The thing about college basketball is this: almost everyone gets a shot. Almost. The Ivy League’s lesser teams, not so much. A handful of Division I transitional teams were ineligible, no independent could really live the dream, and if you happen to be a really bad team in a really big conference, the back door was potentially closed to you as a sop to the logistics of tournament scheduling.
So starting today and running through the week, we’ll track that chase in this space. Today, all 31 conferences are evaluated, and after, we’ll focus only on that middle ground, those 30-odd teams whose fates have yet to be determined. This feature is starting later than the ones you’ll find on other Web sites, be they bubble-focused or bracketcentric, which is a feature, not a bug. I love reading Joe Lunardi and Andy Glockner and Jerry Palm and others; however, I’m of the opinion that during the season, there’s far too much movement to make tracking things worthwhile. Any two-game winning or losing streak can change teams’ fortunes; even one key win or loss can warrant a change in status. So I’ve waited until today, the final day of conference play in all but the Ivy League, to start talking about the bubble.
As you read this during the week, not the guiding principle: You’re not in until you’re absolutely in. You’re not out until you’re absolutely out. So you’ll see teams on the bubble, on both sides, that may not make all that much sense to you. In my decade of doing this for fun and bragging rights, I’ve found that I hate
I should give a nod here to CollegeRPI.com, which I use, along with Ken Pomeroy’s data, to track this stuff.
Here’s where we stand heading into today. We’ll delve deeper into the details over the next two installments. Note that one-bid leagues won’t be mentioned again but in passing.
Atlantic Coast Conference. In: North Carolina, Duke. Bubble: Clemson, Maryland, MiamiFL, Virginia Tech. Clemson is probably in, although losing today to Virginia Tech and in their ACC tournament opener would make that questionable. They have very few good wins since November—Miami and Maryland are it, and both of those are bubble teams. Virginia Tech is intriguing; no 10-win ACC team has been left out of the tournament back to 1994, and just two 9-7 teams have (Florida State two years ago, Virginia in 2000). The Hokies have no top 50 RPI wins, which is usually the kiss of death. They can get one today at Clemson.
America East. Automatic bid only, Maryland-Baltimore County was the best team in the regular season. The conference’s best nonconference wins were unimpressive: UMBC beat Richmond, and Vermont won at UNC-Wilmington. There’s little to indicate any AE team can hang in a first-round game.
Atlantic 14. In: Xavier. Bubble: Massachusetts, St. Joseph’s, Temple, Dayton. Rhode Island played their way off the bubble last night by losing at home to Charlotte. There’s an article coming tomorrow about how the Atlantic 14 went from four bids to, potentially, just the auto bid. Remember, URI and Dayton were ranked earlier this season; they finished tied for seventh and tied for ninth.
Atlantic Sun. Belmont is in. They were 0-4 against the RPI top 100. However, they won at Cincinnati and Alabama, so they’ve shown they can play with more talented teams.
Big 12. In: Kansas, Texas. Bubble: Kansas State, Baylor, Oklahoma, Texas A&M. Oklahoma State would join the bubble if they were to win today at Texas. Sorting the middle of this conference is harder than watching Iowa play Northwestern.
Big East. In: Georgetown, Louisville, Marquette, Notre Dame, Connecticut, West Virginia. Bubble: Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Villanova. So many close calls have made the difference for teams. We talk a lot about how Villanova suffered some tough calls at the end of games, but they’re just about in thanks to two-point wins over Connecticut and Seton Hall, and a one-point win over Pittsburgh. Pitt has the overtime win over Duke and the Ronald Ramon buzzer-beater against West Virginia. Both will probably go in on those margins. Strength of conference schedule should be a factor here, in the ACC and the Big 11. It probably won’t be, though.
Big Sky. Automatic bid only, with Portland State as the best team. The conference’s best NC wins: Northern Arizona vs. Western Kentucky, Weber State vs. Utah State, Portland State vs. IUPUI, Portland State vs. Akron, Northern Colorado at San Diego State. The Big Sky had exactly one win against a BCS school, that over Oregon State.
Big South. Winthrop is in. They beat Notre Dame in the tournament last year, then lost coach Gregg Marshall. This year, they closed 8-2, and in nonconference, they beat Miami (Fla.), Georgia Tech and Akron. They’re very dangerous.
Big 11. In: Wisconsin, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan State. Bubble: The Ohio State University. My disdain for this conference, fed largely by the combination of a terrible bottom half and the unbalanced schedule that makes for problems evaluating the top five, is well covered. Michigan State, with zero good road wins, can help push TOSU into the tournament today.
Big West. Automatic bid only, UC Santa Barbara, Cal State Northridge and Cal State Fullerton tied for the lead at 12-4. Best nonconference wins: UCSB vs. UNLV, CSUN at Cleveland State, Cal Poly vs. Utah State, UCI vs. Utah State. The Big West had zero wins against BCS teams. Fullerton and Northridge are two of the fastest teams in the country.
Colonial. Bubble: VCU, George Mason. Mason isn’t a bubble team in most places, but remember, they have wins over Dayton, Kansas State and VCU, and finished second in a good league. Seven 100+ losses, including two to 200+ teams, are deadly. Still, they should be considered.
Conference USA. In: Memphis. Bubble: UAB, Houston. Just barely, too. Houston is probably done following last night’s loss to UTEP. UAB looked so bad against Memphis yesterday that losing a third time to them, even more competitively, would be hard to overcome.
Horizon League. In: Butler. That’s it. That’s the list.
No independents are under consideration. Just one, Texas-Pan American, finished at .500.
Ivy League. Cornell is in. Siena was their only nonconference win of note, and they lost at Duke, Syracuse and Ohio. Cornell is a good candidate to be overseeded and hammered by a three or four seed.
MAAC. Automatic bid only. Siena, Rider, Loyola (Md.) and Marist are in the semis. Siena beat Stanford earlier this year, and the whole conference played well in BracketBusters. Niagara was expected to be here, but lost to Marist last last night, blowing a late lead. Up 58-57 with two minutes to go, they ran a terrible possession, letting the shot clock run down and hoisting an awful shot that led to a Charron Fisher foul on the rebound that cost them the lead. I’m seeing this more and more, and it makes no sense. You run clock when your opponent needs possessions more than you need points. Up one with two minutes left, you need to score; Niagara lost the game by acting as if they were up five, not one.
MEAC. Automatic bid only. Morgan State is the conference’s best team, a win over American its best one. The MEAC was 2-42 against the RPI Top 100, and any team coming out will probably be a 16 seed.
Missouri Valley. In: Drake. Bubble: Illinois State. Having reached the Valley final, Illinois State is probably in, although a loss today would make for a very, very long week. No 13-win Valley team has missed the tournament since 2000.
Mountain West. In: Brigham Young. Bubble: UNLV, New Mexico. Neither bubble team has a nonconference top-50 RPI win, and combined they have two: New Mexico beat UNLV, and UNLV beat Brigham Young. The anticipated MWC semi between the two is probably for a bid.
Northeast. Automatic bid only. Robert Morris and Wagner are the top two teams, and RMC did beat Boston College. Either team is likely looking at a 16 seed, and possibly the play-in game.
Ohio Valley. Austin Peay is in. Their best nonconference wins were a sweep of Belmont and a win over Middle Tennessee, so they don’t look like a threat.
Pacific 10. In: UCLA, Stanford, Washington State, USC. Bubble: Arizona State, Arizona, Oregon. What do you do when one team hands out two wins to everyone? Should you look at the 9-9 or 8-10 records there and see “7-9” or “6-10”. This also applies in the Big 11. Arizona will get a third free win on Wednesday in Los Angeles as well.
Patriot League. Automatic bid only. American is the favorite, and they did beat Maryland in the nonconference schedule.
Southeastern. In: Tennessee, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt. Bubble: Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi, Florida. The SEC has a recent tradition of having teams make tournament runs to win a bid, which is why Mississippi gets listed here. There’s basically no precedent for leaving an 11-5 SEC team out, so even with the bad nonconference schedule, Kentucky is probably in. They can help Florida’s case today.
Southwestern Athletic. Automatic bid only. Alabama State is the best team. The SWAC was 0-64 against RPI Top 200, so a play-in game spot is likely. As we learned last year, politics come into play with that game.
Southern. Bubble: Davidson. Heaven only knows what would happen if Davidson were to fall tonight or tomorrow. We’ll deal with it if it happens.
Southland. Automatic bid only. Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston State each went 8-1 in nonconference, but lost too much in-conference. Based on their nonconference performance (wins @ Oklahoma, vs. TT, @ San Diego, @ St. Louis), either could be a tough out.
Summit League. Automatic bid only. Oral Roberts had four cracks at top 50 teams and lost them all. They needed to snag one to be taken seriously as an at-large. IUPUI did beat Massachusetts, ORU beat Oklahoma State, and two also-rans had top 100 RPI wins.
Sun Belt. Bubble: South Alabama, Western Kentucky. South Alabama is ahead of Western thanks to a regular-season sweep and a title. Western’s case for a bid is marginal.
Western Athletic. Automatic bid only. It was an awful nonconference performance for the WAC this year, but the top four teams could all be dangerous as 13 seeds. Utah State and Boise State have very efficient offenses.
West Coast. In: Gonzaga, St. Mary’s. Even losses by both tonight to Santa Clara and San Diego wouldn’t knock these two out.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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