College Basketball Bubble Watch
With massive bubble, Kansas is one of few locks
The top-five upsets, the turnover at the top, the difficulty separating national title contenders from the 10th- or 15th-best team in the country (if that's even possible): This has been a crazy year. This premise is not in dispute.
You'd assume, then, that the Bubble Watch would agree. In other words, the teams grouped into each totally-super-important category we use in this space -- locks, should be in, work to do -- would echo the gulf between 2014-15 and 2015-16. So: After finishing this week's Watch, we tallied things up. Then we dug into the Bubble Watch Library and Records Department (which may or may not be a folder in Dropbox) and found the Feb. 6, 2015, edition of the Bubble Watch. The results:
Feb. 6, 2015
Should be in: 13
Work to do: 38
Feb. 5, 2016
Should be in: 12
Work to do: 38
Where are the locks? 2015 should have more locks, or more teams we felt more certain about. And fewer teams with work to do. Right? Last season wasn't crazy! This season -- this is the one that's crazy! So why aren't the numbers crazy?
One caveat here: If we had compared Tuesday's debut (before we added two more teams today) the lock disparity (four to eight) would appear much more narratively satisfying. Also, relative to last year, this year's resumes really do feel more brittle, with less distance between (say) a No. 7 seed and the bubble morass below. (We'll eventually double-check that one, too.)
More than anything, though, these numbers are a reminder of an essential bubble truth, which is that competition is always self-contained. All we have are this year's teams, and the number required to stage an NCAA tournament hasn't changed. On the bubble, everything is relative.
|American Athletic Conference|
|Work left to do: UConn, Cincinnati|
Tulsa wouldn't have gotten on the page with a win at Temple on Thursday night, but they would have at least inched closer. As it is, the Golden Hurricane have exactly two top-100 wins. Seeing as one of those wins came on Nov. 17 against Wichita State, that's not exactly a harbinger of progress. Maybe it's not fair to have expected Tulsa -- the oldest and most experienced team in the country -- to get drastically better this season. Sometimes seniors are just a year older, and nothing more. Somehow, though, Frank Haith's team got worse.
UConn [16-6 (6-3), RPI: 50, SOS: 61] On Tuesday, the Watch had to deliver some sobering news to a particularly overexuberant subset of UConn fans who drilled us for not putting them in the preseason Top 25. With that bit of business settled, we extend our hand in peace. Because here's the thing: Connecticut's RPI drastically underrates Connecticut's performance. The Huskies are just shy of cracking the top 20 of KenPom's adjusted efficiency rankings. The Basketball Power Index sees UConn as a top-30 team. The RPI has the Huskies down around the high 50s or early 60s, depending on the day, and that's a pretty marginal number for a team with one of the best per-possession defenses in the land. Close losses -- one-possession drops to Syracuse, Gonzaga, Temple and Cincinnati -- help explain the discrepancy. Either way, the Huskies are playing better than the numbers next to their name indicate. At the very least, it bodes well moving forward.
Cincinnati [17-6 (7-3), RPI: 66, SOS: 114] Cincinnati let one get away at SMU back on Jan. 7, in a 59-57 game at Moody Coliseum. The return trip comes almost exactly two months later (March 6), and it's already shaping up to be the most important game of the Bearcats season. Between now and then, Cincy plays just one ostensible tournament team (UConn at home) and has five potentially damaging road trips (Memphis, UCF, Tulsa, East Carolina, Houston) in its final eight games. Any losses along the way will only increase the value of that huge regular-season closer against the Mustangs.
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Dayton|
Work left to do: VCU, Saint Joseph's, St. Bonaventure, George Washington
A massive win for St. Bonaventure gets them on the page, but for how long? Dayton's off week keeps the Flyers in the same (extremely impressive) position as Tuesday. And remember how we said not to bury Davidson? On Wednesday night, as alumni Stephen Curry was (in President Obama's amazing words) clowning the Washington Wizards with 51 points, Bob McKillop's team was losing 79-69 at George Washington, falling to 12-8 on the season. Perhaps our warning against premature burial was itself premature.
Dayton [18-3 (8-1), RPI: 11, SOS: 38] Perhaps, if you are not a regular devotee of Atlantic 10 basketball generally, or the Flyers specifically, you see this unranked team's 18 wins and three losses and find yourself mildly blown away. Fair enough. Yet Dayton's resume contains much more impressive numbers. Its top-15 RPI. Its top-50 overall strength of schedule, despite its Atlantic 10 affiliation. Its No. 4-ranked nonconference strength of schedule. Its 10-2 record against the RPI top-100. Better yet? When the Flyers beat Iowa back on Nov. 26, no one really batted an eye, and it wasn't just the turkey coma: Dayton was pretty good, Iowa was pretty good, neither team was ranked. Ho-hum. Now the Hawkeyes are a top-five beast with road sweeps of Michigan State and Purdue, and the Flyers measure their resume's improvement in Jarrod Uthoff buckets. Flyers head coach Archie Miller has this thing rolling.
VCU [17-5 (9-0), RPI: 29, SOS: 82] La Salle is the A-10's worst team. In a league that Saint Louis, George Mason, and Massachusetts (this season) call home, that's saying something. There isn't much to say, then, about VCU's 88-70 win at La Salle on Wednesday, except these two things: (1) For a resume without a single noteworthy nonconference win (maybe Middle Tennessee? Buffalo), avoiding losses to the dregs of the A-10 is practically VCU's top February priority. (2) You could make an argument that though Dayton has (by far) the A-10's best resume, on the court, VCU's per-possession performance is a substantive argument that the Rams might be the A-10's best team.
Saint Joseph's [18-4 (7-2), RPI: 37, SOS: 110] The good news for Saint Joe's? St. Bonaventure is pretty good. Their RPI is in the top 50. Their offense is the A-10's second-most efficient to date. It's totally possible they'll get in the tournament. All of which is to say: The Hawks' home loss on Wednesday night wasn't a total disaster. It wasn't great, either. Losing on your home floor is never great. That's especially if you, like Saint Joe's, are a clear bubble team with no top-25 or top-50 wins and just a 3-4 record against the top 100.
St. Bonaventure [14-6 (6-3), RPI: 45, SOS: 71] The Bonnies are a long-shot addition after Wednesday's win at Saint Joe's. How long they stay is up to them. The pros? Decent RPI, decent schedule, no sub-100 losses. The cons? St. Bonaventure is just 3-6 against the top 100. Saint Joe's was its first win better than a road victory at Buffalo. Marcus Posley is leading one of the A-10's best offensive teams in conference play, but it may take something drastic -- like a win at Dayton on Feb. 20 -- to get off the fringe.
George Washington [17-5 (6-3), RPI: 49, SOS: 124] That long-ago Nov. 16 home win over Virginia is basically George Washington's personal Giving Tree, and the Colonials' resume seems likely to wring every last bit of value from its branches. The win over Davidson doesn't change much, and the bad losses (at DePaul, at Saint Louis, Richmond) are even more of a profile setback than a 200-ish nonconference strength of schedule. But when you beat Virginia (and have a 2-1 mark against the top-50 teams you've played thus far) and Seton Hall, you've got a chance.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Miami|
Work left to do: Duke, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Florida State, Syracuse, Clemson
The ACC takes a rap for the bottom portions of its conference, and understandably so: Georgia Tech, NC State, Wake Forest and (especially) Boston College are all taking fairly routine beatings in league play, with a combined five conference wins (and 33 losses) between them. But you know what? Thanks to the excellence of Miami, reemergence of Syracuse and Notre Dame, plain old emergence of Clemson, quiet solidity of Pitt, and decent work from Florida State, the ACC has nine potential tournament squads (it would have been 10 if Louisville hadn't ruled itself ineligible) in the mix. It doesn't feel nearly as top heavy as in recent seasons.
Miami [17-4 (6-3), RPI: 14, SOS: 54] Things progressed as expected for the Hurricanes on Wednesday, when they handled a good-but-not-great Notre Dame team on their own court 79-70. The value of any isolated top-50 home win is shaky -- they're not exactly rare -- but Jim Larranaga's team has now stacked enough of them (Florida, Syracuse, Florida State, Duke, and now Notre Dame) that a cumulative effect (alongside Utah on a neutral court) is in play. Meanwhile, Miami's only home defeat of the season (Nov. 27 versus Northeastern) remains its only real resume blight. If Butler goes on a big run down the stretch, that once-impressive Puerto Rico title victory may yet regain some of its luster.
Duke [16-6 (5-4), RPI: 26, SOS: 29] Early in the week, the Watch was asked whether Duke was a bubble team. Our answer was, basically, "not yet." The Blue Devils' current resume looks ugly compared to the usual Duke fare, sure. Compared to the 2016 bubble, though, it was decent enough, and it would take a few more slips before Mike Krzyzewski found himself in rare proximity to the cut line. That same "usual Duke" versus "current Duke" confusion distorted our reaction to Tuesday's road win at Georgia Tech. We were impressed! Then we remembered it was Duke and Georgia Tech. What a weird season. The point is, the Blue Devils remain a step above the usual bubble fare but are nowhere near safety, and after Saturday's visit from NC State they get Louisville, Virginia, at North Carolina and at Louisville in four straight games. Calling that a pivotal stretch is vastly understating the case.
Pittsburgh [17-4 (6-3), RPI: 27, SOS: 81] Few coaches more ably game the RPI formula than Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon, whose team seems to avoid quality nonconference opponents almost entirely. Instead, the Panthers tweak their schedule just so, and play almost entirely winnable games that won't hurt their eventual RPI number too much, and it works. To wit: Purdue is the only good nonconference team on this ledger and that game was mandated by the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. Pitt's next-best noncon fixtures? Davidson, Duquesne, Kent State. True story. Yet the Panthers have a top-30 RPI and a mid-160s noncon strength of schedule. It's impressive stuff. We also have no idea how good Pitt really is (though we suspect they remain slightly underrated). Saturday brings Virginia to town, followed by trips to Miami and North Carolina. Let's figure these dudes out, shall we?
Notre Dame [15-7 (6-4), RPI: 32, SOS: 34] Few teams will root for Duke forward Amile Jefferson's eventual return harder than Notre Dame, whose 95-91 win at Duke on Jan. 16 is one of only two top-end victories the Irish have on their otherwise not-terrible-but-not-impressive resume. The other one, fortunately, is Iowa. If a Nov. 27 neutral-court victory over a then-unranked Hawkeyes team can turn into one of the best wins any team got in 2015-16, why not double-down on Duke?
Florida State [15-7 (5-5), RPI: 38, SOS: 60] The Seminoles have a nice freshman duo in Malik Beasley and Dwayne Bacon, and a go-to paradigm for struggling headline writers. ("Bacon sizzles in win over Virginia," et al.) Speaking of which, Florida State did knock off the Cavaliers on Jan. 17. They also got Florida at Florida on Dec. 29. Those (plus VCU) are the big claims to fame here, though a lack of truly bad losses doesn't hurt. What does hurt is a sub-200 nonconference strength of schedule, as well as middling RPI and SOS numbers and losing records against the top 25, top 50, and top 100. It's a very bubbly situation in Tallahassee, is what we're saying, one that probably won't be resolved until March.
Syracuse [16-8 (6-5), RPI: 40, SOS: 37] There's a chance Syracuse will be the most interesting non-LSU team of the 2016 bubble season. Why? Call it the Boeheim Effect. Before Boeheim abruptly left the team to begin serving his post-appeal NCAA suspension earlier than expected, the Orange were 6-1 with wins over UConn and Texas A&M. Then, when Boeheim left, his team went 4-5, including a road loss to St. John's and a home loss to Clemson. Since his return: 6-2 with wins over Duke and Notre Dame and losses to UNC and Virginia. The difference is already overwhelming, and it's safe to expect an even wider gulf before the season is over. Committee chair Joe Castiglione has already confirmed the committee will weigh Boeheim's absence the same way it considers injured players. The question is: How heavily? Will it throw out the nine-game lull? Does the St. John's loss disappear altogether? Will Syracuse's seed reflect only the Boeheim-led games, and how much of a jump could that represent? And, yes, we said "seed." Syracuse overall might be a bubble team. Syracuse with Boeheim isn't.
Clemson [14-8 (7-3), RPI: 71, SOS: 80] When Clemson knocked off Florida State, Syracuse (away), Louisville, Duke and Miami in the matter of two weeks in early January, it raised questions. This was, after all, the same team that lost to UMass and Minnesota in November. How much of this was real? How much home-court advantage? Was this a brief hot spell? When would the Tigers come back to Earth? Since Jan. 16, though, they have played Virginia tight on the road, beaten Pitt, lost at Florida State, and, on Tuesday night, got a 14-point road win at Wake Forest. Beating Wake Forest doesn't put you in the tournament. Maybe Brad Brownell's team isn't quite as good as that first two weeks of January would have you believe. But it isn't fading. At least not yet.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Iowa State, West Virginia, Texas, Baylor|
Work left to do: Texas Tech
OK, OK: Kansas is a lock. The Watch's love of receiving feedback was matched in recent days by the Jayhawks faithful's enthusiasm for sending it, and there was a common theme: How is KU, with its top-five RPI and SOS, not a lock? The answer: Simple caution. KU had, after all, lost three road games in conference play. What if that trend continued? As the Watch pondered further this week, we realized another thing: Kansas basically never loses at home. Which means that after Wednesday's win over K-State Bill Self's team could lose every time it takes the road -- at TCU on Saturday, at Oklahoma, at K-State, at Baylor, at Texas -- and still (probably!) finish 4-5 in its last nine and 21-9 (10-8) overall. Throw in the good wins already here, and the fact that West Virginia and Iowa State both have trips to Lawrence coming up, and yeah: Kansas is going to the tournament. Our bad.
Iowa State [16-6 (5-4), RPI: 12, SOS: 3] In the real world -- specifically in Ames, Iowa, where the idea of Iowa State losing at Hilton Coliseum seems heretical -- a loss to West Virginia is a big deal. The way the Cyclones' loss to the Mountaineers on Tuesday ended didn't help. Iowa State failed to box out the shooter in the final seconds when said shooter was the only possible Mountaineers rebounder in the key, and thus lost its chance to extend a one-possession game late. It was rough. The good news? In the world of RPIs and team sheets, losing to West Virginia is no big deal.
West Virginia [18-4 (7-2), RPI: 13, SOS: 51] Winning at Iowa State is a big deal. One couldn't help but be impressed with the way West Virginia not only rebounded from a blowout loss at Florida mentally, but dialed up its pressure and half-court defense against a Cyclones team that prides itself on almost never turning the ball over. Saturday brings Baylor to town, which is another opportunity for a quality win and one more small step toward an inevitable lock.
Texas [15-7 (6-3), RPI: 18, SOS: 4] Since Jan. 9, when it fell to TCU, UT is 6-1. The only loss was in single digits at Kansas. Texas knocked off Iowa State, beat West Virginia on the road, utterly demoralized Vanderbilt in the Big 12-SEC Challenge, and then, on Monday, went ahead and took down Baylor in Waco. That's a serious run. Shaka Smart's team is playing the best first-shot defense in the Big 12. Isaiah Taylor is posting a career high in assists per possession and a career low in turnovers. And suddenly, a team that already had a decent resume in early January (with a home win over UNC) has four top-25-ish wins to complement its top-five overall and noncon schedules.
Baylor [17-5 (6-3), RPI: 25, SOS: 41] Like the Mountaineers, the Bears' five losses have all come to teams ranked in the upper RPI echelons. Kansas, Oregon and Oklahoma are all top-five defeats; Texas A&M is top-15; and Monday night's home loss to Texas rests comfortably in the top 25. Would Scott Drew prefer to have back the Longhorns' visit? Sure. Would he have much preferred beating Oklahoma in Waco on Jan. 23? Of course. Did his team also win at Iowa State? It did. Baylor isn't as secure in its position as any of its fellow top-half Big 12 teams. But there's nothing wrong with this resume, either.
Texas Tech [13-8 (3-6), RPI: 44, SOS: 7] Wednesday's solid (if nerve-wracking) win over Oklahoma State doesn't do much to change the Red Raiders' calculus. The Cowboys seem a good deal better than their 120s-ish RPI on the floor, but even if you swapped out their RPI with their Basketball Power Index ranking (79), we're not talking about a needle-moving win. Texas Tech needs more. Saturday's visit to Texas qualifies.
|Big East Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Providence|
Work left to do: Seton Hall, Butler, Georgetown
That sound you hear is a thousand Xavier fans hitting the big red "launch abort" button on the verbal ICBMs they had preemptively pointed at Bubble Watch headquarters. (This is why we built HQ in a fortified bunker deep beneath the Earth's crust.) We will say this: The Michigan and Providence wins might lose steam and the remaining schedule is at once tough and RPI-underrated (Creighton, Butler, Georgetown, etc). Yet these are minor misgivings about the Musketeers' resume. They pale in comparison to our faith in the Musketeers themselves. It would take a mind-blowing collapse for Xavier to make us revisit the lock distinction, let alone cause them to miss the NCAA tournament. It's conceptually possible, but this team is too good to let it happen. Lock 'em.
Providence [18-5 (6-4), RPI: 28, SOS: 75] Road losses at DePaul: Not great! Road wins at Villanova, however, are great, and if you have to take a seven-point defeat in Rosemont, Illinois, you might as well be able to point to handing Villanova its first Big East loss in 12 months as a counter. How about a second loss? If PC can sweep the Wildcats -- who come to the Dunk on Saturday -- then we can stoically nod, throw all known copies of Tuesday's box score in the incinerator, and agree the whole thing never happened.
Seton Hall [16-6 (6-4), RPI: 41, SOS: 83] Seton Hall's win over Marquette won't count for much until the Golden Eagles get their RPI (currently hovering near 100) significantly down. But considering what Marquette forward Henry Ellenson did to Butler in a Jan. 30 win (32 points, 10 rebounds, six blocks), the Pirates' 79-62 win on Wednesday was at least the product of a quality effort. Let's put it that way. Solid resume, two good wins (and Wichita State will look even better in a few weeks), no truly terrible losses, a decent RPI, an ugly noncon SOS number, and a team that needs more nights like Wednesday to put itself safely in the tournament over the next five weeks.
Butler [15-7 (4-6), RPI: 61, SOS: 88] The past few weeks have been a tragic time for Butler hoops in ways that go far beyond whether or not the Bulldogs will get into a basketball tournament at the end of the season. Just a couple of weeks after the passing of former player Andrew Smith (age 25), former player and current Bulldogs' basketball analyst and video coordinator Emerson Kampen lost his son, Emerson Kampen IV, to Leigh's Disease. He was 6 months old. Plenty of the program's emotions were on display during and after its win over Georgetown on Tuesday, which, actually, you know what? Let's resume the bubble stuff next week. Right now it feels a little silly.
Georgetown [13-10 (6-4), RPI: 72, SOS: 27] Earlier this week, we detailed the various confusing stages of Georgetown's 2015-16 season, which include "narrowly losing to Maryland and Duke" to "getting worked by Monmouth and UNC Asheville on your own court" to "whoa, they won at Xavier -- maybe they figured it out!" Maybe. Tuesday's loss at Butler, unfortunately, put Georgetown at 13-10 overall, 8-8 against the top 150 and 5-8 against the top 100. Next up? A trip to Seton Hall on Saturday. We have no idea what to expect.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Maryland, Michigan State, Purdue|
Work left to do: Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin
Iowa remains the only lock in the Big Ten as of Feb. 5. Now let's get in a time machine, go back to December, tell you we just arrived via time machine, and then tell you Iowa will be the Big Ten's only lock as of Feb. 5. Which would be less believable?
Maryland [20-3 (9-2), RPI: 6, SOS: 46] Haltingly and gradually, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon has been giving freshman center Diamond Stone more minutes and a larger role on the team. On Wednesday, Stone earned yet another start at Nebraska. He played a career-high 34 minutes and had 16 points (sure), 10 rebounds (nice) and eight blocks (wait, what?!). Stone's continued emergence -- seriously, eight blocks! -- are one more reason to keep the faith in Maryland's talent even as the Terps look for their second marquee win of the season on Saturday versus Purdue. If Stone is playing like that, with everything else Maryland has already, look out.
Michigan State [19-4 (6-4), RPI: 20, SOS: 84] When Denzel Valentine was injured in late December -- by which time he'd already recorded two triple-doubles -- Tom Izzo hoped his brief absence would offer Valentine's teammates opportunities, responsibilities and even inspiration. The Spartans went 3-1 in their next four games. The only loss came at Iowa. Sure, Izzo said his team was "punked" in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, but 3-1 without your best player isn't so bad. Then Valentine returned, and the strangest thing happened: Michigan State lost three in a row. Iowa thoroughly re-punked the Spartans on their own floor, Wisconsin knocked them off 77-76 in Madison, and then Nebraska -- Nebraska?! -- stole a 72-71 win in East Lansing. What on Earth? After the loss, Izzo essentially called his team a wounded tuna. "There's blood in the water right now," he said. "The sharks are coming." Then Michigan State beat said sharks (Maryland) in East Lansing, Matt Costello twirled Izzo like a ballerina in celebration, and all was right in the mitten once more. Two takeaways here: (1) Sometimes teams have weird stretches in conference play. Michigan State still has noncon wins over Kansas, Providence, Louisville and Florida. Overreaction is tempting, but try to hold off. And (2) Izzo is having one of his best seasons ever, both on the sideline and as a dispensary for premium-grade postgame quote. May it ever be so.
Purdue [19-4 (7-3), RPI: 24, SOS: 89] The Boilermakers may not be quite what they appeared in November and early December, when they were playing the nation's best, most punishing defense. Lapses against Butler, Iowa (twice) and Illinois (yikes) have scuffed up the shine. Still, the Boilermakers have a quality resume with some solid wins and not-terrible schedule numbers. They're also an imposing interior force that leads the Big Ten in rebounding percentage on both offense and defense. Which may have something to do with 6-foot-9 freshman Caleb Swanigan, 7-foot-2 sophomore Isaac Haas, and 7-foot senior A.J. Hammons cohabiting in the frontcourt. Just a hunch. Saturday's trip to Maryland will be one of the first times all season the Terrapins don't have an inherent height advantage. No one likes playing Purdue.
Michigan [17-6 (7-3), RPI: 42, SOS: 77] John Beilein was exasperated after Indiana's blowout win at Ann Arbor on Tuesday, and understandably so. "Indiana was really good tonight," Beilein said, "and we were really bad." You might ask which was more of a factor in the final outcome, but that might be overthinking things. One game is one game. It wasn't so long ago that U-M took Maryland down in the same building. Its team sheet still looks fine. And besides, if the Wolverines can handle Michigan State at home on Saturday, Tuesday's loss will seem a distant memory.
Indiana [19-4 (9-1), RPI: 46, SOS: 174] Whatever value a road win at Michigan has on paper -- and it's considerable -- what Indiana actually did en route to said road win in Ann Arbor on Tuesday outstripped it exponentially. The Hoosiers laid down a 28-0 run on the Wolverines in their own building, a masterful two-way stretch of brilliant offense and arguably better defense that held Michigan without a bucket in the final nine minutes of the first half. The end result? An 80-67 road win that wasn't even that close. If the eye test matters as much as we're constantly hearing it does, then take a good look at the Hoosiers. Because they look incredible. A win over Iowa next Thursday would help Indiana's resume better resemble its recent play.
Wisconsin [14-9 (6-4), RPI: 59, SOS: 8] As the clock wound down on Wisconsin's 79-68 win over Ohio State on Thursday, former UConn coach/current ESPN analyst Jim Calhoun, discussing the Badgers' bubble position, essentially said to forget whether the OSU win was marquee or not, because Wisconsin needs every win it can get. He was right. UW's five-game winning streak has included victories over Michigan State and Indiana; it has also included not-losses against Penn State, Illinois and the Buckeyes. When you're in this kind of spot -- smack dab on our early conception of the bubble -- any win or loss, whether obviously good or obviously bad or somewhere in the middle, can be the difference.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Work left to do: San Diego State|
Boise State has a win over Oregon. That is its lone claim to a spot on the bubble, and why the Broncos represent the Mountain West's best hope of introducing another at-large team to the picture. The rest of Boise State's resume remains a problem. In a season that San Diego State coach Steve Fisher has already admitted he wants to "win with separation," dropping normally forgivable games to UNLV and New Mexico is a disqualifying factor for the Broncos.
San Diego State [17-6 (10-0), RPI: 57, SOS: 74] Speaking of separation, Fisher rightly shared this conclusion with his team: If the field was seeded now, San Diego State would probably go home. The idea? SDSU can't merely win. It has to win easily. "If we win with separation, I think it will say something," Fisher told Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday. "If we win on the last day at the buzzer or if we tie, that's different. But if we have separation in winning the league, I think that speaks a little louder about what we've done." Maybe. It's a reasonable between-the-numbers hope. It's also a totally informal criterion without a whole lot of past precedent, and one that relies on a favorable viewing of a league without many good teams. In any case, the Aztecs are now 10-0 in MWC play after Wednesday's 69-67 home win over Colorado State, which probably wasn't quite the separation Fisher had in mind.
|Teams that should be in: Oregon, USC|
Work left to do: Utah, Colorado, Arizona, California, Oregon State, Washington, UCLA
A 12-point loss at Washington on Wednesday made Arizona State 12-11 overall and 2-8 in conference play. It will take a serious second-half push to get the Sun Devils to a place where they aren't relying entirely on a win over Texas A&M and a good strength of schedule. Farewell for now.
Oregon [19-4 (8-2), RPI: 2, SOS: 2] The Ducks got their eighth victory in nine games against Colorado on Thursday, a 76-56 final that was over by halftime. There was nothing on display Thursday that could convince any observer that Oregon wasn't the Pac-12's best team -- and, with yet another top-30 RPI win in the books, the Ducks are very close to a lock.
USC [18-5 (7-3), RPI: 16, SOS: 50] The Trojans' win over UCLA on Thursday may have done more to push the Bruins back than advance USC's case, which is another way of saying USC is in pretty darn solid bubble shape. (UCLA, less so.) Then again, they moved up a row, so maybe not? The point here is that this is an extremely solid resume with no real flaws, and even if the wins and the schedule aren't amazing (depending in part on what the committee ends up thinking about a Fred VanVleet-less Wichita State team), USC feels relatively safe as a mid-single-digit seed at this point in the proceedings. Maybe that changes after the Arizona State-Arizona road trip next week. We tend to doubt it.
Utah [17-6 (6-4), RPI: 17, SOS: 28] So you say you lost a road game in conference play? Oh well. The RPI loves Utah's wins and its schedule, even if the Utes haven't beaten a truly elite team. (That was supposed to be Duke. Again: Oh well.) The Utes will be fine after Thursday's close loss at Oregon State. Given the way they're playing, they could always turn around and knock off Oregon on Sunday, which at worst will be a totally non-damaging loss -- or, at best, a win that would all but punch their ticket.
Colorado [17-6 (6-4), RPI: 23, SOS: 44] At the very top of this page, in the section on Connecticut, we explained how the Huskies' on-court performance has failed to translate to its RPI, which is almost double even the most conservative advanced-metric estimate of their play to date. In this regard, Colorado is like UConn in reverse: The Buffaloes entered Eugene on Thursday with the nation's No. 23 RPI. Their advanced efficiency rank (per KenPom): 56. Their BPI: 42. Boyle's team has sneaked away with a few noteworthy close games, such as a 71-70 win over Penn State, a 75-70 win at Wazzu and even a 87-82 result against Nebraska Omaha in November. The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle: This is not a Top-25 team by almost anyone's estimation. But it may not be as bad as its per-possession metrics indicate either. The next three weeks will tell.
Arizona [18-5 (6-4), RPI: 35, SOS: 134] Whatever message Sean Miller wanted to communicate to his team -- which he said he was as "down on" as any in his Arizona career after last week's a 83-75 home loss to Oregon -- the call appears to have been received. The Wildcats beat Oregon State (home) and Washington State (away) by a combined 32 points, pairing some suddenly solid defense with typically efficient offense. Encouraging stuff. Not hugely helpful where Zona's mediocre team sheet is concerned, but still: encouraging.
California [14-8 (4-5), RPI: 39, SOS: 33] The Watch was in the building on Dec. 22, in Charlottesville, Virginia, when California traveled to play then-No. 5-ranked Virginia, and though he didn't know it at the time, he very nearly bore witness to the great bubble win of the season. The Bears' length troubled an offense that had blitzed Villanova on the same floor a week earlier. They opened an early lead, took it into halftime, and maintained it, 50-43, with just 7:09 left to play. They survived UVa's late run enough to earn a crack at the final possession in regulation. They rebuilt their margin in overtime, leading 62-57 with 63 seconds to play. They lost 63-62. Bitter as it was, at the time the defeat felt like positive sign: Cal was finally marshaling and executing on the talent that had made it a top-15 team in the preseason. Six weeks later -- after Tyrone Wallace's injury, Jaylen Brown's still-inefficient offensive play and a 4-5 conference start -- Cuonzo Martin's team is an at-large toss-up. That loss at UVa may wind up as the 2016 bubble's single biggest regret.
Oregon State [13-8 (4-6), RPI: 43, SOS: 18] Maybe it's too harsh to say the Beavers needed Thursday's win over Utah to stay on the page. They do have a few other quality wins (namely over Oregon), no bad losses and a sterling strength of schedule figure. Climbing back above .500 in conference play would help, but it's not the biggest flaw here: All of OSU's laudable wins, including Utah, have come in Corvallis. On Saturday, Colorado comes to town, and from there it's at Stanford, at Cal, at Oregon. The Beavers need to look much better on the road than they did against ASU and Arizona last week to add some geographical heft to their case.
Washington [15-7 (7-3), RPI: 53, SOS: 47] Washington continues to hold its own in conference play, perfectly respectable if not spectacular, which is fairly summed up by its past three games: a road win at UCLA, a road loss at USC, an easy home victory over Arizona State. The Watch assumed this young, slept-on team would fall away at some point, if for no other reason than the rigors of league play, but here they are, on the bubble and not going anywhere, with a chance to beat Arizona in their own gym Saturday.
UCLA [13-10 (4-6), RPI: 68, SOS: 24] The bad news for UCLA? On Thursday, a 80-61 loss at crosstown rival USC dropped them to 4-6 in league play, 13-10 overall, 3-6 against the RPI top 50 and just 6-9 against the top 100. The good news for UCLA? They, um, beat Kentucky? And Arizona? On their own floor? Yeah: It's not looking great. Oh, wait, we remembered the actual good news: UCLA got into the tournament with a similar resume last season! Remember that? Good times, huh?
|Teams that should be in: Texas A&M|
Work left to do: Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Georgia, LSU
Signs of life from Vanderbilt; Kentucky refuses to surrender (and not in a good way); LSU and Ben Simmons rebound (sort of) from the Oklahoma letdown with a win over Auburn; and Georgia tries to join the party. What party? The SEC bubble party!
Texas A&M [18-4 (7-2), RPI: 15, SOS: 70] It's safe to say A&M's loss to Vanderbilt on Thursday did more to help the Commodores than it did to hurt the Aggies, for whom losses, at this point, are more about seed lines than whether or not they'll get in the tournament. It would take three or four more nights like Thursday (in rapid succession, too) for us to start worrying about Texas A&M.
Florida [15-7 (6-3), RPI: 21, SOS: 9] The Gators and their super-impressive RPI formula numbers (which include the No. 2 nonconference SOS) held off Arkansas on the road on Wednesday night, setting up Saturday's trip to Kentucky. Can Florida actually win at Rupp? A couple of weeks ago, we would have said "no way." But given the past week -- when UK collapsed to a bad team on the road and UF pulverized a West Virginia group that turned around and won at Iowa State -- well, who knows?
Kentucky [16-6 (6-3), RPI: 22, SOS: 57] In Tuesday's edition of Bubble Watch, we were all sunshine and lollipops on the subject of the Kentucky Wildcats. They took Kansas to OT at Allen Fieldhouse and turned the corner, we said. Their resume is fine, we said. And there we were on Tuesday night, taking in Kentucky-Tennessee, witnessing the Wildcats blow their 21-point first-half lead en route to a totally uninspiring and lackluster loss to an 11-11 team. After the game, John Calipari said, "I'm just disappointed," which is rare for a man whose criticisms are usually leavened with optimism. "They're fighting me," Calipari said. "They haven't surrendered to [my message] yet. They're still, 'My stuff works.' At what point is it going to work?" Indeed. Resume-wise, Kentucky is still in OK position -- one loss does not invalidate an otherwise decent body of work. But that's all it is right now: decent. And the Wildcats still have some serious work to do, both in the Bubble Watch sense and in the way they approach each possession.
South Carolina [19-3 (6-3), RPI: 30, SOS: 220] As long as South Carolina keeps winning, it will be fine. That sounded more obvious than was intended. Here's what we mean: The Gamecocks' schedule has thus far been so threadbare (300-ish nonconference, 200-ish overall) that they have played just two top-50 opponents all season. Well, actually, one; both of those games came against Alabama, which is barely in the top 50. And The Tide won one of them by 23 points. So, yeah. There's a huge road chance at A&M on Saturday, and then LSU and Kentucky in Columbia next week, but whatever Frank Martin's team does in those bigger games (particularly the winnable ones at home), it's almost more important for it to avoid the kind of losses (like at Missouri on Feb. 16) that will call into question just how good it is in the first place.
Vanderbilt [13-9 (5-4), RPI: 52, SOS: 20] Hey, Vanderbilt showed up! And all it took was the better part of three months! Thursday night's 77-60 win over Texas A&M was, finally, a vision of the Vanderbilt everyone expected before the season started: a balanced and extremely efficient offensive team capable of playing with the best in the country. It also made 13 of its 29 3-pointers. Maybe A&M was just worn out. Maybe that's a hot night. For now, call it a step in the right direction and a tantalizing glimpse of the Commodores' ongoing promise, and wait to see how much more of it they have yet to offer.
Georgia [12-8 (5-4), RPI: 62, SOS: 13] Yes, South Carolina has resume issues of its own. Yes, the Bulldogs' win over South Carolina was their first semi-notable victory (at least RPI-wise). Yes, Georgia has one win outside its own building (at Missouri!). Yes, Georgia is a fringe inclusion at best. But there are some good schedule numbers here (top-15 SOS, top-10 noncon) that at least make Mark Fox's team worth a momentary glance.
LSU [14-8 (7-2), RPI: 70, SOS: 79] See Tuesday's edition of Bubble Watch for the definitive explanation of why LSU is one of the (if not the) most interesting bubble teams we've ever tracked. In the meantime, Tigers fans still reeling from Saturday's blown opportunity against No. 1 Oklahoma could be encouraged by Ben Simmons' vastly more assertive performance at Auburn. Unfortunately, it was Auburn, so the encouragement well is only so wet. The next week or so has more potential: After Mississippi State on Saturday, LSU travels to South Carolina on Feb. 10 and hosts Texas A&M Feb. 13.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Work left to do: Wichita State, Monmouth, Saint Mary's, Gonzaga|
Just because a team isn't listed here doesn't mean all hope is lost. Everything is relative, after all. There are some long shot mid-majors seeking at-large status -- teams like Arkansas-Little Rock (17-2, No. 59 RPI), William & Mary (13-6, No. 38 RPI), South Dakota State (16-5, No. 47 RPI), and Valparaiso (17-4, No. 39 RPI) -- whose relatively similar resumes should all be considered on the cusp. (And not necessarily in that order: Valpo's defense ranks No. 1 in adjusted efficiency and is the only of these teams for whom "they're top 25 in KenPom!" could be wielded in the committee room.) All it takes is a bad loss or two along the bubble and each could be in play. Or maybe we'll just change our mind. The Bubble Watch is drunk with power! Mwuahahaha!
Wichita State [17-5 (11-0), RPI: 31, SOS: 90] Wichita State will be heavily favored in every Missouri Valley game on its schedule the rest of the way. There are just two games left on its regular-season schedule that fall below the 90 percent chance of winning threshold, per KenPom.com's projection data: Feb. 21's visit to Indiana State and Saturday night at Illinois State. If the Shockers go unbeaten the rest of the way -- and they've been manhandling the Valley so thoroughly the past five weeks there's no reason to think they won't -- it's hard to imagine they'll have too much to worry about on Selection Sunday.
Monmouth [18-5 (10-2), RPI: 33, SOS: 132] As is so often the case with strong mid-major teams from weak mid-major leagues, Monmouth's quest to maintain an at-large-worthy profile is now less about winning than not losing. Thanks to Manhattan and Canisius (as well as Army in the noncon), the Hawks have three sub-200 losses. That's really the only drag on a team that otherwise beat Notre Dame and USC on a neutral floor and won at UCLA and Georgetown (and just completed a sweep of the MAAC's other top-100 RPI team, Siena). How many terrible losses can that resume sustain? One more? Two? Such is life in leagues like the MAAC, where road losses in conference play, so forgivable and so common in every conference in the country, can spell doom.
Saint Mary's [18-3 (9-2), RPI: 54, SOS: 190] Lo and behold, it's the Gaels, and not the Kyle Wiltjer-led Gonzaga Bulldogs, who have emerged as the class of the West Coast Conference. How'd this happen? In a word: buckets. Saint Mary's is one of the most efficient offensive forces in the sport, a hot-shooting, timely-passing, ball-and-man-moving show more than worth the price of admission. Defense is another matter. So is the resume: Zero top-50 wins, no notable victories on the road, and as you might imagine, for a team with 13 wins against sub-150 teams, some pretty horrific schedule data. It's a brittle team sheet. One or two losses, placed just so, could send the whole thing crashing.
Gonzaga [18-5 (10-2), RPI: 69, SOS: 137] Among the reasons the Gaels don't have a quality win to their name? Gonzaga's unusual sabbatical from being Gonzaga. Usually, by this time of year, the Zags are tightening their stranglehold over the WCC and preserving their preferred seed. In 2015-16 they've lost to UCLA, BYU and Arizona on their own floor, and claim Washington, Connecticut, Tennessee and Pepperdine as their only top-100 wins. If the tourney field was selected today, we're not sure how Mark Few's team would get in. Losing center Przemek Karnowski to injury was a killer, but the Zags' guard play has been an even worse problem all season. Yet even with an obvious and sensible basketball explanation at hand, this feels weird.
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