College Basketball Bubble Watch
Louisville's ban is good news for bubble teams
Whoa, whoa, whoa. This must be bad.
That was the reaction that immediately snapped through the synapses Friday afternoon, when Louisville, in a hastily assembled news conference, announced that it would self-impose a postseason ban effective this season.
As ESPN's Dana O'Neil so artfully summarized in the wake of the news, Louisville's decision was essentially unprecedented. Syracuse had its hearings. Syracuse had a team headed to the NIT. Louisville had nothing more than informal updates from the NCAA and its own investigation -- not even a (known) notice of allegations. It had a team with Final Four potential.
It also has Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, two graduate seniors who transferred to Louisville with the expressed intent of making their first appearances in the NCAA tournament, now stripped of that chance, for reasons beyond their control, with a month left in their careers.
Louisville was prostrate before the court, preemptively pleading for mercy, despite it all. Yeah: This was bad.
Then, eventually, came a second thought: Every bubble team must be stoked.
The Cardinals were nowhere near the bubble, of course; they were already a single-digit seed with most of their marquee opportunities in front of them. They were a tournament team, however, a wooden block piece in the great Jenga bracket stack, and their sudden departure from eligibility shifts everyone below them up one place and offers yet another at-large spot to a hungry bubble field.
SMU's own postseason ban, handed down in September, has kept the 20-2 Mustangs' position open all season. Compared to Louisville's circumstances, SMU's academic missteps seems like child's play. Yet both bans will mean the same thing on Selection Sunday, when the last two at-large teams in the tournament will know whom to thank.
|American Athletic Conference|
|Work left to do: Connecticut, Cincinnati, Temple|
Beyond having its best team not eligible for the NCAA tournament, the American's bubble is volatile indeed. Connecticut is playing much better basketball than its resume indicates. Cincinnati is exceedingly vulnerable after a loss at Memphis. And now, once-dismissed Temple is back from the bubble dead. Huh?
Connecticut [17-6 (7-3), RPI: 47, SOS: 70] Do wins over UCF, Memphis and East Carolina get the Bubble Watch's blood pumping? No. Not usually, anyway. When they are handled with the type of dominant verve UConn displayed in its past three games -- two of which were on the road, and which came by a combined margin of 64 points -- our proverbial ears perk up. This is why per-possession statistics can be so helpful, after all: They highlight the nuance and detail of wins. The RPI algorithm won't be so impressed. It's also wrong. The rate of return on a win at Texas is skyrocketing, sure, but the best sign for the Huskies -- who are still 4-6 against the top 100 -- is the really good basketball they happen to be playing.
Cincinnati [17-7 (7-4), RPI: 63, SOS: 99] Cincinnati's loss at Memphis on Saturday was tough to swallow, considering Connecticut drilled the same team in the same building 48 hours prior. It was also, as Joe Lunardi noted Monday, cause to reassess the Bearcats' overall record. And the biggest problem? A 4-6 record against the top 100, a 2-3 record against top-100 teams in league play and just six wins against the top 150. Throw in the shaky RPI and schedule numbers, and the Bearcats find themselves with much more work to do than we assumed they'd need by this point of the season.
Temple [14-8 (8-3), RPI: 70, SOS: 86] Temple was entirely forgettable for the entire first half of the season. Its per-possession averages in league play rank -- 1.02 points per trip on offense, 0.99 allowed on defense -- rank sixth and fourth respectively in the American and are hardly markers of some major on-court turnaround. Yet, somehow, Fran Dunphy's team owns the two best wins of any American entity (SMU, at UConn) and is now the current league standings leader* (*not named SMU). That's why you'll see the Owls perched (sorry) on the No. 12 line in so many brackets this week. Whether they'll remain there is up for debate. The RPI and schedule figures are not exactly mind-blowing. Either way, Thursday night's home game against Connecticut just got fascinating.
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Dayton|
Work left to do: Saint Joseph's, George Washington, VCU, St Bonaventure
George Washington takes a step up, VCU takes a step back, Dayton keeps rolling toward its inevitable lock status and St. Bonaventure hits a last-second 3 (at home, against Saint Louis) to avoid Bubble Watch banishment. Say what you will about the bottom half of the A-10, but it definitely keeps things interesting.
Dayton [19-3 (9-1), RPI: 12, SOS: 53] If the Flyers' 98-64 win at George Mason was an indication of how they plan to finish the 2015-16 A-10 regular season, they will have zero problems with this whole NCAA tournament thing, and their computer numbers (top-15 RPI, top-5 nonconference SOS) remain great. So why aren't they a lock? Save Iowa, which is a beast, the rest of their wins aren't quite lock-level, and, more than anything, playing in the A-10 means that five of the Flyers' last eight games come against sub-100 teams. The schedule is just frightening enough to hold off on. But a lock is coming soon enough.
Saint Joseph's [19-4 (8-2), RPI: 30, SOS: 102] A game at Fordham only matters if you somehow fail to win at Fordham. Saint Joe's didn't (fail, that is) so this weekend can be rightfully be called a success. It also sets up a really interesting road trip at George Washington this week, which would be the biggest remaining game on the regular-season schedule were it not for Dayton's arrival on Feb. 17.
George Washington [18-5 (7-3), RPI: 34, SOS: 116] VCU's resume is hardly an ironclad tournament-bound situation, but: Winning in Richmond -- being the first A-10 team to beat the Rams, and doing it on the road -- made Saturday a massive step forward for Mike Lonergan's team. Wednesday brings Saint Joe's to Foggy Bottom, and the atmosphere should be excellent. Another win would be another stride toward overcoming some sporadic bad losses and a questionable schedule.
VCU [17-6 (9-1), RPI: 39, SOS: 69] The Rams had been coasting in A-10 play before Saturday's home loss to George Washington, which marked not only their first loss in conference play but also their first since Dec. 19. Which is another way of saying the game was much bigger for what George Washington did than what VCU didn't -- though the Rams still need to finish strong to make up for their lack of quality wins (other than at Saint Joe's, depending on how generous you're feeling today).
St Bonaventure [15-6 (7-3), RPI: 45, SOS: 82] Sunday was a nervy outing for the Bonnies, who needed a last-second 3 from guard Jaylen Adams to get past the 8-14 Saint Louis Billikens. A loss would have kicked them off the page, possibly for good. Instead their chances, however remote they may be at present, were preserved.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Miami (FL)|
Work left to do: Duke, Notre Dame, Florida State, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Clemson
Miami (FL) [18-4 (7-3), RPI: 14, SOS: 64] A top-15 RPI, not-detrimental schedule numbers, 4-1 against the Top 25, 6-1 versus the top 50, 11-3 against the top 100, one bad loss (Northeastern in late November): Miami keeps chugging along, playing really good basketball, getting only the occasional national title contention mention. Oh well. They'll be a lock soon enough.
Duke [18-6 (7-4), RPI: 21, SOS: 31] As brutal as it looked when the Blue Devils were 4-4 in the ACC and in the midst of a full-on English Premier League-style "team in crisis!" moment, the flip side of Duke's Louisville/Virginia/North Carolina/Louisville gauntlet was always baked right in. Which is to say: Those were, and are, huge wins just waiting to happen. The first is in the books after Monday night's close-out win over Louisville. Saturday brings Virginia -- a team whose one noteworthy flaw this season has been its struggles on the road in conference play -- to Durham. A win there and suddenly Duke is back to 8-4 in the league with two more top-25 RPI wins (and one in the top five) and little to lose on the road at UNC next week. The lesson, as always: Difficulty and opportunity always run in proportion.
Notre Dame [17-7 (8-4), RPI: 22, SOS: 21] A loss at Clemson on Monday wouldn't have been an indictment. The Irish were just 48 hours past a hard-earned home win over North Carolina. Clemson has been very tough to beat on its own floor. No harm done, right? Nevermind. The Irish rebounded from Saturday's marquee victory with another torchlight offensive performance against the Tigers, and if they keep this up, the echoes of last season -- when Mike Brey's team also happened to beat Duke and UNC -- will officially be slamming their alarm clocks.
Florida State [16-7 (6-5), RPI: 40, SOS: 81] Don't look now, but Florida State is 4-0 in its last four. Granted, just 25 percent of those wins came against prospective tournament teams (Clemson), and at home to boot, but every win is worth celebrating when you're hovering so close to the cut line in February. Taking a chunk out of a Jim Boeheim-rejuvenated Syracuse team on Thursday would be a different kind of victory, and would pair nicely with an in-state lovers' quarrel at home against Miami on Sunday.
Pittsburgh [17-5 (6-4), RPI: 41, SOS: 68] Pittsburgh spent November, December and the first half of January scoring with the efficiency of an elite offensive team. Just one catch: The Panthers' schedule was terrible. Until the ACC threw its best at them, a realistic appraisal would have to wait. A month after its 41-point performance in a Jan. 14 road loss to Louisville, and three days after Saturday's 50 points at home against Virginia, the sample feels large enough to peg Pitt as a decent but flawed team whose pristine early numbers were a product of the schedule. The resume is in line with that assessment. Decent, but flawed.
Syracuse [16-8 (6-5), RPI: 44, SOS: 46] There's a chance Syracuse will be the most interesting non-LSU team of the 2016 bubble season. Why? Call it the Boeheim Effect. Before Boeheim abruptly left the team to begin serving his post-appeal NCAA suspension earlier than expected, the Orange were 6-1 with wins over UConn and Texas A&M. Then, when Boeheim left, his team went 4-5, including a road loss to St. John's and a home loss to Clemson. Since his return: 6-2 with wins over Duke and Notre Dame and losses to UNC and Virginia. The difference is already overwhelming, and it's safe to expect an even wider gulf before the season is over. Committee chair Joe Castiglione has already confirmed the committee will weigh Boeheim's absence the same way it considers injured players. The question is: How heavily? Will it throw out the nine-game lull? Does the St. John's loss disappear altogether? Will Syracuse's seed reflect only the Boeheim-led games, and how much of a jump could that represent? And yes, we said "seed." Syracuse overall might be a bubble team. Syracuse with Boeheim isn't.
Clemson [14-10 (7-5), RPI: 87, SOS: 76] The Tigers have two true road wins this season. One came at Wake Forest last week. The other came at Syracuse before Jim Boeheim returned from suspension. Credit where it's due and all, but the point is that a team with home wins over Louisville, Duke, Miami, Pitt and Florida State has to prove to the committee that it is still the same team when it leaves its own building. That might be Clemson's top priority, honestly. Which is why a loss at Virginia Tech -- which, sure, is 5-6 in the ACC, but still -- is more problematic than most. If the home-court advantage the Tigers have enjoyed in league play goes missing (see the loss to Notre Dame on Monday), then they're in real trouble.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Iowa State, Texas, Baylor|
Work left to do: Texas Tech
Throw out the Florida game. Sure, it was barely more than a week ago that West Virginia got run off the floor in Gainesville by an unsung, so-so Gators team (at least to that point, anyway), and the high-octane 88-70 result was as confusing as any we've seen all season. Two games later the explanation looks simple: Florida was an outlier. (Also, just for the record? The RPI sees Florida as a top-25 team.) On Tuesday, the Mountaineers did the unthinkable -- winning at Iowa State -- and then, on Saturday, had zero issues with Baylor at home. The result is a resume whose nonconference strength of schedule is the lone noteworthy flaw, a team still playing ever-better basketball, and a schedule that still includes cracks at Kansas and Texas (on the road) and Oklahoma and ISU (at home). The Mountaineers are getting in.
Iowa State [17-6 (6-4), RPI: 13, SOS: 6] That was a gutty win for the Cyclones on Saturday at Oklahoma State. Or maybe it was a giveaway by the Cowboys? They did shoot just three free throws all game, which is kind of crazy. Then again, Georges Niang went 7-for-10 and scored 16 of his 18 points in the second half, which is classic Niang. Your mileage may vary. Whatever the interpretation, the fact is the Cyclones escaped Stillwater, Oklahoma, on an off day offensively, and without suspended big man Jameel McKay, preventing another loss after Tuesday's disappointment against West Virginia. They're now 6-4 in the Big 12. Huge win.
Texas [16-8 (7-4), RPI: 19, SOS: 4] Yes, yes, tough loss. The Longhorns led for most of their trip to Norman, Oklahoma, on Monday. The game was a one-possession affair in the closing seconds. Isaiah Taylor was called for an offensive foul that was both the correct call and a difficult one, given the time and score. And then Buddy Hield did what Buddy Hield does, scoring OU's final 12 points in the last 3:20 of the game, sealing the Sooners' win with a vicious crossover stepback 3. Seriously: Tough loss. But you know what? That was the Longhorns' second defeat in nine games, a stretch that saw them beat Iowa State, West Virginia (away), Baylor (away) and play Kansas to single digits in Lawrence. If anything Monday just cemented this team's progress, because hanging with OU in Norman -- more than hanging with them, really -- is the kind of thing you can only do if you're an extremely good team. At this rate a lock is in play in the very near future. What a month.
Baylor [17-6 (6-4), RPI: 26, SOS: 36] Baylor feels pretty similar to what it was last year, both as a team and resume-wise, at least at this point in the season. Which is to say: pretty good. Not great. Not bad. Pretty good. The mechanics of the Bears' actual team sheet won't get them on the No. 3 line like it did last year, barring a major push over the next month. But even after back-to-back losses, and now sitting at 5-6 against the top 100, it still feels like it would take a collapse for the Bears to miss the tournament. If things head that way, they'll drop to work to do. Right now, they're still OK.
Texas Tech [13-9 (3-7), RPI: 52, SOS: 5] It's hard to take Tech off the page after a 10-point road loss at Texas, because the Longhorns are a quality team playing high-level basketball every time out. But the loss did drop Tech to 3-7 in the Big 12, which is a problematic indicator if nothing else. The schedule will look great the rest of the way, but at some point -- maybe Wednesday against Iowa State -- the Red Raiders just need wins.
|Big East Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Providence|
Work left to do: Seton Hall, Butler, Georgetown
After Creighton's 88-66 thumping of DePaul on Saturday, we maintain that on the floor, the Bluejays look like a worthy tournament team. Their resume -- which is just 1-5 against the top 50, 3-8 against the top 100 and features a 100-ish RPI and a brutal nonconference schedule (as well as a road loss at Loyola-Chicago) -- vociferously argues otherwise. Perhaps we'll add another team to the Big East bubble in the coming weeks, but it will take a major lift by Greg McDermott's team (starting with Tuesday's visit from Xavier) to make it happen.
Providence [18-6 (6-5), RPI: 32, SOS: 55] The Friars' 77-70 road loss at DePaul last week was followed by a massive, regular-season-sweep-sealing home game against Villanova on Saturday. Even more impressive -- and we really can't stress how good Villanova is and has been all season -- is Jay Wright's team won without starting forward Daniel Ochefu. Providence was banged up, too: Ben Bentil was a 50-50 game-time decision; he played, but clearly wasn't 100 percent. Two things here: The loss obviously doesn't hurt (again, Villanova is really good), and Bentil's injury woes are both a short-term caveat to Providence's loss and also the biggest long-term concern about this team. If Kris Dunn or Bentil (or both) aren't at their best, Providence becomes vulnerable in a hurry.
Seton Hall [17-6 (7-4), RPI: 38, SOS: 80] Saturday's handy home win over Georgetown pushed the Pirates' streak of consecutive wins to four. Maybe a four-game winning streak isn't quite as laudable when it comes at the expense of St. John's, Creighton, Marquette and the Hoyas, but when you're as close to the bubble as the Pirates, you can't afford to turn your nose up at wins. Wednesday's home game against Butler could make it five.
Butler [16-7 (5-6), RPI: 68, SOS: 119] Given the remarkable off-court tragedy the Butler hoops family has endured in just the past few weeks alone, you could have, on a purely human level, forgiven the Bulldogs for coming out in a distracted haze at St. John's on Saturday. The RPI formula would have been less understanding (which is to say: not at all). Instead, Chris Holtmann's team was locked in, dominating in an 89-56 win. Perhaps the elite offense that made Butler a Top 25 team (and a seemingly surefire tourney lock) in November and December is ending its January hibernation.
Georgetown [14-11 (7-5), RPI: 76, SOS: 38] Lost three straight games? Lacking confidence on the offensive end? Have you tried "Playing St. John's"? From the folks who brought you Playing DePaul comes the latest cure for everything your struggling team needs! Renowned biologists have formulated Playing St. John's with a unique blend of naturally occurring ingredients -- disinterested defense, inept offense! -- and condensed them into one easily digestible opponent. It's designed to treat defeats at their source. That's why four out of five Big East coaches recommend it. Playing St. John's: You literally can't lose! (Trademark pending.)
|Big Ten Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Michigan State, Purdue|
Work left to do: Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin
The theory of bubble relativity (see Friday's introduction) applies to Maryland. The Terps may not own the type of eye-popping, top-heavy team sheet we typically see from early-February locks; Saturday's 72-61 win over Purdue was their third top-50 win of the season, and their so-so nonconference schedule and lack of marquee road wins are worth noting. Relative to most of the team sheets out there, however, Maryland's is downright pristine. But here's the biggest reason we're locking Maryland today: Really good basketball teams tend to make the NCAA tournament. Maryland is really good. Sometimes it is that simple.
Michigan State [20-4 (7-4), RPI: 16, SOS: 79] Speaking of top-heavy team sheets, how about Michigan State? Saturday's 89-73 win on rival Michigan's home floor marked the Spartans' seventh top-100 win of the season (the Wolverines fall just outside the top 50 at No. 56). That's impressive. Even more so: MSU has four top-30 wins. Among them are Kansas (neutral) along with Louisville, Maryland and Florida at home. A home loss to Nebraska and the 7-4 conference record are the only blemishes here. A win at Purdue Tuesday will make the Spartans the next Big Ten lock, and with a bullet. But they'll get there eventually all the same.
Purdue [19-5 (7-4), RPI: 25, SOS: 75] The Boilermakers may be kicking themselves for Saturday's outcome, which saw them squander a three-point halftime lead, and an excellent defensive performance, en route to a 72-61 loss at Maryland. The problem? Shooting. As Matt Painter said after the game, the Terrapins eventually resolved to stop A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas from the constant beating they were administering in the Maryland paint -- leaving Purdue's perimeter with loads of open looks. They simply didn't fall. The Boilermakers guard, rebound and utilize one of the most imposing frontcourts in the country. But if they can't make shots, they're beatable.
Indiana [19-5 (9-2), RPI: 54, SOS: 178] Give Penn State, and specifically coach Pat Chambers, credit. Saturday night's visit from Indiana came just four days after the Hoosiers put a Globetrotters-esque 28-0 run on Michigan in Ann Arbor, en route to a 80-67 road victory that basically established IU's ceiling after an 8-1 Big Ten start against the softest parts of their schedule. The Nittany Lions beat that team -- holding IU to less than a point per trip -- with not only good defense but some really smart and opportunistic stuff down the stretch. (At one point late, Chambers' team executed inside-out screens against both of the guards at the top of IU's 2-3 zone. It didn't result in a bucket, but it was something you don't see every day.) The upshot for IU isn't great; the Nittany Lions are a sub-100 RPI team, after all, and Indiana's RPI and schedule numbers still somewhat undersell how well they've played since January. But the opportunity to rebound with a win over Iowa on Thursday night at home, where the Hoosiers remain unbeaten and where the crowd will be nuts, is at least a minor palliative.
Michigan [17-7 (7-4), RPI: 56, SOS: 72] This week represented a huge opportunity for Michigan to firm up its tourney shot. Instead, their consecutive home games against Indiana and Michigan State ended in double-digit blowouts, and suddenly the Wolverines don't feel so safe. A neutral-court win over Texas and that Jan. 12 home win over Maryland still look good, but those results represent 66.7 percent of the Wolverines' top-100 wins (the other: at NC State, which, meh) and 28.6 percent of their seven top-150 wins. If UM makes it three in a row at Minnesota Wednesday, trouble will have officially arrived.
Wisconsin [14-9 (6-4), RPI: 60, SOS: 9] As the clock wound down on Wisconsin's 79-68 win over Ohio State on Thursday, former UConn coach/current ESPN analyst Jim Calhoun, discussing the Badgers' bubble position, essentially said to forget whether the OSU win was marquee or not, because Wisconsin needs every win it can get. He was right. UW's five-game winning streak has included victories over Michigan State and Indiana; it has also included not-losses against Penn State, Illinois and the Buckeyes. When you're in this kind of spot -- smack dab on our early conception of the bubble -- any win or loss, whether obviously good or obviously bad or somewhere in the middle, can be the difference.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Work left to do: San Diego State|
San Diego State [18-6 (11-0), RPI: 46, SOS: 61] There are two ways this could end. The first is if San Diego State, regardless of its regular-season finish, wins the Mountain West tournament, in which case it would receive the league's automatic bid. The other route is if SDSU falters in league play to the point that it wouldn't merit at-large inclusion if and when one of its Mountain competitors shocks the world in Las Vegas. The Aztecs haven't done so yet, though they were taken to overtime by New Mexico on Saturday at home. Whatever happens, it is incredibly strange to see a league so good in recent years so clearly reduced, for bid purposes, to the same status as, say, the Ivy League.
|Teams that should be in: USC|
Work left to do: Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Oregon State, California, Washington, UCLA
Let's go ahead and lock in the Ducks, eh? Sunday's win over Utah -- college basketball remains the Watch's preferred Super Bowl pregame show -- was Oregon's sixth straight, spanning two road wins (at Arizona and ASU) and four top-30-ish notches (USC, Arizona, Colorado, Utah). Dana Altman's team owns the nation's top strength of schedule figure, a top-five RPI and is 3-0, 8-2 and 14-3 against the top 25, 50 and top 100, respectively. Their remaining schedule really has just one potential eyesore (Washington State), and that game is in Eugene, Oregon. The best team in the Pac-12 has emerged in force, and its chances of getting to the tournament are basically sealed.
USC [18-5 (7-3), RPI: 15, SOS: 57] The Trojans' win over UCLA on Thursday may have done more to push the Bruins back than advance USC's case, which is another way of saying USC is in pretty darn solid bubble shape. (UCLA, less so.) Then again, they moved up a row, so maybe not? The point here is that this is an extremely solid resume with no real flaws, and even if the wins and the schedule aren't amazing (depending in part on what the committee ends up thinking about a Fred VanVleet-less Wichita State team), USC feels relatively safe as a mid-single-digit seed at this point in the proceedings. Maybe that changes after the Arizona State-Arizona road trip this weekend. We tend to doubt it.
Utah [17-7 (6-5), RPI: 18, SOS: 20] No harm done in Sunday's loss at Oregon, and the Oregon State loss that preceded it Thursday wasn't much damage, either. This resume isn't as good as its numbers would seem to indicate, but it's still thoroughly decent -- and the Utes still have room to improve on the floor. Assuming they do, they should be fine.
Colorado [17-7 (6-5), RPI: 28, SOS: 44] As is custom, Colorado followed Utah on up to Oregon (this is starting to sound like a folk song) last weekend and, just like Utah, took back-to-back losses in Eugene and Corvallis. Not the worst thing ever, sure, but for a resume that's merely solid, and whose best road wins are over Stanford and Auburn, taking at least one of two, even at Oregon State, would have been nice.
Arizona [19-5 (7-4), RPI: 29, SOS: 121] As good as Arizona looked in its first two games after a Jan. 28 home loss to Oregon -- the one when Sean Miller mercilessly ripped his team postgame -- victories over Oregon State and Washington State weren't too telling, especially given that the former came at home. Last weekend's win at Washington, though? Perhaps a corner has been turned. That would be good news for a team that has just one top-50 win on its resume, a questionable (270-ish) nonconference schedule and big opportunities (USC, at Colorado and Utah) in the coming weeks.
Oregon State [14-8 (5-6), RPI: 33, SOS: 12] Consecutive home wins over Utah and Colorado boosted the Beavers' RPI; life in the Pac-12 this season really is grand. Now comes the hard part: at Stanford, at Cal, at Oregon, all in the next 11 days. Calling any one of them a must-win feels premature, because the success of the road trip will be determined contextually -- a loss at Stanford is fine if followed by a win over the Bears. An 0-2 start? No big deal, if followed by a win over the Ducks. Really interesting stretch here.
California [15-8 (5-5), RPI: 35, SOS: 39] Here's the good news: California remained unbeaten on its own floor in Saturday's 15-point win over Stanford. Here's the bad news: California is mediocre everywhere else. The Bears are 14-0 in Berkeley, 0-2 on neutral courts and 1-6 in true road games -- and, altitude challenges aside, that one win (at 12-13 Wyoming) is hardly a life-changer. Now back to the good news: Oregon comes to town Thursday night. At some point Cal should probably think about winning away from home. This week is not that week.
Washington [15-8 (7-4), RPI: 58, SOS: 37] No team has profited as much from Texas' remarkable Big 12 run more than Washington, for a very simple reason: No one else has played Texas twice. The Huskies met the Longhorns all the way back on Nov. 13 in Shanghai; they met again Nov. 26 in the Bahamas. The sheer fact of a playing a nonconference team with a still-climbing RPI is nice enough; beating them is even better. Unfortunately, the rest of the resume remains immensely bubbly, particularly given Saturday's missed opportunity at home against Arizona. Much more work to do. In the meantime: Go Longhorns?
UCLA [13-10 (4-6), RPI: 69, SOS: 24] On Thursday, UCLA's 80-61 loss at crosstown rival USC dropped it to 4-6 in league play, 13-10 overall, 3-6 against the RPI top 50 and just 6-9 against the top 100. The upside is that, um, well hmm. They beat Kentucky? And Arizona? On their own floor? Yeah: It's not looking great. Oh, wait, we remembered the actual good news: UCLA got into the tournament with a similar resume last season! Remember that? And then went to the Sweet 16! Man. Good times.
|Teams that should be in: Texas A&M, Kentucky|
Work left to do: Florida, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Georgia, LSU
Texas A&M [18-5 (7-3), RPI: 17, SOS: 49] On Friday, the Watch dismissed an Aggies loss that would prove, on Saturday, to be just the first of a two-game slide. The point still stands: Texas A&M is not a bubble team, or close to it. But if you're wondering why we can be so cautious with locks, here you go -- and there are two more road games (at Alabama, at LSU) now on deck.
Kentucky [17-6 (7-3), RPI: 20, SOS: 50] The Wildcats have lost six games. All six have come away from Rupp Arena. They simply don't lose in that building under John Calipari, even in seasons like this, which reminds us a lot of the 2010-11 team with Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones: talented dudes, young dudes, a couple of glaring flaws, totally susceptible to road losses in league play. That team lost six games on the road in the SEC (and eight overall away from Rupp). When it fell to dreary Arkansas on Feb. 23, it was roundly dismissed as mediocre. Then it won its next 10 -- winning the SEC tourney and earning a No. 4 seed in the process -- and didn't stop until the Final Four in Houston. This team isn't as good as that one. Its flaws (frontcourt instability, bad perimeter shooting) are more glaring. But still. We're not saying; we're just saying.
Florida [15-8 (6-4), RPI: 23, SOS: 7] Nothing surprising for Florida this weekend, which is to say the Gators lost, and handily so, at Kentucky. Oh well. Yeah, a win would have been great, but under John Calipari, UK loses at Rupp at roughly the same clip Kansas loses at Allen Fieldhouse under Bill Self. Which is to say: almost never. The RPI still loves the Gators, and their schedule numbers (including a top-five nonconference mark) are stellar.
South Carolina [20-3 (7-3), RPI: 27, SOS: 195] Just a big ol' win for the Gamecocks on Saturday over Texas A&M. There's no more elegant way to put it. South Carolina's emergence in its 15-0 start had been one of the surprise stories of the early season. The more you looked at the nitty-gritty, the more you realized that part of the reason SC won its first 15 games is because it played almost nobody (a road win at Clemson possibly excepted). Its nonconference schedule is outside the top 300. It needed to stack a couple of big ones. We overlooked the odds of a win at Texas A&M entirely, thinking more about a home date with Kentucky on Saturday. Now the Gamecocks get LSU and the Wildcats in Columbia in a matter of four days. Frank Martin's team may have a few more surprises up its sleeve yet.
Vanderbilt [13-10 (5-5), RPI: 57, SOS: 19] One step forward, one half-step back. Is it generous to call a loss at Ole Miss a half-step back? Possibly. The Rebels are hardly terrible, however, and a loss in Oxford hardly marks the onset of the apocalypse. But honestly? When you knock off A&M on Thursday, you'd really prefer to handle your business against a far more beatable team on Saturday, venue notwithstanding. Vanderbilt needs more than incremental progress to get safely on the right side of the bubble before March.
Georgia [13-8 (6-4), RPI: 64, SOS: 27] That home win over South Carolina (Feb. 2) got a bit better on Saturday. Unfortunately, it is the only noteworthy win Georgia has all season. Meanwhile, Missouri stands as its lone road victory all season. A win Tuesday at Kentucky -- long shot -- would alleviate that problem. Until then, this is the Texas Tech of the SEC. Impressive schedules only go so far.
LSU [15-8 (8-2), RPI: 74, SOS: 100] After a missed opportunity versus Oklahoma, LSU cleaned up with two wins against the dregs of the SEC (Auburn, Mississippi State). Which, believe it or not, put them in the aforementioned sole first place in conference play. Crazy. How much that matters will eventually be up to the committee to decide, but any piece of evidence LSU can point to that says, "Look how much better we are now than in November and December! Please believe us!" is a good thing. Even more positive would be a 2-for-2 week at South Carolina and home vs. A&M.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Work left to do: Monmouth, Chattanooga, Wichita St, Valparaiso, Saint Mary's, Gonzaga|
Valparaiso is among the nation's best mid-major teams, starring one of the best players (forward Alec Peters) in any league anywhere. Chattanooga is 22-3 with a win at -- this is where we dramatically shift our glasses up and down our face a la Matt Foley -- does that say Dayton? Odin's beard! A warm Bubble Watch welcome goes out to both. We can't say quite as much for candidates like William & Mary (which has zero top-50 RPI wins and lost at Howard), Arkansas-Little Rock (which picked the wrong year to rest its hopes on a road win at San Diego State), South Dakota State (whose toughest win was either Middle Tennessee or IPFW), or Akron (same story, different wins).
Monmouth [19-5 (11-2), RPI: 31, SOS: 126] Anyone invested in Monmouth's potential NCAA tournament participation -- which, thanks to its bench, is a suddenly massive demographic -- should read Joe Lunardi's latest Behind the Bracket feature. Assuming the Hawks pick up one more regular-season loss and then lose in the MAAC tournament, Joe writes, "I would be inclined to vote for Monmouth in this scenario, provided the conference tourney loss isn't to a MAAC bottom-dweller. The Hawks would have done just about everything humanly possible to earn an at-large bid against an incredibly stacked deck. Without knowing the exact competition for the final few spots, my gut tells me the selection committee would go the opposite way. There would be one or more "semi-hot" Power 5-type teams standing in Monmouth's way." The possibility with the most comedic potential is if those middling majors include UCLA and/or Georgetown, both of which Monmouth smacked in true road settings. Can you imagine the Internet anger? It would be the NCAA's most reviled tournament decision since The Fray.
Chattanooga [22-3 (11-1), RPI: 36, SOS: 182] A warm Bubble Watch welcome to the best of the Southern Conference. That distinction alone isn't enough to get noticed here, of course. So what is? What if we told you that just three teams have topped the nearly-locked-in Dayton Flyers all season, and that only one of those teams has done it in UD Arena? And then what if we told you that team was Chattanooga? Is that something you might be interested in? A road win at Georgia isn't quite as impressive, but it looks better now that the Bulldogs are scratching their way toward the bubble. Those are the only two top-100 wins here, and Chattanooga didn't do itself any favors playing just three top-100 teams. It's hard to know just how good this team really is. Monday's closing seconds at Mercer involved a blocked shot, a held ball, and a missed dunk in the matter of seconds. (Justin Tuoyo had a rough night.) To be fair, Matt McCall's team was much more impressive in overtime. Also? Dayton at Dayton! The least we can do is put them in the discussion.
Wichita St [17-6 (11-1), RPI: 42, SOS: 90] Another weekend, another wait, what? Wichita State lost?! True story. Saturday's road trip to Illinois State ranked among the Shockers' most difficult remaining regular-season games, which is to say it was one of maybe two or three in which Gregg Marshall's team wasn't a 90-percent-or-better favorite in KenPom.com's projection model. In the Valley, a cold offensive night (in this case, 53 points in 63 trips) is all it takes to add an ugly loss to the resume. The Redbirds count as Wichita State's first. How much it will matter depends on how many more, if any, the Shockers plan on dropping. Most likely, they'll get to the end of the season with such an overwhelming record with Fred VanVleet in the lineup that they won't need to stake their tournament hopes at Arch Madness. As always, though, the margin for error is slim.
Valparaiso [20-4 (10-1), RPI: 49, SOS: 188] If Chattanooga is on, we might as well throw Valpo in the mix too. The Crusaders are similarly superior to their mid-major league (10-1 in the Horizon). They have a similar RPI number, a far more favorable nonconference schedule, one more top-100 win, and the same number of sub-150 losses. Where Chattanooga got a genuinely marquee victory at Dayton, however, Bryce Drew's team had to settle for a W at Oregon State. Nice, sure, but it's no Dayton. Or, for that matter, Oregon. (The Ducks held on for a 73-67 win back on Nov. 22.) The Crusaders spent much of November and December intermittently banged up. Now healthy, they play the stingiest per-possession defense in the country, while star forward Alec Peters is basically Iowa's Jarrod Uthoff without the blocked shots. That may, in the end, be Valpo's trump card: They're just really good. Better than their resume hints, anyway.
Saint Mary's [19-3 (10-2), RPI: 55, SOS: 216] BYU saw its extremely slim bubble hopes leap and dive in the matter of 48 hours. The dive happened on Saturday, with a 77-72 home loss to Pacific; the leap came on Thursday, when the Cougars toppled the Gaels in Provo, Utah. SMC's at-large chances are hardly bad. Citing their 18-3 overall record seems simple, but it's an impressive mark in its own right. Unfortunately, of those 18 wins, Randy Bennett's team has just four against the RPI top 100. None have come against the top 50. None have come away from home.
Gonzaga [19-5 (11-2), RPI: 65, SOS: 128] Five straight wins have helped tick Gonzaga's RPI number up from the mid-70s mire that greeted the first edition of the Watch last week. Those five wins, of course, came against Pacific, Santa Clara, San Francisco, Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine, and only the Waves boast an RPI higher than 220. Fortunately, Gonzaga still has one of its patented late-season nonconference matchups to play. This year's edition? Saturday's trip to SMU. Hot take: That's a very important game.