College Basketball Bubble Watch
For better or worse, the RPI still plays a major role in the bubble world
Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Thursday, Feb. 16.
On Thursday, the humble author of this here Watch let loose with a bit of a rant: The RPI is dumb! The NCAA keeps using it despite its dumbness! Loud noises!! Arghhh!!!!
These things are all true, but they're slightly more nuanced than that. When David Worlock, NCAA associate director of men's basketball and one of the staffers responsible for organizing and guiding the selection committee through its annual process, responded via Twitter -- he wrote: "And yet you reference the RPI in your own bubble watch column. We do use Sagarin, LRMC, KenPom, etc." -- I decided to strike up an email conversation. (It's always better than a public Twitter feud. The only thing more annoying than a Twitter feud is when people live-tweet the mock selection committee. But I digress.)
David shared a few points worth noting. To wit:
"I appreciate your points, and you are largely spot on," Worlock wrote. "The one thing the committee recognizes is that using the RPI solely as a basis for discussion for selecting and seeding teams is a flawed process. And that's why we don't. Your points about top 50 wins, SOS, etc. being based on the RPI is valid. But the committee does reference other computer rankings and it is noted when there are significant discrepancies between the RPI and other rankings.
"Bottom line is this: the committee has to pick the best 37 teams, regardless of which rankings are used. We could throw the RPI away today and the field wouldn't change dramatically, if at all, if we were doing the bracket tonight. Will there be arguments about VCU, UAB, Virginia Tech, Colorado, Alabama and the like? You bet. And that's OK."
That made me feel like a big meanie, because I did sort of call the NCAA (and by proxy David) luddites, and it's never nice to call names. My mom would be very disappointed.
Point is, the NCAA does at least have these things in mind. David even sent along the committee's sample composite rankings sheet, which includes the RPI ranks alongside KenPom, LRMC, Sagarin, and so forth. Encouraging email attachment, that. And at the end of the day, David's right: The NCAA does a good job selecting and seeding the field each season, and when you're dealing with large sets of numerical data spread across 70 or 80 teams, the immediate impact of each RPI number is certainly lessened. This isn't life-or-death stuff. I get that.
Unfortunately, as long as the RPI underpins all the nitty-gritty sheets the committee uses to compare teams at a glance -- as long as the main factors the NCAA considers (losses vs. sub-151 RPI, noncon SOS, top-50 wins, top-100 wins, and, you guessed it, RPI) are either the metric itself or based solely on it -- it's not exactly fair to say the RPI is just one more tool the committee considers. When the metric underpins everything the committee does, it isn't just one tool. It's the toolbox. As a fan of not merely information but good, accurate information, I think we can do better. Most fans seem to agree.
Anyway, rant over, at least for now. But in case you needed a reminder of exactly why the Watch criticizes the RPI in one breath and uses it repeatedly in the other, it's because the Watch, to be even remotely informative or predictive, must play by the same rules the selection committee uses. They are bad, outdated rules, but such is life, kids.
Without further ado:
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Work left to do: Saint Louis, Xavier|
Three cheers for Temple, this week's newest recipient of cherished lockdom status. Simply put, there's no way this team -- with its top-20 RPI, wins over Duke and Wichita State, 10-4 away record, 3-0 mark against the RPI top 25 and 9-3 record against the top 100 (and, oh yeah, winner of its last nine games) -- is going to miss the tournament now. On Tuesday, one of the Watch's Twitter followers suggested I "man up" (though that was not exactly the phrase used; I'll let you fill in the blanks) and "make Temple a lock already." And you know what, Twitter follower? You were right. So here you go. Meanwhile, though the Watch is not yet ready to put Saint Joseph's into a full-profile status, we're at least keeping our eyes peeled. The Hawks' computer numbers (top-50 RPI, top-40 SOS, top-50 nonconference SOS) are certainly worth a look. The mediocre road record and lack of big wins (the Creighton victory is the only top-50 win, and even that's not what it once appeared to be) will hold Phil Martelli's team back, but a strong finish, including a home win over Temple next Saturday, could make the Hawks' chances suddenly very real. Same goes for Dayton, I suppose. The Flyers have some quality wins, but might be the most inconsistent program in America. Worth at least keeping one eye on during the stretch run.
Saint Louis [21-5 (9-3), RPI: 22, SOS: 73] We're not quite ready to put the Billikens into "should be in" territory, but they're getting very close. There are no bad losses on this resume. Sure, there are no great wins, either: St. Joe's and Xavier are only top-50 if those RPI numbers rise in the coming weeks, and the nonconference victories over Washington, Villanova and Oklahoma are pretty blah, but the strong RPI and 8-4 road record are definite marks in this team's favor. Provided the Billikens handle business against Fordham and Rhode Island on the next two Saturdays, their Feb. 28 home date with Xavier will mean far more for the Musketeers than it will for SLU.
Xavier [16-9 (7-4), RPI: 54, SOS: 53] Is it time to give up on Xavier? The Musketeers looked downright bad in their loss at Temple on Saturday, which dropped them to 7-4 in league play, 0-4 against the RPI top 25 and just 2-6 against the top 50. That isn't horrible, but it isn't great, especially when you consider this team's so-so RPI figure and that lingering loss to Hawaii. On Saturday, Dayton comes to the Cintas Center. A loss there and it may be time to start planning the epilogue for this once-promising, currently baffling Xavier season.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Florida State, Virginia|
Work left to do: Miami, NC State
Oh, NC State. You were so close! On Thursday night at Duke, the Wolfpack very nearly notched the marquee win they needed to push them over the top in this bubble discussion. With 11:30 left in the game, NC State's lead was 20. Yes, 20. Duke's bad defense was back, NC State was taking advantage and woo! NCAA tournament here we come! And then, naturally, the wheels came off. Hopefully a few members of the selection committee a) watched the first 30 minutes before deciding to tuck in for the night and b) forget to check the scores Friday morning. That's about the only positive possible here. Otherwise, this conference looks much like it did Tuesday, Thursday's horrendous Florida State win notwithstanding.
Florida State [18-7 (9-2), RPI: 24, SOS: 19] After a brilliant run through the ACC over the past couple months, the Seminoles are beginning to show some cracks. There was the awful loss at BC, followed by the ugly-but-effective home win over Miami, followed by Thursday's strange performance at home when the Noles needed a late push and a Michael Snaer 3 on the final possession to top a downright unfortunate Virginia Tech team 48-47 after trailing the entire game. But hey, in bubble terms, a win is only ever a win. The Seminoles have their flaws -- both on the court and in their resume -- but as far as tourney access goes, they'll be just fine.
Virginia [19-6 (6-5), RPI: 40, SOS: 114] Two weeks ago, Virginia's at-large profile looked essentially unassailable. No more. The Cavaliers lost 60-48 at Clemson on Wednesday night, easily their worst loss of the season. The RPI figure is still OK, the loss to TCU looks much better after the Horned Frogs' win over UNLV this week and, you know, at the end of the day, UVa is still in pretty decent shape. Nor does the Cavs' remaining schedule have many opportunities for perception-changing losses. (They also get UNC at home.) They're still "should be in"-level here, and for good reason. But this profile isn't so overwhelming good that Virginia can merely coast to the finish.
Miami [15-9 (6-5), RPI: 43, SOS: 25] The Hurricanes' biggest profile problem is quality wins, and they missed two fantastic opportunities to get just that this week. First was Saturday's close loss at FSU, a team that suddenly forgot (again) how to play offense, followed by Wednesday's home date with UNC, in which Miami put up a legitimate fight but lost 73-64 all the same. Other than a Feb. 5 win at Duke (a marquee win if ever there was one), Miami's best victory is still the one over UMass. The RPI and SOS numbers are really solid, but one win against the RPI top 50 won't tell the committee much about this team's NCAA tourney potential. The big-time opportunities are mostly behind them, but a 4-1 record going away (with a home win over FSU mixed in for good measure) would increase the optimism.
NC State [18-8 (7-4), RPI: 49, SOS: 43] Oh, NC State. You know the drill by now: Improving young team playing well (and winning) against teams it should play well (and win) against. But the Wolfpack, like the Hurricanes, need a big win to boost their resume. Texas and Miami aren't going to cut it. So when Mark Gottfried's team led Duke for so long on Thursday night, the Watch thought this was it. This was the win to put this team over the top. Oh, the plaudits Gottfried would receive! And then it all fell apart and the Pack dropped to 2-6 against the top 50. This looks like a tournament team most of the time, but there's still work to be done here.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Work left to do: Iowa State, Texas, Kansas State|
Contrasted with the movement, intrigue and coaching drama happening in the Big Ten, the Big 12 remains a picture of placidity. The Cyclones, Longhorns and Wildcats all remain on the right side of the bubble, but none of these profiles are going to knock your socks off. At the end of the day, all three should get in the tournament, but none of these teams are safe enough to drop questionable games down the stretch.
Iowa State [18-8 (8-5), RPI: 38, SOS: 57] Iowa State hasn't gone to work since we last checked in on Tuesday, so the situation remains the same: solid RPI, that win over KU, decent SOS, ugly nonconference SOS, 2-5 record against the RPI top 50, 3-6 against the RPI top 100, 5-6 road record -- you know the drill. The Cyclones would do well to avoid any letdowns to Oklahoma and Texas Tech at home before season-ending games at Kansas State and Missouri and at home versus Baylor. Getting those two home wins would put them in pretty strong position, almost regardless of what happens in the final three.
Texas [17-9 (7-6), RPI: 39, SOS: 14] The Longhorns might be the most under-the-radar at-large candidate in the country. Over the course of the season, Texas has built a top-20 Pomeroy profile; according to those per-possession statistics, this is the fifth-best team in the conference on both offense and defense. More important, at least for tourney consideration's sake, is the four-game win streak the Longhorns are currently enjoying, the latest of which came at Oklahoma Tuesday night. There are definite weaknesses to this profile: Like Iowa State, the Longhorns have strong computer numbers, especially their SOS figure, mixed with a 3-7 record away from home and 2-6 mark versus the RPI top 50. A road win at Oklahoma State Saturday would set them up nicely for an impending home date with Baylor.
Kansas State [17-8 (6-7), RPI: 59, SOS: 86] Even after a missed opportunity at home versus Kansas on Monday, the Wildcats are still in pretty solid bubble shape. The RPI doesn't look good and neither does the 2-4 record over the past few weeks, but as ESPN analytics specialist (and co-Basketball Power Index creator) Alok Pattani pointed out in his Insider piece Thursday, it's deceptively, perhaps unfairly, low. The Wildcats have two tough ones coming up -- at Baylor and at Missouri -- and stealing one on the road would be a huge boost to a resume that doesn't boast much in the way of nonconference strength of schedule, at least per the RPI.
|Big East Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Louisville, Notre Dame|
Work left to do: Connecticut, Seton Hall, West Virginia, Cincinnati
After Wednesday night's win over Villanova, South Florida is now 9-4 in the Big East and 15-10 overall. This is a strange case, but there's historical precedent: The 2006-07 Syracuse Orange. That team went 22-10 and was 10-6 in the Big East with a 50 RPI and three top-50 wins. That team also went to the NIT. Why? Because the selection committee -- as the NCAA reiterated during the mock selection Thursday -- doesn't care about conference record. It really, truly doesn't, and that Cuse team is proof. So South Florida's chances, despite the gaudy conference record, are still slim. The good news? USF (15-10) still has plenty of chances to prove itself. The Bulls go to to Pitt on Sunday and Syracuse next week, followed by this final troika: versus Cincy, at Louisville, versus West Virginia. Another win this weekend and we'll put the Bulls onto our list; it will be impossible to ignore an 10-4 Big East team as far as the Watch is concerned. But the Bulls simply have to do more than feed on the dregs of the Big East to warrant serious bubble consideration. The only top-70 win so far is against Seton Hall. We'll see.
Louisville [20-6 (8-5), RPI: 23, SOS: 30] The Cardinals were awfully ugly on offense Monday night, but they very nearly got a home win over Syracuse all the same. That's an accomplishment in and of itself, considering it came just two days after a hard-fought win at West Virginia. That victory in Morgantown gave the Cardinals their sixth in a row in Big East play and their sixth victory over a member of the RPI top-50 club. That 90-59 loss at Providence on Jan. 10 seems like ages ago. We're going to wait until the Cards take care of business at DePaul Saturday, but once (or, we suppose, if) they do, they'll punch a one way ticket to Lock City.
Notre Dame [18-8 (10-3), RPI: 33, SOS: 31] The Irish keep rolling. They haven't lost since Jan. 16, just five days before they upset Syracuse at home and sparked a seven-game winning streak that has included wins over Marquette at home and on the road at Seton Hall, Connecticut and West Virginia. Thanks to Mike Brey's brilliant turnaround, the Irish are 9-3 in conference play and 6-4 against the RPI top 50. This team was understandably shaky early in the season after Tim Abromaitis went down, but that's a distant memory. This sure looks like a tournament team to us.
Connecticut [16-9 (6-7), RPI: 20, SOS: 1] It's easy to point out faults in the RPI when a team is wildly misranked. But the RPI -- and the committee's silly reliance on it -- strikes in other, subtler ways, too. This season's chief example: Connecticut's No. 1-ranked strength of schedule. How is this possible? The Big East isn't its usually brutal self, and UConn's nonconference schedule hardly appeared difficult at the time or in retrospect. Its win over Florida State is nice, but its next-best noncon victory came against -- let's see -- Harvard at home. Good win and all, but really? Connecticut also lost to UCF on a neutral floor and to Tennessee in Knoxville. That's the toughest schedule in the country? Anyway, the Huskies didn't pull off a shocker at Syracuse last Saturday, but they did get a rout of DePaul on Wednesday, which means they're now 6-7 in the Big East, still 4-7 on the road and 5-5 against the RPI top 50. Those computer numbers are deceptive. In ways both bubble-related and otherwise, this team still has plenty of work to do.
Seton Hall [18-8 (7-7), RPI: 28, SOS: 33] Will a six-game losing streak haunt Seton Hall all season? The Pirates bounced out of that funk with wins over Rutgers and Pittsburgh last week, and since we've last checked in, they topped a struggling St. John's team at home. Nothing to see there. The Pirates have retained the strong computer numbers that made them one of the early Big East bid contenders before the wheels appeared to come off. These next few weeks are key, if only to demonstrate to the committee (even subconsciously) that the breakdown is over, the ship is righted and the impressive early Big East wins were better indicators of the "real" Seton Hall. The next two games (at Cincinnati, vs. Georgetown) are huge.
West Virginia [17-10 (7-7), RPI: 34, SOS: 7] Bob Huggins always schedules tough (legitimately tough, not "inexplicably-highly-ranked-like-UConn" tough), and his teams typically benefit. But this season, that impressive SOS number belies a team with little else to make it feel safe about its tourney chances as we approach the final weeks of the season. The Mountaineers are 7-6 away from Morgantown, which is decent enough, but they're also 3-7 against the RPI top 50 and 9-9 against the top 100. Thursday's win at rival Pitt was nice, but they've still lost five of their past seven, including three at home (to Notre Dame, Louisville and Pitt) and, well, you get the idea. Work to do.
Cincinnati [18-8 (8-5), RPI: 89, SOS: 161] Why has Cincinnati's RPI lingered around 90 for so long? After all, surely this isn't the 90th-best team in the country, right? Blame it on scheduling: The Bearcats played three teams with RPI figures above 320, and four more above 200. All these cupcakes -- one of which (Presbyterian) actually beat them -- produced an absolutely horrific nonconference SOS figure (No. 324). As such, the smattering of solid Big East wins haven't been enough to drag that RPI calculation toward something that looks even remotely more tourney-worthy. The committee very much trusts the RPI, and it's punished teams with similar resumes (see: the 2011 Colorado Buffaloes) for scheduling this poorly before. A late Big East push -- which may have begun with a win against Providence, meh -- is desperately needed.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Work left to do: Northwestern, Purdue, Illinois, Minnesota|
Same deal in the Big Ten here: The five locks were unaffected by their results this week, while the remaining four teams with work to do can take solace mostly in the fact that this bubble is so very -- here's the dreaded word again -- soft. The team most on the brink? Illinois. The Illini have lost seven of their last eight, Bruce Weber is openly admitting that he "coached not to lose" in lieu of building a "culture of toughness," and in general things are rapidly coming apart at the seams. The situation isn't quite as dire for Purdue, but Minnesota and Northwestern very much need quality wins down the stretch if they plan on ending the season on the right side of the bubble. As luck would have it, the two play on Saturday. That's not a must-win, per se. More like a "can't-lose."
Northwestern [15-10 (5-8), RPI: 42, SOS: 10] It's hard to penalize the Wildcats for back-to-back road losses at Indiana and Purdue, but then again, those are the kind of wins the Wildcats need if they plan on breaking that unmentionable (whoops) lifelong NCAA tournament drought. So where do they stand? In Friday's update, Joe Lunardi still had Northwestern in his "first four out," same as Monday's bracket. Bill Carmody's team still has a good RPI and a top-10 SOS figure, not to mention no losses worse than the one suffered Jan. 22 at Minnesota. But the meager overall record, as well as the 5-7 road mark and the 2-8 record versus the RPI top 50 are all black marks. There are some strengths here, but bottom line? Northwestern needs wins, preferably good ones. Saturday's home date versus Minnesota is a must.
Purdue [17-9 (7-6), RPI: 48, SOS: 42] Wednesday night's win at Illinois wasn't a bid-maker, to be sure -- not the way this Illinois team is falling apart. But there's something to be said for beating your conference competitors along the bubble, and the Illinois win, plus Sunday's over Northwestern, gives this team an inherent bubble advantage over both. Sunday's home date vs. Michigan State presents a ready-made nice chance to get a resume-making marquee win. If only Butler and Xavier hadn't made those furious late comebacks in December, this team would be downright set.
Illinois [16-10 (5-8), RPI: 55, SOS: 22] Unless you live in a cave, you've seen by now the goings-on at Illinois, which can basically be summed up with the following phrase: train wreck. Wednesday night's home loss to Purdue was the once-promising Illini's seventh loss in their last eight games. They are 2-7 in their last nine. The only wins in that span? Ohio State and Michigan State. Were it not for those strange outliers, this offensively bereft team wouldn't even be on the bubble. As it is, they're fading fast. Given the situation, a loss at Nebraska on Saturday is far from out of the question. (Would you bet on Illinois right now? Exactly.) Bruce Weber needs to right this ship as soon as possible, because whether or not he's around in the future -- and those prospects are looking very dim -- he won't want his last season at the school to end with yet more unfulfilled promise.
Minnesota [17-9 (5-8), RPI: 62, SOS: 61] According to Lunardi's most-recent projection, Minnesota slipped six spots on the S-Curve, from the last group of teams in the tournament to the first group of teams on the outside looking in, after two straight home losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State. Those are the kinds of opportunities (home games vs. strong teams with high RPIs) a team in shaky bubble condition -- with marginal computer numbers and a 2-5 record against the top 50 -- can't pass up. Saturday brings perhaps the Gophers' biggest bubble-related game yet, a trip to Evanston to take on Northwestern, fellows among Joe's first four out. The loser will drop to 5-9 in league play. If there's such a thing as a Bubble Watch elimination game in mid-February, this might be it.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Work left to do: New Mexico|
Looking vacant, isn't it? Indeed, Colorado State and Wyoming have both dropped off the page, but for good reason. The long-shot Cowboys and their sub-80 RPI (and downright bad SOS numbers) couldn't afford to lose at Boise State, and a home win over Air Force Wednesday was a must. Unfortunately, both results came back as losses, dropping this team to 4-5 in the conference and too far outside the bubble picture, at least as far as the Watch is concerned, to merit consideration. Colorado State is a bit trickier, what with its mysteriously inflated RPI and SOS numbers, but two straight losses to TCU and Boise State are enough for us to stop including them on this page. On Tuesday, we said it was "go time" for the Rams. That's true now more than ever, because a team with a 4-8 away record and a 4-6 record against the RPI top 100 simply can't afford to add two sub-100 losses to its resume this late in the season.
New Mexico [21-4 (7-2), RPI: 29, SOS: 112] While their MWC bubble companions were fading from sight, the Lobos were streaking ahead. Don't look now, but at 7-2, New Mexico now sits alone atop the Mountain West standings. How did they get there? Six straight wins, including Wednesday night's huge victory at San Diego State, did the trick. The Lobos still lack glittering schedule numbers (they didn't play much of anyone in the nonconference, unlike UNLV and SDSU), but in a Mountain West this good, the regular-season champion will have to be considered a near-lock for tourney inclusion. Steve Alford's team isn't there yet, but they're getting closer with each big win. On Saturday, they get UNLV (which just lost at TCU) in the Pit. A win in front of a frenzied atmosphere should just about seal the deal.
|Work left to do: California, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Colorado|
Three of the Pac-12's bubble squads got the job done Thursday, but none more so than Cal. The Bears got a huge three-point win against Oregon, the kind of victory they need to get to cement a place atop the league and prevent their at-large profile from worsening. Washington took care of business against Arizona State, and Arizona held on at Washington State. The only bad news came for Oregon, which desperately needed the road win. Without it, the Ducks -- like most of the teams in this conference, which, as you may know, is 0-15 versus the RPI top 25 and 2-16 versus the top 50 in nonconference play -- don't have many more chances to even remotely impress the committee.
California [21-6 (11-3), RPI: 32, SOS: 87] Cal's profile isn't going to get dramatically better or dramatically worse with each win or loss; the key now is to avoid anything that would make the committee question this team's at-large viability. Thursday night's win against Oregon was probably the closest thing you can get to a good win in this league at this point, but it was important more for the above reason. In other words, it wasn't a loss. The Bears don't have a top-50 win, and they won't get one before the regular season is out. But their overall wins total and decent RPI should be enough to keep them above the bubble cutline, provided they don't slip up Saturday (at home vs. Oregon State) or fall apart on the road in their final three (at Utah, Colorado and Stanford).
Arizona [19-8 (10-4), RPI: 61, SOS: 99] When the Wildcats beat Cal in Berkeley on Feb. 2, they became one of this league's anomalies, the rare bubble squad to have at least one top-50 win on their profile. Thursday night's win at Washington State won't move the needle, obviously, and it definitely didn't help this team's weak computer numbers. But the Wildcats are in better-than-you'd-expect bubble position if only because, unlike some of their conference at-large competitors, they actually went out and played a solid nonconference schedule. A win at Washington on Saturday would be huge, because the final three games (home vs. USC and UCLA, at Arizona State) don't offer much in the way of impressions.
Washington [18-8 (11-3), RPI: 63, SOS: 78] UW (10-3) is tied with Cal atop the Pac-10 standings, but all but two of Washington's 17 victories have come against teams ranked below the RPI top 100. Seven of those wins have come against teams 200 or below. For a team with such a profile, a home loss to Arizona State on Thursday would have been devastating. Instead, these inconsistent, frustrating Huskies lived to fight for a spot on the right side of the bubble another day. Like Cal, the Huskies don't get a chance to add a top-50 win going forward, so Saturday's home date with Arizona is huge.
Oregon [18-8 (9-5), RPI: 69, SOS: 80] Oregon was classified as a long shot in this space Tuesday, and those odds only got longer after losing a close one at Cal on Thursday night. Oregon will lament this missed opportunity every bit as much as its one-point loss at Colorado, if not more, because when 16 of your 18 wins come against teams ranked below the RPI top-100 line (and nine are below the top-200 cutoff), a win over a team like Cal is practically a must. We'll keep them on the page for now, but another loss at Stanford this weekend and Dana Altman's team will be in deep trouble.
Colorado [17-8 (9-4), RPI: 73, SOS: 102] The Buffaloes weren't in action Thursday night, so there's no movement to report here. The song remains the same: This team is an even greater long shot than the Ducks at this point. Only three of its 15 wins have come against teams ranked better than 100 in the RPI. It lost every nonconference game of note. Its RPI, hovering around 80, is borderline dismissal-worthy. Like Oregon, we'll keep Colorado on the page. But it would take a major late-season push -- and a sudden burst of road ability, something the Buffs haven't displayed all season -- to make this shot more realistic.
|Teams that should be in: Florida|
Work left to do: Vanderbilt, Alabama, Mississippi State
And so we wave farewell to Arkansas -- for now at least. The Razorbacks' ugly computer numbers always made them a long shot, but their utter inability to win on the road has doomed them to official bubble irrelevance at this point in the process. On Wednesday, thanks to an entirely uncompetitive loss (77-58) at Tennessee, Mike Anderson's freshmen-filled team dropped to 0-8 away from Bud Walton Arena. The committee likes you to win on the road, at least every once in a while. Arkansas doesn't. End of story. Meanwhile, speaking of Tennessee ... OK, OK, the Volunteers aren't on the bubble. Frankly, they aren't anywhere close. But at 6-5 in the SEC, with a sweep of Florida and a win over UConn, it is interesting to think about what could happen if the Vols were to win out the rest of the way. Given their schedule (at Alabama, vs. Ole Miss, at South Carolina, at LSU, vs. Vanderbilt) and how well this team is playing lately, it's certainly a possibility. That would put them at 19-12 and 11-5 in the SEC with four top-50 wins and ... all right, now we're just getting Tennessee fans' hopes up. The Watch apologizes. But either way, the fact this possibility, remote as it is, even exists, is a testament to the impressive job Cuonzo Martin has done repairing the Bruce Pearl wreckage in the new coach's first season.
Florida [20-6 (8-3), RPI: 19, SOS: 55] The committee will be well aware that Anthony Grant suspended four of his best players -- two of whom, Tony Mitchell and JayMychal Green, were held out for this game -- in advance of Florida's win in Tuscaloosa Tuesday night. So that victory isn't quite as good as it looks. Still, a win is a win, and after two straight losses (including that ugly home loss to Tennessee) that's exactly what the Gators needed. They may not be ready for lockdom quite yet, but they'll be there soon enough it seems. A win at Arkansas over the weekend would probably do the trick.
Vanderbilt [18-8 (7-4), RPI: 26, SOS: 4] The Commodores threw in 102 points at Ole Miss on Thursday night, dropping the Rebels by 24 and taking one small step toward solidifying this mostly good, sporadically questionable resume. The bad losses aren't going to go away (and the home Cleveland State loss doesn't look quite so forgivable anymore), but with computer numbers this strong -- including a top-10 strength of schedule and top-15 nonconference mark -- the Dores are probably playing for their seed rather than their selection, barring any disaster down the stretch.
Alabama [16-9 (5-6), RPI: 36, SOS: 20] How will the committee view this team? It's always tricky when a seemingly tourney-worthy team suspends its two best players in mid-February. The Crimson Tide's profile is hardly above reproach, but it isn't much better or worse than Vanderbilt's. The question is whether the committee will punish an obviously weakened squad playing these games at a crucial point in its season. Alabama would do well to win despite the adversity. That way, the committee can worry more about how the suspensions of Green and Mitchell should affect Bama's seeding, rather than asking the entirely valid question of whether the Tide should get an invite to the Dance if its two leading scorers aren't also on the guest list. There's also that small issue of having not beaten a top-50 opponent since that mid-November trip to Puerto Rico.
Mississippi State [19-7 (6-5), RPI: 46, SOS: 77] The Bulldogs must exercise caution. Losing to Georgia at home is bad enough, but it only looks worse when you follow it up with a loss at LSU, as MSU did Tuesday night after blowing an 17-point lead. The Tigers are tough in their own building, sure, but the introduction of those two losses into an already slightly shaky profile, with its mediocre RPI and SOS numbers and thoroughly mediocre road and top 50/100 RPI marks, puts the Bulldogs' bid at legitimate risk. If they somehow lose at Auburn on Saturday, well, look out.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Teams that should be in: Memphis|
Work left to do: Harvard, Middle Tennessee, BYU, Long Beach State, UCF
Since we last checked in, Creighton rebounded from its three-game losing streak with a win at Southern Illinois. Still, the Watch can't help but feel like three of its four mid-major locks are in somewhat perilous territory. Saint Mary's lost at home to Loyola Marymount on Wednesday night. Murray State's at-large profile, now that we're past the whole undefeated thing, is hardly a slam dunk. At the end of the day, all three are probably fine, but the Watch has to admit it: Depending on the Gaels-Racers BracketBusters matchup Saturday, we could see a lock make the fall. That (almost) never happens. Fingers crossed. In the meantime, we're still keeping an eye on a bunch of teams that have yet to grace the page. VCU, Drexel and George Mason are all still being held back by ugly RPIs, but Drexel is 20-1 in its last 21 games and that's very much worth mentioning. George Mason, which beat VCU on a buzzer-beater Tuesday, has a bummer of a BracketBusters home game with Lamar. No matter what happens, it won't impress the committee. Meanwhile, Iona is pretty much in the same position as Tuesday: There aren't many big wins on that profile, and nothing in the conference is much of a help, but there's a near-top-50 RPI and an impressive 14-5 road record. Loyola Marymount is worth a mention, too. The Lions just got a 15-point win at Saint Mary's, and their high-end wins (at UCLA, at BYU, vs. Saint Louis) are more than most mid-major candidates can boast. They -- like other fringe candidates Davidson and Oral Roberts -- have BracketBusters to look forward to this weekend. A win there, and a strong finish, and hey: You never know.
Memphis [19-7 (9-2), RPI: 17, SOS: 12] The Tigers got a bump to the "should be in" line this week, and it's not hard to explain why: They have fantastic computer numbers (including a top 10 nonconference strength of schedule) and, while they could have done with a win or two in Maui (or vs. Georgetown, or at Louisville), they don't have a single bad loss weighing them down. Another win or two and they (like Southern Miss, probably) will be on the lock line soon enough.
Harvard [21-3 (7-1), RPI: 35, SOS: 228] If the Crimson handle business in league play, they'll win their conference's automatic bid (remember, the Ivy League awards its bid to the regular-season champion) and they won't need to worry about their at-large chances. That would be good, because those at-large chances took a minor ding with a loss at Princeton on Saturday. Not a huge deal: Princeton's RPI is barely outside the top 100, and Harvard still has a one-game lead and four out of its final six league games at home. Provided there are no surprises, the Crimson should be fine.
Middle Tennessee [23-4 (12-1), RPI: 41, SOS: 172] With a 23-4 record and a 12-1 mark in the Sun Belt -- the only loss coming at Denver on Feb. 4 -- as well as a top-45 RPI and a 3-3 record against the RPI top 100, it's time to take the Blue Raiders' at-large chances seriously. In all likelihood, Middle Tennessee will emerge from the Sun Belt with the automatic bid sewn up, but just in case, it couldn't hurt to finish these last three games (versus Florida Atlantic, at UL-Monroe, at Western Kentucky) with three solid victories. That would put MTSU at 26-4 overall with a solid RPI and only a loss at UAB, hardly a disqualifier, sullying an otherwise pretty resume.
BYU [22-6 (10-3), RPI: 44, SOS: 84] After escaping San Francisco on Thursday night with a one-point win, BYU is in much the same position as last week. Its Feb. 2 home win over Gonzaga helped a bunch, but the Cougars might need another big one -- they get Gonzaga in the Kennel on Feb. 23 -- to really solidify this thing. Otherwise, the mediocre RPI and so-so computer figures could force BYU to make some serious noise in the WCC tournament against either Saint Mary's or Gonzaga, and that's not something this brand-new WCC member will want to leave to chance.
Long Beach State [19-6 (12-0), RPI: 45, SOS: 121] At this point, it almost feels superfluous to consider Long Beach State in bubble terms, because the way this team is rolling through the Big West, it's hard to envision the 49ers not winning their conference tournament and making their NCAA bid hopes entirely academic. Give Dan Monson credit: He scheduled like a wild man in the nonconference, and it paid off. The 49ers boast the nation's No. 1 nonconference SOS (a key item for the committee) and are 12-0 in league play. Long Beach has a huge game in Saturday's BracketBusters date at Creighton. If they win there, in front of 19,000 rowdy fans, go ahead and put a stamp on this team's bid. It's happening.
UCF [18-7 (7-4), RPI: 53, SOS: 95] A win at Southern Miss may have been asking a lot Saturday, but boy, would it have helped. As it is -- with that mediocre record, mid-50s RPI, 2-4 record against the top 50 and plus-200 nonconference SOS -- the Knights are probably on the wrong side of the bubble. Their last five games contain plenty of opportunities to slip up and really just one good chance at an eyebrow-raising win (Feb. 28 at Memphis). We'll see, but it's not looking great.