College Basketball Bubble Watch
Gonzaga's strange season, and a goodbye to LSU
For the first half, anyway, everything was going according to plan.
It was Dec. 5, in Spokane, Washington, where No. 13-ranked Gonzaga was hosting No. 19 Arizona. Preseason All-American Kyle Wiltjer, then a widespread co-favorite alongside LSU freshman Ben Simmons to win the 2015-16 Wooden Award, was back at it from the start: burying pick-and-pop 3s, putting defenders on his back in the post, scoring 15 of the Zags' first 26 points and finishing with 33 total.
The crowd at the McCarthey Athletic Center was deafening. Gonzaga led 38-28 at the half. It was a Saturday afternoon in December. The Zags were winning at home. There was absolutely nothing remarkable about it.
An hour and change later, Arizona would leave with a 68-63 win.It seemed a bizarre aberration at the time. Only now, in retrospect, does that second-half twist feel like the first early hint at the disappointing Zags season to come -- which, nearly three months later, finds Mark Few's team at serious risk of missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in 18 seasons.
Gonzaga's young, untested guards shot 3-of-17 on the night and committed eight turnovers; they would remain the team's chief rotation weakness. Senior center Przemek Karnowski spent his second game in street clothes suffering from a back injury that would, eventually, cost him his season. The Zags' inability to close games at home would manifest itself again seven days later, when UCLA repeated Arizona's feat, and again throughout WCC play, in home losses to BYU and Saint Mary's. Even Wiltjer, so unstoppable early on, was swarmed by defenders eager to leave GU's guards to their own devices, and his efficiency dropped as a result.
That Saturday was the first real glimpse at the core reasons Gonzaga will arrive in Provo, Utah, on Saturday teetering precariously on the edge of the NCAA tournament bubble. After 28 games, Few's team is still looking for its third top-100 win, and just its seventh against a team in the top 150. A loss would complete season sweeps by both BYU and Saint Mary's, and probably would force Gonzaga to win the West Coast Conference tournament to keep its streak of tournament appearances alive.
Which is not to say Gonzaga is a bad team. Frankly, as a pure measure of skill, the Zags are likely better than most teams near the cut line at the moment. Wiltjer isn't the otherworldly force he was a season ago, but he remains an extremely potent all-purpose offensive weapon shooting 54 percent from 2, 41 percent from 3 and 87 percent from the free throw line. Domantas Sabonis has been even better overall -- and particularly as a rebounder -- despite a sizable uptick in minutes over last season. And while GU's guard play has been an ongoing weakness, it hasn't been terrible. It just hasn't been quite good enough.
The real problem of course, is the Zags' resume. Few's program has long since reached the point where it can schedule high-quality, high-major nonconference opponents. It's just that this season, the Zags didn't win any of those games. Their last chance came on Feb. 13, in a late, cross-conference matchup at SMU. Wiltjer shot 2-of-17 in a 69-60 loss.
Would a win at BYU ensure Gonzaga's bid? No. It would help, of course, but the combination of missed nonconference opportunities and atypical struggles in league play -- and, yes, for Gonzaga, 14-3 in the West Coast Conference qualifies as a struggle -- have made the Zags' actual resume look even worse than the disappointing product on the court.
Needless to say, this was not in the plan. It's never in Gonzaga's plan. The Bulldogs, whether as an elite national title contender or a merely solid mid-single-digit seed, never arrive to late February freaking out about their NCAA tournament possibilities. Gonzaga doesn't do the bubble often. It doesn't need last-ditch pushes to get itself in the tournament. Unfortunately for Few's team, very little about the 2015-16 season has gone according to plan.
|American Athletic Conference|
|Work left to do: Tulsa, UConn, Cincinnati, Temple|
As bubble entities go, the American may not have the world-is-flat wackiness of the Pac-12, or the who's-the-new-bubble-team-this-week volatility of the SEC. What the American is instead is consistent: Four teams in the mix, none on the cusp, nobody safe, and everybody with a lot to play for in the final two weeks of the regular season.
Tulsa [19-9 (11-5), RPI: 36, SOS: 36] Credit where it's due: While so many bubble teams have remained in place or outright floundered in recent weeks, Tulsa has actually taken steps to move into the field. The latest was the 74-55 win over fellow bubble hopeful Temple on Tuesday night. Nothing about the Golden Hurricane's resume is particularly exciting, save a Feb. 10 road win at SMU. Yet everything else is decent enough that wins over Memphis and USF and a merely decent showing in the conference tournament might get this team in the field after all.
UConn [20-8 (10-5), RPI: 44, SOS: 64] UConn had no problems dispatching South Florida on Thursday night, finishing with an 81-51 win in front of 4,668 of the Bulls' most die-hard fans. A couple hundred more lost souls through those turnstiles and the Sun Dome would have been 50 percent full. Good times. Anyway, things should be slightly more lively in the greater Hartford area this weekend as the Huskies look to keep a home loss to Houston off the resume before turning their attention to a March 3 trip to SMU.
Cincinnati [20-8 (10-5), RPI: 56, SOS: 100] Were it not for Thursday's fall at Tulsa -- a 70-68 loss in overtime -- the Bearcats would be not only be winners of four in a row but seven of their past eight. On Saturday, that span came to include a regular-season sweep of Connecticut. The Huskies aren't exactly the safest tournament bet right now either, but they are in better shape than anyone else in this league, and sweeping them absolutely has to count for something. What's more? If the committee is watching closely, they'll see a Bearcats team that is exceedingly difficult to beat. Five of Cincy's eight losses have come by exactly two points. Their only double-digit loss came at Xavier, 65-55 back on Dec. 12, and given the Musketeers' tendency to blow people off their home floor, that doesn't even feel like a proper double-digit defeat. At first glance, this looks like a totally mediocre bubble team. Dig further, though, and it's clear Cincinnati -- particularly its defense, which is top-10 good -- is much better than its team sheet lets on.
Temple [17-10 (11-4), RPI: 61, SOS: 55] The Owls swept UConn, swept Cincinnati and beat SMU in Dallas in their only meeting this season. They also remain the American's automatic bid placeholder in projected brackets because of their 11-4 conference record and the fact that SMU, also 11-4, isn't invited to the party. Tuesday's trip to Tulsa was Temple's last chance to claim a win over a potential tournament team before the conference tournament begins; the resultant 19-point loss wasn't a great look. Now it has UCF, Memphis and Tulane left. Against that three-way RPI mess, a 3-0 finish feels imperative.
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Saint Joseph's|
Work left to do: St. Bonaventure, George Washington, VCU
On Tuesday night, Dayton ended 40 minutes of basketball at Saint Louis -- which is 10-17, has an RPI pushing 200, and ranks in the high 230s in adjusted efficiency -- tied 46-46. The Flyers won, in overtime, 52-49. It was the lowest score in a UD win since 1934. This whole "lock curse" thing isn't funny anymore, Dayton. OK? You're scaring us.
Saint Joseph's [23-5 (12-3), RPI: 25, SOS: 95] The Hawks moved to 23-5 after an expected 74-57 win at UMass on Wednesday night, and we're moving them to the slightly safer "Should Be In" category until further notice. The Hawks don't have a bunch of quality wins, that's for sure, but they also haven't suffered any bad losses. One or two down the stretch -- against either SLU or Duquesne, both at home -- could change things quickly.
St. Bonaventure [19-7 (11-4), RPI: 33, SOS: 79] The Bonnies weren't exactly at their most convincing on Wednesday night, needing free throws in the closing seconds to close out a four-point home win over Duquesne. But a win it was, and thus St. Bonaventure moved to 7-1 in its past eight outings. That stretch included the three victories that put this team on the bubble in the first place: At Saint Joe's, home vs. George Washington, at Dayton. That's not exactly a Texas Tech-like sprint up the S-Curve, though it is enough to get in the actual in-or-out conversation with three regular-season games to go.
George Washington [21-7 (10-5), RPI: 46, SOS: 119] The Colonials have two noteworthy nonconference wins, both at home. The first, over Virginia, bears most of the responsibility for GW's ongoing bubble viability. The second, over Seton Hall, is much less impressive. Which is probably why the Colonials were rooting as hard as anyone not currently residing in South Orange, N.J., for the Pirates on Sunday as they escaped a dreadful St. John's team on the road, 62-61. Save a home game against a fellow bubble team (VCU) this weekend, there aren't many resume-bolstering chances on GW's schedule until the A-10 tournament. It can't afford to see the value of its Seton Hall win stained by the likes of the Red Storm.
VCU [20-8 (12-3), RPI: 60, SOS: 105] Conference road losses happen, right? It's part of the deal. Few teams are immune. The problem for VCU, after Wednesday's 76-69 loss at George Mason, is that the Rams, despite playing quality high-major opposition (Duke, Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, Cincinnati) in nonconference play, don't have the quality nonconference wins it needs to sustain losses against the ugly bottom-half of the A-10. The remaining schedule -- at GW, Davidson at home, at Dayton -- is a blessing and a curse. The good news is VCU doesn't have any more bad games to lose, at least not until tournament play, and they have a shot to make up for Wednesday's disaster. The bad news is the Rams now find themselves at the perilous bubble juncture where any loss, of any kind, is going to hurt them, particularly if a few bubble teams decide to start winning during the home stretch.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Work left to do: Pittsburgh, Syracuse|
It isn't easy to beat two locks in succession, as Clemson did in January, and then find yourself outside the bubble picture entirely several weeks later. Clemson pulled it off. The Tigers' hot early stretch in ACC play -- a 5-1 start that included a road loss at North Carolina followed by consecutive wins over Florida State, Syracuse, Louisville, Duke and Miami -- had been enough to keep Brad Brownell's team in consideration despite its prohibitively high RPI (106th), awful nonconference schedule (334th), and November losses to UMass and Minnesota. In February, though, the Tigers have fallen at Virginia Tech, at home against Notre Dame, and in back-to-back visits to NC State and Georgia Tech, moving to 2-8 on the road, 8-10 against the top 150, and 16-12 overall. Adios. Florida State is also off the page after Thursday night's predictable loss at Duke, the fifth in a row for the once-viable Noles.
Pittsburgh [19-8 (8-7), RPI: 41, SOS: 37] Hey, at least they scored more than 41 points. That was the lone positive takeaway from the Panthers' 67-60 home loss to Louisville on Wednesday. It was a far better, vastly more competitive effort than the Panthers displayed in a 59-41 loss at the KFC Yum! Center on Jan. 14. Naturally, "at least we didn't shoot 14-of-49" is not the most rousing postgame battle cry, particularly when a chance to buttress your spot in the bracket is sitting right in front of you in the final two minutes on your home floor.
Syracuse [18-10 (8-7), RPI: 54, SOS: 43] One subplot we missed following Saturday's 14-point home loss to Pittsburgh was Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim's uncharacteristically harsh appraisal of forward Tyler Roberson. In Boeheim's view, Roberson's obvious talent -- he had 20 rebounds in the Orange's road win at Duke -- has been stunted by a lack of effort. "If I had anyone else," Boeheim said of Roberson's four-rebound performance against the Panthers, "he wouldn't play a minute." Which, with the Orange off all week, has naturally dominated the local discussion. Many Syracuse fans seem put off by Boeheim's public castigation of one of his players. You know who must be really embarrassed? The dudes behind Roberson on the bench. Like, come on, coach. We're sitting right here.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Texas Tech|
Kansas' 66-60 win at Baylor on Tuesday essentially guaranteed the Jayhawks' 12th straight share of the Big 12 regular-season title. That's got to be the hundredth time we've written some version of the phrase "12th-straight Big 12 title." We've been writing about KU's conference title streak at various points for, like, five years. And we still can't totally wrap our heads around it. It's completely insane.
Texas Tech [18-9 (8-7), RPI: 23, SOS: 5] Texas Tech is playing at Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday. As such, Kansas will almost certainly clinch that aforementioned 12th-straight Big 12 regular-season conference title (yep, still insane!) at the expense of the Red Raiders' own streak of success. In the matter of five games, played across 13 days, Tech went from off the bubble completely, to safely ensconced on the No. 8 line in Joe Lunardi's Bracketology. It shot through the S-Curve sky with wins over Iowa State, Baylor and Oklahoma, and maintained that rise this week in victories over Oklahoma State and TCU. It is, off the top of our heads, the fastest we've ever seen a team cross move from being barely on the page to totally in the bracket. Paeans to the Jayhawks' historic success are likely to be written at the expense of Tech's loss on Saturday, but here in Bubbleland, Tubby Smith has earned plenty of Homeric hymns in his honor.
|Big East Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Seton Hall|
Work left to do: Providence, Butler
Creighton's push toward the NCAA tournament was always going to be an uphill struggle. The Bluejays entered Big East play without a single win over a top-150 RPI opponent. Their best nonconference wins came over Nebraska and UMass, which, yuck. Yet once the Bluejays got to league play, they performed much better than their RPI gave them credit for. By Feb. 9, when they knocked off Xavier, a come-from-nowhere tourney push felt realistic. Now, after back-to-back losses at Butler and (even worse) Marquette (at home), CU is 4-9 against the top 100, 5-10 against the top 150, has an RPI in the low 90s, and probably needs road W's at Providence and Xavier down the stretch to get back on the page. Not looking good.
Seton Hall [20-7 (10-5), RPI: 38, SOS: 87] Escaping New York with a 62-61 win over St. John's on Sunday is still the biggest win of Seton Hall's week, if only because the alternative would have been a complete catastrophe. Yet Thursday night's 70-52 win over struggling Providence isn't far behind, and should serve as an unambiguous, eye-test-friendly statement to any committee member who tuned in. Completing a season sweep of the Friars is a nice little peg for the profile. Assuming the Pirates don't lose their next three games -- Xavier, Butler, DePaul -- coach Kevin Willard can enter the Big East tourney feeling awfully good about his first NCAA tournament appearance at the school.
Providence [19-9 (7-8), RPI: 40, SOS: 41] Playing games is so overrated. Last weekend saw a burst of losses around the bubble, and the Friars were one of the prime beneficiaries. Relative to their competition, their resume improved -- and they didn't even have to take the floor. After Thursday night's 18-point loss at Seton Hall, Ed Cooley might reconsider the value of taking the floor at all. On Jan. 24, the Friars won at Villanova, 82-76, in one of the most impressive wins any team has had all season. They're 2-6 since. Their 43.6 percent effective field goal percentage ranks 10th in the Big East; their overall offense (.97 points per trip) ranks eighth. It's a bad look. One of two things needs to happen now. Either PC figures it out enough to get by a fairly easy remaining schedule (DePaul, Creighton, at St. John's) without further damaging their resume ... or the Friars find a safe house and lay low until Selection Sunday. Maybe no one will notice?
Butler [18-9 (7-8), RPI: 62, SOS: 92] The Bulldogs had a real go at Villanova on Saturday. They even led the No. 1-ranked Wildcats several times midway through second half. Unfortunately, those leads were small and eventually fleeting. After Kris Jenkins gave Nova a 46-45 edge at the 10:31 mark, Jay Wright's team never relinquished command again. On one hand, playing the super-hot Wildcats so competitively on their home floor is an accomplishment. On the other hand, it's the kind of result you take as a positive sign of future success in, say, early January. In late February, in desperate need of a big win to boost your 50-50 bubble chances, and with just Georgetown, Seton Hall and Marquette left before the conference tournament, silver linings are harder to swallow.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Wisconsin|
Work left to do: Michigan
Ohio State's chances of getting in the tournament were slim to none even as we added them to the page for consideration. The bubble talk the Buckeyes started in the past week required a willful ignorance that (A) the committee doesn't care all that much about conference records and (B) nine of OSU's 10 Big Ten wins had come against Illinois, Northwestern, Rutgers, Minnesota and Penn State. It was a flimsy argument built atop a shaky premise. It was kind of annoying! Yet, despite all that, it would have been fun to see Thad Matta's young group rage against the odds in their past three games. Instead, Jae'Sean Tate was lost to injury for the remainder of the season prior to Tuesday night's 81-62 home loss to Michigan State, and that was the end of that. Shame.
Wisconsin [18-10 (10-5), RPI: 34, SOS: 3] On Jan. 12, Wisconsin was 9-9 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten. It had wins over VCU, Syracuse, and Temple (meh) and losses to Western Illinois, Georgetown, Milwaukee, Marquette and Northwestern (yikes). Its coach, Greg Gard, had inherited the job a month earlier; his prospects of inheriting the program looked increasingly grim. Since that date, the Badgers have played 10 games. They've lost one. They've won nine. They've beaten Michigan State and Indiana at home. They've won on the road at Maryland and at Iowa. They're 10-5 in the Big Ten, tied with Michigan State. Let's just say Gard's continued employment at the University of Wisconsin is ... what's the word we're looking for? Oh, that's right: a lock. With one more win, the Badgers' odds of 2016 NCAA tournament participation will be no less assured.
Michigan [20-9 (10-6), RPI: 50, SOS: 69] The Wolverines managed to prevent a further descent toward the cut line during Wednesday's straightforward win over Northwestern. That was crucial, because their next two games -- at Wisconsin, home versus Iowa -- mean that even two losses won't be as damaging as what some other bubble teams will probably conjure up between now and the start of conference tourney play. Meanwhile, a 1-1 record would sew things up. John Beilein is unlikely to cite this 3-4 February as among his favorite months as a coach. But things could be worse.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Work left to do: San Diego State|
Well, doc, we've been having this strange recurring dream -- more of a nightmare, honestly. It starts with us talking to our editors on the phone. Eventually, they tell us Bubble Watch is being converted to a Mountain West-only feature. We scream in protest. They cackle back. We plead, nearly in tears. The line goes dead ... and that's when we wake up. What do you think that could -- oh, wow. Has it been an hour already?
San Diego State [21-7 (14-1), RPI: 49, SOS: 88] Another league win, 73-61 at Wyoming, moved San Diego State to 14-1 in Mountain West play, and the point we made in Tuesday's Bubble Watch still stands: Right now, SDSU is relying on Long Beach State, Boise State and Fresno State, all in the mid- to high-90s in the RPI, for three of their four top-100 wins. A Nov. 26 win over Cal is the only win guaranteed to be in that range by the end of the season. The MWC is so down, the Aztecs might win 17 league games and end up with, at most, five top-100 wins or, at worst, one. That's not supposed to be possible.
|Teams that should be in: California, USC|
Work left to do: Oregon State, Colorado, Washington
We interrupt your regularly scheduled Bubble Watch for this bold assertion: Bill Walton's performance in Boulder, Colorado, on Wednesday night was, quite possibly, the best of his unmatched broadcasting career. We should have known a special night was in store when Dave Pasch, Walton's play-by-play partner and dedicated straight man, noted early in the first half that the Hall of Famer had imbibed a soda before tipoff. "That's the first time I've ever seen you have a soda before a game," Pasch said. "Usually, it's just 200 energy chews." "Test me, test me, why don't you arrest me," Walton replied. "I'm ready to go." A-plus.
California [20-8 (10-5), RPI: 18, SOS: 26] UCLA provided only sporadic resistance to the ongoing hoops revolution in Berkeley, California, on Thursday night; the Bears' eventual 75-63 win was their sixth in a row. Beyond wiping away whatever lingering chance UCLA had at getting back on the bubble proper -- sorry, but if you're 15-13 you can't be on the bubble unless your schedule is so good you somehow played a home-and-home with the Golden State Warriors -- it cemented the Bears' status as one of the nation's hottest teams. Maybe Wisconsin and Texas Tech are hotter. Maybe. We'll wait on a lock until after Sunday's home game against USC, but we're already running out of scenarios for how this team might possibly miss the tournament.
USC [19-9 (8-7), RPI: 37, SOS: 56] The Trojans have spent much of the 2016 Bubble Watch swaddled in the warmth of the should-be-in line. As recently as two weeks ago they looked set to cruise to a fairly straightforward mid-single-digit seed. Now, they're at risk of missing the tournament altogether. The Trojans have lost four of their past five, and while two of those were totally forgivable defeats to good teams (at Arizona, versus Utah), the other two were road losses at Arizona State and Stanford. The latter, by the way, came Thursday night, and the 84-64 final score, bad as it looks, belies what was for most of the second half an even more lopsided blowout. USC's resume was never the strongest, but it was always solid enough. Now both the Trojans and their team sheet appear headed in the wrong direction at the worst possible time.
Oregon State [16-10 (7-8), RPI: 28, SOS: 1] The RPI's torrid love affair with the Pac-12 continues to manifest itself most acutely on the Beavers' team sheet. To its credit, Oregon State played just six nonconference teams ranked outside the top-100 this season, and it gets a big boost from playing (essentially) a true road game against Kansas in the Sprint Center. And they haven't lost any bad games. Fine. Yet the Beavers' only other top-50 nonconference opponent was Tulsa. They're ranked in the 60s in both adjusted efficiency and BPI, which puts their actual per-possession performance across their 26 games in the same rough vicinity as, say, Stephen F. Austin or Houston. The RPI, though, considers the Beavers a top-30 team. We'll see how the Beavers finish, but right now they're shaping up to be the best example of how the eye of the beholder -- whether the committee is deeply influenced by raw RPI numbers, or dismissive of them, or somewhere in between -- affects the shape of the tournament field.
Colorado [20-9 (9-7), RPI: 30, SOS: 40] Colorado knocked off Arizona, and none of the court-storming students got punched by Kaleb Tarczewski: All in all, Wednesday night was a rousing success. The Buffaloes are a rare breed, in that they're both (A) probably in the tournament field as of today and (B) being outscored by their conference opponents on a per-possession basis. Recording 1 point per trip and allowing 1.02 is not exactly the best predictor for postseason success, but hey, crazier things have happened.
Washington [16-12 (8-8), RPI: 76, SOS: 31] Poor Lorenzo Romar. He must have known, deep down, that "protesting" Oregon State's game-winning shot in Wednesday's 82-81 loss to the Beavers was a futile gesture. He must have known there was no way the Pac-12 could, or ever would, come out and say that Stephen Thompson Jr. traveled (even though he did), and that it would be almost as unlikely to overrule the clock timing call the officials made on video review. He must have been told that the Pac-12 doesn't even have a "protest" policy. And yet Romar couldn't resist. It's hard to blame him. It was an immensely questionable ending to a game that the Huskies, fighting tooth and nail to stay on the bubble amid a 1-5 February stretch, desperately needed to win. Losing that game in that way would send just about anyone on a frantic, Sisyphean search for a loophole. The one bright spot we can offer? On Sunday, Washington plays at Oregon.
|Teams that should be in: South Carolina|
Work left to do: Florida, Alabama, Vanderbilt
It's not just LSU's losses. It's how the losses happened. It's letting Retin Obasohan put 35 on you in your own building. It's managing just 0.87 points per possession against Tennessee, the SEC's 12th-best defense. It's repeating that exact figure against Arkansas -- the league's 10th-ranked per-possession defense -- three nights later. It's how utterly the team collapsed in the second half of those two losses, when UT scored 50 points, the Razorbacks 51, how both games devolved into blowouts. It's the postgame interviews with Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor II and Ben Simmons all essentially agreeing that the Tigers were not playing hard. It's coach Johnny Jones, in a brave attempt to remain positive, disagreeing with that premise despite all evidence to the contrary. It's a team that is clearly talented in ways that go beyond the future No. 1 draft pick. A team that has added stagnant, predictable offense to its pre-existing defensive woes -- a team that needed a strong SEC season and an even stronger finish to overcome its disastrous nonconference portion of the season. That's what's most disappointing about LSU. It's not that the Tigers won't make the NCAA tournament. It's that most of the time, it's impossible to tell if they even care.
South Carolina [23-5 (10-5), RPI: 32, SOS: 152] The Gamecocks managed to avoid the mistakes of their Baton Rouge brethren Wednesday night, which is to say they didn't lose to Tennessee. Quite the opposite, actually, to the tune of an 84-58 final. The Gamecocks should tread lightly in Starkville on Saturday: In its past three games, Mississippi State knocked off Vanderbilt, took down Alabama on the road and played Texas A&M to a 68-66 nail-biter in College Station. The Bulldogs are dangerous. Not dangerous enough to put SC's bid at risk, but still: dangerous.
Florida [17-11 (8-7), RPI: 42, SOS: 9] This week's loss to Vanderbilt was mildly out of character, in that the Gators, when faced with a team that's not obviously their superior, have typically taken care of business, especially on their own floor. Yet the loss itself likely did more to sustain Vanderbilt's push toward a bid than undercut UF's -- which, though not at all secure, hasn't altered course much in the past month.
Alabama [16-11 (7-8), RPI: 45, SOS: 17] Kentucky, as you might expect, tore Alabama to shreds in Rupp Arena on Tuesday night, and after two varyingly ugly losses (the first a much closer home defeat to Mississippi State), much of the bubble momentum Avery Johnson's surprising team had built in February has been halted. Hope remains, assuming the Tide don't drop either of their next two (and, really, all three) against Auburn, Arkansas and Georgia. Whether they finish in the NCAA or the NIT, the fact that Johnson has this team in the bubble discussion this deep into the February of his first season stands as a remarkable accomplishment in and of itself.
Vanderbilt [17-11 (9-6), RPI: 53, SOS: 48] Tuesday's road win at Florida was, after a Feb. 4 blowout of A&M, Vanderbilt's best win of the season. On one hand, this is good news: Perhaps the Commodores are finally coming around. On the other hand, winning at Florida is nice and all, but it's hardly the stuff unassailable tournament resumes are made of. Saturday, on the other hand, presents a much juicier opportunity: Kentucky in Nashville. Couple that with a trip to A&M on March 5, and there's still time for the Commodores to impress yet.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Teams that should be in: Wichita State|
Work left to do: Little Rock, Monmouth, Saint Mary's, Gonzaga
Aw, man. Hawaii! Why?! We put you on the page on Tuesday and make mention of your lack of bad losses and seriously impressive defense and general dominance of the Big West, and this is how you repay us? With a home loss to UC Riverside?! Not chill, dudes. Not chill at all.
Wichita State [22-7 (15-2), RPI: 47, SOS: 113] Different week, same drill: The Shockers are so obviously the best team in the Missouri Valley that even saying so feels redundant, and they are shaping up, once again, to be an absolutely horrifying high-single-digit seed in some No. 1 or No. 2 seed's first-round pod. Joe Lunardi's Thursday bracket placed the Shockers at a No. 8 seed across from (surprise) in-state rival Kansas in Des Moines. If you'll recall, Wichita excused the Jayhawks from the tournament last season on its way to the Sweet 16. Of course, to inspire this result again, the Shockers actually need to be in the bracket. Given their splits with Fred VanVleet healthy and in the lineup, their rarely interrupted dominance of the Valley, a genuinely tough nonconference schedule and (maybe most of all) the rest of the bubble's losses, they appear safer than at any other point in recent weeks.
Little Rock [25-3 (15-2), RPI: 35, SOS: 234] After Thursday night, when the Trojans handled UT-Arlington (who, you'll recall, beat Memphis and Ohio State on the road in November and pushed Texas to overtime in Austin), the Trojans are now the proud owners of another top-100ish win. They also won at Tulsa, which is starting to look like a valuable win, and San Diego State. Real possibility here.
Monmouth [23-6 (15-3), RPI: 48, SOS: 165] Oh, Monmouth. Poor, sweet Monmouth. How many conference losses had you narrowly avoided in recent weeks, preserving your at-large status in the face of overwhelming odds? How frenetic was your 17-point comeback in the final four minutes of a one-point win at Rider? How much hope had you given us that your nonconference wins (Notre Dame, USC, UCLA, Georgetown) would go untainted by further MAAC stumbles? Oh, Monmouth. The good news is that as conference opponents go, you could do worse than Iona. The bad news is that's because Iona is one of only three MAAC teams with an RPI above 150. The other bad news is that the loss came at home, by 16 points. The worst news is that it came at the hands of the great blasphemer, Iona coach Tim Cluess, who dared to insult the Monmouth bench in a news conference earlier this season. Monmouth's at-large hopes didn't die Friday night. But the music did.
Saint Mary's [23-4 (14-3), RPI: 59, SOS: 215] On Saturday, Saint Mary's beat Gonzaga at the Kennel. This is a huge deal. For years, SMC's status as the other reliably competitive team in the West Coast Conference made it, by default, Gonzaga's "rival." Even as the mutual distaste grew, Saint Mary's has spent most of its time being pummeled only slightly less mercilessly than the rest of its league. Saturday wasn't just a road win in Spokane: It was a season sweep of the Zags, the first since 1995. It was a momentous occasion. After a 20-year quest, the Gaels finally rested their hands upon their personal basketball holy grail. Oh, how they marveled in its glory. And when junior guard Joe Rahon looked up, he saw not a vision of the heavens but UCLA guard Bryce Alford, who gently reminded him the Bruins also won in Spokane this season. The point? Big win, sure, and this team deserves to be in the discussion, no question. But as much as Saturday meant to Saint Mary's program over the long term, it's shocking that it didn't mean more for the resume right now.
Gonzaga [22-7 (14-3), RPI: 70, SOS: 135] Ugly RPI, so-so schedule and two wins of note: over UConn and Washington on a neutral court. The East Coast Huskies are in the tournament as of now, but hardly guaranteed; the West Coast edition will be lucky to get in. Needless to say, this is not how Gonzaga resumes typically look.