlier in the season, either. Go figure.
Kansas State [17-7 (7-4), RPI: 30, SOS: 24] The only real knock against Iowa State's resume is their nonconference schedule, which is hovering around 100. To a greater extent, the same can be said of Kansas State, plus a couple of bad losses (to Charlotte and Northern Colorado) way back in November. But whatever: K-State is 6-3 against the top 50 with wins over Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, George Washington and Gonzaga.
Oklahoma State [16-8 (4-7), RPI: 36, SOS: 18] How would Oklahoma State respond without Marcus Smart? On Tuesday night, we got our answer: not well. To be fair, playing at Texas is tough even if you're at full strength. But the Longhorns drilled OSU by 19, and now the Cowboys have a home bedlam game against Oklahoma and a trip to Baylor to contend with before Smart makes his return -- against Texas Tech, of all teams -- on Feb. 22. A split in the next two would be nice.
Baylor [15-9 (3-8), RPI: 53, SOS: 9] Poor TCU. The Horned Frogs are awful to begin with, but any and all chance that they sneak up on the disengaged, frustrating Baylor Bears varietal -- as opposed to the talented, impressive version that beat Kentucky earlier this year -- evaporated when Baylor lost to Kansas and at Oklahoma prior to Wednesday night's trip to Fort Worth. Alas, beating TCU to a pulp doesn't make you a more desirable tournament team; the Bears are still just 4-9 against the RPI top 150. The next three days include home games against Kansas State and Oklahoma State, and can fairly be called "massive."
West Virginia [15-10 (7-5), RPI: 66, SOS: 51] No Tuesday omission unleashed more unbridled Twitter anger at your humble Bubble Watch correspondent than this one. And understandably so: WVU did put up 102 on Iowa State on Monday, after all. So let's give the Eers their due. This is becoming a frighteningly good team, with super-capable guards and an excellent coach -- the kind of team no coach will want to see across the bracket come March. Let's also be real: If WVU is in the tournament today, they are barely in, and that says as much about them as it does the annually soft NCAA tournament bubble. Sure, West Virginia beat Iowa State, Oklahoma and Kansas State at home. But it also lost to Purdue on its own floor, lost at Virginia Tech, played the 192nd-ranked nonconference schedule, has an RPI in the high 60s and, depending on your thoughts on Baylor, has yet to win a notable game on the road. Saturday at Texas might solve at least one of those problems.
|Big East Conference|
|Work left to do: Xavier, Georgetown, Providence, St John's|
This is the second edition of the Bubble Watch to cover the new-look Big East, which means it's the second to not have, like, 12 bubble teams to work through in any given week. And you know what? The Watch is still not used to it. This might become a running theme.
Xavier [17-7 (7-4), RPI: 44, SOS: 61] Xavier got out of Hinkle Fieldhouse with relative ease Tuesday night, but Saturday presents far bigger concerns. Marquette's awful shooting and inconsistent play on the road have left the Golden Eagles 14-10 and out of the tournament conversation, with an RPI of 73. But it's not as though Marquette is a whole lot of fun to play in its own gym. A loss would hardly be disastrous for Xavier, of course, but the task is daunting all the same.
Georgetown [15-9 (6-6), RPI: 57, SOS: 31] Two weeks ago, the Hoyas looked lost. Now they've won four in a row, including one on a neutral court against Michigan State, and their next four games (at St. John's, at Seton Hall, vs. Xavier, at Marquette) all come against teams that knocked the Hoyas down a peg early in conference play. John Thompson III is the son of John Thompson II, the head coach of the Georgetown Hoyas, and the loyal servant of the Princeton offense, and he will have his revenge!
Providence [16-9 (6-6), RPI: 58, SOS: 58] After Monday night's loss to Georgetown, the Friars are losers of their past three, and four of their past five, including a home loss to St. John's. (Fortunately, DePaul is reliably terrible.) In other words, a team that probably would not have been in the tournament were it seeded a week ago is very much trending in the wrong direction, and boy, is next week's home game against Villanova a big one.
St John's [16-9 (6-6), RPI: 60, SOS: 39] The Red Storm managed to survive Seton Hall Thursday night, which pairs nicely with last Sunday's win over Creighton. In most cases, a trip to Seton Hall is a no-win situation, but in St. John's case, it kept them from falling off the page entirely. So that's something! There's still a lot of work to be done.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Wisconsin, Ohio State, Iowa|
Work left to do: Minnesota
It has been nearly a decade since the NCAA tournament was held without at least one team from Indiana. Could it happen again this season? After the Hoosiers' home loss to Penn State Wednesday -- which they led by double digits in the closing minutes -- they're 14-10 overall and (get this) 5-10 against the RPI top 150. That's not even worth putting on the Bubble Watch page anymore. Now Indiana State looks like the most likely Indiana-based program to hear its name called on Selection Sunday. Strange times.
Wisconsin [20-5 (7-5), RPI: 6, SOS: 3] The Badgers' Thursday night win over Minnesota made them 6-3 against the RPI top 50 this season, which is good as far as it goes but is a trifle compared to the Badgers' single-digit RPI, SOS and nonconference SOS numbers. A win at Michigan or Iowa in the coming week will lock it up, but honestly, it may not take that much.
Ohio State [19-6 (6-6), RPI: 18, SOS: 6] The Wolverines' visit to Columbus, Ohio, Tuesday could have been a profile-sealing situation for the Buckeyes. Instead, Ohio State shot 3-of-20 from 3-point range, and Michigan left with an impressive road victory, and Ohio State is basically where they were when the week began: In very good shape, but not all the way home yet.
Iowa [18-6 (7-4), RPI: 34, SOS: 56] Iowa's profile could -- maybe should -- be a lot better. The Hawkeyes lost to Villanova in overtime by five, at Iowa State by three, and at Wisconsin by four (after that famous Fran McCaffery blowup). The point is, they've squandered a lot of opportunities. And yet they're still something like a No. 4 or a No. 5 seed in the tournament at this point (Joey Brackets has them at No. 5), coming off a blowout win against Michigan. If they avoid losses at Penn State and Indiana in the coming week, they'll be totally fine.
Minnesota [16-9 (5-7), RPI: 38, SOS: 4] As with the Badgers, the Gophers' loss at Wisconsin didn't really change much, tourney-profile-wise. But a loss at Northwestern on Sunday would make for a season sweep at the hands of the Wildcats, and then it's time to get really concerned.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Work left to do: New Mexico|
San Diego State took its first loss since Nov. 14 on Wednesday night at Wyoming, which changes absolutely nothing about the Aztecs' status and nothing about the Mountain West's sudden two-bid nature. Think the slimmer Big East field looks weird? This is just strange.
New Mexico [18-5 (9-2), RPI: 35, SOS: 69] The Lobos' Dec. 7 win over Cincinnati didn't garner a ton of notice at the time, but it has looked better and better as the season has gone along, and it provides a nice little boost to New Mexico's solid but not overwhelming overall profile. The best news for New Mexico is that its nonconference work -- a top-20-ranked noncon SOS -- is locked in. The bad news is that the MWC contains an unusually high number of RPI land mines. And the pretty-good news is that New Mexico has two games against San Diego State left to counteract any such setbacks.
|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 [19-5 (8-3), RPI: 16, SOS: 16] Of the rest of the non-Arizona Pac-12, only UCLA is solidly in the field as of today. The Bruins would need to come up with a historic collapse -- against a favorable schedule to boot -- to somehow miss out on Selection Sunday.
Colorado [18-7 (7-5), RPI: 25, SOS: 14] One of the other early questions posed to new chairman Ron Wellman on Wednesday was about Colorado, and how the selection committee figures in a team's performance before and after key injuries. Well, actually, that question kind of veered into strange territory -- it ended up being about whether the committee factors injuries into the RPI, or something. But the point is, the committee very much does consider a team's performance relative to its personnel at the time of the tournament. The Buffs have held the line after Spencer Dinwiddie's season-ending injury, but their remaining schedule -- at USC, vs. Arizona and Arizona State, at Utah, at Stanford, at Cal -- is just straight-up brutal.
Arizona State [18-6 (7-4), RPI: 37, SOS: 73] The same rationale for Stanford can be applied to Arizona State, minus one big nonconference road win, plus about 130 digits in the noncon SOS category (which ranks 203). On Friday night, Arizona comes to town. The Sun Devils can present a decent matchup challenge with Jordan Bachynski in the paint, and Jahii Carson is a force on the perimeter, so it is totally reasonable to think they could get a win. And boy, would it help.
Oregon [15-8 (3-8), RPI: 42, SOS: 19] 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. They're barely in the picture here.
Stanford [15-8 (6-5), RPI: 46, SOS: 32] The Cardinal were on the opposite side of the NorCal-via-Washington trip this week, and the opposite side of a result, too, losing 64-60 at Washington. So yes, there is still work to be done, but when you compare Stanford to the 10 or so teams closer to the cut line, it's still in OK shape. That Dec. 18 win at UConn keeps giving.
California [16-8 (7-4), RPI: 48, SOS: 59] The Bears held on for an 80-76 win at Wazzu on Wednesday, which is decidedly good news: A loss would have made for five in their past six, with the only win coming over Arizona in its first minutes after Brandon Ashley's injury. Anyway, the good news is Cal pairs its distinction as being the only team to beat the Wildcats with a decent road win at Stanford. A loss at Washington wouldn't be the worst thing in the world Saturday, especially if Cal could knock off UCLA at home next week.
|Work left to do: Missouri, Tennessee, Ole Miss, LSU|
Usually, having two teams locked in by mid-February is a great sign. More to come, right? For the 2013-14 SEC, it means nothing more than that two of its teams are heading to the NCAA tournament. The rest of the league's hopes are scattered and thin; for the second straight season, the bubble is infested by the SEC.
Missouri [17-7 (5-6), RPI: 43, SOS: 63] The Tigers just about got taken off the page Thursday night, when they nearly let a late lead slip to Arkansas at home. But they held on, 86-85, to keep their bubble hopes alive, at least for the time being. Missouri lacks quality wins, of course, but the biggest issue is its lack of quality games: The Tigers have played just three top-50 opponents all season, two of which were Kentucky and Florida. The SEC hasn't helped matters much.
Tennessee [15-9 (6-5), RPI: 50, SOS: 8] Cuonzo Martin's team played fairly well against Florida on Tuesday night but, no surprise, came away with nothing more than another reasonably well-played loss. That's the abiding concern for this team, which continues to look better than its resume without notching any of the wins it needs to close that gap. The biggest concern now is the remaining schedule, which includes two games against Missouri, as well as Georgia, Texas A&M, Auburn, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. There's barely a good win in that bunch. Saturday's trip to Columbia takes on even greater importance.
Ole Miss [16-8 (7-4), RPI: 61, SOS: 91] "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," we wrote Tuesday, and that was before Ole Miss followed its home win over Missouri with a road loss to Alabama. Again, there are still home games against Kentucky and Florida yet to be played, but when your best win is a home victory over Missouri, you have serious issues.
LSU [15-8 (6-5), RPI: 65, SOS: 88] The Tigers -- the same Tigers that pummeled Kentucky less than three weeks ago -- lost at Texas A&M on Wednesday, adding another sub-100 RPI loss to their docket. They, like Missouri, have a lot of work to do to get to an even remotely safe place by mid-March.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Work left to do: Gonzaga, Toledo, BYU, Indiana State, Green Bay, Louisiana Tech|
Gonzaga [22-4 (12-1), RPI: 21, SOS: 98] One team that loves to see West Virginia kick it into high gear down the stretch? Gonzaga. The Zags won at WVU all the way back on Dec. 10, when winning at West Virginia was a barely noticeable feat; now that win is starting to look a little bit better. Anyway, if the field were seeded today, Gonzaga would be about a No. 7 seed. The Zags are fine. They're a "mid-major" powerhouse, with a much greater margin for error than most of the teams on this list. But that four-game road trip to end the season is brutal all the same.
Toledo [21-3 (9-2), RPI: 24, SOS: 131] 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 fully 14 of its 21 victories have come against teams ranked outside the RPI top 150. The safest bet is winning the MAC tournament because there's not a whole lot the Rockets can do between now and then to boost their profile.
BYU [17-10 (9-5), RPI: 49, SOS: 27] BYU lost at Pacific on Thursday night, which is, you know, not great. Is it worth a kick off the bubble? No. The Cougars' schedule -- specifically their top-five noncon SOS -- should help them cure a lot of ills relative to the rest of the bubble morass. But a Saturday visit to Saint Mary's looms large.
Indiana State [19-6 (10-3), RPI: 54, SOS: 142] Save the state of Indiana from once-in-a-decade ignominy, Indiana State! You're its only hope!
Green Bay [20-5 (10-2), RPI: 69, SOS: 182] 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 ... but still might have to win the conference tournament to get a tournament bid when all is said and done. The margin for error in the Horizon is especially thin.
Louisiana Tech [20-5 (8-2), RPI: 75, SOS: 234] 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.