College Basketball Bubble Watch
When it comes to the 'eye test,' trust, but verify
Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Monday, Feb. 24.
In 2011, Rockstar Games published "L.A. Noire," an action-adventure game set in postwar Los Angeles. Surprisingly removed from the open-world satire of the "Grand Theft Auto" franchise, "Noire" instead guided players from one linear crime scene to the next, where, as complex gumshoe archetype Cole Phelps, they searched for clues and tracked down suspects for one-on-one interviews.
The game's main selling point was the sophistication of its characters' facial expressions. Thanks to some fancy newfangled camera technology not worth detailing here, professional actors were recorded, and their hyper-detailed facial expressions were faithfully recreated as animations.
This was the core game mechanic: Phelps sat across from suspects and asked them questions. Based on how the suspects responded -- whether their eyes moved left or right, or if they looked nervous or sad -- the player then chose the next conversation option: "lie," "doubt," or "truth." At the end of each case, based on their responses, the game assigned players a score.
The tech of "L.A. Noire" was stunning, audacious and fundamentally broken. Too often, characters' expressions were too hard to read, or unintentionally misleading, or just plain uncanny. You'd think a character was lying, and then Phelps would shout an accusation -- and then lower his voice jarringly when the thread went nowhere. It was a noble failure, but a failure all the same.
It was also, if the Watch may say so, a fitting metaphor for the reliability of the "eye test."
Every year around this time, we start hearing about the "eye test," or what the members of the NCAA men's basketball selection committee see when they watch teams play.
Late last week, Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis briefly brought it back to the fore by tweeting: "People underestimate how much the 'eye test' matters to people on the committee. Those folks watch a LOT of games. They trust what they see."
There are a handful of ways to unpack that statement. The first is as a helpful reminder, same as when committee chair Ron Wellman introduced the concept of "schedule intent" in a teleconference two weeks ago: The bracket is predictable, but only up to a point, because the selection committee is nothing more than a group made up of human beings, each with their own set of biases and opinions.
These opinions differ not just about teams but about what criteria should be used to judge the merits of those teams in the first place. Some will hew to the RPI. Some will mix in advanced metrics. And some -- maybe most? -- will trust their eyes. How can we be sure?
The larger problem, of course, is the reliability of an eye test in the first place. The data our eyes pass to our brain is full of noise -- emotional reactions, misplaced memories, tunneled viewpoints.
Let's just admit it: It is impossible for a human being to watch so much basketball (and believe the Watch when it says this, for it has tried) that he or she can properly contextualize so many teams accurately. That's why advanced metrics systems exist. It's why assistant coaches spend their lives hunched over film. It's why the RPI, for all its flaws, was invented in the first place: to minimize the unfairness of subjective vision.
The goal of "L.A. Noire" was to turn the vague overconfidence of a gut feeling into a scoreable game experience.
This person is lying. I can see it in their eyes.
For 30 years, the selection committee has gotten better and better at limiting this impulse, with ever-more-inclusive information at its disposal.
Maybe we're underrating the modern belief in the eye test, but the Watch hopes not.
Our eyes are notoriously difficult to score.
Note: All RPI data via ESPN RPI is updated through Feb. 24.
|American Athletic Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Connecticut, Memphis, SMU|
Two big road wins officially relieved the American's long-standing bubble stagnation this week. Louisville needed a Russ Smith game winner and a controversial seven-minute (!) official monitor review (in a poorly officiated game all-around) to escape Cincinnati with a win Saturday, but the Cardinals got all of the above and then some, and have joined the Bearcats in lockdom as a result. Louisville's team sheet doesn't come close to describing its overall strength as an actual basketball team; a weak schedule and disappointing nonconference performance (as well as 16 wins over teams ranked outside the RPI top 150) held it back. Now? Done deal.
Connecticut [21-6 (9-5), RPI: 30, SOS: 65] The Huskies' home loss to SMU meant a lot more to the Mustangs than it did UConn. If Kevin Ollie's team stumbles at USF Wednesday night, then maybe we might start to get a bit concerned. But for now, the Huskies are in a relatively safe position that is just as likely to get stronger (Cincinnati visits March 1) as it is to weaken in the weeks to come.
Memphis [21-6 (10-4), RPI: 36, SOS: 87] Since Feb. 20, when they survived a 64-59 win at Rutgers, the Tigers have been on a do-no-harm barnstorm against the dreadful bottom half of the American. The latest fixture in this tour -- Saturday's 3-point home win over Temple -- was the scariest to date. But it was a win, and if Memphis gets by a Feb. 27 trip to Houston (and maybe even if it doesn't, but why leave it to chance), the Tigers close with a much safer assemblage of Louisville, at Cincinnati, and SMU.
SMU [22-6 (11-4), RPI: 37, SOS: 152] The Mustangs leapt to a No. 7 seed in Joe Lunardi's Monday Bracketology update. With all due respect to the Bracketsfather, that seems a tad bit high. But that's not really the point. The point is, SMU desperately needed a quality win away from its own building, some way to prove to the committee that it possessed one of the key traits necessary for tourney inclusion in recent years. Sunday's win at UConn did as much, and the corresponding jump in the projected bracket shows just how important it was.
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Massachusetts|
Work left to do: VCU, George Washington, Saint Joseph's, Richmond, Dayton
Is this the softest bubble ever? We can't convincingly quantify that statement, so let's leave it be for now. Instead, let's just say -- with all due respect to the Atlantic 10's solid assortment of teams -- that of any league, the A-10 stands to benefit the most. Right now, the A-10 looks like it will get five teams into the March field. But which five?
Massachusetts [21-5 (8-4), RPI: 13, SOS: 43] Consider this a lock with an asterisk beside it. Provided nothing crazy happens Wednesday night against Rhode Island at home, we'll go ahead and lock the Minutemen up. Sure, awful Duquesne lurks on the horizon, but if UMass wins Wednesday, it still could take a loss to the dreadful Dukes (RPI: 216) on March 5 and be fine. Last week's back-to-back wins at George Washington and at home against VCU all but sealed this thing.
VCU [20-7 (8-4), RPI: 23, SOS: 46] With road trips to Saint Louis and UMass in the past eight days, VCU had an outside shot at entering lockdom in this update. At the very least, a status upgrade would have been in order. Instead, the Rams took two tight losses and remain basically where they were a week ago. Where is that? Above the "real" bubble and at least some distance from the cut line, but not so much that a disastrous finish -- beginning with Thursday's trip to Fordham -- couldn't put VCU at risk.
George Washington [20-7 (8-5), RPI: 28, SOS: 71] The Colonials were the latest victim of Saint Louis' cyborgian defense, losing 66-59 in 67 possessions at Chaifetz Arena on Saturday. (The Billikens don't score much, but then again, they don't need to.) It was GW's third loss in four games, but its third good loss -- a crucial distinction that preserves the Colonials' marginally safe position in advance of back-to-back home games against George Mason and Saint Joseph's.
Saint Joseph's [19-7 (9-3), RPI: 38, SOS: 74] The Hawks are another of the narrow-margin A-10 bubble teams, closer to Richmond than VCU, or at least somewhere in between. They have two good wins (home vs. UMass, VCU) and one bad loss (at Temple on Dec. 4) and average computer numbers across the board. Their past four games contain no drastic landmines, but a win over Dayton on Tuesday night at home would be a good bit of fortification.
Richmond [18-9 (8-4), RPI: 49, SOS: 49] After this weekend's boilerplate home win over La Salle, Richmond has four games left before the A-10 tournament, and it is no exaggeration to call the next two games the most crucial of its season. On Wednesday night, Richmond goes to George Mason, a team that nearly beat Saint Louis last weekend, that has played almost every A-10 game close and tight, and that has lost enough of those games to have maintained an ugly RPI figure late into the season. (Hopefully, the eye test applies to GMU and its opponents?) On Saturday, it's a trip to Rhode Island. These are not good opponents, of course. But they are huge games, because Richmond is barely hanging on to this soft bubble. There is nothing to gain here but much to lose.
Dayton [19-8 (7-5), RPI: 54, SOS: 67] Dayton's visit to Saint Joseph's on Tuesday is big for the Hawks but far bigger for Dayton, which needs help to get over the hump in these last four games. The best news comes with the Flyers' opponents: At Saint Joe's, versus UMass, at Saint Louis and versus Richmond sounds like a brutally tough schedule in any other context but the Bubble Watch, where it sounds rife with marquee-win opportunities.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Work left to do: Pittsburgh, Florida State|
So much for UNC's two-day Duke hangover. On Saturday, the Tar Heels followed up Thursday's win over the Blue Devils -- which made them the first-ever team to beat the AP preseason Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 4 in the same season, a collection of wins to rival any resume in the country -- with an old-fashioned, feel-good 105-72 demolition of Wake Forest. UNC fans were quick to criticize the Watch for not locking UNC in on Friday. There seems to be some confusion here: We didn't actually think UNC was going to lose to Wake! Or go 0-5 in its last five games. We weren't predicting anything. We were merely providing for the possibility that the team that lost to UAB three days before it won at Michigan State could maybe have a letdown after a thrilling, galvanizing win. With that behind them, UNC has four games to play: at NC State, at Virginia Tech, vs. Notre Dame, at Duke. Would four losses move them out of the bracket? Nah. Lock 'em up.
Pittsburgh [20-7 (8-6), RPI: 42, SOS: 54] The one thing you could say for Pittsburgh's lackluster NCAA tournament resume -- with its No. 222 nonconference schedule and cavalcade of missed marquee opportunities -- was that at least the Panthers didn't have a bad loss. Saturday's 71-66 home defeat to Florida State qualifies. The Seminoles are a fringe bubble team; it's not like Pitt lost to Virginia Tech. But to lose at home after a month of (occasionally) disappointing play and (usually) disappointing results raises all sorts of sudden doubts about a team that nearly beat Syracuse twice. Now Pitt has to go to Boston College and Notre Dame back-to-back, a pair of no-win situations to the extreme. Nervy times in the Panthers' locker room.
Florida State [16-11 (7-8), RPI: 56, SOS: 40] FSU's win at Pitt gives it a new lease on Bubble Watch life, but the terms are unfavorable. Next up is Georgia Tech (a good defensive rebounding team, and thus a tough matchup for FSU), a road trip to Boston College, and a season-closer at home against Syracuse. It still feels like a long shot at this point.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas State|
Work left to do: Baylor, Oklahoma State
Under normal circumstances, we might spend this space reminding you how much the RPI absolutely adores Kansas' resume this season, how eye-popping the nitty-gritty team sheet is. The No. 1 RPI, SOS and noncon SOS. The 18 (!) games played against the RPI top 50, the 11 against the RPI top 25. It's a crazy, crazy profile, and it doesn't get anywhere close to the sheer awe-inducing insanity of Kansas coach Bill Self's latest accomplishment. On Monday night, Self's Jayhawks clinched a share of their 10th straight Big 12 title. The facts of this streak are mind-boggling; there are no ready comparisons to make. It was silly enough two years ago, when the Jayhawks' streak stood at eight. Now all we can do is laugh and tip our caps in the appropriate direction.
Oklahoma [20-8 (9-6), RPI: 24, SOS: 14] The Sooners fell at Kansas on Monday night, which is a real seed-killer. That was a joke. Because Kansas has won 10 straight Big 12 titles? Remember? Right. Like Texas and K-State, the Sooners are in a good resume-holding pattern right now. Barring an 0-3 finish to the regular-season, they're getting in.
Texas [20-7 (9-5), RPI: 25, SOS: 41] The Longhorns lost at Iowa State and Kansas last week, and while the latter was a top-to-bottom demolition, that doesn't matter in our world. After all, the RPI doesn't factor margin of victory. (This is one of the reasons why the RPI is kind of crazy: Kansas's 31-point margin might as well have been three.) In other words, the Longhorns still have a nice collection of wins, good enough computer comparables, and still no losses outside the RPI top 50. We'll lock them in soon enough.
Kansas State [18-9 (8-6), RPI: 43, SOS: 45] K-State's bad losses (at home to Northern Colorado, neutral-court against Charlotte) look ugly, but then you trace your eye back upward toward the "Wins (RPI 1-50)" field and see none other than the aforementioned No. 1 RPI-having Jayhawks at the party. Kansas State is not as safe as either Texas or Oklahoma, but it would still take a massive effort for them to find a way to miss the tournament at this point.
Baylor [18-9 (6-8), RPI: 39, SOS: 10] Now that Baylor has won four in a row, including Saturday's 13-point win at West Virginia, the Bears are suddenly looking safer than ever. Winning basketball games helps (bubble strategy: "win games"; write this down), but piling those wins alongside a top-10 SOS and top-40 nonconference mark is especially nice. Neutral-court victories over Colorado and Kentucky have looked steadily better as the season has gone on. If Baylor leaves Austin, Texas, with a win on Wednesday, the redemption may be official.
Oklahoma State [18-10 (6-9), RPI: 47, SOS: 42] Marcus Smart's first two games back from his shove-related suspension went exactly like he and the Cowboys needed them to. Which is to say smoothly. Which is to say OSU came nowhere close to losing to either Texas Tech or lowly TCU. With that not-insignificant task out of the way, Smart & Co. can now turn their attention toward Saturday's titanic home date against Kansas. Turning things around against the Red Raiders and the Horned Frogs is one thing. Proving to the committee that your team is actually nothing like the flopping, loss-stacking, fan-shoving form it assumed in February with a win against Kansas? Another thing entirely.
|Big East Conference|
|Work left to do: St John's, Xavier, Providence, Georgetown|
The selection dynamic in the Big East is not dissimilar from the SEC: Two teams safely locked away, gazing out from the castle tower as a handful of teams desperately try to scale the walls below. The Big East has more in play than the SEC at this point, and thus more likely inclusions. Could Marquette join them? Not likely. The Golden Eagles might be able to overcome their complete lack of quality wins were their computer numbers not so ugly, but they are (the numbers). Marquette fans have been asking the Watch for some sort of closer examination lately. We acquiesced, and yeah, no.
St John's [18-10 (8-7), RPI: 52, SOS: 35] On Saturday, Steve Lavin's team very nearly capped off a six-game February winning streak with what would have been the mother of all bubble wins at Villanova. Instead, Villanova did what Villanova does (which, in case it's not clear, is "survive close games in the wake of blowout losses to Creighton"), holding on for a 57-54 win in Philly. Even so, St. John's month-long push into bracket reality has been a fruitful one. A 3-0 mark in their final three games (Xavier, DePaul, at Marquette) would likely maintain those gains.
Xavier [18-9 (8-6), RPI: 60, SOS: 94] The Musketeers' neutral-court win over Cincinnati is a true distinction, the kind of mettle-proving nonconference victory that earns a team crucial notice in side-by-side bubble comparisons. Unfortunately, that's about Xavier's only distinction. The rest of the Musketeers' resume is a mixture of so-so home wins over fellow bubble stragglers and thoroughly mediocre metrics. Tuesday night's trip to St. John's is big, sure, but not nearly as big as home chances against both Creighton (Saturday) and Villanova (March 6).
Providence [18-10 (8-7), RPI: 61, SOS: 64] Sunday could have been trouble for Providence, which had to go to Butler and tough out a road win after an emotionally exhausting overtime home miss against Villanova last week. But the Friars held on 87-81, and they, like Georgetown and St. John's, are crowded in the bubble's Valley of Imperceptible Differences -- where one late-season win or loss really can make the difference between "last four in" and "first four out."
Georgetown [16-11 (7-8), RPI: 63, SOS: 30] Speaking of distinctions, Georgetown has the best wins of any team in this group, even if the Madison Square Garden win over Michigan State will get a big red "injury" asterisk next to it. (These asterisks don't actually exist, far as we know. Maybe Etsy has stickers?) The Hoyas' 22-point home win over Xavier this weekend was an impressive one in every sense. They have, on the whole, played much better basketball in the last month. But losing twice to Seton Hall hurts, as does that Nov. 21 loss to sub-200 Northeastern. Still, like Xavier, John Thompson's team has both Creighton and Villanova on its schedule before the regular season is out.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Ohio State, Iowa|
Work left to do: Nebraska, Minnesota
Remember January? Wisconsin seems to have forgotten it. The same team that lost five out of six -- including at Indiana and to Northwestern in the Kohl Center -- has spent February looking like the best team in the Big Ten once more. The latest display of supremacy came in the form of back-to-back road wins at Michigan and Iowa. The result might be the nation's best and most diverse collection of wins. The Badgers have beaten Iowa twice, Michigan State once, Michigan and Virginia on the road, Florida at home, and Saint Louis on a neutral court. The Badgers have top-five RPI, SOS and nonconference SOS numbers. They are, as of now, a No. 2 seed, and it is not inconceivable -- they'd need some breaks, sure, but still -- that they could be a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday.
Ohio State [22-6 (9-6), RPI: 18, SOS: 17] Besides a schedule adored by RPI robots, the Buckeyes have wins at Wisconsin and Iowa, lone centerpieces of a generally solid but unspectacular resume. After trips to Penn State and Indiana, the Buckeyes close the season with a home game against Michigan State on March 9. They're close to a lock already.
Iowa [19-7 (8-5), RPI: 34, SOS: 52] Wisconsin's impressive win at Iowa on Saturday was yet another missed opportunity for the Hawkeyes. This is the theme of Iowa's season: The Hawkeyes are 4-7 against the RPI top 50 and 2-7 against the top 25. Every loss has come against an elite opponent, and by an average of 4.9 points per game. As we've repeated ad nauseam, Iowa's actual performance on the court -- its per-possession analytics, the eye test, whatever you prefer -- puts it among the 10 or 15 best teams in the country. But at some point, you actually have to win some of those games, or you risk being underseeded. That's how it works. And Iowa looks destined to suffer from precisely that dynamic.
Nebraska [16-10 (8-6), RPI: 46, SOS: 19] Nebraska had zero issues with home games against Penn State and Purdue last week. Conference record is never as big a deal as many in the public often think, but it's a lot easier to sell a team with a record better than .500 in the Big Ten, and last week's home combo got Nebraska two games up for the time being. On Monday, Joe Lunardi kept Nebraska in his next four out (alongside Oregon, Georgetown and Southern Miss). The Huskers wouldn't make the field if it were selected today, in other words, which means they can ill afford to slip up against Illinois (away), Northwestern (home) or Indiana (away) before hosting Wisconsin in the March 9 finale.
Minnesota [17-11 (6-9), RPI: 48, SOS: 6] After two straight losses -- consecutive sub-50-point efforts versus Illinois and at Ohio State -- the Gophers find themselves positioned squarely, and shakily, on the cut line. A top-10 strength of schedule and top-30 nonconference schedule are their chief advantages, but nothing is guaranteed. Tuesday night's home date against Iowa is a big opportunity; from there, it's a road trip to Michigan (a brutal task) and a home closer against Penn State (which won't move the needle).
|Mountain West Conference|
|Teams that should be in: New Mexico|
Saturday inspired our first real change to the Mountain West landscape since the first edition of the Watch two weeks ago. New Mexico's home win over San Diego State changed the game. Not only did it draw the Lobos even in the Mountain West conference title race -- a race SDSU looked set to lord over as recently as two weeks ago -- it elevated the Lobos' tournament resume, too.
New Mexico [21-5 (12-2), RPI: 21, SOS: 34] Craig Noodles Neal's team took a little while to find its footing this season, but Kendall Williams, Cameron Bairstow and the rest of the Lobos' brilliant offense have been soaring in conference play. And now look. New Mexico is 12-2 in league play and tied for the MWC lead with with four games to play. They also have a nonconference win over Cincinnati that nicely pairs with Saturday's win over SDSU, and solid RPI and SOS numbers including a top-10 nonconference schedule. They're in good enough shape that they could probably survive a lackluster showing in their next three games (against lackluster opponents) before their March 8 season finale at Viejas Arena.
|Teams that should be in: Colorado|
Work left to do: Arizona State, Oregon, Stanford, California
Colorado [20-8 (9-6), RPI: 26, SOS: 13] Colorado would have been a done deal had it managed to beat Arizona on Saturday. Before the game, the Buffs' odds looked good: The Wildcats had been struggling through their post-Brandon Ashley adjustment period, after all, and CU hadn't lost a home game since just after Spencer Dinwidde's season-ending ACL tear (to UCLA on Jan. 16). Instead, the Wildcats were commanding, and so Colorado will have to wait for lockdom. The bad news? Their last three Pac-12 games make up a brutal stretch: at Utah, at Stanford, at Cal. There is also some concern that the selection committee could devalue the big Dec. 7 Kansas win, which came in large part thanks to Dinwiddie's brilliance. But if CU can handle business on the road at Utah, it is hard to imagine a team with their RPI and SOS numbers not getting into this field in three weeks' time.
Arizona State [19-8 (8-6), RPI: 32, SOS: 48] Marquette's uncharacteristic mediocrity hasn't really hurt most of the teams that met the Golden Eagles in nonconference play: Ohio State, San Diego State, Wisconsin and New Mexico are all doing just fine, thank you. But Arizona State sure could have used a more typical version of Buzz Williams' team right about now. Despite their weak noncon SOS figure, the Sun Devils are in OK shape, generally, even if losses at Colorado and Utah last week turned what could have been a 10-4 record in Pac-12 play (despite playing USC and Washington State only once each) into an 8-6 mark. Home wins over Stanford and Cal on Wednesday and Saturday, respectively, would shore things up.
Oregon [18-8 (6-8), RPI: 40, SOS: 47] "Work to do" means different things for different teams. For Stanford, it requires something like maintenance -- bad-loss avoidance, basically -- with any marquee wins that come about acting almost as a bonus. For Oregon, the term is literal. The Ducks, and their utter lack of marquee wins, must go above and beyond to climb to the right side of the bubble in the next three weeks. A win at Pauley Pavilion on Thursday night would be a good place to start.
Stanford [18-8 (9-5), RPI: 41, SOS: 53] On Friday, we wrote that Stanford fans had every right to feel good, because their Cardinal were in relatively solid position in advance of a closing slate that included Saturday's home game against UCLA, low-cost opportunities at Arizona and Arizona State, and thoroughly winnable home games against Colorado and Utah in the final week of the season. Saturday's 83-74 win over the locked-in Bruins should only multiply these feelings of confident tranquility. Stanford has played solid basketball on the road all season long, but even if it leaves the desert with two losses, it's hard to imagine how its resume could somehow become less appealing than a dozen teams on the cut line as of today.
California [18-9 (9-5), RPI: 51, SOS: 57] While Stanford got a big win Saturday, its Bay Area brethren had to avoid a drastic loss. The Bears had already fallen to USC, after all. A sweep would have looked awfully bad down in that sub-150 territory of Cal's nitty-gritty sheet. Instead, Mike Montgomery's team won fairly comfortably, and now it gets to take a crack at Arizona on the road Wednesday night with little on their remaining regular-season schedule worth fretting over.
|Work left to do: Missouri, Tennessee|
While Florida polishes its No. 1 seed case, and Kentucky forward Julius Randle plays his way back into the All-American discussion, Missouri and Tennessee, two SEC bubble stragglers, seem utterly determined to limit their conference to two bids.
Missouri [19-8 (7-7), RPI: 45, SOS: 68] To date, Alabama has scored 1.01 points per possession in SEC play, 11th-best in the league. Oh, and that tally includes their 80-73 home win -- in 64 possessions -- over the Tigers on Saturday. It's a shame the Tigers' defense is so nonexistent, because the offensive play of guards Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson deserves a wider audience. Brown in particular has been a ruthlessly effective scorer, shooting 54 percent from 2 and 44 percent from 3-point territory and posting a 124.9 offensive rating on 23.6 percent usage. That combo could be devastating in a single-elimination tournament. Or worth the price of admission, at the very least. But to get there, the Tigers will have to play at least some shred of defense. A devastating loss at Georgia -- which beat Missouri in Columbia, Mo., earlier this year -- is totally on the table on Tuesday night.
Tennessee [16-11 (7-7), RPI: 58, SOS: 11] Saturday's 68-65 loss at Texas A&M -- Tennessee's second to the rebuilding Aggies this season -- was just the latest, greatest example of the Vols' inability to figure things out. Tennessee's profile comes with quality strength of schedule numbers and a blowout home win over Virginia back on Dec. 30, and literally nothing more. Fortunately, the bubble is soft. Missouri is reaping these benefits, too. But is anyone, the Vols included, confident they'll get out of Starkville, Miss., on Wednesday without a resume-killing loss to Mississippi State? If so, why?
|Other at-large contenders|
|Work left to do: Gonzaga, Southern Miss, BYU, Green Bay|
For weeks, we've kept a watchful eye on Gonzaga's season-ending gantlet, a string of four straight road games that began at BYU, ends at Saint Mary's, and features stops at San Diego and Pacific along the way. Or featured, anyway: On Sunday, Gonzaga fell victim to the 16-14 Toreros. It was the Bulldogs' second straight loss. A defeat at Pacific on Thursday night could make things dicey in advance of Saturday's finale in Moraga, Calif. In any case, Gonzaga's woes showcase the larger struggle for at-large contenders residing outside the power conferences, especially this season. A mid-major power if ever there was one, Gonzaga has far fewer issues scheduling in November and December than most. If the Zags can see their fortunes sink so rapidly, how thin must everyone else's margins be? See: Indiana State, which lost at Missouri State this week and fell off the Watch as a result. Or Toledo, which we kept around last week for illustrative purposes only, and whose inclusion can no longer be justified, not with a 163-ranked SOS and no top-50 wins. This, in turn, is why the bubble is so soft, why the Missouris and Tennessees and Oregons of the world have managed to stay in at-large contention despite all apparent efforts to the contrary. The committee has to find 68 teams somewhere, and the mid-major leagues of yore simply aren't surfacing worthwhile candidates this season.
Gonzaga [23-6 (13-3), RPI: 29, SOS: 102] On Friday, we wrote that a 1-2 start to Gonzaga's four-game road trip could make things more interesting than Mark Few would prefer and that an 0-3 run would "set off a panic." It's still too early for that, of course; let's see how Few's team bounces back before we start putting it in the shaky 10-11-12 seed range. But honestly? Gonzaga's profile as it stands isn't a slam dunk by any means. The Bulldogs still have just one top-50 win -- against BYU at home -- with no road wins better (per the RPI) than West Virginia and San Francisco. This is hardly a done deal.
Southern Miss [23-5 (10-3), RPI: 33, SOS: 145] Whether a home loss to UTEP would have spelled doom for Southern Miss' long-shot at-large chances is now officially beside the point: The Golden Eagles handled business against the Miners on Saturday. It's still hard to figure out how a team whose best (and lone top-50) win came at North Dakota State, and whose next-best victories are Georgia State, Louisiana Tech, the aforementioned Miners and at DePaul, can manage to impress the committee before Selection Sunday. Especially when that team's last three games come against Florida International, Florida Atlantic and Tulane. But hey, you never know.
BYU [20-10 (12-5), RPI: 35, SOS: 21] The Cougars' win against Gonzaga on Thursday helped right their bubble ship in a serious way, and they followed up with a comfortable win over Portland this weekend. With just one WCC game left -- Saturday's road trip to San Diego -- the Cougars remain very much on the bubble but will be helped by a pair of wins (at Stanford, vs. Texas on a neutral court) that distinguish them from much of the crowd.
Green Bay [22-5 (12-2), RPI: 57, SOS: 151] The Phoenix's best chance is still winning the automatic bid in next week's Horizon League tournament. Why? Because although a home win over Virginia is nice, Tennessee has one of those, too, and a much better schedule to boot. (It's not a direct comparison that really matters, but you get the idea.) Let's see how things play out at Oakland and Detroit this week because a loss to either would make it official.