College Basketball Bubble Watch
How much weight does the 'Boeheim Boost' carry for Syracuse?
At the time, it was all hypothetical. The variables were hard to isolate. The sample size was still small.
Had Syracuse gone 4-5 while Jim Boeheim served his nine-game suspension because of his absence? Or had the Orange, whose hot shooting carried them to a Battle 4 Atlantis title during a 6-1 start, simply gone cold? The question of whether or how his absence could affect Syracuse's NCAA tournament chances -- not only on the court but in the selection committee's perception of the team -- was a thought experiment at best.
In early January, just days before Boeheim was set to return to the bench, Syracuse Post-Standard writer Mike Waters spoke to NCAA selection committee chair Joe Castiglione, who helpfully set the parameters within which the next two months of Syracuse basketball would be judged.
Essentially, the committee will look at Syracuse's performance with and without its coach in the same way it assesses teams with injured and suspended players. "By the end of the season," Castiglione wrote, "we'll have an idea of what sort of impact the suspension possibly had."
We don't need to wait that long. Boeheim's "impact" is massive. Gargantuan. Revelatory. Night and day.
Pick your superlative, and it will probably work, because well, just look at these splits:
Syracuse without Boeheim Record: 4-5 ACC record: 0-3 Best win: Texas Southern Losses: at Georgetown, at St. John's (RPI: 205), at Pittsburgh, at Miami, vs. Clemson
Syracuse with Boeheim Record: 14-4 ACC record: 8-3 Best win: at Duke Losses: vs. Wisconsin, vs. North Carolina, at Virginia, at Louisville
The latter category also includes wins over Connecticut and Texas A&M in November and Jan. 28's 81-66 home win over Notre Dame. If you strip out Boeheim's suspension from Syracuse's resume, and pretend momentarily that we're just 18 games into the season, Boeheim's team would be 5-4 against the RPI top 50. Its only sub-50 RPI losses -- Georgetown, Clemson and the St. John's eyesore -- wouldn't exist.
These might as well be two different teams.
There's nothing muddy or difficult to parse in there. Boeheim's impact will be immensely easy for the committee to quantify come Selection Sunday. The only question is how it will go about doing so. Will the committee diminish the weight of the games during the suspension on Syracuse's nitty-gritty sheet? How will it factor them in? Or is that stretch so unrepresentative of the Orange's quality that it deserves to be tossed aside altogether?
The good news for Cuse fans: Even if the committee told them that Boeheim's absence didn't matter -- tough cookies, and all that -- his team has done more than enough to get into the tournament as of today. Where they'll end up, and why, remains a fascinating question.
Either way, we've learned this much: A guy with almost 1,000 career wins is, in fact, important to his team's chances of winning. Case closed.
|American Athletic Conference|
|Work left to do: UConn, Tulsa, Cincinnati, Temple|
After spending the first two months of the season unbeaten, SMU has unwittingly become the American Athletic Conference's marquee-win Oprah. Temple got a marquee win. Tulsa got a marquee win. UConn, on Thursday night, got a marquee win. Larry Brown should start putting all-expenses paid vacation packages under opposing teams' benches just to keep things interesting.
UConn [19-7 (9-4), RPI: 36, SOS: 42] Nice as Saturday's two-point holdout against Tulsa was, Thursday -- when the Huskies beat SMU 68-62 -- was the biggest night UConn has had in conference play by far. On Dec. 29, Kevin Ollie's team knocked off Texas in Austin, and no one realized at the time how valuable that win would become. Even as UT helpfully rose through the Big 12 ranks, and even as Ollie's team continued to improve on the defensive end, the highest reaches of its resume were limited to Texas and Texas alone. Thursday changed that in a significant fashion. If Connecticut can get out of Cincinnati with a season split on Saturday, we'll start feeling pretty safe about its eventual spot in the NCAA tournament -- particularly with another crack at SMU (March 3) still on the docket.
Tulsa [17-9 (9-5), RPI: 45, SOS: 33] We remain mildly baffled that Tulsa -- which is the oldest roster in all of Division I -- finds itself entering the final week of February making this big, frantic push toward the bubble. After a Nov. 17 win over Wichita State we casually assumed Frank Haith's seniors were going to get to the tournament at the very least. Instead, the Golden Hurricane entered the month off the radar entirely, only pinging after a win at SMU on Feb. 10. Had they upended UConn in Storrs last week they'd really be in business. As of now, they might need to finish the regular season unbeaten (which means not-losses against UCF, Memphis and South Florida and a bubbly win over Temple) and hope movement elsewhere on the bubble indirectly improves their odds.
Cincinnati [19-8 (9-5), RPI: 60, SOS: 109] Having spent most of February essentially stuck in place -- wins over South Florida, UCF and East Carolina and a loss to Memphis basically cancel each other out, let's say -- Thursday marked the Bearcats' return to high-leverage bubble action. Needless to say, the 70-68 loss at Tulsa made for a disappointing return. It's no disaster, sure, but giving up a situationally winnable opportunity against a fellow bubble team is an efficient way to diminish your own at-large argument and enhance your competition's at the same time. On Saturday, the Bearcats have a chance to redeem the week at home against Connecticut. Cincy won a rock fight at the XL Center in the first meeting, which remains one of the prized possessions of this resume, which, no, is not intended as a compliment. A regular-season sweep would be twice as impressive. Literally.
Temple [16-9 (10-3), RPI: 66, SOS: 78] The basketball god-beings who reside in the Palestra rafters gave unto this world the glory that is the Philly Big 5 tradition so that all could be redeemed in the light of intense crosstown collegiate rivalries. And they saw it, and they said it was good. Yet that gift has rarely come at such a specifically opportune moment as at Temple this week. Fighting to keep their heads above the bubble cut water line, the Big 5 schedule dropped a home game against Villanova -- the newly crowned No. 1 team in the land. The Wildcats would bring their absolutely peerless NCAA tournament resume and life-giving, big-win potential to the Owls' home floor. It really was a gift. Villanova, as it turns out, was not in a giving mood. The final score -- 83-67 -- somehow made the game look even closer than it was.
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Work left to do: Saint Joseph's, George Washington, St. Bonaventure, VCU|
On Tuesday, we locked in Dayton. This prompted one Flyers fan on Twitter to send us the following message: "According to @eamonnbrennan, UD is a tournament lock. That means an L tomorrow night against Saint Joe's is automatic." Pshh. Whatever, dude. Dayton will totally handle -- what's that? Dayton lost at Saint Joe's on Wednesday night? Touche, random Twitter person. Touche.
Saint Joseph's [22-4 (11-2), RPI: 24, SOS: 93] If the logic underpinning the introduction to the A-10 is sound (and it obviously is), then Saint Joe's owes us a form of gratitude as undying as the flapping of its mascot's wings. Wednesday night was by far the biggest of the Hawks' season, marking their first win over a team with an elite profile. The Hawks aren't exactly a mid-major, but they have had the classic very good mid-major look to their resume for most of the season -- a ton of wins but none of them against top teams; very few losses overall, zero of them bad. On Thursday, they moved up two spots (from No. 10 to No. 8) in Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology, which is a good summary of how important the Dayton win is. Saint Joe's might not be totally out of range of the bubble, but it is in far better shape than at any point this season. Happy to help.
George Washington [19-7 (8-5), RPI: 46, SOS: 102] George Washington has spent most of its season trading good results for bad ones, and now must face the stretch run holding tight to a Nov. 16 win over Virginia and not a whole lot else. This week's win at Duquesne didn't alter that trajectory. The Colonials need big victories. Their final five regular-season games -- La Salle, at Richmond, VCU, George Mason, at Davidson -- don't have much to offer.
St. Bonaventure [17-7 (9-4), RPI: 49, SOS: 96] After five straight wins -- a couple of which (Saint Louis, Fordham) were close calls against bad teams -- the Bonnies were probably due for a road L. So it was on Wednesday at La Salle, whose 220s-ish RPI won't make an already fringe resume look any more appealing. Good news comes in counterintuitive fashion here: Saturday's road trip to Dayton, daunting as it might be, is also the kind of season-changing chance a team like George Washington would love to have at this point in the season.
VCU [19-7 (11-2), RPI: 55, SOS: 97] After two straight losses last week, VCU got back on track with back-to-back wins over Saint Louis (85-52) and Rhode Island (83-67), and are likely to get a third on Saturday, when a marginally down Richmond goes across town for the Rams' third straight game in the Siegel Center. Crazy things do happen in rivalry games, though, so who knows. Let's call it a must-win and leave it at that. The same goes for next week's trip to George Mason. From there, three regular-season games remain: trips to George Washington and Dayton account for two.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Notre Dame|
Work left to do: Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Florida State, Clemson
"We have five players, no backup bigs, and Marshall Plumlee has four fouls with 11 minutes to play," said the boy, and the tree said, "Come, Boy, and tell Marshall to guard Brice Johnson, and we will not pass him the ball the rest of the game." And so Duke put Plumlee on Johnson, and Johnson never touched the ball again. And the tree was happy. That's the best theory we've come up with to explain how UNC managed to lose at home to Duke. The Tar Heels were secretly paying homage to the "The Giving Tree." How else does Wednesday night makes sense? (It doesn't.) In any case, yes: The win in Chapel Hill officially made Duke a lock. Just three weeks ago Mike Krzyzewski's team was 4-4 in the ACC, out from the AP poll for the first time since 2007 and staring down a 12-day, four-game February gauntlet against Virginia, UNC, and Louisville (twice). It hasn't lost a game since. No Bubble Watch paragraph featuring the words "Duke" and "lock" has ever been more unlikely.
Notre Dame [18-7 (9-4), RPI: 20, SOS: 13] If you're curious as to why Demetrius Jackson is considered by some NBA scouts to be a first-round pick this summer -- or why ND coach Mike Brey insisted Jackson deserved more ACC POY talk -- look no further than last Saturday, when he played 40 minutes and scored 27 points (on 7-of-15 from the field, 6-of-12 from 3, and 7-of-7 from the line) to lead Notre Dame to a 71-66 home win over Louisville. One reason Brey might feel his players are underappreciated is how much this team has sneaked up on everyone in ACC play. Think about it: This team's nonconference losses -- to Monmouth, Alabama, and Indiana -- came when those specific opponents were significantly less heralded than they now are. Their big nonconference win -- over Iowa -- came back when no one knew Iowa was this good. Since then, Notre Dame has won at Duke, taken down U of L and UNC, and started to remind people -- or us, anyway -- of the way last year's Irish could be brilliant on the offensive end but also extremely pragmatic in their approach to close games. We'd call this a fabulous turnaround, except it's starting to seem like this team was always this good in the first place.
Syracuse [18-9 (8-6), RPI: 39, SOS: 46] See the intro. We thought about moving Syracuse up to "should be in," because it's hard for us to look at the committee's comments on Boeheim's absence, and the Boeheim/no-Boeheim record splits, and think the committee won't be fairly dismissive of that 4-5 stretch. That said, even if their "Boeheim resume" (so to speak) is obviously better than their overall work, it isn't so overwhelming that the Orange can afford to drop home games to Pitt and NC State on the next two Saturdays.
Pittsburgh [18-7 (7-6), RPI: 41, SOS: 45] On Tuesday, Pittsburgh narrowly avoided a loss that might have, for the first time all season, pushed them to the wrong side of the field-of-68 cut, at least in concept, and the Panthers needed overtime and the benefit of their own venue to pull off the 101-96 maneuver against Wake Forest. Whatever its other resume flaws, Pitt has mostly avoided bad losses this season. It's one of the best things about their otherwise unremarkable resume. Over the course of the next nine days, Jamie Dixon's team travels to Syracuse before a homestand against Louisville and Duke.
Florida State [16-10 (6-8), RPI: 61, SOS: 65] This week could have gone far differently for the Seminoles. Sunday's 67-65 loss to Miami was right there for the taking. That win would have been good enough to move FSU forward up the cut line, at least slightly -- at minimum it would have been more than enough to cancel out the damage from Wednesday's home loss to Georgia Tech. Instead, Leonard Hamilton's team has lost its past three, moving sharply in the opposite direction, and probably a road loss on Saturday at Virginia Tech away from slipping off the radar altogether.
Clemson [16-10 (9-5), RPI: 89, SOS: 104] Clemson followed last Saturday's win over Georgia Tech with another over Boston College, which is the bubble equivalent of complete stasis. This is just a strange resume: wins over Louisville, Duke, Miami and Pittsburgh, all at home, plus a win at Syracuse during Jim Boeheim's suspension, which is a crucial caveat. The nonconference losses to UMass and Minnesota still look as bad as ever even if the Gophers got their shining-moment upset over Maryland on Thursday night. And the nonconference schedule itself -- which is among the 15 or 20 worst in Division I, according to the RPI formula -- is dead weight dragging the whole thing down. But in a bubble season that features a host of teams with few truly quality wins between them, the Tigers' suite of victories remains their ace in the hole.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Iowa State, Texas|
Work left to do: Texas Tech, Baylor
"Come on in, Oklahoma. What seems to be the problem? Having a tough time lately, OK ... shots not falling the way they once were, sure; once-undisputed player of the year favorite suddenly fending off an insurgency, got it; lost two of your first 21 games but three of your past four? Well. Hmm. That doesn't sound good! We do have some thoughts on treatment, and, no, it's not a week off. It's experimental, so hang in there. We're prescribing you a road game at West Virginia!" The Big 12: Great basketball league, terrible primary care physician.
Iowa State [18-8 (7-6), RPI: 18, SOS: 11] There's nothing inherently disappointing about a road loss at Baylor, but Iowa State's loss in Waco on Tuesday night felt like a pretty serious letdown. The Cyclones, typically so ruthless in close games, had chances in the final 90 seconds of regulation but failed to execute on multiple trips down the floor. Their defense -- already unable to get consistent stops -- totally collapsed in overtime. And the loss dropped them to 7-6 in Big 12 play, which all but snuffs out their lingering conference title hopes. None of that changes ISU's chances of making the postseason, of course. We almost locked them up today anyway; a home win over TCU on Saturday will seal it. But there is disappointment for a senior-led group that entered the 2015-16 season with a Big 12 title among its ambitious but realistic goals.
Texas [17-9 (8-5), RPI: 22, SOS: 4] Texas, like Iowa State, is also so close to the lock protocol that we probably could have relaxed and just thrown them on this week. Instead we'll wait for one more win -- one likely to come Saturday at home against Baylor.
Texas Tech [16-9 (6-7), RPI: 28, SOS: 2] Well, well, well. Check out the big wins for Texas Tech. On Feb. 6, Tubby Smith's team lost at Texas to fall to 3-7 in Big 12 play. It was a very fringe bubble candidate boasting an attention-grabbing strength of schedule number, few bad losses and basically nothing else. It needed wins. Preferably big ones. In the matter of two weeks, the Red Raiders beat Iowa State, smacked down Baylor in its own building and then, in Wednesday's coup de grace, edged Oklahoma 65-63 back in Lubbock. Now? Wins! There's still plenty of work to do, sure. TTU's rapid ascent up the S-Curve has still only gotten them in the serious bubble mix. There are no guarantees here. But the ascent itself has been remarkable all the same.
Baylor [19-7 (8-5), RPI: 29, SOS: 32] The only thing that jumps out on the Bears' resume has been its lack of big losses. Baylor hasn't been upset all season, at least not as far as the RPI sees it. (Texas Tech's surge has hauled them up into the RPI top-30 range, which makes last week's 84-66 home loss to the Red Raiders look better, provided you ignore the actual score.) Before the Iowa State win, though, Scott Drew's team had just two top-50 wins and just six top-100 notches on its belt. Those marks look a bit better with a sweep of the Cyclones in the books. After Saturday's trip to Texas, Baylor's schedule reads: Kansas, at TCU, at Oklahoma, West Virginia. Brutal? Absolutely. Rife with bid-sealing, seed-boosting opportunity? Also that.
|Big East Conference|
|Work left to do: Providence, Seton Hall, Butler, Creighton|
It takes a really good team to win 23 of its first 26 games, as the Xavier Musketeers have, especially given their nonconference and Big East competition. It takes a truly special set of circumstances for that team to approach the end of February operating under the general external assumption that it remains a long shot to win its league's regular-season title. Villanova means business, man. (Also: Villanova at Xavier, Feb. 24. Consider this your early reminder.)
Providence [19-8 (7-7), RPI: 37, SOS: 43] Look at it this way: In October, if someone told you that by Feb. 19 the Friars would be 19-8 overall, 7-7 in the league, had won at Villanova in January, and were a projected 8-seed, PC fans would have been overjoyed. The only reason the above facts sound disappointing is that for months this season held the promise of even more. And it may yet. This team still has Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, after all, an inside-out, two-man talent combo few lineups in the sport can match. Yet the Friars' extended swoon has cost them five of their past seven games, damaged their once-sterling resume with losses at DePaul and Marquette, and raised for the first time since summer -- when departures seemed to hollow the team Dunn eschewed the NBA to lead -- the notion that Ed Cooley's team won't make the tournament at all. That's not a serious concern yet. If the Friars win the games they should the rest of the way -- they go at Seton Hall, DePaul, Creighton, then at St. John's, so let's say 3-1 -- they'll be fine. Emphasis on if.
Seton Hall [18-7 (8-5), RPI: 44, SOS: 81] The Pirates accomplished at least this much Wednesday: They handed Georgetown its 13th loss, and thus poured the final bucket of water on the last flickering embers of the Hoyas' at-large hopes. We still can't figure that team out. In November we would have bet anything on that collection of players making it to the tournament, at the absolute least, and -- ahem. Where were we? Ah yes: Seton Hall. Assuming Kevin Willard's team handles matters at St. John's on Sunday, it will get Providence and Xavier on its own floor in the span of four days next week. Already in most brackets as of today, 3-0 -- or a win, loss, win sequence -- would make them a far safer proposition.
Butler [18-8 (7-7), RPI: 58, SOS: 95] Saturday's 74-57 loss to Xavier remains a major letdown if only because the Bulldogs couldn't keep the game competitive on their own floor. Tuesday's rebound, also at Hinkle, was more like it. Beating Creighton at home won't change anyone's life, and so Chris Holtmann's team heads into the weekend in the absolute thick of the bubble and in need of a quality win. The good news? Saturday's game is at Villanova. The bad news? Saturday's game is at Villanova.
Creighton [17-10 (8-6), RPI: 83, SOS: 101] The make-or-break game wasn't at Butler this week. That would have been a useful win over a fellow bubble team, for sure, but a loss is OK. Nor does the make-or-break stretch come in the first week of March, when Creighton travels to Providence and Xavier. No, next week -- when the Bluejays get Marquette and St. John's in Omaha -- is the one. What now? For as much as this team needs a big win or two, preferably on the road, it is also one loss to either the Golden Eagles or (especially) the dreadful Red Storm from just ending the whole chase altogether. Those are must-wins, period. Get that done first. Then worry about the Friars and Musketeers on the road.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Purdue, Indiana|
Work left to do: Wisconsin, Michigan
Anyone freaked out by Maryland's back-to-back losses -- at home to Wisconsin, then on the road at previously winless and Big Ten bottom-feeder Minnesota -- has to ask him or herself a question: Do you think Melo Trimble is really this bad? Do you think he will continue to shoot at the 4-for-25 clip he posted this week, average 5.5 turnovers per game and post sub-70 offensive efficiency ratings? Probably not, right? So, you know, take a deep breath. When your star point guard gives you (arguably) the two worst games of his career in back-to-back contests, manageable pre-existing problems -- such as an offense that still isn't getting better, and might be getting worse -- tend to look more like disasters.
Purdue [21-6 (9-5), RPI: 19, SOS: 53] We were seriously considering making Purdue a lock today. Its current resume and remaining regular-season schedule (at IU, Maryland, at Nebraska, Wisconsin) feel like an awfully safe play to us. But then it hit us: If we lock up the Boilermakers today, what will they have to play for on Saturday? Yes, Purdue and Indiana will meet as ranked opponents for just the second time since 2000, when Bob Knight and Gene Keady were still trading motion sets and icy stares. And, yes, each team's fans take particular joy from winning at the other's gym, never more so than when said winning helps to prevent that team from closing in on a Big Ten title. All well and good. But a Bubble Watch lock?! Now THOSE are stakes.
Indiana [21-6 (11-3), RPI: 35, SOS: 115] Wednesday's win against Nebraska was just what the proverbial doctor ordered: Both a post-Michigan State malaise reliever and a proper tune-up for Saturday's even bigger game against the black and gold, all at the same time. The on-court clash between the in-state teams is going to be fascinating. Indiana plays fluid, up-and-down small ball with one true big (Thomas Bryant) and a host of mobile tweeners who stretch defenses past their breaking points; Purdue has two 7-foot centers and thus prefers to mercilessly cram the ball down undersized frontcourts' throats. We have no idea what well-executed stylistic parries between these two are going to look like, but we can't wait to find out.
Wisconsin [16-10 (8-5), RPI: 48, SOS: 5] Wisconsin lost by 12 points at Michigan State on Thursday night. The only reasonable response to this piece of information is a resounding oh well. Yes, the Badgers didn't play particularly good basketball, but guess what? The Spartans are really good. And when you're just five days removed from a 13-point road win over Maryland -- Minnesota loss or not, that's still an insanely helpful win -- it's pretty much impossible to even remotely criticize a double-digit loss in East Lansing.
Michigan [19-8 (9-5), RPI: 54, SOS: 83] Buckeyes fans may not have an eventual NCAA tournament team to root for this season, but the loyal congregation at Value City Arena on Tuesday night was treated to a front-row look at their favorite cross-sport pastime: beating Michigan. The result is unlikely to be the ultimate difference between the Wolverines' NCAA tournament participation or lack thereof, but it did take much of the steam out of last week's win over Purdue and left John Beilein's team still very much in range of the cut.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Work left to do: San Diego State|
And now for our live look at the bubble drama in the Mountain West Conference! [We cut to a wide-angle shot of a desolate and unnamed desert. A lone tumbleweed passes by the edge of the frame. End scene.]
San Diego State [19-7 (12-1), RPI: 50, SOS: 60] California destroyed Oregon eight days ago, and no one should be rooting for the Bears harder than these here Aztecs. A Nov. 26 neutral-court win over Cal remains San Diego State's lone top-50 win, and one of just three top-100 victories on its team sheet. In fact, the more you look at this resume, the more its limited strengths -- a top-15 nonconference schedule, a 12-1 mark in this dramatically down edition of the Mountain West -- seem outweighed by its weaknesses. The main hope here remains that the committee will credit SDSU for dominating a league that has sent multiple teams to the tournament as a rule for the past five seasons. That may be too vague and optimistic a hope.
|Teams that should be in: California, USC|
Work left to do: Oregon State, Colorado, Washington
Finally, the Pac-12's unwieldy bubble becomes, well, slightly less unwieldy, hopefully. Utah and Arizona both join Oregon in the land of the locks. We haven't always bought the Utes' top-25 RPI and schedule numbers, but we've assumed the committee would eventually be more inclined. Now, the Utes are hot, their numbers are still great, and Duke and Texas Tech -- their two key nonconference wins -- have in the past two weeks combined to topple Iowa State, Baylor, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Louisville and Virginia. That'll work. As for Arizona? The paper CV, though good, is far less impressive than the actual basketball on display at the moment, which is a rare find indeed in this Pac-12. In a safe position already, Arizona closes Pac-12 play with Colorado, Utah, Cal and Stanford. The Utes have USC, Arizona State, Arizona and Colorado. There are other teams we've yet to lock with better overall resumes right now, but who face greater potential damage the rest of the way. That's not at all the case here. (Final note: UCLA is off the page, probably for good. Why, you ask? Because it has 14 wins and 12 losses. The end.)
California [18-8 (8-5), RPI: 21, SOS: 14] The 20-point destruction of Oregon on Feb. 11 -- we prefer to call it the Keep Berkeley Weird Game -- will remain the first Cal-related data point everyone highlights in the coming weeks, and understandably so. It was the highlight. The rest of the month hasn't been bad either, though. On Thursday night, the Bears took their unbeaten-February show on the road, outlasting a young Washington team 78-75 in a crucial game for the Huskies. Assuming Washington State doesn't get any crazy ideas about winning basketball games by Sunday, the Bears will face their final four regular-season games against UCLA and USC (home) and Arizona and Arizona State (road) with a chance to roll all the way through the month without a loss and kick off March with a massive road win in Tucson.
USC [19-7 (8-5), RPI: 23, SOS: 47] The Trojans get next dibs on Pac-12 lock celebrations. With five games remaining against Utah, Stanford, Cal, Oregon State and Oregon, they share their colleagues' lack of potential stretch-run risk. That said, USC's performance against both the top 50 and top 100 doesn't hold up to Arizona and Utah. And at 19-7 overall and 8-5 in the league, this team is just close enough to the bubble that an 0-5 finish and a first-round Pac-12 tournament loss would make things extremely shaky on Selection Sunday. That isn't going to happen, but let's play it safe for now.
Oregon State [15-9 (6-7), RPI: 32, SOS: 6] Your mileage on Oregon State may vary, based in large part on how good you think the Pac-12 is. If, like the RPI, you think it is the second-best conference in the country -- its top half and then some stocked with top-30-ish teams -- then the Beavers' five top-30 wins (over Oregon, Cal, USC, Utah and Colorado) are a big deal, even if they all came at home. If, like other metrics, you see the Pac-12's top half as just OK, then you'll be less impressed with a team whose only nonconference win of note came against Tulsa. The good news? Everyone agrees Oregon is good. The Beavers could shake things up in a big way when they travel to Eugene on Saturday.
Colorado [19-8 (8-6), RPI: 33, SOS: 57] Colorado fans were not pleased with their friendly neighborhood Bubble Watch for its failure to mention star center Josh Scott's absence in the Buffaloes' past two games. It wasn't really germane, considering Colorado beat Washington and Washington State anyway, and the whole missing-player-calculus thing doesn't fire if you win but, sure, OK. Josh Scott didn't play last week. We cool? Cool. Scott did play Wednesday -- and played well, too -- and Colorado nonetheless lost at USC 79-72.
Washington [15-11 (7-7), RPI: 73, SOS: 22] Not unlike, say, Providence, the Huskies' better-than-expected season will only seem disappointing given how long the team in question exceeded said expectations. By now, UW's four straight losses to Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Cal -- the last two by a combined margin of four points -- seem like a minor if understandable meltdown by one of the youngest teams in the country. In October, the idea that UW would go 1-4 in the first three weeks of February and still have an outside shot at an NCAA tournament bid would have been absurd. Salvaging the tournament means beating Stanford on Saturday, full stop, and then getting at least one win at Oregon State or Oregon on Feb. 24 and 28. Preferably both. Unlikely, but hey: So is this team.
|Teams that should be in: Texas A&M|
Work left to do: Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, LSU
You won't see any Coach K shrines in Lexington, Kentucky, but the Wildcats should be quietly thrilled with the past two weeks of Duke basketball. Kentucky's Nov. 17 win over the Blue Devils was once a marquee nonconference marker; then, as both teams struggled, its meaning grew murky; now, just as the Wildcats are peaking, so too is the value of a nonconference win over the Blue Devils. Kentucky's win at South Carolina last week may not be as valuable on paper, but rarely has a game sent so clear a message that a team was, once and for all, figuring out how to be its best self. This is not a perfect team by any stretch. It may be John Calipari's fourth or fifth best at Kentucky. Oh well. On its best days, it is a national title threat; it ain't missing the tournament on its worst.
Texas A&M [19-7 (8-5), RPI: 26, SOS: 55] So, given the whole Kentucky-figuring-it-out-and-reasserting-SEC-dominance thing that has been happening lately, Saturday -- when UK comes to College Station -- seems like an awfully opportune time for the Aggies to do a little reputation rehab of their own. Tuesday's home win over Ole Miss is hardly enough to prove Billy Kennedy's team is past whatever lay at the heart of its 1-5 slide since Jan. 27. A win over Kentucky would more than do the job. (It also would gird A&M's team sheet for the Mississippi State-Mizzou-Auburn stretch on deck starting next week.)
Alabama [16-9 (7-6), RPI: 30, SOS: 12] Last week's win at Florida was Alabama's fourth straight. Wednesday's at LSU made it five. We haven't been this impressed with Avery Johnson since we were in grade school playing NBA Live '95 on Sega Genesis and the game actually rendered Johnson's dominant left hand accurately, which totally blew our minds at the time. For most of the season, the Tide's wins over Wichita State and Notre Dame looked like unmemorable one-offs; now they're important pieces in Alabama's upward bubble push.
Florida [17-9 (8-5), RPI: 31, SOS: 9] Home loss to Alabama. Road win at Georgia. A few weeks ago, that wouldn't have fit at all with our abiding understanding of the 2015-16 Florida Gators, the solid but limited team that loses to good teams and beats less-good ones.* (*Except West Virginia.) Now that the Crimson Tide are in full Avery Johnson surge mode and Georgia is fading, those two results check out just fine. Some teams just feel like No. 8 seeds. This is one of them.
South Carolina [21-5 (8-5), RPI: 34, SOS: 159] Which is worse: Getting torn limb from limb 89-62 on your home floor by a talented team whose coach was ejected in the first three minutes of the first half or losing to Missouri? On the one hand, Saturday's home blowout bust against UK was a major emotional letdown. On the other hand? Missouri is terrible. The people find in favor of losing to Missouri and recommend the Gamecocks maybe think about beating Florida at home on Saturday before Tennessee, Mississippi State, Georgia and Arkansas gum up SC's RPI even further.
Vanderbilt [15-11 (7-6), RPI: 62, SOS: 50] Remember when Vanderbilt's 77-60 win over Texas A&M was a big deal? That sentiment lasted a solid two or three days, but it did happen. Now, we can classify that Feb. 4 home win as one more foible in A&M's lost February. The Dores themselves haven't done much to buttress their own reputation since: a loss at Ole Miss, wins over Missouri and Auburn, and then, on Tuesday, a 75-74 loss at Mississippi State. The only redeeming factor to this ongoing disappointment of a season is that games at Florida and Texas A&M, and at home versus Kentucky, still keep Vandy's hopes alive.
LSU [16-10 (9-4), RPI: 81, SOS: 73] Alabama appears to be on a merciless, inexplicable tear through the second half of its SEC schedule, so chiding the Tigers for losing to the Tide at home Wednesday night feels like a potentially regrettable overreaction. Then again, if Alabama is indeed on said merciless tear, well, so what? We're still waiting for LSU to win more than two games in a row. Is that too much to ask? Anyway, the defeat ensured the Tigers remain very much near the bubble for at least another week, with extremely treacherous trips to Tennessee and Arkansas still to come.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Work left to do: Monmouth, Wichita State, Gonzaga|
Other noteworthy Bubble Watch Twitter feedback this week included one question asking why Princeton wasn't being considered for at-large contention. At first, we panicked; there's nothing worse than incorrectly omitting a deserving mid-major. Then we opened the Tigers' RPI team sheet, and felt an immense sense of calm. The answer? Because they have exactly one win against a team with an RPI better than 150. Phew. (In all seriousness, though, if you do think a team is worth a longer look, get at us. It's always helpful.)
Monmouth [22-5 (14-2), RPI: 38, SOS: 175] It almost happened Friday night. "It," of course, being the conference loss that forced us to seriously reconsider Monmouth's at-large chances. It's not a moment we're looking forward to. Fortunately, the Hawks delayed it, if barely so: Monmouth shot 4-of-25 from the field in the first 16 minutes of the second half against Rider on Friday night, and the Broncs held a 76-62 lead with just 4:02 left in the game. Then Monmouth made its final seven shots, erased the lead and set up star guard Justin Robinson for a winning 3 with 3.4 seconds to play. Monmouth 79, Rider 78. Robinson & Co. followed that with a tidier 79-70 win over Manhattan on Monday night to move to 14-2 in the MAAC and keep their "ugly losses working to undermine insanely good nonconference work" number at three. It's not an official selection committee metric. It's not anyone's official metric. But it's the key to Monmouth's at-large hopes down the stretch.
Wichita State [20-7 (13-2), RPI: 53, SOS: 107] If Wichita State had to take a loss the rest of the way in conference play -- and, just to be clear, it did not -- then at least it came against a team that beat North Carolina and Iowa State. That's the most positive spin we can put on Saturday's 53-50 loss to Northern Iowa, especially because it came on the Shockers' home court. It will be fascinating to see what the committee does with this team, given the injury to Fred VanVleet and the quality nonconference schedule it would likely have performed better against were its star point guard not injured, and, well, you know the deal by now. A 3-0 remainder to the regular season is almost an imperative, just to be safe. Or maybe not? With this resume, honestly, who knows?
Gonzaga [21-6 (13-2), RPI: 63, SOS: 147] Kyle Wiltjer will file Saturday's outing at SMU away in the deepest, darkest recesses of his brain, the place where the scary childhood nightmares about clowns (or, you know, whatever) are hidden away forever. Wiltjer was 2-of-17 from the field and 0-of-8 from 3. He finished with four points. His team -- which otherwise played fairly well in its 69-60 loss in Moody Coliseum -- very much needed this win to solidify its uncharacteristically shaky bubble situation. Gonzaga got back to WCC business with a 90-68 win over Pacific Thursday, and now, with Saint Mary's and BYU still on the schedule, could at the very least double its current number of top-100 wins (two) before the regular season is over. Gulp.