After bursting out of the gates and getting as high as No. 13 in the AP poll, the University of Massachusetts men's basketball team found the going a bit tougher in Atlantic 10 play, dropping three straight conference road games and falling out of the rankings.
The Minutemen have rebounded with back-to-back wins and still have a resume that puts them in everyone's NCAA tournament bracket. But when it really matters will they be on the Big Dance card for the first time since 1998?
The first edition of ESPN.com's Bubble Watch lists UMass among those who "should be in." Bubble Watcher Eamonn Brennan explains that teams he classifies as "locks" are those that have "absolutely zero chance of missing the NCAA tournament," admitting he's conservative in making such pronouncements. Teams that he considers to be truly on the bubble fall under "work left to do."
Although UMass doesn't have any five-star wins, it has a healthy number of solid victories and no clearly bad losses. Entering play Tuesday, the Minutemen were 11-4 against teams in the top 100 in RPI (0-0 vs. top 25 teams, 3-2 vs. teams ranked 26-50, 8-2 vs. teams ranked 51-100). They have three more top-30 games left, against George Washington, VCU and St. Louis. In ESPN.com's daily RPI, UMass was tied for 12th.
UMass is 4-1 against teams that make the tournament in Joe Lunardi's most recent Bracketology, as well as 2-1 against teams among the "first four out." The Minutemen sit as a No. 7 seed in Lunardi's current bracket.
With seven games left in the A-10 regular season plus at least one in the conference tournament, it's a good time to look deeper at where the Minutemen stand and assess some scenarios as to where they'll end up.
Remaining home games:
George Mason (1-8 in A-10, 8-15 overall)
VCU (7-2, 19-5)
Rhode Island (2-7, 11-13)
St. Louis (9-0, 22-2)
Remaining road games:
at George Washington (7-2, 19-4)
at Dayton (4-5, 16-8)
at Duquesne (2-7, 10-12)
What is the worst-case scenario for UMass to still make it to the NCAA tournament? For the sake of argument, let's say the Minutemen need four more wins. That would give them a record of 23-8, factoring a first-round loss in the conference tourney, with an RPI still in the mid-20s, according to projections. Although there might some sweating on Selection Sunday and a possible trip to Dayton for a play-in game, UMass should be pretty safe in that scenario. Since 1994, only one team with a sub-30 RPI has been left out (Missouri State, No. 21 in 2006).
Three of the remaining regular-season games -- vs. George Mason and Rhode Island, at Duquesne -- really shouldn't be problems. Yes, earlier contests at GMU and URI were not cakewalks, but the Minutemen are unbeaten at home and avoided dramatics in their last two home wins, against Fordham and La Salle.
That leaves four games that should be more challenging -- at George Washington and Dayton (always one of the A-10's toughest venues) and at home against VCU and St. Louis. If four wins is indeed the magic number, UMass would need to win at least one of those four, assuming it takes care of business in its easier matchups.
How about the other end of the spectrum? What can the Minutemen shoot for beyond merely making the March Madness field?
The first goal would be a top-four finish in the A-10. That would mean a bye into the quarterfinals. UMass currently is tied for fourth with St. Joseph's at 6-3 and can help its cause with upcoming games against the three top teams -- George Washington (Feb. 15), VCU (Feb. 21) and St. Louis (March 9). Working in the Minutemen's favor is that their lone meetings with VCU and St. Louis are at the Mullins Center, which already is sold out for both games.
Wins over GW and VCU would give UMass a leg up on those teams -- they'd each have at least three league losses -- and even St. Louis could be within reach. Although the Billikins are 9-0 in the league, they still play GW and VCU twice before closing the season at UMass.
Let's say the Minutemen lose once the rest of the way, or even win out, which is not beyond imagination given the way the schedule breaks. At 25-5 or 26-4, UMass would figure to be one of the top two teams in a league that could get as many as five NCAA bids and likely would be back in the top 20. Win another couple of games in the A-10 tourney -- or heck, why not win the whole thing? -- and a top-four seed could be in the Minutemen's future.
Given the tightrope Derek Kellogg's team has walked in numerous wild comeback wins already this season, one would expect there to be more high drama ahead for UMass.