Conference tournaments create their own mid-major madness
Editor's note: This file has been updated to include all games through Monday, March 11. RPI and SOS numbers will update in the morning.
For as entrenched as the term is, "bubble" is not a particularly good way to picture what happens in the final weeks of the college basketball season. It may be more instructive to picture a medieval village.
Stay with me here.
In the middle of the village, in a gilded tower in the middle of a well-defended castle, sit seeding royalty: Duke, Indiana, Gonzaga, Louisville and the rest of the top, say, 16 teams in the bracket. Whatever competition you get up there is almost imperceptible; mostly those guys sit around splashing goblets and taking oversized bites of some fowl or another. (It is very good to be those guys.) Outside the fancy-schmancy tower is the rest of the tournament locks -- castle-dwellers, lords and ladies -- a group of 16-ish squads that are safe inside the walls, if not born into the purple.
It is outside the walls where the real havoc begins. Closest to entry -- feudal land managers, say, or well-traveled merchants -- are those teams that should get in sooner rather than later, but are still on ground just shaky enough to question whether it will ever actually happen. Beyond them? The peasants. At various times, eight or 10 or even 15 squads toil on their land, taking one step forward and two back, grasping past each other, pleading, wondering if ever the misery will be over.
And outside them? In the densely forested Outlands? There be dragons -- or, for our purposes, bid thieves.
If you've played enough Skyrim -- shout out to Jack Cooley -- you're well aware dragons can strike at any time. They swoop in and knock off an otherwise safe NCAA tournament team in a given conference tournament, and all of a sudden what was once six open tournament spots becomes five. The peasants' odds at getting inside those castle walls for even a brief glorious glimpse of March Madness -- or maybe even a VCU-esque raid up the sport's power structures -- diminish. And all any of them can do is keep toiling the land and keep crossing their fingers.
Considering we are currently flush with mid-major conference tournaments, it is a bit remarkable that we haven't already seen more theft already. We were close this weekend, of course; Belmont's survival against Murray State in the Ohio Valley Conference final had every bubble team -- the Bruins included -- breathing a sigh of relief.
Monday night offered a similar paucity of groundbreaking bubble moves. There was really only one possible option: Saint Mary's vs. Gonzaga in the WCC final. The Gaels entered the night in a tricky bubble spot, with really only one good win -- a home BracketBusters victory over Creighton. It was hard to decide whether Randy Bennett's team should be inside or outside the tournament bracket; a sweep over so-so BYU was their next-best credential before Monday night, and after their third loss to No. 1-ranked Gonzaga -- hardly a crime, that -- the Gaels' resume is still somewhat toothless. In other words, it was not inconceivable to think an SMC win could have eventually made them bid thieves. Instead, they remain on the bubble, and the bubble remains open for business.
The only real victims of mid-major madness this weekend were two of the more significant favorites in the non-BCS ranks: Stony Brook and Middle Tennessee. The Seawolves were done in by an utterly ridiculous conference tournament format (and, of course, a loss to Albany), while Middle Tennessee, which went 19-1 in the regular season, fell to Florida International in the Sun Belt semis Sunday night.
Stony Brook is unfortunately out of luck. Middle Tennessee -- with its sterling computer numbers but just two of its 28 wins coming against the RPI top 100 -- is a more interesting case. The Blue Raiders are decidedly on the bubble, and they should be. But how will being out of action for the next week affect their chances at an at-large bid? And why do conference tournaments feel it necessary to punish their best teams by awarding the conference tournament champ the at-large bid? (Down [with the conference tournament])!)
So many questions, so few tournament bids at stake, and less than a week to sort this whole thing out. Without further ado, let's dive in, and remember -- there's only so much room in the castle.
(Note: As is the tradition, Bubble Watch will begin updating on a daily basis -- and sometimes more often than that -- until the bracket is selected and seeded.)
Atlantic Coast Conference
Locks: Duke, Miami, North Carolina, NC State
Work left to do: Maryland, Virginia
Virginia [21-10 (11-7), RPI: 66, SOS: 132] If any Virginia fans were celebrating after Sunday night's win over Maryland, they might want to pull back just a bit. The Cavaliers still have a really depressing fact of bubble life working against them: too many bad losses. As ESPN Stats and Info's Ryan Feldman wrote on our blog this week, UVa has seven losses to teams ranked outside the RPI top 100 (ranging from 118 to 317). In the past 20 seasons, no team with that many bad losses has received an at-large bid to the tournament. And in fact, only three teams -- 2011 USC, 2005 Saint Mary's and 2004 Washington -- have gotten a bid with more than four such "bad" losses. Also working against Virginia? Nonconference schedule. This is nothing new, of course, but the selection committee has long since put the word out that bad noncon schedules will be judged harshly come March; it's the type of quality that has kept more than a few otherwise (apparently) deserving teams out in recent seasons. Virginia's nonconference schedule strength -- No. 299 -- is very much in that group. Of course, the Cavs also won at Wisconsin and beat Duke, UNC and NC State at home, and had players missing for some of those ugly losses early in the year. But even so, while Virginia remains alive, it may be more difficult than anyone thinks for the Cavs to actually seal that bid come Selection Sunday.
Maryland [20-11 (8-10), RPI: 83, SOS: 116] Maryland, on the other hand, is just about totally cooked. The Terps had a chance to keep pace with the rest of the bubble at UVa Sunday, but they let it slip away, and with the exception of their home wins over NC State and Duke, the only other top-100 wins this team has came against Stony Brook and Boston College. Just look at the Terps' chintzy collection of 16 sub-150 wins; they simply HAVE to schedule better in the years to come.
Big East Conference
Locks: Syracuse, Louisville, Marquette, Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, Cincinnati
Teams that should be in: Villanova
Work left to do: Providence
It's a little bit strange that it took this long for Cincinnati to enter the lock zone, and even now it doesn't feel like an authoritative move. All Cincy did this weekend was avoid what would have been a very bad home loss to South Florida. (And it was probably closer than it should have been.) But with that out of the way, even if Cincinnati loses to Providence in the first round of the Big East tournament, would that be enough to send the Bearcats out of the bracket? It wouldn't, and that's why they're a lock -- even if they limped a bit in getting there.
Villanova [19-12 (10-8), RPI: 51, SOS: 18] Give or take a spot or two, Villanova is currently regarded as one of the last four byes in the field, which would prevent the Wildcats from having to sweat out an extra two days in Dayton, Ohio, beginning next Tuesday. In other words, I can't exactly put them behind lock and key; they're still close enough that it's conceivable a few teams could hop over them before the week is out. Plus, we always have to allow for the fact that the committee is inherently subjective; when you're this close to the bubble, anything can happen.
Providence [17-13 (9-9), RPI: 82, SOS: 62] Providence fans, before you start emailing this around with exclamation points in the subject heading (actually, what am I thinking -- email away!), a disclaimer: I'm pretty sure you guys aren't going to the tournament. In fact, I'd be willing to bet on it. Just 2-8 against the top 50, a 264th-ranked nonconference schedule, prohibitive RPI, three sub-150 losses, 9-10 against the top 150 -- it's all pretty ugly stuff. But a win over Cincinnati Wednesday would at least keep you in the distant long shot mix. So why not, right?
Big Ten Conference
Locks: Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Ohio State, Wisconsin
Teams that should be in: Minnesota, Illinois
Work left to do: Iowa
Minnesota [20-11 (8-10), RPI: 23, SOS: 2] Minnesota is hilarious. I think that's the best, sanest approach to understanding these Gophers, particularly for their fans -- they're just messing around with everyone at this point. I'm not sure how else you explain one team's ability to beat Indiana on its own floor, and then lose back-to-back games to Nebraska and Purdue in the matter of 10 days. What's even funnier is that Minnesota is still in better shape than most of the teams on this page. It's like the Gophers experienced what it was like to basically have the tournament thing sewn up in January, and decided to just take the rest of the season off. Or maybe they're just trying to increase my workload. Whatever the case, their first Big Ten tournament game is against Illinois, so the bad loss risk is relatively minimized. Odds are the Gophers will back their way into this thing. But it's not like they've been convincing in doing so.
Illinois [21-11 (8-10), RPI: 41, SOS: 8] For my purposes, Illinois is Minny Lite: The Illini likewise doing their best to prevent us from fully locking them in to the tournament, the only difference being their defeats are much more forgivable. Losing three of your past four is fine when the losses come at Michigan, Iowa and Ohio State. With those back-to-back Indiana and Minnesota wins in early February, John Groce's team got into really strong position. But the coup de grace remains that true road win at Gonzaga. They're not a lock, but they're not going to miss out.
Iowa [20-11 (9-9), RPI: 76, SOS: 127] Iowa really isn't that far out of this thing: The Hawkeyes were among Joe Lunardi's next four out Monday, ahead of Arizona State and below Alabama, and that looks about right to me. As I've written before in this space, Iowa is drastically underrated by its 72 RPI; adjusted efficiency tells us this is one of the 30 or so best teams in the country. And usually 9-9 in the Big Ten is enough to get you a very serious look. The problem is, the Hawkeyes scheduled so badly in the nonconference -- noncon SOS: 305 -- that they won't receive any benefit of the doubt from the committee. But if they can knock off Michigan State in the second round of the Big Ten tournament? You never know.
Big 12 Conference
Locks: Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State
Teams that should be in: Oklahoma
Work left to do: Iowa State, Baylor
Oklahoma [20-10 (11-7), RPI: 34, SOS: 17] So here's the one thing you really don't want to do if you're even remotely close to the NCAA tournament bubble on March 9: Lose at TCU. Oklahoma's resume is otherwise staid and unspectacular, but adding a loss to the 226th-ranked RPI squad is not a good look this time of year. The Sooners should be OK -- and the fact that they play Iowa State in the first round of the Big 12 tournament is nice, because that really wouldn't be a bad loss -- but their prospects are obviously less assured now.
Iowa State [21-10 (11-7), RPI: 47, SOS: 64] Bubble teams have different mandates at different times. This weekend, Baylor's was "get a big win at home." Iowa State's was the exact opposite: Avoid an ugly loss on the road. The Cyclones came through at West Virginia, which is always a tricky place to play, and their reward is a spot just above the dire cut line, with Oklahoma lined up on the first-round Big 12 tournament schedule. Plus, if the committee can roll back footage of Iowa State's two games against Kansas, I find it hard to believe it couldn't at least grant some partial credit. The Cyclones are in pretty solid shape here.
Baylor [18-13 (9-9), RPI: 62, SOS: 21] Hello Baylor! Where have you been, like, all season? The Bears, as you may have heard, beat Kansas this weekend. But that's only 10 percent of the story; Baylor absolutely stomped Kansas this weekend, 81-58. Weird, right? I know. This is the same team that lost at Texas last Monday, had lost five of its past six and had fallen to basically everyone of note in the Big 12 to date. And all of a sudden they whoop the Jayhawks? Eh? Anyway, the upshot is probably not quite as positive as some Baylor fans might be hoping: The damage the Bears did to this résumé in the past few months can't be erased overnight, and their three sub-100 RPI losses and 3-10 mark against the top 50 might yet keep them out of the tournament. A neutral-court victory over Oklahoma State Thursday would be just what the doctor ordered.
Locks: Arizona, UCLA
Teams that should be in: Oregon, Colorado, California
Work left to do: Arizona State
Colorado [20-10 (10-8), RPI: 35, SOS: 16] By all rights, a team with Colorado's computer-derived resume -- a top 35 RPI, a top 20 SOS, a top 50 nonconference schedule -- should be safely in the tournament by now. In fact, in Wednesday's Bubble Watch I asked why Colorado, despite those numbers, was still stuck down around the No. 10 line (whereas a similarly outfitted team like UCLA was all the way up at No. 6). After Saturday's home loss to Oregon State, that kind of comparison isn't relevant, if it even was in the first place. Even worse, perhaps, is the fact that the Buffaloes have to play Oregon State again in the span of four days; they face the Beavers in their first-round Pac-12 tournament game Wednesday afternoon.
California [20-10 (12-6), RPI: 48, SOS: 31] Cal had a shot at a share of the regular-season Pac-12 title this weekend, too -- a shot it earned by winning seven league games in a row down the stretch, including wins at Oregon and Arizona, and at home versus UCLA. Alas, Cal blew that shot, losing at home to Stanford, 83-70. Unlike Oregon and Colorado, Cal still doesn't have a bad loss on its résumé, so it has remained above the No. 11 or No. 12 seed lines in most bracket projections.
Oregon [23-8 (12-6), RPI: 53, SOS: 129] Colorado wasn't the only team to suffer an ugly loss on the final weekend of the season. Oregon may well have topped the Buffs when it lost at Utah, 72-62. Utah isn't as bad this season as it was last season (when the Utes were TCU-level bad), but the defeat (as well as those ugly schedule numbers) nonetheless keeps the otherwise impressive Ducks from lock territory, at least for right now.
Arizona State [20-11 (9-9), RPI: 90, SOS: 122] A handful of bubble teams got big wins this weekend, but the bubble remains soft, and Arizona State's ongoing existence in our own Joe Lunardi's next four out field is the people's Exhibit A. That sky-high RPI and schedule numbers aren't good as a baseline, nor are losses to DePaul and Utah, nor is losing your final four regular season games.
Locks: Florida, Missouri
Work left to do: Kentucky, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Alabama, Arkansas
Missouri's a lock, even after a loss. I know that seems counterintuitive, particularly because the Tigers are just 2-8 (with those two wins coming at Mississippi State and South Carolina) in true road games this season; doesn't the committee like to see teams capable of playing on the road? Well, sure, and that is the biggest flaw on the Tigers' résumé. But it isn't one big enough to outweigh the rest of the relative strengths, not least of which is neutral-court wins over Illinois and VCU, not to mention a top-30 RPI and solid schedule figures. It'd have been nice to see Missouri take its show on the road more convincingly in SEC play, but the Tigers' inability to do so isn't going to come close to costing them a bid.
Kentucky [21-10 (12-6), RPI: 50, SOS: 65] After Saturday's win over Florida, John Calipari said he told his team it had to either drown or learn to swim -- there was also a metaphor about a life raft involved in there somewhere; all I know is it was far less tortured than my bit about the castle -- and it's safe to say the Wildcats landed on the latter option. So they're in, right? Not exactly. For one, a win over Florida isn't quite the season-changer it used to be. For another, the rest of Kentucky's resume contains just one other "good win" -- at home against Missouri -- a bad loss at Georgia suffered just last week and a whole mess of mediocrity otherwise. As of right now, I'd wager the Cats are just on the right side of the bubble. But only barely -- they're not safe. And either Arkansas or Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament could be full of bad-loss potential.
Tennessee [19-11 (11-7), RPI: 54, SOS: 38] On Sunday night, Tennessee was our own esteemed Bracketologist's first team out of the field. Kentucky was his second-to-last team in (with Virginia taking up the rear). I am loathe to disagree with Joey Brackets about anything, least of all the whims of the selection committee, but wouldn't you rather have Tennessee's resume? Yes, the Vols were swept by Georgia, but they also beat Wichita State, Florida, Missouri and Kentucky, the latter of which came by a margin of 30 points. They're 4-4 against the top 50, 9-9 against the top 100, and with better schedule figures than UK both overall and out of conference. This is all really mediocre stuff -- it's like saying one piece of fruit is less bruised than the other -- but if you have to take at least one of those pieces of fruit home, why would you take Kentucky over UT? In any case, the only thing the Vols should be worried about is making sure they don't lose to either South Carolina or Mississippi State when whoever wins shows up on the second day of the SEC tournament. A loss in that one equals NIT. Period.
Ole Miss [23-8 (12-6), RPI: 56, SOS: 153] Likewise, about the only argument you can make for Ole Miss over Tennessee (never mind Kentucky) is the Rebels' sweep of the Vols; otherwise, this profile is really weak. There's just one top-50 win -- over Missouri -- and Ole Miss got spanked in the rematch in Columbia; plus, there is that No. 150 schedule and No. 286 nonconference mark. It's tougher to schedule at Ole Miss in the nonconference than a lot of other high-major programs, but still -- that last number is a huge drag here.
Alabama [20-11 (12-6), RPI: 60, SOS: 91] By avoiding a home loss to Georgia Saturday, Alabama didn't do much to move up the cut line, but it did accomplish one thing: It continued to wield quite possibly the most yawn-inducing NCAA tournament résumé in the country. A home win over Kentucky, losses to Dayton, Mercer, Tulane and Auburn, and nothing much in between. It's just ... blah.
Arkansas [19-12 (10-8), RPI: 78, SOS: 82] The Razorbacks' 30-point loss at Missouri last week probably did them in, but if the committee really sticks to its no-margin-of-victory dogma, Arkansas at least deserves a look for its wins over Oklahoma, Florida, Missouri and Kentucky. Remember: I said "a look." Maybe a glance would be appropriate.
Mountain West Conference
Locks: New Mexico, UNLV, Colorado State, San Diego State
Teams that should be in: None
Work left to do: Boise State
Boise State [21-9 (9-7), RPI: 38, SOS: 69] Were it not for those unsightly losses at Utah and Nevada, the Broncos would probably be safely ensconced in lock territory right now. But those losses exist, and they're still a drag, even after Boise handled San Diego State at the Taco Bell Arena Saturday. That win set up a rematch at high noon in Las Vegas Thursday; another win would have to seal the deal.
Atlantic 10 Conference
Locks: Saint Louis, Butler, VCU
Should be in: Temple
Work left to do: La Salle
Temple [23-8 (11-5), RPI: 36, SOS: 59] I'll award Temple a bump up to should-be-in turf today, not only because it doesn't cost me anything -- the lock moves are the ones I must fully commit to -- but also because despite all the uneven play and insane results and frequent lack of defense and everything else Temple has been this season, we can't take away that neutral-court win over Syracuse. It may not have the luster it did two months ago, but it still has luster, and it's the kind of win (alongside victories over Saint Louis, La Salle and Saturday's win over VCU) that can get the committee to happily overlook the fact that you lost to Duquesne at home. Which happened. That's a real thing. I'm just not sure it will matter much anymore.
La Salle [21-8 (11-5), RPI: 39, SOS: 88] For almost a month now, I've considered La Salle to be a relatively safe eventual bubble pick, meaning while the Explorers haven't done anything to warrant a lock or even should-be-in spot, I sort of casually figured their at-large profile would be good enough when all was said and done. It's easy for those sorts of impressions to take hold, but it's always worth it to reevaluate, and under that sort of scrutiny you can see why the Explorers aren't yet totally safe: Fully 16 of their 21 wins came against teams ranked outside the RPI top 100. That's not La Salle's fault; that's the cost of doing business in the back half of the Atlantic 10. But it's why, despite all of the seeming solidity, the Explorers are still at serious risk of falling out of the bracket entirely. (Of course, that home loss to Central Connecticut State back on Nov. 18 doesn't help. Talk about the gift that keeps on giving, oy.)
Other at-large contenders
Auto bids: Gonzaga, Belmont, Creighton
Locks: Wichita State, Memphis
Should be in: None
Work left to do: Middle Tennessee, Saint Mary's, Southern Miss
Memphis is always going to have its doubters this season, and not unreasonably so; despite a perfect C-USA season, Memphis has still yet to beat anyone better than Southern Miss. But the Tigers did beat Southern Miss twice, and everyone else in the C-USA a bunch, too, and at the end of the day the RPI is what the committee uses to help it figure out just how good a bunch of wins over a league like the 2013 C-USA is. Under that metric, Memphis didn't just go 16-0 in its league, it went 11-4 against the RPI top 100 and ended up with a top-20 RPI. The doubters -- or haters, which I prefer to spell with five z's ("haterzzzz") -- may not believe, but they wouldn't until the Tigers won a game in the tournament anyway. They have officially ensured that opportunity. Meanwhile, we wave a fond farewell to two of our favorite longtime Bubble Watch others: Louisiana Tech and Akron. The Bulldogs lost their final two regular season games, which was all it took to boot their already suspect profile out of consideration. The Zips lost two of their past three, and were forced to suspend starting point guard Alex Abreu after Abreu was charged with allegedly trafficking and possessing marijuana. And you thought losing a couple of games down the stretch after an otherwise brilliant season was the worst way to lose your at-large bid chance. It can always be worse. Oh, and a quick note on Wichita State: Had the Shockers lost before the Missouri Valley final Sunday, I would have taken them out of locks, much as I did with Creighton a few weeks back. But that didn't happen; Gregg Marshall's team fell to the Bluejays in the final, and while Wichita State is closer to the bubble than we previously assumed, I don't think the Shockers are close enough to be at real risk of missing out. So that's that. All of which leaves us with just three Others left to figure out:
Middle Tennessee [28-5 (19-1), RPI: 29, SOS: 135] As I mentioned in the introduction, after its loss to FIU (Richard Pitino strikes!) in the semifinals of the Sun Belt conference tournament Sunday, Middle Tennessee now becomes one of the most interesting bubble cases in recent memory. On the one hand, MTSU is obviously a good basketball team. You can watch them play -- YouTube is a wonderful thing -- or you can delve into their efficiency statistics; as of this writing, Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency ranks hold Middle up as the 31st-best team in the country. The Blue Raiders went 19-1 in their league, which is admittedly a very bad league, but still -- 19-1. And they pushed themselves, Long Beach State-style, in their scheduling, ending up with a top-10 nonconference SOS and a top 25 RPI for their troubles. Oh, also, one more thing: It would be a real bummer to see this team miss the tournament for the second year in a row. It deserves to go, and conference tournament automatic qualifiers are profoundly stupid. (Why the Sun Belt would prefer to send the winner of a weekend-long crapshoot as opposed to its 19-1 regular-season champ, I'll never know.) But the unfortunate "having said that" part of all this is as follows: Middle has beaten zero top-50 opponents and just two teams in the top 100. All of their other 26 wins came against teams ranked outside the top 100. Yes, you read that right: Of Middle Tennessee's 28 wins, 26 came against teams ranked below the RPI top 100. I utterly loathe the chorus of "who have they beaten, they'd be the 10th-worst team in BCS Conference X herp derp" bleating that comes from fans of high-major bubble schools this time of year. It's gross. But if a Kentucky fan were to ask that about Middle Tennessee, could you really form a cohesive defense? A 3-point home win over Ole Miss is your best shot, and I have no idea whether that will be enough to convince the committee.
Saint Mary's [27-6 (14-2), RPI: 33, SOS: 104] The Gaels had a shot to make this thing academic -- and serve as a possible, if not probable, automatic bid thief -- Monday night in the WCC final against hated rival Gonzaga. Instead, as they have all season, the Bulldogs rolled, winning 65-51. What does that mean for Saint Mary's? Not a whole lot, honestly. The Gaels still have just one top-50 win -- at home over Creighton -- and their only other top-50 opportunities were the three games they lost to the Zags (by a combined 36 points). Fortunately Matthew Dellevadova's buzzer-beater at BYU fell, because a sweep over BYU is probably the most complimentary part of this resume, and it almost didn't happen. And now the Gaels will be forced to sweat out the rest of the week, hoping the bubble doesn't tighten, and their high-major counterparts on the No. 11 and No. 12 lines don't do a bunch of damage in the conference tournaments this weekend.
Southern Miss [23-8 (12-4), RPI: 37, SOS: 79] Southern Miss! With all due respect to the Golden Eagles, who are a well-coached outfit under first-year man Donnie Tyndall, I kind of can't believe Southern Miss is on the bubble. That win over Denver is really good and only looking better by the day (Joe Scott's boys are a top-30 efficiency squad), but other than that Southern Miss hasn't beaten anyone. Their inclusion in the field would be based solely off some decent computer numbers and the Golden Eagles' willingness to go out and play people in the nonconference (at Arizona, at La. Tech, Wichita State in Wichita). That is an admirable trait, but you have to beat somebody along the way, right?