College Basketball Bubble Watch
Texas' free fall defies easy explanation
Texas fans, know this: You're not alone. Johnny Dawkins feels your pain.
Almost two months ago to the day, an unranked Stanford team went to Austin and left with a 74-71 win over the No. 9 team in the country. The Cardinal were widely and rightfully praised. Here was a tough, true road win in nonconference play, a bona fide victory against a legitimate Final Four contender. Texas had lost its starting sophomore guard, Isaiah Taylor, to a November injury and barely worked in uber-talented freshman Myles Turner, and it had still given Kentucky a game at Rupp Arena a few weeks prior to the Cardinal's visit. It had already manhandled Iowa and Cal and held on for a win at Connecticut. Two months ago, beating that team on its own floor was a ticket-punching tentpole. Now? Not so much.
Between then and now, no 2014-15 team has fallen further than Texas. The Longhorns -- the same Longhorns who went toe-to-toe with still-unbeaten Kentucky -- are now 17-10 overall, 6-8 in the Big 12, 1-9 against the RPI top 50 and 5-10 against the top 100. If that sounds like the résumé of a bubble team, well, that's because it is.
So what happened? Where does Texas stand right now? And where does Texas go from here?
Answering the first question requires moderation. Fine, let's just say it: Rick Barnes has not done a particularly good job with this team. There are plenty of specific examples (see: the easy, high-ball screen Oklahoma State used to get Phil Forte on the line in a Feb. 4 loss, 65-63 in overtime), but they're less important than the big picture, which is that this talented Longhorns team too often appears disjointed and even lost. Worse, most of the Longhorns haven't improved. After returning from injury, Taylor has been essentially the same (good, not great) player he was as a freshman. Jonathan Holmes, who ended November on every award watchlist, has gradually faded to the background. Cameron Ridley has been less effective in fewer minutes. Even Turner -- a legitimate NBA prospect posting quality efficiency numbers -- has been inconsistent at best against top competition.
It's hardly that simple, though. Texas hasn't been great, but it hasn't been terrible, either. The Longhorns allow the lowest 2-point field goal percentage of any team in the country, including Kentucky. They block a higher percentage of opponents' shots than any team in the country, including Kentucky. They have the highest defensive rebounding rate in the Big 12 and the ninth-highest offensive rate in college hoops. This is a team that uses it size to its advantage, protecting the rim on defense and crashing the glass on offense. It would be unfair to ignore all of that -- and that the Longhorns lost by three at Iowa State and by two at Oklahoma -- when considering their current predicament. If those two games end with a bucket in the other direction, UT is 19-8 and 8-6 in league play, and we're not even broaching this conversation. That matters.
So does this: Maybe Texas was never as good as its nonconference performance suggested. UConn certainly isn't. Neither is Iowa. Neither is Cal. Meanwhile, it's worth noting just how brutal this edition of the Big 12 is. Playing good teams is hard enough; playing this many, with no respite between them, is especially so.
All of which is why the Longhorns, despite five of their six Big 12 wins coming against TCU, Kansas State, and Texas Tech, aren't quite dead yet. There are no bad losses on their résumé, and the committee notices good performances in close losses. If the field were seeded today, Texas would get in, and it probably wouldn't be close.
There is, of course, still some season left. On Tuesday night, Texas travels to West Virginia, whose defeat in Austin gave UT its lone top-50 win of the season. Another loss -- understandable as it might be in isolation -- will be received as a disaster. On Saturday, UT travels to Kansas. Good luck with that.
Whatever the committee believes about Texas's talent or the Big 12 slaughterhouse or the extenuating circumstances of narrow losses, it won't ignore a team in free fall. Texas might not be on the bubble the way, say, UCLA is on the bubble. But the Longhorns are already close enough to have turned this once-promising season into a snickering tale of collapse. They've made Tuesday night's trip to Morgantown nothing less than a must-win. A lot can happen in two months.
Did we miss a team? Include the unworthy? Want to stump for your favored mid-major? Send your feedback, suggestions and hilarious jokes to me on Twitter @eamonnbrennan
Note: All RPI data via ESPN RPI is updated through Feb. 23.
|American Athletic Conference|
|Work left to do: Temple, Tulsa, Cincinnati|
Is the American a one-bid league? Well, no, probably not. At the least, SMU would have to win the conference tournament in Hartford, during a weekend that will double as UConn's last chance of getting back to the NCAA tournament. Still, with Cincinnati and Temple sliding ever so slightly in the wrong direction and Tulsa likely outside the field right now, that previously unthinkable question has become suddenly viable.
Temple [19-9 (10-5), RPI: 32, SOS: 48] The "eye test" is almost always a mess of subjectivity. Almost. Every now and then, a performance is so bad it creates an objective critical consensus. Temple offered exactly that kind of performance in Sunday's 55-39 loss at Tulsa. The Owls, who had played so well during a seven-game winning streak preceding losses to SMU and Tulsa, somehow held their opponents to 55 points in 65 possessions on the road ... and lost by 16. Hopefully, the committee wasn't paying attention, because while the loss wasn't particularly bad on paper (Tulsa is a good defensive team fighting for a bubble spot of its own) it looked far worse in person. Temple's S-Curve status is hardly secure enough for it to squander the impressive showings of the past month in the final two weeks of the regular season.
Tulsa [19-7 (12-2), RPI: 42, SOS: 121] Temple's .60 points-per-possession performance may have been ugly for the Owls, but it was exactly what Tulsa needed. After a 10-0 start to league play, the Golden Hurricane looked more like a tropical sto-- actually, no. We were going to make a weather joke there, but no. The point is, Tulsa was on the wrong side of the bubble before Sunday's win, and that's probably still the case -- the 55-39 final surely hurt Temple more than it helped Frank Haith's team. But it gave Tulsa a win in the first of what may end up being a decisive three-game stretch against tourney-worthy teams in the American. The last two, against Cincy and SMU, come next week. In the meantime, Tulsa gets Tulane (at home) and Memphis (on the road).
Cincinnati [18-9 (9-5), RPI: 50, SOS: 53] Say what you want about the imprecision of the RPI, but it seems to have pegged Houston just fine. Visiting the sub-250 RPI Cougars has always been a no-win proposition for the bubble teams of the 2014-15 American, an RPI drag even in a victory. The only upside is that Houston is actually as terrible as the RPI says, even on its own floor, which it demonstrated in the Bearcats' 10-point win on Saturday. The win broke a three-game losing streak for Cincinnati. It also took its toll on what was once an RPI figure in the 30s. A sweep of SMU, a Dec. 17 home win over San Diego State, and a top-25 noncon schedule are the primary factors keeping Cincy maybe a half-step ahead of the rest of the bubble. But if the next two games -- UCF, at Tulane -- don't end with wins, the Bearcats could be in trouble.
|Atlantic 10 Conference|
|Work left to do: Dayton, Davidson, Rhode Island|
It's time, for now, to wave farewell to UMass. The Minutemen acquitted themselves fairly well Saturday at VCU, but "acquitted themselves well" is not synonymous with "won a basketball game," and UMass desperately needed a great win. Instead, the 78-72 loss leaves a team with great schedule and RPI numbers and absolutely nothing else to recommend it, with four remaining regular-season games, none of which come against tournament teams. It's just hard to see how Derek Kellogg's team can make up the ground it needs without a deep run in the A-10 tournament. We'll keep an eye out, but that's all we'll do.
Dayton [20-6 (10-4), RPI: 38, SOS: 144] Last week, we noted Dayton had to navigate a particularly easy stretch of its A-10 schedule, a five-game murderer's row of potential bad losses, any one of which could hamper the Flyers' resume. On Saturday, it happened: 83-73 at Duquesne. Not good. Right now, the Flyers should still feel OK. They're still hanging on to a No. 9 seed in Lunardi's latest bracket, and their position wasn't as damaged by the Dukes as that of a team with a few more sub-100 losses might have been. But still, unless you're the kind of Flyers fan willing to risk missing the tournament for the chance to have Dayton play in Dayton for the First Four -- which would, admittedly, be pretty cool -- you can't be thrilled by this latest development.
Davidson [19-6 (10-4), RPI: 54, SOS: 165] Davidson could have been doomed by consecutive losses to Saint Joe's and St. Bonaventure at the start of the month, but the Wildcats have fought back admirably with five straight wins, the latest of which came in straightforward fashion Saturday over Fordham. Instead of falling off the bubble, the Wildcats are still stuck in. That might not be enough. Despite playing at Virginia and against North Carolina on a neutral floor, Bob McKillop's team racked up so many RPI dregs in non-league play that its noncon schedule is in the high 230s, the kind of tipping point that might work against it in a tight bubble argument. Davidson still has a chance to knock off VCU on March 5. That could be a key piece of a push to get out of the muddle and safely into the field.
Rhode Island [19-6 (11-3), RPI: 65, SOS: 210] Rhode Island is hanging on, but only barely. Sure, it has responded to a Feb. 11 loss at Saint Joe's with three straight wins, including a home victory over UMass last week. But that's nowhere near enough. The Rams are near the bottom edge of the conceivable bubble, and the worst news, besides their RPI and schedule numbers (including a 230s-ish noncon schedule), is their nonexistent collection of marquee wins. To truly impress the committee, URI might have to go 4-0 in its final four regular-season games -- including this week's home date versus Davidson and trips to La Salle and Dayton. Yikes.
|Atlantic Coast Conference|
|Work left to do: Pittsburgh, NC State, Miami|
This week's big ACC news revolves around Louisville. The Cardinals' dismissal of starting point guard Chris Jones will obviously have a major impact on Louisville's season the rest of the way. Unfortunately for the league's three bubble teams, Louisville is off the board. Pitt missed its chance a few weeks ago; NC State caught the Cardinals in a massive road win on Feb. 14; and Miami lost out on its chance Saturday in a two-point loss at the KFC Yum! Center.
Pittsburgh [18-10 (7-7), RPI: 37, SOS: 24] Pitt won at Syracuse this weekend. That's a decent road win in its own right, even facing a team with a self-imposed postseason ban, and it helped the Panthers regain a fourth top-100 win after imploding Kansas State dipped out of the RPI top 100. Which is the problem: Despite an inflated RPI and wins over Notre Dame and North Carolina, the Panthers are still just 4-8 against the top 100. We'll keep the Panthers on the page for now, but with just Boston College, Wake Forest, Miami and Florida State left to play in the regular season, we have no idea how Pitt could shore things up in such a way that would eliminate the need for a massive ACC tournament run.
NC State [16-11 (7-7), RPI: 48, SOS: 3] Following a massive road win at Louisville Feb. 14 -- a win that turbo-boosted the Wolfpack's bubble prospectus more than any win for any bubble team this season -- Mark Gottfried's team got to take a leisurely week off before a leisurely home game against Virginia Tech. That 69-53 victory sets up another massive road adventure Tuesday night. Make no mistake: As good as the Louisville win was, it was almost necessary, because the rest of this resume (save a home win over Duke) looks pretty weak. This is still very much a bubble team. If the bracket were seeded today, we'd like its odds -- but that's all we'd be talking about. Not guarantees. If the Pack can somehow pull off a win at UNC on Tuesday night, another perceptual adjustment will be in order.
Miami [17-10 (7-7), RPI: 66, SOS: 69] Rarely has there been a more amenable time to play Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center. Clearly, something wasn't right with the Cardinals, who came into the game having lost three of four, and who had just reinstated guard Chris Jones after a one-game suspension in a loss at Syracuse. Now that Louisville has officially dismissed Jones from the team, Miami's 55-53 loss looks even more like an opportunity squandered. The Cardinals didn't play well, but neither did Miami guard Angel Rodriguez, who finished an uncharacteristic 1-of-12 from the field with four turnovers. The loss leaves Miami with an RPI edging toward the 70s, with just one legitimately elite win -- at Duke -- sustaining an otherwise nonexistent profile. There's still a chance to play North Carolina in Coral Gables, but we have a feeling Jim Larranaga will look back at Saturday's loss as the one that got away.
|Big 12 Conference|
|Teams that should be in: West Virginia, Oklahoma State|
Work left to do: Texas
You can only flirt for so long before you have to make a move. Which brings us, oddly enough, to the Baylor Bears. We've been teasing the idea of Baylor's lock status for weeks now, each time holding off just to make sure the Bears didn't suffer an unlikely string of bad losses down the stretch. With just four games to play and wins at Texas Tech and versus Kansas State now in the rearview mirror, we've officially worked up our confidence. Baylor might be 8-6 in the Big 12, but four straight losses the rest of the way (at Iowa State, versus West Virginia, at Texas, versus Texas Tech) would add one bad loss. Those chances are slim to begin with, but even in the worst-case scenario, Baylor's top-15 RPI and top-10 strength of schedule would surely get it in anyway. Few knew what to expect from Scott Drew's team at the start of the year; what we've gotten is one of the most quietly efficient (and physically imposing) offenses in the country. Drew has had plenty of success in his Baylor career, but this might be his best job yet.
West Virginia [21-6 (9-5), RPI: 23, SOS: 66] To think we were once nervous about the Mountaineers. We were, in fact, just after WVU's 20-point loss at Iowa State on Feb. 14. At that point, Bob Huggins' team lacked the quality wins to totally secure a bid and had left itself vulnerable to a brutally backloaded Big 12 schedule. In the span of a week, the 'Eers have toppled Kansas at home and won by 10 at Oklahoma State. Suddenly, we're not feeling quite so anxious about that 220s-ish nonconference schedule number. How silly of us.
Oklahoma State [17-10 (7-8), RPI: 29, SOS: 11] Three straight losses is a less-than-ideal way to spend any portion of your February; a road loss to TCU and back-to-back missed chances against Iowa State and West Virginia at home are especially disappointing. We figured the Pokes would handle at least one of those opportunities in Stillwater and we'd be thinking about locking them up. Instead, we're forced to hold off, at least until Saturday, when OSU heads to Texas Tech. But there's little reason to worry: These great RPI and schedule numbers and wins over Kansas and Baylor (twice) will see Travis Ford's team through.
Texas [17-10 (6-8), RPI: 40, SOS: 19] If you missed the introduction and skipped straight to Texas, you should probably head back to the top of the page. There's not a whole lot more to add, you know? Except this: It feels really unfair to ask UT to validate itself by winning in Morgantown against a suddenly fired-up West Virginia team. If it loses, it might yet deserve a tournament bid. But if it loses to WVU, then loses at Kansas and then faces its last two games (both at home versus Baylor and K-State) with 10 Big 12 losses -- well, that's a recipe for trouble. Unless UT plans to win Saturday in Lawrence, Tuesday night's game is kind of a must-win, harsh as it might seem.
|Big East Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Providence, Butler, Xavier|
Work left to do: St. John's
Early in the season, Georgetown looked much better than its record or per-possession performance suggested. It was a weird, unusual phenomenon, but you got the feeling the Hoyas could be really dangerous if Josh Smith, D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Jabril Trawick and freshman stud Isaac Copeland put it all together. By and large, they have. The results haven't always followed -- the Hoyas are just 4-8 against the top 50, after all -- but all their losses have come against teams ranked 30th or lower in the RPI. Their own low-20s RPI number, as well as insane schedule figures (top-five overall, top-10 noncon) attest to as much. The Hoyas are unlikely to secure higher than a No. 6 seed. However, with just three regular-season games left to play and only one chance (at home vs. Seton Hall) to ruin that elite-defeat streak, Georgetown is officially a lock.
Providence [19-8 (9-5), RPI: 21, SOS: 14] Providence has a chance to stamp its lock with authority Tuesday at Villanova. A win in Philly would be a fitting coda to this team's run through the Big East. After spending the first week in early December losing to Boston College and Brown -- which totally wiped out a great neutral-court win over Notre Dame -- the Friars have stormed back in Big East play and picked up road wins at Butler and Georgetown along the way. On paper, a Nov. 30 trip to Kentucky helped forge those great RPI and schedule numbers; on the floor, LaDontae Henton and a fully healthy Kris Dunn have done the rest.
Butler [19-8 (9-5), RPI: 24, SOS: 25] Saturday's 73-56 loss at Xavier was the most lopsided and uncharacteristic defeat of the Bulldogs' season, and it totally doesn't matter, at least as it pertains to their tourney profile. Blue III's boys still boast an immensely solid resume with nothing approaching a bad loss. A home win over Marquette this week seals a lock, and we're probably playing it too safe as it is. There's nothing to worry about.
Xavier [18-11 (8-8), RPI: 31, SOS: 23] All of our "Xavier is so wacky!" jokes tend to fall flat (as if they didn't already) when the Musketeers are playing one-possession games, such as Monday night's 58-57 loss at St. John's or last week's 59-57 win at Cincinnati, because, duh, right? One-possession games tend to produce coin-flip results. We preferred the wackier days of late January, when the Musketeers followed up a road win at Georgetown with back-to-back losses to Seton Hall and Creighton. These days, Chris Mack's team looks much more solid, both on the court and with respect to its NCAA tournament seed. And yes, we said "seed." This is no longer a real bubble team, at least for the moment.
St. John's [19-9 (8-7), RPI: 34, SOS: 37] On Feb. 3, Butler manhandled St. John's in Hinkle Fieldhouse and dropped the Red Storm to 3-6 in Big East play. The end of the Red Storm's once-promising season -- and possibly head coach Steve Lavin's tenure -- felt all but copy edited. The early hype. The mysterious conference decline. The long, slow, agonizing limp to the finish. Less than a month later, the script has officially been flipped. After Monday, St. John's has won five of its past six, including two wins over Xavier, a stretch that had already lifted the Red Storm a notch or two from the bubble morass before Monday's results. With a home game against Georgetown Saturday, D'Angelo Harrison & Co. have a chance to really firm this thing up -- if not seal it all together -- at the best possible moment. It might not be "Hoosiers," but it's been a great little turnaround.
|Big Ten Conference|
|Teams that should be in: Indiana|
Work left to do: Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa, Illinois, Purdue
With less than three weeks until Selection Sunday, the Big Ten still has its fair share of bubble drama. Most of the vibes feel positive. Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan State are gradually closing in on bids, though anything can happen between now and March 15; Iowa, Purdue and Illinois are all feeling some measure of momentum as they scramble for spots above the cut line. There are reasons to be optimistic all around, but a lot of work remains to be done.
Indiana [19-9 (9-6), RPI: 30, SOS: 28] The Hoosiers appeared to be smarting from last week's home loss to Purdue, a pain they took out in ruthless fashion at Rutgers on Sunday (final score: 84-54). This team isn't a lock, especially with a tricky road trip to Northwestern on Wednesday night -- though, given the number of IU fans that pack into Welsh-Ryan for every IU visit, "road trip" is a literal expression only. The Hoosiers are still in pretty safe shape all around.
Michigan State [19-8 (10-4), RPI: 28, SOS: 38] In isolation, the Spartans' win at Illinois on Sunday is hard to get worked up about. Illinois is not Wisconsin, after all. But taken as the latest in a four-game winning streak, which includes a Valentine's Day win over Ohio State and a road win at Michigan, Michigan State's Oscars-snubbing victory was noteworthy. The Spartans' resume is still light on elite wins, and it still includes one of the biggest upsets of the season (a Dec. 20 loss at home to Texas Southern), but Tom Izzo is getting great stuff out of Branden Dawson and may have found something in moving scoring guard Travis Trice to the bench. There's still work to do, but things are looking vastly better than they did two weeks ago.
Ohio State [19-8 (8-6), RPI: 41, SOS: 89] Despite having one of the nation's best, most entertaining offensive players in D'Angelo Russell and a top-three per-possession defense in Big Ten play, the Buckeyes just can't quite get over the hump where their resume is concerned. Sunday's loss at Michigan was just the latest example. It's not really a bad loss (though Michigan's struggles go far beyond its 80s-ish RPI). Ohio State is clearly a good, if not great, team, but its profile is pocked by a distinct lack of marquee wins, the only two of which (Maryland, Indiana) came at home, and look better for their margins on the scoreboard than their impact on the nitty-gritty sheet. Throw in bad nonconference work, and it would hardly be a surprise for OSU to grade out as a No. 8/9 seed, the kind of No. 8/9 that no one would want to play on the first weekend of the tournament.
Iowa [17-10 (8-6), RPI: 55, SOS: 27] If you can get the opposing coach to lock his players out of their practice facilities, you're doing something right. Such was the case after Iowa's 74-46 win at Nebraska, when Tim Miles chastised his players for lacking pride. That accomplishment marks Iowa's second straight blowout of a Big Ten bottom-feeder, wins that helped stem the tide of back-to-back losses to Minnesota and Northwestern. The Hawkeyes are far from safe at this point. A home win over Illinois would be a nice way to shore things up before trips to Penn State and Indiana and a regular-season closer at home against Northwestern.
Illinois [17-10 (7-7), RPI: 57, SOS: 58] A home loss to Michigan State on Sunday was arguably worse for the Illini than it was helpful to the Spartans, both because the Illini were playing a fellow bubble team and because the Illini may be in worse shape, bubble-wise, than any other Big Ten team. Luckily, John Groce's team began its late push into bubble worthiness with a road win at Michigan State, which vaguely cancels out this most recent loss. A neutral-court win at Baylor keeps looking great. There are no bad losses, either. Still, this is a team with a 5-9 record against the RPI top 100 and merely OK RPI and schedule numbers. Barring a 4-0 finish -- which means winning at Iowa and Purdue in addition to handling home games against Northwestern and Nebraska -- it's hard to imagine the Illini erasing all bubble doubt before the start of the Big Ten tournament, but they're very much in the mix.
Purdue [18-9 (10-4), RPI: 59, SOS: 78] The "eye test" is weird on a number of levels. For one, the idea that our human brains have the processing power to retain objective visual impressions of every potential NCAA tournament team is kind of silly. For another, well, take Purdue. To see this version of the Boilermakers playing tight-knit rim-protecting defense and deft, well-spaced offense is to experience something entirely unlike the team that started the season so awfully in November and December. Purdue is playing better. Your eyes can tell you as much, but so can its results: After a masterful win at Indiana last week, PU has won seven of its past eight and eight of its past 10. Matt Painter's team is now 10-4 in conference play, 8-5 against the top 100, and 4-3 against the top 50. Surges from NC State and (less so) BYU have helped improve the nonconference resume, which still includes horrific home losses to North Florida and Gardner-Webb. Your eyes could tell you Purdue is playing better -- and boy, is it ever -- but so could, you know, literally everything else. That said, there are still concerns. Those bad losses won't totally vanish. PU's RPI jumped a bit after the win over IU, but it still isn't super-pretty. And that 245th-ranked nonconference schedule is a major liability for teams on the bubble. The progress here has been remarkable, and we would be surprised if this version of this team doesn't get to the Dance. But there are plenty of loose ends to tie up first.
|Mountain West Conference|
|Teams that should be in: San Diego State|
Work left to do: Colorado State, Boise State
While San Diego State combines suddenly not-terrible offense with steadily amazing defense en route to an eventual lock, the Mountain West's two bubble buddies spent the past week merely holding the line, either improving their relative status through lack of attrition (Colorado State) or barely hanging on (Boise State).
San Diego State [22-6 (12-3), RPI: 25, SOS: 84] A loss at San Jose State and its mid-330s RPI would have been one of the few things that could imperil the Aztecs' bid at this point. Instead, SDSU rolled 74-56, thanks to its typically suffocating defense. Last week, the Watch was critical of the Aztecs' work on the offensive end, and several people mentioned via Twitter that SDSU has shot the ball pretty well lately, which is true. The result has been a boost -- to 1.05 points per trip, fifth-best in the Mountain West -- in offensive output. Considering this is already one of the best defensive teams in the country, the addition of even mediocre offense to the mix makes Steve Fisher's team one to be feared no matter where it eventually ends up in the bracket. A lock feels like it's just around the corner.
Colorado State [23-5 (10-5), RPI: 26, SOS: 98] There's not a whole lot to update here, honestly. Colorado State's resume remains basically unchanged following last week's bad-loss avoidance against Fresno State and Air Force. Movement elsewhere on the bubble may have put the Rams in slightly safer shape than before (they moved up out of the last four byes in Joe Lunardi's most recent Bracketology), but all it would take is one loss -- against the regular-season-closing bad-loss trifecta of San Jose State, Nevada and Utah State (the latter two of which are on the road) -- to imperil the Rams' bubble chances.
Boise State [20-7 (10-4), RPI: 43, SOS: 113] If this week's Mountain West theme is "avoiding bad losses," the Broncos certainly played along, blowing out Nevada 78-46 on Saturday. Wednesday's win at UNLV isn't quite the same situation -- winning in Vegas is much more impressive than the bad-loss avoidance label might suggest -- but it ultimately served the same purpose: keeping Boise on the bubble after its loss at Fresno State on Feb. 14. This is a team very much on the bubble, with three bad opponents (New Mexico, San Jose State, and Fresno again) and one massive road chance (at San Diego State) between now and the Mountain West tourney.
|Work left to do: Oregon, UCLA, Stanford|
A month ago, the Pac-12 looked static. Arizona and Utah were the obvious top two. Stanford looked like the league's clear No. 3. From there, it was all mediocrity and long-shot hopes. That's still true, sort of, but things look a whole lot more interesting now. Stanford's February decline has officially brought it back to the thick of the bubble race. UCLA is holding steady. Oregon -- left for dead not so long ago -- is 10-5 in conference play and streaking toward a bid. Even Arizona State and Oregon State, both operating from the far reaches of the bubble solar system, have kept things from getting too predictable.
Oregon [20-8 (10-5), RPI: 46, SOS: 68] Pretty much everyone forgot about Oregon by mid-January. The Ducks failed to pick up an eye-catching nonconference win and started 1-4 in the Pac-12. Somehow, they clawed their way into a potential NCAA tournament bid by late February, with a chance at a marquee win with Sunday's visit from Utah. The Ducks took that chance with a 69-58 victory over the Utes, giving them their first bona fide marquee win of the season. It also pushed them above .500 against the top 100, which helps. And while one win does not a resume make, this particular win pushed Oregon into vastly improved territory in advance of the three challenging road games (at Cal, at Stanford, at Oregon State) that close its regular season. The Ducks have been a fascinating story. All we need now is an ending.
UCLA [16-12 (8-7), RPI: 47, SOS: 13] The Bruins are coming off two straight losses. That should be a bad thing -- and obviously losses are never good -- but, all in all, you can't really fault Steve Alford's team for dropping back-to-back trips to Arizona State and Arizona. Especially when the former was a two-point defeat and the latter was a surprisingly respectable 57-47 loss. Those losses hurt the Bruins in the loss column, where they are now just 16-12 overall and 8-7 in the Pac-12. But their schedule number remains stellar, their Pac-12 schedule has been more difficult than either Stanford's or Oregon's to date, and if they finish up with three wins over Washington, Washington State and USC, all at home, they should at least be in an actionable position at the start of the Pac-12 tournament. If not better. Very bubbly, but hardly out of it.
Stanford [17-9 (8-6), RPI: 52, SOS: 79] Before this past weekend, the Cardinal were probably in the field; on Monday, according to Joe Lunardi's Bracketology update, they were the first team out. Wait: Stanford beat Cal at home Saturday, right? How do the Cardinal fall after a win? Ah, but such are the nebulous mysteries of the bubble, where the things other teams do matter just as much, and sometimes more, than your team's own performance. To be sure, Stanford finds itself in this position through some failings of its own: Saturday's 11-point win was just its second in six games. Other teams in the same general range as Stanford (Purdue, Illinois, UCLA, Oregon) have gradually improved their resumes with victories in recent weeks, which partially explains the slide. The other factor? Remember Stanford's most notable win? That Dec. 23 trip to Texas? When the Cardinal won that game, the Longhorns were ranked No. 9 in the country. Now UT is 6-8 in Big 12 play, 1-9 against the top 50, and desperately trying to avoid its own bubble collapse. Stanford is totally good enough to get in the tournament, and even do some damage once there, and if we had to lay a bet, we'd bet the Cardinal get in. But there's a lot working against them at the moment.
|Teams that should be in: Ole Miss|
Work left to do: Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU
The bubble's collective shift to the Pac-12 and Big Ten constitutes good news for the SEC, where Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Georgia have all quietly taken steps away from the muddle and toward relative safety. With Kentucky and Arkansas locked in, that leaves LSU as the lone team sitting near the cut line at this point -- and even the Tigers are in better shape than the Stanfords and Illinoises (Illinoii?) of the world.
Ole Miss [19-8 (10-4), RPI: 33, SOS: 49] We might be a couple days early moving Ole Miss up to the Should Be In category -- perhaps we should wait for a home win over Georgia on Wednesday night, instead. Oh well. If the Rebels do something to deserve a downgrade, we'll simply move them back accordingly. We doubt we'll need to, though: This still might be the SEC's second-best team. It is, at the very least, the SEC's second-most efficient offense, a trait that has led Andy Kennedy's team to exactly one loss -- a 71-70 home defeat to Arkansas -- in its past nine games. Everyone knew Jarvis Summers would have a big season. No one knew Stefan Moody would be such a lethal and reliable perimeter threat. These guys are rolling.
Georgia [17-9 (8-6), RPI: 35, SOS: 30] You have to feel for Alabama. The Crimson Tide aren't in the at-large picture by any stretch of the imagination, but they fought like maniacs in Tuscaloosa on Saturday in a 66-65 loss to Georgia. When the game was over -- after Bulldogs guard Cameron Forte made the go-ahead bucket with 10 seconds left in overtime (Georgia's fourth and fifth points in that overtime, by the way) and Yante Maten blocked Retin Obasohan's last-ditch drive -- the Tide looked shocked, like they were already in the SEC tournament and had just seen their season end. Whatever Anthony Grant is doing to motivate his team, it's working -- and it reflects well on Georgia, too, for being able to avoid its third straight loss.
Texas A&M [19-7 (10-4), RPI: 36, SOS: 87] The Aggies have won three in a row, including last week's bubble battle with LSU, and they've profited accordingly, moving up and out of the last-four-in mix they'd spent most of the past month inhabiting. Which is not to say A&M should feel safe. This is still a team without a single top-50 win (though its sweep of LSU may give it two, depending on how the Tigers' 50s-ish RPI number waxes and wanes). And while it doesn't have the kind of schedule that scares you, it does have Auburn left to play, as well as a trip to Florida and a game against a tough Alabama team. A lack of bad losses is good, sure, but altogether this is still a team with a pretty tiny margin for error down the stretch.
LSU [19-8 (8-6), RPI: 51, SOS: 97] The Tigers have been swapping wins for losses all February, but Saturday presented a trickier challenge in the form of a Florida team that, even without guard Michael Frazier, has made every opponent's life difficult, even in losses. LSU handled it, 70-63, with relative ease. Frazier's absence was noticeable, sure, but the win is still the takeaway, mostly because LSU can't afford to lose home games at this point in its bid campaign. Next up is Tuesday night's trip to Auburn, which has already knocked off the Tigers in Baton Rouge, and another loss to a rebuilding outfit would be pretty devastating. The good news? If LSU can get around that potential bump, it has a great chance to help itself when Ole Miss comes to town on Saturday.
|Other at-large contenders|
|Work left to do: Old Dominion, BYU|
Saint Mary's was very close to pulling off the win of its season Saturday night, and don't let the final score -- a 70-60 Gonzaga victory -- fool you. The Gaels played great. They led by 11 at halftime and by 10 with 11 minutes to play. It's just that, well, Gonzaga is amazing at basketball. It can turn deep deficits during Senior Night love-ins against heated rivals into seemingly casual 10-point victories in, what? Five possessions? Six? Anyway, the loss all but doomed Saint Mary's already unlikely bubble chances. If we add another team to this category in the coming weeks, it might have to be Stephen F. Austin, which is now 23-4 with three losses to UNI, Xavier and Baylor (fine), one loss to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (not fine) and a top-25 efficiency offense just utterly overwhelming the Southland Conference. With just two top-100 wins, it's hard to get on board the SFA bandwagon, but it's just as hard to forget what a similar Lumberjacks team did to VCU this past March. This is a really good team. Hopefully, it wins the Southland tournament title because it deserves that league's NCAA bid, and its at-large hopes are speculative at best.
Old Dominion [20-6 (9-5), RPI: 45, SOS: 128] We don't have the heart to take the Monarchs off the page, especially after a 19-point home win over potential Cinderella Louisiana Tech. Having said that, ODU's position at this point can probably best be described as "in need of divine intervention." Were this team in a conference with fewer horrible teams, we would probably be talking about which games ODU could win in its final four to climb up the S-Curve by the time the Conference USA tourney starts. Instead, ODU has Rice, North Texas, Marshall and Western Kentucky, none of which will help its RPI and all of which could make it auto-bid-or-bust if the ball doesn't bounce ODU's way. That noncon win over VCU still looks nice, of course, but in 26 games, that's the only top-50 team the Monarchs have played. Honestly, this team needs the rest of the bubble to collapse around it.
BYU [21-8 (11-5), RPI: 60, SOS: 100] On Feb. 5, we figured we were pretty much done with BYU. That's when the Cougars lost their second game of the season to Pepperdine, which came just two weeks after back-to-back road losses to Saint Mary's (fine) and San Diego (definitely not fine). Yet here we are. What changed? For one, UMass has begun to look like a more laudable bubble outfit, even if Stanford's decline bodes ill. Four straight wins over Loyola Marymount, Saint Mary's, Pacific and San Diego have at least made BYU's record more approachable. They're in the fringe mix at this point -- nothing more -- with just two regular-season games -- one a trip to Gonzaga -- left to play. When you consider the Cougars have one of the nation's best scorers (Tyler Haws) and the NCAA single-season triple-double record holder (Kyle Collinsworth), it's kind of crazy they're even in this position.