College Basketball Bubble Watch
The curious case of the North Carolina Tar Heels
Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Thursday, Feb. 20.
On Thursday night, North Carolina set a record. A weird, obscure, tangential record, but a record nonetheless.
UNC's win over Duke made it the first team in history -- dating back to the very first Associated Press poll in 1961-62 -- to beat the AP preseason Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 4 in the same campaign. North Carolina crossed that Rubicon this week, and no statistic or factoid could, in so few words, more perfectly describe the Tar Heels' strange 2013-14 odyssey.
How's this for a timeline: On Nov. 17, UNC lost at home to Belmont. On Nov. 24, it beat Louisville (preseason No. 3) on a neutral court. Seven days later, it lost at UAB, a 16-10 team with losses to East Carolina, FIU, FAU and Tulane. Three days after that, UNC won at then-No. 1 (and preseason No. 2) Michigan State. On Dec. 14, it beat Kentucky (preseason No. 1) at home. On Dec. 18, it lost to Texas on the same court. There were losses to Wake Forest and Miami early in conference play, and defeats in trips to Syracuse and Virginia, and by mid-January, everybody basically agreed to give up on figuring out the Tar Heels. They were inexplicable.
A month later, after eight straight wins -- including this past Saturday's 75-71 hold over Pitt and Thursday's come-from-behind takedown of Duke -- UNC officially has the weirdest profile of any team in recent Bubble Watch history. Arizona is the only team in the country with a better collection of marquee wins. Wisconsin comes close. But no one even approaches UNC's eclecticism, its mix of impressive victories and baffling losses.
Which is precisely why UNC isn't yet a 100 percent guaranteed lock to make the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels have a quick home turnaround against Wake Forest on Saturday. They go to NC State and visit woeful, RPI-killing Virginia Tech next week. Then, it's a home date with Notre Dame before the rematch at Duke on March 8. Could North Carolina go 5-0 in those five games? Yes. Could it go 0-5? Absolutely! Would a 19-12 team with losses to UAB, Virginia Tech and a sweep at the hands of Wake Forest have to sweat out the ACC tournament? Probably.
Best bet? UNC ends up a No. 6 seed. But if there's one thing we know about this North Carolina team, it's that there's no such thing as a "best bet."
Note: All RPI data via ESPN RPI is updated through Feb. 21.
|American Athletic Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Connecticut, Memphis, Louisville|
Work left to do: SMU
Connecticut [21-5 (9-4), RPI: 27, SOS: 78] There are similar explanations for all three should-be-in American teams, really. All three have the cumulative profiles of Nos. 6 or 7 seeds and extremely thin odds of falling out of the tournament field before Selection Sunday. But UConn, with five games left, still has some cursory business to take care of, mostly in the form of avoiding upset losses to USF and Rutgers.
Memphis [20-6 (9-4), RPI: 34, SOS: 67] Memphis held on at Rutgers on Thursday night in a too-close-for-comfort 64-59 win over the Scarlet Knights and their 194 RPI. If they can do the same against Temple and Houston in their next two games, their final three league games -- vs. Louisville, at Cincy, vs. SMU -- are all gravy.
Louisville [22-4 (11-2), RPI: 35, SOS: 118] The Cardinals are national title contenders. They really are. They're definitely going to get in the tournament. Their per-possession statistics rank them as one of the best 10 teams in the country. So why aren't they a lock? They're close! But when you dig into their resume, you find a team with really ugly schedule numbers: 16 of their 22 wins are over RPI sub-150 teams, they've played just seven games played against the top 100 and have just three top-50 wins: versus Southern Miss, SMU and at Connecticut. If the worst happened -- the worst being an 0-5 slide to finish the regular-season and a first-round American tournament exit -- Louisville could end up 22-10 with some seriously shaky numbers come Selection Sunday. This isn't going to happen, of course. The Cardinals will get in. And they may just end any and all concern with a win at Cincinnati on Saturday. But if you're wondering why they're not there yet, mathematical caution is your answer.
SMU [21-6 (10-4), RPI: 46, SOS: 160] The Mustangs nearly followed up Sunday's loss at Temple with a home defeat to Houston, the kind of loss that could have put them down among the West Virginias, Tennessees and Richmonds of the world. For now, the Mustangs are a step above that muck, but they could very much use a win at UConn on Sunday to prove to the committee that they can beat marquee opponents away from their own gym.
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Massachusetts|
Work left to do: VCU, George Washington, Saint Joseph's, Richmond, Dayton
Poor George Mason. With a couple exceptions, every single one of the Patriots' A-10 games has been determined by a possession or two, some of them in overtime. On Wednesday, for the second time this season, Mason pushed Saint Louis to the wire. For the second time, the Billikens held on for a win -- their 18th in a row. George Mason is a horrifying opponent for the bubble teams in this league -- a dangerous blend of quality basketball and ugly RPI.
Massachusetts [20-5 (7-4), RPI: 16, SOS: 55] After Saturday's road win at George Washington, UMass is off until Friday night, when they play VCU at home.A loss won't hurt them much. We might hold off on a lock until they get past Rhode Island at home next week, but a lock will come eventually.
VCU [20-6 (8-3), RPI: 22, SOS: 56] VCU's trip to UMass on Friday is bigger for the former than the latter: A road win against a near-definite tournament team would be just the thing to ensure the Rams' seed is around No. 8 or No. 9 and they'd love a chance to get the one-possession road loss to Saint Louis back when the Billikens come to Richmond on March 1.
George Washington [20-6 (8-4), RPI: 32, SOS: 89] Big bounce-back win for the Colonials at Richmond this week. On Saturday, it's off to Saint Louis, and if GW can somehow find a way to put points up on that crazy SLU defense, coach Mike Lonergan would be able to rest easy on Selection Sunday.
Saint Joseph's [18-7 (8-3), RPI: 40, SOS: 68] The Hawks' notable accomplishments are limited to a couple of home wins against good but hardly mind-blowing conference foes -- in this case UMass and VCU. Other than that, it's a mix of OK RPI and SOS numbers (including a No. 151 nonconference schedule), a 2-5 record against the top 50, a 5-6 record against the top 100 and not much else. They're right next to Richmond on the proverbial bubble with very little to distinguish between the two -- though at least they got out of Rhode Island with a 57-54 win Wednesday night.
Richmond [17-9 (7-4), RPI: 45, SOS: 33] On Tuesday, we wrote that you have to do more than beat UMass and a random collection of mediocre teams (Saint Joe's, Delaware, Belmont, etc.) on your own floor to get in the tournament. That doesn't mean it's a good idea to stop winning home games. Richmond let one slip to GW this week. Now, they've got a sneaky tough five game stretch to close out the season (vs. La Salle, at George Mason, at Rhode Island, vs. VCU, at Dayton) with almost zero margin for error.
Dayton [18-8 (6-5), RPI: 57, SOS: 65] Dayton fan @BradGingrich tweeted at the Watch with a useful reminder on Dayton this week -- that, outside of an injury-induced four-game losing streak in January, the Flyers are 17-4. Which is true, and something the committee should take into consideration. But it doesn't wipe out the losses to Illinois State and USC in December, or get the mid-50s RPI number up into slightly safer territory. Still lots of work to do.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Teams that should be in: North Carolina|
Work left to do: Pittsburgh, Florida State
After Wednesday (Syracuse's loss to Boston College) and Thursday (Duke's loss to North Carolina), it looks like Syracuse-Duke is no longer the Game of the Century. We'll have to settle for "super-awesome budding rivalry" instead. Meanwhile, Clemson beat NC State this week, which knocked both teams off the page. NC State was a lark until further notice anyway, and Clemson's 70s-ish RPI and 270s-ish nonconference slate disqualifies it even before you look at its remaining schedule.
North Carolina [19-7 (9-4), RPI: 21, SOS: 11] Refer to the introduction for your Tar Heel breakdown. Let's see how the super-quick Wake Forest turnaround goes Saturday, eh?
Pittsburgh [20-6 (8-5), RPI: 33, SOS: 50] Speaking of weird, lopsided profiles: The Panthers are 1-6 against the RPI top 50 and 19-0 against teams ranked 50 or below. Sunday's home game against Florida State won't move the needle. Actually, save a possible late RPI boost for NC State (which would be immaterial anyway) the Panthers have zero opportunities for top-50 wins in the rest of the regular season. They'll probably get in the tournament, but their seed will be far lower than it could have been if any of their tight marquee losses (to Cincinnati, Virginia, UNC or Syracuse twice) had gone the other way.
Florida State [15-11 (6-8), RPI: 64, SOS: 47] The Seminoles are this league's best shot at a sixth bid, it seems, which is an immensely faint compliment. A win at Pitt on Sunday would definitely help.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas State|
Work left to do: Baylor, Oklahoma State, West Virginia
Iowa State's solid Tuesday win over Texas officially dispelled any and all worries we had about the Cyclones' status as a lock. It also prevented Texas from sealing the deal just yet. The Big 12 could get as many as eight bids, or as few as five.
Texas [20-6 (9-4), RPI: 23, SOS: 44] When the Longhorns left North Carolina with a win on Dec. 18, it was chalked up to UNC's unpredictability more than anything the Longhorns were doing. A few months later, UNC has morphed into a tough, consistent team, and Texas' worst loss of the season came to BYU (RPI: 37) on a neutral court.
Oklahoma [19-7 (8-5), RPI: 26, SOS: 26] The Sooners' 77-74 win at Oklahoma State is hard to judge. This will be a theme in which OSU is involved in the coming weeks: How will the committee judge the Cowboys' performance without their star? What residual effect will that have on their opponents? Either way, Oklahoma's solid prospects are mostly unchanged heading into the upcoming Saturday-Monday gauntlet: home vs. K-State, at Kansas.
Kansas State [18-8 (8-5), RPI: 38, SOS: 42] The Wildcats' loss at Baylor on Saturday helped Baylor more than it hurt K-State. The Wildcats avoided disaster at home against TCU (RPI:195!), and a win at Oklahoma this Saturday might lock things in. K-State's remaining regular-season schedule is, with the possible exception of Tuesday's trip to Texas Tech, immensely favorable.
Baylor [17-9 (5-8), RPI: 44, SOS: 7] The Bears' single-digits strength of schedule number is useful, but it only goes so far; they still need more results. Baylor, West Virginia and Oklahoma State were all among Joe Lunardi's first four out in Thursday's Bracketology update, which makes Saturday's game at West Virginia absolutely massive for both teams. Is it a must-win for the Bears? Maybe not. But losing would put them at 5-9 in the Big 12 with four games -- at Texas, vs. Texas Tech and Iowa State, at Kansas State -- left to play.
Oklahoma State [16-10 (4-9), RPI: 47, SOS: 19] OSU hasn't played since Monday, when it fell at Baylor -- its third straight loss without suspended star Marcus Smart, its seventh straight total, and its eighth in the past nine games. In other words, whatever the committee ends up making of the Smart situation, Oklahoma State had larger questions to answer before the infamous push. OSU gets Kansas and Kansas State at home, and Iowa State on the road, to finish the regular season. Fascinating finish here.
West Virginia [15-11 (7-6), RPI: 68, SOS: 46] Last week's losses at Kansas and Texas sandwiched a 102-77 home win vs. Iowa State, which is what put them on the Bubble Watch board in the first place. For a team with 13 top-50 games on its ledger, the Mountaineers' computer numbers are still pretty ugly. It is a gift of the soft bubble that a team that lost to Purdue at home and Va. Tech on the road in nonconference play is within striking distance of a tournament bid. The Mountaineers have had all week to prepare for Baylor's arrival on Saturday. On its own floor, Bob Huggins' team has a lot on the line.
|Big East Conference|
|Work left to do: Xavier, St. John's, Providence, Georgetown|
Most of the hard-core bubble action -- the real gritty, dramatic stuff along the first four in-or-out line -- is concentrated in a handful of conferences: The Big 12, the Pac-12 and, perhaps most of all, the Big East.
Xavier [18-8 (8-5), RPI: 52, SOS: 87] The most notable change in the Musketeers' bubble-related week came indirectly, when Tennessee slipped out of the top 50. Having a win over a team with an RPI in the high 40s as opposed to the low 50s is a distinction without a difference, of course, but it's a telling one for Xavier, whose resume could desperately use a road win at Georgetown and/or St. John's on Feb. 22 and 25. Home games against Creighton (March 1) and Villanova (March 6) could end up being do-or-dies.
St. John's [18-9 (8-6), RPI: 53, SOS: 45] The Red Storm drilled Georgetown and Butler this week, their fifth and sixth consecutive victories, respectively, and all of a sudden, this team we left for dead two weeks ago is right in the thick of things with the Tennessees, Minnesotas and Missouris of the world. That means there is still much work to do, of course. St. John's' RPI and schedule numbers are thoroughly mediocre. Saturday's trip to Villanova is a long shot, but the way this team is playing right now? Stay tuned.
Providence [17-10 (7-7), RPI: 60, SOS: 55] Just an utterly brutal loss for Providence this week. We almost don't want to write about it, for the sake of Friars' fans extended coping process. Long story short: Ed Cooley's team played about as hard as is humanly possible, and had two overtimes and a handful of chances to win against Villanova on Tuesday. It didn't happen. One win is not always as impactful as we make it out to be this time of year; every result matters, after all. But the win would have given Providence victories over two top-10 RPI squads (Creighton being the other), which is a difference-maker on a bubble line populated by pretty gross resumes. The Friars aren't out of it, but they missed a chance to elevate themselves this week.
Georgetown [15-11 (6-8), RPI: 62, SOS: 32] The Hoyas' loss at Seton Hall on Thursday night doesn't take them totally out of the picture; their schedule numbers are a huge help. But at 15-10, with a 5-8 record against the top 100, they're barely hanging by a thread.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Ohio State, Iowa|
Work left to do: Minnesota, Nebraska
So here's a fun fact: Exactly two teams in the country have both (A) lost to UAB and (B) won at Michigan State. One is UNC. Can you name the other? Cue game show music. Did you guess Nebraska? Ding ding ding!
Ohio State [21-6 (8-6), RPI: 18, SOS: 12] The Buckeyes don't have Wisconsin's insane plethora of impressive victories, but they do have a couple (at Iowa, at Wisconsin) of good ones. They also have a total lack of cupcakes weighing down their pristine computer numbers: Just six of their 27 games have been played against denizens of the sub-150. That Big Ten is something.
Iowa [19-6 (8-4), RPI: 30, SOS: 64] Much like Louisville, Iowa is a great basketball team whose actual per-possession metrics place them among the best 10 or so squads in the country. The Hawkeyes are a national title contender, in other words. But their handful of close missed opportunities -- and a nonconference schedule ranked No. 230 -- has created a big-time gap between their actual performance and the way their nitty-gritty sheet will look to the selection committee. The Hawkeyes get Wisconsin on their own floor Saturday, and even if they don't need to win to get in the tournament -- and they don't -- at this point, fear of a lower-than-deserved seed should come into play, too. Massive game.
Minnesota [17-10 (6-8), RPI: 42, SOS: 5] Thus far, we've raved about Minnesota's gaudy schedule numbers, but when you actually look at the games the Gophers played, the shine begins to wear off. The computer is rewarding smart scheduling more than anything else. Minnesota's best four nonconference opponents were Syracuse (really good), Richmond (meh), Florida State (double meh), and Arkansas (all of the mehs). Which is why, after Wednesday's home loss to Illinois, you see Minnesota suddenly down along the cut on the Bracketology page. Saturday at Ohio State is big. Feb. 25 versus Iowa may be bigger.
Nebraska [15-10 (7-6), RPI: 49, SOS: 22] The Cornhuskers may share some strange UAB-Michigan State hybrid DNA with the Tar Heels, and they likewise own two losses to teams just outside the RPI top 100 (at Purdue, at Penn State). That's where the similarities stop, because Nebraska lacks the depth of profile quality and is a super-long shot on the bubble that is probably one loss away from the NIT.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Work left to do: New Mexico|
We keep searching for a third Mountain West team to throw into the mix, if for nothing else than old times' sake, and we keep coming up short. UNLV is nowhere close, not with a sub-100 RPI. Boise State is the most likely candidate, but the Broncos have just two top-100 wins, both at home, with neither San Diego State nor New Mexico left on the schedule. Sigh.
New Mexico [20-5 (11-2), RPI: 25, SOS: 53] If a bubble groove can be said to exist, the Lobos have settled into one. They are a No. 8 or No. 9 seed right now, which keeps them safely away from the muck on the cut line. But with Utah State, Nevada and Air Force still on the schedule, they're not totally safe, either. Unless they topple San Diego State in the Pit this weekend. They'll see the Aztecs at Viejas Arena to close the season, too.
|Teams that should be in: Colorado|
Work left to do: Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford, California
A hearty lockdom welcome goes out to the UCLA Bruins, who have rather quietly -- often literally, because Pauley Pavilion is quiet, get it -- built out a sturdy NCAA tournament resume. The Bruins are 21-5 with a top-15 RPI, a top-20 schedule and a 7-3 mark against the RPI top 50. The only thing missing here is a truly high-end win, but Wednesday's 20-point win at Cal made it official.
Colorado [20-7 (9-5), RPI: 24, SOS: 28] Spencer Dinwiddie's season-ending ACL tear in January could have ruined Colorado's season. Instead, the Buffaloes have gone on to a 9-5 Pac-12 record with four games to play, the first of which is Saturday's big home date against Arizona. From there, it's at Utah, at Stanford, and at Cal. If the Buffaloes go 0-4 in those four games, they might be in jeopardy. They could use a good road win or two. But those would hardly be four bad losses, either, and when you compare Colorado's tidy RPI and schedule numbers with the actual bubble, it's getting harder and harder to see how Tad Boyle's resilient team misses the tournament.
Arizona State [19-7 (8-5), RPI: 31, SOS: 48] It's not so much that the Sun Devils just lost at Colorado that makes their profile inferior to the should-be-in Buffs. The primary difference is ASU's nonconference schedule, which is ranked No. 208. Other than that, it's a solid-enough resume, with last week's upset of Arizona prominently featured.
Oregon [17-8 (5-8), RPI: 39, SOS: 30] Oregon managed to hold on against both Oregon State and Washington at home this week, two much-needed hold-the-line-style victories in a Pac-12 season that has seen the Ducks give far too many games away. Their best win came over BYU, which knocked off Gonzaga on Thursday night, so that's a help. If nothing else, last week may have helped a team that looked like it was drifting toward the NIT get on track a few games out from season-closing home games against Arizona State and Arizona. We'll see.
Stanford [17-8 (8-5), RPI: 48, SOS: 66] If you're a Stanford fan, you should feel pretty good. The Cardinal are already in decent position with their road wins -- especially a nonconference win at UConn -- and their remaining schedule is mostly favorable, in that counterintuitive bubble way. On Saturday it's a home game against UCLA, followed by trips to Arizona State and Arizona, and finishing with Colorado and Utah at home. If Stanford goes 2-2 in its next four and handles the Utes in the season finale, it should be golden.
California [17-9 (8-5), RPI: 50, SOS: 51] Cal's profile is almost an amalgam of Arizona State and Stanford's. The Bears have a couple of decent road wins and the huge Arizona triumph at home with middling RPI/SOS numbers throughout. A loss to USC on Sunday, ahead of a trip to Arizona and ASU, could put the Bears in peril.
|Work left to do: Missouri, Tennessee|
And then there were four. With Ole Miss, Arkansas and now LSU fully out of the picture -- we took the Tigers off today because a home win over Kentucky just wasn't enough to make the rest of their resume palatable -- the number of bids the SEC might pick up on Selection Sunday looks like it will top out at four, if that.
Missouri [19-7 (7-6), RPI: 36, SOS: 63] The Tigers held on at home against Vanderbilt on Wednesday 67-64, a crucial escape for a team sitting squarely on the bubble. The Tigers will have to make it a habit. Other than having just three top-50 opponents on the schedule this deep into February, Missouri's biggest issue is its land-mine-infested remaining slate: at Alabama, at Georgia, vs. Mississippi State, vs. Texas A&M, at Tennessee. The first four are close to must-wins; the last one could be a mini bubble playoff. Maybe both.
Tennessee [16-10 (7-6), RPI: 51, SOS: 8] How far does a 35-point home win over Virginia get you? Tennessee looks liable to find out. The Vols, like the Tigers, are right on the bubble with little to bolster their case save one notable win at home. They also have slip-up games around every corner the rest of the way: at A&M, at Mississippi State, vs. Vanderbilt, at Auburn and finally, the season-ending home tilt with their bubble mates. Let's see how things go Saturday in College Station. The SEC might get weird.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Work left to do: Gonzaga, Toledo, BYU, Southern Miss, Indiana State, Green Bay|
When Louisiana Tech put 102 points on Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., on Dec. 30, it created at-large hopes that it has since fought like mad to maintain. On Thursday night, the dream officially died. The Bulldogs lost at East Carolina (RPI: 222), the exact kind of game that can make life in a mid-major conference like the current C-USA so difficult. One loss is all it takes.
Gonzaga [23-5 (13-2), RPI: 28, SOS: 103] After Thursday's loss to BYU, is Gonzaga at risk of missing the tournament? Not today, anyway. But as we've said all along, the Zags' final four regular-season games are a pretty brutal gauntlet, and they've already dropped the first. Next up is San Diego, then Pacific, then rival Saint Mary's, all on the road. A 1-2 mark might make things dicey. 0-3 could set off a panic.
Toledo [22-4 (10-3), RPI: 29, SOS: 136] Does last week's loss at Eastern Michigan disqualify the Rockets from at-large consideration? Probably. There's simply no way Toledo can get back that kind of loss against the rest of the MAC. This is how soft bubbles are born.
BYU [19-10 (11-5), RPI: 37, SOS: 18] How much would Missouri or Tennessee give for the chance to play Gonzaga on its own floor in the next three weeks? Say this much for BYU: When it had an opportunity, it took it. The Cougars' 73-65 win in Provo, Utah, on Thursday night probably put BYU back on the right side of the narrow in-or-out bubble divide, at least for now. It still must handle business against Portland and at San Diego. But slotting that Gonzaga win next to Nov. 11's road win at Stanford and Nov. 25's neutral-court win over Texas helps. A lot.
Southern Miss [22-5 (9-3), RPI: 41, SOS: 161] The fringiest of fringe bubble teams still has a fighting shot at this thing, but on one condition: It has to win out. Maybe a loss to UTEP on Saturday is acceptable, but that's a big maybe. The rest of USM's regular season goes like this: vs. Florida International, at Florida Atlantic and at Tulane. All of those teams have RPIs of 200 or worse.
Indiana State [21-6 (12-3), RPI: 58, SOS: 167] Last week's Big Ten blurb noted that this might be the first tournament since 2005 not to feature a team from Indiana -- because Indiana, Purdue, Notre Dame and Butler are all so bad -- and it implored the long-shot Sycamores to save basketball's greatest state from ignominy. As a commenter pointed out, "there is another": IPFW, if it wins the Summit League tourney. That's good news for the state of Indiana, because unless the Sycamores can find a way to knock off a laser-focused Wichita State in Arch Madness, they're likely out.
Green Bay [22-5 (12-2), RPI: 59, SOS: 155] The Phoenix own a home win over Virginia, a three-point home loss to Wisconsin and computer numbers that honestly could be worse given how tough things are in the Horizon League this season. The best bet is still to make it academic in the HL tourney, but Green Bay isn't as long a shot as, say, Toledo.